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.

The General (Ireland-US 1998)

Brendan Gleeson as Martin Cahill and Jon Voigt as Inspector Kenny. Cahill often hid his face when questioned or interviewed.

Does British film culture appreciate its filmmakers enough? John Boorman is one of the most distinctive producer-writer-director figures to have made films in the UK. He left the country to work in Hollywood but then to settle in Ireland partly, I think, because he felt that filmmaking in the UK was not a serious undertaking.  He has been recognised in the UK with a knighthood but not with the level of appreciation by his peers that he deserves.

The General was perhaps the last of Boorman’s films to make money and to achieve critical recognition, though he has completed four films since (the last of which was Queen and Country in 2014). The General was screened in competition in Cannes and Boorman won the Best Director award for the second time. It is now streaming on MUBI but in a print which is slightly different to that which appeared in cinemas in 1998. The film was released as a ‘Scope picture in black and white and therefore not a film that Hollywood studios were prepared to pick up for distribution – i.e. to pre-buy and therefore to effectively co-finance. Boorman had to make the film using his own resources and to borrow a large chunk of the budget from the bank. He also received some Irish public funding. Only after the Cannes win did Warner Bros. agree to distribute the film in Europe. Boorman has argued that in the 1990s no studio would support black and white films because TV stations wouldn’t show them. His film was eventually released on home video in the US. The film was actually shot on colour stock and printed to monochrome and the version on MUBI is presented with almost all the colour bleached out and just some vestiges of pale colour visible in certain scenes. Boorman talks about lighting for colour and black and white at some length in an interview printed in Sight and Sound, June 1998.

Cahill’s gang meeting in a local snooker hall.

The ‘General’ of the title is the Dublin cat burglar turned gang-leader and ‘folk hero’ Martin Cahill who became a well-known figure in Ireland during the 1980s and early 1990s. He was assassinated in 1994 in a hit claimed by the Provisional IRA. Boorman credits Paul Williams for his book on Cahill published in 1995. Because Cahill’s story was so well-known, Boorman decided to start the film with his assassination and then narrate the events as one long flashback. His choice of black and white was also partly concerned with wanting to create some historical distance. It’s not difficult to see why Boorman was attracted to the story. Many of Boorman’s films feature protagonists prepared to take on the world and Cahill was a rebel, a very complex personality but also one easy to engage with, despite the vicious and cruel aspects of his behaviour. He is played in the film by Brendan Gleeson who in 1998 was just beginning to break through in lead roles in Irish films. From the photos I’ve seen Gleeson bears some resemblance to Cahill and he obviously researched the role carefully.

Cahill with the sisters he met as a boy (Frances on the left played by Maria Doyle Kennedy and Tina played by Angeline Ball)

Cahill was an interesting figure for several reasons but primarily because he was a working-class lad who, at least initially, became a thief and a burglar because of his family’s fairly desperate economic situation. In an early scene we see him refusing to be rehoused because it would mean losing his place in a community he felt comfortable living within. Later he developed a more sophisticated persona as a joker who was eventually rehoused by the council closer to the affluent suburbs of North Dublin and gradually his ambitions as a criminal developed substantially. He taunted courts and played the system quite intelligently while at the same time developing the kinds of habits that would trip him up eventually. He had no real vices apart from crime except for a love of posh cars and motorbikes – flaunting his wealth while still ‘signing on’ the dole. The ‘Robin Hood’ tag came about because he divided the spoils of his major crimes equally among his gang members. But he could also be horrendously violent to any of his gang who disobeyed orders and his criminal activity was also damaging to the community he purported to support. Boorman does not take sides. He presents Cahill in context and offers us a police inspector (a composite of real Garda officers) played by Jon Voight, who is in some ways a similar kind of a figure but with police authority behind him. I’ve only given a brief description of Cahill – there is much more to add that the film presents in interesting ways.

Adrian Dunbar as Cahill’s ‘lieutenant’ Noel Curley

I’m not sure why I missed this film in 1998. I certainly remember its release but I guess I must simply have been too busy with full-time work to be able to see it. I’m conscious that the image of Ireland within the EU has changed since the 1980s but Cahill’s story has remained within the consciousness of filmmakers. Joel Schumacher’s film Veronica Guerin (Ireland-UK-US 2003), about the killing of a well-known journalist, also features Martin Cahill and his gang and much more recently the Irish TV crime serial Hidden Assets (Ireland 2021) features the ‘Criminal Assets Bureau’ set up in order to trace and recover the money and valuables stolen by the likes of the Cahill gang. Hidden Assets stars Angeline Ball who in The General plays one of the two sisters from Martin Cahill’s childhood who he eventually makes part of his family – he married one and with her consent also had children with her sister. The other notable actor in The General is a young Adrian Dunbar who plays Cahill’s closest gang member Noel Curley. This is ironic in terms of viewing in the 2020s since Dunbar is now one of the key figures in the success of Line of Duty, the TV series about the unit investigating police corruption in the UK.

Cahill takes out a street light in one of several cleverly worked schemes

The other aspect of The General is the sense that this is about a city and a country that has changed profoundly over the last 25 years. Ireland has thrived as an EU member, in many ways overtaking the UK in wealth creation and liberating itself from many of the restraints that held back Irish society for so long. Boorman made a film exploring the effects of the so-called ‘Irish tiger’ economy in The Tiger’s Tail (2006), again starring Brendan Gleeson. Irish cinema has also developed, throwing off its much of its dependence on the UK and US and finding its own stories. The 1990s was also the time that Roddy Doyle’s novels about working-class life in North Dublin were filmed – The Commitments (1991), The Snapper (1993) and The Van (1996). The other impact on Irish life that has been important in changing the country was the Good Friday Agreement that came into force in December 1999 and which reduced the activities of the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries, both of which play a role in Martin Cahill’s story. He dismissed both sets of paramilitaries and this lack of political awareness was a major factor in his downfall.

The General is a very entertaining watch, made with real flair, crowned by a superb central performance by Brendan Gleeson and with strong contributions by the supporting cast. Boorman uses two Van Morrison songs on the soundtrack which work well. As well as streaming on MUBI, The General can be rented cheaply on Microsoft (but I don’t know which version this might be).

The Best Years of Our Lives (US 1946)

The sailor, the flyer and the soldier, heading home

It’s close to time for Sight and Sound‘s decennial list of international critics’ ‘best films’. I’m not very keen on these lists but they seem to amuse a lot of cinephiles. I’m intrigued as to what criteria the selected critics use for their personal choices (i.e. outside of the guidelines they are sent by the journal) and why they end up with mainly the same kinds of films from the same directors. I’ve seen the majority of the 250 films on the 2012 list and I’ve enjoyed many of them. Indeed, many of my favourite films are on the list. But what about those that aren’t? How come, for instance, that The Best Years of Our Lives is not on the list and, as far as I can see, no films by William Wyler, the German émigré director who arrived in the US in 1920, aged 18 and was active in Hollywood from 1925 to 1970. Second only to John Ford in Best Director wins at the Academy Awards, Wyler directed some of Hollywood’s ‘biggest’ pictures such as Ben Hur (1959) as well as Westerns, musicals and melodramas and films notable for the performances of stars such as Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn.

The Best Years of Our Lives was a box office winner in 1946 in both the US and  UK and was duly recognised with seven Academy Awards. Unlike many films rooted in a specific historical moment, the film still works just as effectively in 2022 as it did in 1946 and in the early 1970s when I first watched it. What makes it so special?

Outline

Three demobbed servicemen find themselves thrown together on a flight back to their home town, aboard a military aircraft in 1945. Lt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was a navigator/bomb aimer. Sgt Al Stephenson (Fredric March) was with the US Army and Homer Parrish was a seaman below decks on a US carrier in the Pacific, but has spent time in a military hospital. They return to rather different family situations. Al returns to his family and his secure job in a bank. Fred visits his parents before trying to find his wife and Homer moves back in with his parents and wonders whether his marriage to the girl next door will eventually go ahead. The narrative follows the next several months as each of the men discover that ‘civvy street’ has changed since they’ve been away and the war is rapidly being forgotten as people try to focus on the future. The men might aim to go their separate ways but chance means that they soon meet again at the bar owned by Homer’s uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael). Before he sees his wife again, Fred meets Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). This creates a slightly different structure in the sense that Fred has two relationships in the narrative. In broad terms, the narrative gives roughly equal space to all three stories, though perhaps Fred ‘s actions evoke more issues, partly because of his attraction to Peggy and therefore his role in Al’s story as well.

Fred with Al’s daughter Peggy

Commentary

The origins of the film are in a novel, written in blank verse and titled Glory to Me, by MacKinlay Kantor in 1945. The independent producer Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights but then asked playwright Robert Sherwood to write a screenplay which extended MacKinlay’s narrative and changed it significantly (to MacKinlay’s dismay). MacKinlay had been a war correspondent in Europe and he used his own experiences as well as interviews with US servicemen to inform his story about three veterans who return to their Midwestern home town in 1945 and face problems in returning to civilian life, both as workers and family men. The titles of the novel and the film are ambiguous I think. Which were the ‘best years’ of these lives – the years spent away in the war or the years coming to terms with post-war life? Hollywood films are usually optimistic, so presumably it’s the latter. The novel’s title actually refers to a line in a popular gospel hymn by Charles H. Gabriel. The phrase is used repeatedly to refer to the moment of arriving in heaven to see the face of Jesus Christ which will be ‘glory to me’. The suggestion might be that reaching home in ‘Boone City’ should be like reaching heaven, but actually it means facing a series of difficult problems for each man.

One of Al’s problems is a propensity to drink too much but Millie is there to hold him up

I haven’t read the novel but from various reviews (e.g. on ‘Good Reads’) it seems clear to me that the film is much ‘softer’ in presenting the problems than the novel. Other changes might have been the result of the usual Hollywood politics involving actors and contracts. The most significant change is that Fred, who in the novel is a still a young man in his early 20s, is played by Dana Andrews (aged 37 when the film was released). The age difference is most pronounced when Fred is forced to consider returning to work as a ‘soda jerk’ in a drugstore after his three years away. It’s ludicrous that Andrews could have been a soda jerk at 33 but somehow the actor and Wyler as director manage to create a narrative in which we suspend disbelief. But actually the ages of actors and characters are out in several cases. Fredric March who plays the bank clerk Al, called up when he was 38, was in reality 49 when the film was released and Teresa Wright, playing his daughter Peggy, who we assume to have been an older teenager when he left for war, was 28. It’s worth pointing out that Hollywood has always been fairly relaxed about the real ages of stars in comparison with their characters. Even so, the disparities here do raise questions in a film about a specific time period of a few months in the second half of 1945.

Homer struggles to be comfortable with Wilma. In these scene Wilma comes round to find him cleaning his rifle, a potentially clichéd symbol of his masculinity but carried through by the performances. She helps him into his pyjama jacket.

The other significant change arguably improved the film’s impact. The novel’s Homer suffers a form of paralysis which affects his control of his arms, but for the film the non-professional actor Harold Russell, who had lost both his hands in an accidental explosion while training troops, was cast. Russell’s prosthetic ‘claws’ make a clear visual statement and his ‘natural’ performance enhances the representation of a wounded soldier – although in the film he is a seaman working below decks on a carrier. The top-billed star of the film is Myrna Loy who plays Al’s wife Millie. Loy had been in films since 1925 but had become a major star following the success of The Thin Man in 1934. Her relaxed relationship with her co-star William Powell and their well received comic scenes together would later help to ‘humanise’ the scenes between Al and Millie. Loy was also quite well-known for her wartime work in Hollywood for the Red Cross and the Naval Auxiliary canteen and this too added to her public reception in The Best Years of Our Lives. On the other hand, she had just turned 41 when the film came out, meaning her character would have had her daughter at age 13!

Fred with his wife Marie

There are three other significant roles for women in the film. Virginia Mayo plays Marie, Fred’s wife, not too pleased to see him back and Gladys George is Fred’s stepmother Hortense. Cathy O’Donnell as Homer’s pre-war girlfriend Wilma was a new contract player for Sam Goldwyn and a few years later she would make a big impact in Nick Ray’s first feature They Live By Night (shot in 1947). Her Goldwyn contract  was matched, at least in terms of working on Goldwyn’s independent productions, by several others in the film’s cast and crew. Although the film is clearly focused on the three men who return from war, I think it is the female roles that make the film stand out. That’s possibly because the film is a melodrama at heart. It is through their interactions with the four women that the men’s problems are brought to light. Without the women these men might really struggle to find their way after being institutionalised in the forces.

Fred’s father reads out the citation for a medal his son has won and Hortense listens . . .

Fred wanders through the graveyard of bombers waiting to be scrapped

One of the interesting factors about the film’s reception is the way that aspects of the film ‘speak’ directly about the same concerns that underpin many of the films of the period later recognised as films noirs. For instance, Fred experiences the sense of humiliation and unfairness that might drive a traumatised veteran towards crime or violence. The novel that was the basis for the Humphrey Bogart film In a Lonely Place (1950), a celebrated film noir melodrama, has a central character who is a flyer experiencing a well-paid life in the USAF in the UK with good pay and status who finds it impossible to return to a mundane job without a high salary and status On the other hand, Al finds it difficult to to follow banking practice and wants to make loans to people whom he feels are deserving. Milly is the sensible and loving wife who understands her husband and keeps him on track. She has also passed on her values to her daughter. The film works best within the slightly heightened sensibility of the melodrama. A juxtaposition of scenes cuts between Fred’s father reading his son’s medal citations which Fred has left behind as he seeks to move on and Fred himself wandering through a graveyard of military aircraft, including the B17s in which Fred flew. The one scene that didn’t work well for me is when Al gifts his son the mementoes of his time in Japan. It’s a stiff performance by the young actor playing the son, but perhaps this is what Wyler wanted? Either way, the son doesn’t figure much in the remainder of the film – his sister is much more important.

Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus enables photography to create a narrative (see below)

Samuel Goldwyn may have been an independent but he hired quality personnel  and facilities. The leading players in The Best Years of Our Lives all give solid performances and the creative team includes Gregg Toland as cinematographer. Toland became well-known established in Hollywood during the 1930s and in 1940-41 his work for John Ford and Orson Welles was widely discussed. He was known for his use of deep focus and innovative lighting. He had worked with Wyler on three previous films and although the photography of The Best Years of Our Lives was not overtly expressionist there were particular scenes which became classic study texts. One was the scene in Butch’s Bar when Al has been giving Fred a stern talking to about his ‘friendship’ with Peggy. Fred says he will phone Peggy and break off their relationship and as he leaves the bar he notices the phone booth by the door and goes in. (see the image above.) As he is dialling, Homer arrives and invites Al to listen to the new piano piece he and Butch have worked out. Butch sits at the piano with Homer and they play a duet. Al stands by the piano and admires Homer’s playing with his prosthetic hands. After a few moments he turns to look at the phone booth where Fred is speaking to Peggy (or at least we presume he is). Because of Toland’s camera set-up he can show this movement in deep focus from Homer in the foreground all the way back to Fred in the booth in the top left quadrant of the image. The other aspect of the shot is the low angle and effective lighting which feels natural rather than staged. It’s also impressive that Fred is framed in the window of the booth and not obscured by the position of a customer at the bar. This shot must have required very careful blocking and a long time to prepare for the shoot. Toland took his time. He was expensive but the results were impressive. The film topped the box office for 1946. While Toland’s work contributed to a realist aesthetic enabling the audience to put together aspects of the lives of the characters – the three men are linked visibly here – the music in the film composed by Hugo Friedhofer was a more conventional score for a melodrama, serving the narrative and reinforcing the emotional power of the film. The score won one of the seven Oscars awarded to the film.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen the film but it had lost none of it’s power when I watched it again. It tells a universal human story about separation from loved ones, about the trauma of war and the struggle to reconnect in a way that is engaging for a wide audience. It’s nearly 3 hours long but never drags. If you’ve never seen the film I urge you to give it a go. In the UK it is available to rent/buy on Amazon download. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray. Here’s the early scene when Al and Fred drop off Homer for his homecoming: