This film is showing as part of ‘Summer of French Cinema 2015‘, six films screening across six different cinemas offered by a partnership between Picturehouse Cinemas and the French film export agency UniFrance. I’m guessing that this means that the three films won’t get a full UK release so we should be thankful that Picturehouse is providing this opportunity to see them. However, they are showing just once, each one seemingly randomly scattered across the standard film programmes at the participating cinemas (three different films at each cinema). You can download the full programme here – there are further screenings on July 20, 27 and August 3. A further selection of French films can be watched online at Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/unifrancefilmspro/vod_pages
I’m not sure quite how to take Vie sauvage. It is an adaptation of a non-fiction book, a ‘real life story’ written by the central character and directed by Cédric Khan. Khan is probably best known in the UK for 2002’s Roberto Succo. That too was an adaptation of a real life crime story and there are some similarities with Vie sauvage, including the focus on a man ‘on the run’ from the police. However, it would be misleading to think of this new film as a crime suspense narrative. The central character is ‘Paco’, a man of strong convictions played by the always excellent Mathieu Kassovitz complete with beard and a ponytail. Paco is a refusenik in terms of contemporary capitalist society and at the start of the narrative we find him living with ‘Nora’ (names in this story are often in quotes) and their three boys enjoying an alternative lifestyle outside urban French society. Nora (Céline Sallette) ‘incites’ the drama by deciding that she’s had enough of living outside society and takes her boys back to her parents’ home. Paco is furious and tries to take them back. The law eventually places the boys with Nora but after one of his ‘access visits’ Paco flees with the two youngest boys (the eldest, Thomas, elects to stay with his mother – he is Paco’s stepson but Tsali and Okyesa are Paco’s sons). The trio then successfully evade the police search for the next eleven years. The original story title is translated by Google as something like ‘Eleven years outside the system under the star of freedom’ – clumsy but not a bad description.
During this long period ‘on the run’, the trio have to change names and stories as they move from one commune to another, working on the land with the two boys being ‘home schooled’. Paco also attempts to instil his own ideas about living with nature and without modern technologies and consumer culture. The boys (who are six and seven when their adventure begins) at first take it all as a game but of course they will become ‘normal’ teenagers and rebel against parental authority when they are older. Nora does not reappear until the end of the narrative (apart from in a flashback) and it is interesting that the focus is on the father. In the ‘real’ story the French media told the story from the mother’s perspective, emphasising her loss as she and the police searched for the boys (with Paco facing two years in prison). I can’t really ‘spoil’ this narrative but I won’t describe the plot in detail. Since this is not a Boyhood type project, Kahn faces the problem of needing at least two pairs of actors to play the boys. Possibly he would have been better advised to have three sets but these multiple pairings are always difficult to make work and here I found the younger actors more credible. This isn’t a criticism of the older pair, more an issue about the big leap from small boys to young men.
Beautiful to look at with great use of natural light (camera by Yves Cape), always engaging and interesting as a narrative, I’m still not quite sure about the film – although I would certainly recommend it. The main issue is the mix of genres. I’ve already suggested that the suspense elements only carry parts of the narrative and at other times the film is perhaps best described as a family drama. It seems fairly obvious what attracted the Dardenne brothers to act as co-producers (it is an official French-Belgian production). The boys and their relationship with their father could easily appear in a Dardenne film, but I’m not sure about the long story time over so many years. The Dardenne films are also more intense as realist melodramas. As I watched the film I reflected on what might be termed the rural/pastoral realism of French cinema as featured in something like Renoir’s Toni (1934) or Will It Snow For Christmas? (1996). There are also moments when the film seems to draw on American cinema, especially Westerns, in those scenes in which the boys are happy rebels having fun holed up in a shack in the hills, plucking chickens and bombarding each other with feathers. The director himself was brought up in a rural commune in the 1970s and these scenes do indeed feel authentic. I was amused, however, to discover that the commune in which Paco first met Nora was based around tepees and Native American culture. I guess there is a sense in which Paco tries to take his sons through a kind of ‘natural’ rites of passage.
If you get the chance to see this film you might wish to compare it with The Wonders (Italy/Ger/Switz 2014) released in the UK today. The films have very similar elements but produce rather different narratives. Both are well worth seeing.
Trailer with English subs:
After Leviathan I’m working backwards to look at the earlier work of writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev. Elena was his third feature film and it too won a major Cannes prize. I remember Elena‘s UK release and the good reviews and I don’t remember why I didn’t see it at the time. I suspect that seeing it after Leviathan I have read it quite differently than I might have done if I’d seen it ‘cold’. Reading the reviews now and the director’s statement in the Press Pack I can see just what a complex film this is – and the ways in which some analyses of the film seem way off beam. There is also an interview with the director on the UK DVD which complicates things even more.
On the surface this is a straightforward narrative involving the couple in the still above. Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin don’t explain everything about the relationship immediately so I’ll try not to spoil the narrative too much. It appears that Vladimir is the strong patriarchal figure, a wealthy man accustomed to having his needs catered to and Elena is more like a servant or housekeeper. We see her efficiently dealing with the morning chores in the elegant upper middle-class apartment and then setting out across the city by train to the outer suburbs where she visits what we surmise to be her son’s family living in a high-rise block similar to those across much of Northern Europe. The principal narrative enigma emerges as the question of what will happen to Elena’s teenage grandson Sasha. Where will the money come from to ensure his future and prevent him being drafted into the Russian Army? Will Vladimir help? We then later realise that Vladimir’s only heir is his wayward daughter Katerina and that the narrative will explore the differences between the two families.
I found the director’s statement about what he was trying to do nearly as odd as some of the reviews with their confident assertions about what kind of film this is. It might be useful to point out some of the stylistic features of the film and then to discuss the symbolism of certain scenes. The film is both ‘realist’ – ‘hyper-realist’ perhaps – and a form of expressionist melodrama with symbolic meanings associated with several scenes. Various commentators have made references to other filmmakers and other cultures. At one point I thought of the Japanese stories of Tanizaki Junichiro and much later it occurred to me that the film style is similar to the work of Christian Petzold. I’m thinking here of Petzold’s Yella (Germany 2007) with its depiction of the new soulless capitalist world. I offer these references partly to point towards the ways in which other writers and directors have attempted to deal with personal stories in the context of big changes in society – changes which involve the dominating influence of a new system (i.e. Japanese v. Western ideologies, state communism v. global capitalism).
To take just two examples of Zvyagintsev’s approach. Firstly the cinematography, production design and music (by Philip Glass) combine to create exquisite compositions and moods in Vladimir’s apartment. Some of this is clearly studio artifice and on the DVD ‘extra’ the director explains how the opening shots of crows on the branches of the trees outside Vladimir’s apartment at sunrise were shot in a studio setting with artificial lights. There are some moments of pure expressionism when Elena sits before a pair of mirrors offering careful reflections of her image and another which offers a Michael Snow moment – a slow track/zoom à la Wavelength, but rather shorter, in to a framed photograph of Elena several years younger. The theatre actor Nadezhda Markina in her first film role is excellent. Elena is a woman who has thickened in her figure as she has aged but it is still possible to see the beautiful woman she was. Her hair is luxuriant and the camera lingers on the occasions when she puts it up and takes it down. Vladimir does the modern things like drive his Audi to the gym while Elena takes public transport dressed much like the babushkas of old.
I can’t really explain the other aspect of Zvyagintsev’s approach in any detail without spoiling the narrative. In general terms, however, it is clear that he is prepared to include both scenes that are slow-paced and seem to have little relevance and other sequences which are frantic in terms of action. The latter have clear links to a commentary on the state of Russian society and one includes all the power going off in the high-rise where Elena’s son lives – the mass of the people are in the dark when the decisions of the élite are taken. The director discusses why he decided to keep this particular sequence in the finished film. He also discusses another scene which seems deliberately inserted when Elena visits a church – and Zvyagintsev talks about how the scene was prompted by a passage in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Wikipedia describes the 1880 novel as “. . . a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason, set against a modernising Russia”. Zvyagintsev’s film is certainly concerned on one level with a moral struggle set against modernising Russia and in this respect – as well as the shifts between stasis and set pieces – it resembles Leviathan. Peter Bradshaw writes that the film reminds him of Chabrol and in particular Merci pour le chocolat (France-Switzerland 2000). There are links it’s true but I don’t think the tone is Chabrol. The director himself describes Elena as a ‘monster’, which seems way over the top. The Cannes synopsis describes the film as a noir thriller and the Philip Glass music as Hitchcockian. I don’t think it is particularly noir or a thriller. In some ways it feels Ballardian, especially in the way it opens and closes with the beautiful apartment and its ‘cool’ design. An article in the Guardian, discussing the negative reactions to Leviathan in Russia after its Golden Globes win, included this comment ” . . . his previous three feature films were deeply allegorical, playing out against backdrops that seemed removed from real geographical or temporal locations” (and therefore Leviathan was more identifiably ‘Russian’). It’s true that the city isn’t named in Elena, but it certainly seemed like a ‘real geographical or temporal location’ to me. Zvyagintsev’s films seem to create very different readings amongst audiences – and that’s one of the reasons that they are so intriguing. The Return is next for me, I think.
Here’s the Official UK trailer for Elena. It indicates the direction of the plot more than I have done above, so be warned!
The Bechdel test is mentioned regularly on the feminist sites I look at and The Green Ray, known as Summer in America, certainly passes. It follows Delphine (Marie Rivière) as she decides what to do after a friend dropped out of a holiday at the last minute. Delphine is unhappy and whilst the cause of this is because she’s been dumped by a man the film focuses on her desires rather then men’s. It’s ‘co-scripted’, or rather improvised, by Rivière and director Erich Rohmer and this, with the location shooting, where you can see passers-by looking at the filming with curiosity, gives the film a realist dimension. All the other characters are ‘playing’ themselves including Paulette Christlein, the ‘free spirit’ Delphine meets in Biarritz, who, like the other performers I sampled, never appeared in another film.
The long-takes, and meandering narrative, is similar to the style and form that Richard Linklater used in his Midnight films; the subject matter is similar too. Not a lot happens, or rather, quite a lot happens slowly and I was wondering why I was enjoying the film so much as it seemed to be an example of Rohmer’s whimsy. It helps that Rivière’s is brilliant and the several locations used are beautifully shot. The revelation, toward the end, of what the ‘green ray’ is does give the film a weightier philosophical dimension. I don’t think the title Summer is a good one; presumably distributors were afraid audiences might confuse the film with science fiction.
It has recently been re-released in the UK and it’s well-worth catching this film, particularly if you like Linklater.
Chronicle of a Summer is one of the most significant documentaries ever made; as stated at the start of the film:
‘This film was not played by actors, but lived by men and women who have given a few moments of their lives to a new experiment in cinema truth.”
The last two words in their original French, cinéma vérité, became emblematic of the type of film they created. Although, like Direct Cinema which was being developed for television in North America at the time, cinéma vérité used developments in lightweight equipment to shoot events as they happened, filmmaker Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin (an anthropologist), were not suggesting that they were passive bystanders merely relaying the action. They didn’t try to disguise the fact that audiences were watching a film and both directors appear onscreen talking to the participants about a range of contemporary issues such as the Algerian war and racism.
The film begins with a conversation with Marceline Loridan about her feelings of being involved in the documentary. Initially her role is as a vox pop interviewer asking passers-by if they are happy. These early scenes are shot candidly with poorly composed framing. After this the film focuses on six participants: three students, an African, an Italian, a car worker and a union man. Rouch and Morin are trying to gauge what ‘France’ thinks about the world in the summer of 1960.
The film’s ability to capture these spontaneous conversations was no doubt extremely impressive at the time. From the perspective of now the technical brilliance is somewhat lost however the snapshot of the time ensures that the film remains vital viewing.
For example, Marceline, it transpires, is a survivor from Auschwitz and in a harrowing monologue she recounts her time there. This is shot at a deserted Place du Concorde apparently with her talking to herself (her lips are clearly moving some of the time) whilst the camera moves backwards in front of her. It could be coincidental, but when she talks of being a little girl the camera noticeably recedes from her, making her look relatively small (see above). This image bridges the moment with the past when she was separated from her father in the concentration camp; it is an emotionally devastating sequence.
Later when Mary Lou is talking about her fears of being alone, the close up of her visibly distressed face, though she is trying to smile (put on a ‘brave’ face), portrays the raw emotion she is feeling. It may seem to be exploitative however Morin, who’s talking to her, says we shouldn’t talk about it and the scene cuts immediately. An African student, Landry talks about how he’d like Africans to be appreciated for more than their dancing; he is portrayed as an African explorer in France, a brilliant post-colonial characterisation.
The film concludes with reflections on itself, first from the participants and then Morin and Rouch in conversation. The participants’ views are fascinating as, after they have seen a rough cut, they appear to disagree with the meaning of what they have seen (I say ‘appear’ because we are obviously seeing what Morin and Rouch decided to include in the final version though I don’t doubt the veracity). Sam Di Iorio’s excellent Criterion essay (here) quotes Morin’s reaction to this:
Morin eventually saw the contradictory reactions it generated as proof of its strength: “My dream that this film would end with mutual understanding failed,” he wrote in 2010, “but its ultimate success lay in showing how difficult it is to understand others.”
And this is part of the film’s greatness, showing that truth is a dialogic concept and not absolute. Clearly, I’m strongly recommending this great film.