I watched this film with Nick and afterwards we disagreed in our readings of it. Screened in Picturehouses’ ‘Discover Tuesday’ slot, the film is available on VOD and DVD as well as occasional cinema screenings. I was drawn to an Anne Fontaine film as I’d enjoyed four films directed by her and especially the last two, Les innocentes and Gemma Bovery. Isabelle Huppert appears in the film but promoting her image as a major draw is somewhat misleading since she appears (as herself) in only a few, admittedly important, scenes towards the end of the film. The narrative is carried throughout by the two young actors playing the title character ‘Marvin Bijou’ – Jules Porier as Marvin the young teenager and Finnegan Oldfield as the grown-up Marvin, now a theatre student in his early twenties.
Marvin grows up in a rural working-class family in the Vosges region of North-East France with his parents, younger brother and older step-brother Gerald. Bullied and abused for his seemingly soft and girlish looks at school, Marvin struggles to understand his sexuality and identity. His family seems at first brutal and uncaring, displaying racism and homophobia. But one of the strengths of the film is that our understanding of his father Dany and mother Odile develops and they become more rounded characters as the narrative progresses. They don’t understand their son or what they might be doing to him but they love him and eventually they will support him. Marvin is spotted by his new middle-school principal Mme Clement (the impressive Catherine Mouchet) and encouraged to think about drama as a potential way out to the high school in Epinal and then eventually to theatre school in Paris.
Anne Fontaine’s narrative structure offers a constant to and fro between Marvin’s time in middle school and his later time in Paris. The film begins with an almost abstract presentation of the performance that concludes Marvin’s transition to ‘Martin’, the hero of his own autobiographical play and now confident in his identity as a gay man. Fontaine, her co-writer Pierre Trividic and editor Annette Dutertre manage this with great fluidity. The film’s Press Notes reveal that Anne Fontaine had very clear ideas about how she wanted the film to look and she suggested that her cinematographer Yves Angelo look at the work of Bill Douglas on his celebrated trilogy of films about his formative years in a Scottish mining community (My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home (1972-8)). That’s a trilogy I don’t know well enough and I’m pleased to be reminded of it. Like the Bill Douglas films, Reinventing Martin is a kind of ‘social film’, but Anne Fontaine wanted to choose a different region in which to set her film from Northern France where the social realist tradition is strongest.
The film is shot in a 1.66:1 format.The other major feature of the visuals is the use of footage from Marvin’s childhood projected onto the walls and windows of Martin’s student room as he writes his story. I thought this worked well and it felt like a theatre device inserted into the aesthetics of the film that fitted this specific narrative. This was one aspect I disagreed about with Nick and another was the inclusion of Isabelle Huppert. I’ll let him explain his objection but, as far as I’m aware, Ms Huppert is keen to support young actors and independent productions and her presence fitted into the narrative for me. The other controversy raised by the film is not apparent from a screening. I learned from the Press Notes that Anne Fontaine was inspired by The End of Eddy, a book written by Édouard Louis, published in 2014.
I felt a very strong connection to the hero of the book by Edouard Louis, and I almost immediately felt like I wanted to make his story my own. I wanted to invent a new destiny for him. Explore the way he had to reconstruct himself after such a difficult separation from that family, and that subculture of France, socially and culturally disinherited. Dream up the crucial influences of his teenage years. In short, adapt it so liberally that ‘Marvin’ could no longer be considered an adaptation, though the book was powerful.
Édouard Louis is not credited (unless I missed it on screen) and I’m not sure if this is because he didn’t want his name associated with the film or because the conventions mean that there isn’t enough of his novel in the film for it to count as an adaptation. It seems odd, but at least Anne Fontaine is open about what she has done. (The book was a best-seller in France.)
I think this is a complex and absorbing film, even if the progression of events and some of the narrative devices might seem conventional – some comments suggest that it works like a fairytale. I was particularly taken by the two central performances. Jules Porier is a young actor with real presence and I thought it was a strong casting decision to match him with Finnegan Oldfield. Oldfield has the same striking presence and a distinctive way of moving and holding himself. Anne Fontaine notes: “I liked his indecisive relationship to femininity and virility, and the way he walks, almost like he’s levitating”. The cast overall is very strong.
Reinventing Marvin is a Peccadillo Pictures release in the UK. ‘Peccapics’ is arguably the distributor best known for LGBQT films in the UK and I hope the film finds the audience that might get the most from it. Having said that, the film should have an appeal to a much wider audience based on what is in many ways a universal story. I note that Anne Fontaine won the ‘Queer Lion’ at the Venice Film Festival.
Eyewitness is an example of the most prolific type of 1950s British film, the modestly-budgeted crime film. However, it has several interesting elements which aren’t all that common, being directed by Muriel Box and scripted by Janet Green. Nick wrote recently about another Muriel Box film, Street Corner (1953). He noted that the credits of the print he watched seemed to suggest the film was directed by the producer, William MacQuitty. Nick suggested that this might be for American audiences who might be put off by a female director. I find this odd since the several Muriel Box films I’ve seen tend to describe her as an Oscar winner (for the script of The Seventh Veil, UK 1947 – shared with her husband Sydney). Muriel Box, like her sister-in-law, producer Betty Box, was a stalwart of 50s British cinema and was contracted to Rank from 1956-9.
Janet Green was an actor, retiring in 1945 and concentrating on writing. Her first success was The Clouded Yellow in 1950 and in 1956 The Long Arm (for Ealing). Later she wrote a trio of ‘problem pictures’ for Michael Relph and Basil Dearden – Sapphire (1959), Victim (1961) and Life for Ruth (1962). Her last film was 7 Women for John Ford (1966). She then moved over to TV. So, did the influence of these two women have a significant impact on this seemingly conventional film? Sydney Box produced the film and it was edited by Jean Barker, who worked with Muriel Box on several films, including Street Corner. I think the three women working on this film did have an impact, even though the protagonists are two men.
The film is a concise 82 minutes and the plot in outline is very simple. Lucy (Muriel Pavlow) comes home from work to discover that her husband Jay (Michael Craig) has bought a new TV set ‘on tick’ (credit). The couple have a nicely furnished suburban house but Lucy is well aware of the dangers of ‘live now, pay later’. The couple row and Lucy storms out of the house. She ends up in a cinema, quietly fuming. Meanwhile Jay goes out to the pub. Lucy inadvertently sees two men robbing the safe in the cinema manager’s office and runs when the men see her. When she runs into the street she is knocked down by a bus and ends up in hospital. So far so conventional. But the two safe-breakers turn out to be a mis-matched pair played by Donald Sinden and Nigel Stock. The Sinden character is a nasty piece of work and he decides to follow the ambulance to the local ‘country hospital’, just out of town (dragging the reluctant Stock character with him). He’s quite prepared to break into the hospital and kill Lucy if she has survived being run over.
I won’t spoil the plot any further. What interests me is that with Lucy hors de combat, Jay eventually searching for her unaware of what has happened and the police faced with an unidentified woman in hospital, who is going to protect her from Sinden’s attack? Probably not the hospital surgeon and anaesthetist (Nicholas Parsons and Richard Wattis, now usually seen as vaguely comic character actors). No, it must be the women in the female ward where Lucy lies struggling for consciousness. What struck me was just how well Green’s script and Box’s direction manage to make what might be a fairly banal situation into something quite gripping. There are a number of interesting little sub-plots but Lucy’s protectors turn out to be a little girl, an elderly woman patient (Ada Reeve) and the ward nurse (Belinda Lee). Belinda Lee is the third lead in the film. She was a Rank starlet already with several significant credits to her name aged only 20 but she would die in a car crash in the US aged only 25.
I enjoyed the film and thanks must go yet again to Talking Pictures TV. This film is not mentioned in several of the key film studies texts on 50s British cinema. I hadn’t heard of it before, even though I thought I knew the work of Muriel Box and Janet Green. I’m pleased to have seen it and it confirms my belief that 50s British cinema is more interesting than most critics – and scholars – would like us to think.
During the 1930s Warner Bros.’s used the topicality of gangsters to market their films; Street Corner, which as the poster at the time says is ‘torn from the records’, has a much more genteel approach to social problems. Scripted by wife and husband team, Muriel and Sydney Box (brother of Betty), Street Corneris both (slightly) radical and suffocatingly conservative. Muriel also directed though on the Talking Pictures print I saw producer William MacQuitty is credited as being at the helm (was this for the American distributors that maybe wouldn’t accept a film directed by a woman?). The film’s progressive drift is the focus on policewomen, there are three unconnected narrative strands and the intention is we get a sense of what it’s like working as a policewoman, complete with sexist Scottish copper.
The gentility comes from the middle class benevolence of the police force (as it was known at the time before it was changed to ‘service’) shown dealing with wholly working class crime and social problems. The social problems aren’t poverty, though that is represented well enough in the slums and scratty kids, but disintegrating families with neglected children. Woman, of course, are much better suited to dealing with these sorts of issues! However, despite the film’s conservatism, there’s no doubting its intention was feminist and Muriel Box was no doubt a formidable filmmaker as Rachel Cook describes. It’s sometimes described as a ‘semi-documentary’ but the film style is wholly that of fiction but some location shooting and the split narratives do give it a realist tinge.
The cast is interesting, this is the first time I’ve heard Peggy Cummins use her native Irish accent and in one startling moment, when she sports a beret and sunglasses, she looks like Annie Starr from the great Gun Crazy (1950). Terence Morgan is suitably charismatic as the homme fatale but Dora Bryan’s one scene as a prostitute protesting that she didn’t mind being arrested but not by a woman is most memorable.
Christine Geraghty’s summary is spot on: “The policewomen do not so much solve crimes as resolve family disorder, making sure that husbands, wives and childre are in the right place by the end.” (British Cinema in the Fifties: Gender, Genre and the ‘New Look’, p148).
This year celebrating women in cinema has many anniversaries to promote. One of the most important is the 200th anniversary of the writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstencraft Shelley. This film was surely conceived as a celebration of the bi-centenary. I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been more of a promotional push for it. Or perhaps there has – perhaps in women’s magazines and websites/social media? It’s certainly an interesting second feature for director Haifaa Al-Mansour, following Wadjda in 2013, especially as 2018 is the year in which Saudi women have got the legal right to apply for a driving licence for the first time and cinemas are finally being opened in the Kingdom. Next year is the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, which is commemorated in Mike Leigh’s new film and which brings us to Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary’s husband and a radical poet who wrote a long poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ after hearing about the massacre. His inspirational words “Ye are many – they are few”, are still quoted today. Unfortunately, Peterloo and other events such as the Napoleonic Wars are not mentioned in the film, but it’s necessary to be aware of Percy’s radicalism alongside Mary’s amazing creativity. Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women), died a few days after her daughter was born and her story hangs heavy over Mary.
This is an independent film with funding from three countries. In practical terms, some of location work was in Luxembourg and much of the studio work and post-production was in Ireland. The BFI had a lesser role I suppose but the cast is primarily British apart from Elle Fanning as Mary. The history of the production begins with debutant Australian screenwriter Emma Jensen who received funding support from Screen NSW and Screen Australia and whose agent sold the project to an American producer, who in turn attached Al-Mansour (who had studied in Sydney). Elle Fanning was cast early and then HanWay (the UK company led by Jeremy Thomas) took over as producer and international sales agent.
What kind of costume/heritage/historical biopic (as well as ‘romance’) does Mary Shelley turn out to be? It could be one of those traditional Hollywood studio biopics – except this isn’t a studio pic as such. Could it be one of those BBC-style costume pics or something more radical and modernist? For me, Elle Fanning does rather push it towards Hollywood, though the overall look and feel of the film make it appear more realist in the mode of BBC adaptations of 19th century novels. As Mary, Fanning is perhaps too tall, too healthy and too attractive. There is nothing wrong with her performance, but she stands out as a ‘star actor’. I’m assuming that the initial producer thought getting her on board would make finding financial backing easier and that’s probably correct. I am not criticising Ms Fanning who is undoubtedly a talented actor, but there are many young British actors – Florence Pugh for instance – who might have been considered. As it is, Pugh’s co-star in The Falling (UK 2014), Maisie Williams, is rather wasted in a minor role in Mary Shelley – her status as a star of Game of Thrones came too late perhaps? I think that one possible pointer to what kind of film Mary Shelley might have become is offered by Jane Campion’s film Bright Star (France-Australia-UK 2009) about the young John Keats and Fanny Brawne, a similar pairing of two ‘creative’ young lovers at roughly the same ‘moment’ in history as Mary and Percy. It’s an unfair comparison because Jane Campion, Ben Whishart and Abbie Cornish have more experience. It’s interesting though because both films originated in Australia. Campion chose a title that didn’t immediately suggest the costume biopic and Mary Shelley in fact began with the title A Storm In the Stars – there are at least two scenes in the film in which gazing at the night sky features prominently.
If Bright Star was set in rural Hampstead with flowers and butterflies and cottage gardens, Mary Shelley is signed as ‘gothic romance’ from the get-go. The beginnings of the industrial age are in the background (and so is the not-mentioned war). The key London locations are dark and gloomy St. Pancras and upper-class Bloomsbury, the former partly a studio construction, the latter a Dublin street? The film’s plot gives no indication of specific dates. I found this odd since these were two ‘real lives’ lived at a time when sudden death was not unusual. But perhaps it is just me who wants the clear historical context? As far as I can work out, the narrative begins in 1813, Mary meets Percy in 1814. In 1816 they spend the summer by Lake Geneva with Byron and Polidori and the short story idea for Frankenstein is first developed. The novel is published in 1818 and the narrative ends around 1819.
The film is presented as a romance and as an introduction to the origins of the Frankenstein story – thus the gothic romance. It should be a very dark and passionate story – and a very sexy one. I’m trying to imagine the production meetings and the arguments about how much to ‘push’ the more salacious possibilities of the story and how important a sense of repression/restraiint might be. Although I enjoyed the film I do think it feels rather stifled in its attempts to reach its potential. The script is in tune with the current campaigns around ‘MeToo’ and sexual abuse and with the suppression of the true authors (Mary and Polidori) of stories passed off as the work of Shelley and Byron. That’s all fine but it loses some of its impact when Shelley (Douglas Booth) and Byron (Tom Sturridge) are poorly developed characters with no real substance. They came across to me like a pair of public school boys – privileged and cruel but not displaying any real talent. (By contrast, Stephen Dillane as Godwin, Mary’s father, seems just right.) The whole Lake Geneva sequence cried out for something like the appearance of Elsa Lanchester as Mary in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. 1816 was the ‘The Year Without a Summer’ in which crops failed and the skies were dark with rain – I don’t think enough of this is made in the film. I’m guessing that the budget limitations were partly to blame. Overall though I think the narrative just doesn’t have enough ‘passion’ and ‘wildness’, the key features of Romanticism.
This is a fine picture from a writer-director making her début. Jenny Lu began in the industry in 2011 and graduated from assistant/second director to make first a short and then this feature. She benefited from film festival support in developing the script and production. I’ve read some quite uninformed reviews from ‘professional’ critics and one excellent and perceptive review by IMDb ‘user’ Joe Bevan which I recommend.
The Receptionist brings together a number of familiar scenarios and references several key films (which Jenny Lu might not have seen – I’m not suggesting she borrowed ideas or that her script is not original, merely that it is recognisable). Tina (American-Taiwanese actor Teresa Daley) is an Eng Lit graduate in London searching for a job (it isn’t clear if her degree was in Taiwan or the UK). Her search becomes more urgent when her boyfriend loses his first job as an architect’s assistant. Tina must find the money to pay the rent and some to send back to Taiwan. Eventually she is forced to take a job as receptionist/dogsbody at a small brothel set up in a suburban house somewhere in London. This reminded me of the film Personal Services (UK 1987) inspired by the real-life case of Cynthia Payne in the Streatham street where I delivered the Christmas post in the 1970s. Tina’s brothel is an undertaking by ‘Lily’, a Taiwanese madam and her two workers SaSa (also Taiwanese) and Mei (Malaysian Chinese). Soon after Tina starts work, Anna (from rural China?) also starts work. What follows is part tragedy and part comedy with a mixture of brutality and humanism. Despite what some reviewers convey, not all the men who visit the house are ‘disgusting’. Some are and the violence and misogyny are there on screen. But some are sad older men who appreciate the welcome they receive. The real humanity though is expressed between the women, who despite the pressure and the squabbles over money do care for each other, despite protestations of indifference. The film’s final section deals with Tina’s eventual return to Taiwan where she becomes involved in clearing up and renewing her home town after the impact of a typhoon.
In some ways the film works as a chamber piece in the claustrophobic setting of the brothel. The claustrophobia is emphasised by the curtains and sealed up windows necessary to stop the smells and sounds of sex work reaching the neighbours. Symbolically it is represented by the worms which die in the back garden/yard – they “can’t live too long cut off from the earth” as one character puts it. (These looked to me like brandling worms which don’t live in soil but are found in compost heaps or any pile of rotting vegetation.) The function of this chamber narrative is to stimulate the women to reflect on their individual lives, their families and their ‘journeys’ which for the three younger ones are most wrapped up in migration. We don’t learn much about Lily (except that she has become pragmatic above all) and I would have liked to know more about SaSa. I think she could become the central character of another complete narrative. I wonder why Jenny Lu set her film in the UK? Her film set me thinking about several other films I’ve seen over the last few years. Farewell China (Hong Kong 1990, dir. Clara Law) is one of the earliest, following Maggie Cheung’s difficult journey to the US and her husband’s subsequent attempt to find her there. Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (UK 2006) tells the story of the Chinese cockle-pickers who died in Morecambe Bay and A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK 2013) deals with Chinese migrants living a marginal life in the United Arab Emirates. I was also reminded of Lilting (UK 2013) a micro-budget British film about a Chinese diasporic character by British-Cambodian-Chinese director Hong Khaou which though a very different kind of narrative has a similar power to expose an audience to life for migrant characters.
Alongside Teresa Daley, director Lu has assembled a fascinating cast for The Receptionist. Sophie Gopsill as Lily is a Hong Kong-born singer who has appeared in many opera houses and theatres in South East Asia and in the UK where she has lived for several years. SaSa is played by Chen Shiang-Chyi an accomplished and celebrated actor who first worked in Taiwan for Edward Yang in the early 1990s and then for Tsai Ming-liang. More recently she was the lead in Exit (Taiwan 2014) in a very different role in which she was equally good. Teng Shuang who plays Anna appears to British-Chinese? She trained as a lawyer but decided to pursue her love of acting. After shorts and theatre work this is her first feature. It’s also a first feature for Amanda Fan, an experienced Taiwanese actor whose previous credits have all been in Taiwanese TV series. The Taiwanese-UK connection is carried through in the production by editor Hoping Chen, whose career began in Taiwan and who then studied at the National Film and TV School in the UK and edited another form of migrant film in Ilo, Ilo (Singapore 2013).
I hope audiences aren’t put off by the setting of The Receptionist or its ’18’ certificate. I think is a very worthwhile first feature and I hope we get to see more films exploring the migrant experience. The film is showing at the Regent Street Cinema in London on August 14 with a Q&A. Well done to Munro Film Services for getting The Receptionist into UK distribution.
Diabolo menthe was the first film directed by Diane Kurys who has become associated with films about women’s stories, some of which are autobiographical. As Carrie Tarr (2000: 240) has suggested, the film’s critical and commercial success on its release is due partly to the impact of early 1970s feminism which helped create an audience for women’s stories. Kurys would go on to direct thirteen films (so far) and this first success would see her name associated with women’s films – something she herself resisted. (See Carrie Tarr (2000) ‘Maternal Legacies: Diane Kury’s Coup de Foudre (1983) in Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (eds) French Film: text and contexts (2nd ed), London Routledge.)
The film begins at the end of the summer holidays with Cliff Richard’s ‘Living Doll’ playing on the soundtrack as one of the central characters, Anne Weber (Eléonore Klarwein), leaves the beach in Normandy after her sister Frédérique (Odile Michel) is enticed into the sea by a boy. It’s the last day of the holiday and the girls are waved off at the station by their father. Next day their mother (Anouk Ferjac) sends them off to the first day of the new school term in the academic year 1963-4. Anne is 13 and Frédérique 15 so they will generally go their own ways in the strict single-sex school. The Jewish Webers are always going to be on the outside. Although the main focus is on Anne, we will also follow something of the stories of the Frédérique and of the girls’ mother. They only see their father on rare occasions. The film’s title refers to a soft drink served in the café which is Frédérique’s hangout, but which Anne visits in an act of bravado.
The film is like a diary of the school year with incidents at school matched by the embarrassments of domestic life – like going on a picnic with mum’s new boyfriend. Some of the teachers are mean and unpleasant and the film has fun with them. We also meet some of Anne’s friends in her class and elsewhere in the school – and also Frédérique’s classmates. Many of the incidents involve what I can only guess was/is very common in girls’ schools – finding ways to avoid gym and double maths, cheating in class, asking your mum for a first pair of stockings etc. I recognised some of the stunts that we pulled around the same time in school – and the cruel way we treated some of the less confident teachers (see the image above). Kurys is very clever in the way she weaves more serious issues into a narrative about teenagers in school. One of these is the attempt by middle-class parents to ‘expose’ teachers in the school with leftist backgrounds. Anne finds herself unwittingly part of this at a friend’s house and at the same time her mother is being condescended to as a mother who isn’t home for her children. Significantly, it is the one teacher who seems aware of questions of pedagogy who prompts her class to ask questions about politics. One girl movingly offers her personal testimony about being witness to an OAS terror attack in Paris and being horrified by the policing of the aftermath. Frédérique will get deeper into the political issues at school, challenging the fascists and anti-semites.
The writing is very sharp about the petty squabbles between the two sisters and about tastes and pretensions. Frédérique aspires to be an intellectual who claims to have seen a Resnais film, but agrees to go with Anne to see The Great Escape – but draws the line at the idea of seeing the Cliff Richard musical Summer Holiday (UK 1963). (This is the third mention of Richard or his songs in the film and a Shadows instrumental follows – presumably the Beatles hadn’t broken in France at this time?) For some reason, I can’t find images of Anouk Ferjac as the mother, but she does have an important role in the narrative. Carrie Tarr comments on that mainstream film convention that sees the mother in this kind of narrative as ‘angel’ or ‘witch’ – sacrificing all for her daughters or strangling them in her apron strings. Mme Weber (I don’t think we hear her first name) is a more human figure who tries to be strict about school but has fun with her daughters and tries to do her best for them, but still have a life of her own. The film accurately represents the period (i.e. I recognised what would have happened in the UK in 1963) but by modern standards the girls have a lot of leeway and do things that might now be considered ‘shocking’ – such as when Frédérique hitch-hikes alone or Anne is alone in the house for a few days. Frédérique’s close friendship with an older man, one of the other girls’ fathers, also provokes.
The film ends as it began, back on the beach a year later. It’s a good-looking film, photographed by Philippe Rousselot (who went to Hollywood in the 1980s). I liked the montage of stills that show Frédérique on holiday and overall Kurys, on her directorial début, does a great job in representing school life and marshalling such a large cast. My only visual problem with the film is that with all the girls wearing the same white coats in the classroom it’s sometimes difficult to tell if we are in Anne’s or Frédérique’s class. The film was shot in the ‘real’ Lycée Jules Ferry and I was intrigued to discover that Ferry was the politician responsible for enshrining the concept of laïcité (secularisation) in the French state education system.
The Monthly Film Bulletin review of the film by John Gillett on its UK release in 1980 is short and not particularly helpful. He makes the obvious point that all French films of this kind will inevitably be compared to Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (1959) and there are certainly elements that Diabolo menthe shares with the earlier film. But there are important differences and, as Tarr detects, stories like this which involve three central female characters needed to be made in the 1970s and this one hit the spot. Gillett seems to read the film as being mainly ‘about’ Anne’s alienation – from school and her family. I didn’t read it that way. I think she is experiencing what many younger siblings must feel. It is interesting though that the narrative feels mostly about Anne in the early part, but later shifts focus to Frédérique. If the film is ‘semi-autobiographical’, Anne represents Diane Kurys as the younger sister and she seems to have turned out fine. I do wonder if MFB critics lavished the same amount of energy reviewing ‘first films’ as they did for established auteurs. I enjoyed the film very much and kudos to the BFI for re-releasing the DVD with some interesting ‘extras’. It’s well worth digging out.
Here’s the original ‘bande annonce‘ (no subtitles, but the feel of the film is easy to grasp).
Agnès Varda has just had her 90th birthday and a season of her films is touring UK cinemas. If you’ve never seen an Agnès Varda film, you should seek out your nearest screening forthwith. Varda is a cinematic genius and Le bonheur is marvellous. On the DVD I watched, Varda introduces her film as part of a tribute to her by the TV arts channel ‘arte’. She chooses a vacant lot in her neighbourhood and, because arte is bilingual, she invites a young German boy to translate for her. The wasteland is decorated with posters for her films and she carefully positions herself for the camera so that the backdrop changes to the leaves of a group of saplings waving in the sunshine. She explains that she loves nature and she especially likes picnics, so in Le bonheur there are three. This intro is reminiscent of her autobiographical film The Beaches of Agnès (France 2008) in which she creates a beach on the street where she lives in Paris.
The setting and the approach to filming Le bonheur is in line with Varda’s ideas throughout her career. The location is Fontenay-aux-Roses, a small community in the South-Western outer suburbs of Paris. In 1964 it must have still been almost like a rural village. François (Jean-Claude Drouot) works for his uncle’s small carpentry company. Drouot is tall and handsome and at this time he was the star of a French TV historical adventure series set during the Hundred Years War – perhaps that is why Varda names him François Chevalier (i.e. a ‘knight’). Drouot’s own wife Claire plays Thérèse Chevalier and the couple’s own small children play Pierrot and Gisou Chevalier (none of them are professional actors). Unsurprisingly, family life chez Chevalier often feels like it is being ‘captured’ by a documentary camera – and this extends to scenes featuring other members of the extended family and some of the scenes where friends and neighbours visit the small house or meet the Chevaliers in social situations. (Thérèse is a dressmaker and young women come to her for a wedding dress.) The family are seemingly blissfully happy during these summer months. But Varda has ideas about what ‘happiness’ might actually mean. I guess I should warn you if you haven’t seen the film or heard about its reputation. Many audiences have found the film ‘shocking’ for a number of reasons. The UK film certification board gave it an ‘X’ in 1965 (no one under 16). The DVD I watched carries an ’18’ certificate but the BBFC website lists a ’15’ (confusion like this is not unusual as tastes and moral codes change over time). The ‘advice’ from the board is that the film contains ‘sexualised nudity’. But this isn’t what shocks.
I should place a SPOILER warning here.
I can’t really discuss the film if I don’t reveal the main plot points, so if you want to watch the film without any foreknowledge don’t read on until you’ve seen it. The plot is very simple. François is so happy in his marriage to Thérèse that when he meets an attractive Post Office counter clerk, Émilie (Marie-France Boyer), he feels that he can add to his own happiness by falling for Émilie and loving her as much as he loves his wife. For a time François makes love to both women, sometimes on the same day. Émilie has moved to Fontenay from Vincennes on the other side of Paris and she joins in the local social celebrations, on one occasion attending the same event as Thérèse. The situation can’t last. During an idyllic summer picnic in the woods, Thérèse tells François she’s never seen him look so happy. Unable to contain himself, François tells her about Émilie, assuring Thérèse he loves her just as much as before. He explains this with a reference to an orchard of apple trees. He’s very happy in the orchard with his family, but he sees a beautiful apple tree on the other side of the wall and decides to investigate. Now he is happy inside and outside the orchard. With their children asleep under a bush, François and Thérèse make love. When François awakes, Thérèse is gone. She has drowned in the nearby river, whether by design or accident isn’t very clear. A few months later François and Émilie are re-united with the two small children.
The film was a big success in France and around the world. The DVD carries a short discussion about the film involving four people, two journalists, a producer and a woman running a women’s charity. Two of these people saw the film on release, the others have seen the film more recently (the discussion is in 2005, I think). I suspect that the discussion points will probably be repeated by groups of people who see the film in 2018. The key issue seems to be what did the writer-director, an avowed feminist, want to say in 1964 when she shot the film? To expose the naïveté and arrogance of the man or to satirise ideas about family life and bourgeois ‘happiness’? But before making pronouncements it is a good idea to consider the formal aesthetics of the film. It is very beautiful to watch with images carefully composed and framed. Colour is used in dramatic ways. In her intro Varda explains how after 40 years the colours had faded but how, by painstaking work with original negatives, the restoration has reproduced the colours of the original.
The colours in the film are bold primary colours emphasised in two ways in contrast to the pastel shades of summer picnics. At one point, Varda’s camera (under the control of Charles Beausoleil and Jean Rabier, long-term collaborators with Varda and her husband Jacques Demy) discovers a series of shopfronts, each painted a single primary colour – red, blue or green. Did Varda repaint these buildings? A sunflower set against a field of corn is a study in yellow. Varda also challenges conventions by using fades and dissolves which are suffused by a single colour rather than the traditional black. She uses different techniques to show an instant rapport when two characters meet – cutting rapidly between close-ups. Similar camera techniques are used in other scenes. At one point the camera tracks left and right along a street party scene with locals dancing. As the camera passes a large tree in the foreground, the focus shifts and when sharp focus is regained, the dancers have changed partners. Thérèse is wearing a red dress, Émilie is in green. François dances with both women (there is no suggestion that the women know each other) among several other partners. This scene is a good example of how Varda’s documentary camera is allied to an expressionist sensibility – as it is in Cléo de 5 à 7.
Le bonheur is not a realist film with a sociological underpinning, despite the documentary feel. It’s a film of playful devices and moments of intertextualities. The colours and aspects of the plot link it to Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg – François met Thérèse during his military service and brought her back to Fontenay to marry. One of the strongest links is the tradition of al fresco eating that recurs in French art. At one point a film is playing on the TV set in the uncle’s home. The film is Jean Renoir’s 1959 Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Picnic on the Grass). Both Manet and later Monet produced paintings with the same title during the Impressionist phases. Renoir himself had earlier used the ‘picnic’ as a vehicle to set up a multi-narrative, including seduction, in Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country, 1936). In Renoir’s 1959 film an older character pontificates about happiness. The odd thing about this scene is that the film is in colour, but as far as I’m aware, French TV did not begin regular colour transmissions until 1967. This anachronism is repeated with a reference to Viva Maria!, Louis Malle’s film starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau together for the first time. It was not released until the end of 1965 in France but Thérèse tells François she wants to see it. She also asks him (while stroking his back) “Which one do you prefer, as a woman?” “As a woman, you”, he replies. There is then an immediate cut to the carpentry workshop where we see that the door to the food cupboard is festooned with pin-up images of Bardot – and one of Moreau. At first, I thought we see François opening the cupboard door, but it’s one of his workmates. Even so, the cut reminded me of that moment in Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist (1960) when a character swears on his mother’s life and a swift insert sees the old lady keeling over. Just before the Bardot/Moreau moment in Le bonheur, the image of François shaving is juxtaposed with a soap advert that fills the screen with ‘Un savon d’homme!’ (a soap for men!). The sequence immediately before this is a smiling Émilie behind the post office counter, clearly smitten with François. Varda tells a story completely through montage editing. The use of an advert is picked up in Amy Taubin’s essay for the Criterion DVD label which re-released the film in the US. She compares the film to Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (France 1967). That film takes ‘her’ to be both a wife and part-time prostitute as well as signifying Paris. The film is a commentary on consumerism and politics in the new, ‘modern’ Paris of 1966. In Varda’s film, made only two years earlier, the new high-rise flats of Paris are only glimpsed a couple of times in the distance. Otherwise her film is both ‘traditional’ in depicting small-town France and ‘timeless’ in its exploration of the mores of love and life and community. In the discussion of the film on the DVD, one participant sees it as a story set in a ‘Garden of Eden’.
I love this film. I’ve written nearly 2000 words and barely scraped the surface of what Varda achieved in 80 minutes. I will have to watch scenes again to see just how the editing works before thinking more about the carpenter and his lovely wife and beautiful children. And I haven’t even started on the stamps that Émilie sells and the posters in the Post Office.
In the original trailer below, you’ll see an iconic pop image of Sylvie Vartan but the music on the trailer is Mozart – two pieces which form the main music soundtrack of the film. I’m something of a philistine re classical music and on this occasion I found the Mozart too loud and too distracting but many others have commented on the music as an excellent choice, suggesting that it perfectly matches the tone of the comedy/drama.
HOME in Manchester starts its Varda screenings this week with a 1 hour intro by Isabelle Vanderschelden on Thurs 26th followed by Varda’s first feature La Pointe Courte (1954) and on Friday her latest film Faces/Places (2017) – Le bonheur screens Saturday 4th August. In London, the BFI Varda seasons continues this week and FACT Liverpool has several Varda screenings (Le bonheur on 8th August) as part of Liverpool Biennial 2018. Le bonheur shows three times at Watershed, Bristol in early August and Curzon has a ‘Gleaning Truth’ season of Varda films at various of its cinemas during August. There are other venues with similar programmes so don’t miss the opportunity this summer – check out your local specialised cinema!
The team of Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini have created another marvellous film that stands alongside Zama and Sweet Country as a highlight of 2018 viewing. Rosellini is co-writer and producer and Granik is co-writer and director. The pair have made four films together. They all feature characters struggling to survive on the edges of American society in ‘marginal’ communities but also displaying strength of purpose and real humanity. Most reviewers have singled out the success of the pair’s Winter’s Bone (US 2010) as a good starting point for discussing the new film and there are certainly some important links, but it is unfortunate that UK distributors were seemingly unwilling to release Stray Dog (US 2014). That documentary film features a Vietnam veteran who forty years later has found peace and purpose as a biker who runs a trailer park in rural Missouri and cares for his extended family and his community of similarly-minded people. Several elements from this film are worked into Leave No Trace.
The new film is inspired by the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock and the film credits list three other books used by the writers and actors in their search for some kind of authenticity in the representation of narrative events. Leave No Trace is one of those films in which the central characters are not given a back story, or at least it is not spelt out for us and we must work with only scraps of information. On the other hand, the story does have connections to both mainstream and independent film genres. It opens in a temperate rain forest where a father and his teenage daughter appear to have been living for some time as they are well-equipped and organised with set routines and even a small vegetable plot. Our first surprise is that the forest is not in a remote area, but actually close to a major road bridge and the urban mass of Portland. We follow the couple into town where they visit a military veteran’s event and a supermarket. We are in Oregon and I was reminded of the first Rambo film (First Blood US 1982) in which the hero is eventually chased through the forests of the North West and the very different Wendy and Lucy (US 2008) set, like some of her other films, by Kelly Reichardt in small town Oregon. Some reviewers have also mentioned Captain Fantastic (US 2016) which I haven’t seen. I think there might also be elements shared with Into the Wild (US 2007) and some European films such as Vie Sauvage (France-Belgium 2014)
Will (Ben Foster) is indeed a veteran, though we never find out where or when he fought. Only when he sells some prescription medication to men in a camp by the park do we realise that he might have some form of PTSD. Ben Foster is very good as Will and it was only after the screening that I realised that he was one of the stars in the excellent Hell or High Water (US 2016). He was also the lead in The Messenger (US 2009) in which he is a soldier close to the end of his tour of duty who is sent to deliver the terrible news of the death of loved ones to soldiers’ families. I see that I praised him for both roles so the fact that I didn’t recognise him says a lot about his ability to inhabit his roles. Will’s daughter is ‘Tom’ (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a young New Zealander with a big future). Her mother (and presumably Will’s wife/partner) is never mentioned. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but the shape of the story requires the couple to be first ‘discovered’ by the authorities and then placed in a ‘re-socialisation’ programme from which Will forces another escape. But this isn’t an action film. Its central focus is the father-daughter relationship and their love for each other. The problem is that while Will needs an escape/an alternative/a diversion from the world in his head, Tom is still open to anything that might happen. I found the film’s ending satisfying in how it tried to deal with this, especially when Dale Dickey appeared (she features in both Winter’s Bone and Hell or High Water). My hope and expectation is that audiences will be deeply moved by the central relationship.
Leave No Trace is a complex and many-layered narrative. The title also refers to the exhortation heard by anyone who ventures into a national park or area of outstanding beauty. I remember as a teenager in the 1960s been told not to leave orange peel on Lake District fells. Will is very disciplined in how he works with the environment and he has taught Tom well. The irony is that the forest in which we first see Will and Tom is so close to urban America so they exist in a kind of no man’s land – I did wonder where the eggs came from until I saw father and daughter stroll into town. As one review I read suggested, it is also surprising that the local welfare agencies assume the worst when they pick up Will and Tom – and Will is forced to answer questions asked by a computer in scenes reminiscent of I, Daniel Blake. The welfare agencies do seem polite and professional but I would find their controlling attitudes unbearable and there is a scene on a bus which quite shocked me. The other side of the authorities is represented visually when bulldozers arrive to knock down the shanty town/tent city occupied by rough sleepers close to the city. I remember similar scenes from films set in apartheid era South Africa and from recent films like Charlie’s Country (Australia 2013).
The US is a very big country with plenty of land but it now all seems to be owned by the government and major landowners alongside the those who own their own homes. It’s seemingly difficult to find a place to pitch your tent and live away from people if you are poor. If you are rich you can build your own estate. Politically, ‘living in the woods’ now seems like a right-wing survivalist activity that stirs up all those American ideas about freedom and the right to bear arms. That doesn’t fit with Will and Tom but it seems like a discourse which Granik and Rosellini attempt to counteract in Stray Dog and again in Leave No Trace. There is another older idea about living in the woods which goes back to Henry David Thoreau and Walden or Life in the Woods (1854) and stresses the simplicity and direct contact with nature. Leave No Trace comments obliquely on this by showing the ‘home-schooled’ Tom reading her encyclopedia in her home-made shelter and crushing egg-shells (anti-slug protection?) to place around her tiny plot of brassicas (?). The sense of the natural world is carried by both the cinematography of Scottish DoP Michael McDonough (Winter’s Bone and Sunset Song (UK 2015)) and the sound design (a single ‘sound designer’ is not credited). In the first few minutes I recognised that sound of the rain filtering down through the tree branches in the forest. The music is under the control of composer Dickon Hinchliffe, another Brit and founder member of Tindersticks, who was responsible for the music in Winter’s Bone and as in that film, some of it here is diegetic and performed on ‘set’.
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie spent time in a New Zealand forest preparing for her role and it did occur to me that Leave No Trace has many of the same elements found in Hunt For the Wilderpeople (NZ 2016). The New Zealand film was more light-hearted and occasionally hilarious, but like Leave No Trace it also suggested that living wild could be educational/restorative and that not everyone you meet ‘off grid’ is out to harm you. There have been predictable claims that Thomasina Harcourt Brace could emulate Jennifer Lawrence’s success after Winter’s Bone. Her performance in Leave No Trace is as assured as Lawrence’s in Winter’s Bone. I don’t know if she has the same drive and charisma in other situations but I’m certainly looking forward to finding out. Leave No Trace should win prizes. The only other recent American film I’ve seen with the same quality is The Rider (still not on release in the UK).
Leave No Trace is a film to hunt down and watch on a big screen. You won’t be disappointed.