The title Berlin Syndrome is very suggestive in this feature about a young female tourist who finds herself trapped after a casual sexual encounter in Berlin. How will the reference to the ‘Stockholm syndrome’, that idea that a captive becomes literally captivated by their gaoler, become manifest in the narrative? Not perhaps as you might expect. This is a film adapted from a critically-praised novel by Melanie Joosten and directed by Cate Shortland, who made the wonderful Lore in 2012, a film about a not totally dissimilar young woman in Germany in 1945. I was a little surprised that the script was by a man – Shaun Grant. This does feel like a female-centred narrative and Ms Shortland has several female collaborators on her team. In his dismissal of the film, our old enemy Peter Bradshaw suggests that this is a ‘lite’ version of Room (2015) or the Austrian film Michael (2011) (which I haven’t seen). These are not really sensible comparisons since both of these films feature children as prisoners and even though Room does feature a woman prisoner as well, it isn’t a film about the relationship between a gaoler and his captive(s) since we learn little about him.
Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a young woman from Brisbane who has come to Berlin on a whim to photograph the architecture of the GDR and hoping for a life-changing experience – but not the kind of experience she walks into. Soon after she arrives she meets Andi (Max Riemelt) an English teacher in a local Gymnasium. They spend a day together and she decides not to go on to Dresden but to spend the night in his apartment. Bad move. The sex is good but when Andi goes to work, she finds that she can’t leave his apartment in an old abandoned apartment block. At first she wasn’t worried to be in this old building, but now she realises that there is no one else about. Even when Andi returns she still thinks it might be a mistake, surely he didn’t mean to lock her in?
Peter Bradshaw’s other condemnation is that this is just a familiar genre narrative with nothing new to say and that Clare is obviously the ‘final girl’ in the horror film right from the beginning of the narrative. It’s true that it does increasingly become a ‘psycho-sexual thriller’, especially in its resolution but also at various moments along the way. The idea of a man holding a woman captive is by no means unfamiliar and as other reviewers have pointed out there are some parallels here with William Wyler’s film of the John Fowles book The Collector (1969). However, the important difference here is Clare’s sexual desire and her vulnerability as a tourist in a strange city. I think it’s quite legitimate to read the film in terms of Clare’s self-discovery – of her resourcefulness and strength as well as her sexuality. It’s also interesting that on the two occasions when she sees a glimmer of hope for an escape, it’s when another woman appears – but I won’t spoil the narrative. Andi is the other central character and we get to see him at school, in his classroom and in the staffroom. We also see him in the company of his father. There is just enough of a hint about his extreme obsession with control peeping out from behind his ‘normality’ as a schoolteacher.
I was impressed by both lead actors. I didn’t think I’d seen them before but researching the film later I discovered that both are very experienced and Teresa Palmer has a mainstream Hollywood career that I’ve missed entirely, though I did see The Grudge 2 (2006), where she played alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar. She looks and acts younger than her age in Berlin Syndrome and I did think about how she reminded me of Kristen Stewart (again, something I later discovered is a common reaction). Max Riemelt was in The Wave (Germany 2008), a film I’ve watched several times and I’m surprised that I didn’t recognise him. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ this film and I found Clare’s predicament distressing. I was surprised to find myself thinking about it so much afterwards. The script is carefully written and there are some nice touches that again I didn’t really think about until afterwards – such as Clare’s interest in a book of Klimmt reproductions that makes a re-appearance and Andi’s choice of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room as a text for his English class. I also hadn’t thought too much about Clare’s journey from Brisbane to Berlin – an example of that ‘cultural cringe’ that seems still to be relevant in Australian narratives about travelling to Europe to gain experiences beyond Australian suburbia. The thoughts of the women working on the film about travelling alone in Europe are worth reading in the Production Notes. The interesting aspect of the production itself is that it was shot on location in Berlin and then Andi’s apartment was recreated on a soundstage in Melbourne. It’s a seamless fit and this is an impressive production. The film has not been that well reviewed in the UK. I think in some cases it has been dismissed without due attention and I’m glad I saw it. I’ll keep looking for Cate Shortland’s films. If you missed this in cinemas in the UK it’s on Curzon online.
Three points struck me after watching Elle. The first is that though Paul Verhoeven is in his late 70s, he can still make films with more energy and flair than many younger filmmakers. Second, Isabelle Huppert demonstrates once again that she is in a class of her own when it comes to female actors. Finally, if Elle proves anything it is that the distinction between mainstream ‘entertainment’ and arthouse cinema is not particularly helpful if this film is classed as the latter just because it is not in the English language. Verhoeven doesn’t make ‘art’ movies as such. That doesn’t mean his films aren’t examples of the art of film, rather that he seeks to entertain with sex and violence to the fore. He will also ask questions, sometimes serious questions but there is also the suggestion that he is poking fun at those who think art cinema is ‘better’. I’ve only seen a limited number of the director’s films but I recently enjoyed Black Book (Netherlands-Germany-UK-Belgium 2006) and I’m an admirer of Starship Troopers (US 1997) as a satire on fascism.
I tried to avoid reviews before seeing Elle but afterwards I picked up suggestions of a Buñuelian satire, especially in the use of a formal Christmas party. I guess these reviewers are referring to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). I didn’t really think of that connection. Chabrol is mentioned by some because of Huppert’s presence. For me the film was more reminiscent of 1980s films like Dressed to Kill (1980), Fatal Attraction (1987) or indeed of Verhoeven’s own Basic Instinct (1992). I’m not thinking of the plots of these films but their sex, violence and ‘glamour’. I did get a strong whiff of Hitchcock from Elle, especially in the dialogue exchange at the end of the film with the Catholic neighbour. The difference is that Huppert as Michèle Blanc becomes the ‘(anti-)hero’ of the narrative rather than the usual ‘woman in distress’ or ‘romantic partner’. For anyone who doesn’t know the outline of the story in Elle, I’ll just note that at the beginning of the film, Michèle is attacked by a masked assailant, but she doesn’t report the violent rape that ensues and only tells her ex-husband and friends some time later. Verhoeven replays the initial rape– I’m not completely sure why we have to see it again, but Verhoeven says the narrative is about the ‘aftermath’ of the rape, so maybe she is thinking it through in the flashback. Michèle’s investigations then initiate a complex sequence of events, including more rapes.
Elle is an ’18’ certificate film in the UK and there is a great deal of sexual violence in the film. The initial rape is brutal (we see it and other similar attacks later) and the use of shocking violence in this way distinguishes the action from what sometimes appears in mainstream cinema as more aestheticised ‘rape’. Isabelle Huppert’s performance then suggests a woman who is able to put aside the pain and the shock of the assault and plan what she is going to do next. In one sense this is a typical Huppert performance. She is able to portray incredible strength of character by doing as little as possible – apart from commanding the screen (and everyone/everything shown in its space). Perhaps it is this that has caused such a controversy around the film. Sight and Sound (April 2017) offered five contributions on the film – an interview by editor Nick James, two ‘comment pieces’ organised as a ‘For’ and ‘Against’ the film’s take on misogyny, a review of Verhoeven’s early work in the Netherlands (arguably more controversial than his Hollywood work) and finally a conventional review. I say ‘conventional’ but Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopéz write this review together – without any explanation as to why it needs both of them. The review of Verhoeven’s Dutch work by Craig Williams is very interesting and makes me think I should look for more of his films that now appear to be available on DVD with English subs. Verhoeven’s interview is revealing about the production background of the film – its origins as a French novel, the decision to re-work it for an American production and then the shift back to a French production. Verhoeven makes a number of comments about the differences between US and French cinema which I don’t necessarily agree with and overall I’m wary of such interviews since so many directors contradict themselves. I sometimes think they make up answers to relieve the boredom of so many interviews. Still, it’s an interesting read. But the controversy lies in the ‘For’ and ‘Against’ pieces, headlined as ‘Crossing the Line’.
Arguing ‘for’ Verhoeven in this battle over its sexual politics is Erika Balsom and opposing her is Ginette Vincendeau, both members of the same Film Studies department at Kings College, London (one of the most prestigious film departments in UK academia). Ginette Vincendeau is one of the leading authorities on French cinema, whose work I’ve read and used for many years. She argues that Elle:
. . . validates a culture that condones male violence against women, arguing that, deep down, ‘they want it’. The film and its reception are a demonstration of how deeply internalised misogyny is, including by women.
She goes on to argue that Elle is not a rape revenge fantasy nor is it a horror narrative in which the ‘final girl’ kills the monster, but it is a film that plays with the codes of the French thriller and which “deliberately mines French extreme cinema, a genre in which Huppert excels”. I agree with all of that, but I think that when Vincendeau starts to offer readings of different aspects of the narrative, things start to unravel a little. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but I would have to contest the argument that Michèle is ‘punished’ as a woman with power, through her portrayal as a ‘castrating woman’. Vincendeau is possibly correct in suggesting that all of Michèle’s relationships with other women are about hostility and rivalry. However, I often find that single scenes/sequences from films stay with me and form the basis for my later readings. The last sequence of Elle seems to refute both the idea that Michèle has been punished or that she can’t develop relationships with women that are positive and comradely.
I don’t know Erika Balsom’s work but the department’s profile of her suggests that she is concerned with cultural studies and visual art/experimental cinema more broadly. She argues that Elle is not a misogynist film. Elle is a film about misogyny. Balsom’s point is that Verhoeven and Huppert recognise the seriousness of rape but also that its gravity comes partly from its banality. Rape is integral to the patriarchal system. The film is a fable or allegory exploring what happens if a woman ‘refuses’ to conform. I don’t want to summarise the piece any further but is an interesting argument that will enrage some readers. I was taken by the closing paragraph in which she writes:
. . . The spurious humanism of Hollywood – with its likeable characters and its ideological attachments to morality, innocence and redemption – is bankrupt. Too often, it serves the very system that Verhoeven recognises as pathological. Instead, Elle, like the cat-witness of its opening shot, stares down the ugly scene with eyes wide open.
Reading over what I’ve written, I discover that I seem to be ‘for’, when I thought that I was somehow caught between the two pieces. But it’s not quite as simple as that. There are two aspects of Elle I haven’t mentioned. One is that Michèle is the co-owner with Anna (Anne Consigny) of a company making videogames – violent, ‘erotic’ games. Most of the game designers and coders are young men who at one point Michèle encourages to produce work that is more arousing in its use of sex and violence. Any of these men could be the rapist from the opening scene. The second sub-plot involves Michèle’s family. Her father is serving a life sentence as a mass murderer who killed many people in the neighbourhood and the then 10 year-old Michèle experienced the aftermath of the murders. This history perhaps explain some of Michèle’s behaviour towards her mother, her ex-husband and her son (now in his twenties). The combination of these two sub-plots perhaps explains why Ginette Vincendeau condemns Elle as a ‘trashy movie’. That’s a difficult term. The film certainly isn’t ‘trashy’ in terms of production values, performances etc. It is sensational and exaggerated and provocative. It seems very much a Verhoeven movie. Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopéz don’t really address this central controversy around feminism, misogyny and sexual violence directly. They argue that in the final third Michèle, “against all likely odds, turns her story turns into something positively therapeutic in its affirmation”.
The other way to think about the film is in terms of its narration. Nick Lacey was astute about this as we left the cinema, pointing out that Isabelle Huppert is in (nearly?) every scene. She is the sole protagonist – everything happens to her and she responds and initiates the next action. I’d have to watch the film several times to see whether this actually is the case, but it seems so in my memory. If so, what does it mean? It’s unusual for a single female protagonist to control the narrative in this way, especially in mainstream cinema, but possibly not for Ms Huppert. This control does suggest evidence for the argument that Michèle is a woman with power. She effectively narrates the story. In it she is physically and possibly mentally damaged by her experiences but appears to ‘recover’. She has financial power and ultimately the power in the relationships she develops (again possibly at the expense of her mental well-being). Whether her behaviour and her story ‘help’ women in society or challenge patriarchy, is a moot point. I suspect that neither Verhoeven or Huppert see that as their prime objective. They want to do the best professional job they can and in doing so provide entertainment and provoke discussion, which seems reasonable to me. Though I appreciate Ginette Vincendeau’s critique, I do think she makes a mistake in calling Elle ‘trashy’.
Looking at Amazon’s US DVD reviews, I can see a dramatic split in audience responses between the ‘no stars’ and ‘5 stars’. On IMDb the User Rating is 7.3. In the UK, Elle had taken over £650,000 after its third weekend, meaning it is battling it out for the biggest foreign language (non-South Asian) title of the year in the UK with Toni Erdmann. I’d really like to hear other views on the film.
It’s a moment to celebrate when a major South Korean film gets a UK release and from this weekend in the UK you have the opportunity to see it – as long as you live in one of a handful of major cities. When films from the revived South Korean film industry arrived in the UK from the late 1990s onwards it quickly became apparent that most of them were beautifully produced with a high level of technical skill and aesthetic understanding and that there are plenty of accomplished actors as well as skilled directors. It then quickly emerged that there were certain directors who were interested in marrying genre ideas from other cinemas with forms of Korean story-telling and aspects of Korean history and culture. Kim Jee-woon is one such director, first introduced to UK audiences with the immaculate horror film A Tale of Two Sisters (2002) and the slick gangster/crime film A Bittersweet Life (2005). Since then we’ve had releases for his ‘kimchi Western’, The Good the Bad and the Weird (2008), the hunt for a serial killer, I Saw the Devil (2011) and Kim’s American outing with Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Last Stand (2013). There are other titles that I don’t think have made it to UK cinemas.
The Age of Shadows is at heart a ‘resistance movie’, although technically it isn’t set in wartime. Ignore all the taglines that say it is a ‘spy movie’. I watched the film on a plane, poorly screened and cut by several minutes I think (it is listed as a 140 minutes in cinemas) and I missed the credit that all the press reviewers picked up. Consequently, I struggled to place the time period. The story is based on real events – a plot by an underground resistance group to explode bombs inside a government building in Seoul during the 1920s. The Japanese had been in direct control of Korea since 1910 (and indirectly since 1876). Kim’s film goes beyond a tense thriller to embrace two major action sequences and the soul-searching drama of a central character torn between personal survival and complicated feelings of patriotism. This is Lee Jung-Chool, the Korean who has become a Captain in the Japanese Police – and who is played by the great Song Kang-ho. He must report to his Japanese commander and attempt to infiltrate the resistance group represented by two star actors, Kim Woo-jin (recently in Train to Busan (South Korea 2016) and Lee Byung-hun (seen briefly in The Magnificent Seven (US 2016)) with Han Ji-min as the female lead. Han is not really given enough to do and this, for me, seemed to be the weakest aspect of the film.
The action scenes are terrific with wonderful set design and well integrated CGI. The action ranges from Shanghai (where the resistance collect explosives) to Seoul with the excitement of the train confrontation in between. Song is very good and the narrative and his playing mean that we are never quite sure how he is going to act, torn between pragmatism and idealism. In his Sight and Sound (April 2017) review, Roger Clarke suggests that the film’s title is a reference to Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic World War Two resistance film Army of Shadows (1969). That certainly fits in the sense that Kim would surely know the film (and I’m sure he knows the Hitchcock films that might inform his train confrontation). It’s also an interesting reference to cultural exchanges after Melville’s adoption of East Asian film culture in Le samouraï (1967). It’s almost as if Kim is retrieving Melville’s borrowing. Melville is also borrowed by various Hong Kong filmmakers for gangster films (see Vengeance (HK-France 2009). But Kim may also be borrowing from Ang Lee’s Lust Caution (China/Taiwan/US 2007). I think the real force of the Melville allusion is in the torture scenes when the resistance members are captured by the Japanese. The film suddenly got serious for me at that point.
I’d love to watch the film again on a big screen where I’m sure it will look wonderful. Unfortunately the distributor Soda’s engagements seem to miss out Leeds/Bradford completely. Outside London the film is screening at the major independent arthouses such as Watershed, HOME and Showroom and various Cineworlds and Odeons. Bizarrely, however, if you live in Manchester or Sheffield, you can choose an arthouse or a multiplex but if you live in Liverpool, Leeds/Bradford, Hull, Nottingham, Leicester or several other big cities, you are denied an opportunity. See the full list of screenings on the Soda website.
The Salesman has become indelibly connected to the idiocies of Trump’s attempted bans on Muslims entering America. Director Asghar Farhadi’s film duly won the Foreign Language Oscar with the director unable to attend the ceremony. In the UK, where the film is scheduled for release this week, preview screenings were arranged for Oscar night in response to the ban. If all this publicity means more people are encouraged to see the film that will be a good thing. The Salesman is an excellent film and it continues Farhadi’s astounding run of productions. In many ways the film uses a similar narrative form to Farhadi’s earlier films and this is the only reason why I would personally have preferred to see Toni Erdmann win the Oscar as something new.
The Salesman is most like Farhadi’s earlier films About Elly (2009) and A Separation (2011) in the way it demonstrates how the restrictions on social behaviour and the barriers to open discussion in Iranian society lead to potential tragedy. It’s also ‘different’ for two reasons. First, it operates as a mise en abîme – a narrative featuring a play within a play and encouraging the audience to consider how in this instance Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman might offer a commentary on the lives of the characters and on Iranian society generally. Second, Farhadi supplies a dramatic ending with something of a twist in the narrative (which I don’t intend to spoil).
The film opens with an urgent evacuation of a building. The reason for the evacuation is not immediately apparent, but will eventually be revealed as a consequence of poor building regulations – a literal weakness in the fabric of Iranian society. A couple is forced to move out of their flat. They are Emad, a high school/college teacher and his younger wife Rana (whose occupation I didn’t catch, but I think she is a student/writer?). They are also leading players in a theatre company which is staging Death of a Salesman. The director/producer of the play and a family friend, Babak, finds the couple a new apartment at short notice but unfortunately the previous tenant has left behind much of her furniture and belongings that must be stored until she collects them. There are early indications that Emad and Rana are going through a rough patch in their marriage and it may be partly related to a lack of children. Emad is clearly having problems with his teaching and a class of young men who can’t really see the point of a screening of the classic Iranian film The Cow (1969) directed by Dariush Mehrjui. The young men are not ‘bad lads’ – rather, we get the impression that Emad just doesn’t have the time to prepare his classes properly. More problematic is an incident in which Rana appears to have been assaulted in the bathroom of the new flat, requiring stitches to a wound on her head. Emad is shocked by what has happened to his wife and decides to take matters into his own hands (Rana does not report the incident to the police) and we, as the audience, don’t have a clear idea of what happened. I don’t think I’ll spoil any more of the plot development, only to say that what follows is in many ways a critique of masculinity in contemporary Iran. Farhadi cleverly introduces this issue by showing Emad being humiliated in a taxi by a middle-aged woman who, for no apparent reason, refuses to sit next to him. The humiliation is compounded by involving a third party, one of Emad’s own students who feels embarrassed for his teacher. The more Emad discovers about the previous tenant of the flat, the more obsessed he becomes about finding out what happened to Rana and trying to find someone to blame. At this point the narrative begins to resemble an almost Hitchcockian thriller.
The production of Death of a Salesman is clearly affected by these events involving two of its leading actors. I don’t know the play well enough to comment on the possible links between the two narratives except to recognise that Miller and Farhadi are both concerned with characters who are suffering from their own inadequacies as well as from the problems in the wider society. Farhadi in interviews mentions the importance of the humiliation of different characters and the sense that in both Miller’s play and his own group of characters there are questions about how much certain characters are able to cope with the modernising forces of city living. He suggests that Teheran today and New York in the late 1940s display similar influences of this modernising process. He does explain the links in interviews, but to discuss them here would spoil the narrative.
The Salesman is a deftly plotted film with marvellous performances from its ensemble cast led by two of Farhadi’s regulars. Shahab Hosseini appeared in both About Elly and A Separation. Taraneh Alidoosti has appeared in four Farhadi films. She was ‘Elly’ and also the young female characters in both Beautiful City (2004) and Fireworks Wednesday (2006). Babak Karimi as the producer of the play and all round ‘fixer’ has also worked on earlier Farhadi films. He is a major figure in Iranian cinema with a career as an editor and on one occasion as a producer for Abbas Kiarostami on Tickets (Italy-UK 2005). Farhadi has honed his methods through work in theatre and on TV and now he is able to work with these talented actors to produce complex dramas that seem simple on the surface, but which contain so much in their many layers of meaning. I note from the recent preview screening of The Salesman in London that one of Farhadi’s UK champions is Mike Leigh and looking back at my review of About Elly in a festival screening I see that I mentioned Mike Leigh in thinking about the three films from Farhadi I had seen at that point. Now it is five films and Farhadi’s talent is visible to an international audience. There is a lot more to say about The Salesman, but ‘opening up’ the text at this point would spoil the film for readers and anyway I would need to see the film again to understand more about how Farhadi does it.
The trailer below reveals slightly more of the plot, so don’t watch if you want to avoid any clues as to what happens.
The Japanese title of this film by Fukada Koji translates roughly as ‘Standing on the Edge’, which does have a direct reference later in the narrative, but in some ways ‘Harmonium’ is equally relevant, referring to both the musical instrument and to the concept of (dis)harmony in the family at the centre of the narrative. When the film begins Toshio and Akie have what seems from the outside to be a stable marriage, though perhaps they do seem a little distant from each other. Their small daughter Hotaru is bright and very close to her mother. She is the one who is learning to play the harmonium. Toshio runs a small metal-press workshop from home and one day a man suddenly appears asking for work. Toshio clearly knows who this is but for the audience Yasaka appears mysterious and slightly unnerving. He’s tall and thin and dressed in a crisp white shirt with the sleeves buttoned and dark formal trousers. He walks stiffly and speaks formally. Yasaka is played by Asano Tadanobu, a very well-known Japanese actor who in his early 40s already has around 90 film roles to his credit. In his younger days he was something of a ‘heart-throb’ star of various genre films such as Ichi the Killer and his presence here in such an unusual role is very effective.
Toshio invites Yasaka to lodge with the family (without consulting his wife first) and to work in the metal-press and at first he seems to behave very well. Eventually, as we suspect, his presence has an effect on all three family members. This is a narrative which has been used many times for different purposes. In a play like J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls the outsider comes into a family gathering uninvited and through questioning unearths a range of dark secrets, exposing the corruption in bourgeois society. Sometimes the outsider is more of a religious figure (saint or demon), or possibly a ghost, but the effect is similar. We expect to learn something about this family and we suspect it won’t necessarily be good – or at least what happens will be disturbing.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but we do slowly find out what links Toshio and Yasaka and we are led towards a tragedy. The plot then changes and we rejoin a more fractured family at a later date before a finale based on some important coincidences. Overall this is a dark family melodrama presented in a very carefully controlled and composed manner. It is also a form of thriller (Polanski is a director I thought of at various points) – as one reviewer points out, it doesn’t deliver conventional thrills, but sometimes the tension of suspense is unbearable. There are some fantasy sequences suggesting the disturbed state of family members – with phantom appearances of other characters. Fukada’s technique involves removing the clutter and clatter of family life and focusing on relationships. There are moments of melodramatic excess that don’t so much ‘erupt’ but quietly come to our attention and then resonate in a disturbing way. I’ll pick out a couple. Yasaka’s formal attire includes a crisp and dazzlingly white boiler suit for his work on the metal-press. In the trailer below you can see him on the street, suddenly opening the top of the suit to reveal a scarlet T-shirt beneath (the girl’s schoolbag is similarly red). The trailer also includes the harmonium playing a tune which Yasaka teaches to Hotaru – a tune accompanied by the clicking of the metronome.
At Yasaka’s first breakfast time with the family he eats at a ferocious speed, washing up his dishes before the others have finished eating. Perhaps this is a clue to where he has been, but it is in its own way disturbing when Akie takes time to whisk raw egg in her bowl. In the trailer we also hear the start of Hotaru’s story about the spiders who immediately start to eat their mother after their birth. This is discussed in some detail. As I reflect on the film, I realise that there are many such instances which will become more apparent on a second viewing. This is a ‘rich text’ that I’m sure will reward re-viewings. I’m not surprised that it has won prizes, though I think its appeal may be limited as mainstream audiences may find it either too slow and ponderous or too contrived and ‘clumsy’. I think it is the opposite, but then perhaps this is the kind of film I like. UK audiences will get a chance to see it as Eureka/Masters of Cinema plan a release in May 2017. This means we should get a quality DVD/Blu-ray with selected cinema screenings. In the trailer below there is an indication of several plot developments that I have avoided exposing in this blog post, so be warned! It’s a good trailer though and effectively teases you with the qualities of the film.
The Girl on the Train proved to be much more interesting than the majority of reviews suggested. I was fully engaged by a film that may have flaws but also many pluses that reviewers seem to have overlooked. I arrived early for my multiplex seat, able to watch the rest of the audience file in. I was struck by the overwhelming majority of women (of all ages) over men. Since the novelist whose work has been adapted, the scriptwriter, the cinematographer and the film’s three leads are all women, my first thought was “Why is the film directed by a man?”. I also wondered if this was a modern version of the ‘woman’s picture’?
The two aspects of the film that are most commented on are the adaptation’s relocation of the narrative from the Home Counties in the UK to New York State and a direct comparison with the similarly themed and structured Gone Girl by David Fincher. These weren’t in fact the two aspects of the film that intrigued me but perhaps I need to confront them first. I haven’t read Paula Hawkins novel and I’m not interested in valuing novels over film adaptations or vice versa. I did read Gone Girl before seeing Fincher’s film adaptation and so I had a different reaction to that film and its ‘unreliable narration’. The Girl on the Train also employs some ‘unreliable narrators’ but unlike in Gone Girl, the ‘unreliability’ is not deliberate for much of the time on behalf of the lead character Rachel (Emily Blunt). If you haven’t read the novel or the many reviews of the film, Rachel is a (barely) functioning alcoholic who can’t help torturing herself by thinking about her ex-husband Tom’s new marriage and his new baby daughter Evie. Rachel is unable to have a child and each day she travels on a commuter train past her old house looking for her successor Anna and her baby. (The train conveniently stops at the same signal near her old house.) She also becomes interested in another young couple Megan and Scott living close by in a house equally observable from the train window. Rachel frequently passes out when she has drunk too much and one day she wakes to discover on the TV news that Megan has gone missing. Rachel is disturbed by a vague feeling that somehow she is connected to Megan’s disappearance. Eventually she finds herself under suspicion by Police Sergeant Riley (Allison Janney) and decides to do some investigating, especially since she thinks she saw Megan kissing another man.
I understand that in Hawkins’ novel, the commuting journey is from a fictional town in Buckinghamshire. Transferring the narrative to Metro North along the Hudson River makes sense I think. Commuting into Marylebone or Euston is rather different to the jam-packed commuter trains and stations of South and East London and is closer to the commuting experience in New York. The Metro North trains are slower, less crowded and have the big windows which link this film to classics like Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest. It also struck me that by shooting in the Autumn in Westchester County, the filmmakers also conjure up the feel of classic melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows (1955) and its re-working Far From Heaven (2002). On another level, it made me think of The Stepford Wives (1975). I realise that these are references to New England rather than upstate New York, but the central point is around the milieu of the middle-class commuter town and the aridity of a culture which develops tensions between work in the city and domesticity in the small town. Like the Sirkian melodramas, the central characters are the women, trapped in a community with little vision and subject to domestic abuse and conventional norms of child-bearing. (I remember Megan’s line about the town as a ‘baby-making’ factory.) Rachel’s response to pressure is to become an alcoholic.
The major flaw in the film seems to me to be in the narration. I understand from the novel that there are meant to be three narrators – Rachel, Anna and Megan. Rachel is often drunk. Megan does have a ‘voice’ in the narration and she discusses her life with Dr Abdic, a local psychiatrist but Anna seems much less of a ‘narrator’. The film uses titles to inform us that it is ‘Six months ago’ etc. I confess that I found these titles somewhat confusing. I still followed the story but clearly I became mixed up about the plot. I suspect that because I treated the narrative as a melodrama with Rachel as the central subject, I didn’t bother too much about the plotting of the thriller elements and I certainly didn’t worry about contrivances or ‘excessive’ emotional responses. Emily Blunt is terrific in the film and the other two women are also very good. It’s interesting that two out of the three are Brits (or Swedish Brit in the case of Rebecca Ferguson). Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen is particularly good at presenting Emily Blunt on screen.The best line of the film for me was when Rachel challenges the psychiatrist played by Edgar Ramírez (the Venezuelan actor who speaks several languages fluently – see Carlos (France-Germany 2010)). “You have an accent”, she says. “So do you” he responds – touché! I like Ramírez a lot. I’m not sure that it matters, but he has more charisma than the other two male leads. On the other hand Justin Theroux plays Tom Watson very well as the rather dull guy with something lurking underneath. Luke Evans (another Brit!) plays Megan’s partner Scott and his macho tendencies seem more obvious. I was intrigued to see that the scriptwriter on the film, Erin Cressida Wilson, began her career with Secretary (2002) starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, a very effective film. I’d forgotten, before I wrote this review, that I’d seen the James Brown biopic Get On Up (2014) by director Tate Taylor. When I re-read my posting on that film I noticed that one of my issues with it was the narrative structure. Taylor handles the actors and the action well. It’s mainly the narration that I have problems with in Girl on the Train.
The Girl on the Train is still on release and it’s worth seeing in a cinema. At the very least it has three lead roles for women, no car chases or explosions and no super-heroes. It’s a movie for grown-ups. The next day I watched Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1950) with Gene Tierney as a woman who falls prey to a hypnotist. I enjoyed both films.
(This is an edited version of my introduction to the film on its first ¡Viva! screening)
Magallanes offers a relatively rare opportunity to see a Peruvian film and to consider what it means to produce a film in a country like Peru. Peru is the fifth-largest Latin American country in terms of population but its film culture is not as developed as that of its northern neighbour Columbia or Venezuela (roughly the same population) or Chile (smaller population but a bigger film market). Cinema requires a substantial middle class audience to support a thriving film culture, at least in terms of cinema audiences and domestic productions. Peru has a history of social inequality and poor economic performance until the last decade of significant growth.
Peru makes around 10 films per year. Its cinemas are dominated by Hollywood features (less than 1% of the audience is for domestic features) but the average frequency of attendance is less than once a year per head of population. (All figures for 2011 from FOCUS produced by the European Audio-Visual Observatory – the figures are four years old, but I don’t think they will have changed significantly.)
Making a local Peruvian film that will appeal to a domestic popular audience (and therefore compete with Hollywood imports) and to international film markets (conferring cultural status) is very difficult and requires one or more factors to be in place.
- public funding
- external funding – film festival support for scripts and filmmakers
It usually means finding a popular genre as a carrier for an important local story that will also have some kind of universal appeal outside the country.
Magallanes is a co-production with Argentina, Colombia and Spain. Writer-director Salvador del Solar is a Peruvian actor known for films and TV performances across Latin America and this is his début film. The three main actors are the Mexican Damián Alcázar, the Argentinian Federico Luppi (known in the UK for his roles in Guillermo del Toro films) and Peru’s own Magaly Solier (who has appeared in two previous ¡Viva! films from Peru, Madeinusa (2006) and The Milk of Sorrow (2009) ).
The music is by the Argentinian Federico Jusid, who also composed the music for The Secret in Their Eyes, one of the most successful Latin American films of the last few years and shown in this ¡Viva! festival as part of the Ricardo Darin strand. In some ways, Magallanes is similar kind of film, a genre film with its roots in a national issue. It’s less complex in terms of narrative and less spectacular in terms of action – but perhaps more profound in what it attempts to say.
With a budget of around £650,000 Magallanes is a genuine popular film with international appeal, recognised by its successful screenings at film festivals such as Toronto and San Sebastián. The script is adapted from a novel by Alonso Cueto called The Passenger – and its story begins when a woman gets into a taxi cab. Critics described the novel as a suspense thriller mixed with the psychological depth of the realist novel – and this description suits the film as well.
The narrative and the Political history of Peru
It’s useful to think about Magallanes as similar to some of the successful films made in the smaller film industries of Europe have over the last decade. Films like Black Book (2006) in the Netherlands, Flame and Citron (2008) in Denmark and Max Manus (2008) in Norway. These extremely popular films in their local markets competed successfully with Hollywood in looking back to the Second World War and the ways in which local people dealt with the experience of Occupation and the development of Resistance movements. Sometimes films have also looked at the shame associated with collaboration. This is especially true in France where specific films such as Un héros tres discrèt (1996) explored the ‘myth’ of ‘resistance’ and others such as Un secret (2007) explored the ways in which anti-semitism in France became part of ‘collaboration’.
In Latin America it is the aftermath of the vicious oppression of military regimes and forms of civil war from the 1970s through to the 1990s and beyond which has formed the basis for successful film stories, especially in Argentina. The Chilean documentarist Patricio Guzmán has made it his life’s work to document the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the subsequent atrocities of the General Pinochet regime – Guzmán’s latest film The Pearl Button (France-Chile 2015) is currently on release in the UK.
Peru experienced a civil war which reached its height in the 1980s and continued through to 2000. The main conflict, in what was a complicated struggle for power involving several different groups, was between the security forces of the right-wing governments of the period and the Maoist guerrilla group known as the Shining Path. These two forces tried to take control of the mountain areas in the Andes, particularly in the Ayacucho region and in doing so they imposed themselves violently on the indigenous peoples of the region. Both sides committed atrocities on a large scale. A ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ reported in Peru in 2003 and suggested that some 70,000 people had been killed or ‘disappeared’ in the conflict and some 500,000 were displaced from their homes. Ayacucho experienced a ‘reign of terror’. The victims were mainly indigenous people and after they fled to the slums of the capital Lima, they became the focus of investigations and death squads as the conflict moved to urban areas in the 1990s.
The story of Magallanes – the name of the central character – takes place in Lima in the present day. Lima is a very large city of nearly 10 million people and one of the three largest in the Americas with nearly a third of Peru’s population. It’s a sprawling modern city suggesting economic progress and looking forward to the future, but for many of its residents the horrors of the past are not easy to forget. Magallanes (Damián Alcázar) is a part-time taxi driver and paid ‘companion’ to ‘the Colonel’ – his former commanding officer when the two men were stationed in Ayacucho. The Colonel (Federico Luppi). The Colonel has now succumbed to a form of dementia and we can’t be sure what he remembers of his time in the Andes. When Celina (Magaly Solier) climbs into his cab, Magallanes recognises her as the young indigenous girl taken by the Colonel as his sex slave during those years in Ayacucho. Magallanes quickly hatches a plan to extort money from the Colonel’s wealthy son – but is it the money that he wants or something else? What was his relationship with Celina?
I was most struck in watching the film by a scene towards the end of the film in which during an argument Celina begins to speak in Quechua, the language spoken by many indigenous people. The dialogue is not translated in the English subtitles and as the audience we can’t be sure if the European Peruvians who speak Spanish understand this outburst. But in a sense it doesn’t matter. Some people prefer not to think about the past, others try to hide it. Some try to come to terms with what happened and some just refuse to even listen. Spanish is the dominant official language, Quechua is spoken by perhaps 10% of the Peruvian population.
The people in power in Peru today still face questions about the aftermath of a conflict that ended less than 20 years ago. In the 1990s the President of Peru was Alberto Fujimori whose ’counter-insurgency’ measures led to deaths and disappearances in Lima. He fled to Japan to escape justice in 2000 but was extradited and in 2009 he was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 25 years in gaol. In April 2016 his daughter Keiko Fujimori won the first round of voting during the Presidential Elections with nearly 40% of the vote. She looks like winning the second round in June. So it goes.
But perhaps the production of a celebrated feature film trying to deal with remembering the past is a sign that Peruvian culture can move forward?
Magallanes plays again as the final screening in this years ¡Viva! at HOME on Sunday 24th April at 16.00
This is a seminal film from the 1960s, partly because it was a trail blazer in addressing issues around sexual orientation. When the film appeared homosexuality was illegal and gay people were constantly victimised, especially by the police. What makes this more impressive is that two major British stars lead the film, Dirk Bogarde as Melville Farr and Sylvia Syms as his wife Laura. This is very much Bogarde’s film, but Syms is excellent and there is one powerful scene between the couple when they have to confront the question of same sex attraction. There is also a very goods supporting cast with actors like Peter McEnery, Dennis Price and Derren Nesbitt.
The film was produced by Allied Filmmakers, whose other productions of the period included Whistle Down the Wind (1961). The key figures in this film would appear to be the team of Michael Relph [Producer] and Basil Dearden [Director]. They made a series of important social problem films in the 1950s and early 1960s. Two of their really interesting films are Pool of London (1951) which addresses inter-racial romance and Violent Playground (1958) dealing with police and crime in Manchester. One aspect of their work is the use of location filming and a consequent sense of realism. Their films tend to appear somewhat conventional today as they have to operate within the conventions of popular film of the time. So there is always a sense that something is held back: neither Pool of London or Victim go the whole way in showing explicit physical contact either between a black man and a white woman or between two men.
However, when one take into account the censorship of the time by the British Board of Film Censors this is understandable. Victim received an X certificate when it was released and had to be cut by about ten minutes. Intriguingly over the years the certification has gone down: 15, 12 and then PG. So credit should also go to the writers, Janet Green and John McCormick. As so frequently was the case the film subject has been wrapped up in a genre plot, in this case a thriller concerning blackmail. The film actually has a strong noir feel, much of this due to the cinematography of Otto Heller, who had a tendency to expressionist camera work. [He also worked on the then infamous, now famous Peeping Tom (1960)].
The version screening on Sunday at The Hyde Park Picture House appears to be a full length version, 101 minutes. Equally good news, it is screening in a pristine 35mm print. This is definitely a key popular artwork from the 1960s, that decade that dramatised nearly all of the major contradictions in British society. It is also a very entertaining film, and much better seen on the big screen.