Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher made a strong début with her 2011 film Corpo celeste (Heavenly Body) which showed in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, winning a prize. Although Artificial Eye released the film in the UK in 2012, it got little exposure and I missed it. I’ll certainly seek it out after seeing her new film The Wonders. I understand that both films have something of an autobiographical influence and the director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher, well-known on Italian screens, appears in The Wonders.
Alice Rohrwacher has an Italian mother and a German father who was a beekeeper. These are all part of the ‘narrative material’ of The Wonders. I find it difficult to categorise this film. There are strong elements of neo-realism, sometimes developed in surprising ways, and also moments of if not ‘magic realism’, at least something vaguely spiritual or fantastical. It’s also funny, dramatic and very moving. In genre terms I suppose it is a ‘coming of age’ narrative, but just as importantly it is a commentary on aspects of contemporary society – delivered with humour but also acuity. The Wonders won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014, but I’ve also seen reviews that describe it as ‘slight’. I couldn’t disagree more.
The family at the centre of the film comprises an Italian mother, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher), a German father (Belgian actor Sam Louwick) who keeps bees in the organic/’natural’/’bio’ manner, their four young daughters and Coco a family friend (also German, I think). It isn’t clear if they are squatting on the land or renting it. Clearly they don’t have much money and the bulk of the work seems to be organised by Wolfgang, but actually carried out by the eldest daughter Gelsomina. I’m not sure how old she is meant to be – 12-13 perhaps? The ‘business’ has all kinds of problems, but the two ‘disruptions’ that drive the narrative are a reality TV show, ‘The Wonders’, and the arrival of a 14 year-old boy seemingly as cheap labour on some kind of rehabilitation/probation scheme (he’s German as well). The reality show is a brilliant satire of Italian TV in which Monica Bellucci in a long white wig is a kind of carnival queen looking for colourful locals who in this part of coastal Tuscany can represent the farming community and evoke the ancient Etruscan culture. Wolfgang ignores the show but Gelsomina is entranced and secretly registers the family for the show. The boy says very little but entrances the girls with his ability to whistle.
“Le meraviglie is a film about the countryside, about the somewhat peculiar love between a father and his daughters, about missing male sons, about animals and little people that live in the television. It is a film in the viterbese dialect, but when the characters are angry, they even respond sometimes in French and German. Le meraviglie is also a fable.” (Alice Rohrwacher in the Press Notes)
I think that the film can be enjoyed simply on the level of the coming of age/family story (which does have a slight ‘twist’ at the end) but its real strength is Rohrwacher’s commentary on being an outsider – or an outsider community. She stresses that her setting is a specific region of Italy, where Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria meet and where dialect is still important and mingles with the languages of migrants. She points out that though many think of rural areas as somehow more ‘pure’ and monocultural, they are in this region likely to include the mixed family groups of which this family is representative. (Alexandra Lungu who plays Gelsomina comes from a Romanian family.) But it is more than just a story of migrations. Rohrwacher also points to the marginal position of Wolfgang and Angelica in terms of politics and lifestyles:
“They are people that arrived in the country as a political choice because in the cities there were no more jobs and years of demonstrations had been stifled by violence and disillusionment. So they read books, learned to make a vegetable garden with handbooks, tried hard, and fought the seasons alone. They are all ex-somethings, with different languages, distant pasts, but with common ideals. I have met many families like this in Italy, but also in France, in Greece. Small communities untethered to the rest, with autonomous rules and a parallel life to that which we read about in the newspaper. But it is not a simple life: you have to work hard and it is difficulty to survive without the comfort of belonging to a movement. You are not a true farmer because you are not from the land, but you can also not be defined as a city person because you have severed ties to the city. You are not hippies because you break your back from sun-up to sundown, but you are also not agricultural entrepreneurs because you reject the use of more efficient agricultural technology in the name of a healthier life. Not having a movement, a definition which can be ascribed from the outside, all that remains is one word: family.”
I realised while watching the film that I’d seen another film about a struggling family living on the land. Will It Snow For Christmas? (France 1996, dir. Sandrine Veysset) is a much bleaker and more realist film but it would be interesting to compare them. I’m still thinking through my readings of The Wonders – there are further remarks from Alice Rohrwacher about the post-1968 generation and conflicting ideas about what the changes post-1968 might mean – but I think it is also worth exploring what the film means in terms of the large number of migrants from Africa now entering Italy as the access point to Europe. I’ll definitely be coming back to this film which has been acquired for a UK release by Soda Pictures.
As a late night film on TV this was an undemanding but generally enjoyable watch. I watched it because of Felicity Jones and she and Jessica Brown Findlay as the two leads both give spirited performances. On reflection, the film offers a case study in the problems facing British filmmakers. There are quite a few films like this, offering vehicles for some talented performers and technicians but also being deeply flawed because of poor scripts. I try not to moan about scripts – I’m sure they are difficult to write and I couldn’t write one. However, the relatively inexperienced Tamzin Rafn doesn’t seem to have had much support here. The producers must take some of the responsibility.
Ms Rafn has stated that she was inspired by the example of Diablo Cody who developed the script for Juno (Canada/US 2007) after beginning to write autobiographically about her life as a stripper. Rafn took on board the idea of writing about what she knew and produced a script featuring a ‘naughty girl’ in a seaside town. From this interview it is clear that the script was gradually changed in pre-production and what began as a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ domestic comedy became more about the relationship between two young women. The film begins with Emelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) as a rather mysterious but vivacious 17 year-old taken on as a cleaner in a small private hotel owned by Jonathan, the German writer of a single bestselling novel (Sebastian Koch), his shrewish wife Joa played by Julia Ormond, bookish daughter Beth (Felicity Jones) and her much younger sister Posy. Emelia is witty and tantalising and has soon entranced the writer and Beth, pushed Joa almost to the edge and amused Posy. Emelia is later revealed to be living with her grandparents and the ‘albatross’ of the title is that she genuinely believes she is related to the writer Arthur Conan Doyle. She has left school, started taking casual jobs and wants to become a writer.
The scenario sounds familiar with the insertion of a ‘disrupting influence’ into a family which has become mired in frustration in terms of its internal relationships. The reviews and critical reaction tend to refer to this as a ‘coming of age’ story with both Emelia and Beth as 17/18 year-olds. The marketing of the film deliberately makes reference to David Leland’s Wish You Were Here (UK 1987). Tamzin Rafn tells us that Leland himself sent an encouraging message after the film’s Edinburgh screening. Leland made several very good films and TV plays about young people in the UK and Rafn finds parallels between her own experience and that of Emily Lloyd as Leland’s young heroine in a 1950s South Coast town. Both films make use of Bert Hardy’s iconic image of freedom and sexual liberation for holidaymakers in Blackpool – yet the young women in both films are residents not ‘grockles’.
And here is the second problem for the film. It was made by CinemaNX the company that managed the investment-funding of the Isle of Man Film Commission and its first and best-known credit was Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (US/UK 2009) which used several key locations on the island. I think it has now been taken over by Pinewood Studios. The Isle of Man is a fabulous location with a range of landscapes and many buildings that can stand in for a variety of locations – as they did for a New York theatre in the 1930s in the Linklater film. In Albatross the key location is the pretty harbour of Peel. For those of you outside the UK, the Isle of Man sits in the Irish Sea almost equidistant from England, Scotland and Ireland. Its glorious scenery reflects its geographical location, though it could also represent West Wales or the Cornish/Devon coast. But it doesn’t look like the coast further east where I take Albatross to be set. Landscape does matter. More important for the narrative perhaps, Emilia and Beth feel isolated in this ‘dump’ of a South Coast town. This is fine, but unlike Emily Lloyd in the 195os, 17 year-olds today could easily catch a train or hitch a lift to London at any time. Think how much more ‘isolated’ they would be located on the Isle of Man or the coast of Scotland or Northern Ireland when it comes to one of the key sequences – Beth’s visit to Oxford for a university interview. A decent script would use the sense of place. The idea of the writer who buys a hotel in a quiet seaside town could work quite well – I’ve seen some films set on Scottish islands that do this.
The film eventually becomes about the two very different young women and many reviews compared the film to Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love (UK 2004) with Emily Blunt and Natalie Press. The comparison doesn’t favour Albatross. My first thoughts turned to Sandra Golbacher’s underrated Me Without You (UK 2001) with Anna Friel and Michelle Williams. Again, the comparison doesn’t do the script of Albatross very many favours. It’s a shame because the performers are generally very good, including the wonderful Peter Vaughan as Emilia’s granddad. The direction is fine by Niall MacCormick and the ‘Scope cinematography by Swedish(?) cinematographer Jan Jonaeus shows off the locations very well. The music score is lively – but there is only so much you can do with characters who don’t have much to say that is interesting.
My initial focus was Felicity Jones. Here she plays a character much younger than her real age and it only showed a couple of times. This film completed a trio of youth pictures following Cemetery Junction (UK 2010) and SoulBoy (UK 2010), both ‘period’ stories. Also in 2011 she was the lead in Chalet Girl, an enjoyable romantic social comedy which perhaps I’ll write about later. Felicity Jones has already clocked up an impressive list of film and TV credits and is now beginning to appear in more international films following her The Amazing Spider-Man 2 appearance in 2014. This year she is opposite Jonah Hill and James Franco in the re-titled US film Jill. She has also completed the next Eran Creevy film Autobahn made in Germany with US money. I’m looking forward to that. Jones has been all over the US chat shows in the last few years and she is clearly going places. She’s clearly bright and hard-working and distinctive. I hope she can maintain that persona.
Meanwhile Jessica Brown Findlay, who is actually the lead in Albatross, hasn’t quite capitalised on her high profile in Downton Abbey as yet but she is clearly talented too. But then so was Julia Ormond whose reign as a lead in Hollywood films was altogether too brief in the mid-1990s. Now she’s a character actor (in a thankless role here, I think).
See all three of the British actors (I couldn’t find any reason why Sebastian Koch was cast as the author, unless it was an attempt to sell the film in Europe) in this trailer:
The first of Céline Sciamma’s trilogy about teenage girls is in some ways the most hard-hitting, primarily because it is the least contextualised in terms of family and setting. All three films deal with an isolated teenage girl who is in some ways attracted into a ‘community’ or a set of relationships. In the second of the trilogy, Tomboy (2011), questions of gender and identity are approached with more circumspection and the ‘issue’ is set partly in a family context. In the third film, Girlhood, the sociology of the lead character’s situation is laid out in more detail. (A review of Girlhood will arrive soon.)
The ‘water lilies’ of the title are the teams of young female synchronised swimmers based in a pool in Ile de France (the same outer suburbs, where the director grew up, that appear in Tomboy). The central character is Marie (Pauline Acquart) a skinny young girl who is attractive but appears younger than her close friend Anne (Louise Blachère). Anne, one of the swimmers, is chasing boys but Marie is fascinated by the girls in the pool and in particular the tall and glamorous captain of the senior team, Floriane (Adèle Haenel). Floriane seems to revel in her reputation as a ‘slag’ (or ‘slut’ – not sure about the accuracy of the subtitles, the terms have slightly different meanings in British English)) and the other girls assume that she is regularly sleeping with the local boys. But is she? Marie seems quite prepared to join the team in order to find out. Does she know that this may offend Anne? Both Anne and Floriane are chasing the same boy.
Water Lilies is a film about hormones and teenage angst. The (‘mature’) female audience members I watched it with were reminded of the agonies of teenage life but didn’t really take to the film. For my part, as a mystified middle-aged male, I found the film fascinating in terms of the single-mindedness and bravery of Marie in seeking what she wanted. I think Céline Sciamma is a major talent and I’m trying to think of an American or British film that comes anywhere near the directness and acute observation of this trilogy. I suppose Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (US 2003) gets somewhere near but most of the leading British female directors (Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Clio Barnard) tend to focus as much on boys as girls and I can’t immediately think of films that focus on teenage girls en masse in quite the same way. Reading through IMDB comments on the film, Sofia Coppola’s name comes up but arguably the strongest films presenting younger teenage girls are Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love, Sweden 1998) and We Are the Best! (Sweden 2013) by Lukas Moodysson (helped on the latter by his partner’s script).
Unlike in Tomboy there are virtually no parents seen in Water Lilies and the three girls seem to come and go as they please (I assume it is the summer holiday season). The lack of parents/family (no awkward siblings) is perhaps simply part of the minimalism of the film. There are few of the other trappings of the youth picture (no pop songs, clashes with ‘authority’, cultural differences expressed through food/drink/teen slang etc.). In this interview Céline Sciamma explains that the focus on just the girls was deliberate – forcing the viewer to identify with 15 year-old girls and how they see the world. During the promotional period for the film at festivals Sciamma outed herself and this film could be categorised as part of lesbian cinema. However, it seemed to me that the questions of gender identity it raises are just as mixed as they are in Tomboy. The focus on long sequences in the pool and in the showers offer a mise en scène that is clammy, overheated and loaded with metaphors for sexual congress (something shared with a number of other ‘pool-based’ films, including Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End). It would be interesting to know how many teachers have thought about using this film with 15 year-old students to stimulate discussion around gender identity. I suspect that many might be worried by the direct approach. For me there is nothing prurient about this film (though I guess going by the dictionary definition of the word it would be possible to argue that there is). What would be useful to discuss is the difference between those films that use the girls’ changing room as the site of excitement for the male gaze (the Porky’s films from the 1980s and perhaps De Palma’s Carrie) and this film (and a film featuring boys in a similar situation like if . . . .) which see the changing room and the showers as a site for personal discoveries about sexual identity. The image of Marie above reminds me of Sister Ruth spying on Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (UK 1947).
Reading comments on the film, I’m taken by the number of young people who enjoy the film and take it for what it is. Some of them suggest that they like the music. I didn’t notice it so that probably proves that it is appropriate for a youth picture.
The trailer for the film is useful in conveying the setting but distorts the narrative by focusing solely on one relationship. The sequences featuring the third character Anne are important too:
My fourth visit to this year’s Leeds International Film Festival offered a mild disappointment followed by one of the best films I’ve seen this year. First I’ll deal with the problematic film. Before 2014 I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen a Latvian film and then two came along with very similar stories. At Bradford’s festival in April I enjoyed Mother, I Love You (Latvia 2013), an engaging film about a young teenager in trouble at school, deceiving his loving mother and having nighttime adventures in Riga and a brush with the authorities. Modris, the protagonist of the more recent film, is older – he has his 18th birthday during the time period of the narrative – but he also takes off after a dispute with his mother (caused by his need to find cash to feed his slot-machine addiction). Again he is in a single parent family but up till now he hasn’t bothered too much to find his father, accepting his mother’s explanation that his father is in prison.
Modris is an apathetic teen, the kind of guy of whom older people are likely to say: “He doesn’t do himself any favours”. While that’s true it doesn’t mean that we can’t have any sympathy for his position, but writer-director Juris Kursietis makes it more difficult for me at least in shooting many scenes handheld in close-up and sometimes very shallow focus. Close-up and handheld here means an extremely off-putting image. And why shoot in ‘Scope if you are going to waste the potential for widescreen compositions? I can cope with handheld if it’s done with care but here it seems to be striving for some kind of effect. The young man playing Modris, Kristers Piksa, was present at the screening and in the Q&A he told us various things about the production. Kristers was not trained as an actor and he got the role almost by accident. A perceptive question from the audience prompted him to tell us that many of the handheld scenes were shot in one take – but that sometimes it might take anything up to 16 takes to achieve the desired result. Researching the film after the screening and taking on board the actor’s comments, I note that director was trained in the UK at the Northern Media School (Sheffield Hallam) and that this was his first fiction feature after documentaries and short films. He seems to have followed the ‘Ken Loach approach’ of giving his actors only the pages of script that they need for a specific scene, so that they remain fresh, reacting to events. I note also that Bogumil Godfrejow, an experienced and award-winning Polish cinematographer and some established Latvian actors in the cast means that even with a limited budget (€350,000?) there was the opportunity to make an interesting film. In the end it is the script that lets the film down. The story is based on a real character (who Kristers Piksa told us is now somewhere in the North of England) so it should have credibility. Kristers himself definitely has a screen presence – tall and gangly with a memorable nose. At times he presents an air of bemusement and incomprehension that reminded me of Vincent Cassel’s performance in La haine. But too much is unexplained or introduced and not followed up, so it becomes difficult to really care about the character. The potential narrative about gambling addiction seems to get lost completely.
There are, however, a number of interesting aspects of contemporary Latvian culture that do come to light in the narrative. The most obvious is the disconnect between what appears to be a society that validates music and other forms of cultural expression and has created a relatively high wage economy but which also operates a draconian criminal justice system that can lock up offenders for relatively trivial offences (i.e. the kinds of offences many teenagers commit. The film also offers the frictions of social class difference (like Mother I Love You) and hints at the legacy of Russian control of Latvia prior to 1991 and contemporary issues about migration. I wanted to like Modris more than I did. Perhaps on another day I would have done – but it needs a better script. I have to point out that the film has received good reviews from various festivals and Toronto called it “tough, but compassionate”. This trailer for the film makes it look much more exciting than I found it in reality: