Les Olympiades (Paris 13th District, France 2021)

Émilie, Nora and Camille (photo © Shanna Besson)

Jacques Audiard has completed ten features so far. It might not seem very many since his first was in 1994. But then he was already into his forties and his first successes as a filmmaker were as a writer, following a similar path to his father Michel Audiard. His early scripts and his early directorial credits were mainly polars, crime films, but gradually he has ventured into other genres as well. I’ve seen all of his directorial features and it does seem to me that he has been the most consistent French filmmaker of his generation. I was a little surprised that Les Olympiades seemed to last only a few weeks in UK cinemas and that I’ve had to wait to watch it on MUBI. It doesn’t seem to have been badly reviewed in the UK and I think that the problem must be more to do with audiences being unsure about what kind of a film Les Olympiades really is.

Émilie works in a Chinese restaurant (photo © Shanna Besson)

The film’s French title refers to a specific architectural project in the 13th arrondissement of Paris – thus the more prosaic English title. The project was designed to celebrate the Grenoble Winter Olympics of 1968. It offers a range of high rise blocks that were intended to attract young professionals. It has also seen the development of a Chinese-Vietnamese quarter. However, the subject of the film is developed through the adaptation of several stories by the American graphic novelist Adrian Tomine. Audiard and his writing collaborators, Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, have woven aspects of the narrative threads of these short stories into a seamless single narrative. There are four central characters, three youngish women and one youngish man (‘youngish here means mid twenties into early thirties) and the narrative explores their different problems and approaches to love, sex and romance in the modern city. There is clearly a danger that the narrative could become episodic and not really hang together but I certainly felt that one of the many pleasures of the film was the writing and for me it worked very well.

Nora at her first lecture (photo © Shanna Besson)

We start with Émilie, a young woman from Taiwanese family, and Camille, an African-French doctoral student, working as a school teacher to earn the money to pay for his further study. Émilie is living in her grandmother’s apartment with the old woman in a care home. Émilie rents out a room in the apartment to supplement the meagre income she receives from the casual jobs she takes, in a call centre and then later as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant rather than trying to use her ‘Sciences Po’ (social sciences degree). Camille arrives as her lodger. Nora arrives as a mature student in Paris from Bordeaux. She tells another student in her first lecture that she is 33. It’s possibly not a good idea and Nora struggles to fit in. Émilie and Camille are physically attracted to each other and an intense sexual relationship soon develops. Nora has a very different experience. In an attempt to ‘fit in’ at a student party she buys a wig and a short skirt and several students think she is a porn webcam girl known as ‘Amber Sweet’. This will not turn out well. Later we will find out a little more about Nora’s life in Bordeaux but for now she is forced to leave her course and try to get work as an estate agent using her previous work experience. It is in this guise that she will meet Camille, now nominally managing a small estate agency business for a friend while still working on his thesis. The other characters in the narrative are Emilie’s family (mainly encountered via telephone calls) and Camille’s father and his sister Eponine. If there is a weakness in the script it might be the story of Eponine, a teenager attempting to write material for a stand-up comedy routine. This feels like it could be another narrative thread entirely. It serves mainly to comment on/challenge Camille’s behaviour. The fourth main character is ‘Amber Sweet’ who Nora befriends over the webcam connection in her rather naive way. ‘Amber’ perhaps functions in the narrative structure in much the same way as the families of Émilie and Camille, although of course she has the potential to have a different kind of relationship with Nora.

Amber Sweet (photo © Shanna Besson)

What kind of narrative have the writers (all three of whom are also directors) managed to construct from the short story material? Jacques Audiard has suggested that one of his influences was his memory of Eric Rohmer’s 1969 film Ma nui chez Maud. So strong was the impact of that film that Audiard cast the film’s star Jean-Louis Trintignant in his début feature, Regarde les hommes tomber in 1994. In Ma nuit chez Maud, the Trintignant character is a single man, an engineer who returns to France from work abroad (and who is named Jean-Louis). Over the Christmas holiday in a snowy Clermont-Ferrand Jean-Louis finds himself stranded over night in the apartment of a woman he has only just met. They talk late into the night about love and religious values. Though a sexual liaison looks possible, Jean-Louis, a religious man who has briefly spotted a young woman at Midnight Mass he is attracted towards, does not respond to Maud’s implied invitation. Audiard suggests that Adrian Tomine is perhaps similar to Rohmer as a someone writing ‘moral tales’ and therefore perhaps Les Olympiades might be seen as a kind of 2021 response to Rohmer’s story. It is Émilie who most clearly marks the change in sexual mores with her use of Tinder-like apps – although it does occur to me that in much closer times to Rohmer’s story, Erica Jong had already introduced the “zipless fuck” in her 1973 novel Fear of Flying. I don’t want to spoil the narrative too much but I will point out that there is one instance in the film when Emilie’s attachment to her phone and app does produce an instant and quite joyful example of what Erica Jong might recognise.

Nora and Camille – a difficult relationship? (photo © Shanna Besson)

I guess that with two female co-writers, one of whom is currently a highly celebrated writer-director, Les Olympiades might be seen as a narrative with a female perspective – three women to one man featured. But I’ve seen some comments about the “same old male gaze”. I don’t really understand this but I do agree with the comments that complain about sex scenes which feature more female nudity than male. I suspect that however such scenes are shot, the classification guidelines prevent any sight of male genitalia while exposed female breasts are now fairly routine. This film is an 18 in the UK. We get a pixelated image of a penis on a mobile phone screen – surely most people aged 18 have seen an erect penis by now, especially if they have engaged with Tinder-type dating apps? If this discussion makes the film sound like some kind of arthouse porn movie, it’s not mean to. This is a narrative that engages with serious issues but also has real elements of humour and observation. The three principal characters are humanised characters with flaws, just like the rest of us. At one point I thought to myself, “these are decent people, it’s nice to enjoy their company”. Émilie is perhaps too selfish but she has endearing qualities as well. Similarly, Camille is sometimes arrogant/too clever but basically a nice guy and Nora is damaged by her past experiences but someone you’d like to help. Lucie Zhang who plays Émilie is appearing in her first lead role and Makita Samba as Camille, though more experienced, is also stepping up in terms of the high profile that an Audiard film is given. Both are very good but the film from my point of view is stolen by Noémie Merlant as Nora. She is probably best known for her leading role alongside Adèle Haenel in Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (France 2019) for Céline Sciamma. Jehnny Beth as Amber Sweet is well cast and convincing in her unusual role. Contrary to some critics and ‘users’, I think the writing and the direction are highly-skilled and both effective and affective.

Émilie and Camille on the roof of a high rise – another similarity with La haine? (photo © Shanna Besson)

The film is presented in black and white apart from one shot in colour and presented in 1.85:1 by Paul Guilhaume. That splash of colour in a monochrome film reminded me of La haine (France 1995) as do several other shots. This isn’t too surprising. Matthieu Kassovitz, the director of La haine appeared in a lead role in Audiard’s first two films and there are several similarities in the two narratives, especially in the representation of a particular district of Paris, similarly multi-racial but more down-market in the earlier film. Like La haine, Les Olympiades also features an interesting score, in this instance by Rone, the electronic music producer. It’s not really my kind of music but it did seem particularly resonant at times.

My conclusion is that I enjoyed the film, even though the sex lives of thirty-somethings are generally a mystery to me. I think that the film needs to be seen more widely and you can find it on Apple, BFI and Curzon plus other platforms. One of several moments that I really appreciated was when Camille is asked why he left teaching. Was it the students in a tough school? No, he says, they were fine, it was the the authorities who kept changing the system every six months and made teachers’ lives hell. Who knew French education was in the same terrible mess as that in England? Do give the film a try. It can’t hurt.

Twelve O’Clock High (US 1949) and ‘The Bomber Mafia’

The Bomber Mafia (2021) by the New York writer Malcolm Gladwell examines the concept of ‘precision bombing’ developed by the USAAF prior to the Second World War and put into practice from 1942 in Europe. Gladwell has become well-known for a series of books that explore ideas and especially new ways of looking at familiar questions. His first book was The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference in 2000. The Bomber Mafia marks a change of direction for Gladwell, moving into much more controversial and ‘political’ territory by exploring a historical issue that relates directly to American military strategy and provokes strong personal memories. Large numbers of civilians died in bombing raids in Europe and significant numbers of young airmen were killed or traumatised during the bombing campaigns of 1942-5 and subsequent wars. Gladwell mentions a couple of Hollywood films that refer directly to these bombing campaigns. Twelve O’Clock High offers a narrative that adheres closely to the ideas and events Gladwell explores, though it largely avoids using the real names of those involved. I should note here that Gladwell’s work has many critics who see him as plagiarising other writers and researching topics in insufficient depth. I picked up his book cheaply and was intrigued by the subject though I did have some problems with his analysis. I’m simply using his book here as a springboard to look at an interesting film about the men who flew the Flying Fortresses from the UK across Occupied Europe in 1942-44.

With the onset of The Cold War and the development of the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) during the 1950s, military strategy was dominated by the idea of the nuclear deterrent. Each nuclear power has since developed the capacity to retaliate against any attack with lethal force, assuring the complete annihilation of both sides in any war. In the 1930s, however, each of the possible combatants in the approaching conflict had different ideas about how to use their resources for aerial warfare. This included the British and the American air forces which took very different approaches to the same question – how to bomb German and Italian targets in Europe. Eventually the two air forces agreed on a complementary approach. The RAF quickly moved towards night-time bombing after suffering heavy losses on day-time raids but the USAAF arrived in the UK determined to carry out ‘precision bombing’ in daylight. The B17 ‘Flying Fortress’ was a heavily armoured bomber, bristling with defensive firepower, that was to be flown at high altitude in large formations. It was also designed to have a very long range capability. Hitting a target depended on a revolutionary bomb-aiming device – the key technology addressed by Gladwell. The scientific breakthrough that delivered this technology to the USAAF was a major step in the new policy which was resisted by many senior military figures who didn’t see the coming importance of aerial warfare. This meant that its supporters knew they had to make it work to ensure that their new approach became accepted.

The young airmen in the briefing room. The pilots were usually officers and the rest of the crew often sergeants.

The bomb-aiming device worked very well in tests but proved rather more difficult to manage in combat situations and especially in the context of the weather conditions in Europe. The major test for the strategy came with the attempt to destroy ball-bearing production, essential to all military equipment supply, at the factory in Schweinfurt, Bavaria in August 1943. This target was so far away that the bombers would be over Germany for around three hours without any form of fighter protection. The raid involved 376 bombers plus fighter escorts that could get no further than Belgium. These numbers include a force attacking a ‘diversionary target’ in Regensburg. Overall the two bomber formations lost some 60 aircraft and over 550 aircrew. There was a follow-up raid in October 1943 with even heavier losses and the strategy was halted until long-range fighter escorts (e.g. the P51 Mustang) became operational in early 1944.

General Savage (Gregory Peck) has only Major Stoval (Dean Jagger) on his side at first

12 O’Clock High was first a 1948 novel by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr., both of whom had experience of the bombing campaign – Lay flew on the Regensburg raid. The rights were acquired by Twentieth Century Fox and the film was shot largely in the US with some second unit work in the UK during 1949. It went on general release in North America in January 1950. The production was able to use B17s still flying and also actual combat footage. The resulting film is now considered one of the most accurate and realistic in its portrayal of the bomber groups. The lead role of Lt-General Frank Savage was played by Gregory Peck (in the photo above he seems to be a ‘one star general’). As is often the case, it’s hard to imagine the film with someone else in the role, but he was by no means the first choice. Fortunately he turned out to be excellent in the role. The film was directed by Henry King who would then team up with Peck for three further films in the 1950s. Peck was only 33 when he played Savage but his deep voice and imposing stature gave him authority. King was Fox’s ‘go to’ director for all kinds of films in the 1940s and 1950s. He is listed with over 100 credits for directing as well as a similar number for acting and his career lasted from the 1910s to 1962. In some ways he was Fox’s answer to Michael Curtiz at Warners. Neither were taken up by the French critics as auteurs but both were highly dependable and consistently made highly-rated films. Twelve O’Clock High was shot by Leon Shamroy with music by Alfred Newman. It ran for well over two hours and for a Hollywood war picture was very ‘talky’. The only combat sequence occurs in the last section of the film.

The narrative is constructed to ask the questions about how far young men can be pushed to fly enough missions to become proficient – and whether the precision bombing approach could be made to work. But the latter isn’t really a question that could be contained in a 1949 narrative. History has shown us that it is a long and complex story about technological development in wartime and a whole range of philosophical, economic, political and ideological issues that still concern us today. The real concern in Twelve O’Clock High is the human story about the flyers. The narrative begins with an American in contemporary London who spots an old Toby jug in an antique shop. He buys it and travels to a village in Eastern England which turns out to be close to an abandoned airfield named Alconbury (RAF Alconbury was a USAAF base from 1942). As the character thinks back, the story of the Eighth Air Force bomber groups unrolls as a long flashback. We first meet bombers coming back from a raid, some shot up and one making a crash landing. The group leader is Lt. Colonel Davenport (played by Gary Merrill), a man who clearly cares for his crews and is ‘hands on’, flying himself. He is also emotionally involved and perhaps suffering from burnout. General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell) decides Davenport must be replaced and selects his own staff officer Frank Savage. Savage is sent in to literally re-build the group (constituting 21 plus aircraft crews or 200 plus men).

B17 Flying Fortresses in formation

The classic shot in films like this of the group leader waiting anxiously for his crews to return

Savage decides to take the opposite path to his friend Davenport, increasing training exercises, demoting flyers he sees as undisciplined and using humiliation and shaming to create discipline. At the crunch point he appears to have antagonised virtually all his men with just the base adjutant Major Stovall (Dean Jagger) recognising what he is doing and why. Stovall (the man in the opening whose flashback starts the story) is a First World War veteran. The drama then becomes focused on whether Savage can keep the group together and whether his methods make the men more effective on bombing raids. The more well-trained and disciplined they are, the less likely they are to make mistakes and to jeopardise the safety of the whole group. The group flies in formation so anyone ‘breaking away’ threatens the integrity of group defence. How Savage achieves his aims and what costs his men (and Savage himself) have to pay are the issues that make up the bulk of the narrative. This is a narrative about leadership and the plot revolves around Savage’s relationships with two men in particular. One is Lt. Col. Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe) the putative leader who must be disciplined and the other is Lt. Bishop (Robert Patten) the young pilot who has already deceived a citation for bravery.

Savage and Stoval with Davenport (Gary Merrill, lef)

 

The title is now ‘Man of Iron’ with a tagline of “A film of powerful irresistibility”

This is a difficult role for Peck, seemingly opposite to his usual ‘good guy’ roles. The narrative might be a form of male melodrama. There are no women in the cast whatsoever, apart from a glimpse of a nurse in the base hospital. However, it is only a melodrama in structural terms, there are only limited uses of music and visual expressionist devices. We learn nothing of Savage’s background but we do get to see how the psychological pressure affects him. On the whole this is an unsentimental film with little of the leavening effect of (dark) humour. The French poster (above) captures the mood of the film, as it often does, compared to the US title. It’s a testament to Henry King’s skill and the performances he draws from his cast that we become so engaged with the lives of these flyers. Surprisingly, Peck didn’t get the Oscar in 1950 but Dean Jagger did win best support. The relationship to Gladwell’s book about the bombsight and the precision bombing strategy is tenuous but what it does do is make clear the human cost of the daylight-bombing strategy in the wartime conditions over Germany. Later, during the Cold War and in the modern era of drone attacks on very specific targets, the safety of aircrew has become much less of an issue. In this respect, the one reference I noted was to Curtis Le May, a central figure in Gladwell’s book and a major figure in operations in the Pacific War and afterwards as the name everyone from my generation will remember from the bombing strategies of the Vietnam War – “Bombs Away with Curt Le May”.

I was taken aback to stumble across a blog posting about this film which attempted to use it to call for more determined leadership of the far right cause in the US today. Gregory Peck would have been appalled by this as he remained a staunch liberal Democrat throughout his career as far as I am aware. In some ways the ideological base of the bomber operation is completely collective – the crews survive because they stick together. Anyone who disobeys and breaks out of formation threatens the safety of all. The idea of a strong leader is, however, more controversial. His job is to push the men to make more and more successful flights, improving bombing accuracy. To do this, the aircraft had to fly on a dead straight course with the bomb-aimer taking control of the aircraft. This made the aircraft more vulnerable to both anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters. This isn’t a gung-ho film – celebrating success would have to wait until the Mustangs arrived, but it does show the impact on Savage and his crews.

Just to be clear, Malcolm Gladwell’s book is about the technology of the bomb-aiming device, the bombing strategy and how it was applied in Europe and the Pacific. This film is about what happened in practice when crews flew to Germany and dropped bombs. The link is slight but of key importance in exploring the psychological terrain of aerial warfare.j

Twelve O’Clock High is available on all the main streaming platforms in the UK. There is also a TV series from 1964 with the same title, so be careful if you go looking for it.

Manohar & I (Ami O Manohar, India (Bengali) 2018)

The woman at the centre of the story

A strangely engaging film, Manohar & I is difficult to classify. Is it an abstract art film about loneliness, a mystery or a form of romance? Certainly it is not a conventional popular genre film. Instead it offers a very slow-paced narrative set mainly on the streets of central Kolkata and two homes in villages outside the city. Most of the film was shot on an iPhone and processed in black & white in a widescreen ratio of approx. 2:1. It has a running time of nearly 2 hours so patience is needed.

The film is book-ended by an image of stars in the night sky. A dialogue between an unseen child and father reveals to us that every person has a star that represents their loneliness. The ‘I’ of the title is a youngish woman working in an office in central Kolkata. We first meet her watching vultures circling high in the sky above a Kolkata street. She discusses the vultures with an older man who we will soon learn is called Manohar. What kind of couple are they? They aren’t related and the questions exchanged between between them suggests they do not yet know each other well. Eventually we realise that they meet simply because they are going home from work and travelling in more or less the same direction to catch their trains taking them back to homes outside the the city. We see them make several such journeys, often walking together and once taking a tram. We will follow both of them home. I won’t spoil the rest of the narrative except to note that the woman has an older sister who seemingly never leaves the house and mostly watches TV with the sound turned low, though we can hear that it often seems to be a natural history programme with an English language commentary – we never actually see what is on the screen. We also follow Manohar home but his living arrangements are much less clear.

The older sister who rarely leaves the house

I was reminded of two other Indian ‘independent’ films while watching this one. 36 Chowringhee Lane (India 1981) was the first film directed by the renowned Bengali actor-director Aparna Sen. The link here is the loneliness of the central character and the setting which is in the centre of Calcutta around Chowringhee and the Anglican cathedral. I didn’t recognise any of the street settings of Manohar & I but it is very much a film about Kolkata and does feature some of the older buildings of the city. The other film I was reminded of was The Lunchbox (India 2013). In this case the links are to the presentation of an odd romance which involves lonely characters and the important plot point that sees the male character discussing his intention to retire from his Mumbai job and move to a smaller resort town. Manohar talks about his own imminent retirement to what he refers to as his ancestral home in Giridih, a small mountain city in Jharkhand, the state carved out of Bihar in 2000. Giridh has a history of both industry (coal mining) and tourism, especially for the middle classes of Calcutta. Satyajit Ray, the great Bengali filmmaker, spent time in Giridih as a child. Both these films are aesthetically quite different to Manohar & I but there is something about the lives of ordinary people who work in the big city which is common across all three titles.

I’ve never shot any footage with an iPhone so I’m hesitant to comment on how the look of the film was created. I assume that for the static shots, often held in long shot for long takes, the director Amitabha Chaterji and Madhura Palit, both credited for photography though she shot most of it, used a tripod. The images are often in strongly contrasted black & white. The footage was processed from colour but many sequences are at night (it is supposed to be winter in the city) and in the Kolkata streets the bright lights of street vendors help to create the contrast with dark shadows. The pace is slow and this is emphasised on a couple of occasions when a transition leads to a seemingly blank black screen held for what seems like a long time until details of a room slowly begin to emerge, much in the way that the human eye gradually adjusts to a dark room. There is a long sequence in which the couple talk on a tram ride and we see the crowds on the evening streets in the background. I think there are two extremes for presentation of dialogue in a film, both of which can signify the reality of everyday speech. One technique is rapid fire with lines from different characters ‘overlapping’ as in Hawks’ His Girl Friday (US 1940). The opposite as used in Manohar & I is speech in short sentences or phrases, broken up with long gaps and that’s what works here.

A poster featuring Manohar (Shyamal Chakraborty)

Mahonar & I is a film about lonely people in a big city and in that sense it is universal, but if you have any sense of Kolkata as a city then this is also a very personal film about India’s once premier city under the British Raj which has since lost ground to New Delhi and Mumbai. Much of the old central area still has tree-lined streets of Victorian and early 20th century houses and it’s interesting that a scene towards the end of the film sees the younger sister going up to the roof of her office building and seeing a huge crane on a building site where a high-rise block is shooting up not far away. Somehow we know this view signals a change in the narrative. Kolkata is also a city of railways and both central characters use the local commuter network to get to and from their work.

Omar Ahmed chose this film as one of ’10 great films set in Kolkota’ that he sets out on the British Film Institute website – well worth a read. He also includes 36 Chowringhee Lane. Manohar & I has been quite a successful ‘festival film’ both inside and outside India. It is currently available on MUBI in the UK. Manohar & I actually had its UK première at HOME in Manchester as part of the October 2021 ‘Not Just Bollywood’ Festival and you can read an interview with the director Amitabha Chaterji on the HOME website by Dr Sanghita Sen. The director tells us that he was originally an engineer and had his own business in software development. He wasn’t particularly interested in filmmaking until a friend took him to an Ingmar Bergman retrospective at Nandan, the state film centre in Kolkata. His viewing of Wild Strawberries (Sweden 1957) bowled him over and he began to watch a much wider selection of films. Kolkata has always been a city with an intense involvement in film culture and he gradually moved into filmmaking, determined to keep close personal control over what he made. This is his first film and despite the difficulties he faced in distributing the film because of the pandemic, he has been able to start making his second feature.

Manohar is the only named character among the principals. He’s played by Shyamal Chakraborty. The younger sister is played by Monalisa Chatterjee and the older sister by Senjuti Roy Mukherjee. These are the only credited actors. I did enjoy the experience of watching the film, partly because of my interest in Bengali film culture. I’ll certainly look out for future films by this director.

Trailer

La notte (The Night, Italy-France 1961)

Giovanni and Lidia

For many cinephiles, Michelangelo Antonioni is one of the directors most identified with the concept of ‘European art cinema’, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s. His career started early as a writer and then director in the 1940s when neo-realism was beginning to develop. In the 1970s he worked outside Italy for Hollywood (Zabriskie Point 1970) and for European producers, but with American and British players in The Passenger (1975). Antonioni had a 60 year filmmaking career but it is perhaps the three films he made between 1960 and 1962 which are most responsible for the art cinema designation. L’avventura, La notte and L’eclisse are films which share the same director, writers and various crew members. They each star leading Italian and French actors and Monica Vitti appears in all three films. She also leads in Red Desert in 1964 – a film sometimes bracketed with the other three films, although it is in colour. The key terms to describe these narratives seem to be alienation, isolation and existentialism. Put crudely, in La notte critics see the decay and possible collapse of the marriage of two intelligent (and wealthy) people reflected in some way by their responses to both the kind of society they encounter (and are part of) and the buildings and technologies of the new world of affluence for the haute-bourgeoisie whose interest is aroused by a writer’s celebrity. I’m not saying this is a ‘wrong’ reading, but there seem to be several other ways of thinking about the film. On the Wikipedia page for the film, the following statement appears in the introduction:

The film continues Antonioni’s tradition of abandoning traditional storytelling in favour of visual composition.

This is a helpful observation but it also potentially misleads. Antonioni doesn’t abandon traditional storytelling, but he does place more emphasis on cinema’s unique capacity to tell stories through setting, camerawork, editing, music etc. as well as dialogue. He doesn’t deploy the conventions of Hollywood storytelling in terms of pacing or the linear ‘drive’ of the narrative. But he does utilises stars. The elements of a story are all there but they are presented in a way that some audiences will perhaps find off-putting and unsatisfactory – or the story itself will not be of enough interest. A film is an art object, preserved like amber, and must be seen in its context of production and reception. Many of us will read it differently today than audiences did in 1961. But others will attempt to read it as timeless because ‘great art’ doesn’t age. These differences are interesting for me.

In the clinic, Tomasso (Bernhard Wicki) has Giovanni’s new book, but it’s perhaps Lidia he is most keen to see.

Time and space

The setting of La notte is contemporary Milan. The narrative involves a married couple, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) who first visit a dying friend in a swish modern private clinic – more like an up-market hotel or apartment block. They leave and drive through the streets, arriving at a party being given in Giovanni’s honour on the occasion of the publication of his latest novel. A greeting suggests it is still morning when they arrive. Giovanni is the centre of attention. Lidia becomes bored and wanders out to walk among the lunchtime crowds. It’s a warm summer’s day and she enjoys observing people. Eventually she hires a cab and ends up in the district where she lived with Giovanni when they first married. It is a more open area, perhaps on the edge of the city? Giovanni goes back to their apartment in the centre and falls asleep on his day bed. Later, Lidia rings him and he collects her. She wants to go out in the evening and they visit a night club and then move onto a party outside the city given by a very wealthy industrialist. Giovanni is again the centre of attention and Lidia feels marginalised. Later at the party, Giovanni spends time with the industrialist’s daughter Valentina (Monica Vitti) and Lidia leaves for a short time with a man from the party. At dawn Giovanni and Lidia are together again and they wander out onto the private golf course on the estate. They admit to each other that their marriage is facing a crisis. The camera moves away from them and the film ends.

Lidia at the reception with an image of Giovanni over her shoulder

It occurs to me that Antonioni’s choice of locations in his three films is very similar to De Sica’s choices for Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Italy-France 1963). I suspect it was a popular headline around that time. De Sica told three stories featuring the same actors playing a couple in Naples (‘Yesterday’), Rome (‘Today’) and Milan (‘Tomorrow’). Marcello Mastroianni is the man and Sophia Loren is the woman. Antonioni chooses Sicily for L’avventura, Rome for L’eclisse and Milan for La notte. My impression is that at this time, the differences between Italian regions and especially between ‘South’ and ‘North’ were very great. They still are to some extent I think. One of the best indications of this is developed by Visconti in Rocco and His Brothers (1960), a film also set in Milan and a film which I thought about while watching La notte, especially when Lidia is on her own on the outskirts of the city. I also thought about Fellini’s La dolce vita (Italy 1960). OK that is set in Rome but it’s the helicopter that is the link. It appears a couple of times in La notte with that angry buzzing sound somehow proclaiming the modern city. It also suggests on the one hand  surveillance of the population if you are working class or the freedom to take to the air if you have the money. Thinking about that helicopter now – i.e. as it flies over my house – I’m aware that, apart from its use for real emergencies, it also signifies a polluting object, something that would not occur to anyone in 1961.

One of the carefully composed framings (which I have had to crop) of Lidia on the streets of Milan

Lidia finds the old Milan . . .

. . . and finds herself close to where she and Giovanni were first together

Time – story time, screen time, narrative time – is important in La notte and as part of Antonioni’s approach to his storytelling. The narrative time, the time covered by the events on screen, appears to be about twenty hours, from 10.00 am through to around 6.00 am the following morning. The actual screen time is just over two hours but the full story time is several years. How long have Giovanni and Lidia known Tommaso, the man dying in the clinic? Was he Giovanni’s friend first or Lidia’s? Given the books displayed at the publisher’s launch party, Giovanni has been writing for a long time. But the sequence in which Lidia returns to the area in which they first lived suggests that although she comes from a wealthy family, the young couple might have had a relatively ‘normal’ early married life during the 1950s when Milan was growing as an industrial centre. These ‘inferred’ events give a rather different perspective on the behaviour of Giovanni and Lidia at the industrialist’s party.

Composition: what do we think should fill the space to Lidia’s left?

In an essay on the Criterion website, Richard Brody discusses Antonioni’s focus on architecture and his “irrepressible delight in the oppressive and desolate forms of technological modernity”. It is certainly true that as I watched the film, I was most conscious of cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo’s framings and compositions Milan’s architecture. The credit sequence begins with a slow descent down the walls of a high-rise building and there are many later images when we see the couple framed in interesting ways, by internal and external features of the various buildings they visit. Brody also refers to the industrialist’s claim during his party that he always sees his businesses as works of art – and that is conformed for us not only by the modernity of Milan’s architecture but by the abstract patterns of the industrialist’s house and grounds. Brody argues that: “The city of the living future is utterly alien to nature”. His suggestion is that what is inferred isn’t only the past but the future as well. The relationship between Giovanni and Lidia seems trapped between what has been lost and what is to come.

At the party, Giovanni’s sees Valentina and joins her for the game she has invented to play on the chequerboard floor

How do we read this careful composition?

Stars

Both Mastroianni and Moreau were well-known actors in Europe in 1961. Were they ‘stars’? Moreau had certainly been in many films, some of them notable successes by this point, especially her films for Louis Malle, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud and Les amants, both in 1958, but she hadn’t yet achieved the string of notable performances throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. She does present a strong star persona in La notte. She doesn’t say much and she often appears quite solemn, but I feel like I could watch her walking through streets for a long time, marvelling at just how she moves, how she holds herself, even simply how she wears her costumes. She was only in her early 30s when she made this film but she seems older. The narrative depends to some extent on Monica Vitti’s youthfulness by comparison. But Vitti was actually less than four years younger than Moreau. I did notice that in the contest about who sported the thinnest spaghetti straps on her little black dress Vitti did win. I think what really interests me here is the extent to which our readings change over time. Do we now feel much more for Lidia and the way she seems to be pushed out by Giovanni’s celebrity? Looking back, Moreau and Mastroianni were of equal status but he is the agent of the narrative. Moreau as Lidia does get screen time on her own and she acts in ways that reveal things about herself as well as commenting on her relationship with Giovanni. She also introduces aspects of a critique of Italian bourgeois society in 1961. Mastroianni is a beautiful man but in many roles he appears weak and vulnerable. Although as Giovanni his actions structure the events of the day – the couple go to the book launch and the party where he is a significant figure – he seems to be being manipulated and played with, especially by Valentina and her father.

Givanni and Lidia leave the party to walk across the private golf course

The ending of the film is quite shocking in some ways. I’ve outlined the events of the film but I won’t spoil the conclusion by describing it in detail. What intrigues me is that watching the film in 2022 I want the film to be about Lidia and I’m not so interested in Giovanni. I’m conscious about the way Giovanni’s talent is being possibly wasted but it is Lidia I want to see breaking free. Is this because so much emphasis is now placed on the agency of the female character? Is it because of Moreau’s performance or is it that this is always how the film has been read? I can’t remember what I thought when I first saw the film as a young man 40 or 50 years ago. I’ve seen several more films featuring Moreau or Mastroianni since then. Does that mean I read La notte differently now? Perhaps it is because Antonioni is less interested in the conventional modes of storytelling that he opens up the space to think about how these men and women behave? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions but I did enjoy watching the film and I’d like to visit Milan.

La notte is currently streaming on MUBI and BFI (subscribers only).

Women’s Prison (US 1955)

(from Dr Macro’s collection)

I was prompted to look for this film (I found it online) after a comment on my post about Benedetta. It was suggested to me that the idea of a ‘nunsploitation’ picture was closely related to the women’s prison film, a genre that began to develop particularly in the 1950s as the American film industry – and film audiences – began to change. Films about women in prison offered an emotional hotpot of female only communities placed under pressure. Such films can be traced back to the silent era, gradually developing in pre-code Hollywood but then being restricted to approved stories of rehabilitation during the studio period. In 1950 Warner Bros released Caged and United Artists released So Young, So Bad. These two studio releases signalled the start of a move towards harder narratives and the establishment of a more defined genre repertoire. Women’s Prison in 1955 was one of the first films to focus entirely on the prison community with all the criminal activity and judicial procedures prior to incarceration being omitted.

The women assemble outside their cells for morning roll-call

My choice of this title is simply because it is Ida Lupino’s last cinema release for a major studio in which she takes the lead role. She would continue acting in TV dramas and independent cinema releases until the late 1970s but at this point, still aged only 37, she remained able to command the screen and to ‘carry’ the film. Why was the only recognised female director in Hollywood at the time  prepared to star in a ‘women in prison’ picture? The answer is simple economic necessity. The attempt to distribute the films produced by Filmakers, the company owned by Lupino and her second husband Collier Young, was proving unsuccessful and in January 1955 it moved to find another major distributor for future product. It was also in trouble with the Screen Actors Guild  because it had sold a film (Never Fear, 1950) to television without paying residuals to the actors involved. Lupino needed to find extra income. Women in Prison was made by an independent, Bryan Foy Productions, but it was distributed by Columbia. There was a strong supporting cast with Jan Sterling, Cleo Moore, Audrey Totter and Phyllis Thaxter as the featured inmates and Lupino’s then husband Howard Duff playing opposite his wife as the potential good guy. Lupino herself was the manic and sadistic superintendent of the women’s half of a state prison in which the overall governor ran the men’s half. The two communities were physically separated but the possibility that an inmate could cross over to the ‘other side’ would become an aspect of the plot. The writers Jack DeWitt and Crane Wilbur were experienced in a range of genres as was director Lewis Seiler and DoP Lester White. Ida Lupino could at least be confident that these guys knew what they were doing.

Deputy Sheriff Green (Lorna Thayer) delivers Helene (Phyllis Thaxter, left) and Brenda (Jan Sterling) to the prison at the start of the film

Wikipedia has an interesting page on the ‘Women in Prison’ genre and unsurprisingly there is a scholarly interest in the genre from feminist film academics. Women’s Prison arguably brings together several familiar elements of the developing repertoire and establishes a new direction for the genre which takes off in the mid 1950s and then rapidly expands in the 1970s. Ida Lupino herself appeared in a TV movie in 1972, Women in Chains in which she is the lead, again as a tyrannical chief warden. Women in Prison opens in a classical manner with the arrival of two young women as new prisoners. Brenda Martin (Jan Sterling) has been inside before for passing fake cheques and she knows what to expect. Helene Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter) is a middle class woman convicted of manslaughter having caused the death of a child in a road accident. She is already traumatised and clearly unlikely to get through the brutal treatment in which, as a new inmate, she is to be kept in solitary for the first few days. Brenda will attempt to support Helene but we are quickly introduced to two other characters who will also be central to the narrative. Cleo Moore plays the voluptuous 1950s young woman found in many exploitation films of the period and Audrey Totter plays the wife of a convicted criminal who has refused to betray her husband and has been convicted of possession of a weapon. He is being held in the adjacent men’s prison and the plot involves his attempts to to get into the women’s prison and visit his wife. There are two other notable supporting players. Juanita Moore, one of the few African-American players to feature in a variety of roles in Hollywood in the studio period (i.e. not only as a music star or as a servant) is part of an all-black quartet in one of the cells. This segregation is not commented on. Moore would have her biggest role as the mother in Douglas Sirk’s hit melodrama Imitation of Life in 1959. Vivian Marshall plays a stripper who is able to perform impersonations of film stars and this will also provide a key plot device in the film.

A strong ensemble cast includes (from left) Phllis Thaxter, Adelle August, Vivian Marshall, Audrey Totter, Cleo Moore and Jan Sterling

Jan Sterling and Audrey Totter in the prison laundry

The whole cast of inmates performs well as an ensemble which also includes the female warders, one of whom is played by Mae Clarke (who had a grapefruit pushed into her face by Jimmy Cagney in 1931’s Public Enemy). This leaves the central tussle between Lupino’s Amelia van Zandt as the superintendent and Howard Duff as the prison doctor who appears to be both general physician and psychologist. He will attempt to stop the harsh treatment of Helene but will be overruled by the superintendent. Lupino is genuinely terrifying as the sadistic van Zandt. She wears tight-fitting costumes complete with a studded leather belt to which are attached her master keys. By contrast all the female inmates are dressed in drab and poorly fitted uniforms. This would change in later examples of the genre with the opportunity to show prisoners in skimpy costumes and stages of undress being exploited as the production code was eased in the 1960s. Women’s Prison concentrates on the ensemble and the interweaving stories which build to an ultimate confrontation with van Zandt.

Ida Lupino as the sadistic superintendent tries to get information out of Joan Burton (Audrey Totter)

The superintendent clashes with the prison doctor (Howard Duff) over the impact of her treatment of the prisoners

Women’s Prison in the Columbia ad in Motion Picture Herald for February 1955

I found the film very entertaining and Variety‘s reviewer seemed to share my view. The January 20 1955 trade show screening report concludes that this film is a “good entry in the programmer market”. This raises the question of the ‘B’ picture designation. Ida Lupino has been tagged with the designation of a ‘B’ picture director and, in the 1950s, a ‘B’ picture actor. The film scholar Annette Kuhn published a book on Lupino’s directorial work in in film and TV which was given the title ‘Queen of the Bs’. I’ve not read the book but I suspect that the title has been applied by other commentators rather glibly. I think that Variety‘s comment here refers to the studios’ double bill practice in the early 1950s. Columbia distributed Women’s Prison as an 80 minute feature which could be paired with one of several other Columbia pictures, but it was also promoted in the trades alongside Columbia’s A releases. Variety shows the film being booked with films such as Fritz Lang’s Human Desire (1954) with Glenn Ford and The Violent Men (1955), a Western also with Glenn Ford. Masterson of Kansas (1954), also a Western, was another picture from the previous year which was paired with the prison film. Women in Prison was the lead on these double bills and was performing well in cinemas. Box office for the film was ‘good’ in New York, ‘sock’ in Philadelphia and ‘sturdy’ in Chicago. Cleo Moore was recognised as a draw when she made a personal appearance. Columbia also had a Korean War picture, Bamboo Prison (1955) which was in a double bill with Women’s Prison and the this did very well in Philadelphia. In New York the film did good business as part of a vaudeville programme. In several locations Women’s Prison lasted two or three weeks.

Generally the film is referred to as a melodrama in the trades and there is also a sense in which it is viewed as a ‘social problem’ melodrama. Although the closing sequence presents exciting action, the real thrust of the narrative is for the women to expose the incompetence and and dangerous behaviour of the superintendent towards the inmates. The promotional material for the film hints at more in terms of sensationalist exposure than is actually delivered. What we get is a well-made drama and a worthy entry in Lupino’s long list of credits.

I’d like to acknowledge the detailed blog post by ‘Monster Girl’ (Jo Gabriel) on Women’s Prison which is well worth a read and offers a woman’s perspective on the genre. Here’s an early scene from the film when the two new inmates meet Juanita Moore who explains that she’s called Polyclinic after the hospital she was born in!

Bergman Island (France-Sweden 2021)


If you are the daughter of two philosophy professors who is cast as an actor in her teenage years by an auteur director later to become your partner, it’s perhaps not surprising that in your twenties you get interested in filmmaking and try writing reviews for Cahiers du cinéma – and that you abandon formal education. Mia Hansen-Løve was in a relationship with Olivier Assayas between 2002 and 2017 and during that time she made several short films and then her first feature in 2007. Bergman Island is her seventh feature and most of her features have had narratives drawing on some form of family or work relationships that Hansen-Løve has experienced. One feature (Eden 2014) was written by her brother drawing on his DJ experiences, another (Things to Come 2017) starred Isabelle Huppert as a philosophy teacher. To continue this process, Hansen-Løve drew on her interest in one of the first acknowledged auteur directors, Ingmar Bergman and her visit to the small island of Fårö in the Baltic just off the larger island of Gotland. Fårö was Bergman’s home in the latter stages of his life and provided the settings for several of his best-known films. Hansen-Løve first visited the island in 2015 and then returned each summer. Bergman Island was filmed over two summers but was interrupted by the pandemic and finally released at Cannes in 2021.

If we think about this background, we can almost write the script for Bergman Island ourselves and we might get quite close to what the director actually produced. I don’t suggest this in order to imply the script is simplistic in any way, but rather it grows out of Hansen-Løve’s experience as a filmmaker. Her second feature (Le père de mes enfants 2009) is about a fictional filmmaker and his family but is draws on the life of the well-known film producer Humbert Balsan who had helped Hansen-Løve early in her career. This would be the first of her films shot mostly in English and her original casting ideas were for two American filmmakers, a couple, with the woman played by Greta Gerwig. Ironically, Gerwig could not finally make the film because it clashed with her own directorial début, Little Women (US 2019). Hansen-Løve turned instead to Vicky Krieps who had just come to the fore with her work on Phantom Thread (US 2017). Tim Roth was cast as the male director in 2019.

Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth as Chris and Tony

It’s interesting to me that a French filmmaker uses an English man and a Luxembourgish woman to play American filmmakers (the Press Pack and Hansen-Love herself in interviews refers to the couple as American). I’m aware Roth is now better known for his roles in American blockbusters but he remains a South London boy for me and I’m sure for many others. He is also an actor who has directed a film, The War Zone (UK 1999) that draws on his own experiences. Vicky Krieps speaks several languages. I’m presuming she speaks French and German as first languages and although she speaks accented English in this film, she also responds to her mother on the ‘phone in German. Actually there is a discourse about language throughout this film. Most educated Swedes and other Scandinavians speak excellent English and in films, characters often use English when speaking to other nationalities, especially those from small language groups. But this involves often using English pronunciations of Swedish names and places. For instance when Tony (Tim Roth) and Chris (Vicky Krieps) arrive at the house they have rented on the island (the house used by Bergman for shooting part of Scenes From a Marriage (Sweden 1973)), the housekeeper pronounces ‘Bergman’ in the Swedish way, i.e. as ‘Barryman’ even though she is using English to explain things about the house. Later, however, when the couple meet members of the Bergman Foundation, they all pronounce ‘Bergman’ in the Anglophone manner. I think this is quite important simply because Bergman is, I think, understood rather differently in Sweden and in the international film world.

Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lee as Amy and Joseph

Outline (no spoilers)

Tony and Chris arrive on Faro and set up their writing desks in separate locations, Tony in the house and Chris in the windmill a short distance away. Tony has been booked to attend a screening of his latest film where he will participate in a Q&A. Afterwards he joins the ‘Bergman Safari’ tour of the island and locations connected with Bergman’s films. Chris decides to duck out of the tour, but in fact she does visit some of the famous  Bergman locations. She also meets a young Bergman student/scholar, Hampus. Tony is a horror director but Chris is working on a romance. After a discussion about their different approaches to writing, Chris begins to tell Tony about an episode she is writing that possibly takes place on an island like Fårö. As she narrates the opening to this narrative we see the characters she is creating, specifically Amy (Mia Wasikowska), a young filmmaker living in New York who is travelling to the island to attend a wedding which will stretch across three days. Amy is aware that one of the other people who is coming to the wedding is Joseph (Anders Daneilsen Lie) who was once her boyfriend and with whom she still feels there is a connection. This new narrative fills most of the latter part of the film but at some point the two narratives appear to bleed into each other, some of the same characters appearing in both narratives. There is no ‘resolution’ of the overall film except that Chris is reunited with her daughter June who Tony has brought to the island from (the US?) after a short trip to meet his producers.

Commentary

Bergman Island is for me a carefully thought out film that explores a number of linked questions about the nature of writing and filmmaking and the relationship between ‘fiction’ and lived experience. There has always been a tension in film studies concerned with the importance of the biography of the filmmaker and the stories that she or he decides to tell and how they tell them. Hansen-Løve makes clear that the film within the film is about a female filmmaker and at one point presents us with a transition from Amy to Chris in which both women are wearing very similar clothes and shoes. Mia Wasikowska not only shares a name with Mia Hansen-Løve, but also a similarity in facial features and hair colour. Amy is free to make the films she wants to make but Chris to be appears negotiating what she writes and how she writes her films – she looks to Tony for guidance. She is also attempting to write surrounded by the evidence of both the film (and stage and TV) work of Ingmar Bergman and the stories of his personal life. Bergman was a man who partnered five women and fathered nine children without spending much time caring for them as he focused on his filmmaking. Chris is also  conscious of being on Fårö, a magical place with landscapes, light and sun, wind and rain which seem to steer a writer to certain kinds of stories. At one point Chris complains that Fårö is possibly too beautiful and too unsettling.

Chris and Tony argue about which Bergman film to watch in Bergman’s own screening room

When I first approached the film, knowing only a little about it and having watched the trailer, I expected a narrative containing a mise en abîme – a film within a film with some meanings from the second film acting as a kind of commentary on the first. But Bergman Island is a much more complex text even than that. When Variety announced that Tim Roth was joining the cast, the report suggested that Roth was joining a production which included a ‘supernatural’ element. I wouldn’t use that description but it could be that the second film (which has the possible title of ‘The White Dress’ which Amy has packed but then realises she can’t wear because it would clash with the bride’s outfit) includes some unusual elements. Do we see Chris in another reality in which she is shooting ‘The White Dress’ or is it in the future when she has left Tony? These are all open questions. The Swedish critic, writer and filmmaker Stig Björkman appears in the film as a member of the Bergman Foundation team. Is he playing himself? He appeared as one of the experts giving ‘witness statements’ in Margarethe von Trotta’s documentary Searching for Ingmar Bergen (Germany-France 2018). Mia Hansen-Løve is also interviewed in that film as she was on Fårö preparing her film when von Trotta was shooting her film.

Amy dances with abandon at the wedding party

I assume that most audiences today will view Bergman Island in the context of debates about the under-representation of women as film directors. How much does an audience need to know about Bergman? Would the film still work if the island was simply a holiday destination or if it was the home of a fictitious director? There is quite a lot of discussion about Bergman, some of it a little critical, and the Bergman ‘scholar-fans’ on the tour are gently mocked at times. Chris is certainly circumspect about some of Bergman’s work and if you know Bergman’s films and his biography you may relate them to aspects of Tony’s behaviour. I think Tim Roth does a good job and allows some of that discussion to develop. Vicky Krieps is also very good. I’m more of a fan of Bergman’s early work in the 1940s and 1950s rather than most of the films referenced here but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of Bergman Island – and I’d certainly be up for watching The White Dress, which features the Tina Charles song ‘I Love to Love’, a great choice. Bergman Island also works as a promotional film for tourism on Fårö. It’s shot in a CinemaScope ratio by Denis Lenoir who also shot Things to Come and Eden for Mia Hansen-Løve – and she said that she chose ‘Scope to give her some distance from Bergman (who never shot in that ratio). I did actually manage to see her film on the cinema screen which was a big bonus. It’s now available on MUBI or on Amazon using the MUBI app.