This début fiction feature by the documentarist Márta Mészáros is a stunning portrait of a young woman in Hungary searching with steely determination for a sense of her own identity in a society experiencing a dramatic contrast between tradition and developing modernity. It is both an example of the New Wave films of Eastern Europe in the late 1960s and one of the early films of feminist cinema in Europe (although Mészáros is reported as not recognising the ‘feminist’ label). The film is currently streaming on MUBI as part of a four film offering of restored prints. The film also goes by two other English titles, The Day Has Gone and The Sun Has Gone.
The central character is Erzsi, a young woman of 24 who has grown up in a state orphanage and now works in a textile factory, living in what appears to be a dormitory in a workers’ hostel. The narrative opens with a monthly meal at the orphanage where the former residents are served by the older girls who are still living in the orphanage. The opening credits have shown us a group of young women in their twenties being given training in archery. The orphanage and its ‘alumni’ association appear to be single sex institutions, possibly linked directly to the factory as state institutions. Eventually Erzsi is picked out by the camera when she leaves the Sunday meal, complaining that she doesn’t feel well. In fact she is probably just bored. Later she tells her friend that she has made contact with a woman who is probably her mother and she has decided to visit the village where this woman lives. Erzsi is played by Kati Kovács who in 1968 had already been recognised in a TV talent contest and had sung a winning song in a televised dance-song festival. After 1970 her recording career took off and she has become one of Hungary’s most famous singers. Her confidence as a performer is already evident in her portrayal of Erzsi.
Erzsi takes a train and a bus to get to the village where she finds the family house of her mother. But the welcome is not warm – the woman says that she will introduce Erzsi as a niece who is visiting because she has a work appointment close by. The evening and the next day are difficult for Erzsi. The woman is married and has a grown up son, and a younger boy with her husband. His mother is also living with her. Erzsi becomes the focus of attention for the husband and eldest son. She gets little opportunity to speak to any of the family, even if she wanted to. In a key scene, the family watch a TV broadcast from London of a ‘beauty contest’ (see the image below). Note how the woman watches her husband but the others watch the screen. The woman is dressed traditionally and so is her mother (still in the kitchen). Television was still relatively new in the 1960s, especially in rural Hungary, and these formal groups (as in the UK in the 1950s) were common for audiences. The following day the family attend a dance in the village and the traditional/modern split becomes more apparent especially between the younger and older women. The band is a ‘beat group’ which resembles those seen in small towns in the UK in the 1960s. Erzsi leaves soon after the dance without saying goodbye. On the train back to Budapest she decides to go home with a man she meets.
When she gets up the next morning in her dormitory she returns to the factory and socialises with her small circle of friends. She has ‘admirers’, including a young man who appears to be stalking her. Her attitudes towards men are straightforward. She enjoys some of the attention and dismisses other attempts to engage with her. She appears to enjoy her sexual encounters but has no romantic notions. I was reminded to some extent of the Hungarian girl who loves the ratcatcher in Dusan Makavejev’s Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia 1967). Erzsi is a ‘modern’ young woman but she is still interested in finding out about her history. The film is also similar in some ways to Pawel Pawlikowski’s later prize-winning Ida (Poland 2013) but in The Girl, Erzsi who would have been born in 1944, does not engage directly in discussions about the Second World War. She does eventually meet a man who claims to have known her parents and he tells her a story about them. They are both dead it seems. Erzsi doesn’t believe him but later says it was a ‘nice story’. Hungarians in the 1960s must have been conflicted about remembering the war period. They did not come out of it well, aligned to the Axis powers initially and then occupied by the Nazis. This history also affected the later relationship between the Soviet Union and Hungary.
The oddest thing about Erzsi is that on three occasions she pays the bills for people she meets or her friends. She is paid a modest wage as a textile worker but seems unconcerned about money. Overall, she is a ‘cool’ character who might appear in any 1960s film from Europe or North America. Much of the impetus behind this character must come from Márta Mészáros herself. The director wrote the script herself and her own biography records a similar history of ‘displacement’. Born in 1931, Mészáros went with her artist parents to Moscow as a young child and was orphaned a few years later, being brought up by a foster mother. She returned to Hungary as a teenager in 1946 and later went back to Moscow for film school. She then worked as a documentary filmmaker in both Hungary and Romania. Her second marriage was to the director Miklós Jancsó. They divorced in 1973. The Girl created a strong impression with critics and audiences but divisions quickly developed and it has been suggested that Mészáros became more popular outside Hungary. The reason for this was her strong central aim of exploring the ‘modernising’ of Hungarian society and specifically gender and sexual relations. I suspect that she also disturbed audiences with her probing into personal and social history in a society in which personal identity post-1945 was a difficult issue for many. Here’s a more theorised observation from one writer on Mészáros:
There are not many reviews of The Girl in English and some of them seem off the mark to me. Erzsi is often seen by reviewers as ‘lonely’ and ‘oppressed’. One American review I read seemed to suggest that this was because Hungary was a cold and unhappy country in the Soviet bloc. I don’t think Erzsi is alone and oppressed but clear-eyed and focused. The narrative is recognisable as an East European New Wave film but the standout performance of Kati Kovács is riveting. It is worth watching the film just to see this powerful performance. Her hair and dress sense is modern and sophisticated but it is her ‘gaze’ that is most striking. The presentation of pop music in Hungary in the film is remarkable for most Western viewers (although I am reminded of the earlier Czech New Wave film Audition (Czechoslovakia 1963, by Milos Forman) and the images below refer to a dance at the end of the film in which the band seem to be riffing, in both a musical and fashion sense, on Californian psychedelic and rock music of 1966/7.
The Girl is a relatively short film, more like 84 minutes in this restoration than the 90 suggested by IMDb. The restoration looks very good and the black and white photography by Tamás Somló presented in Academy (1.37:1) does justice to Márta Mészáros’ selection of locations and framings. Both director and cinematographer had come out of documentary work and with Kati Kovács’ performance as a focus the presentation of life in Budapest and the contrast with the outlying village is compelling. This is one of the best films I’ve seen for a long time. I note the next film in the quartet has just popped up on MUBI. There is too much to watch all of a sudden. In fact we have already reviewed one of the four restorations, Adoption ( Hungary 1975). Other films by Márta Mészáros on this blog are Diary for My Children (Hungary 1982/4), The Unburied Man (Hungary-Poland-Slovakia 2004) and The Last Report on Anna (Hungary 2009). Her latest film is Aurora Borealis: Északi fény (2017). Her body of work is in many ways comparable with that of Agnès Varda and it deserves to be much more widely celebrated.
This is a very difficult film to write about because of its formal qualities, poised between documentary re-enactment and fiction feature, and because of its generic qualities as part biopic, part ‘journalist in war zone’ feel. It is true story about a young woman who pursued her dream and paid with her life. Finally its appearance in 2021 as part of My French Film Festival, after release in France in October 2019, coincides with news stories suggesting French unease about the calls for re-assessing imperialism and colonialism.
Camille Lepage was a young French freelance photographer aged 25 when she travelled to the Central African Republic in October 2013. Her first major African reportage had been carried out in South Sudan and she had already had her images used by major newspapers and other agencies. She spent her time in CAR meeting students, and young people generally, in the capital Bangui and when the civil war in the country started to get close to the capital she teamed up with a group of seasoned European journalists working for major outlets and photographed some of the action and its aftermath. At this point it was the Séléka, a Muslim rebel force that was attacking the capital. Intervention by French forces was expected and duly arrived. Camille went home to France for Christmas but was determined to return to Bangui, by which time the Christians had formed a new militia known as the ‘Anti-balaka’ and they were killing Muslims. Camille learned that the Anti-balaka were moving North from the capital towards the border with Cameroon. She joined their convoy and was killed instantly during an ambush. (This isn’t a spoiler, we learn of her death in the opening sequence.)
CAR is one of the poorest countries on earth. It has a low population density as a relatively large country with less than 5 million people but much of it is savannah and potentially productive and it also has some valuable mineral deposits with diamonds as the major export. Why is the country so poor and how does a civil war seemingly break out on religious difference lines when the Christian population is nearly 90%? I don’t know the answers to these questions but the country has had a difficult history since its ‘independence’, especially during the ‘Empire’ of Jean-Bédel Bokassa from 1966-79. Like several other countries in Central Africa that were created after the land grab by European powers in the late 19th century, CAR has little infrastructure and little contact with the outside world – except with France. Even the Chinese seem to be ignoring the country. The only evidence of an outside world comes via the trucks and motorbikes and the ubiquitous European football shirts.
Camille is the second fiction feature by director Boris Lojkine after his initial documentaries made in Vietnam. His first fiction film, Hope (2014) followed a young Nigerian woman and a young Cameroon man attempting to reach the Mediterranean after crossing the Sahara. Lojkine’s documentary experience seems to still be central to his work. Hope was shot by Elin Kirschfink and she also shot Camille. The new film is presented in a boxy 1:1.50 ratio caught between Academy (1.37:1) and the traditional French widescreen 1.66:1. The ratio derives from Lojkine’s decision to use ‘real’ photographs by Camille Lepage which are inserted at various points, freezing the action. Camille is played by Nina Meurisse, who does indeed convincingly represent the Camille we see in photographs shown at the end of the film. There are a couple of well-known French actors among the journalists (Bruno Todeschini and Grégoire Colin) and the photojournalist Michael Zumstein plays himself in the film – and was able to advise Lojkine and the rest of the crew. The African cast was all local and non-professional. Lojkine in the Press Notes tells us that he set up documentary workshops in Bangui and mentored ten young filmmakers who then became crew members on the shoot.
Camille’s story was ‘narrativised’ by Lojkine who created three individual characters among the students that she meets. This enables aspects of Camille’s story to be outlined more clearly through her relationships, i.e. in smuggling a character past a militia group or joining a family in mourning. The film certainly develops a convincing realist aesthetic, so ‘real’ in fact that I found it difficult to watch at times.
How to respond?
I’m not sure what I can say about the film. On one level it is a significant achievement in filmmaking with high quality photography and editing and strong performances. The ‘realism’ effects of the re-construction of events is very strong. The genre narrative of ‘journalist in a war zone’ is developed in two ways, firstly when Camille joins the experienced journalists in Bangui and travels with them to photograph the raids close to the city and secondly when she is back in France, trying to get a commission from a newspaper or discussing/defending her actions when quizzed by family and friends. Much of the time, however, Camille is on her own (i.e. not with other journalists) when she visits the militias or the families who have lost relatives in the civil war. In these circumstances we try to understand what she hopes to achieve. Reflecting on this later, I’m reminded of Michael Winterbottom’s film Welcome to Sarajevo (UK-US 1997) and that element of several other journalism films which responds to the need for the individual to ‘do something’ like smuggle a refugee out of a war zone. Often Camille shows her genuine concern and her ability to find a means of both communicating and connecting with the people she meets. But this only goes so far and some of them eventually repel her. She believes in her journalistic purpose and that someone must record these shocking events, but many of her photos will not be seen. She lacks any kind of institutional support or indeed any one to ‘watch her back’. Her death in the circumstances seems inevitable.
The Civil War which started in 2012 is still not over eight years later despite the French military presence at various times. CAR seems similar to Chad and some of the other countries in the region – Sudan/South Sudan and the DRC. The European colonial boundaries established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries don’t reflect the many ways in which local communities have identities. French policies in the region are difficult to understand but they don’t seem to be working in terms of military interventions and trade relations. Stories like this definitely need to be told and young, compassionate journalists like Camille Lepage could be among those opening up the debates, but perhaps alongside African journalists? This film, as a biopic, places Camille centre stage in almost every shot. An African film might tell different stories. I do wonder if countries like CAR would benefit more by opening up to neighbours rather than remaining attached to the ex-colonial power. It would be good to see the (post)-colonial situation explored by African filmmakers.
My second film from the online ArteKino Festival turned out to be a technically accomplished low budget feature made as part of La Biennale di Venezia of 2019. The film production was awarded a budget of €150,000 as part of the Biennale College Cinema project. This is the first feature of Chiara Campara. It’s a short feature, listed by the Biennale at 79 minutes but running at 82 minutes in the online festival.
I’m slightly non-plussed in my attempts to categorise the feature. Its central character is Yuri (Leonardo Lidi) an unmarried 30 year-old, the eldest of three siblings of a farmer in what I assume to be Northern Italy, perhaps in Trentino-South Tyrol. The district is not named but the farm practises a form of transhumance – cattle being taken up to higher ground for summer grazing but kept in pens under cover for winter. Also, Yuri has a small stone hut in a forest which he says was used in the Great War when Italy fought against Austria. Yuri has reached a ‘dangerous age’. He doesn’t know whether to stay on the farm or leave for the nearest large town. His main relaxation is to visit a night club which features pole dancers and private rooms and he has begun a relationship of sorts with one of the dancers, Agata (Alice Torriani). Yuri is clearly a marginalised young man. He’s tall but overweight, though he has an attractive face. He moves slowly and thinks deeply. He works methodically and is clearly skilled in what he does on the farm. He is serious about ‘courting’ Agata but is she too ‘worldly’ for him? Meanwhile his sister has what he considers an unsuitable boyfriend and is about to move out. His younger brother, still in his teens is also likely to leave. Yuri does have the option of moving to the large town and working for his uncle’s construction site team.
I can think of several similar films in terms of characters and settings. In the UK a few years ago we had as many as three features which all developed narratives about farms in regions with what might be seen as ‘marginal’ agricultural operations. The one that sprang to mind immediately was arguably the most successful of these, God’s Own Country (UK 2017). But that film was much more dramatic featuring a conflict between the young man and his parents and the appearance of a migrant worker who turned out to be gay. Lessons of Love is much more restrained. It has a realist style and I wasn’t surprised to read that Chiara Campara had trained as a documentarist and had previously directed a medium-length documentary feature and photographed another. There is attention to detail in all the scenes looking at agricultural practice. I’ve seen references to the film as a form of romance, but I don’t think there is enough to justify such a label and audiences may be frustrated if there was that expectation.
I assume the film is intended primarily to be a character study of Yuri and in that respect it works pretty well but I’m not sure it is sufficient in itself to support a feature. Yuri seems mild mannered but on three occasions at least he loses his temper suggesting that there is more going on beneath the surface. The director’s statement on the Biennale website suggests that it is a “delayed coming of age” narrative – one that requires Yuri to ask a lot of questions of himself and where he wants to go with his life, both in is relationships and his working and leisure life choices. That’s fair enough. I don’t necessarily want those questions to be answered and it is probably enough that they are raised, in particular the cost, expressed in several different ways associated with leaving his life of working close to nature and both his cows and wildlife compared to moving into the exciting but stressed world of urban living. But in the end I think even a short feature of 80 minutes needs a little more drama. I think I found this a film to be admired for its performances and the cinematography of Giuseppe Maio. There is also an interesting discourse about the music Yuri plays in his car. But I think the script (by the director and Lorenzo Faggi) is a weakness. I enjoyed some of the sociological detail – I wasn’t aware of a country music culture in rural Italy – but I needed to be more engaged by the narrative. However, I was impressed by the director’s skills evident in a first feature and I will be interested in what she does next.
When I started watching Echo, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Is it a documentary, a comedy, an avant-garde film? I hadn’t attempted to read anything about the film at all, wanting only to give it a try before it left MUBI in the UK yesterday. I was fascinated by the first few shots – each beautifully composed and framed by a static camera on a tripod, allowing a simple scene to play out in a single take of a minute or two. One of my first thoughts was of Roy Andersson’s films but although there are elements of comedy in some of the scenes/shots in Echo, there is none of Andersson’s playing with his colour palette or his penchant for a particular kind of actor and make-up and a style of playing. Instead, each scene features what appear to be ‘real’ situations. I couldn’t discern any overall narrative or any unifying principle and I did begin to wonder if this sequence of scenes would last for the whole length of a feature. I chickened out and glance at MUBI’s introduction but as soon as I saw the director was Rúnar Rúnarsson, whose début film Volcano (2011) impressed me greatly, I went straight back to the film, knowing I was in safe hands.
Eventually a form of narrative does become clear in the film and we realise that the scenes all refer to the Christmas period in Iceland. In fact, the film was shot from the start of Advent in December 2018 through to the start of 2019. There are 56 ‘vignettes’ and no character appears more than once. The whole offers a ‘mosaic’ of Iceland, its people and its culture across 79 minutes. I can’t imagine how much preparation Rúnarsson put into this. Many of the ‘performers’ are non-professionals (though there are some established actors too) and I imagine that the scenes were scripted and rehearsed. In the Press Notes, Rúnarsson tells us that one scene with a small child took many hours and several takes. The film presents aspects of Icelandic culture familiar from film, TV and literature. The long darkness of Iceland in December is captured in a scene featuring a young Black man (possibly an athlete from North America) sent by his coach to a solarium to ’embrace the light’. Several scenes feature music of different kinds, often diegetic but also some scoring by Kjartan Sveinsson. Where some scenes feature activities familiar from many parts of the world, others are distinctly Icelandic – cooking ‘fermented fish’ in the garage because of the smell or a son on the phone to his parents about why he won’t be there when they are eating whale meat. A couple of scenes refer to the influence of links with Poland, evident in recent co-productions of Icelandic films.
Some of the transitions from one scene to another work as comic/satirical observations, some are smooth, some more abrupt. Similarly the shot size alters from the intimate in a small room to long shots in which we see scenes played out with several characters and a staging in depth. I know I won’t be alone in remembering one particular scene in which a young man, a drug user, visits a clinic where the two young pharmacists/nurses prepare him for Christmas and assure him that they will be there on the 24th/25th. It’s a simple ‘three shot’ around a table in the corner of the room and I found it very moving. I won’t spoil any more vignettes and they are all worth your attention. One of the strengths of the film is that the scenes feature the very young and those in the final years of life and every age in between. Rúnar Rúnarsson’s most obvious collaborators are cinematographer Sophia Olsson, editor Jacob Secher Schulsinger and sound designer Gunnar Óskarsson. Along with Kjartan Sveinsson they are all long-time collaborators and contribute a great deal to the success of the film but there is also a larger overall crew responsible for this fascinating undertaking.
I’m not sure if Echo will appear in MUBI’s ‘Library’ offer, but if you can find the film, I recommend it highly. I would have loved to see this on a big screen and I hope the film gets seen as widely as possible. I’m not sure Volcano or Rúnarsson’s second film Sparrows got a UK release. He’s a talented director. Come on UK distributors give him a chance. Echo is a French co-production so all the details and Press Notes are accessible via Unifrance.
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.