La Madre was a challenging start to my ¡Viva! viewing, both in terms of its uncompromising aesthetic and barebones story. The title is slightly misleading in that the protagonist is 14 year-old Miguel. His mother is largely absent and when she is present she doesn’t contribute a great deal. This explains why Miguel has attracted the attention of social services in his small town in the Valencia region. They want to take him into care and he is hoping that his mother will get a job and be able to provide a home for him.
We first meet Miguel on the street, attempting to sell packets of tissues to motorists at traffic junctions. The camera follows him closely, often focusing on the back of his neck. He’s learned how to be resilient in pursuing the necessities of daily life – shoplifting, accepting food from his friends at school who don’t always eat their packed lunches, selling his (stolen) tissues. We don’t know why his mother is in the state she is in – lacking energy, sleeping during the day and seemingly suffering from depression. We don’t learn about Miguel’s absent father. Quite early on I was reminded of Moonlight, not only because of the mother-son set-up, but also because of the roaming hand-held camera and the use of shallow focus.
As in Moonlight, the narrative provides the young teenager with a surrogate father figure. In this case, at his mother’s prompting, Miguel seeks out her ex-lover Bogdan, who lives in a neighbouring district with his son Andrei. Andrei is a few years older than Miguel and not necessarily pleased to see the younger boy. But it is during his time with Bogdan that Miguel will meet María (the impressive Nieve de Medina) a woman who runs a local bar-café and who offers Miguel the kind of adult support he hasn’t very often experienced. How will he respond and how will it affect his feelings about his mother?
There is nothing sentimental about La Madre and little in the way of generic trappings or obvious narrative delights. The setting is important. This is the south of Spain in a landscape of dusty roads, humdrum residential areas and industrial estates. There is no escape for Miguel into places of natural beauty or contact with animals. It’s traffic junctions, bus stops, small shops etc. It’s also a ‘sterile’, almost abstract environment with relatively few people on the streets or in the shops and bars. Presented in CinemaScope framings, the images seem to contradict or challenge our assumptions about what kind of film this might be.
After the screening I read about the film on Cineuropa’s website which carries a review and an interview with the director and co-writer Alberto Morais. He tells us that he wanted to make a film about the new economic ‘war’ on the poor and that his starting point was observing children in Russia after the fall of communism. The orphanages and children’s homes closed and children were sleeping in the metro stations. He argues that he is making a ‘film of the moment’, but not offering a moral point of view. He had the idea of focusing on attitudes towards the marginalisation of migrants by having a Spanish boy be taken in by Romanian migrants. He also gives us ideas about his own influences – Bergman and Pasolini are mentioned but he seems to make a judgement against the Dardenne Brothers and generally what he sees as the ‘Catholic guilt’ of many liberal ‘social’ films. I’m still trying to understand this approach. I like the Dardennes and I’m wary of Bergman (I don’t know Pasolini well enough to make a judgement). I think perhaps I like my realism combined with melodrama and enough sociology to place the characters and the story in the world I recognise. Morais and his co-writers have a different strategy. I think I would have found the narrative even more difficult to engage with if it hadn’t been for the extraordinary performance by the young debutant actor Javier Mendo as Miguel. My attention was certainly held by Miguel/Mendo who is on screen almost all the time. He has one of those faces that can switch from vulnerability to resilience and an almost adult sense of introspection. I couldn’t say that I ‘enjoyed’ La Madre, but I was impressed by the filmmaking and the performances. I don’t think a little more emotion would have undermined the film’s purpose.
The trailer below shows some of the visual style and conveys the tension of Miguel’s experiences.
The Dardenne Brothers are among the most reliable and consistent filmmakers working today. It was something of a surprise that their appearance at Cannes this year was not met with universal acclaim. Indeed they decided that they needed to recut The Unknown Girl before its international release and seven minutes were excised to leave a 106 minute feature. With this in mind and fearing, if not the worst, then the possibility of disappointment, I was relieved to find that it was business as usual.
The narrative premise is simple. A young and highly-regarded doctor fails to answer the surgery door long after normal working hours. She reasons that if it is really urgent the caller will press the bell again. But nothing happens until later when the police inform the doctor that CCTV footage shows a young woman at the surgery door and that it is the same young woman who has been found dead on the bank of the River Meuse a short distance away. The doctor is shaken and struck by a profound sense of guilt as well as compassion for an unnamed woman whose identity is a mystery. Doctor Jenny Gavin, played by rising French star Adèle Haenel, becomes the first Dardenne brothers’ protagonist to be drawn from the professional classes. She’s also the third mainstream French actress in a row to feature in the Dardennes’ social realist films. As usual, the Dardennes had been mulling over the central idea for the story for a few years before they decided to make it after meeting Adèle Haenel. The circumstances of the story are also quite familiar. It could almost be a spin-off from the opening scenes of The Kid With a Bike when the boy in question runs into a doctor’s surgery. The ‘kid’ (Thomas Doret) turns up again in the new film, five years on in a small role and there are plenty of other familiar faces from the Dardennes’ films including Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Christelle Cornil and Fabrizio Rongione. But the differences are noticeable.
The social class difference is important. In the other films, the protagonist is either a young person struggling with a social/personal problem or an older woman subject to some form of control. Here, Jenny is a successful doctor, able to make her own decisions and to access the money she needs to fund her ‘investigation’ – since that is what she undertakes, a mission to find out who the dead girl was and even to pay for a decent burial (while hoping that the deceased’s family will eventually appear to claim her). I realised later that the narrative has some similarities with the recent ‘Hollywoodised’ versions of popular novels like The Girl on the Train – in which a middle-class woman tries to find out what happened when she appears to be involved in a murder. I won’t spoil what happens to Jenny but she starts her investigation with no accusations against her – the police accept that not answering the door after closing time at the surgery is not a crime. She is therefore motivated by her own sense of responsibility and morality. Jenny’s behaviour is also linked to another ‘failing’ in that she refused to answer the door as part of an attempt to exert her authority over an intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud). She was trying to teach him that doctors need to be alert and that he must avoid ‘overworking’ so his head remains clear to deal with patients in surgery time. But perhaps she gets this wrong too?
Dr Jenny is also to some extent an ‘unknown girl/woman’. We know nothing about her background. She appears to be single and without any form of ‘outside’ commitments. (It’s still unusual to have a female protagonist who isn’t either involved with a man or constrained by family responsibilities.) She takes her work seriously and the death of the woman seems to galvanise her into making a decision to work alone as a GP in a working-class practice. She works long hours and spends the rest of her time on the investigation – which will involve people from the neighbourhood. This all makes her sound rather dull and indeed some reviewers have criticised the film because they think that she is a dull and humourless figure and that the story is not ‘exciting’ enough. I don’t really agree with this. She isn’t humourless and she has a good relationship with her patients. It’s true that at first there aren’t the entertaining sequences – confrontations between characters – that we find in earlier Dardennes films. But she finds things out and the confrontations come eventually. Some reviewers have seen the development of a film noir narrative in the second half. Other reviews suggest that she is a ‘do-gooder’ and somehow morally ‘superior’ – which are not attractive features. I think her moral dilemmas are ‘real’ and that the reactions she evokes are understandable and have to be handled. The social issues are still there – migrant workers, male attitudes to prostitution and working-class confrontations with a young female medical practitioner. I also found it interesting to see something about social medicine in Belgium, which has a different system to the UK. Home visits are rare in the UK now but thankfully nobody has to pay for treatment. I’ve seen criticism that the narrative becomes contrived, but this can also be seen (as in other Dardennes films) as portraying the inter-connectedness of communities and the film manages to embed the central story in a recognisable world.
Not a crowd-pleaser film perhaps, but a great central performance offering plenty to think about.
Urban Hymn marks the theatrical return of Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones and a rare leading role for the wonderful Shirley Henderson, a leading Scots actor. It’s appropriate then that it should have its world première at the GFT as part of the festival. It also features two young actors who take on important roles and to some extent steal the film. Michael Caton-Jones made three or four of the better UK films during the early 1990s before moving to Hollywood and working with stars like Robert de Niro, a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Bruce Willis. After a few ups and downs he made the well-received Rwanda-set Shooting Dogs in 2005 but then crashed badly with Basic Instinct 2 in 2006. Apart from TV credits he’s been away for nearly a decade and returns with a film that is familiar but slightly odd at the same time. A glowing review followed the première but I’m not so sure. There are many highly enjoyable aspects in the film but also a few puzzles. The film is written by Nick Moorcroft who is perhaps best known as the writer of the recent St. Trinians comedies, but who is promoted in the film’s publicity as writing from his own ‘drug-filled youth’ experiences. Either way he doesn’t seem to have the experience to write the social realist script the film appears to be attempting to use.
The narrative opens with footage of the 2011 riots in London and, via the usual dreadful hand-wringing speech by David Cameron on the radio, then cuts to Shirley Henderson as Kate, a middle-class woman living by the Thames in South-West London who is preparing for an interview at a residential home for children in care. She gets the job despite the doubts of the team leader (played by an abrasive Ian Hart) and soon meets Jamie (Letitia Wright) and Leanne (Isabella Laughland) the inseparable bad girls who, approaching 18, are wasting their last chances to avoid a life in custody or on the streets. Leanne is impossible but Kate latches on to Jamie’s interest in Northern Soul when she hears her singing an Etta James song in her bedroom. This in turn will lead Kate to suggest that Jamie joins the community choir that meets locally. From here on, everything proceeds almost by the book. Kate believes Jamie can be ‘saved’ but Leanne can’t cope with losing her only friend and will attempt to prise her away. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that the story will manage to end both tragically and upliftingly. I found much of this affecting (since I’m in a community choir, love Northern Soul and very much like Shirley Henderson) but I can see plenty of holes.
Choirs, singing competitions and auditions have been all over UK reality TV and in several big screen ventures in recent years and mixing the aspirational tone of these experiences with the brutal world of juvenile detention (Isabella Laughland as Ray Winstone in Scum, down to the ‘batteries in the sock’ weapon) is a novel twist that doesn’t quite work. I’m not sure if the film is attempting the kind of realism that is achieved by Ken Loach and Paul Laverty – or in slightly different terms by Shane Meadows or Clio Barnard – but it doesn’t work here. Setting the story in London also conjures up the new ‘Urban’ genre of the Kidulthood series. But then, making the specific location leafy South-West London (a very long way from the riot-torn estates in Tottenham) seems very odd – not that these problems can’t/don’t exist in Isleworth, but that there seems no connection between Jamie’s world and the streets on which the action takes place. The power of a Loach film like Sweet Sixteen is that we believe that this young man actually lives here and these events could happen. Urban Hymn harks back to an older UK genre, the ‘social problem film’ in which a liberal character representing what’s best in society attempts to solve the problem of wayward youth.
A little digging reveals that this project was initially set up immediately after the riots with Justin Kerrigan (director of Human Traffic (1999) lined up to direct and a story set in Cardiff or Bristol. I had the feeling that the film had hung around as a project. There are other oddities such as an appearance by Billy Bragg as himself (it works in the plot but feels like it belongs in another film) and the under-use of Steven Mackintosh as Kate’s husband. The production company Dashishah Global Film Productions is new and Wikipedia suggests a budget of £2 million – about double that of most UK independent films. The film has appeared at two major festivals, Toronto and Busan and is scheduled for a July 2016 release in eight territories so far, including the UK.
On the plus side, this is a drama with three female leads and if you want a feelgood narrative it will work for you – though it is not as coherent as the earlier festival film, The Violin Teacher. If, however, you want something more analytical and realist, I’d recommend Amma Asante’s A Way of Life (2004) with another Leanne and a hard-hitting story about the struggles of children in care.
The second Bill Naughton play to get a big screen adaptation a few months after Alfie, The Family Way, stands up well today as a social comedy with a real heart. When it was released at the end of 1966 the film was given an X certificate (just like Alfie) but in 1970 the classification system changed and this was reduced to then new ‘AA’ (nobody under 14) with ‘X’ increasing its age restriction from ’16’ to ’18’. In a wonderful example of the difficulties of classifying films, the current DVD has a ’15’ certificate. Personally, I think 12A would be the most sensible.
When The Family Way was released in 1966, I ignored it for two reasons, I think. First, I mistakenly thought it would be a comedy about shotgun weddings with a young man forced to marry when he got his girlfriend pregnant. I don’t know how I got this impression. Second, the film starred John Mills and his daughter Hayley. Hayley Mills was in the process of trying to change her star image from children’s/Disney roles to adult roles and I think this put me off. In addition, I was not particularly a fan of John Mills who I associated with 1950s films. Again, I was wrong on both these counts but I think it’s interesting how strong and misleading impressions are formed. I’m less sure of whether I knew that this was a Boulting Brothers’ production at the time. The twin Boultings had been making films since the late 1930s, alternating roles as writer, producer and director. Post-1945 they had shown themselves as committed to mainstream Labour Party values and in the 1950s had begun to produce a series of satires on British institutions – Private’s Progress (1956), Brothers in Law (1957), Lucky Jim (1957) – from the Kingsley Amis novel about a university lecturer – Carlton-Browne of the FO (1959) (UK diplomats) and the brave satire on industrial relations I’m Alright Jack (1959). These were all productions by the Boultings as ‘independents’ but eventually they became involved in the machinations of the public funding agency for film in the UK, the National Film Finance Corporation, and its attempts to merge and support British Lion, the independent studio facility (Shepperton) and distributor. The Family Way is a Boultings production released in the UK through British Lion. Variety suggests that the film was successful in North America with over $2 million in rentals – equivalent to a box office gross of $3-4 million. The film was also notable as offering Paul McCartney his first chance to score a film. It was photographed (in colour) by the veteran UK cinematographer Harry Waxman.
Bill Naughton had originally written the story as an ‘Armchair Theatre’ play for ITV in 1961 titled Honeymoon Postponed. In 1963 it became a stage play All in Good Time before its film adaptation (by Naughton himself). In many ways the narrative takes the form of a traditional Lancashire social comedy (often referred to as ‘North Country comedy’ and popular as a stage comedy in theatres across the North). Arthur Fitton (Hywel Bennett) is a sensitive 20 year-old who works as a cinema projectionist (we see him projecting another British Lion hit of 1966, Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment). The film opens on the day of his wedding to Jenny Piper (20 year-old Hayley Mills). The couple are going to spend one night in Arthur’s old room in the Fitton household and then take off on their honeymoon to ‘Majorca’ (with a ‘j’). But next day they discover that the local travel agent has done a runner with all their cash and the trip is off – they are doomed to start married life in Arthur’s old bed. The first night has not gone well – a practical joke collapsed the bed beneath them and Arthur was put off his stride. One of the great things about the film is that the script avoids too many jokes about Arthur and Jenny’s predicament. Jenny is the sweetest of girls and truly loves Arthur, but she is human too and sometimes goes out with his brother when Arthur is at work.
The Lancashire comedy has several important elements. Here we have two contrasting families. The Pipers have the ‘hard’ mother (Avril Angers) and soft, doting father (John Comer). Arthur’s father is the impossible strutting working-class gamecock played to the hilt by John Mills and the understanding mother (the best role in the film) brilliantly presented by Marjorie Rhodes. Add in Arthur’s younger motorcycle-riding brother Geoffrey played by Murray Head and it isn’t difficult to see why Arthur feels under so much pressure in his old room with his young wife. In addition, his troubles with Jenny are bound to come to the notice of all the gossiping women in the neighbourhood who still discuss local events over the garden wall, in the queue at the fish and chip shop and when they are employed as cleaners at the Town Hall.
Really, the film shouldn’t work. Beautifully shot by Waxman, most of the photography is on location – in Rochdale according to Wikipedia with some scenes in Bolton and interiors at Shepperton. There is good use of night-time streets, record shops and the cinema etc. and I especially enjoyed a motorcycle ‘scrambling event’ – a genuine Pennine pursuit that Geoffrey takes Jenny to visit. But the casting is all ‘wrong’. Mills père and fille are from the UK cinema tradition of Southern actors playing Northern types. Murray Head is also a London lad and looks as if he is in a genuine 1966 film, not a 1961 comedy. (Head would later star as the young man in the middle in Sunday, Bloody Sunday with Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch in 1971.) Hywel Bennett was born in Wales but brought up in South London and Liz Fraser is another Londoner. Most of the rest of the cast are from across the North – the Ken Loach approach to local actors with a genuine identification with the characters they play seems some way away (although Kes would come out in 1969). But it does work. These are solid, professional actors and Naughton’s script is strong.
At the centre of the narrative is John Mills’ macho father, Ezra, the scourge of the local gas works and so ‘unreconstructed’ he could be a working man from the 1930s. I was amazed to realise that Mills was only 58 at the time. He leads the drinking and the singing at the wedding and berates his son for ‘book-reading’. As a balance to Mills, Wilfred Pickles plays Jenny’s uncle Fred who works as a ‘masseur’ – and is therefore deemed to know more about anything vaguely scientific/medical (and therefore ‘what’s up’ with Arthur). Pickles doesn’t have a long list of film credits but from the 1940s onwards he was a huge ‘personality’ presenter on radio and later television. A proud Yorkshireman despite settling in Lancashire, he may well have attracted older audiences to the film. A younger version of ‘macho man’ is played by Barry Foster, Arthur’s boss in the projection box. Arthur himself is a typical Lancashire comedy type. He looks so delicate. It’s only later that we learn that all did not go swimmingly on Ezra’s honeymoon and we might wonder whether Arthur is actually related to his father (on the other hand, we’ve noted that the younger son Geoffrey seems to be from another planet altogether). Arthur may well be a kind of ‘future man’.
It’s taken me a long time to realise it, but Naughton knew what he was about and his script is about a ‘real’ family – or at least a family I can recognise. It is arguably out of date for 1966, but memory is a strange device. When I attended a wedding only a few miles away from Rochdale/Bolton in 1970 it wasn’t too different from this one. I’m just grateful that DVD gives me the chance to relive it. Perhaps it will also help younger people to learn something about the Lancashire culture of the time.
I’d like to include a short extract from the film but StudioCanal (who bought the British Lion library) won’t allow it.
This screening was part of the work and research of a project at University College London – Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s. It was a real pleasure to revisit this film, which now looks like one of the finest features of the New British Cinema. This was a good 35mm print: neither dupe nor dark. The film does rely on extensive locations, and some of these – on dismal days or at night – are grey or shadowy.
The film was adapted by Tony Richardson, the director, and Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the original and very fine play. The film follows the play fairly closely, but fills out the story with sequences that are ‘off-stage’ in the theatre. So the film opens with a pre-credit sequence which introduces the protagonist Jo (Rita Tushingham) at her school, where she is in her final year. Then we meet her mother Helen (Dora Bryan) at their bedsit as she prepares for a ‘moonlight flit’. The scenes set up the central characters of the film. There is then a sequence behind the credits travelling across central Manchester, with a number of the city’s landmarks visible.
The film returns to central Manchester later when we see Jo, and her perspective friend Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin) watching the annual city Roman Catholic Parade. There are also scenes at the Blackpool resort; at the shoe shop where Jo works for a period; in Public Houses where Helen is in her element; at the car dealers where her boyfriend Peter Smith (Robert Stephens) works: and in a ballroom, that recurring setting in British films of this and earlier decades. And there are distinctive sequences set on and around the Manchester Ship Canal. Most of the urban centres are in Salford, where Jo and Geoffrey live.
What stands out at a viewing are the performances. 18 year old Rita Tushingham is a delight to behold. In the pre-credit sequence we see her in a class at the school and her behaviour and actions set up the character for the subsequent story. She is the centre of the film, and there are innumerable scenes with memorable delivery of dialogue or of carefully nuanced movement and expressions. She has a great smile but she also offers evocative stances and positioning. So in the class room, as she regales her fellow students, the use of her body, arms and stance all contribute to the personality. And the supporting cast is excellent. Dora Bryan turns in a performance as Helen which is full of panache and exuberance, her bubbly persona reminiscence of the music hall. Murray Melvin as Geoffrey is excellent, suggesting the fine line around sexual orientation which was almost completely absent from British film at this time. He is slightly camp but is also able to introduce the note of both anger and pathos. And Robert Stephens’ performance as the rather callow boyfriend was better than I remembered, the class is not quite right but the seediness is apt. There is also Paul Danquah in a minor role as the sailor-cum-cook who has a brief relationship with Jo. His blackness is another distinctive feature for the period. Frequently surrounding these are a group of children who play and sing in many of the exteriors. Presumably local Salford children they are completely convincing. Which reminds one of what a good director of actors was Tony Richardson.
The production overall is excellent. The structure of the film combines the freshness of the original drama with definitive cinematic quality. This seems the most assured of the film that Richardson directed in this period. Visually the film is a delight to watch. Much of the film was shot on location. The cinematographer, Walter Lassally, at the same time captures the state of the run-down Salford area with beautifully composed shots of the urban landscape. There is one memorable series of shots near a viaduct which is not only visually impressive but captures the élan of Jo and Geoffrey as they discuss their place in this world.
The film also has a very good soundtrack, full of interesting location noise. The music by Richard Addinsell is evocative and often lyrical Inserted are a series of children’s songs and rhymes, like ‘The Big Ship Sails on the Ally Ally o’ at the film’s opening. My memory of the film was that it softened slightly the original play. However, I have revisited this in a BBC Radio production. And now I feel that the film does capture the play’s lyrical qualities but also its rather more downbeat ruminations. The film ends with a fine visual addition; we see Geoffrey in the shadows, Helen having retuned to Jo’s rather ramshackle room; and Jo herself watching a Guy Fawkes fire whilst the children sing. This ambiguous closure is as good as any other sequence in the film.
After the screening there was Q&A cum discussion as the project team encouraged the audience to remember aspect of cinema-going in the 1960s. We got dating, smoking and its effect [not on health but the screen], refreshments like Kia-Ora and the general plush interiors of the cinemas, especially chains like ABC or Odeon. The project team are looking for more reminiscences so if interested visit their website: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/cinemamemories
Following the success of Kristen Stewart at the Césars in February when she won Best Supporting Actress for Clouds of Sils Maria, I’ve decided to go back and look at some of her roles in American independent films with a view to exploring how acting performances are evaluated.
Welcome to the Rileys is a ‘low budget’ family drama (by Hollywood standards – it cost $10 million, though I’m not sure where the money went since this kind of film would cost half that in Europe). Directed by Jake Scott and produced by father Ridley and uncle Tony from a script by Ken Hixon, the film puts Kristen Stewart alongside two of the best character actors in the US at that time, James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo.
The story is familiar. Doug (Gandolfini) and Lois (Leo) have been married thirty years and their relationship has stalled since the death of their teenage daughter. Lois has withdrawn so much that she cannot now leave their house in Indiana. Doug owns a small business and during an industry convention in New Orleans he goes into a strip joint where he meets a teenage bar girl, Alison/Mallory (Stewart). He ‘just wants to talk’ to her and eventually she allows him into her life. Lois meanwhile decides that she must overcome her fear and drive down to New Orleans.
The story is simple and no doubt predictable in how it turns out. However, the three central performances and Scott’s restraint in presentation drew me into the story and I thought it worked well. The IMDB entry on the film is interesting. The professional critics were split down the middle with the detractors particularly scathing. Audiences did not go for the film in cinemas, but the ‘user ratings’ on IMDB create an average score of ‘7’, suggesting that audiences that did find the film enjoyed it and thought it worthwhile.
The major weaknesses identified by Hollywood Reporter and others turn out to be why I like the film. At times it’s like a European social realist film in its refusal to look for exciting camerawork and fast-cutting. Jake Scott also makes the best use of a small number of locations. He avoids the touristy images of New Orleans and places Alison’s grubby crash-pad in a poor district. I particularly like a meeting outside a run-down po’ boy cafe. Gandolfini takes the film in his stride. I never watched The Sopranos but I agree with the reviewers who argue that he moves very comfortably for a big man and that his physical bulk is carried lightly so he doesn’t become in any way threatening.
Melissa Leo has in some ways the more difficult role which requires her to change as a character – to move from frightened middle-aged woman to a much more confident and active woman after she has been in New Orleans for a while. She also has to hold together a quasi-comical sequence when she tries to get Doug’s car out of the garage, having no knowledge of modern car electronics.
With these two highly competent actors offering quality performances how does Kristen Stewart stand up? Very well actually. I sneaked a look at one of the later Twilight movies made around the same time in which she has smooth white skin like alabaster. Here, rake thin with tousled hair smudged kohl eyes and skin marked by pits and scars she looks the part of the runaway and she is able to generate the energy verbally and visually to match Gandolfini’s calm. She can also match Leo’s similarly calm approach. It isn’t easy to move through acceptance, anger and then playfulness in the same few scenes and to switch at the drop of a hat but I think she manages it.
This was a good start to my Kristen Stewart in the Indies tour.
The latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has got substantial coverage in the UK press and I even heard a cogent analysis of the film on Radio 4’s ‘Thought For the Day’ religious slot last week. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at that. The film deals with a recognisable personal and social quandary and a real moral question. At a time of austerity when seemingly everything is being ‘cut’, how would you feel if you were a worker offered the choice between receiving a bonus or instead helping a colleague keep her job? And from her point of view how would you feel about spending your weekend trying to persuade your workmates to forego their €1,000 bonus so that you can keep your job? Those are the questions that drive the film narrative. The Dardennes complicate matters further by making their central character Sandra someone trying to return to work after suffering depression. While she has been off work the boss has concluded that his workforce can cope with one less member so he has devised this diabolical choice for his non-unionised workforce. Some commentators (and audiences) have seen the additions of these details as making the narrative more contrived than it needs to be (Sandra also has an almost saintly husband who is super-supportive). The result might be that the film is less about the ‘social issue’ of a fair distribution of income and employment opportunities and more about Sandra’s ‘personal’ struggle to maintain her dignity and sense of self-belief.
A few weeks ago I introduced the film on its first weekend on release and therefore spent some time thinking about how the Dardenne brothers present themselves as filmmakers and how they are generally understood by critics, reviewers and audiences. My notes for that ‘Illustrated Talk’ are downloadable here:
My conclusion was that most commentators are too keen to try and pigeon-hole the brothers as fitting a specific category in terms of approach, styles, themes etc. Certainly all of their films since the mid-1990s have been set in their home town of Seraing in the Meuse Valley of Wallonia, the francophone region of South-Eastern Belgium, and each film focuses on one or two characters facing some kind of problem connected to a current social issue. However, the approach and the style does change and in the DVD ‘extras’ of the previous film Le gamin au vélo (The Kid With a Bike, 2010), the two brothers (who share writing, production and direction) demonstrate how they set up certain scenes. They discuss these in some detail and explain the differences between the films in terms of how the camera is used etc. So, for instance, Sandra in Two Days, One Night is on a quest which sends her around Seraing over a weekend and we follow her – much as we follow the central character in Rosetta (1999). But the teenage Rosetta is a very different type of character to Sandra and the Dardennes’ camera follows her as if she is a soldier in a war combat film. Rosetta is a strong young woman determined to do anything to get, and keep, a job. She needs to be strong because her single parent mother is an alcoholic who threatens to drink away Rosetta’s earnings. ‘Following’ the embattled Rosetta with the camera requires a different approach to that in The Kid With a Bike in which Cyrille, in a summery Seraing, is like a character in a fairy-tale searching for his ‘lost’ father and oscillating between the ‘bad’ fairy (the local gangleader) and the ‘good fairy’ Samantha who agrees to be his foster-mother. Sandra is different again in a very physical performance by Marion Cotilard as a woman weakened by depression and medication who must find the energy and self-belief to ask difficult questions of her work-mates.
The publicity for the release of Two Days, One Night focused on the presence of Marion Cotillard as the ‘first A List star’ that the Dardennes had cast in their films. Ms Cotillard is certainly a major star of French cinema as well as appearing in major international Hollywood productions. But Cécile de France was also a major star when she accepted the role as Samantha in Le gamin au vélo. The key point is that whereas de France, a Walloon from Namur, is ‘culturally appropriate’, Cotillard was born in Paris and grew up in Orléans. She can play the role of a woman in Seraing and give it authenticity because of her skill – but this is nevertheless a change in the Dardennes’ approach. The ‘star stature’ is also important. In the clips referenced above the Dardennes discuss how they choreographed scenes and used the camera taking into account Cécile de France’s experience when working with a young non-professional on Le gamin au vélo. De France is a leading figure in the film, but not actually the central character. Marion Cotillard is the main focus of Two Days, One Night. She gives a wonderful performance but the question remains as to what extent her star persona – which includes her willingness to represent the tired and ‘worn’ working woman – is read by audiences as an element in the presentation of the narrative. Does it change the sense of authenticity? After two screenings I’m still not sure. As an exercise, it might be worth comparing Cotillard’s performance with that of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (US 2000). The two films are very different but the issue about a star creating a character within a social realist aesthetic is worth pursuing.
The other aspect that Two Days, One Night shares with Le gamin au vélo is the emotional use of music. In the previous film a couple of very short bursts of non-diegetic classical music seem to mark moments in the emotional narrative – whereas the filmmakers have generally avoided music in their earlier films. In Two Days, One Night there are two songs heard on the car radio (i.e. diegetic). The first is Petula Clark’s 1964 French version of the Jackie DeShannon song ‘Needles and Pins’ (1963). The French title is ‘La Nuit n’en Finit Plus’ or ‘the night is never-ending’ and it allows a dialogue exchange about Sandra’s state of mind. Later, in a moment of exultation, Sandra, her husband and a workmate sing along to Van Morrison’s (lead singer of Them) anthemic ‘Gloria’ (1966). In one sense this is a strange choice of songs. Though they certainly work in context you do wonder if the Dardennes are drawing on their own teenage years rather than what might be relevant for Sandra’s generation. The point is that like the casting of Marion Cotillard the use of songs like this ‘fits’ this particular production. The Dardennes make each film very carefully. It might take years for the ideas to develop and the films have come out at regular three-year intervals. They aren’t wedded to one way of making films and that’s what makes each one of their films something to look forward to.
If you haven’t seen the film – and you really should – here’s a trailer (with the Pet Clark song):
Part of the freshness of the British New Wave was the films’ use of relatively unknown actors such as Albert Finney (above) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was one of the first New Wave films to focus on working class life. The film that heralded the ‘wave’, Room at the Top, had a protagonist, Joe Lampton, who is desperate to join the middle classes whereas Saturday Night’s Arthur Seaton (Finney) relishes his working status with his ‘chippy’ attitude as his opening voice over states, above an image of him working in a factory:
Don’t let the bastards grind you down. That’s one thing I’ve learned . . . I’d like to see anybody try to grind me down. That’d be the day. What I want is a good time. All the rest is propaganda.
Finney’s brilliant performance shows both the charisma of the rebel the immaturity of Seaton, particularly when his face breaks out in a childish grin when he fires pellets at a local gossip. Despite the fact that, in common with other films of the time, it represents popular culture negatively, Seaton criticises his dad for watching television all the time (see above), its treatment of race, although incidental, is progressive. During Seaton’s introductory monologue he says ‘I’m like him’, and at that moment the camera frames one of the few Afro-Caribbean workers. Seaton identifies himself via his class and rebellious attitude and not race.
At the end of the film it appears that Seaton has been recouped for a conventional lifestyle, as he decides to wed Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) after, it is implied, they’ve had sex. However, this doesn’t stop him throwing stones at a site where the ‘nice’ semi-detached homes he’s destined for are being built.
The cast is brilliant giving a debut to some who would become stalwarts of British cinema: Colin Blakely, Bryan Pringle and Norman Rossington. Hylda Baker is a standout as Seaton’s Aunt Ada and Rachel Roberts, as the married woman with whom Seaton is having sex, is heartbreaking when faced with an abortion.