La bête humaine was streamed recently on MUBI in the UK as part of a double bill with La grande illusion (1937). La grande illusion has been widely available in the UK for as long as I can remember but the later film has often been difficult to find. Why did I foolishly leave it so long to watch? Now I need to watch it again. I’ve discovered so many scholarly pieces on every aspect of the film and since I’ve now acquired a copy Human Desire (1954), Fritz Lang’s version of the same original Zola narrative, I want to compare the two. But that will have to wait. [It does seem that MUBI have opened their ‘Library’ and made past films available, so the Renoirs are there at the moment for subscribers, but I’m not sure for how long.]
If anyone is not aware of La bête humaine, I’ll just briefly introduce it here. There is a great deal written about the film and it is one of the best films by Jean Renoir, matching the achievements of both La grande illusion and La règle du jeu (1939). Renoir adapted Émile Zola’s novel of 1890, changing the setting from 1870 to the contemporary France of 1938 with the decline of the Popular Front and the coming of war. As many later commentators have pointed out, there is a parallel between Zola’s presentation of a story set at the point when France was rushing headlong into war with Germany and Renoir’s story set when another conflagration was looming (the film opened in December 1938). But this is a ‘personal’ story, centred on Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) an engine driver on the Paris-Le Havre expresses. Zola wrote a collection of 20 novels about an extended family, ‘Les Rougon-Macquart’, and Jacques Lantier is one of the family members whose mental illness leads him to commit violent acts. Zola believed such mental traits could be inherited. Renoir is making a single film so he keeps Lantier’s violence but limits the back story. He includes Zola’s statement about Jacques and Les Rougon-Macquart at the end of the opening credits sequence (which ends with an image and signature of Zola himself). Jacques’ violent urges are then discussed with his godmother who live in the Normandy countryside and then they become an issue when he meets a young woman he knows, Flore (Blanchette Brunoy), by the river in the same village.
The central action of the film involves the Le Havre station master Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) and his young wife Séverine (Simone Simon) who are involved in a murder on board a Paris-Le Havre train. Lantier is on the same train as a passenger and he sees the couple. Having already apparently fallen for Séverine he protects her when the police question the passengers. What will be the result of Jacques’ passion if it is allowed to develop? Will he kill Roubaud to free Séverine from a marriage in which she fears for her life? Around this seeming psychological crime thriller, Renoir develops a complex presentation which translates Zola’s naturalism into a form of cinematic realism.
There are all kinds of analysis and argument that develop from readings of the film. Some of the important political and social class issues that dominated French society in the late 1930s are perhaps not picked up so much in modern discussions. Conversely, the possible links to later American films noirs which were made in the 1970s are now to the fore. Both the earlier and the later arguments are explored in Raymond Durgnat’s Jean Renoir (University of California Press, 1974). I’ve also been reading Michèle Lagny’s ‘The Fleeing Gaze’, an essay on the film collected in French film: text and contexts, eds Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, (Routledge, 2000), Renoir’s own biography My Life and Films (1974) and Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay on the Criterion Collection website.
At this point I want to make just a few observations and leave a fuller consideration until later. First, I want to emphasise that for anyone who loves railways, this is one of the most exciting and informative railway films you are ever likely to see. SNCF, the state railway company (which had only just come into being bas a nationalised company), gave Renoir the same kind of support that enabled both La bataile du rail (1946) and The Train (1964) to deal with the railway in wartime. I believe there are other French films which also use the railways well but La bête humaine will take some beating as a presentation of an express railway. Paris Saint-Lazare to Le Havre was one of the earliest French railways built in the late 1840s covering 228 kms and in the film the expresses are hauled by 231 class Pacifics (4-6-2) built in the 1920s.
Jean Gabin was keen to make a railway feature and when a possible production of a train film for director Jean Grémillion fell through he turned to Renoir. Gabin was a major star who presumably had enough clout to to persuade producers to finance films. Renoir was keen to work with Gabin again after La grande illusion and he quickly adapted Zola’s story despite having not read it for 25 years. He tells us that he began to include more dialogue from the book and continued to revise the script during shooting. The important issue for Gabin was to learn all the actions of the engine driver and to experience life on the footplate with his fireman Pecqueux played by Carette. Renoir knew that the impact of the film depended on shooting ‘real’ footage of Gabin and Carette in the cab under steam. SNCF closed a section of track so that Gabin could operate the locomotive for some scenes and both the cinematographer Curt Courant and operator Claude Renoir Jr. were on the engine at times. It was dangerous work. Claude Renoir attached a camera to the side of the engine, but it came off in a tunnel. The film begins and ends with exciting sequences of Gabin and Carette in the cab of the speeding loco. I presume that an SNCF driver and fireman were on the footplate throughout these scenes. It must have been very crowded on there! Renoir tells us that they were running on 10 kms of track with a ‘platform truck’ coupled directly behind the engine and tender, carrying a generator for the lighting and behind that a single coach acting as a make-up and rest room for the actors. The photography across the whole film is excellent. I knew about Claude Renoir helping on his uncle’s films (he shot Toni, 1935) but Curt Courant was somebody I’ve somehow missed up until now. How I missed him, I’m not sure but he had a long pedigree. He began in Germany in 1917 and photographed over 140 films, mainly during the 1910s, 20s and 30s. La bête humaine was among the last ten films he shot. As a German Jew he was forced to flee from the Nazis and ended up in the UK eventually, but only shot a couple of films after 1940. He died in the US in 1968. He worked with Fritz Lang on Frau im Mond (1929) and with Hitchcock on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). What happened to him? There is a story there. His style is evident in the low angle MCU at the top of this post. The cinematography is also supported in by the music of Joseph Kosma especially in the opening train sequence.
The opening in particular is almost documentary-like in its coverage. We see all the aspects of the railway that are usually ignored in fiction narratives. As the train approaches Le Havre we see the big signs welcoming us to the station, the engine sheds and the turntable and later the engine, which Jacques has christened ‘Lison’, being checked over and returned to the yard for maintenance. Earlier we had seen a demonstration of dropping the scoop to pick up water from the troughs on the track. This is all fascinating stuff if you love railways but is it necessary for the story? Perhaps not, but it all builds up a picture of Jacques’ life. The engine is like a character in the film and when he’s on board, the loco and Jacques are one.
La bête humaine strengthened my longing to achieve poetic realism. The steel mass of the locomotive became in my imagination the flying carpet of an oriental fable. Zola, from the depths of the grave, gave me powerful assistance . . .
. . . The setting of locomotives, railway sidings and puffs of steam had furnished me with that poetry, or rather supplied it to the actors and enabled them to get into the skin of their parts better than any amount of direction. (Jean Renoir from My Life and My Films, p 139)
I’m going to try and return to Renoir and to compare his film with Lang’s at some point. I’ve loved Renoir’s films for decades so it’s an on-going project. Thanks to MUBI for the chance to see La bête humaine.
This is director Andreas Horvath’s first fiction film (he also edited and composed the music) after making a number of documentaries. One of the fascinating aspects of the film, which was the best I saw at the Glasgow Film Festival, is the degree to which it is fictional. It’s based on a true story of a woman, Lillian Alling, who in the 1920s tried to walk from New York to Russia. She may have succeeded. Lillian is set now and, as far as I can tell, Horvath and his star, Patrycja Planik, improvised the narrative as they took their nine month journey across America. Horvath is credited with the film’s concept, using everyday encounters as the basis. Obviously these would have to be contrived as there was a film crew in tow (although it consisted only of five people). It works in a similar way to Borat (US-UK, 2006) where Sacha Baron-Cohen as the titular reporter traversed America showing up its absurdities. Horvath’s intention is to offer a snapshot of contemporray America. Hollywood Reporter states the film was ‘long-in-the-making’ and, if I remember rightly, there is a rodeo poster for 2013; in an interview Planik states shoot took nine months. Whatever the reason for the long gestation Horvath has produced a stunning piece of work if only in terms of the varying American landscapes we see; the cinematography is stunning. Planik is one of the Foley Artists (these produce the sounds we hear and are used in virtually all filmmaking) and the sounds of her walking are slightly high in mix throughout. Although Planik doesn’t show great range in the role, it is a superb performance in what must have been a gruelling shoot.
I think it’s safe to assume that most of the people Lillian comes across are playing themselves. For example, we see the Nebraskan Sheriff preparing for his day’s work when he gets a call about a ‘walker’ and he goes to investigate. He is both oppressive, searching the young woman, and paternal, giving her a coat for the cold nights. One exception is the role of the lecherous farmer who chases her through cornfields which was taken by the production manager, Chris Shaw.
We pass through Standing Rock where Native Americans are protesting against the environmental impacts of an oil pipeline and hear an inspiring speech. Lillian passes through everything implacably, never speaking or reacting much to her experiences.
As she reaches the north west of the continent she finds a road called ‘Highway of Tears’ where a large number of young women (presumably abducted and killed) have disappeared over the years. It’s bucketing down with rain and Lillian plods on filmed from behind a window (or lens) which has so much water (tears) on it she can barely be seen. It is a highly poetic shot that captures the moment.
We’re never clear on the protagonist’s motivations, just as we don’t know what were the original Lillian’s. At the start she is trying to get work in hard core porn but as she’s overstayed her visa even that line of work is impossible for her. She’s advised to go back to Russia, ironically described as ‘the land of opportunity’, and decides to walk there after finding a map in a house she’s apparently broken into.
Without spoiling the ending, I will only say, at first, it seemed to be a serious misstep when we meet indigenous people at the Bering Straits and are regaled with an ancient story about treating the natural world with respect. Throughout the journey we hear, no doubt authentic, homey radio broadcasts talking about unseasonable weather and it’s clear that climate catastrophe looms over the film. When I linked the two, the ending ‘clicked’ and it works superbly to conclude the film. It’s a road movie where it’s the spectator that goes on a ‘learning journey’ not the characters; Lillian is a ‘cipher’ on which we can project our own feelings.
Alanis is an unusual study of a sex worker, presented mainly as a kind of social realist ‘prostitution procedural’. We experience what happens to Alanis, a 25 year-old in Buenos Aires with Dante her 18 month old infant still fed at his mother’s breast. Alanis works out of an apartment she shares with Gisela, an older woman who acts as a madam and a carer for the boy. The exact working relationship between the two women hasn’t yet been made clear when local agents, police and a social worker arrive and effectively eject Alanis and Dante from the apartment and arrest Gisela. We then follow what happens to Alanis and Dante.
Argentinian law seems to prosecute brothel-keeping but tolerates individual acts of selling sex. The procedures explored in the film are mainly concerned with the raid, some of the practices of street prostitution and something of the arrangements in a brothel. Alanis is devoted to her son and her work is to some extent humanised by Dante’s care arrangements. The film features two contrasting scenes with clients, the second of which does move away from social realism to an expressionist representation of the sheer hard work of trying to satisfy a client. This scene is shot in from specific angles in a hotel bedroom in such a way that doesn’t feel exploitative and certainly not erotic, but it is certainly wearing – for the viewer and for Alanis herself. In other scenes social realism conventions are also undermined by camerawork which often frames action in uncomfortable ways –with Alanis seen through doorways or in mirrors. There is also frequent use of shallow focus in which Alanis moves very close to the camera with backgrounds increasingly blurred. Again this seems to consciously undermine the fetishisation of female bodies on screen. We get to see Alanis in big close-ups often with Dante at her breast. Those strange people who are offended by the sight of breast-feeding might find this very shocking.
There isn’t much in the way of narrative drive in the film, only the details of how Alanis will find somewhere to stay and ways to find the money to keep herself and Dante and there isn’t a conventional narrative resolution. The film must be carried by Sofía Gala as Alanis. In a sense I was relieved to discover after the screening that Dante is played by Ms Gala’s own son. As one reviewer noted, the emotional attachment is there on the screen and there is the possibility that later in life mother and son will look back with affection on their portrayal. The film is written and directed by Anahí Berneri. This is her fifth film and she has been winning prizes at international festivals since 2005. I’m surprised that I haven’t come across her before. Alanis won her the best director prize at San Sebastian International Festival and at Havana in 2017. Sofía Gala also won acting prizes for the film.
The links to social realism in the film come through the everyday presentation of the streets of Buenos Aires, the presentation of the characters Alanis meets and the few details we glean from her accounts of her background as a girl from a provincial town. Alanis is not her real name and there is a nice joke when someone asks if she was named after that pop star ‘Morrissey’. If the film overall isn’t social realist it is definitely ‘humanist’ in its depiction of a world and the people in it. As another reviewer points out, what is noticeable is that Alanis never feels sorry for herself and never complains. She simply gets on with the task of looking after Dante and herself. She isn’t ashamed of what she does. We get the impression that she sees sex work simply as work.
I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ Alanis but I was never bored (it’s a short film at 82 minutes). I was very impressed by the central performance and by the writing and direction. I’m not sure my feelings about prostitution have been changed one way or the other. This isn’t a ‘social message’ film but, as in all good humanist films, I feel grateful to have got to know a character like Alanis. I’ll certainly look out for more films by Anahí Berneri and anything featuring Sofía Gala. The trailer below doesn’t have English subs but gives an idea of the style of the film.
By 1969 I think I considered that my interest in cinema was more than just the enjoyment of ‘entertainment cinema’. I hadn’t yet discovered the full range of the diverse film offer in London, but I’m pretty sure I was aware of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool. However, I can’t remember if I actually watched it on release. I was intrigued to see it in GFF’s programme and now I feel very grateful for the opportunity to see it on the big screen.
Allan Hunter gave his usual entertaining and informative introduction to this screening, suggesting that the cinematographer Wexler making his first film as a director was influenced by Jean-Luc Godard. I think that this might be a reference to Godard’s 1967 film Weekend. Certainly there is an important use of car crashes in both films, but Wexler’s film is much more structured and ‘narrativised’ in its use of different elements than most of Godard’s work from 1967 onwards. Wexler is also credited with the screenplay and the cinematography on Medium Cool. In the interview shown below, Wexler tells us that his film began as a literary adaptation of a 1967 novel by Jack Couffer titled The Concrete Wilderness. This novel traced the adventures of a freelance photographer and naturalist who meets a boy with a dog in the New York city storm drains. The two discover the wide range of animals living in the city. This storyline remains at the centre of Wexler’s film but the location moves to Chicago. When Wexler returned to his home city in 1968 there was so much going on in the streets re Civil Rights, the anti-war movement and Mayor Daley’s attempts to hijack the Democratic convention that he realised that the ‘background’ in his film had to come forward and merge with the original story.
The central character becomes a TV news camera operator/reporter, ‘John’ played by Robert Forster, who with his sound recordist attempts to collect material that will represent the tumultuous events in Chicago at the time. But when John learns that the TV station regularly sends his footage to the FBI to help in identifying people he ‘wakes up’ and starts to to investigate stories as a freelance. At the same time, he changes in his personal life as well when he meets Harold, a young teenager who he thinks is stealing his hubcaps. Harold (a remarkable performance by Harold Blankenship, one of several non-professionals in the cast) lives with his mother, Eileen (Verna Bloom), who has brought her son to Chicago from West Virginia where she was a teacher in a rural school. In Chicago she works for Motorola. Harold has homing pigeons and roams the streets of Chicago with a young friend. John and Eileen are similarly on the streets looking for each other and for Harold as the clashes between police and National Guard on one side and demonstrators on the other spread across the city.
Watching the film now, the mixture of fictional story, documentary footage of the convention, Wexler’s own footage recorded as part of the real event and ‘staged’ documentary sequences doesn’t seem that unusual. Several commentators suggest Wexler is a pioneer of ‘ciné-vérité’ camerawork. They may be correct about a studio film at this point but ciné-vérité dates back to Jean Rouch in France in the early 1960s. The North American equivalent, ‘Direct Cinema’, though slightly different in approach, was already a staple of TV news documentaries in the US and also featured in Nation Film Board of Canada films. Looking back at reviews from the time does however reveal the impact of the film. Roger Ebert, for instance, thinks that the film marks the real turning point in Hollywood films and he abandons his usual approach to write more generally about how Hollywood had changed, picking out the earlier film The Graduate (1967) as the beginning of the process. Vincent Canby in the New York Times is perhaps more clear-eyed in his analysis of the film, suggesting that it is
a film of tremendous visual impact, a kind of cinematic ‘Guernica’, a picture of America in the process of exploding into fragmented bits of hostility, suspicion, fear and violence. The movie, however, is much less complex than it looks.
Canby also recognises that the film’s title is a reference to Marshall McLuhan’s work on television, though he thinks that the film’s use of colour and editing could diminish the horror of the real events being shown live on TV. (McLuhan suggested that TV was a ‘cool’ medium because it offered relatively little stimulus to the viewer and required ‘participation’ by the viewer to fully understand its meanings. This he contrasted with a ‘hot’ medium like cinema film which stimulated the visual sense above all else.) Ebert and Canby don’t however mention the film’s use of music which is distinctive and which in a way links Medium Cool to both The Graduate and Alice’s Restaurant. The music was the responsibility of Mike Bloomfield, the great Chicago guitarist who was also a relative of Wexler’s. Bloomfield use a mix of traditional protest songs and strong guitar pieces, one from Arthur Lee’s Love and a number of Frank Zappa’s early compositions for the Mothers of Invention. The other major Chicago figure who was important in the film’s production was Studs Terkel, the legendary ‘people’s historian’, actor, journalist and radio broadcaster. Wexler explains that without Terkel’s support he would not have been able to film the scenes with black militants in Chicago who were understandably reluctant to engage with white Hollywood filmmakers in 1968.
Wikipedia suggests that the film was profitable for Paramount, suggesting rental income of $5.5 million and an original budget of $800,000. This suggests that the studio knew what it was doing, which if true was unusual for the time. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been made at the time at any other studio. Wexler says in the interview below that he was offered the chance to make The Concrete Wilderness by Peter Bart who was then a producer at Paramount. This was also the period when Robert Evans was Head of Production and between 1967 and 1974, Paramount was a ‘hot studio’ with hits like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Godfather (1972), both in their different ways groundbreaking films.
Haskell Wexler made only three more films as director and none as high-profile as Medium Cool. However, he did continue to be a highly acclaimed cinematographer. He had already won an Oscar for his work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966) and he won a second for his work on Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory (1976). Later he shot four John Sayles movies with Silver City in 2004, his last major feature. Wexler was clearly a fascinating man and died aged 93 in 2015.
This unusual film by Jeanne Herry was completely successful for me and one of the best films I saw in Glasgow. It’s unusual as what I would term a ‘procedural realist melodrama’, a film about adoption presented in CinemaScope with a trio of top French actors who manage to act as if they are the subject of a documentary.
The film is set in Finistère département in Brittany. We are introduced (separately) to two of the central characters, Jean (Gilles Lellouche) and Alice (Élodie Bouchez) to establish them as an experienced foster-father and a woman who wishes to adopt. Later we will meet the agent (the social welfare worker) who will bring them together. This is Karine (Sandrine Kilberlain). First, however, we are introduced to the young woman, a 21 year-old student who appears in Brest unannounced at the hospital and proceeds to give birth to a boy who she doesn’t want to keep. This in turn will bring a specially-trained social worker, Mathilde (Clothilde Mollet) to the hospital to take the young woman through the adoption process. After this the baby (named Théo) will be handed over to Jean until by due process the Adoption Agency of the local authority can make a decision about who would be a suitable candidate to adopt. These candidates express their wish to adopt and may be interviewed over several years before they are finally accepted as candidates. The social workers meet as a group to discuss possible candidates as parents. Olivia Côte plays the social worker with clear ideas about who should be considered. The candidates are discussed in terms of age, where they live (they need to be in the part of the region furthest from Brest in the case of Théo) and their psychological profile. At this point, the French authorities have decided that single parents can adopt – but is the team ready for this? Writer-director Jeanne Herry says in the Press Notes that she hadn’t realised that rather than finding a suitable baby for a couple, the procedure was to find suitable parents for the baby. The film’s French title, ‘Pupille’ refers to the baby who becomes a ‘ward of the state’ when the mother gives him up.
What follows is not a simple linear narrative and the narrative includes flashbacks to see how Alice goes through a complex set of interviews over a long period to assess whether she might be a suitable parent. I don’t want to spoil the narrative because as well as all the procedures, the film does present a form of family melodrama as well. I’ve always thought that social workers of all kinds get a rough deal in most films but here they become players in the drama. They don’t always get on with each other or with their clients and they are also human and in danger of making emotional rather than rational decisions – just like would-be adopters and foster parents. Jean is in some ways a vulnerable character as a ‘home husband’ whose frequent contact is Karine, a woman fulfilled by her job but not by her marriage.
The film was introduced by a festival programmer who suggested that we would need our hankies ready for the emotional scenes. I usually cry when watching a good melo but in this case I didn’t. I don’t think that is because the melodrama doesn’t work but because I became so fascinated in the procedures and in the way the professionals attempted to cope with emotional crises. I did, however, cover my eyes when Alice seemed about to have a disaster: I was so concerned that she might lose her chance to become a mother. It’s difficult to explain the way in which this film works. Documentaries aren’t usually shot in ‘Scope with such precision and the cinematographer here is Sofian El Fani responsible, among other films, for the stunning look of Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014). This isn’t a documentary but it sometimes feels like one, despite the major stars.
Casting Gilles Lellouche as Jean is a brave move that works very well. He’s known for action roles and seeing this big man cradling a tiny new-born babe in his huge arms with delicacy and confidence is an arresting sight. I suppose that some audiences might think it is too obvious a statement to work, but I think Herry and Lellouche pull it off. It’s not quite the same problem for Sandrine Kilberlain so she gets an addiction to Haribo sweets as a prop. Meanwhile Élodie Bouchez has the task of ageing over a period of 15 years or so which I think she does successfully. All the playing is very good throughout and I must pick out Miou-Miou as Irène, the head of the Adoption Agency panel (a difficult job). I later discovered that the director is actually Miou-Miou’s daughter. Miou-Miou was a great star and she still is a fine actor.
Ms Herry’s previous film, Elle l’adore (2014) was also shown at Glasgow and then made it into UK distribution, though I don’t remember it. In Safe Hands is a Studio Canal film and that company, with a significant UK operation, sometimes puts its French films straight to DVD with only a restricted cinema release. I hope they give this one a bigger push because it’s definitely a film to look out for. The lead actors interviewed in the Press Notes all express theirinterest in the procedures and Gilles Lellouche says the whole experience made him happy about how his taxes were being spent. Hearing this in austerity Britain is sobering as our welfare services are cut and cut.
I watched Shoplifters on the day it opened in the UK over three weeks ago but was too busy to write about it. I worried that opportunities to see it might be limited but miracles do happen and it seems to be still going strong. I’ve been surprised to see mention of watching the film not just in film reviews but also in more general newspaper columns. It seems to have caught and held the attention of commentators who are not cinephiles and has become one of the few foreign language hits of the year. Obviously, I’m very pleased that one of global cinema’s most effective and affective directors is getting recognition – but it also begs the question of why many of his earlier films failed to make the breakthrough in the same way. Is it really down to winning the top Cannes prize? Is it the promotional clout of the still relatively new Canadian distributor Thunderbird Releasing (taking over Soda Pictures) or are there other reasons?
Kore-eda Hirokazu finally won the Palme d’Or with Shoplifters and in some ways it offers a summation of the group of his films that deals specifically with ‘families’ and young children. Starting with Nobody Knows (2004), the group would also include 2011’s I Wish and Like Father, Like Son (2013) and perhaps more marginally After the Storm (2016) and even Our Little Sister (2015). In his Sight and Sound review Trevor Johnson begins like this:
It’s a critical truism that Kore-eda Hirokazu’s domestic dramas have made him the modern heir to the likes of Ozu and Naruse. Those Japanese old masters, however, never cut and diced the nuclear family in the way Kore-eda has done so assiduously in the course of his expanding and increasingly valuable filmography.
Johnson’s review is a well-argued attempt to place the film in relation to Kore-eda’s previous work and also offers a sympathetic reading which doesn’t spoil too much of the story. And this is a film that works very effectively when the audience knows as little as possible in advance. I’m not going to spoil the pleasures of the storytelling but I will recommend the film if you’ve managed to avoid the commentaries so far. Instead I want to expand some of Johnson’s points and add my own questions about audience readings. Johnson points to the two Japanese directors who became celebrated for their contemporary-set films, defined in Japan as gendai-geki and particularly forms of melodrama, including what Western scholars have dubbed the shomin-geki – ‘realist films’ about the working-classes. The preferred Japanese term is actually shōshimin-eiga referring to ‘lower middle-class’ people and this distinction is important. Ozu Yasujiro and Naruse Mikio worked at more or less the same time over a period of 30 years from the 1930s to the 1960s, Ozu at Shochiku and Naruse at Toho (two of the three major Japanese studios between 1930 and the 1960s). They therefore worked through the very different periods in Japan of the growing militarism of the 1930s, the severe economic hardships of the Allied Occupation post-war and the recovery and growing affluence of the 1950s/early 1960s. They dealt (differently) with all kinds of family situations but perhaps mainly the lower middle-class. In the late 1940s in particular they did tend to deal with families that had suffered break-up in different ways. Ozu’s The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) and A Hen in the Wind (1948) both feature families ‘broken’ or ‘constructed’ in different ways. Naruse’s films perhaps veer more towards adult relationships rather than families with children.
Kore-eda is working in a different Japanese context – in a society that has now lived with twenty years or more of ‘stagflation’ – economic stasis – but slow changes in family structures with rising divorce rates and an ageing population profile. This is evident in many of the families depicted in his films. Most of them are perhaps lower middle-class, though in Like Father, Like Son we get a narrative directly about two families from different social class positions. Some of these films seem more ‘Ozu-like’ and some more ‘Naruse-like’. But Shoplifters seems most like Nobody Knows in terms of its social setting. In this earlier film Kore-eda presents a story, based on a news report, about a woman who has four children with different fathers and who constantly moves accommodation. At the start of the film she moves her ‘family’ again and then abandons them, having placed the two older children in charge. This is the film that Shoplifters seem to refer back to, though I think the new film is not as immediately harrowing. It was only recently that I began to note Kore-eda’s comments about his interest in the films of Ken Loach and it looks as if Shoplifters is deliberately Loachian rather than related to Ozu or Naruse. Kore-eda says that this is his most ‘socially conscious’ film and that he felt angry making it. As is often the case, he starts from his own thoughts and feelings, often triggered by news stories.
The first thing that came to my mind was the tagline: “Only the crimes tied us together”. In Japan, crimes like pension frauds and parents making their children shoplift are criticised severely. Of course, these criminals should be criticised but I am wondering why people get so angry over such minor infractions even though there are many lawbreakers out there committing far more serious crimes without condemnation. Especially after the 2011 earthquakes, I didn’t feel comfortable with people saying repeatedly that a family bond is important. So I wanted to explore it by depicting a family linked by crime.
. . . I started to think about which elements were unfolded and would be examined deeply after the casting was settled. As a result, this film is packed with the various elements I have been thinking about and exploring these last 10 years. (See the Press Notes.)
As this quote suggests, Kore-eda introduces us to different members of a family who live in a decaying traditional house in a Tokyo suburb. We are told nothing and must watch and listen carefully to understand how the family survives. Some of the activities involve jobs that are on the surface conventional, others less so and some are clearly criminal as the father figure played by Kore-eda regular Lily Franky and the boy in the family expertly shoplift from stores that seem remarkably insecure. Other activities are less straightforward to fathom at first. The family also ‘adopts’ the little girl that they find and who appears to have been abandoned on a cold night. Inside the ramshackle home there appears to be warmth and a real feeling of working together for the benefit of all in the family group.
Shoplifters is beautifully made with fabulous performances by the great Kiki Kilin in her last film (she died earlier this year) and Lily Franky as Kore-eda regulars and by the rest of the principal cast, Ando Sakura as the mother figure, Matsuoka Mayu as the younger woman and Kairi Jyo and Sasaki Miyu as the children. As for the aesthetics of the film, Kore-eda again in the Press Notes:
Before the shoot, I was thinking of this film was kind of a fable and sought ways to find and build poetry within reality. Even if the film was realistic, I wanted to describe the poetry of human beings and both the cinematography and music came close to my vision.
Kore-eda chose the veteran musician Hosono Haroumi (one of the three founding members of Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978) to compose the score and Kondô Ryûto as cinematographer. They clearly provided what he wanted. I loved the film and I can’t find fault with any aspect of it, but I do feel out of line with many of the reviews. The only thing I’d consciously absorbed about reactions to the film was that the final scenes presented a ‘twist’ on the narrative and that many audiences were emotionally overwhelmed by what they saw. Perhaps because I was waiting for the twist, I didn’t feel that it was really a twist at all – I’d been asking myself all along why social services hadn’t turned up or why nobody else in the neighbourhood had noticed the activities of the family. When the resolution came I found it sad and a little surprising in terms of what happened to the individuals in the family group, but not something overly dramatic. In an odd way, I found the situation vaguely familiar since similar settings and characters might be found in the J-horror films of the late 1900s and early 2000s (I’m particularly thinking of Ju-on (The Grudge 2002)). The one moment that struck me most was when the elderly shopkeeper, whose store was often the target for some petty pilfering, admonished Shota and pleaded with him not to teach his young companion the shoplifting tricks. Later, we see that the shop has closed.
But I’ve not answered my original question. Why has this film made more impact than earlier Kore-eda films, equally good in my estimation? Is it because this kind of almost social-realist melodrama is more familiar in the UK than some of the more subtle familial tensions in a film like Still Walking (2008)? Is the film read in some way as more ‘universal’ and less ‘Japanese’? The comparison then comes with Like Father, Like Son which is still apparently ‘meandering’ towards an American re-make (see this Slant Magazine interview for Kore-eda’s comments on this). Kore-eda tells us that many people around the world have told him that similar stories about these ‘invisible people’ could be found in many different countries. Perhaps because American films are so popular in Japan, Shoplifters and Like Father, Like Son, with their ‘universal’ and therefore ‘Hollywood relatable’ stories, have been Kore-eda’s biggest box office hits at home.
Kore-eda Hirokazu is a tremendously good filmmaker. I’m glad Shoplifters is so successful, but please dig out his back catalogue, much of which is available on DVD or digital download in the UK and US.