It was a rainy Saturday night with nothing on TV so we rented Words and Pictures. I selected this on the basis that it was a Fred Schepisi film starring Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen and it was described on iTunes as a comedy. This film wasn’t, as far as I’m aware, released in UK cinemas. That says more about assumptions about UK cinema audiences than the quality of the film. And I think that older audiences might enjoy the film. Yes, it’s highly conventional and predictable but Binoche grappling with Clive Owen is always going to be watchable.
The setting is Vancouver standing in for somewhere in New England where Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is an English honours teacher in a prep school, having once been a promising writer. Things are not going well for Jack. His students are not engaged and his son barely speaks to him (I don’t remember any references to the young man’s mother). As a result, Jack is hitting the vodka and his tenure at the school is starting to look precarious. The ‘inciting incident’ for the narrative is the arrival of a new ‘fine art honours’ teacher Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). She’s beautiful, intelligent, and talented – and she has rheumatoid arthritis which is developing quickly. Jack is woken from his slumber by her arrival and he playfully challenges her with word games. He’s surprised when she promotes her art work over his literature with the students she shares with him. He retaliates with a challenge to show that the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true. (He also recognises that the challenge may produce student work to fill his ailing school magazine – that the principal intends to close down.)
The setting and plot do perhaps suggest Schepisi’s fellow Australian Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society and in a different way, The Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts. But those films combined the question of what happens to ‘maverick’ teachers with the story of the impact of their teachings on their students’ lives. Words and Pictures is really only interested in the students as devices to develop the storyline about the potential romance between Owen and Binoche. I don’t think that it is a conventional romcom, however. It is certainly witty and there are moments when it seems about to get serious about the afflictions suffered by the two teachers, both of whom struggle to get back to their best artistic endeavours. But in the end, Jack’s alcoholism seems rather too easy to overcome and Dina’s arthritis is similarly suddenly controllable by medication. A conventional ending beckons and this is indeed mainstream entertainment. The pleasure is in the central pairing. I think Clive Owen is a very under-rated actor and here he is presented as dishevelled, bleary-eyed and far from a romantic lead, but he makes the character work. Juliette Binoche produced her own artworks for the film and the scenes of her composing her large paintings despite her disability are very well done. The two leads work well together.
The film seems to have suffered from an unusual limited distribution pattern over the whole summer of 2014 in North America, but only in a maximum of 216 cinemas for a few weeks and the rest of the time much smaller numbers – I’m assuming that for several weeks it only screened in Canada. It doesn’t seem to have been released in the UK or France. I hope it has found its audience on DVD and download – this is the kind of small film that has been most squeezed in the market over the last few years and it’s the kind of film we miss.
I’d heard many good things about Greta Gerwig and specifically about Frances Ha (US 2012) but so far I hadn’t seen any of her films. On this basis I decided to watch Maggie’s Plan. The smaller Cinema 2 at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre was nearly full for an early evening show. Perhaps that isn’t surprising. Released through Sony Classics, Maggie’s Plan had what was once a standard specialised cinema release on 80 screens across the UK & Ireland and entered the Top 15 with a £100,000 on its first weekend. Is this an example of the new form of acceptable arthouse cinema for middle-class audiences in the UK?
Greta Gerwig is Maggie, a New York university teacher in her late twenties who has decided that she wants a baby, but doesn’t want a long-term lover/partner/husband because she doesn’t think she can sustain a long-term relationship. Her ‘plan’ involves self-insemination with sperm from a donor she knows but the plan is immediately jeopardised by a meeting with John, another teacher played by Ethan Hawke. He is in turn married to Julianne Moore as a Danish lecturer with a comedy European accent and hair drawn tightly back. Hawke’s teacher is an aspiring novelist teaching ‘ficto-critical anthropology’. His wife is rather more prestigious in the same field and she has tenure at Columbia plus a distinguished publications record. Maggie initially seeks to help him with his first novel. She has two close friends, Felicia and Tony, a couple with a small child who are ‘quirky’ in their behaviour but otherwise quite together and they are the foil for Maggie’s encounters with the Hawke/Moore characters.
The Hawke character immediately evokes his other author roles in Richard Linklater’s ‘Sunset’ trilogy (with Julie Delpy) and in Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman in the Fifth (France/UK/Poland 2011). In each case he is an American novelist, but unfortunately in Maggie’s Plan Rebecca Miller’s script and direction don’t manage to keep the usually excellent Hawke within bounds. His acting style doesn’t match that of Greta Gerwig and I found his character insufferable. Probably though it’s his playing against Julianne Moore who seems to be in another film entirely, over-playing manically, that is the real problem. Again Ms Moore is usually very good, so script and direction seem to be the issue.
There isn’t much plot in the film so the narrative relies on sharp dialogue and performances. Fortunately, Greta Gerwig fits her role well and she is always entertaining to watch. Her costumes – mostly sensible shoes and woollens are suitable for a New York winter. Sometimes they look a bit ‘clod-hoppy’ but mainly her engaging personality pulls her through. Not conventionally ‘beautiful’, Ms Gerwig is very attractive because she is at ease with her body and allows her personality to shine. She is at the centre of the comic moments for me, but reading other comments, I see that some find these scenes don’t work and that opinion is equally divided on the snappy dialogue. Maggie’s Plan is ‘clever’ but I don’t think it is ‘cool’ or ‘smart’ (i.e. in the way that films like Ghost World (US 2001) were once described because of their appeal to a specific demographic). It’s been variously described as an ‘indie rom-com’ and a ‘screwball comedy’. The latter seems some way off the mark to me. The film ends with the possibility of something slightly sentimental. I should add that there are children involved in the various relationships – all of whom are well-written and well-acted.
Maggie’s Plan appears to be a film more loved by critics than by the general audience (Rotten Tomatoes scores it 86% for critics as against 66% for audiences) – but perhaps more so by a specialised film audience. People around me certainly laughed, but often at gags that I didn’t find funny. Conversely, I smiled at moments which didn’t evoke laughter at all. I read that the film could be bracketed with Shakespearean comedies and Woody Allen – neither of which I can claim to know/enjoy. Maggie’s Plan is doing well at the box office and it certainly offers entertainment. I’ll definitely look for more Greta Gerwig performances, but perhaps I’ll avoid this kind of New York comedy.
The US trailer (which reveals the rest of the plot):
Planeta Singli is the latest Polish blockbuster to hit the UK in an attempt to find the large Polish diaspora audience. Polish is officially the UK’s leading second language (i.e. the first language of a million or more Poles resident in the UK). We’ve had Polish films on release in the UK over the last ten years or so, but usually from UK-based distributors. Planeta Singli follows Pitbull as a release from the US distributor Phoenix via an exclusive deal with Odeon (although I understand ‘second-run’ deals with other cinemas are a possibility). See Charles Gant in the Guardian for the full story.
The title of this new release refers to an internet dating app – ‘Planet Single’ – but the film’s narrative is much more complex than that single reference might suggest. This a rom-com that runs 136 mins –very long by UK/US rom-com standards. In fact, the film manages to combine two parallel family melodramas with a romance and a satire on talk shows as well as internet dating. Slovenian director Mitja Okorn already has form with his local Polish hit Letters to Santa (2011). Various European countries have local traditions involving comedies for particular seasons (e.g. the Christmas comedies in Italy) but Planeta Singli looks like a bid to challenge Hollywood directly (keeping Deadpool from top spot at the Polish box office). Ania (Agnieszka Wiedlocha) is a music teacher in an elementary school still ‘tied’ to her mother at 27 after her father’s death. Her friend Ola is married to the school’s head teacher who has a teenage daughter from his first marriage. Ola is glamorous but unable to hold down a job. Ania is responsible but seemingly rather ‘buttoned up’. Attempting internet dating for the first time, Ania finds herself somehow landed with Tomek (Maciej Stuhr), the presenter of an edgy TV talkshow which uses his skills as a puppeteer. Tomek does a deal with Ania – she will tell him the details of her dates that he will use for stories on his show and in return he will buy her a Steinway piano for her school music project.
What follows is in many ways quite conventional and the finale is also very sentimental (and invokes the music competition performance that has become something of a staple). Yet the writing is sharp, the film is genuinely funny and the performances are very good, especially from the two leads. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the transformation in the presentation of Ania in terms of hair and make-up and especially costume. This ‘makeover’ reminded me of the Bette Davis character in Now Voyager. The film has the problem of presenting a beautiful woman as ‘dowdy’. The solution appears to be to dress her in loose tops and skirts, to pin her hair up and to give her oversize horn-rimmed glasses. As the transformation develops she lets her hair down, applies make-up and wears heels. Her costumes change to outfits that seemed to me to more like 60s and 70s fashion and several of them made me think of Audrey Hepburn. Fashion isn’t really my thing. Agnieszka Wiedlocha clearly is a beautiful woman who would still look great in jeans and a man’s shirt, preferably sans make-up – but that’s just my taste. I think someone interested in costume could have a field day with this film.
The music used in the film is another important element in the genre mix. A trailer for the next Polish release played before Planeta Singli, announcing ‘the first film to really use top Polish songs’. In Planeta Singli a couple of songs were in English including ‘The Man with an Unknown Soul’ by Polish singer Bovska and a striking version of Paul Simon’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ by Korean-American singer Nouela.
Overall this is an enjoyable rom-com and it’s easy to see why it has been such a big hit. I dread the thought of an American remake and in this respect the film made me think about the smash hit South Korean rom-com My Sassy Girl (2001) which was followed by less successful remakes in the US and India as well as a Chinese sequel. The Polish and Korean films are very different in some ways, though they share scenes associated with the drinking cultures of both countries. But what they both also do is offer genuine romance narratives with well thought-out characters and long complex narratives. If this film makes it to a DVD with subtitles, it would certainly be worth checking out. On subtitles, it’s worth noting that in a film with lots of texting between characters it’s quite difficult to subtitle all the exchanges flashing across the screen.
In the last six months I’ve now seen both Polish and Chinese blockbusters in Odeons outside London. Perhaps a Turkish film will be next?
Here’s the song by Bovska that has been edited to serve as a trailer for the film:
Samba is the follow-up to the second biggest global hit in French film history, Intouchables (2011) – a film I’ve been meaning to write about for some time. Perhaps watching Samba will prompt me to do so. The same writing-directing duo (Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano) and the same star (Omar Sy) feature in this $20 million budget film. Omar Sy is the French TV star who became a surprise film star in Intouchables – as an African-French character given a lead role in an industry not noted for its representations of Africans in mainstream films. In Samba he plays a Senegalese migrant who has been in France for 10 years but who has still not achieved legal residency.
I missed this film during its (very brief) run in UK cinemas but I still wanted to see it even though I could see the flaws in Intouchables. I was worried by some of the negative reviews but in the event I did enjoy Samba – but I can understand some of the critical responses. Part of the problem is that the film mixes several distinct genres in a way that might certainly confound some audiences and which provides good ammunition for critics.
Samba is both a comedy and a drama. It also mixes a quite complex visual style – a pre-credits sequence aping Scorsese (in his Goodfellas period) – with both absurdist and slapstick comedy and some social realism. In genre terms it includes elements of the buddy movie mixed with the rom-com and social commentary. All in all it is a strange mixture but its good points shouldn’t get lost. It isn’t really very helpful to dismiss films because they try to do something different.
Headlining alongside Omar Sy are Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim. Gainsbourg provides the ‘romance-comedy-drama’ potential and Rahim enables the buddy movie. Gainsbourg’s character is a marketing executive who has ‘burned out’ and has decided to take a sabbatical as a support worker for a refugee/migrant charity. This is how she meets Samba (Sy) who has been imprisoned and given an order to leave France despite 10 years illegal residency and steady employment in kitchen work, albeit with a struggle to get from dish-washing to food preparation. Rahim’s character, another migrant with a similar history, eventually teams up with Samba in a series of casual jobs leading to various comic escapades. Although the narrative resolution suggests a ‘feelgood’ film, the ending is to some extent still ‘open’ and it is triggered by one of the important debates around identity and legal status. The resolution is only possible after a tragic event. The style of the film’s ending also echoes the ‘excess’ of the opening, using popular songs under a slow motion image sequence much as the whole narrative has used songs and ‘mood’ music throughout.
So what is wrong with the film? Ashley Clark, currently one of the UK’s most respected critics of African-American and Black British films, states what he sees as a fundamental flaw directly in his indieWire review:
Without apparent irony, Nakache and Toledano seem to think that the work-related burnout of a white middle-class woman, while of course unpleasant in its own way, is equivalent to the byzantine existential crisis of living job-to-job, hand-to-mouth as an undocumented immigrant (in a country with well-documented right-leaning tendencies on domestic policy.)
It’s hard to argue with that view and Clark does recognise that the film is genuinely trying to widen its potential audience, but, he argues, the narrative needs more grit and more background about Samba and his family – mother is back in Senegal and Samba lives with a (legally resident) uncle. Clark argues that Sy ‘soars above’ the material. I agree but perhaps this is also part of the problem? Sy is such a charismatic performer that audiences may simply be entertained by his playing rather than led to think through the social problems that Samba faces. Something similar was also true in Intouchables.
The strength of the film is that it does reveal the dreadful state of immigration policy in France and the absurd bureaucracy that attempts to control it. I’m not sure it is better in the UK – represented in the superior Stephen Frears film Dirty Pretty Things (UK 2002) with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead. The other issue at stake here is the star turn by Omar Sy in a mainstream film. His scenes with Charlotte Gainsbourg do fleetingly remind us of her notorious scenes with two (anonymous) African men in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Part II (Denmark/Bel/Fra/Ger 2014). I mention this only to ask how much of a breakthrough it is for French mainstream cinema as distinct from art cinema to see a white woman with a black man on screen? Tahar Rahim’s presence in the film (which I very much enjoyed in spite of some reviewers’ misgivings) reminds us that Maghrebi French actors have not faced the same problems in French cinema (and international cinema) as West African French actors.
In Sight and Sound (May 2015), leading French cinema scholar Ginette Vincendeau offers a critique similar to Ashley Clark’s. She makes a good point in pointing out that like Intouchables, Samba involves “the pairing of an under-privileged-but-vigorous black with privileged-but-etiolated white (Gainsbourg at her most annoyingly wan)”. I disagree about Gainsbourg but it’s an important observation. Too often film narratives that should be about the black character end up diverting our attention to the trials of the white characters. But Vincendeau also picks out two specific scenes as ‘unworthy’ of the actors or supporting her argument above. The first sees Sy and Rahim in a take-off of a well-known soft drinks ad and the second sees “white people attempt, not very well, to dance to black music (in this case Bob Marley)”. I think this is going too far. The first may be a ‘clunky ‘ visual joke (but still funny), but the second is something that has happened throughout the last 50 years in the UK. Is it really a clumsy and at times dubious representation of racial difference? Perhaps it’s different in France? We have to grant Samba some slack as a mainstream movie. Yes, it could be a lot ‘better’, but it isn’t that bad and overall it does something useful.
Half-watching the trailer for this film I thought it looked interesting. That’s an understatement. This is an original idea very well executed by Thomas Cailley, a young director making a feature début. He also co-wrote the film with a female partner, Claude Le Pape.
Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) is a young man facing the future without a father who has recently died. At first he decides to join his brother in the family timber business but at the start of the summer he meets a rather scary young woman named Madeleine (Adèle Haenel). Arnaud’s first encounters with Madeleine are embarrassing and to some extent humiliating. But gradually a level of respect develops between the two. Madeleine has strong views – she thinks the whole world is facing extinction and she has begun to study survival techniques. Her goal is to join the ‘hardest’ regiment in the French Army but she must first go on a two-week training camp before she enlists. Arnaud eventually decides that he should join her.
This film is difficult to categorise and perhaps the most useful description is a ‘romance drama with comedic elements’. It all takes place in Aquitaine, the region in South-West France including the coastal resort where Madeleine and Arnaud live and the forests where the army ‘survival training’ is conducted – and where forest fires are common. Reading some of the reviews, it’s not surprising that Adèle Haenel as Madeleine gets the most coverage and she is indeed remarkable (I realised that I saw her first in Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies (France 2007)). But I think that Arnaud is in some ways the more interesting character, even if he is to some extent the ‘straight man’ to Madeleine’s wilder activities. The only failing in the film for me was to not explain his background. She, we know, has quit a Master’s degree but what has he been doing before this summer? At first gauche with typical ‘loser’ friends, he shows himself to be sensitive, intelligent and mature in the way he faces events.
There is a particularly po-faced review of the film on the Slant Magazine website and in her Sight and Sound review Ginette Vincendeau describes the film as “engaging, quirky but slight”. But for me this is one of the best film debuts I’ve seen for a while. It deserves to be seen widely and as Vincendeau points out it has been both a critical and commercial hit in France (winning two prizes in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes 2014 as well as three Césars in 2015) . One of its strengths is the ending which eschews the usual romcom conclusion. The film is also interesting in directly referencing the recession and the poor prospects for young people. As Arnaud notes at one point, the French Army is second only to McDonald’s as the biggest recruiter of young people in France.
In the second part of the film the conventions of the army training/boot camp narrative come into play but again the reactions of the two central characters are perhaps not what we expect. Finally the film draws on the repertoire of ‘survival’ narratives, including those of TV personalities such as Bear Grylls – a source quoted by Cailley in a Sight and Sound (July 2015) interview.
I think that Les Combattants is a youth picture that I’d very much like to use with students for several reasons – the unconventional characters, the recession setting and the location outside Paris (one of the by-products of the French funding system which encourages young auteurs like Cailley, a Fémis graduate, to shoot in different regions.) I hope teachers might find it on DVD – it’s released on August 10th. Confusingly the film is discussed under two different English titles – the terrible Love at First Fight and the direct translation, The Fighters.
The UK trailer:
This is the film that I have enjoyed most in the cinema this year. I found it compelling entertainment for two reasons. One was the casting of Romain Duris and Déborah François and the other was the use of costume, colour, lighting, graphics and music. Duris and François are my favourite francophone actors of the current crop and that might explain why I am so taken with a film which too many critics seem to have dismissed as simply ‘conventional’. Philip French has announced his retirement from the Observer but in one of his last published reviews he gave the film the full works and found many interesting connections – whereas his colleague on the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw, dismissed it with hardly a second glance. That’s a big mistake because there is plenty to see.
Budgeted at a whopping €14.7 million, Populaire has been inevitably linked with The Artist and Mad Men because of its meticulously presented period detail. It shares The Artist‘s female star Bérénice Bejo (in a small but important role) and its cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman and it’s set in 1958-9 with the same attention to period offered by Mad Men. But that’s where the connection to the TV series ends – and the lazy hype perpetrated by distributors has arguably damaged the film’s box office. Think instead an hommage to the American sex comedies of the 1950s with Duris as Cary Grant or Jack Lemmon and François as an amalgam of all those greats such as Doris Day and before her Judy Holliday – but also decidedly Déborah François. This feeling of borrowing from Hollywood is underlined by the clever use of colours and lighting – like the bright colours of early Technicolor. The music is also well chosen with a mix of French and Anglo-American popular styles. There is a real sense of that keen French interest in American modernity associated with the need for speed – the typing competition is an excellent vehicle for this. Populaire is the first feature by director Régis Roinsard who had the original idea and co-wrote the script. It has its flaws and weaknesses but overall it works extremely well. Of course, a romcom/social comedy set in the 1950s raises questions about gender and we’ll come to those later. First though a brief outline.
Rose is a young woman bored by live in her Normandy village where her father owns the village store. When insurance agent Louis advertises for a secretary in a nearby town she applies for the post and gets it – because she is pretty and Louis is a letch, we assume. In fact she is hopeless as a secretary but she can type like a whirlwind. Louis keeps her on and begins to train her for the typing speed contests which were apparently all the rage in the late 1950s. From then on the narrative structure is highly conventional with Rose going on to contest the ‘World Championship’ in New York. Along the way there are a couple of innovations and some tricky decisions over what to show/hint at in terms of offering what might be seen as nostalgia to a contemporary audience. (The ‘Populaire’ is a model of typewriter manufactured by the Japy company of Paris who become Rose’s sponsors when she wins the national title.)
The romcom demands that Louis at first doesn’t recognise his own desire for Rose, allowing him to be quite determined and distanced in his ‘use’ of her typing skills to achieve the success as a trainer that eluded him as an athlete himself. He is that familiar figure, the man in his late thirties running the family business but feeling that he has not succeeded. Rose loves him from the start but is too proud to show it, going along with his madcap training schemes to please him. The narrative material that Roinsard attempts to work with here includes a backstory that involves Louis as member of the Résistance in the latter stages of the war – which in turn led to his separation from his childhood sweetheart (Bejo), now married to an American who parachuted onto her parents’ farm in June 1944. For me, none of this worked, partly I think because despite his many talents I just couldn’t see Duris in the Résistance – but perhaps the fault is mine, there is no reason why a man looking good in a sharp suit in 1958 shouldn’t have a wartime past. But the back story does lead into some potentially darker sides to the drama. Allied to this the sudden appearance of Louis’ family at Christmas provides one of the highlights of the film.
In the end, the film stands or falls for me on the performance of Ms François and she is formidable. She has the ability to move convincingly from village shop assistant to flirtatious romcom heroine, from childlike student to steely contestant and from clumsy office worker to assertive and confident young woman. In all of these roles she is convincing and she dominates the screen. The criticisms of the film’s ‘sexist’ and ‘gendered’ view claims that the film is conservative and backward looking and this is linked by some commentators to the inclusion of one sex scene and one ‘gratuitous’ ‘wet blouse’ moment – see the image at the head of the post. In the UK the film was given a 12A certificate which seems about right – but in the US it seems to be heading for ‘Restricted’. The sex certainly is an issue for a film which I’ve suggested is attempting to work like those 1950s Hollywood comedies with their Hays Code approved scripts. A similar problem comes up when characters appear to be speaking ‘out of time’ – e.g. with references to smoking and when Rose cries “but this is 1959” (and therefore she can be a ‘liberated’ young woman). I think, on balance Populaire gets these decisions right. I also think that, like Doris Day and Judy Holliday before her, Déborah François is capable of taking the script away from its ideological implications of a submissive and restricted female underclass. Rose is a strong woman who works hard to get what she wants, standing up to whoever gets in her way. The narrative does validate the skills of the typist and it underlines the fact that secretarial work was one of the ways by which women were able to become independent and to establish themselves in the office before moving into a wider range of white collar jobs. The film has suffered because of some of the negative reviews. I hope more audiences are able to see it and enjoy it for what it is – a conventional romcom with great performances that recalls some of the under-rated popular films of the 1950s. It has already created a buzz among the collectors of antique typewriters!
And if you do enjoy this, can I recommend Déborah François in the generically very different La tourneuse de pages (The Pageturner) which nonetheless has some narrative similarities?
The hit of the year in France, Heartbreaker is slowly dying in UK cinemas on a limited release (around 60 prints). The same audiences who have shunned it in multiplexes, presumably because they would have to read subtitles, will no doubt flock to the inevitable Hollywood remake. C’est la vie as the English character in the film says – the loss is theirs. I would be very surprised if Hollywood can serve up anything as funny and sexy as this. There is no American actor I can think of who could compete with Romain Duris.
It’s a compliment of sorts that Hollywood couldn’t make anything more glamorous or more slick. This is a very conventional romcom. Duris is Alex, who works as a professional to break up engagements that somebody (usually a parent) doesn’t want to see reaching the altar. Supported by his sister and her husband, Alex sets up extravagant cons that seduce the women targeted. But he has principles – he only works on women who are unhappy in their relationships (although, of course, they don’t always know that they are unhappy). Then one day he meets Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) and you can guess the rest.
I’ve written about Romain Duris in the romcoms of Cédric Klapisch and in dramas such as The Beat That My Heart Skipped. I wasn’t totally convinced by the Klapisch roles, but I rate him highly. The real surprise in the film was Vanessa Paradis who I thought was excellent – very beautiful, sexy and smart. Life with Johnny Depp can’t be too stressful. The other two principal cast members are also very good (Julie Ferrier as the sister Mélanie and François Damiens as her husband Marc). Monaco (and Morocco) look great. I laughed a lot and even cried at the end – perfect entertainment.
The UK trailer: