This unusual but rather wonderful film was one of several titles from My French Film Festival that have also been streaming on MUBI in the UK. It’s about to disappear from MUBI but is available from other streamers such as Amazon, Apple, YouTube etc. It is a début feature film by Chloé Mazlo after several short features, co-written by the director and Yacine Badday. Chloé Mazlo comes from a background of graphic arts leading to work in animation. She grew up in France with memories of her Lebanese family who left their country during the civil war of the 1970s and the film is her very personal way of trying to represent what happened within her family during the war.
The narrative begins with Alice, a young woman bored and stifled by what she sees as the conformity of francophone Switzerland, who arrives in Beirut in the 1950s as a nanny. Quickly she falls in love with Joseph a research scientist she meets in a café. He has dreams of leading a Lebanese attempt to enter the ‘space race’ by building a rocket. Alice marries into his Arab Christian family and all is well until the beginning of the civil war in 1975. The film narrative is not about the war as such, but about what it does to the family and how they understand it and try to deal with it. The story is told in a long flashback as Alice makes the journey from Beirut to Cyprus in 1977, seemingly to return to Switzerland.
The English title of the film is slightly misleading. The French title tells us directly that we are going to experience a story as Alice tells it and how she felt about it. I should point out that there has been an odd occurrence in the last few months since the appearance of this film on UK streamers has coincided with the UK cinema release of Memory Box (Lebanon-France-Canada 2021) by the Lebanese filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The parallels are extraordinary. Both films are about memories of the civil war in Beirut, both narrated from ‘exile’ about family life during the troubles and both using drawings, photographs and other artefacts to tell the story. There is also a further connection in that Hadjithomas and Joreige, well-known Lebanese filmmakers, made a documentary about the Lebanese rocket project, The Lebanese Rocket Society in 2012. I’ve just noted that this is actually available on MUBI. I’m not suggesting that one film borrows from the other. Sous le ciel d’Alice was released first but it was made completely outside Lebanon, shot in a French studio with exteriors in Cyprus. Memory Box was made in Canada and Lebanon.
Chloé Mazlo uses a very wide range of animation and graphic ideas to present her story, raging from puppet stop motion animation for Alice’s decision to leave Switzerland to the use of old photographs as backdrops in 1950s Beirut and various costumes and masks to represent significant figures in Lebanon. The first third of the film I found simply glorious in its creativity and warmth. As the narrative progresses the use of these devices reduces in relation to the realist live action scenes (although these still have a conscious use of a colour palette dominated by pastel colours). Mazlo describes this transition like this:
. . . the first movement of the film is based on a colourful and fanciful staging, almost pictorial, more visually striking. These extravagances gradually diminish over the course of the film, even if they remain present, with the rocket project for example. Gradually, we get closer and closer to the tragedy of Lebanon: Alice and Joseph can no longer speak to each other. They try, but they can’t, and they suffer from the lack of levity and innocence of their past. (from a Google translation of the original French)
The film was photographed by the vastly experienced and talented Hélène Louvart, shooting on Super 16mm film. I was reminded of her work on Happy as Lazzaro (Italy 2018) directed by Alice Rohrwacher. Rohrwacher’s actor sister Alba featured in the Italian film and plays Alice in Sous le ciel d’Alice. She is an excellent actor and a familiar figure in contemporary cinema, well cast here. Joseph is played by Wajdi Mouawad, primarily a writer for the theatre, whose books and plays were part of Chloé Mazlo’s education as an artist. Mouawad was born in Lebanon but his family migrated first to France and then to Canada. One of his plays was adapted by Denis Villeneuve for the film Incendies (Canada 2010). The rest of the cast for Sous le ciel d’Alice are all Lebanese.
I enjoyed the first part of the film very much and then felt a little deflated when I realised that the amount of animation and graphics was being reduced. I understand Mazlo’s decision as explained in the quote above and perhaps as I watched the Alice’s family life begin to suffer I was being reminded of Memory Box and the way the same period was presented on screen in that film. It isn’t a fair representation as Memory Box has a young protagonist looking outwards whereas Alice is in her forties when civil war breaks out and more focused on her family. Sous le ciel d’Alice requires both Alice and Joseph to age 20+ years. I don’t think this is a problem and both actors carry it off. Overall it is a well thought out script and a fine début film. Alice develops as an artist in the film and her sketches become another form of graphic presentation in the story. The film’s ending is suitably ‘open’, I think. I recommend the film highly. At the moment I don’t think that there are plans to bring it to UK cinemas but it should work fine on screeners as well.
My French Film Festival has often included an animated feature in its programme and this year it is Calamity which offers something slightly different to Josep (France 2020) and The Swallows of Kabul (France-Luxembourg 2019) in previous years. First it has a different drawn style with bold colours and strong lines but little detail in the background or characters, though it has plenty of energy. Second it is arguably a film for all ages with a mythical storyline rather than the political context of the earlier films. The film has had a theatrical release in France and Japan as well as some other European countries but in the UK it has gone straight to digital download and is widely available on streamers – more on this later.
It took me a while to make the direct connection between Martha, the hero of the story, and the real ‘Calamity Jane’, mainly because I didn’t know about the historical Martha Jane Cannary. The film, directed by Rémi Chayé and co-written by Chayé with Fabrice de Costil and Sandra Tosello, does not set out to be an accurate partial biopic but the broad idea of the story fits the mythologising of her life that Cannary herself embellished. We meet a young teenage Martha on a wagon train in 1863 with her father and siblings. They are a relatively poor family compared to some of the other travellers. The wagon train is led by a rather strict ‘elder’ of the community, whose teenage son Ethan becomes something of a tormentor of Martha. I recognised some of the conventions in representing the wagon train crossing the plains and the mountain ranges from classic Hollywood films such as John Ford’s Wagon Master from 1950. Martha’s train doesn’t have a professional guide or ‘wagon master’ and that means that the narrative develops partly because of the mistakes the leader makes and accidents that befall the wagons. Several scenes reminded me of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010) – but that film framed the Western landscape in Academy ratio. Calamity offers us a CinemaScope view of the landscape which references Westerns from 1954 onwards.
The plot sees Martha leaving the wagon train in an attempt to clear her name after an incident which also sees her changing into trousers rather than a skirt and eventually cutting her hair. After learning to ride and lasso horses and cattle, her adventures see her being taken to be a boy. (This reminded me of Maggie Greenwald’s 1993 Western, The Ballad of Little Jo.) Many wagon trains suffered disasters and lives were lost, especially on the Oregon trail but this narrative has a happy ending, making it suitable family entertainment. There was a moment (in a mine) when I thought it was going to become frightening but the danger was quickly overcome. One of the main features of the film is its fast pacing with frequent actions. It’s a relatively short feature of around 80 minutes plus end credits. In addition there is a lively mountain music/bluegrass score by the Argentinian composer Florencia Di Concilio and the soundtrack can be sampled on YouTube. Martha meets various characters on her travels including another renegade character, a young man not that much older than herself. At one point Martha meets a trio of trappers who I think are Native Americans but otherwise the use of colour and the drawing techniques do not necessarily attempt to denote ethnicity. It is worth remembering that the date is given as 1863, before the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the migration of freed slaves across the Missouri.
I enjoyed the film which I think demonstrates strong story-telling. The film seems to have gone down well with audiences and has won prizes, including at the Annecy International Animation Festival. I’m not an expert on animation and I’m not sure I appreciate the visual style as much as some of the animation experts. I’m also not sure that I find the rebellion of a young girl fighting against gender norms to be such a novel experience as some reviewers – in some ways Martha seems like a Miyazaki hero (and what I presume Disney has been trying to achieve more recently). But if the film works to inspire young women that’s great. I think the version of the film released in Japan has a Japanese dub but one of the few English language reviewers of this film bemoans the fact that there is no English dub – and that this will restrict and possibly exclude entirely the young audiences it might otherwise find. In industry terms I think that is a fair comment. In most European countries that regularly subtitle foreign language films, provision is usually made to dub animated films with children as a target audience into the local language. On the other hand this is not a dialogue heavy film and I think young audiences will probably be able to follow the English subtitles. I discovered that the film has been available for some time on BFI Player (subscribers only) and that it is now also available on Google and YouTube to stream. The Amazon and Apple streams may be linked to BFI Player subscription offer which ends soon. The trailer below has English subs. If you have a MUBI subscription, I’ve discovered that Rémi Chayé’s previous film Long Way North (France-Denmark 2015) is available to stream currently.
This film presented a critical challenge for me. I’m increasingly bored by the idea of ‘superhero movies’ and I haven’t watched any for several years. But I’m always interested in anime of all kinds. So how would I cope with a ‘superhero anime‘? In the event, Hello World turned out to be a science fiction-romance in which the superpower is gifted to a shy teenager lacking self-confidence. The anime also attempts a range of social comments. Not having a detailed knowledge of comic books and their filmic adaptations, I probably missed some of the familiar generic elements borrowed from other films.
This appears to be the second anime feature by director Itô Tomohiko, but I note that he was an assistant director on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Japan 2006) which also has a time travel narrative focus. Writer Nozaki Mado appears to have only a TV series credit, so both are relatively new to top creative roles on anime features. The plot of the film is complex and quite difficult to outline clearly. I also don’t want to give away the ending of the narrative. So here is a very brief outline. The central character is Katagaki Naomi, a boy happiest with his books who is so indecisive in every aspect of his life that he even tries to read and absorb a ‘self-help’ book. He has no real friends, although he is invited to join various groups. One day, having joined the school’s library group, he finds himself paired on a library project with a girl, Ichigyou Ruri, who is also a bookworm and very introverted, but more decisive and confident. The setting is 2027 in Kyoto, the city in Japan most often associated with history (it was Japan’s second capital city, after Nara and before Edo (Tokyo)) and traditionally where most jidai-geki (historical drama films have been made). It seems that in 2027 Kyoto is almost like a model city of the future with a huge Museum Project at its heart, presenting the city’s history. A large Google-like company has mapped the city in fine 3D detail and drones monitor every aspect of life in the city. One day, Naomi is watching a strange, seemingly natural, event when a crow flies down and steals the book he is carrying. He has just enough time to see that the crow has three legs before it flies off and he attempts to follow it. Eventually it leads him to meet a figure who will turn out to be an older (and therefore taller) version of Naomi. His future self has come back in time as an avatar in an attempt to manipulate time. (The three-legged crow is known in East Asian mythology and in Japan is known as Yatagarasu.)
Manipulating time in a science fiction narrative usually suggests massive conflict and disaster, as well as posing a philosophical question far too complex for most of us to grapple with. In this case it seems to involve Ichigyou. The avatar first offers Naomi a superpower which he must learn how to use in order to save Ruri. He receives a form of energy glove which enables him to manipulate and grow any material. Eventually he will be able to produce huge boulders, miles of tarmac roads or metal structures etc. As well as creating all kinds of narrative possibilities this also gives the animators scope to create some amazing sequences to overlay the finely detailed drawn images of the city.
I won’t go any further with the plot and instead just make some observations. ‘Saving’ Ruri takes us back to ancient romance tales about the damsel in distress. Unfortunately, Ruri is rather underwritten and in contemporary terms it is quite difficult to assign this female character any ‘agency’. Also, the two young people are not presented in a family context. Naomi does have a mother, briefly represented (just as a voice, I think) in one scene. Families are important in the genre – Superman’s parents, Peter Parker’s older relatives in Spiderman etc. Or else there is an older, wiser, wizard-like advisor. but here we have just the boy and girl and the older version of the boy – at least in the beginning.
I suggested that there are some social commentaries in the narrative. The title ‘Hello World’ has been taken by many reviewers to be a reference to the first line of code in a new computer program. It’s a very long time since I tried to learn any coding, but I seem to remember that ‘Hello World’ was what blogging software used to insert in a new blog as an example of writing a new post. This science fiction narrative picks upon several of our fears about the new digital ‘always on’ world. The Kyoto of 2027 is mapped by robot drones and patrolled by bots who are there to make sure nothing is ‘changed’ – manipulating time will send these bots into a frenzy. For the schoolkids, ‘joining’ groups is almost compulsory with the fear of being ‘left out’. The ultimate fear of needing to reboot your computer system when everything might not reappear is also a real worry. But the inclusion of these kinds of issues is not really enough to compensate for the thin central romance narrative. This film looks great but it doesn’t have the ‘pull’ that this kind of romance needs to generate. But I did like the three-legged crow. I’m not the target audience for this anime and it does seem to have been well received by some fans. But I can’t see it having the ability to ‘cross over’ into wider audience segments like Studio Ghibli films.
Few Japanese stories stay in one format. This anime has so far been ‘novelised’ and a TV 3 episode spin-off titled ‘Another World’ has also been produced. Here is the Japanese trailer for Hello World (no subs) which gives some idea of the anime style, but doesn’t spoil the later sections of the plotting:
Josep was a real treat for me. Showing in My French Film Festival this is a form of animation not unlike last year’s The Swallows of Kaboul (France-Luxembourg 2019) in representing the humanity found in the midst of horror. I realise that my favourite form of animation is ‘drawn’, followed by stop motion. This is why I generally go for Japanese or French drawn forms with a side order of Aardman. I’ve lost interest in most Hollywood animations. But I should warn you that the three of the reviews in English of Josep that I found expressed doubts about the drawing style (while praising the content).
The ‘Josep’ of the title is Josep Bartolí, the Catalan ‘draftsman and caricaturist’ who fought the Francoist rebels in the Spanish Civil War, finally escaped to Mexico and had an affair with the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, before being blacklisted in the US as a communist. Given the dramatic events of his life it’s amazing that he survived into his mid-80s. This animation, which is similar in conception to Maus by Art Spiegelman and Persepolis (France-US 2007) by Marjane Satrapi (which was a graphic novel before becoming a film), is narrated in flashbacks by an old man trying to engage with his grandson who clearly has talent as an artist. Like stories and memories for old people the narrative presents events outside a strict chronology and at first we aren’t quite sure how the grandfather knows about all the events. The film is presented in a ‘Scope ratio and it lasts just 71 minutes but packs in a lot.
In February 1939 Franco’s forces, with the help of other Fascists in Italy and Germany, finally defeated the Republicans in Barcelona and half a million soldiers and ordinary citizens, men women and children fled Catalonia, marching over the Pyrenees in in the snow to reach France. But by 1939 the Popular Front in France had failed to resolve political differences in relation to the war in Spain, despite support for intervention by French communists. The Spanish Republicans expected some form of support in France but instead were met by at best indifference and at worst downright rejection and horrific conditions of internment. The Spanish were put into concentration camps hastily constructed along the coast of Roussillon and at several other sites across the rest of France. Josep was one of those who found himself in a camp on the coast guarded by Gendarmes, many with Fascist sympathies, and ‘Colonial troops’ – Senegalese tirailleurs. Josep had few belongings and was only sustained by his passion for drawing which he carried out with whatever implements and canvases he could improvise. Eventually, one of the few compassionate Gendarmes smuggled in a pencil and small notebook enabling him to draw more effectively. These drawings would become the basis for a later publication named La Retirada after the name given to this exodus from Catalonia.
There are several important figures involved in bringing Josep Bartolí’s story to cinema screens. The film is directed (and drawn) by Aurel, a press cartoonist. He works for Le Monde and Le Canard Enchaîné. He has published around twenty books including two documentary comics, Clandestino and La Menuiserie, and produced numerous graphic reports for various titles in the French press. (Source: the film’s Press Pack.) Aurel had made one short film before this, his first feature. He set out to be faithful to both the story and to the different drawing styles that Bartolí used, often out of necessity. Early scenes are drawn in pencil, then ink and felt tip. At first the colour is almost completely drained from the scenes but later it emerges, most dramatically in the appearances by Frida Kahlo. Towards the end of the story, Josep is in effect painting with broad colours. The script for the film was written by Jean-Louis Milesi who is possibly best known in the UK as the writer of films for the Marseilles-based socialist filmmaker Robert Guédiguian and Josep is ‘voiced’ by the Barcelona-born actor Sergi López.
I don’t want to say too much about the events that Josep is part of or which he observes. Suffice to say these concentration camps were a disgrace and the treatment of the Republicans and especially communist Republicans (who their gaolers couldn’t properly distinguish from anarchists) was dreadful. After 1940 some of them worked as forced labour and some were sent to Nazi death camps. Some found themselves building the camps that held Jews and others rounded up in Vichy France under the orders of the Gestapo. One tiny ray of light in all this seems to have been the common decency of some of the Senegalese troops shown towards the Spanish Republicans. Some of the Spanish did eventually escape to fight with the French Résistance and I read somewhere that the first motor vehicle driven into Paris as part of the liberating allied forces was driven by a Spanish Republican. The identity of the grandfather telling the tale to his grandson gradually becomes clear.
I knew something of the historical events surrounding ‘La Retirada’ but I didn’t know about the details of the camps. Some Republicans made it to the UK, others got to the US and many made it to Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. I don’t think any of those refugees/exiles met the kind of treatment meted out to Josep and his compañeros. I hope this film gets a UK cinema release in the future. It is also possible to view currently via BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema streaming (which is taking some of the titles in My French Film Festival).
This is a candidate for the standout film of My French Film Festival. It is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen and also one of the saddest and most desperate despite a more optimistic tone towards the end of the narrative. As an animation it affected me as much as classics like Grave of the Fireflies (Japan 1988). There are many kinds of animated films but as far as drawn/painted animation is concerned, I would place French productions (linked to a graphic novel industry) alongside Japanese anime and manga.
The source here is a novel by ‘Yasmina Khadra’, the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian military man who chose to disguise his identity to avoid censure. The novel first appeared in 2002. The film adaptation is by two women, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec. Both women are credited as directors. Breitman is one of three writers who adapted the novel and Gobbé-Mévellec is the animator responsible for the overall graphic design and the ‘look’ of the film. I haven’t read the original novel but given the nature of the story, the gender shift in the control of the ‘voices’ of the characters would be worth exploring. (I’m referring here to the broader sense of how a character in a narrative can articulate how they feel rather than simply what they say.)
As the title suggests, the story is set in Kabul, but at a specific time between 1998 and 2001 when the Taliban occupied the Afghan capital that was reduced to ruins. They have imposed Sharia Law and are taking drastic action against anyone who attempts to flout the new restrictions on behaviour. The narrative focuses on two couples. Atiq is an older war veteran who has been made the gaoler of women condemned to die for lewd behaviour and other crimes. His wife Mussarat, the woman who nursed him after he was wounded, is now seriously ill. Zunaira is a young and very attractive teacher and artist who now rarely leaves the house because she cannot bear to wear a burqua. Her equally young husband Mohsen is also a teacher now despairing at what has happened to Kabul. Each of these four characters is attempting to come to terms with their situation and each finds that either they feel compelled to act in particular ways or that they attempt to do what they think is right only to discover that it leads to an unexpected and usually bad outcome.
I’ve seen some criticism that by focusing on an ‘academic’ couple, the story takes the kind of route that might be easiest for Western audiences, but this is balanced by the story of Atiq and Mussarat. In each case the couples meet others who offer different trajectories. Mohsen meets his old university teacher and Atiq meets a childhood friend and an elderly man – possibly the character who acts like a kind of wise man. The women meanwhile are caught between neighbours who look out for them and other women who seem to have become Taliban collaborators, acting as prison guards with their Kalashnikovs. The Taliban seem to revel in their own hypocrisy, lounging about with dancing girls behind closed doors and enforcing the social laws with violence. Everyone else is to some extent lost and bewildered.
There have been many narratives released in the West about what has happened in Afghanistan over the last 30-40 years. I don’t know which, if any, offer the most accurate representation – probably it isn’t possible. Many are stories created by exiles or Western observers. The ones I know best are those by the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and especially by his daughter Samira. Both Mohsen and Samira have used elements of absurdity and surrealism as part of their approach. The most relevant comparison for The Swallows of Kabul is possibly Samira’s At Five in the Afternoon (Iran-France 2003), set immediately after the Taliban have been ousted by international forces. In that film a young woman, Noqreh, rebels against her conservative father and attends a school where she takes part in an election for ‘President’. I was struck by how in both her film and The Swallows of Kabul the two young women flout the strict dress code by wearing a pair of white court shoes with a low heel. Noqreh changes shoes as she moves from a Koranic school to the new school where women speak out. Zunaira wears her shoes defiantly, knowing she is asking for trouble. The shoes are the only ‘personal’ aspect of a woman’s appearance on the street – every woman wears the same burqua (though the children seem to recognise their mothers’ birqua when it is borrowed). The uniformity of the burqua-clad women is the other strong image I remember from the Iranian film and it is repeated in the still from The Swallows of Kabul in the image at the head of this post.
The strength of The Swallows of Kabul for me is in the approach to the animation style which I think works to create that sense of realism counterposed by surrealism. Much of the production process is explained in the Press Pack which is extremely useful. Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec explain in some detail how the animation style developed. The animation house Les Armateurs, best-known internationally for The Triplets of Belleville and Ernest & Celestine were involved from the start but Zabou Breitman was convinced that she wanted a process that involved actors performing scenes first which would then be drawn, rather than voice actors adding dialogue to a conventional animation. Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec then provided the background ‘plates’ for the representation of the city and created the overall look of the film as a traditional 2D ‘drawn’ animation using brushwork and washes of colour. The filmed performances then led to a process similar too but distinct from rotoscoping which Breitman felt would be too ‘fluid’. The final result with the actors placed against the background offers a unique representation of Kabul under the Taliban. The dialogue is voiced by mainly French actors and I noted that Swann Arlaud appears as Mohsen, one of his three appearances in the My French Film Festival. Mussarat is voiced by the great Palestinian actor Hiam Abbass.
I really don’t understand why this film hasn’t got a UK release. It has appeared in festivals in the UK and is currently available (with English subs) for streaming on Curzon and also (at a lower price) on YouTube. Here’s a trailer with English subs.
I only recently caught Shinkai Makoto’s much lauded Your Name (Kimi no na wa, Japan 2016) whose gender-swapping premise, mixed with natural disasters, was a fascinating mix of teen pic and SF. Weathering With Me is even better, though I’m not sure how much my delight in the latter film was influenced by seeing it on an IMAX screen.
The last film I saw on the big screen format was Blade Runner 2049 which seemed to me to be diminished by the large screen. I have found it difficult to know where to look on the IMAX space and this uncertainty interrupts the flow of the filmic experience. As Weathering With You was limited to one screening in Bradford I’m grateful to my daughter for insisting we go, despite my reservations. Whilst I haven’t wholly changed my views on IMAX’s suitability as a medium for narrative cinema, I am pretty sure this anime benefited from the eyeball-encompassing space facilitated by the large screen: it is an exceptionally beautiful film. However, I found Blade Runner 2049‘s visuals superb too so I’m not sure what the difference is. If anything, watching Weathering, because the need to read subtitles necessitates an obvious movement of the gaze to the bottom of the screen, should have been an even less fulfilling experience but I was simply bowled over by the images.
Like Your Name, Weathering With You deals with a coming of age narrative but instead of a backdrop of natural disasters, here it is ecological disaster that affords the context to teenage travails: it is raining incessantly in Tokyo. At first it appeared that Makoto was making a point about climate change, Gaia is mentioned early on, but by the conclusion it seems, disappointingly, to have been more a metaphor for the difficulties of growing up and first love. Morishima runs away from the boring sticks to make his fortune in Tokyo and Amano finds she is ‘weather girl’, a modern shaman who can make the sun shine. How they get together is subject to many (sometimes implausible but who cares when you’re seeing such sumptuous images?) narrative obstacles, some of which are funny.
In one scene the protagonists fall slowly, upside down, from the sky and I can’t work out why that image affected me so much. Whilst falling from the sky is obviously not a good idea for everyday life, maybe the image is about connecting with the unearthly aspects of our planet; hence Amano is a shaman. In our ‘sophisticated’ capitalist world we have lost touch with Earth, hence most don’t notice the incremental changes as we destroy it. Science has often been at the service of capitalism, developing products, services and new markets, and when it has attempted to speak loudly about climate catastrophe its message has been mangled and muted by vested (money) interests. Although Weathering With Me isn’t directly an ecological parable it does evoke the power of nature in a spectacular, and scary, way. Two likely ‘films of the year’ in one week!