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):
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.
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:
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.
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 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:
This is the latest film I’ve caught on BFI’s Flipside DVD and Blu-ray series investigating 1960s ‘under the radar’ films and it is really interesting. As ‘interesting’ suggests it’s the film’s position in history that makes it worth seeing rather than its intrinsic merits. The date on the print is 1963 but it was two years before it was released, because of problems with the BBFC, and then it was hacked so much that the director and producers had their name taken off the credits. The BFI have restored the original and although some scenes are pretty scratched it generally looks good; some of the cinematography, by Larry Pizer, is striking. Of course the rating has changed: from the original adults-only X to 12. I wonder if it had been submitted for certification a few years later whether it would have encountered the same problems as the nudity is all indirect, unlike in say Blow-Up (UK-US-Italy 1967). Probably, like the banned until 1968 The Wild One (US, 1954), the lack of moral condemnation of the ‘beatniks’, at the end of the film, worked against it. Apparently the version that was released does have a change of focus at the end. That said, there’s no doubt the film is condemning the youngsters, just not enough for the moral arbiters who probably believed ‘weak’ minded young people would want to be like the nihilistic wastrels.
The film features Oliver Reed, who unsurprisingly out-charismas most in the film, as Moise the conflicted ‘beatnik’ and was directed by Guy Hamilton who went on to make Goldfinger (1964) and three other Bond movies.
It’s not just the changes in censorship that makes the film interesting. The representation of young people (the ‘beatniks’) at a time when London hadn’t quite yet started swinging is fascinating. It’s clear that screenwriter Marc Behm (b. 1925) absolutely hates them as they are shown to be a particularly unpleasant bunch of hedonists; the conclusion of the film urges them to ‘grow up’. A Hard Day’s Night (1964), often thought of as the precursor to the Swinging Sixties films, hadn’t been released (Behm scripted the later Beatles film, Help!, 1965) but it’s clear that the bohemian lifestyle that became emblematic of the ’60s was already annoying fogies, such as the 38 year old Behm. By the time the film was released it would be hopelessly out of touch with the zeitgeist of British cinema that was. in its youth pics at least, celebrating young people; though often in a reactionary way – see Here We Round the Mulberry Bush (1968).
Apart from its fogeyness, the other disappointing aspect of the film is the narrative structure of the script. It has a quite good conceit, involving retelling of an event, that could have been at the centre of the film. But the meandering opening fails to gain the narrative drive that would help the audience to care about what happened. My overall impression, however, is the middle aged resentment at young people supposedly enjoying the hedonistic lifestyle that had not been available to them in their youth.