During the British New Wave of the late-fifties and early-sixties, ‘it’s grim up north’ was something of a trope; three recent fiction films suggest tough lives are now in the countryside. The Levelling follows God’s Own Country and Dark River (both UK, 2017) in representing traumatic lives on farms. The latter two are set ‘up north’, in Yorkshire; whilst the film under discussion is on the Somerset ‘levels’. I enjoyed the three films all of which deal with repression of some kind: sexuality, sexual abuse and male stoicism. It is the latter in The Levelling.
Ellie Kendrick plays Clover, a trainee vet, who returns home after the suicide of her brother. Her blustering dad, Aubrey (David Troughton, above), matter-of-factly tries to deal with what’s happening whilst ‘in denial’. Slowly, Clover’s doggedness uncovers the events that led to her brother’s death. Both actors are superb.
The film is writer-director Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature and superbly done it is. She cites the Dardennes brothers as an influence and early on the handheld camera follows Clover through the farm; my heart sank at this, my least favourite shot, though one the Dardennes have used effectively, but it doesn’t overstay its ‘welcome’. Leach captures the grimness, and the lack of sentimentality, of life on an economically challenged farm well. Dark River highlighted more the difficulties of making farming pay other than through ‘industrialisation’. However, all three films are melodramas so any politics is worked through the personal rather than looking at the macro issues of society. That said, God’s Own Country does include a scene in a local pub emphasising the hostility of some toward migrants.
Another recent film also dealing with the countryside, though in documentary form, was Paul Wright’s Arcadia (UK, 2017). Wright used ‘found footage’ to create a poetic montage of the changing attitudes towards nature in Britain. There’s some striking footage: a single black child in a school; a ’60s vox pop where the speaker claims he doesn’t care if birds disappear; a trippy hippy who says he loves ‘everyone’. As is the way of the form, it’s difficult to isolate the film’s ‘preferred reading’ (what it’s trying to say) but the impression I got was the countryside is a place where urban inhibitions can be shed (that’s probably a townie’s reading).
God’s Own Country achieved respectable box office in the UK for a low budget film, but most of the film-watching population will not have seen any of the four. Hence although all four films interrogate our relationship with nature they are unlikely to affect the zeitgeist. With global warming, looming Brexit and increasing urbanisation, it is important we (specifically in the UK but everywhere is affected) understand the natural world in 2019, so congratulations to all the filmmakers for speaking about our place and time. The Levelling is currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for the next 26 days.
Alanis is an unusual study of a sex worker, presented mainly as a kind of social realist ‘prostitution procedural’. We experience what happens to Alanis, a 25 year-old in Buenos Aires with Dante her 18 month old infant still fed at his mother’s breast. Alanis works out of an apartment she shares with Gisela, an older woman who acts as a madam and a carer for the boy. The exact working relationship between the two women hasn’t yet been made clear when local agents, police and a social worker arrive and effectively eject Alanis and Dante from the apartment and arrest Gisela. We then follow what happens to Alanis and Dante.
Argentinian law seems to prosecute brothel-keeping but tolerates individual acts of selling sex. The procedures explored in the film are mainly concerned withthe raid, some of the practices of street prostitution and something of the arrangements in a brothel. Alanis is devoted to her son and her work is to some extent humanised by Dante’s care arrangements. The film features two contrasting scenes with clients, the second of which does move away from social realism to an expressionist representation of the sheer hard work of trying to satisfy a client. This scene is shot in from specific angles in a hotel bedroom in such a way that doesn’t feel exploitative and certainly not erotic, but it is certainly wearing – for the viewer and for Alanis herself. In other scenes social realism conventions are also undermined by camerawork which often frames action in uncomfortable ways –with Alanis seen through doorways or in mirrors. There is also frequent use of shallow focus in which Alanis moves very close to the camera with backgrounds increasingly blurred. Again this seems to consciously undermine the fetishisation of female bodies on screen. We get to see Alanis in big close-ups often with Dante at her breast. Those strange people who are offended by the sight of breast-feeding might find this very shocking.
There isn’t much in the way of narrative drive in the film, only the details of how Alanis will find somewhere to stay and ways to find the money to keep herself and Dante and there isn’t a conventional narrative resolution. The film must be carried by Sofía Gala as Alanis. In a sense I was relieved to discover after the screening that Dante is played by Ms Gala’s own son. As one reviewer noted, the emotional attachment is there on the screen and there is the possibility that later in life mother and son will look back with affection on their portrayal. The film is written and directed by Anahí Berneri. This is her fifth film and she has been winning prizes at international festivals since 2005. I’m surprised that I haven’t come across her before. Alanis won her the best director prize at San Sebastian International Festival and at Havana in 2017. Sofía Gala also won acting prizes for the film.
The links to social realism in the film come through the everyday presentation of the streets of Buenos Aires, the presentation of the characters Alanis meets and the few details we glean from her accounts of her background as a girl from a provincial town. Alanis is not her real name and there is a nice joke when someone asks if she was named after that pop star ‘Morrissey’. If the film overall isn’t social realist it is definitely ‘humanist’ in its depiction of a world and the people in it. As another reviewer points out, what is noticeable is that Alanis never feels sorry for herself and never complains. She simply gets on with the task of looking after Dante and herself. She isn’t ashamed of what she does. We get the impression that she sees sex work simply as work.
I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ Alanis but I was never bored (it’s a short film at 82 minutes). I was very impressed by the central performance and by the writing and direction. I’m not sure my feelings about prostitution have been changed one way or the other. This isn’t a ‘social message’ film but, as in all good humanist films, I feel grateful to have got to know a character like Alanis. I’ll certainly look out for more films by Anahí Berneri and anything featuring Sofía Gala. The trailer below doesn’t have English subs but gives an idea of the style of the film.
Programmed as part of the ‘Pioneer’ strand in the festival this is the first solo feature by Claire Burger who graduated from La fémis as an editor but then went on to make several short films and one part of a compendium film, Party Girl (2014). Ms Burger comes from Forbach in Lorraine and Forbach was the title of her 2008 short film. Real Love is also set in the town. I should say that this was my last film of a long day and I think I struggled a little with the opening sequences. I don’t think this was the fault of the film, but the characters in this family melodrama are not immediately easy to understand and come to terms with. But eventually I became fully engaged and later I found myself thinking a great deal about the film and reflecting on its impact.
This is a film about a father moving towards a potential point of crisis and then recovering – mainly through his interaction with several women. In one sense the narrative might be seen to end conventionally, with the man’s redemption of sorts as part of a public display, but I don’t think his route towards that point is at all conventional or formulaic. In the Press Notes Claire Burger reveals that the story is inspired by her own family history.
Mario Messina (the Belgian actor Bouli Lanners) is separated from his wife Armelle who has left him in the family home with his two teenage daughters. The older daughter Niki is nearly 18 and looking for her independence. Her sibling Freda is 14 and more of a problem for her father. He loves his daughters and attempts to be a ‘good father’ but he struggles to keep house and to cope with his work as a civil servant in a local office. He also has problems with his personal life, especially with his working relationships and especially with the women he meets in in various forms of social interaction. He decides to sign up for a community-based theatre project called ‘Atlas’, the creation of Ana Borralho and João Galante.
‘Atlas’ is a real project that has operated in different parts of Europe. The idea is that individuals from a specific community each contribute something they feel about their town or about their personal lives. This could be a song, a poem or some other kind of performance. The project workers then bring all the individual contributions together into a theatrical presentation. The whole process of generating ideas, rehearsals and final presentation in the local theatre is a form of social interaction. Claire Burger first saw a presentation in Nanterre and was then invited to see another in Charleroi, a Belgian town suffering from industrial decline like Forbach. She then decided to use the project as part of her film. Mario struggles to be part of this and feels compromised because he’s a civil servant and he doesn’t want to criticise his employers by highlighting local social issues – so he turns to more personal issues. The project is based in the town’s theatre and Armelle works as a lighting technician, creating more tension for Mario who doesn’t feel confident knowing she might be watching him.
The film is a familiar form of social realist melodrama and Burger makes some interesting observations when she says that narratives often deal with the rich who have opulent lifestyles to be explored or the poor who have real social issues to deal with. The ‘middle class’ (I think she means the lower middle-class in UK terms) is often considered to be less interesting. Forbach is a town that is losing its richer inhabitants and she felt that focusing on Mario was an important decision. She wanted to use local people in the project and:
I didn’t want lingering shots of industrial landscapes, but shots of the inhabitants’ bodies and faces. I wanted the camera to give them a voice. Those voices, on a personal and collective level, resonate with the story of Mario and his daughters.
She says that representing the strength of the community was also important as the Front National was starting to make big inroads into the town’s political life.
But Mario’s story is about personal interactions with his daughters, with his boss at work and the leading project worker on ‘Atlas’, Antonia amongst others. Claire Burger explains her own situation growing up:
I wanted to draw a portrait of a delicate, sensitive, affectionate man, far removed from clichés of virility. I was raised by a man like that. For Mario, I was inspired by my father’s personality and his relationship to fatherhood and, above all, to passing on knowledge and culture. It was the upbringing he gave us and, to some extent, his feminism that enabled my sister and I to feel strong as women and, in my own case, legitimate as a filmmaker.
In the movie, Mario is overrun by women packing big temperaments. All the women around him are solid and strong, and they force him to reassess . . . The film reflects a time in society when women are expanding their rights and freedom, but the idea was not to portray a man resisting change. Mario changes too; he repositions himself in that context.
Mario is indeed cultured and he is passionate about music. As befits a melo there is plenty of music in the film – all kinds of music. The music is an integral part of the culture of the community and the key to the film’s success is also in the casting, so apart from Bouli Lanners (who comes from not far away over the border and can speak the local dialect), most of the other roles are played by non-professionals who are local or by members of the crew, stepping out from behind the camera. Antonia, the project leader is played by Antonia Buresi from ‘Atlas’. The film is presented in CinemaScope, a format that distinguishes many French films from similar British pictures.
I don’t think Real Love has a UK distributor as yet, but I hope someone decides to go for it. Claire Burger offers something unusual but not that different from the films of the Dardenne Brothers or Ken Loach and Paul Laverty and those films sell in the UK. The film opens in France and Belgium in March 2019.
A Belgian trailer, in French with Dutch/Flemish subs:
This title runs for 230 minutes, a challenging length that we know some punters find too long. So it was reassuring when fifty people turned up at the Hyde Park Picture House last Sunday for what appears to be the only local screening. Several people had to take pit stops during the film but [I think] only two members of the audience gave up before the end.
To start with the title; several characters tell the story of an elephant in Manzhouli, (a northern city right near the border with Mongolia and Russia) which just sits and ignores the onlookers, even when they attempt to feed it, prod it or similar. As the narrative proceeds various characters plan to visit Manzhouli to see this elephant. And the elephant does close the story, though in an unexpected manner.
The actual action takes place in a Chinese city which does not seem to be identified. It could be Shenyang, but that seems a little too far from Manzhouli, being near to the border with North Korea, The main action runs for less than a day, from about 6 a.m. to late in the day. A journey of indeterminate length ends the film. Where ever this is a bleak, exploitative and oppressive environment. There is not one really happy character in the film. All seem weighed down with the bleakness of the environment and their lives. The film opens in high-rise flats where the power is not on in all flats, where toilets leak and the grim concrete stairways lead out to an area of rubbish and decay. There are several strands in this story but what mainly drives the development of the plot is the injury and death of a school student and the ramifications that follow this.
If the characters seem desolate they also seem alienated in the full sense of the word. For much of the film the main characters are more introspective than social. When they do carry out actions involving other people it seems misdirected, illegal or just likely to go wrong. The characters are mainly working class though some fall on the boundary between working class and petit bourgeois. And some are genuine lumpen-proletarians. The writing of the characters and the performances are very good. They appear complex and their actions are sometimes surprising.
The film’s style mirrors the bleakness of the environment. The interiors are drab and low-key. And exteriors are fairly low-key as well; I do not remember any sunshine. The cinematography by Chao Fan was shot (I assume)with a Steadicam. There are full sequences that are presented in a single take. The narrative is elliptical. The editing by Bo Hu, the director, frequently cuts to leave a point unfinished. There are regular cuts between protagonists ins different settings, both partly commentating on the characters but also developing a certain mystery for the viewer in the unfolding of the plot. This is reinforced through the camerawork. Frequently the camera angle deliberately avoids showing an action or character. At one point, when a dog is mauled, this may be reticence but at other times it is clearly designed to make the viewer wait for information.
Bo Hu scripted, directed and edited the film so all of this treatment of narrative is his intent. In addition whilst the film appears to have a linear presentation the time frame seems ambiguous. There are the parallel cuts but others that seem to cross to different times. At one point a character’s mobile phone shows 1100; if that is the time the plot so far seems almost in real time. But the film does not run twelve or more hours. And at least one sequence in a café seems like a flashback as it is preceded by two other character observing the café, and possibly the two characters within.
This is unconventional but workable treatment. But on occasions the ambiguity seems excessive. And there are a couple of sequences late in the film that seem unnecessarily prolonged. Part of a similar strategy? I did think a scriptwriting partner could have made the plot development sharper, But that would have only shortened the film by minutes. It does seem to me that the form and subject of the film do justify the running time of over three hours. And the way that we follow the characters was sufficient reason to forgo an intermission, a point some of us noticed.
The elephant of the title seems clearly intended as symbolic as well as actual. One review sees the elephant as representing an indifference to the world, a world the film presents as cruel and painful. I did wonder whether it had a particular significance in terms of Chinese culture, but no review I found commented on this. It might be meant as a reference to the famous parable of the ‘blind men and the elephant’. There is a Buddhist version of this moral tale. Its relevance to the story here is that not one of the characters appear to understand the nature and causes of their plight. [I was reminded of this parable by a character in Koreeda Hirokazu’s The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin. 2017). The director, Bo Hu, was a fan of Béla Tarr. Another review described them both as practitioners of ‘miserabilist’ cinema. Not really accurate. But Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies / Werckmeister harmóniák (2000) features a whale that seems to represent the alienation of the village setting; perhaps an influence.
This will be the only directorial credit for Bo Hu as he committed suicide after the film was finished but before its release. Suicide suggests that the despairing alienation felt in the film was a personal expression. How far this has effected the film we have is unclear. It has been reported that the producers tried to shorten the finished film by well over an hour. Fortunately it remains in what appears to be a mostly complete form.
The film was shot on 4K Redcode RAW and Dolby Digital 5.1. The version exhibiting here in Britain does not wholly reflect that. Partly this may be that it is distributed on a 2K DCP, in standard widescreen and colour with English subtitles. Some of the sound seems uneven and some of the interiors lack the contrast you would expect from 4K or from 35mm film. It remains a fascinating and powerful drama. It certainly reflects on the exploitation now experienced in China where capitalism has been restored. Compare the alienated characters with those in one of the dramas from the dawn of the Socialist Revolution in 1949 – Crows and Sparrows / Wuya yu maque, (both films are in Mandarin). The latter film has a real sense of community and people struggling together. Still, An Elephant Sitting Still is a worthwhile film to see and repays the time spent sitting in an auditorium.