Like A Squandered Sunday, The Ear wasn’t released until the after end of the Cold War, in 1989, as its portrayal of Czechoslovakian political life, in the ‘Normalisation’ post-’68 period, is damningly satirical. When those in power can’t stand criticism you know you’re in trouble (see Trump). This is another of the Time Frames strand at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Ear narrates the squabbles of a government minister and his wife in the aftermath of an official reception at Prague Castle, which is shown in flashback.
This was The Ear’s writer’s last film as he died of cancer in 1971. Procházka had done well to survive as a filmmaker for so long because he constantly pushed against official censorship. Director Karel Kachyňa continued to have a fruitful career (despite having made several films with the ‘frowned upon’ Procházka). Peter Hames, in The Czechoslovak New Wave, suggests that Kachyňa successfully portrayed Procházka as the ‘ideas man’ whilst he was merely a metteur en scene (he ‘just’ shot the script).Whether this was a betrayal I don’t know; it was just as likely to have been a pragmatic position to take against repression. Whatever the case, Kachyňa’s direction is perfect in its portrayal of Ludvik’s (the minister) growing conviction his days are numbered.
He and his wife return from the party to find things aren’t as they should be at home. Doors are locked; then unlocked. Things have been moved and there are men in the garden (it is the middle of the night). Ludvik thinks back to the evening, using ‘subjective’ shots (we are Ludvik), trying to find clues that may signify his fall from favour. His wife, Anna, is both pissed (drunk) and pissed off because Ludvik has forgotten their wedding anniversary again. Radoslav Brzobohatý and Jirina Bohdalová are superb as the warring couple and their collapsing marriage mirrors the political paranoia of the time. The political is personal as Ludvik had only married her for convenience and all his actions as a government minister – and by extension true of all government ministers – are about self-survival.
The titular ‘ear’ are bugs the secret police have placed to listen for sedition. The couple even have to have sex in the kitchen to get some privacy. In the absurdist tradition of Czechoslovakian cinema, there are a number of batty scenes, including a toilet that won’t flush and an invasion by goons who want some booze.
The Ear is another example of the brilliant ‘new waves’ of eastern Europe during the ’50s and ’60s.
This is a real gem of UK crime cinema, spiced up by the inclusion of two US actors and a stronger Hollywood feel than was the norm for British pictures in the 1950s. Nothing could be more ‘English’ than the murder of a ‘floozy’ in a Home Counties small town social club where the middle classes meet to play tennis, swim and generally frolic. Yet the arrival of Superintendent Mike Halloran (John Mills) as a hard-bitten and abrasive investigator soon sets the locals talking – to each other but not to him. Although the events and characters are very familiar and I can see why some IMDB ‘users’ see the film as a precursor to current police procedurals such as Midsomer Murders, the style and the tone of the film do seem quite striking. Halloran is no avuncular John Nettles type. He drives his men and doesn’t tread lightly in dealing with the locals.
There is certainly some noirish cinematography by Basil Emmott and the script by Ken Hughes and Robert Westerby is sharp. Director John Guillermin, star John Mills and cinematographer Basil Emmott combined for I Was Monty’s Double in 1958. In this film they have a supporting cast filled with familiar British character actors. The potential murder suspects include Derek Farr as that familiar post-war character, the bogus war hero and Alec McCowen as a disturbed young man. Geoffrey Keen with rimless specs is the pompous Town Mayor, Dandy Nichols is a landlady and Harry Fowler a band-leader. Elizabeth Seal as the adventurous daughter of the Mayor nearly steals the film with an outrageous dance. The Americans are represented by Charles Coburn as a disgraced Canadian doctor acting as the local GP and Barbara Bates as his niece working as a children’s nurse. Bates is probably best remembered in the UK for her small but important role in All About Eve (US 1950). I thought she was excellent in Town on Trial. She plays the only woman to confront and almost charm Halloran, whose gruff manner is partly explained when he tells her that he was once married with a daughter but mother and child were killed in an air raid. Several commentators suggest that Mills ‘can’t do romance’ but I believed his relationship with Bates here and I’m coming to the conclusion that the more I see of the variety of his work, the better an actor he appears to be. I used to groan when I saw his name in the cast but I’m changing my mind.
The mystery behind the film for me is the company Marksman which produced the film for Columbia in the UK. Columbia seemed to use a number of small companies in the 1950s and this is something I will try to explore in the future. I’m quite surprised that this film has not received much critical attention. It doesn’t even figure in British Crime Cinema, eds Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy, Routledge 1999 – but as the editors point out, crime cinema in the UK in the 1950s has received little attention by UK scholars.
The alternative title of the film is The Case of the Stocking Killer so I don’t need to say any more about the murder method. The film takes place in the fictitious town of ‘Oakley Park’ which is supposed to be somewhere on the Thames close to London (a town of 50,000 is mentioned). Largely a police procedural, the film also develops as a satire on the bourgeoisie of the town and ends with a thriller finale that seems to have borrowed something from Mine Own Executioner (UK 1947) – and a couple of other plot points as well. According to IMDb the film was intended to be shown in a 1.75:1 ratio, certainly non-standard and very close to contemporary 16:9 TV sets at 1.78:1
The first of this year’s London Film Festival offerings that I was able to catch was introduced by a festival advisor as something exotic – a film from Belarus. And indeed, Belarus does produce very few films. It’s very much an ‘in between’ part of the world – in between Poland and Russia, the Baltic states and Ukraine. Throughout history it seems to have been occupied by its neighbours and the present state dates only from the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990. It is known for its autocratic president in power since 1994 and has some of the lowest international standings for press freedom and general democracy indicators. A place to get away from perhaps? That is certainly true for the film’s protagonist Velya (Alina Nasibullina). The year is 1996 and Velya, a young woman in her early 20s is determined to acquire a US visa, allowing her to travel to Chicago, the home of ‘house music’. Velya is a law graduate but would prefer to be a DJ rather than practise law.
During a spirited intro and a Q&A after the screening the seemingly appreciative audience learned that the writer-director Darya Zhuk was actually drawing on her own experiences in the 1990s. She did get to the US to study film and has now been able to find funding outside the state system to make her début feature. Crystal Swan was programmed by LFF in its ‘Laugh’ strand. I find these strands annoying and often misleading. I certainly smirked a few times and might even have laughed out loud on occasion, but this isn’t what I would see as a simple comedy. Instead it is more akin to the kind of social satire that is often found in Eastern European cinema and I was reminded of several films, but most of all a Romanian film from 2011, Adalbert’s Dream. That film was set in 1986 before the end of Soviet-style communism but the social satire is similar.
The basic premise of the plot is that Velya attempts to forge a letter presented to the US Embassy purporting to confirm that she is a manager at a small crystalware glass factory (she buys a letterhead for the factory’s stationery). But she makes a mistake with the phone number of the factory and when the Embassy official tells her that they will phone the factory to confirm details, she realises the hole she has fallen into. She must travel to the town known as ‘Crystal’ and find the house with the telephone fitting the number on her application and attempt to intercept the Embassy’s call. Cue general mayhem in small-town Belarus, where the household in question is preparing for the wedding of the son of the house. Just like weddings in the North of England, a wedding in Belarus brings out the best and the worst of guests, especially when fuelled by vodka.
I was engaged by the film and I enjoyed it up to a point. There aren’t many dull moments and most of the time there is genuine vitality in the storytelling. For a début film it works well and there is a great performance in the lead role. Alina Nasibullina is intelligent, attractive and vivacious with her colourful outfits, but the narrative includes very dark moments as well as moments of slapstick and good humour. In this sense it is a film for the #MeToo generation. Darya Zhuk told us that when she accompanied film screenings in the East of Belarus (i.e. closer to Russia) she did get a significant number of negative comments (about insulting the Motherland), but when she screened the film in the capital Minsk and in the West of the country it was generally well-received. This makes sense. The script doesn’t pull punches. The men in Crystal behave badly after too much vodka and there is an odd sub-plot involving Velya’s mother (the curator of a Minsk museum celebrating the success of Minsk’s population in the fight against the Nazis) and Velya’s dopehead boyfriend. During the Q&A the film’s supporters were vocal in their praise and I suspect Crystal Swan might do well in the US. I doubt it will get a UK release but you never can tell. The title, by the way, refers to one of the products of the factory which since independence has laid off workers and paid compensation in the form of glassware. The only real hope in the film is that the youngest boy in the Crystal family may turn out OK. Otherwise the film has an open ending.
As the trailer below indicates, the film is presented in Academy ratio. I think the director said she thought this was appropriate to re-produce the way she saw things in the 1990s before TVs in Belarus went widescreen. The trailer also features the bright and optimistic colours that Velya wears.
Claude Chabrol’s fourth feature, Les bonnes femmes, was released in Paris when he was approaching his 30th birthday. Not a success at the time, it now has a high reputation as one of his finest works and one of the very best of the early New Wave films. Outside France the critics were unkind and hampered by the conventions of the time. In some ways the film suffered like Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste in the same year. Both directors risked comedy mixed with tragedy and a combination of the street location photography with more stylised interiors. Chabrol was blessed with great performances by the four women playing the shopgirls at the centre of the narrative.
An indication of the problems the film faced came with the translations of the title. In some cases the English language title was ‘The Good Time Girls’ which gives the wrong impression. Sometimes it has been simply ‘The Girls’ which is OK, but perhaps a bit too open. I’m not sure the title translates, but if so, ‘The Good Girls’ is at least provocative without misleading.
The four young women work in an old-fashioned electrical goods shop in Central Paris, each standing at their own counter, watched over by an older Italian woman as the cashier and, in the back room, the proprietor, one of several peculiar men in the film who in this case seems to have strayed out of a German Expressionism film complete with pince-nez. His admonishment of Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) when she is 5 minutes late for work in her first week is very disturbing. There never seem to be any customers in the shop and the four shopgirls have to find ways of wasting time before they are allowed out for lunch. The narrative starts one night when the four women leave work and two of them are picked up by two older men who take them out on the town. This episode mainly features Jane (the wonderful Bernadette Lafont) and this sets the pattern in the film whereby each of the four has an episode in which they take the lead/become the focus of the action. Chabrol and his co-scriptwriter Paul Gégauff have produced a highly structured film with alternating sequences inside and outside the shop. In the transitions from shop to cafe/zoo/music hall etc. inserts of almost documentary footage remind us of urban Paris. Jane is the comic character and Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) the sensible one already engaged to the most boring shopkeeper imaginable, Pierre. Ginette is the enigmatic one who shares a flat with Jane but disappears each evening and Jacqueline is the young woman with the most romantic notions of what a relationship might be. She’s the one who will suffer for her lack of awareness that she is a character in a Chabrol film – and one of his most Hitchcockian to boot.
The main criticism of the film at the time was that Chabrol was a cynical artist would lead the audience on and then produce the awful tragedy. Following the pattern of ‘oppositions’, the tragic scene follows on swiftly from a highly romantic sequence. I’ve seen criticisms that the film doesn’t have much plot but this is mainly a comment on the unconventional structure. We learn something about each of the young women and in one case what we learn becomes a completed narrative. The action is limited to around 30 hours from, one night to the next, followed by a daytime sequence which is presumably the next day. Finally, there is a coda which features a fifth young woman who we’ve never seen before, but who possibly appears to be repeating one of the stories of the other four. As several commentators have noted, the four young women do perhaps represent a composite of what faces young working-class women in France in 1960 – although it must be said that these are four uncommonly attractive women in different ways. The men they meet are all silly, repulsive or dangerous apart from the two ‘realist’ characters, the ‘delivery boy’ on a bicycle who regularly visits the shop and Jane’s boyfriend on leave from his army service. The film is a satire of sorts on the ambitions of young women and the dark urban world that is Paris. For me the delight in the film is in the performances. Bernadette Lafont is funny, sexy and so alive, but in a way the real star is Clotilde Joano whose career did not flourish like Lafont’s and Audran’s and who sadly died aged 42 in 1974. Lucille Saint-Simon stopped appearing in films a few years later after a number of low-budget horror films that took her to the UK, Spain and Italy. I’ve a feeling there is a research topic for a French film student in her career.
Stéphane Audran is relatively low-key in this film, but she would become Chabrol’s ‘muse’ and then his wife, appearing in significant films in Chabrol’s productive period in the late 1960s and 1970s. Like Saint-Simon and Joano, Audran was 28 in 1960, whereas Lafont was only 22 – but she had already appeared in Truffaut’s short Les mistons at 15 and in two of Chabrol’s earlier films as well as for Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, another Cahiers critic turned director.
The look of the film is terrific with marvellous compositions and framings by the great Henri Decaë who worked several times for Jean-Pierre Melville and Truffaut as well as Chabrol. I also enjoyed the music score by Pierre Jansen and Paul Misraki which seems to match the shifting moods of the narrative very well. I was too young to catch Les bonnes femmes in cinemas and it now seems very difficult to find on DVD in the UK. I watched it again on an old videotape of A Channel 4 screening in the 1980s. I think it may now be available on Netflix and/or Amazon Prime. I did see several of Chabrol’s later 1960s and 1970s films in the cinema and perhaps the most evocative image in Les bonnes femmes is a long shot of a woodland scene with a priest leading a crocodile of small children through the trees. I knew immediately that something terrible would happen and I remembered a similar moment in Chabrol’s Le boucher (1970). Chabrol is an acquired taste perhaps, but I think I like his films best out of the Cahiers crowd. It also occurs to me now that, along with Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961), Les bonnes femmes is a rare French New Wave film with four female leads – and shopgirls as central characters.
In the clip below, Rita is waiting to meet her future in-laws:
Director Jacques Becker (1906-1960) was at his peak as a filmmaker in the late 1940s and 1950s, having spent much of the 1930s as an assistant to Jean Renoir. In the late 1940s and early 50s he directed a series of ‘social comedies’. Édouard et Caroline is one of these. The denouncement of the so-called ‘Quality Cinema’ or the ‘Cinéma du Papa’ (as François Truffaut called it) by the critics of Cahiers du cinéma spared Becker’s work. In her introduction to this film on the Studio Canal DVD, Professor Ginette Vincendeau describes Becker as being ‘in between’ the reviled quality film directors and la nouvelle vague directors. This was partly because of Becker’s association with Renoir and partly because the young critics recognised both the skill involved in Becker’s work and the stamp of a ‘personal vision’ similar to that which the Cahiers critics celebrated in the work of Hollywood directors such as a Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock.
Édouard et Caroline is almost like a theatrical stage production in that all the action takes place in two contrasting flats/apartments in central Paris (but in different arrondissements?) with only an opening and closing street shot and a few glimpses of staircases. Yet it is also highly cinematic with Robert Lefebvre’s fluidly roving camera. The dialogue and collaboration on the script is the responsibility of Annette Wademant who went on to also wrote significant films for Max Ophüls. She was much younger than Becker and this might have aided the sense of vitality in the interchanges between the central couple. With the camera movement and dialogue, the editing by Marguerite Renoir also helped keep the narrative moving. Because Becker was considered too ‘difficult’ and demanding and because the script in this case was so sparse, he had difficulty finding backers. Consequently the film had a small budget and a strict 30 day shooting schedule with penalties for over-runs.
The titular characters are a young woman from a wealthy family (played by Ann Vernon) recently married to a young man from a poorer background (Daniel Gélin) who is a talented (and properly trained) pianist. They have little money and are living in a one room flat. All the action takes place over a few hours on the night when they have been invited to a party given by Caroline’s wealthy and well-connected Uncle Claude (Jean Galland). He has rented a grand piano and offered Édouard the chance to play for his special guests, some of whom may be able to help him get work and build a career. But Édouard is nervous about the opportunity and feels uncomfortable at the prospect of mixing with the haute bourgeoisie. Claude’s son Alain (Jacques Francis) presents another irritation with his snobbery towards Édouard and designs on his attractive cousin Caroline.
In genre terms, this film mixes elements from Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s with the sharp social observation of Jean Renoir and the sophisticated comedy of a Billy Wilder. As the dreaded party developed in Claude’s salon, I also caught a whiff of later Buñuel (Exterminating Angel (Mexico 1962)). Others have suggested the comedies of Lubitsch and Preston Sturges. I don’t mean to suggest that the film is a mish-mash of styles. Instead it is a coherent social comedy with some darker moments and a developing satire of wealthy Parisians. The plot is simple but the characterisation is strong. The young married couple, brilliantly played by Vernon and Gélin, clearly love each other but the social stress of the party creates divisions between them that get blown up to dramatic proportions. I haven’t mentioned the careful set dressing and costume design as part of the mise en scène. Costume offers the twin drivers of the narrative. Edouard has that familiar split reaction to entering ‘high society’. He despises the flummery of evening dress but feels he must have the correct attire or people will look down on him. The whole thing is disturbing him and when he can’t find his waistcoat, he gets angry. Has Caroline misplaced it? She has her own problem. She feels a different version of the same unease, thinking her pretty dress is now out of fashion and then attacking it with a pair of scissors to make it more like a current couture outfit. Becker and Wademant are able to use these two concerns to drive a wedge between the couple and to disrupt the party and Édouard’s eventual piano playing.
I’d like to say more about the music Édouard does actually play (or rather ‘act’) since a professional musician’s hands double for him. I’m not knowledgeable enough about classical music to comment (I believe it is Chopin) but I do know that Becker himself was a jazz fan and he uses musical taste as one of his weapons in skewering the wealthy patrons here. They listen to Édouard’s playing politely and applaud appropriately but later we see them dancing enthusiastically to the kind of dance music Édouard (and Becker) despise. To add further indignity Becker introduces an American played by William Tubbs. Tubbs was an actor in several French and Italian films in this period. Here he speaks French with a terrible accent but proves to be much more perceptive about Edouard’s talent than the others.
I enjoyed this film very much, particularly the playing of the two leads and the fluidity and choreography of the camera work and direction. The DVD (I think there is also a Blu-ray) has two other extras as well as Ginette Vincendeau’s excellent introduction. One is a long and detailed interview with Annette Wademant, Ann Vernon and Daniel Gélin much later from French TV. The interview, full of details about the production was part of a TV broadcast of the film. What a marvellous idea. Why have we never had such detailed coverage of film in the UK? Finally there is an interview with Becker himself in which he talks about his love of jazz and discusses his satire on those who don’t understand the music. I was prompted to watch the film after watching Bertrand Tavernier’s A Journey Through French Cinema (France 2016). Tavernier tells us that the first film he remembers seeing as a child was by Becker and that several years later as a teenager in the 1950s he began to realise that Becker was one of the greatest French directors. Tavernier’s analysis of Becker’s work is fascinating and has encouraged me to search out more of Becker’s work. He emphasises that Becker was one of the first French male directors to present women as central characters in their own write – something Ginette also discusses, suggesting that Édouard et Caroline suffered in the eyes of critics, partly because its mix of comedy and romance was taken less seriously than ‘masculine’ genre films.
Here’s a very short trail for the film from French TV which allows you to meet William Tubbs and to see Caroline’s dress after her modifications:
Bruce LaBruce is a Canadian writer/photographer/director active since the late 1980s. He is known as an art-pornographer and the founder of ‘queercore’ via his punk magazine J.D.s. His work has previously been outside the mainstream, although he did have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2015. MoMA’s website announced the retrospective like this:
For over a quarter-century the auteur/provocateur known as Bruce LaBruce has been disrupting, dissecting, and disrobing in the name of cinema.
LaBruce’s films have shown at international film festivals since 2004 and three have previously been released on DVD in the UK. The Misandrists was shown at Berlin in 2017 and is in some ways the closest to mainstream cinema that Bruce LaBruce has come (it is linked to the earlier underground film The Raspberry Reich (2004)). As the title suggests, the film’s narrative concerns a group of ‘revolutionary’ women led by ‘Big Mother’ (Susanne Sachße) and their attempt to overthrow patriarchy. The narrative is set in Germany (Brandenburg) and begins with two young women cavorting in a field and then coming across a wounded young man stumbling through the woods. One of the young women, Isolde (Kita Updike) takes the initiative and hides the young man, Volker (Til Schneider) in the basement of the secluded country house where the girls are part of a female community. It is a serious offence to bring a man into the building. Big Mother has created a community with four older woman as teachers and eight young women they have rescued from the streets as students. The aim is to become a revolutionary group. In order to raise funds they must create lesbian pornography – which Big Mother decrees is ‘liberating’. To the outside world the group gives the appearance of a group of nuns teaching ‘wayward girls’ in a country retreat.
As one viewer has suggested, Bruce LaBruce makes a better stab at re-making Don Siegel’s The Beguiled than Sophia Coppola. As well as that Hollywood reference, the narrative is also redolent of fairy tales with the forest setting and the invoking of female mythologies by Sister Dagmar. It’s a German forest (and several of the actors speak heavily accented English, as well as snatches of German). Somewhere in the background is LaBruce’s play around Nazi iconography and the gay world. The two major questions for mainstream audiences are probably: “Is it any good?” and “Is it ‘art’ or ‘pornography’ or both”? Before I try to respond to those questions, I should note first that the film looks very good in a ‘Scope frame with accomplished cinematography by James Carman, interesting mise en scène and an excellent use of limited locations. I was intrigued to read that LaBruce was a graduate student in film at York University in Toronto and studied under Robin Wood. I thought I discerned several classical film references including a pillow fight which could be both soft porn imagery and a nod to Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite (France 1933). Perhaps there is also a sense of Mädchen in Uniform (Germany 1933, remade in 1958)? Throughout the film, LaBruce uses the iconography and the narrative devices and settings of porn, but always in a careful, controlled way. What he is attempting is both a celebration and a satire of lesbian, feminist and revolutionary communities. My understanding, from some of the extensive commentaries on his work, is that he rebelled quite early on in the face of what he saw as ‘safe, conservative’ gay male culture – and this led to his interest in punk (two of the young women in this film are signed as punks). He also criticised the ‘separateness’ of gay and lesbian movements, wanting gay men and lesbians to work together against capitalism and patriarchy. I don’t claim to understand all of this history but there is a substantial essay by Jasmine McGowan on the Senses of Cinema website: ‘Making Revolutionary Love: Radical Sex and Cooptation in the Films of Bruce LaBruce’. This was written soon after the MoMA exhibition and the release of Gerontophilia, (2013) “the first of LaBruce’s films to feature sexual activity demure enough to avoid the adult classification”.
It’s clear from this that LaBruce is a serious artist/activist who is prepared to attempt a very difficult task – to make a film that is entertaining but also thought-provoking, using story material that mainstream audiences may find offensive/distasteful. Personally, I had no problems with the film’s use of pornographic images which are not used frequently (as they would be in a porn film) – only when they are necessary for the narrative, to show the young women studying porn and then, towards the end of the film, to show the results of their efforts. I was much more disturbed by a detailed sequence of a surgical procedure (credited in the end titles to the ‘Belgrade Centre for Reconstructive Surgery’). I won’t spoil the narrative but you can probably guess what it entails. Anyway, I was too squeamish to watch it properly. More than the pornography, LaBruce’s main difficulty is to present the rhetoric of Marxism and feminism within the context of his narrative in a satirical but not necessarily negative way.
I thought at first that the film was too conventional and too ‘clean-looking’ to be effective seeming to work against the attraction of the cult film. I thought about The Duke of Burgundy (UK-Hungary 2014) and how that film successfully developed the look of 1970s exploitation films. But as time went on I started to think more about the characters and the script and by the end of The Misandrists I was on board the project, at least in terms of following some of the arguments. The film is humorous and I liked the performances and the music. One critic suggested that the acting is “stilted B-movie” style. Make of that what you will, but Kita Updike as Isolde seems well-cast. She has the pivotal role which also makes the film topical. Do stay for the credits. LaBruce and his team have found some wonderful photographs of women at work and at war, emphasising solidarity and struggle.
If this is the kind of film and the kind of ideas that interest you, I think you’ll like what Bruce LaBruce has to offer in The Misandrists. It’s released on DVD in the UK on April 30th by Matchbox Films.
As if to prove that Glasgow’s programme offered real diversity, the last film I saw was also the most difficult to read (but also at times quite beautiful in its construction). This is the latest film from Sergey Loznitsa who has now become a Cannes regular. I’m guessing that Loznitsa’s best-known film is Maidan (2014), a documentary about the civil protests in Ukraine in 2013/2014. I was intrigued by that title as I’ve always associated ‘maidan‘ with India as a public space but it turns out to be a Persian word. Loznitsa turns out to be a prolific filmmaker and I’m glad I got the opportunity to see one of his films for the first time. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Sergey Loznitsa is a Ukranian but has recently lived in Russia and now Germany, which might help to explain the wide range of funders for his latest film. A Gentle Creature is an adaptation – a ‘creative’ one – of a short story by Dosteyevsky. The story dates from 1876 and has had several film adaptations, the most notable perhaps by Robert Bresson as Une femme douce in 1969 and Nazar by Mani Kaul in 1991. There have also been other versions in Russia, Poland, Vietnam, the US and Sri Lanka. Having read an outline of the Dostoyevsky story, I’m at a loss to relate it directly to the new film but it may be that it is a thematic adaptation rather than a ‘faithful’ one.
The film begins with a long shot of a country road. A young woman alights and sets off across the fields. The photography is by Oleg Mutu, The Romanian master whose work I saw most recently in the Polish film United States of Love (2016). The young woman is ‘the gentle creature’ of the title who, like many of the characters in the film, is not given a personal name, and is played by Vasilina Makovtseva. Next we see the woman visiting the post office to retrieve a parcel (actually a box of food, clothes and cigarettes etc.) that has been returned to her by the prison where her husband is incarcerated. Why has this parcel been returned? Her only option is to visit the prison, many miles away, in person and try to deliver it. At this point we begin to realise that we are again in a Kafkaesque narrative where every move to resolve an issue will result in a block or a refusal to act. Our hero is constantly thwarted and thrown into danger as various unreliable characters offer her assistance. The cinematography and some of the elements of the mise en scène suggest that the setting for the journey to the prison could be Soviet Russia before 1990, but other clues confirm it is 2012. It doesn’t seem to matter and as several reviewers have pointed out, the Russian penal system (like the American one?) has been a source of despair from the time of the Tsars until the present. There are suggestions that the prison in the film might be in Siberia and the woman travels by train. The long distances which relatives must travel just adds to the despair.
On the train and at the prison itself, the woman is surrounded by a variety of Russian character types with much drinking and singing of songs. Stoically she walks to and fro carrying her box. We fear that her naïvety will lead her into some kind of forced sex work but somehow she evades her fate. Finally, she falls asleep and in her dreams experiences a kind of show trial and then wakes from a nightmare – only for it to appear as if the real nightmare is about to begin . . . A Gentle Creature is a long film (143 minutes) but for the most part I was fully engaged trying to work out what was happening and what it might mean. It was only the last sequence of the dream that seemed to drag, not because of the dream/fantasy itself but that similar ‘testimonies’ are made by virtually every character the hero has met on her journey. It felt as if we had to hear each one for the narrative to be ‘complete’. I thought I’d got the point after the first two or three but I suspect I wasn’t getting the point at all.
So much talent and effort has gone into the film, supported by so many different organisations from different European countries that I want to support the film myself even if I don’t understand it that well. The performances are all very good, especially the lead. The cinematography and design features are also very good and if the whole mammoth enterprise was achieved with a budget of €2million (IMDb) both the producer Marianne Slot and director Loznitsa are miracle workers. According to the festival programme, the film has been taken up by Arrow Films in the UK, though whether it will get a cinema release remains to be seen. I hope it does find its audience because anyone with better knowledge than me about Russian history and culture will find plenty to get their teeth into.
This strange film arrived in the UK over two months after its North American release. Between its Toronto festival appearance and its release, writer-director Dan Gilroy cut up to 15 minutes off its running time and ‘re-configured it’ – not usually a good sign (quote from this interview). It appears in the UK now, I suspect, mainly because Denzel Washington has been Oscar-nominated as the titular character. Although it’s a Sony/Columbia release, it’s actually the product of several small production companies with additional funding from ‘Culture China – Image Nation Abu Dhabi Fund’. There must be a story behind this. I’m clearly at a disadvantage here in not having seen Nightcrawler (2014), Gilroy’s earlier writer-director outing focusing on crime journalism. Gilroy suggests that Roman starts as the opposite of the lead character in Nightcrawler in terms of having a ‘moral compass’. I’m thinking that perhaps Denzel’s star performance and the many cultural references to African-American activism and problems with the law are not meant to be as central to the narrative as I want them to be.
The film’s reception has been very mixed. I went to the first local screening and I was the only person in the auditorium for what turned out to be a subtitled screening for ‘hard of hearing’ audiences – something I hadn’t picked up from the listings. I did wonder if it was simply an accident. Since I often struggle to distinguish the ‘realist’ dialogue of modern Hollywood, this was fine with me.
The story (as distinct from the film narrative which I won’t spoil) begins when Roman J. Israel arrives at his LA law office to discover that his ‘partner’ (I was never clear about the legal arrangement) has had a heart attack and been taken to hospital. Roman is the backroom legal wizard who never goes near an actual public court and when he finds himself attempting to deal with the day’s courtroom business we immediately discover why. His partner’s family decide to bring in a family acquaintance, hotshot city lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell), to wind up the current business and close the company which has been losing money for many years. Roman is taken aback and fears himself to be redundant but George later re-appears with an offer. In the meantime, Roman visits a ‘Civil Rights legal support group’ and tries to offer his services. It was this sequence in the trailer that first attracted me to the film. I won’t say any more about the plot as such.
I had assumed that this was a film with a strong interest in African-American culture and specifically in the problems affecting black youth in the Los Angeles district. In a way it is. Roman seems to still be living in the 1970s/80s. He sports an Afro, dresses in wide-lapelled, colourful but ill-fitting suits, listens to 70s soul and jazz, doesn’t drive (in LA!) and lives in an old apartment block surrounded by constant re-building. Roman presents as a man literally adrift from the modern world and still wrapped up in a world where researching and documenting the institutionalised racism of the US legal system is a very important part of activism. Contemporary gender politics is just one of the developments that have passed Roman by. Denzel goes the full hog on his appearance, apparently removing cosmetic work on his teeth and, I assume, wearing prosthetic jowls and extra padding on his torso.
What kind of story development did Gilroy have in mind? Many reviewers have described Roman as autistic, possibly with Asperger’s. We are back in the same territory as Newton (India 2017), though the two titular characters are quite different. The clues to Roman’s autism aren’t totally convincing – and anyway, it has been argued that many people are somewhere on the autistic spectrum. It could simply be that after so many years working in the office, Roman is overwhelmed by being confronted with real live defendants. Because of his background in civil rights and as he terms it ‘revolutionary action’, there was a moment when I thought Roman was like Jeremy Corbyn – suddenly faced with the need to be pragmatic but still trying to hang on to the deep political commitment of ‘the struggle’. Corbyn negotiated the change of context and the need to change his own presentation. Roman eventually reacts in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I’m still wondering if the film is a satire on the US legal system or possibly of professional middle-aged African-American men. The last third of the film is very odd and I can understand why critics take against the development of some familiar genre tropes. I’m not sure what to make of it. Though the films are very different, there are some elements here that reminded me of Spike Lee’s magnificent but critically divisive Bamboozled (US 2000).
As well as Colin Farrell as George there is one other significant character, Maya, at the civil rights community legal centre. She’s played by Carmen Ejogo who I have now learned is a Brit and who previously appeared as the wife of Martin Luther King in Selma (2014). Again, I was not expecting her role in the story.
I think part of my problem with the film is that while US and English (as distinct from Scottish) legal systems have the same basis in English Common Law, the contemporary practise of law is different. I didn’t totally understand the importance of some procedures. I’ve read comments that the representation of US law practices in the film is not accurate but I don’t think that matters since it is the impact on Roman and his life that is the focus. The film looks very good (thanks to the cinematography of Robert Elswit) and I was intrigued by the new transit system which takes Roman to Santa Monica. The film also sounds good thanks to Roman’s choice of tracks to play on his headphones. I suspect that Roman J. Israel Esq. might flop in the UK, but who knows? I’d like to be able to read a diverse range of UK reviews. Most of Denzel Washington’s performances are worth catching and his Roman is one of the more intriguing ones.