One of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen recently, Crow’s Egg turns out to be a notable début for writer-director-cinematographer Manikandan. Based on the brief blurb in the Leeds Film Festival brochure, I’d thought this might be a children’s film or a kind of social realist drama. But it’s an interesting hybrid drawing upon several different models in order to present something new. At the film’s centre is a simple narrative idea that might come from neo-realism. Two young brothers live with their mother and grandmother in a slum on the outskirts of Chennai. Their father is in prison and the money that should pay for their schooling goes on fees for the incompetent lawyer who has so failed to even get him out on bail (we don’t know what the father has done). The boys contribute to the household income by collecting the coal that falls from the coal trains rattling into the city.
The boys play on a piece of spare land where they ‘harvest’ crows’ eggs from the trees to supplement their diet, hence their nicknames ‘Big’ and ‘Little Crow’s Egg’. When the land is re-developed and an outlet of a pizza chain is opened, the two boys have a new aim – to eat pizza like the people in the adverts on the TV screens (the family appears to be given two TV sets by the state government as part of some new scheme). A single pizza costs 30 times what the boys might earn in a day and so a quest to earn money by any means begins.
If this plot outline suggests a feelgood conventional Hollywood quest narrative, it’s certainly true that the film takes something from the success of Slumdog Millionaire – and it is important that the production was backed by Fox Star studios, the Indian subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, the distributor of Danny Boyle’s film. However, this isn’t an attempt to replicate Boyle and Dod Mantle’s frenetic style. Instead, Crow’s Egg sometimes draws on more realist depictions of slum life such as Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay as well as recent ‘Hindie’ (i.e. Hindi independent) films and aspects of popular Tamil cinema. The music score by G.V. Prakash Kumar and editing by Kishore Te combine in several montage sequences which accelerate the narrative – sometimes by using slow motion as well as conventional montage editing. A little digging reveals that this is the fifth Tamil film from Fox Star to receive a positive response and the relatively high profile of the film in India partly depends on its co-producer, Tamil superstar actor Dhanush.
I can’t quite remember the point in the film when I realised that the script was constructing a many-layered satire on contemporary India but I’d be happy to watch the film again to study how the narrative works. The commercialisation of Indian food habits, corruption in policing and local government, TV reporting, healthy eating, the rum shop and drunkenness, inequalities in income, housing policies and land control etc. are all woven into the central story, often in quite ingenious ways. The crucial scene is perhaps the one where the boys’ grandmother sends them to local stalls to buy the ingredients for a pizza topping (onions, peppers, chillies etc.) and proceeds to cook a dosa (a South Indian lentil and rice flour pancake) that resembles the pizza on an advertising flyer the boys have picked up. This little scene encapsulates everything that the satire strives to capture. It does make you wonder why the dosa – in my view the healthiest and tastiest food imaginable – isn’t as widespread as the globalised pizza.
Crow’s Egg has been around the festival circuit for a year or so now. Its appeal is partly down to the engaging performances of the two leads, Ramesh and Vignesh. The older couples sitting near me in the audience, clearly not cinephiles, applauded the film at the end and seemed to have a very good time. A distributor with a little patience and imagination ought to be able to make this film work on screens in Europe and North America as well as Asia. It doesn’t have the stars and arthouse flourishes of The Lunchbox but it’s just as entertaining.
Gemma Bovery faces similar problems to Tamara Drewe (UK 2010) but with the added twist that this is a French film – so a whole new range of assumptions and potential prejudices arise. Both films are adaptations of comic strips by Posy Simmonds which first appeared in the Guardian and then as ‘graphic novels’. Tamara Drewe is a modern take on Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and the new film, as the eponymous title suggests, is a re-imagining of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The story takes place in Normandy and the film is directed by Anne Fontaine from a script by Pascal Bonitzer (whose previous script was for Looking For Hortense 2012 – which he also directed).
The story demands a French setting but the other factor, which possibly escaped some UK reviewers, is that Tamara Drewe attracted bigger audiences in France than in the UK. A significant French audience segment is Anglophile and this overlaps with the audience for sophisticated social comedy. The plays of Alan Ayckbourn and the novels of Julian Barnes go down well in France. Posy Simmonds studied at the Sorbonne and her graphic novel (la bande dessinée) of Gemma Bovery also sold in France. French comedies lampoon the bourgeoisie and a director like Claude Chabrol found ways to be amusing while skewering the same middle classes in thrillers. Fabrice Luchini is one of the top comic actors in films like Bicycling with Molière, 2013 as well as François Ozon comedies such as Potiche, 2010 and In the House, 2012. No surprise then that he is cast in Gemma Bovery as the meddling observer, the Parisian publisher who retires to a village in Normandy to run his family’s bakery business. When he sees his new neighbours arriving from England and that the ravishing young woman is potentially a bored wife named ‘Gemma Bovery’ he is almost beside himself with joy.
Posy Simmonds set out in all her Guardian comic strips to gently critique the typical liberal Guardian-reading classes and in the process to pit them against grasping Thatcherite characters with their greed and lack of humanity – and often their cultural ignorance. This political subtext and the class analysis is partly why the two films struggle with UK audiences, some of whom might see themselves as the butt of the jokes. The aim of Gemma Bovery is to explore the impact of the English middle classes on French provincial life and in turn to imagine how a modern-day Madame Bovary might behave – and most of all, how she might feel about her own behaviour. Emma Bovary was an arriviste – a young woman from a farming family who married an older man, a doctor, for security and the respectable life and then bored by her new life, set out on a trail of adultery and indulgence. In the 21st century women’s horizons have widened and ‘shame’ doesn’t operate in quite the same way. As Gemma, Ms Arterton is ravishing. She seems more fun and generally more attractive than my fading memories of the comic strip. I think that a focus on costume design might be interesting and I do feel that Anne Fontaine has created another intriguing female character following her version of Coco Chanel with Audrey Tautou. The local haute bourgeoisie and the other ‘local’ English characters are truly hideous but I did feel for Jason Flemyng as ‘M. Bovary’ – an unenviable role.
I enjoyed the film but I wish my memories of the novel were more reliable. I got a lot of the jokes but I daresay I missed a few because I’d forgotten elements of the story. Gemma Arterton learned to speak French for the role and now she is listed as the lead in a new French film, currently in pre-production, Orpheline. That would mean that she would become a slightly surprising addition to the growing list of female actors who have embraced French filmmaking. Why so few men making the same move, I wonder?
The UK trailer:
Peter Watkins’ first feature followed two brilliant drama documentaries made for the BBC: Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). The latter so convincingly showed the consequences of nuclear war, and Britain’s ridiculously inadequate preparations for it, that it was banned and was only broadcast on Channel 4 (if memory serves) in the 1990s. He’d clearly not lost any of his anti-Establishment fire in Privilege, a dystopian world (‘in the near future’) where government and businesses manipulate pop music to control the masses. Paul Jones, of Manfred Mann, plays a suitably catatonic, or is it ’60s’ ‘cool’ indifference, pop star whose show consists in him being chained and beaten by the police. This stimulates manic ‘Beatlemania’ style screaming from young women. Fashion icon of the time, Jean Shrimpton, plays his ‘love interest’ who might redeem him from his alienation (if such a thing can be done). Add to the mix the Church getting involved in a quasi-fascist rally at the National Stadium and it’s clear Watkins is not holding back in his critique of late 1960s Britain. Predictably the film was rubbished, as are most works of art aimed at a mass audience that challenge Establishment values, and Rank pulled it from distribution. This Bright Lights article gives excellent detail on the film’s reception.
As to the film itself . . . Whilst I admire Watkins’ determination to challenge the status quo I think his conflation of pop music with ‘mindless entertainment’ is as reactionary as the Establishment targets he takes on. At the start of the film the vapid close-ups of women in tears suggest they are being dehumanised by their adulation of a pop star. Whereas, in the early sixties at least, embracing pop music was an, if not radical, oppositional position to take. Primarily it was an embracing of youth culture as reaction against their parent’s generation. Of course, by the mid-sixties this had been thoroughly commodified though music has managed to go through a variety of anti-Establishment reactions since – Punk, Acid House, Grime – it has always been recouped for the dominant ideology. Such is the logic of capitalism.
I was struck, haven’t recently visited Krakow, Vienna and Prague, how youngsters in the UK seem, more than their Eastern European counterparts at least, to be fashion conscious in a conformist way. On a recent visit to Liverpool (though I did spend some time in the prime shopping area Liverpool 1 so it was a self-selective sample) I was gobsmacked by the uniformity of look (‘C’m on Liverpool! Rebel!’). Maybe Watkins had a point . . .
Privilege, another of the BFI’s superb ‘flipside’ series, is certainly worth a look. Although it’s not a dramadoc, Watkins uses the same faux documentary voiceover (himself) as in his previous two works. Whilst this was effective on television, its rather intermittent usage, and lack of a particularly realist visual style, works against the immersive effect of film (particularly in cinema). It doesn’t appear to be a Brechtian device, to alienate the viewer from what they’re watching so and engage their thought, as the film would have worked better if it had engaged the emotions more directly. It is difficult to care for Jones’ Steven Shorter who seems to be as alien as David Bowie’s in The Man Who Fell To Earth (UK, 1976). Privilege is an interesting contribution to Britain’s science fiction cinema (notwithstanding Durgnat’s attempt to deny the genre’s qualities – mentioned in the Bright Lights article) and a sidelong glance at the Swinging Sixties, though nowhere near as potent as films like Performance (UK, 1970) and Deep End.
This is a satirical film on ‘race’ in contemporary USA that was produced, scripted and directed by Justin Siemen. So on that basis he presumably bears the major responsibility for the final product. It is certainly interesting, and has a number of distinctive qualities but I also found it fairly flawed. This seems to be an example of the influence of the contemporary meaning of the concept ‘auteur’; young filmmakers want to produce a ‘personal work’. One certainly gets a sense of a personal edge to the film. However I thought that the film would have benefited from a separate and critical view of the script. A friend at the Hyde Park where I viewed the film thought that the director is a ‘developing talent’ and that should allow for flaws. I thought a much sharper focus and delivery would have enhanced both the comedy and the satire. The film began its career through crowd funding. On completion it won an award at the 2014 Sundance Festival. So it falls into the tradition of US independents, but also relies on developments in the industry. The basic setting is an Ivy League University with problems about ‘race relations’. So on one hand this places it in a cycle of films that followed on from John Landis’ campus-based National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and also, more explicitly, Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988). Both films are mentioned in reviews but the most important influence cited would be Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2011). Spike Lee is referred to in the film’s dialogue: one character bowdlerised [badly] the title of his film production company and another provides the line ‘by any means necessary’. A film within the film reminded one of an early Lee short. Lee’s influence can also be seen in the form of the film, drawing on his Do the Right Thing (1989). For me unfortunately, this only highlighted the greater quality, cinematically and in terms of content, of Lee’s films. Even so the film has a lot to offer in terms on interest and entertainment. The primary focus are four Afro-American students at the fictional Winchester University. These are Sam White ((Tessa Thompson) whose campus radio slot is titled ‘Dear White People’. There is her ex and the current House President Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), whose father is the University Dean of Students. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is gay, has an impressive Afro-hair style and is a developing journalistic talent. Finally ‘Coco’ (Teyonah Paris) is a would-be TV name, and an expert blogger. All have media ambitions, which are a key target in the film. All four come from relatively comfortable backgrounds, obviously have talent but are all conscious of the demeaning and often disadvantaged experience of being black. It is worth noting that the film also has quite a gallery of key characters, and one of its merits is the way that it handles this. There is among the characters a certain amount of sexual activity across the ‘racial’ divide, though much less evidence of any across class divides. Given the genre, it is not a great spoiler that the film’s contradictions come to a head at a House Fraternity party. The film here explicitly foregrounds the often implicit but not always recognised contempt for black people amongst sections of the white population, including the so-called intelligentsia. And, in a montage of stills, the end credits draw attention to the actual scandals that have demonstrated this in the higher Education world in recent years. One of its debts to Do the Right Thing is to offer a clearly staged structure, with a prologue, a number of chapters and finally an epilogue. The film also essays a certain style [often termed Brechtian] offering some distance for viewers. Thus the style of much of the film is almost observational and then becomes very much almost ‘blog-on-the wall‘ for the party. However, like the satire, many of the techniques seem over emphatic. The film uses positioning of characters, often with deep staging, in the mise en scène. But whilst some of this is very effective – a couple of sequences involving Lionel: at other times when it uses the University architecture I rather wondered what the intended point was. I was also distracted by half-a-dozen shots with characters set against a light source: typically a window. This may have meant to offer a visual comment: but it seemed to just diminish visibility. This also applies to the editing, there are some very effective cuts between parallel scenes, for example in the office of the Principal and Dean cutting to characters in the student halls – which suggest both comparisons and contrasts. But at other times, cuts between – say a group of black and a group of white students – seems to be for effect, but with little added meaning. I should note that I did not pick up on all the references in the film. A couple of friends at the screening had similar problems. This presumably relates to the language in the USA, in use by Afro-Americans and in the college system. I was also bemused by the music. There is a seemingly important reference to Taylor Swift but the credits do not seem to feature her music. What was immediately recognisable were extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Bizet’s Carmen. Their relevance escaped me, though the choice of music may well have been dictated by cost as much as by choice. My major reservations were to do with the values inscribed in the film. Satire is a tricky form to take: it tends to be over-the-top which can make some of the views and positions grotesque. This is a problem, but not the major problem in this film. That I think is how it tackles the interests and prejudices at the University and amongst its characters. The film clearly addresses ‘race’ and class in the contemporary USA: to a lesser degree gender and sexual orientation. And when we reach the epilogue the writing presents the cynical collusion of interests between academia and the representative of the media and Capital. But at the personal level, amongst the key characters, we get a more or less satisfactory resolution of their personal lives. It seemed to me that the contradictions that had arisen in the course of the film were not amenable to such a pat closure. And there seem to be a couple of lacunae in the resolution of the plot. This is where Lee’s Bamboozled stands out: with a final sequence that is both cinematically and politically devastating. I would recommend re-visiting this film if you are able: I intend to revisit School Daze as well. I would reckon Dear White People is definitely worth seeing. A note of warning, the distributor is Curzon Film World and judging by exhibitor’s experience in West Yorkshire it is hard work to get the film. The film was shot on a 4K Red digital camera: but it seems to be circulating in a 2K DCP, which is not that complimentary to some of the exteriors and long shots. It runs for 106 minutes, in colour and 1.85:1. In terms of entertainment, two of the people I talked to after the screenings really enjoyed it and found pretty funny: two others were less impressed but still very interested by what the film had to offer. And it is a film and a treatment that is still relatively uncommon on British screens.