Tagged: youth picture

LFF2016 #7: Divines (France-Qatar 2016)

Taking Paris by storm

Taking Paris by storm

Divines is a fascinating and provocative film that is highly entertaining and timely. No wonder it created a stir at Cannes earlier this year where it won the Camera d’Or, the ‘first feature’ prize, for its director Houda Benyamina. Unfortunately, what could be an excellent film to use with 16-19 students in schools and colleges in the UK has been bought by Netflix and is currently certificated (15) by the BBFC only for VOD. If you want to see this in cinemas you’ll have to go to France. Perhaps we should lobby Netflix for a DCP? Presumably it will appear on Blu-ray? But first you’ll want to know why all the excitement.

Divines is a ‘banlieue film’, i.e. a narrative set in the the housing estates outside Paris. Its director is Moroccan-French and the lead character Dounia is played by the director’s younger sister Oulaya Amamra. Dounia is a 15 year-old facing the same bleak future as the central character in Girlhood (France 2014) and she reaches breaking point when faced with a role-play in school designed to train her as a receptionist/desk clerk. Dounia is already equipped for survival on the street and has a shoplifting scam worked out for the local supermarket with her partner in rebellion Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena). Dounia is petite, beautiful and sharp as a tack, Maimouna is large, exuberant, but also slightly vulnerable. Dounia is in charge. Her family is unable to control her. The family lives in a Roma camp and earn a living in bars and clubs. Maimouna’s parents are more conservative and she is expected to go to the mosque.

Divines is a youth picture which mixes crime, romance and dance – an interesting combination. Dounia can only see herself making progress by working for the area’s drug queen, but she’s distracted by her interest in the security guard at the supermarket – a handsome young man with a six-pack and a flair for athletic modern dance. Dounia seems driven both by desire and envy when Djigui (Kévin Mischel), the guard, succeeds in his attempt to get into a dance troupe. The film’s final section uses a familiar genre narrative device and overall the strength of the film is not so much in the story development as in the performances, the presentation of the action and the emotion packed into the central relationship between the two girls.

According to Isabel Stevens in her useful overview of the film for the LFF, director Houda Benyamina is a self-taught filmmaker who made several short films and set up a workshop for actors, including her sister and Déborah, before this, her first feature. Divines is informed by Benyamina’s experiences of the Paris riots in 2005. Her filmmaking background reminds me of the similar story of Shane Meadows and his Nottingham experience. In both cases the director is working with actors they know from a local community and that gives the performances an energy that is more difficult to conjure up by directors who come into the community from outside. Divines does use some ideas that are shared by both Girlhood and La haine but it is in no way derivative of those two well known films and includes its own innovative ideas alongside the emotional impact of its central relationship. It also acts as an antidote to the negatives of the otherwise worthwhile Black on release in the UK earlier this year. But can we get Divines out of the clutches of Netflix?

Sid and Nancy (UK 1986)

sidnancy

This film has been re-released on a reasonably good digital transfer for its 30th anniversary. The writer (with Abbe Woole) and director Alex Cox commented in a S&S interview:

“All that explains a sort of misunderstanding in the UK, where it was taken to be a film about the punk scene. The reception in America (USA), where it was viewed as a horrific love story, was closer to our intentions.” (August 2016 issue).

Cox also makes the point that to see films about punk watch those of Julien Temple: The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980) covers some of the ground found in this film.

However, the punk scene of the late 1970s is an essential setting to this unconventional romance. The movement was raw, often simplistic, but avowedly rebellious and an example of the glorious bad taste representative of the 1970s: think Ken Russell and his best films.

In this world of style, music and gratuitous misbehaviour, often both sadistic and masochistic, bloomed the self-destructive relationship between Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). One of the aspects that really makes the film worth watching are the performances by the lead couple, especially Oldman. And there are some key supporting characterisations, like David Hayman as Malcolm McLaren.

Moreover, whilst the film captures the key settings and quite a few of the key moments with convincing naturalism, this is essentially not a realist portrait. So some of the best moments are dream-like, almost surrealist. There is a great sequence in Paris where Sid imagines a performance on a giant staircase. And there are several New York sequences where alternative moments provide a strongly reflexive commentary.

Much of the film was filmed in actual locations. So one can happily recognise places in London, Paris and New York. The cinematography, by Roger Deakins in one of his early features, is excellent. There are shots of the New York skyline which are ethereal. And there is a magnificent road sequence, set in Georgia though shot in California, of the Sex Pistols’ convoy, escorted by bikers with a helicopter bussing overhead like a busy bee. And the music score, including some classic numbers, is great.

The rest of the production support this. it is a treat to watch though also at time disturbing. So this re-release has an 18 certificate. But at other points it is funny and then tragic. Cox seems vaguely dissatisfied with the film in his interview: but I think it is the most interesting film he has made. Oddly the prime focus in S&S is US punk, even though the British scene came first. It would have been good for a commentary on the Temple film.  Julien Temple also directed Vigo: A Passion for Life (1988). I could see why someone with a punk sensibility would rate this earlier filmmaker. There are faint but intriguing parallels.

Mustang (Turkey/France/Germany/Qatar 2015)

The five sisters together

The five sisters together

In a Turkish village on the Black Sea coast, five orphaned sisters celebrate finishing school for the summer by splashing in the sea with boys – only to be incarcerated by their grandmother and uncle who view their behaviour as unseemly and provocative. Instead of summer holidays they begin lessons at home in preparation for future marriage. Written by Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Alice Winocour and directed as a début feature by Ergüven, the film has been welcomed as a film by women about sisterhood and growing up under the restrictions of a conservative society. Deniz Gamze Ergüven is part Turkish and part French and the film is a co-production.

Mustang is a stunning film and it’s no surprise that it has been celebrated by film festivals in Europe and North America and nominated for an Oscar in a very competitive competition. (But I’m intrigued about how it will fare in Asia.) In the UK the film is the second title selected for the BFI’s new distribution support scheme and it has been widely seen and discussed by enthusiastic audiences. Many of the reviews have made a reference to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (US 1999) – especially in the US. Certainly there are obvious similarities, but the film also uses ideas shared with other films in its universal story about families, conservative communities and girls’ adolescence in the face of the modernising impact of globalisation. One important difference to The Virgin Suicides is that it is narrated from the girls’ point of view. One sequence in particular reminds me of Jafar Panahi’s Offside (Iran 2006), with the struggles of young female supporters to watch men’s football in perhaps the most joyful sequence in the film. The depiction of rural weddings also makes me think of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (India 2001) as well as several weddings featured in Palestinian films.

The film’s title refers to the term for a wild horse in North America and Ergüven intended her young women to have the same romantic appeal as the mustangs of folk songs and Western movies. In the production notes for the film she tells us that the mustang symbolises:

my five spirited and untamable heroines. Visually, even, their hair is like a mane and, in the village, they’re like a herd of mustangs coming through. And the story moves fast, galloping forward, and that energy is at the heart of the picture, just like the mustang that gave it its name.

Ergüven goes on to refer to other ways that the five sisters are symbolic:

The film expresses things much more sensitively and powerfully than I ever could. I see it as a fairy tale with mythological motifs, such as the Minotaur, the labyrinth, the Lernaean Hydra – the girl’s five-headed body – and a ball that is signified here by the soccer match that the girls long to attend.

Lale (Günes Sensoy) is the youngest of the sisters and the most 'modern'?

Lale (Günes Sensoy) is the youngest of the sisters and the most ‘modern’?

These two statements are key to the specific form of representation used in the film. This is not a neo-realist or social realist account of girls in a rural community. The five young women were found in various ways through the casting process. One had previous acting experience – Elit Iscan (Ece) was one of the children in Times and Winds (Turkey 2006) by Reha Erdem and again in his 2008 film My Only Sunshine. Tuğba Sunguroğlu (Selma) was spotted on a Paris-Istanbul flight and the other three were found via auditions in France and Turkey. The film’s plot does suggest that originally the girls came from Istanbul, so the sense that they are already ‘modernised’/’westernised’ is given narrative authenticity. It’s also important that the youngest sister, Lale, is the narrator and that by definition she is the most ‘modern’ – and therefore the one most likely to resist confinement. (She’s the one who supports the football team.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I was rooting for the girls all the way through, but even so I was surprised that I began to cry during the last scene which I did feel was a little too neat in its resolution – but clearly my emotional responses told me differently. Taking a more distanced view, I recognise the director’s argument (she also co-wrote the film with Alice Wincour) that the story uses symbolism rather than social realism. Even so, I think it might have been even more powerful if the five sisters had been represented a little more in social realist style. There are quite a lot of shots of the girls stretching in the sunlight streaming in through the windows of their room/prison with their graceful movements, beautiful legs and luxuriant hair. Are these shots designed for a ‘female gaze’?  A debate about the aesthetic choices in the film would be good. I should note that the music in the film passed me by, but I understand that it is important. Whatever my reservations, this is a film that should be widely seen – it would be good if it developed the status of a La haine in its appeal to a youth audience and its questioning of assumptions. What’s happening in Turkey is both shocking and sad. The irony is that throughout the Arab world, in that strange way that ex-colonial ties work, it is Turkish film and TV which is bringing about the seeds of a social revolution in Muslim countries.

There is an ongoing discussion about the film on ‘Conversations About Cinema‘.

Victoria (Germany 2015)

Laia Costa as Victoria

Laia Costa as Victoria

Victoria has received attention first because of its formal conceit – a single take used to present an ‘adventure’ covering 138 minutes in the early morning before dawn (roughly 04.30 to 07.00). The film’s narrative otherwise features a relatively familiar genre set-up drawing on two or three different repertoires and set in Berlin. Because the plot requires two separate sections – a slow build-up and then a rapid action sequence interspersed with moments of high drama and tension – we can experience the different effects that the ‘no cutting’ rule imposes.

In the first half of the film we see a young woman in a small basement club. After a few minutes she leaves the club and bumps into a group of four lads in their early twenties who are being refused entry. We learn that ‘Victoria’ is Spanish and speaks virtually no German and that the lads are from East Berlin – ‘real’ Berliners. Only one of them, ‘Sonne’ speaks English (which Victoria knows pretty well) and so they can converse while the other three are excluded. This sets up a second interesting constraint for the filmmaker Sebastian Schipper which enables him to play with the narrative information that the English language audience can get from the dialogue and subtitles. Only Sonne has the same access. Victoria is to some extent dependent on Sonne in order to understand what is happening and the other lads don’t know what he is telling her. For about an hour or so, the ‘no cuts’ rule means we have to follow the antics of the lads as they try to keep Victoria amused and Sonne in particular wants to keep her with them. This long sequence draws on various ‘youth’ narratives including late night shops, prowling police cars and rooftop drinking. I was reminded very much of La haine (France 1995) (except that Victoria’s presence changes the dynamic). Around the hour mark it starts to become clear that the lads have to do something that requires all four of them, so when one feels unwell Sonne is forced to try to persuade Victoria to be the fourth person. The audience suspects that this is a bad idea but soon the action revs up and we don’t really have time to think about what might be sensible. I should say also that the four lads are clearly distinguished with Sonne like a young and friendly Brando or Richard Dreyfus, while Boxer has a shaved head and seems a little out of control. Blinker and Fuss seem younger and less confident, but the four do seem likeable and I think we worry for them as much as for Victoria – we don’t think that they will do her any harm, but what they have to do as a task is another matter.

In the second half of the film everything happens fast and the camerawork often becomes blurry. The no cutting policy works very well in this context and we definitely feel part of the action, whereas in the first half it is tedious in parts. I think that the formal strategy is worthwhile. A conventional take on the same narrative would be shorter but might not enable the audience involvement in the action of the second half. I couldn’t help thinking of another very different film, Lola rennt (Germany 1998), which also featured a young woman on the Berlin streets desperately trying to do something for her boyfriend. Rather like with Lola rennt, the audience has to seek clues to really understand why characters behave in the way they do. The central question is why does Victoria allow herself to get mixed up with these lads? We have to think about a couple of dialogue exchanges in the script by Schipper and Olivia Neergaard-Holm. If I’ve got this right,  she has only recently arrived in Berlin and got herself a job in a café close by. Later she explains to Sonne what she did in Spain and combined with other clues we should realise that she is a confident young woman who has given up something that was constraining and that she is looking for ‘adventure’. It’s a great performance by Laia Costa as Victoria, playing a few years younger than her real age. I don’t want to spoil enjoyment of the narrative so I’ll just point out that the issue of Victoria’s attitudes towards what happens and her sense of her own moral position come more into focus in the film’s concluding section.

Overall, I enjoyed the film and it raises interesting questions. I was quite surprised by the make-up of the audience at HOME with more of us old people than I might have expected for what definitely seems a younger person’s film. (I closed my eyes for much of the opening to the film with the strobe lights in the club – I just don’t understand clubbing.) The cinematographer is Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, Norwegian by birth, who lives and works mostly in Denmark. I also loved his very different work on Rams (Iceland 2015), the surprise arthouse hit in the UK. He also speaks English but not German. The music from Nils Frahm worked well with the camerawork. I picked up some comments about interviews with the director and commentaries on the DVD release in Germany? It seems that originally Victoria was a minor character and that the script didn’t really work until she became central. That makes sense. The (very) long take that encompasses the whole film narrative was recorded three times on successive mornings at 4.00 am which must have been a heroic effort for all concerned. The film is released by Curzon/Artificial Eye in the UK. I hope it is widely seen in cinemas since aspects of the narrative won’t work as well on a TV screen.

[I thought of adding the trailer, but it gives far too much away about the plot.]

The Here After (Efterskalv Sweden-Poland 2015)

HereAfter

John (Ulrik Munther) is made to stand in class when the teacher introduces him on his return to school.

The Here After is a début feature from Magnus von Horn, a Swede who attended the famous Łódź film school in Poland where he teamed up with a Polish student, Mariusz Wlodarski. After several prize-winning short films and a documentary, The Here After produced by Wlodarski with a partly Polish crew was an official co-production, shot in Sweden, in Swedish. The film, like many other European films, tapped into the regional film fund of Film i Väst and the credits also suggest some form of support from the National Film and TV School in the UK and the French film school Fémis. The Swedish production company involved is Zentropa International, one of many ventures associated with Lars von Trier who started the Danish Zentropa with his colleague Peter Aalbæk in 1992. Zentropa is now 50% owned by Nordisk and ranks as the biggest Scandinavian producer. With this kind of muscle it isn’t surprising that The Here After screened in Cannes and that it has received a release in Poland, Scandinavia and UK with France due in May.

Von Horn has adopted the strategy of telling us nothing about the characters or the situation and forcing us to learn as much as we can as the action unfolds. We see a young man, John (played by a well-known young Swedish pop singer, Ulrik Munther) who appears to be being released from some kind of secure institution. His father has come to collect him and drives him home to a farm where we meet his younger brother, his grandfather and the family dog. John’s mother is never mentioned. There is a great deal of tension between John and the three other family members but his situation doesn’t become clear until he returns to school and an extremely hostile reception from the other students. What has he done? We will eventually find out, but again not directly, only through piecing together what’s said and following the action. John will make a new friend in Malin, a girl who is new to the school and doesn’t know the history (but who is inquisitive). Otherwise, virtually everyone is suspicious if not aggressively hostile.

At first, I felt quite hostile towards the film, partly because von Horn adopts a visual style with lots of shallow focus and which along with other devices such as shooting through windows/doors, often in long takes, helps to distance the audience from the narrative. I understand that this expresses John’s state of mind but it isn’t easy to watch. I was surprised to discover afterwards that the film was shot by Łukasz Żal, the Polish cinematographer who was one of the two contributors to the look of Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013), one of the most astounding visual treats of the last few years. Much is made on the film’s website about the meeting of Scandinavia aesthetics and Polish emotional intensity:

“An over-aesthetic Scandinavian world clashes in the film with Polish sensitivity, creating a new Polish-Swedish quality in world cinema.”

and:

“Łukasz Żal’s cinematography, enclosed in the sombre, sophisticated visual layer of the movie, enables the transition of the pain which accompanies the main character of ‘The Here After’ into an aesthetic experience. The world where John is doomed to live is meticulously scrutinised by the director. Von Horn and Żal have managed to wrap the bitter story in a soft, poetic form, giving rise to a remarkable sensitivity and a coherent cinematic language.” (See http://www.the-here-after.com)

There is a danger here of getting just a little too precious. As far as I can work out, the images are either drained of colour or it is particularly gloomy in Sweden in March (or May? – I couldn’t quite read the calendar on the wall). Either way, this is a world of predominantly blues, greys and greens. I think that I did eventually manage to gain some kind of entry into John’s world and the struggle may well have been worthwhile to experience ‘poetry’ and ‘sensitivity’. But I’m not sure that is what I wanted or expected from the film. I want here to speculate on issues of genre and representation. The Here After signs itself as an art film and as such has succeeded in getting widespread support. But I was also reminded of two other relatively recent films with similar narrative elements. The Swedish film Flocken (2015) has a similar visual style, a not dissimilar location and concerns a younger school student ostracised in her small community because she accuses a boy of sexually assaulting her. Flocken has not got a UK distributor and I wonder if it is thought too generic and not sufficiently ‘arthouse’? Another film which has something of the tone of The Here After is Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did (Ireland 2012). This latter film did get a release and Abrahamson has become a very successful director straddling arthouse and mainstream ‘quality film’. All three films share a narrative in which a teenager does something that ‘shocks’ a relatively small tightly-knit community, leading to disturbing group behaviour and the sense that the various social institutions involved are less effective than they should be – implying perhaps some kind of metaphorical statement about a failing society. I think this is potentially a genre topic and relates to a wide range of films that play with morality, group behaviour and sensitivity around youth and adolescence. Back in the 1960s this would have been classed as a ‘social problem film’ in the UK. Then the narrative would have been expected to deliver an authority figure who would ‘solve’ the problem, but in these recent films a lack of narrative resolution has almost become conventional.

John with his father (Mats Blomgren) attempting to bond over shooting practice.

John with his father (Mats Blomgren) attempting to bond over shooting practice.

The Here After takes place in an unspecified region, although both the director and the young lead are from Halland county in Western Sweden. It seems to me that there are several films which portray life for adolescents outside Sweden’s main cities as tedious and dull. One of the best known is Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål (Sweden 1998). The original title of the film is the cry of teenage girls bored to death with living in Åmål. (The film was sweetly re-titled Show Me Love for release in the US and UK.) The Here After focuses on the more violent behaviour of teenage boys, but also on the way in which some of them are supported by parents for whom group solidarity is more important than any form of moral behaviour or social justice. Like What Richard Did, The Here After is based on/inspired by a news story. Even if there is a ‘truth’ in such a narrative, it still seems to me that there is a danger of ‘typing’ small town Scandinavia as particularly dismal in terms of social relations. Perhaps there is some Swedish scholarship on these kinds of films?

The Here After has received almost universal acclaim – though not too many screenings. It opened on just 10 screens and on its first weekend took only £330 per screen. None of the reviews I’ve read seemed interested in the kinds of sociological questions I wanted to ask. If this is meant to be Sweden, the judicial system and the rehabilitation of offenders seems out of kilter somehow. Of the various reviews, Jonathan Romney makes the most telling point when he describes Ulrik Munther as ‘delicately handsome’ and suggests that his pop star profile is well exploited (at least in a Swedish cinema market context). But too many reviews simply see von Horn as a diligent student of Michael Haneke. I was impressed by Munther’s performance and I certainly appreciated the way tension was built up but I would have liked more in terms of narrative development and more for the audience to chew on.

Official trailer:

Un poison violent (Love Like Poison, France 2010)

Anna (Clara Augarde) enjoys spending time with her grandfather (Michel Galabru)

Anna (Clara Augarde) enjoys spending time with her grandfather (Michel Galabru)

Here is an example of auteurist cinema which justifies the French approach to nurturing young talent. After a series of short films over a period of six years Katell Quillévéré (then aged 30) directed this, her first feature, in 2010. Written with Mariette Désert, the film features a riveting performance by Clara Augarde as a 14 year-old girl at a crucial moment in her young life. Winning the Prix Jean Vigo after a Cannes screening for Un poison violent, Quillévéré and Désert went on to make Suzanne in 2013, this time achieving several César nominations. Successful careers have been established with the hurdle of the ‘second feature’ having been cleared to acclaim.

Both the films appear to have had UK releases which I missed and I’m grateful to BBC2 for a late night screening of Un poison violent which I recorded. An auteurist film in this context means a feature which receives funding support from a range of French public funding bodies. In this case a budget of €2.32 million was put together by the independent production company Les Films du Bélier with pre-sales and co-production investment from Arte France Cinéma, pre-sales from Canal + and Ciné Cinéma, and backing from the Brittany and Pays de la Loire regional funds (details from Cineuropa). Similar deals in the UK for first time writer-directors would probably mean a much smaller budget and the need to focus on a genre narrative of some sort. Un poison violent is arguably a ‘coming of age’ story but the approach is much more about character than narrative drive.

The film’s title derives from a Serge Gainsbourg song (from a soundtrack album Anna with Jean-Claude Brialy in 1967) and Katell Quillévéré chose to make the connection because:

“. . . . a Serge Gainsbourg song, [which] uses this expression to define love. In a more profound way, to me it refers to everything that makes us feel like we’re alive, including things that can make us suffer. It’s a contradictory impulse that guides our relation to the world. For Anna, the heroine, the “poison” is in relation to the freedom she is going to experience, which is inherently a form of solitude.” (See the interview on the Artificial Eye website for the UK DVD)

Anna with her mother in church.

Anna with her mother in church.

Anna starts her summer holidays, returning to a family house in Brittany from a Catholic boarding school where she has been sent because her parents are in the process of splitting up. Her mother is in the house alongside her father-in-law, Anna’s grandfather, and an older couple whose relationship to Anna is less clear. In this ‘bourgeois provincial family’ (the director’s description) Anna’s mother has turned to her beliefs and to a young local priest (an interesting performance by Italian actor Stefano Cassetti ‘cast against type’). Anna herself is due to be confirmed and the film narrative begins in the local church. I was surprised to be shown a packed church with some glorious choral singing – far too beautiful a sound for any church service I’ve ever witnessed! In fact music of all kinds (mainly folk music) plays a major role in the film alongside excellent camerawork (Tom Harari, another young filmmaker on one of his first feature film jobs) and use of landscape and mise en scène.

Anna with Fr François

Anna with Fr François (Stefano Cassetti)

The ‘poison of freedom’ quoted by Quillévéré manifests itself in Anna’s emotional reaction to her parents’ separation and the expectation of her commitment to Christ and the Catholic church. She struggles with how she feels and is drawn into two contrasting relationships – one is with her elderly grandfather, a wonderful old rogue played by the comic actor Michel Galabru and the other with a local boy Pierre. These are healthy relationships in which Anna is introduced to all kinds of pleasures which are probably not what the church might approve of for confirmation candidates. However, the use of music and camerawork/mise en scène suggests that Anna feels an erotic surge in church as much as with her two companions – she faints twice during formal services. The scenes with Grandpa and with Pierre work very well because of their sense of realism. Michel Galabru was in his late 80s when he took the role and Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil as Pierre is shorter than Anna – creating that familiar couple of young teenagers in which the girl is more fully developed. Katell Quillévéré again on how she cast the film:

“I wanted earthy people, not ‘models’. The religious theme called for bodies that personified their character powerfully, otherwise the film’s stance would seem redundant. I only chose actors having a body filled with life and sexual energy, for that is precisely what the Catholic religion tries to smother, and something that a camera will immediately capture.” (DVD interview)

Anna and Pierre kiss . . .

Anna and Pierre kiss . . .

Clara Augarde as Anna was also a non-professional actor at this point. She plays the role so wonderfully mixing a genuine sense of innocence with a maturity that suggests she knows what is happening in terms of her developing sexuality and desire that I confess to perhaps neglecting some of the other cast members in focusing entirely on what happens to her. Quillévéré argues that the film is also about the family and that sometimes Anna’s story must make way for an exploration of what is happening to her mother (played by the Portuguese actor Lio), the young priest and her grandfather (who faces his own death as he relishes Anna’s journey of self-discovery).

The director discusses her story in terms of other “pious young women” (the interviewer’s term) in French film and literature, stating that she loves the heroines of Georges Bataille. The interviewer suggests that this interest in religion and desire is unusual in ‘young French cinema’ (i.e. among younger filmmakers). I certainly can’t remember too many recent French films like Un poison violent and I found it a riveting watch. I’m surprised it didn’t make more of an impact in the UK or North America. 

UK trailer (with Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ – in a choral version):

Les Combattants (France 2014)

Arnaud has found a baby ferret that has fallen in Madeleine's family's swimming pool – what's the best thing to do with it?

Arnaud has found a baby ferret that has fallen in Madeleine’s family’s swimming pool – what’s the best thing to do with it?

Half-watching the trailer for this film I thought it looked interesting. That’s an understatement. This is an original idea very well executed by Thomas Cailley, a young director making a feature début. He also co-wrote the film with a female partner, Claude Le Pape.

Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) is a young man facing the future without a father who has recently died. At first he decides to join his brother in the family timber business but at the start of the summer he meets a rather scary young woman named Madeleine (Adèle Haenel). Arnaud’s first encounters with Madeleine are embarrassing and to some extent humiliating. But gradually a level of respect develops between the two. Madeleine has strong views – she thinks the whole world is facing extinction and she has begun to study survival techniques. Her goal is to join the ‘hardest’ regiment in the French Army but she must first go on a two-week training camp before she enlists. Arnaud eventually decides that he should join her.

This film is difficult to categorise and perhaps the most useful description is a ‘romance drama with comedic elements’. It all takes place in Aquitaine, the region in South-West France including the coastal resort where Madeleine and Arnaud live and the forests where the army ‘survival training’ is conducted – and where forest fires are common. Reading some of the reviews, it’s not surprising that Adèle Haenel as Madeleine gets the most coverage and she is indeed remarkable (I realised that I saw her first in Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies (France 2007)). But I think that Arnaud is in some ways the more interesting character, even if he is to some extent the ‘straight man’ to Madeleine’s wilder activities. The only failing in the film for me was to not explain his background. She, we know, has quit a Master’s degree but what has he been doing before this summer? At first gauche with typical ‘loser’ friends, he shows himself to be sensitive, intelligent and mature in the way he faces events.

Madeleine gets her wish to test her survival skills.

Madeleine gets her wish to test her survival skills.

There is a particularly po-faced review of the film on the Slant Magazine website and in her Sight and Sound review Ginette Vincendeau describes the film as “engaging, quirky but slight”. But for me this is one of the best film debuts I’ve seen for a while. It deserves to be seen widely and as Vincendeau points out it has been both a critical and commercial hit in France (winning two prizes in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes 2014 as well as three Césars in 2015) . One of its strengths is the ending which eschews the usual romcom conclusion. The film is also interesting in directly referencing the recession and the poor prospects for young people. As Arnaud notes at one point, the French Army is second only to McDonald’s as the biggest recruiter of young people in France.

In the second part of the film the conventions of the army training/boot camp narrative come into play but again the reactions of the two central characters are perhaps not what we expect. Finally the film draws on the repertoire of ‘survival’ narratives, including those of TV personalities such as Bear Grylls – a source quoted by Cailley in a Sight and Sound (July 2015) interview.

I think that Les Combattants is a youth picture that I’d very much like to use with students for several reasons – the unconventional characters, the recession setting and the location outside Paris (one of the by-products of the French funding system which encourages young auteurs like Cailley, a Fémis graduate, to shoot in different regions.) I hope teachers might find it on DVD – it’s released on August 10th. Confusingly the film is discussed under two different English titles – the terrible Love at First Fight and the direct translation, The Fighters.

The UK trailer:

Salute! Sun Yat-Sen (Taiwan 2014)

The four boys with Lefty second from left.

The four boys with Lefty (Zhan Huai-Yun) second from left.

On the surface this is a gentle comedy about young teenage boys in downtown Taipei. It is slow-paced, observational and sometimes very funny. ‘Lefty’ is a gangling schoolboy and the leader of a ‘gang of four’, each of whom is struggling to find the money to pay their school fees. One day he notices a bronze figure in a school store-room, a full-size statue of Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Lefty quickly works out that he could sell the statue and make enough to fund all four boys through school. He plans the ‘heist’ in meticulous detail and the gang is all set – only to discover that someone else in the school leading another group has exactly the same intention. Despite attempts to negotiate a truce, the two gangs eventually compete to steal the statue in a long and engaging set piece. If this was just a heist narrative it would offer standard genre entertainment. But I think there is more to it than that. This isn’t so surprising since the writer-director is Yee Chih-yen whose 2002 film Blue Gate Crossing was both a critical and commercial success.

Throughout the narrative there is a focus on the relative poverty of the boys in the gangs. At one point Lefty and his opposite number (who refuses to give his name until the final reel) compete to show that they are the poorest and therefore the ones who should be allowed to steal the statue. Later, all of the boys claim they are poor because there is a long history of unemployment in their families. This is one aspect of the social commentary of the film. Sun Yat-Sen is known as ‘the father of the state’ in Taiwan and still has a profile as a leader who prepared for the ‘people’s revolution’ in the PRC. The two groups of boys struggle to take the prize for themselves even though by joining forces they would stand a much better chance of success (the statue is actually very heavy and difficult to move). Is it too much of a leap to suggest that this is might be a commentary on the history of ‘two Chinas’ since 1949? When they fight each other they achieve little, but together they could complete the task effectively.

The thieves' disguise . . .

The thieves’ disguise . . .

I enjoyed the film and found Lefty to be an engaging character as played by Zhan Huai-Yun. I was also impressed by Chen Pa-tu’s cinematography, especially the lighting of night-time streets. Why is it that in East Asian films generally, night-time streets seem so much less threatening than in the West?

The original Minnie Mouse

The original Minnie Mouse

The idea of thieves hiding behind joke-shop masks is not new but the ones in this film seem original. They are the cheapest in the store and they make the skin itchy. They appear to be modelled on an anime character – I thought of a Japanese ‘Minnie Mouse’, which seems somehow appropriate. The Japanese influence on Taiwanese school culture is also evident in what looks like a Kendo martial arts school glimpsed in the opening scenes.

Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is one of the films scheduled for VOD and DVD release by a new UK distributor, Facet Film Distribution. The release date is July 27th and the DVD can be pre-ordered from Amazon. The two founders of the company, Victor Huang and Edison Cheng are Londoners with a passion for East Asian films and their website and Facebook pages are useful resources for news and ideas about East Asian cinema. I wonder what chance they have of success. Taiwanese films in the UK have been mostly limited to the arthouse successes of  Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang (and earlier Edward Yang) and even these have often struggled to get UK distribution. Ang Lee’s early Taiwanese films did manage to get some form of release but it has been a real struggle for contemporary popular films. I’ve very much enjoyed the two I’ve been able to see – You Are the Apple of My Eye (Taiwan 2011) and Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008). I’m certainly going to look out for new releases from Facet.

Here’s the trailer for Salute: Sun Yat-Sen: