Category: Comedies

Starter for 10 (UK-US 2006)

The quiz team(from left, Brian, Alice, Patrick and Lucy)

Starter for 10 is a notable film for several reasons. I avoided it when it first appeared in 2006, but watching on TV now I found it silly but enjoyable and it raised several questions. Why is it notable? Partly because it offers a cast containing a number of young British actors who would go on to bigger and better films later on. In this respect it’s something like the Brat Pack movies of 1980s Hollywood. It’s also a UK-US co-production financed by BBC films and HBO. I’m not sure what HBO hoped for with the film but a couple of the US reviews I’ve seen suggest that what might be the key element of the film, social class in the UK, isn’t really understood in the US. On the other hand, a central aspect of the narrative is based around the TV quiz show University Challenge, a version of the original US show College Bowl.

Brian says goodbye to his mum when he leaves for his first term at Bristol

The novelist David Nicholls wrote his first novel, Starter for 10 partly drawing on his own university experience in Bristol in 1985-6. It was published in 2003 and Nicholls, already a successful writer for TV, adapted his own work for the film version. The narrative is a form of ‘coming of age’ story, romantic comedy and social comedy structured around the central character’s appearance on University Challenge. Brian Jackson (James McAvoy) is a working-class boy, obsessed with University Challenge from his childhood. It is something that has stayed with him since he watched the programme as a small boy with his father, who later died before Brian got to university. The romance narrative comes from Brian’s attempts to develop relationships with two contrasting young women, Alice (Alice Eve, daughter of Trevor Eve who ironically found fame on TV as ‘Eddie Shoestring’ a radio broadcaster turned detective based in Bristol) and Rebecca Hall (daughter of the great stage director, Peter Hall). Alice is an ambitious blonde from a wealthy background and Rebecca is a political activist. This is one aspect of the social class conflict.

Brian with Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) on the waterfront . . .

Nicholls (or the producers) decided to keep the setting as 1985, a decision which allowed the film to make use of a range of New Wave music from the 1980s (though some of the songs were actually released after 1985) and to set student life in the context of the second term of Margaret Thatcher’s controversial Tory government. On the other hand, this decision did raise some problems re University Challenge, which by 2006 had shifted from ITV to BBC (though still made by Granada/ITV) with a new quizmaster. It also placed the film in an odd position re 1980s nostalgia, something that was present in UK films of the 1990s/2000s but which was perhaps more common in Hollywood?

. . . and with Spencer (Dominic Cooper, back in Essex

The social class conflict is that the University of Bristol, was around the time of the film’s release, renowned as the university favoured by students from private schools and was deemed part of an elite group of universities with a predominantly middle-class intake (alongside Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and St. Andrews). Brian isn’t just a “working-class boy from a coastal resort” as one US review puts it but a boy from Essex and specifically from Clacton-on-Sea (though I think it’s meant to be Southend). Essex boys (and especially girls) were much mocked in the UK media in the early 2000s.

The social comedy is a great British institution and James McAvoy, whose career really took off in 2006 was a good choice for Brian, even though he was 26 when filming began. A Glasgow boy with a passion for creating opportunities for working-class actors he encapsulates the traditional British comedy hero figure (it helps that he is short and a terrific actor). Starter for 10 is, however, a multi-genre picture. It plays with familiar typing and it is indeed predictable – although the ending is perhaps not what is expected (and doesn’t actually work in one respect). Genre films are by definition conventional but the mix in this film is difficult to carry off for director Tom Vaughan. This was his first cinema feature after he started in TV production and after four further cinema features, none particularly distinguished he has since mostly worked back in TV. I think the tone of Starter for 10 is a problem. It is a difficult task to meld the the serious elements of the story with the romance and the social class comedy. For me, the biggest problem in the film is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Patrick, the pompous Tory captain of the quiz team (which depends on Brian and an Asian-American student, Lucy (Elaine Tan)). Alice is the fourth member. The opposing team in the quiz show comprises a heavily typed set of public schoolboys, who struck me as a take on the characters from Lindsay Anderson’s if . . . . (1968). The more serious element in the narrative concerns Brian’s home life with his mum Julie (Catherine Tate) and her new boyfriend Des (John Renshaw) plus Brian’s two friends he leaves behind in Clacton. James Corden (Tone) and Dominic Cooper (Spencer) had been together in the play The History Boys which saw a film adaptation released later in 2006. History Boys was written by Alan Bennett, drawing on his own experiences of being a grammar school boy encouraged to apply to Oxbridge colleges. UK and some American audiences for Starter for 10 may well have been aware of Corden and Cooper’s roles in The History Boys.

The show being recorded

Since the revival of University Challenge on the BBC in 1994 (it ended on ITV in 1987), the show gradually developed with a new quizmaster, Jeremy Paxman and by now is in some ways very different, though the basic idea remains the same. The quizmaster in 1986 was Bamber Gascoigne, a much loved figure who died earlier this year. He had started with the programme itself in 1962. He was a unique figure who is impersonated in a skilled technical performance by Mark Gatiss. He’s very good but, close as he gets, he isn’t Bamber Gascoigne. I do wonder if the whole thing would work better if the show was fictitious with a different presenter altogether.

Overall, Starter for 10 is decent entertainment but could have been better with more focus on a consistent tonal mix of the genre elements. The film is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for several months and on most of the major streamers or digital rental platforms in the US.

Official Competition (Competencia oficial, Argentina-Spain 2021)

I enjoyed being back in a cinema this week to watch the very entertaining Official Competition, more or less a three-hander for three great film actors. The plot is very simple. A very rich man on his 80th birthday muses on how he wants to be memorialised. Possibly a bridge named after him, or how about a film which he has produced? The film idea takes hold and his staff suggest that it should be directed by Lola Cuevas, the celebrated independent filmmaker. The wealthy man options a book he has been told is a bestseller and Lola (Penélope Cruz) hires two famous actors Félix (Antonio Banderas) and Iván (Oscar Martínez) to play two brothers who are propelled into a feud after a family incident. We then follow the tortuous process of Lola developing her ‘loose’ adaptation of the novel and putting her two renowned actors through a bizarre series of rehearsal exercises as she tries to prepare them for the shoot.

The mise en scène separates the three principals and emphasises their attempts to come together

The film is the brainchild of the Argentinian duo, Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat who have worked together as writer-directors since 1990s. On this film they also have a script contribution from Andrés Duprat. I don’t think I’ve seen work from them before in the UK, but their 2016 film The Distinguished Citizen won three prizes at Venice including Best Actor for Oscar Martínez. He is a leading Argentinian actor but most of the cast and crew are Spanish and the film was shot in Spain. Co-productions like this are common in Hispanic language cinema generally. The film is dependent on the three central performances but the real clincher is the fantastic attention to detail in all aspects of the filmmaking process.

Félix and Ivan try to outdo each other . . .

Lola tries to put ‘pressure’ on her actors to keep them on edge

The key to the drama is the different personalities and approaches to acting taken by the two men and how they respond to Lola’s style of direction. She is very well-prepared and takes no nonsense from her stars. Her authority is emphasised by her appearance, including a distinctive coiffure and an array of extraordinary designer outfits (listed in the credits). Throughout the film she is, of course, ravishing. I chose the film partly to watch her and I wasn’t disappointed. The two men are opposites. Banderas plays the big film star with the ego and the super car. In terms of masculine sexuality he is as beautiful as Cruz and his presentation of the ego-driven Félix is both exaggerated and playful. Martínez as the older brother is a ‘serious actor’ who doesn’t work in the mainstream and teaches acting alongside his appearances on stage and in more art-oriented films. He is stuffy and plays to his own prestige. The two personalities in direct competition are a joy to behold. As we might expect there is a sub-text about the female director directing these pompous male actors and this is carried through in Lola’s choice of crew on her film and her other casting decisions.

Lola and her assitant with the dark bob – real attention to detail

Most of narrative takes place in a striking modern building in concrete and wooden panelling with enormous rooms, terraces and plate glass. It’s the base for all of Lola’s rehearsal exercises. I presume it is a building in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, outside Madrid. Ironically this must be not that far from both the Royal Palace built by Phillip II in the 16th Century and the original Fascist monument that was the tomb of General Franco from 1975 until the exhumation in 2019. The rehearsal building is almost the fourth ‘player’ in the film. There are secondary characters as well and Lola’s assistant is a woman with a severe dark ‘bob’ hairstyle that reminded me of Jeanne Moreau in the Bride Wore Black (France 1968). The third character in the ‘film within a film’ is a young woman played by the rich man’s young granddaughter (?), who Lola insists auditioned very well. Even though the architecture is severe, there is great attention to detail, particularly sound which features in one scene in particular. The musical score by Eduardo Cruz works very well and complements the ‘Scope photography by Arnau Valls Colomer and production design/art design by Alain Bainée and Sara Natividad. The film looked and sounded wonderful on a big screen. It only opened in the UK towards the end of August but the DVD is already being advertised and the film is already streaming on Curzon. If you get the chance to see it in a cinema, go for it. The only sad aspect of my return to cinemagoing has been the very small audiences – in this case a handful of people in a 300 seat auditorium.

I’m posting the original Spanish trailer because it gives away less than the anglophone ones. Although the plotting is relatively simple, there is a twist that sets up the ending. But as Lola predicts, these kinds of narratives often present surprises. You may well work this out for yourself but the script is clever in seeding your reading with clues.

Smile Orange (Jamaica 1976)

There has been a resurgence of interest in The Harder They Come (Jamaica 1972) this last summer, primarily because of the 60th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence from British colonial rule. I’ll try to come back to The Harder They Come at a later date but here I want to explore the second Jamaican film to get a UK cinema release, Smile Orange (Jamaica 1976), which seems to have been generally ignored in the celebrations in the UK this year (at least the ones I have been aware of). Smile Orange is an adaptation of his own play by the writer Trevor D. Rhone (who also co-wrote The Harder They Come). The play was first seen in the UK in 1972, I think, as part of the 10th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence promoted by the Jamaican High Commission and notably featuring Mona Hammond (1931-2022), the wonderful Jamaican actress who died recently. It was expected to play in several venues in London, but so far I’ve only found its opening in Acton Concert Hall. I believe it was revived in Birmingham in 2013. The Harder They Come film was also seen in the UK in 1972. In the case of both film and play, they were seen only in areas with a Jamaican/Caribbean potential audience as far as I can see from newspaper listings. The reason for this was probably that the film and play featured Jamaican patois and the assumption was that dialogue would be incomprehensible to other audiences. It is worth remembering also that The Harder They Come featured Jimmy Cliff in the lead and a magnificent soundtrack showcasing the best of early reggae – the soundtrack was later seen to have helped promote reggae to a larger audience in the UK. The new popularity and respect for the music might have helped the re-release of The Harder They Come in 1977 and the film of Smile Orange in 1978.

Joe (left ) and Ringo (Carl Bradshaw) survey the hotel guests and management from the kitchen

Smile Orange focuses on one crucial aspect of post-colonial reality for many ex-colonies and especially those in accessible tropical paradises – tourism. The origins in a stage play are all too evident in the film which takes place largely in a tourist hotel. The central character is Ringo Smith (Carl Bradshaw), a different kind of ‘rude boy’ who revels in his abilities as all-round conman and lothario. At the start of the narrative he sneaks out of his house in the hills, clearly attempting to escape his wife and her two brothers with whom he has major problems. Stopping on the way to have a brief encounter with an attractive young woman, Ringo eventually makes it to his workplace, a hotel by the beach. From this point, all the action takes place in and around the hotel. Ringo sets out to make as much money as he can by fleecing the guests, fiddling the hotel system and attempting to seduce any attractive woman he can find. There is a small group of characters including the kitchen manager Joe (Stanley Irons) as Ringo’s partner in crime and a new ‘bus boy’ Cyril (Glen Morrison). A new receptionist Mae (Robin Sweeney) and the assistant manager (Vaughn Crosskill) are the other two central characters in the cast list. Several of the hotel guests are picked out for particular stories but none are listed in the cast. I should point out that this is a Jamaican film, distributed in the UK by another independent company, listed as ‘Babylon Films’. Details on IMDb and elsewhere are hard to come by.

The bus boy (Glen Morrison) learns the ropes from Ringo

Monthly Film Bulletin in the UK described the film as a “dismally unfunny and excruciatingly overplayed farce”. But the few other reviews still available are more encouraging. Time Out recognised “a genuinely hilarious politicised farce; a satire on tourism” and the New York Times did seem to understand what the film might be about while warning readers of the general ramshackle nature of the whole production. I did see the film in 1978 in London but I remember little of that experience forty years later. Prompted to look for the film online, I found two copies, both poor prints with muddy sound, but still watchable. I can’t claim to have followed all the dialogue, partly because of the poor sound but also because of the patois which was once more familiar to me. My first observation is that there is comedy that works and there is a political discourse despite all the failings in the adaptation from the play. Most of the cast apart from Carl Bradshaw had little experience of feature films. The reviews at the time also raise other issues. Time Out suggests that Rhone has borrowed ideas from British comedies and picks out the Fawlty Towers TV sitcom as an example for British viewers. It did occur to me, rewatching the film, that it resembles Carry On Abroad (1972), except that it is told from the perspective of the hotel staff rather than the guests. There is the same mixture of ‘seaside postcard humour’ and casual sexism. But I also thought of later American comedies of the 1970s and 1980s since the guests are mainly Americans. I’ll come back to the sexism.

The receptionist/switchboard operator (Robin Sweeney) and the assistant manager (Vaughn Crosskill) watch an airliner full of tourists flying home

The most important point about the film is the difficult question of how do you respond to the realities of postcolonial exploitation? Jamaica in 1976 was still a poor country with a colonial hangover. Tourism promised at least a form of employment and a source of foreign currency. But it also meant a continuation of servile behaviour in catering to the demands of tourists. Ringo’s approach is to attempt to screw as much money out of the tourists as possible and to do this he declares that Jamaicans should learn to play a role and they should stick together. A feature of the script is the way that Ringo acts as a mentor for the naïve bus boy Cyril, teaching him how to wait tables and how to exploit rich white American women looking for sexual action. Ringo, of course, also plans to profit from Cyril’s attempts to carry though his teachings. But Ringo also risks spoiling his relationship with Joe (who does indeed cover for his colleague) by attempting to con him too. The other two characters picked out in the cast also refer to the social and political issues in Jamaica. Mae targets wealthy tourists who may offer her a chance to leave the island and move to the US. She is extremely attractive and is quite prepared to use her charms and her story provides a form of balance to the more common (in these kind of narratives) example of American women seeking ‘romance’ with the local young men. The assistant manager (who is in charge for the whole of the narrative) is a light-skinned Jamaican with speech patterns that suggest he has been privately educated. He is therefore presented as Ringo’s number one target to be duped. He also has a beautiful white wife who becomes a different target for Ringo and this is a surprisingly undeveloped part of the script.

The film has undoubted political commentary but it is weakly constructed. The intriguing question is why it has been ignored in some UK/US histories. This was the question I started out with. I don’t agree that it is simply a ‘bad film’. I did wonder if its sexism was the problem? The five or six women depicted in the film are mainly objects of comedy or are simply functional in presenting the comedy. The camera also appears fixated with the breasts and buttocks of many of the women. This is also evident in some of the other Jamaican films I’ve seen – but then it is also true of British and American comedies of the ‘seaside postcard’ type. I was a little surprised that the New York Times review notes that it is PG rated but: “It is quite harmless; there’s some talk about sex but no action”. I’m not sure this is true. The British Classification Certificate was an ‘AA’ (adults and children over 14), so close to PG in the US. Why then did Birmingham City Licensing Authority in the UK slap its own ‘X’ rating on the film? I suspect some pressure from ‘community leaders’. I think the film is worthwhile because of its social/political commentary, but should be critiqued for its sexism. Interestingly it has been followed by a much better film on similar themes, Heading South (France-Canada 2005), set in Haiti, based on stories written by a Haitian and focusing on American women flying to a hotel where they develop long-term relationships with local men.

One of the diegeticmusical performances in the hotel dining room. I don’t know which singer this might be, but it’s possibly Ailine Grant.

Although it doesn’t contain the reggae hits found on the soundtrack of The Harder They Come, the music of Smile Orange is local, I think, and there are samples from the soundtrack LP on YouTube. Melba Liston and Marilyn Curtis (with the ‘Ringo Smith’ song) are featured.  It is ironic that there are at least three tracks led by women in a film I’ve labelled sexist. I’ve seen a claim that the film is now something of a cult among second generation Jamaicans in the UK. There is a DVD available and the film was listed for UK digital download but I haven’t found it anywhere. If you are wondering about the title, I assume it refers to the colour of the hotel uniforms and the command that all the staff should ‘smile’ in serving the guests – a perfect summation of the postcolonial exploitation.

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.

Une belle fille comme moi (A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, France 1972)

François Truffaut was the subject of a major retrospective at BFI Southbank earlier this year and I’ve been trying to find time to return to a study of his films. I wonder what audiences in 2022 made of this film? It is seen by many of Truffaut’s fans as his misfire, leaving many wondering what he was up to. This is surprising, partly because the film presents many familiar Truffaut elements and connections with his other films. The most direct connection is to Truffaut’s early short feature Les Mistons (France 1957) which is included as a very welcome ‘extra’ on the Artificial Eye Region B Blu-ray for Une belle fille. I like Les mistons very much but it probably needs its own post. It features Bernadette Lafont (1938-2013) in her first film and the suggestion is that Une belle fille comme moi is Truffaut’s gift/hommage to the woman who became, in Dave Kehr’s words, “the nouvelle vague‘s most memorable embodiment of earthy sexuality”.

François Truffaut with Bernadette Lafont on set

The second connection is to Truffaut’s love of hard-boiled pulp fiction, published in French as Série noir novels and as part of American crime fiction more generally. There are four distinct Truffaut noirs/polars based on such novels: Tirez sur le pianiste (1960), La mariée était en noir (1968), La sirène du Mississipi (1969) and Vivement Dimanche! (1982). Une belle fille comme moi is perhaps related to Vivement Dimanche as a ‘comedy crime film’, but its plotting is more closely related to La mariée était en noir (which is not a comedy). The original novel which Truffaut and Jean-Loup Dabadie adapted was by Henry Farrell, whose writing career covered novels, screenplays and teleplays. He wrote the novel for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (US 1962) and the screenplays for the follow-ups, Hush . . . , Hush Sweet Charlotte (US 1964) and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971). These were all ‘gothic horror’ crime stories. Une belle fille comme moi is something rather different. As a crime comedy it also uses elements of the musical and the farce.

Stanislas interviews Camille in prison

Camille Bliss (Lafont) is a prisoner at the start of the film, convicted of murder. She is interviewed by a young sociologist Stanislas Prévine (André Dussollier in his first film feature role) who is preparing a thesis on ‘criminal women’. Camille begins to tell her story through flashbacks and Stanislas soon finds himself in love with her despite the lurid story she tells. He’s convinced she is innocent. In the first flashback to her childhood we get an inkling of the kind of film we are going to see when little Camille is kicked by her drunken father across his farmyard and she literally flies through the air to land on top of a hay wagon. She spends her girlhood in a ‘Home for Observation of Juvenile Delinquents’. Her later escapades involve marriage and her initial escape from that into flings with various men. In all Camille hitches up with six men over the course of the narrative. Five of them are vanquished. The 5:1 ratio is a reminder of Les mistons (five young boys pursuing Bernadette Lafont) and La mariée était en noir with five men despatched by Jeanne Moreau. I won’t spoil the narrative though the film’s critics suggest that the ending is obvious from the start.

Camille after she has successfully seduced the ‘Exterminator Man’ played by Charles Denner

So what is the problem? Critics argue that Truffaut can’t handle a full-blown feature of broad comedy like this and that he made a mistake in making his lead such a trollop. Actually, quite a few call her a ‘slut’ or a ‘tart’ or worse. Some of them seem to suggest that Truffaut’s problems with sexuality lead him into a certain kind of sour prudery. I think that if you take only a casual glance at the film, it can in some instances seem a bit like a series of Benny Hill sketches with Camille in various stages of undress running from lecherous men over whom she eventually triumphs. But look more closely and think a bit more about the narrative and the performances and a different film emerges I think. At the centre of the film is Bernadette Lafont, let off the leash and given the chance to take control of the narrative, in fact she literally narrates her own (fictional) story. She had been a dancer and she commands the screen partly through the way she moves. In my ancient guide to the ‘400 key figures in French cinema’ by Marcel Martin (1971), her entry describes her as having a “gay but unsophisticated frankness”. That seems a good call. Camille is the simple country girl who realises that she can get whatever she wants by offering herself for sex which she clearly enjoys. She may appear to be exploited but in fact she remains in control. It was still unusual in 1972 for a narrative to feature a woman with this kind of narrative ‘agency’. Although Truffaut was adapting an American property, the film does have elements in common with Nelly Kaplan’s La fiancée du pirate (France 1969). This also featured Bernadette Lafont in the lead role as a young woman in rural France living in a marginalised family who eventually turns to prostitution as a way of gaining control over the locals who look down on her. Kaplan’s film (known in the US as Dirty Mary) became something of a feminist text in the UK in the early 1970s and was screened at various conferences (including at the NFT in April 1973) as well as in late night cinema shows. It’s also worth remembering that the early 1970s was a period when there were many European sexploitation films in UK cinemas (usually dubbed) as well as UK softcore productions, whereas in New York when Truffaut’s film opened it was competing with hardcore titles like Behind the Green Door (1972) with Marilyn Chambers and at another extreme one of Bergman’s most powerful films Cries and Whispers (Sweden 1972) which was nominated for five Oscars (and won one).

The young filmmaker who doesn’t want to show his rushes

In the circumstances it isn’t surprising that Truffaut’s film should be rejected by some of the most high profile critics. Jan Dawson suggests in Monthly Film Bulletin (May 1973) that despite using a familiar structure as seen in his other films, Truffaut fails because the “breathless quality that he seeks to impose on his heroine’s odyssey is more suggestive of exhaustion than effervescence”. By contrast Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram (1998) offer a detailed analytic reading which I find most helpful. They point out that the film’s aesthetic presents the scenes involving Stanislas in an almost realist mode, whereas those presenting Camille’s re-telling of her story are much more ‘anti realist’ – drawing on cartoons, slapstick and musical numbers. They suggest that Stanislas represents the familiar Truffaut figure of the patriarchy, the representative of rules and conformity trying to contain Camille’s energy in his book. The book is intended to be about ‘criminal women’ but it is the woman who is the protagonist and the one with whom a popular audience might identify. I think every scene in the film is carefully thought out and I don’t find the overall effect to be one of exhaustion. Every scene deals in some way with the same concerns found elsewhere in Truffaut’s work. To be fair to Dawson she does discuss what she sees as an effective sequence in which Stanislas and his young secretary are searching for some film footage of Camille which could be evidence to use in court. When they find it, they have to negotiate with a 9-year old boy who doesn’t want to show the footage to them because it is not yet edited, as clear a reference to the cinema obsessed young François as you could ask for. Other reviews spend time discussing Truffaut’s various hommages to Hitchcock, Hawks and Renoir but I don’t want to go there just at the moment.

Stanislas dictating his thesis typed up by his secretary Hélène (Anne Kreis) who tries to convince him that Camille is running rings round him

I surprised myself in enjoying Une belle fille comme moi more than I thought I would. At other times I have found Truffaut’s approach to his female characters to be a problem but his approach here is consistent and makes good use of his star. The film has an excellent score by Georges Delerue and the cinematography is by Pierre-William Glenn who also shot La nuit américaine (1972) and L’argent de poche (1976). It was filmed mostly around Béziers in the South of France. There is a mystery about the intended aspect ratio for the film. IMDb suggests 1.85:1 but this is clearly wrong. A contributor on DVD Beaver suggests that it was shot ‘Open Matte’ and that it was intended to be projected at 1.66:1. The Artificial Eye Blu-ray is presented as 1.33:1 and I can’t see how many of the scenes could be cropped for widescreen without destroying the compositions.

Reference

Holmes, Diana and Ingram, Robert (1998) François Truffaut, Manchester: Manchester University Press

¡Viva! 28 #6: Patrimonio nacional (National Heritage, Spain 1980)

The marqués is in the centre with his wife Eugenia on the wheelchair with the food tray.

One of the pleasures of ¡Viva! over the years has been the inclusion of archive prints which give UK festival audiences the chance to see significant Spanish titles and learn something of the history of Spanish cinema. This year’s offering was two films by Luis García Berlanga (1921-2010) whose career as a writer and director began in the late 1940s and ended with a short film in 2002. Berlanga was known for a series of comedies, at first together with Juan Antonio Bardem and later with the writer Rafael Azcona. Two of his films, Esa pareja feliz (The Happy Couple, 1953) and El verdugo (The Executioner, 1963) are discussed on this blog. The comedies take various approaches from satire through to comedy dramas. Patrimonio nacional is the second film in a trilogy of farces that Berlanga directed, starting with La escopeta nacional in 1978 and finishing with a sequel to Patrimonio nacional, titled Nacional III in 1982. Franco died in 1975 and Berlanga was one of the first directors to to create a commentary on the post-Franco period. Previously, his films had been constructed to appear as comedies about ‘ordinary people’ that might evade Francoist censorship. Now he focused on the aristocracy and how they might fare in newly democratic Spain.

The three films focus on the family of the ‘Marqués de Leguineche’ (Luis Escobar). The marqués has spent the Franco years in exile from the court on his farm 50 miles outside Madrid. Now he wishes to return with the re-establishment of the monarchy in the form of Juan Carlos during the ‘Period of Transition’. The marqués is faced with several problems. His wife Eugenia (Mary Santpere) has remained in the Madrid mansion throughout the Franco period with her faithful manservant Goyo (José Ruiz Lifante). She has allowed most of the great house to deteriorate and is not happy to see her returning husband. He is saddled with a useless son Segundo and his warring wife Chus. The fate of the Spanish aristocracy in the late 1970s was not dissimilar to that of the British aristos ten or twenty years earlier – there is no money to refurbish the house and no interest, or sympathy, from the general population which is attracted by the possibilities of capitalist expansion and consumerism as Spain opens up to the world.

The marqués and his son Segundo (with a soft-porn magazine). Goyo the servant (with the walkie-talkie for his mistress) is between them.

Besides the money needed to restore the great house, it transpires that neither the marqués or his wife have paid any taxes since 1931, when the Republic was first declared – obviously they wouldn’t pay to support the republic and they attempt excuses for the Francoists as well. The marqués is an old rogue and a wily operator who sets out to ‘incapacitate’ his wife – i.e. to have her declared insane. With her out of the way he can perhaps restore the house, while placating the Inland Revenue. He wants to be re-instated at court, but perhaps isn’t quite as obsessed with his status as his son. In everything he tries, however, the marqués is dragged back by his useless son who is a sex pest, mainly interested in trying to acquire his own aristocratic title which might improve his chances with young women. This is something of a scatter-gun approach to satire so we also get a comic priest and a succession of lawyers all with the same family name. Servants are also a target, typified by Goyo. The marqués also has a nephew, a rather glamorous playboy with a beautiful young wife. This nephew appears to be helpful but is also conniving to get the best outcome for himself from whatever the marqués salvages from the potential sale of the house and its treasures. Finally there are the bankers and politicians, who the marqués is informed have replaced the aristocracy in democratic Spain.

Berlanga stages the antics of the marqués and his entourage in long takes on a series of sets with multiple characters. The great house is actually Palacio de Linares in Madrid (according to IMDb). The cinematography by Carlos Suárez who was a regular collaborator with Berlanga at this time is impressive, as is the art design by Roman Arango and Pin Miralos.

I confess that for me this style of comedy has not aged well, especially in comparison with the work of Luis Buñuel, admittedly from the 1970s and mainly before Franco’s death. But it also looks laboured and lacking an edge compared to the early work of Pedro Almodóvar during 1980-1983. Perhaps the comedy just doesn’t travel or is it simply that I can’t identify with aristocratic families in any way? The film seems to have been popular in Spain. The second Berlanga film in the festival was La vaquilla (The heifer, Spain 1985), another comedy, this time set during the Civil War (a first) and focusing on hungry Republican troops who decide to steal a prize heifer from a village under Nationalist control during an annual religious festival. This also seems to have been a very popular film at the time, but I decided to give it a miss and focus on a contemporary film for my last screening. I didn’t really enjoy Patrimonio nacional but I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to see it and to broaden my knowledge of Spanish cinema. The two archive prints were screened with thanks to the Instituto Cervantes.