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.
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 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 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.”
“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.
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.
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 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.
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)
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):