Category: Films by women

Bergman Island (France-Sweden 2021)


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

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

Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth as Chris and Tony

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

Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lee as Amy and Joseph

Outline (no spoilers)

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

Commentary

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

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

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

Amy dances with abandon at the wedding party

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

In Bed with Victoria (Victoria, France 2016)

Vicky and Sam, her ‘au pair boy’

In Bed with Victoria should be better known. I’m grateful to MUBI for offering the film as part of a trio of films starring Virginie Efira – an attempt to resurrect a couple of earlier titles after the high profile release of Benedetta. This move also introduces to me two films by Justine Triet, another of the seemingly numerous young women building a career in French cinema in the last few years. The UK title of this film is perhaps a little misleading and sets up expectations that are not really fulfilled, though once you’ve seen the film the title does perhaps work. The simple French title did need to be changed because of clashes with several other films and TV programmes in the UK. The film did reach the UK but only for a limited cinema release through Cinefile, the small Scottish distributor linked to French Film Festival screenings. Although the film did open Cannes Critics Week in 2016 it is not so much an art film but instead an attempt to rework the traditional romantic comedy. In the Press Notes, director Triet mentions Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder and Blake Edwards but also Sacha Guitry. Most of the critics have referenced Woody Allen. It does seem to be a role reversal comedy with screwball elements or, as Triet puts it, “a desperate comedy about the chaotic life of a modern woman”.

Vicky out for the night . . .

Vicky Spick (Virginie Efira) is a criminal lawyer, an avocate penaliste in her late 30s. Clearly competent in court, she runs a chaotic home as a single parent with two young children who appear to be almost feral in her Paris apartment. Vicky’s ‘solution’ to the problems of balancing home, social life and paid work involves therapy, on-line dating and a level of dependency on drugs and booze. She’s heading for a meltdown and only a succession of au pairs have helped to keep the children safe. A small number of friends also support her but the going is tough. When Vicky attends a friend’s wedding party she meets an old friend, Vincent (Melvil Poupaud) who will eventually ask her to represent him when he is accused of violent conduct by his wife who intends to divorce him. She also meets Sam (Vincent Lacoste) a younger ex-client who she prevented from being convicted of drug-dealing. Sam is clearly in awe of and probably in love with Vicky and agrees to be her unpaid live-in au pair. This looks like a move forward but then Vicky is hit by the news that her ex-partner, the writer David (Laurent Poitrenaux), has put all the details of her behaviour during their relationship into his ‘autofiction’ which is attracting attention. Worse is to come when she is suspended from the courts because of a technicality regarding a witness.

Vicky with Vincent . . .

If all this sounds quite serious stuff, it is, but it also has several very funny moments, including Vincent’s trial during which Vicky has to deal with a dalmation and a chimpanzee in her defence case. There is romance as well. Everybody loves Vicky but I suspect I’m not the only one who hopes that it will be Sam who eventually saves the day. Virginie Efira is terrific, just as she has been in each of her other performances I’ve seen. I don’t know whether she is a star yet but she can certainly hold a film together and do everything she’s asked to do with naturalness and real vitality. She’s a joy to watch and Vicky’s costume choices are intriguing. Matching her with Vincent Lacoste, who is so good in the later Amanda (France 2018), was a great casting decision. I think that the film overall does have a screwball element and as an interviewer suggests, there is also a courtroom drama element. There are several courtroom scenes, including the one with the animals which IMDb suggests includes exterior views of an impressive Engineering School in Saint-Denis – a great find.

. . . and posing with her defence witness

The film moves at a good pace and Triet and her editor Laurent Sénéchal manage to cut between the various troubles Vicky is facing in a rapid montage that is potentially bewildering but also conveys her predicament very well. The film looks good in the ‘Scope images captured by Simon Beaufils and there is an intriguing soundtrack including the Harry Nilsson version of ‘Without You’ which happily took me back to the early 1970s.French cinema has a history of successful romcoms (i.e. if you like the genre, they are successful). I think this is an interesting attempt to represent contemporary career women in a reworking of a traditional form. I’m still not sure I understand the French legal system but Vicky reminds me of Engrenages and Audrey Fleurot as Joséphine Karlsson. They have a similar taste in heels!

The film is available in the UK on MUBI and most of the main Rental/Download platforms.

Pleasure (Sweden-Netherlands-France 2021)

Sofia Kappel as Bella

Here’s a film made by a creative team comprising mainly women with impressive credits from a range of critically acclaimed productions. For writer-director Ninja Thyberg this is her début feature after several years of research and short film productions. (Peter Modestij is credited as co-writer.) Thyberg’s fellow Swede, Sofia Kappel the young star of the film, makes her first film appearance. It’s a European co-production but made in English and focuses on a young woman attempting to become a star in the Los Angeles porn industry. The film has been screened to some acclaim at various festivals including Sundance and Cannes and is now being distributed in the UK and Ireland by MUBI. In the UK, the BBFC have given the film an 18 Certificate for cinema screenings and the film was shown in a cinema the night before it began streaming. The reviews of the film seem generally positive as do the ‘user ratings’ on MUBI, but I suspect that audiences who are less aware of what they have chosen to see may find it less to their taste.

Outline

Linnéa (using the name ‘Bella Cherry’) arrives in Los Angeles and sets out to make her way in the LA porn industry. The film’s title is of course ironic. “Pleasure” is Bella’s response to the Passport Control question about whether she is entering the country for ‘Business or Pleasure’. She soon seeks out an agent and prepares for her first shoot as an 18 year-old in a scene with a “semi-middle aged man”. She moves in with two other young women in the same business in what is termed as a ‘model house’. At first she is wary of her house companions but soon makes friends with them, especially with Joy and Ashley. At her next shoot, she also meets Ava who seems more stand-offish. Bella learns that Ava is a ‘Spiegler girl’ – a woman associated with the leading porn producer in LA. The narrative will then focus primarily on Bella, Joy and Eva. Bella’s determination to get to the top means she will have to seek out jobs in which she will be expected to perform in the hardest and most extreme forms of porn. She will take dangerous steps in order to do this and it will be painful in various ways, including testing her relationships with Joy and Ava. The narrative’s resolution is probably best described as ‘open’ in terms of the goal Bella has set herself.

Bella and Joy (Revika Anne Reustle) become friends in the model house

Commentary

I streamed the film and there were a couple of scenes I did find very difficult to watch. I then found the French Press Pack on UniFrance and, assisted by Google Translate, I found it a useful guide to the stated intentions of Ninja Thyberg and the experiences of Sofia Kappel. Thyberg tells us that she began as an anti-porn feminist activist at 16 (in 2000) but then studied film and gradually realised that instead of fighting against porn she could attempt to make different, alternative stories about it. She did make a short film about a porn film shoot titled Pleasure in 2013 that won a prize at Cannes, but the current feature was developed from 2014 onwards involving extensive research into the LA porn industry. The Press Pack material makes interesting reading and answers many questions about the film. The central statement, picked up by many reviewers is that the film is not about women as victims. The film does not focus on “Why does this young woman want to be a porn star?”, but instead on “What does she get from the experience?”. I confess that the ‘Why question’ was something that occurred to me. There is a sequence when Bella phones home to talk to her mother in Sweden. It appears that her mother thinks Linnea has an internship of some sort. Linnea is upset on the phone but her mother gives her sensible advice. Bella is not portrayed as a victim but Thyberg doesn’t want to explain exactly what drives Bella to take the steps she does. There seems to be a sense that Linnea is a young Swedish woman exploring what the American dream as a personal narrative might mean. Thyberg admits that Sofia Kappel is from a new generation that thinks and behaves differently than she did as a 20 year-old. It’s even more difficult for those much older, such as this reviewer, to understand!

Bella in a simulated sex scene with careful camerawork 

When a film is about pornography, the inevitable questions are about whether the sexual acts depicted are ‘real’ or simulated. In this case, Thyberg used porn actors for many of the roles (arguing that they were actually better in the roles than mainstream actors). The scenes we see involve only simulated sex and they are shot in such a way that we don’t see any examples of what in porn is termed a ‘money shot’. Thyberg says she wanted to employ a ‘female gaze’, so while there are many nude shots of genitalia, both male and female in preparation for a shoot, the sexual acts themselves conform to mainstream conventions of what can be shown. But don’t mainstream representations objectify women in sex scenes? Here’s an extract from the Ninja Thyberg interview in the Press Pack:

In the film, Bella objectifies herself. She creates an image of a sexual object. To tell this story I myself had to objectify her. The challenge was to ensure that the film always took her side. It had to be faithful and honest to her. 

I think I know what she means but this is surely something to be debated. ‘Real sex’ in any part of the film would mean an ‘R18’ certificate in the UK, allowing only screenings in licensed sex cinemas or sold through sex shops to adults only. Thyberg’s film includes an almost procedural study of the porn industry at work, including the consent forms and contracts etc. The film is straightforward in presenting the issues and debates around how it works. As an industry, porn in LA has shrunk somewhat with the explosion of access to free online porn. Thyberg argues that she did attempt make the shoots more colourful and bright than they might have been, she didn’t want to make pornography herself. At the same time her aesthetic decisions do not mask any of the harsh realities of the industry – which the porn actors and producers who appear in the film seem to have accepted. The only male character in the film who has a developed role is played by the Black performer Chris Cock. He, along with Joy and Ashley provide some humanity outside the circus of shoots and parties.

Bella and Joy together on set of a shoot

I can’t say I enjoyed the film. It only fleetingly felt erotic. Occasionally it is funny, mostly it is wince inducing. Even so, I’m glad I watched it and read the interviews which made me think about a wide range of issues. I am baffled by the attraction of the LA porn industry’s products as presented here. MUBI has streamed a range of ‘erotic films’ as part of its streaming offer, some recent, some from the archives. Many of these are quite boring I think, some are enjoyable if not profound and occasionally there are films that are important in making statements. The Argentinian feature The Daughters of Fire (2018) discussed on this blog is one such film and Pleasure may be another. It is intelligently thought through as a project and technically very good. I was intrigued to see that the film was shot by Sophie Winqvist whose work I admired on the very different Clara Sola (Costa Rica-Sweden 2021). Editor Olivia Neergaard-Holm has credits on other successful titles such as Victoria (Germany 2015) and Border (Sweden-Denmark 2018). The music by Karl Frid and Costume Design by Anna Wing Yee Lee are other major features of the film, but both a little beyond my understanding in this case. Finally, I must commend Sofia Kappel’s stunning performance as Linnéa/Bella – and Ninja Thyberg’s direction of her mix of actors from the mainstream and porn industries. Here’s a trailer designed to be suitable for a mainstream audience:

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (Australia 2021)

Leah Purcell as Molly Johnson (all images courtesy Modern Films)

Australian Cinema has had periods of both innovation and exploration, as well as periods of stagnation, since the first films were produced in the early 1900s. Currently there is a distinct development with the increase of films made by Indigenous filmmakers about the lives of Indigenous characters, both contemporary and historical. The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell is the latest example of an Indigenous film reflecting on colonial history in Australia. In doing so it takes us back to some of the earliest Australian films that have been compared to American ‘Westerns’. These were, in Australian terms, ‘bushranger films’ and the earliest of these was the Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906. Like the American West, Australia in the second half of the 19th century and on into 1920s was a difficult territory to police, even after the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.

Molly meets an Indigenous man who is ‘on the run’. This grab demonstrates the ‘Scope photography and the use of spectacular landscapes.

Bushrangers were ‘outlaws’ and Australia also experienced ‘gold rushes’, cattle drives and conflicts between settlers and Indigenous peoples. In Australian films up to at least the 1970s (and arguably much later), Indigenous characters were usually portrayed either as ‘exotic’ figures in the landscape, poor communities in shanty towns, children in mission schools or trackers working for the police – familiar ‘social types’ in both American and Australian ‘Westerns’. In the last few years more radical films have appeared with Indigenous characters central to the narrative and a serious intent to explore colonial issues of racism and exclusion. Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (Australia 2017) is set in the late 1920s while Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (Australia 2018) is set in the 1820s in Tasmania. Both films got a limited UK release and Sweet Country has been shown on UK TV. The contemporary TV crime series Mystery Road initiated by Ivan Sen has some links to the historical narratives and has also been seen on UK TV. David Gulpilil, who died in 2021, was perhaps the major Indigenous star actor and he appeared in several films which explored aspects of of Australian history featuring significant Indigenous characters. The one most relevant to the discussion here would be The Tracker (Australia 2002), set, like Sweet Country in the 1920s and featuring Gulpilil as a tracker working for the police searching for an Indigenous man accused of murdering a white woman.

Leah Purcell is a proud Goa-Gungarri-Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland. She is an internationally acclaimed playwright, screenwriter, director, novelist and actor and a cultural icon and activist, whose work stands at the forefront of the Black and Indigenous cultural renaissance and protest movement sweeping Australia and the world. Australian Financial Review named Purcell as one of Australia’s Top 10 culturally influential people because ‘she allows white audiences to see from an Aboriginal perspective’.  (from  Press Pack for The Drover’s Wife)

The Drover’s Wife was initially a short story by Henry Lawson, first published in a magazine in 1892. Lawson is one of the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers, especially in relation to ‘bush stories’. The story has been re-worked many times since and in 1945 a painting by Russell Drysdale was given the same title and appears to present the woman of the story depicted against the wild country (although the artist denied this). The short story offers only the initial scene in the film in which the woman and her children are threatened by a wild animal (a snake in the original story). The woman’s struggle in the story and the painting were long seen as representing the white settler’s attempt to survive in the harsh conditions of the ‘bush’. Leah Purcell extended the story in her stage play and now in her film offers a rich and complex narrative about a woman and her historical role viewed through the lens of Indigenous story-telling. The film follows what happens over the next few months to Molly Johnson and her children.

Russell Drysdale’s 1945 painting

Malachi Dower-Roberts as Danny, Molly’s oldest child attempting to defend himself as he has been taught.

Purcell manages to include the racism and exclusion directed towards Indigenous people, the social class hierarchy of Victorian England, the nascent suffrage movement and the ‘stealing’ of Indigenous children. All of this is offered in the genre context of a Western with Mark Wareham’s photography of the Snowy Mountains and Salliana Seven Campbell’s very effective score. I think all the performances are good and especially Malachi Dower-Roberts as the young Danny Johnson.

The film’s narrative has a complex structure and also includes several ‘reveals’ that I don’t wish to spoil. It is necessary, however, to explain that Purcell uses devices such as flashbacks/flashforwards, ‘dream figures’ and occasions when edits seem to confuse the meaning of certain scenes. Her commitment to Indigenous storytelling may also create questions about the final sequence which acts as an epilogue. On a second viewing I noticed a number of metaphors including for instance the animal which threatens the family in the opening of the story. The snake has become a bullock, which for me symbolises the alien intrusion of a non-indigenous beast brought by settlers in order to fully exploit the land they have stolen.

Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) and the heavily pregnant Molly.

This film has been described as an ‘Indigenous feminist Western’ and Purcell has created a secondary but parallel narrative about the young wife of the district’s new police sergeant. Both the sergeant and Louisa, his wife, are newly arrived from England. Louisa is a proto-feminist character, concerned about the widespread domestic abuse handed out by male settlers towards their wives. She’s determined to publish a women’s newsletter and to build a campaign. I don’t know whether this is historically accurate for the 1890s but it enables Purcell to set up the question of white feminism and whether it is possible for Louisa to ‘give a voice’ to Indigenous women. Molly Johnson has her own ‘voice’ and she intends it to be heard. Just as important, the extended story that Purcell puts onscreen also includes the issue of ‘stolen children’, the attempt by the authorities to take the children of mixed race families and to select those with least ‘Indigenous blood’ to be brought up as white children in foster homes (while ‘darker’ children are trained as servants). This practice is the central focus of Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002), set in the 1930s but only properly being discussed some sixty years later in the 1990s. The Drover’s Wife is certainly a narrative rich in questions and challenges for audiences, not just in Australia but everywhere experiencing exclusion an inequalities, i.e. most definitely the UK and US. But it’s also an exciting and engaging popular narrative. Its use of familiar conventions from Hollywood Westerns is effective and helps audiences outside Australia to begin to explore the colonial legacy of British settler culture.

Sergeant Clintoff (Sam Reid) and his trooper with, in the background, the local clergyman representing the gentry in the town of Everton

The Drover’s Wife  is a début film. It’s asking a lot to script, direct and star in your first feature but I think that Leah Purcell pulls it off with real passion and commitment. Initially released by Modern Films on just 37 prints in May, the film has slowly moved around the UK and Ireland. It appears to have a traditional release pattern and will be available to stream in August in the UK. Modern Films are also committed to supporting local independent venues through ‘various events’ so it’s worth checking out their website. The Drover’s Wife is definitely worth looking out for but do try and catch it in a cinema on the big screen if you can. In the US, The Drover’s Wife will be released by Samuel Goldwyn Films in August 2022.

Beware, My Lovely (US 1952)

This is a shortish (77 minutes) suspense thriller made for RKO by The Filmakers, the independent production company founded by Ida Lupino and Collier Young. The film was shot in just 18 days in July/August 1951 but delayed by RKO for a year. This followed a pattern given the eccentric behaviour of Howard Hughes as the owner of RKO. On Dangerous Ground, which like this film starred Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan, had similarly been delayed. One suggestion is that Hughes as part of his enthusiastic support for the communist witch hunt of the HUAC years was reluctant to release a film with Ryan whom he saw as a leftist. Lupino, a staunch Democrat managed to avoid trouble but she was friends with many of those hounded as communists. At this point she had directed four films for The Filmakers but she argued for Harry Horner to take the directorial role. Horner was a Czech émigré who had arrived in the US in the mid 1930s with Max Rheinhardt and eventually entered Hollywood as a set designer, winning two Oscars. He’d worked for Lupino as Production Designer on Outrage (1950). Beware, My Lovely was actually his first feature  but because of the delayed release, his second feature came out first. It appears that Lupino did actually direct a couple of scenes when Horner’s wife was in hospital.

Ida Lupinophotographs so well in expressionist poses like this

Beware, My Lovely is an adaptation, by the original writer Mel Dinelli, of his Broadway play ‘The Man’ (1950). The play had begun as a radio drama in 1945 and it saw further radio and stage productions, a short story version in 1949 and later TV drama adaptations. Dinelli was no stranger to suspense thrillers or what would later be termed films noirs. He had worked as a writer on The Spiral Staircase (1946) with Robert Siodmak, The Reckless Moment (1949) with Max Ophüls and House by the River (1950) with Fritz Lang. All three directors were associated with the German film industry of the early 1930s) and all three films are concerned with a house as the location for suspense. All are also associated with film noir. Inevitably perhaps, Beware, My Lovely has been seen as a noir, probably because of the Lupino-Ryan casting, but there are other ways to think about it in genre terms. The film was made mainly on the RKO lot and although the RKO designer Albert D’Agostino is credited, Horner probably had a lot to do with the set and its presentation. It uses part of the house set built for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The presentation is also influenced by cinematographer George Diskant who had worked on On Dangerous Ground. (He would also go on to shoot The Bigamist (1953) for Ida Lupino).

Lupino and Robert Ryan were close friends and work together very well

The plot of the film is very straightforward. We first meet Howard (Robert Ryan) working as a handyman and clearing up after a job when he discovers the body of a woman – the householder? – stuffed into a closet. Alarmed, he flees the house and skips out of town on a freight train. We realise that the year is 1918 and it is approaching Christmastime in an anonymous town in the South-West. Helen (Ida Lupino), a young war widow, is preparing for the holidays. Her lodger is away for a few days but the house is busy with a group of local children and Helen’s rather snooty teenage niece, Ruth (Barbara Whiting). When the house quietens down, Helen welcomes her new handyman who will start some cleaning tasks. This is Howard arriving for his first day working in the house. There is clearly a nervous tension between the two and we are immediately concerned that Howard is some form of threat to Helen. That’s it really. The interior of the house becomes the sole location and the tension gradually mounts. The film depends on the performances of Ryan and Lupino and how they are presented in the complicated interior space of the house. The combination of the work of Horner, Diskant and the score by Leith Stevens (another of The Filmakers regulars) delivers a powerful narrative. Collier Young who produced the film despite being involved in a divorce from Lupino after only a brief marriage, felt that the film could not use the ending of the original play. He may also have been aware that Hughes probably wouldn’t have accepted it. Lupino’s original choices for a title were ‘At the End of the Day’ and as a second choice ‘The Terror’ but ‘Beware, My Lovely’ was imposed by Hughes with RKO handling all promotion of the film. The ending has been seen as a weakness by some critics but I think the film works well as it is. The action is confined to around ten hours or so with the two leads alone in the house.

Howard is mocked by Ruth

I’ve suggested that the relevant genre is not film noir, although there is expressionist camerawork in the house. The narrative is associated with the ‘woman in peril’ or the ‘home invasion’ scenario. But I think that despite the setting thirty years or so earlier, the film is linked to the contemporary social issue dramas of the other films by The Filmakers and especially those directed by Lupino. The Robert Ryan character is clearly mentally ill, perhaps with a form of paranoid schizophrenia. In a way this is linked to his rejection for military service and his sense of a slight to his masculinity. When Ruth makes a brief appearance during the day she mocks him for doing housework like cleaning – not a job for a ‘real man’. Helen is the good-hearted woman sensitive enough to want to help but also terrified. I think we could see this portrayal of mental illness as conveying a plea for understanding matching those concerned with rape, abortion, disability and so on in Lupino’s other films.

When the grocer’s boy delivers an order can Helen get out a plea for help?

The film had a mixed reception but seemingly with more positive than negative responses – although Monthly Film Bulletin in the UK (July 1953) thought it ‘boring and ‘silly’. I couldn’t disagree more, but then I could always watch Lupino and Ryan together. Unfortunately RKO failed to get behind the film properly, tempting Collier Young and Ida Lupino to release The Bigamist themselves – and suffering from a lack of distribution muscle. Beware, My Lovely has been shown in the US on Turner Classic Movies and in the UK on the BBC and, more recently, on Talking Pictures TV. I think it is well worthwhile trying to catch if it comes around.

The Souvenir (UK 2019) and The Souvenir: Part II (UK 2021)

Joanna Hogg is now established as an auteur director. These two films are her fourth and fifth features. She’s at that stage where her films tend to be nominated for various awards, but at the moment only a few translate into wins. However, The Souvenir was voted ‘Best Film of 2019’ by 100 international contributors to the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound Top 50 Best Films list. ‘Part II‘ screened at Cannes in Directors’ Fortnight in 2021 as a ‘Special Screening. Several of my female friends and colleagues have praised Joanna Hogg’s films highly but when I watched the first two, Unrelated (UK 2007) and Archipelago (UK 2010), I was rather ambivalent about them – impressed by the filmmaking skills, not so much by the characters and the stories. It is my problem no doubt but Joanna Hogg is an upper middle-class filmmaker who creates stories about similar people and they don’t appeal to me. To be fair, she has said in interviews that she understands that some audiences “can’t stomach them”. During Covid lockdowns I started to watch Exhibition (UK 2013) on a streamer but gave up after a short time. I would never do that in a cinema, so perhaps lockdown viewing was the problem? Because of this history I approached these two new films gingerly. I actually started watching Part II on MUBI and then discovered that the first film was scheduled to appear on the same streaming service a few days later, so I stopped and waited to watch the two films in order. I read that Hogg herself said that they should be watched together, so thanks to MUBI I was able to do that. I also now realise that Part II would make little sense if I hadn’t seen the first film.

Julie and Anthony in the Knightsbridge flat

These two films are inspired directly by Joanna Hogg’s own experiences and they follow Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young woman in her early twenties, as she starts at film school in the early 1980s and begins to develop her ideas about the feature she wishes to make for her graduation film. At the same time, she begins to find out more about herself through a relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an older man she meets at a party. The two narrative strands are directly connected because Anthony questions and challenges her about her artistic intentions. The films’ title is a reference to a small painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard, completed in 1778. Anthony shows the painting, which depicts a young woman beginning to carve a name or an initial on a tree, to Julie when he takes her to the Wallace Collection in Marylebone. The girl in the painting seems to be another Julie in the novel of that name by Jean-Jacques Rousseau – see this useful blog entry. The style of painting is Rococo but right at the end of that period and associated with the concept of sensibilité during the Enlightenment. The young woman’s joy at receiving a letter from her lover is presented in a carefully framed and delicately detailed image which communicates emotion. The same young woman might be shown very differently in a mid-19th century realist French painting. In Hogg’s film the painting possibly illustrates Anthony’s argument about realism which is articulated several times in response to Julie’s initial plan to make her film a form of emotional drama taking place in working-class Sunderland and based on black and white documentary photographs and 16mm footage shot earlier by Julie herself. This is one of several references to art and cinema in the film. Although I vaguely recognised the painting, I had to research it in detail to make this reading. Since the painting and the Wallace Collection are referenced more than once in the film this is setting the audience a challenge.

Camerawork and mise en scène present the difficult relationship between Julie and Anthony

Anthony presents himself as ‘working at the Foreign Office’ and speaks with a public school/Oxbridge drawl. He’s perhaps fifteen or sixteen years older than Julie and has a daughter. He is mysterious about what he actually does at the Foreign Office (if he does indeed work there) and Julie will face some serious questions when she realises how he has treated her and what he hasn’t told her. He writes her love letters, inveigles his way into living in her flat, criticises her and calmly offers advice. I’ve read several reviews that suggest he is ‘charismatic’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘disturbing’. He manipulates her in ways that might be considered abusive today but he is himself damaged rather than controlling. I don’t want to spoil the narrative and I’ll simply point out that many reviewers find the romance ‘delicate’ and ‘melancholic’. Anthony is certainly a complex character and the relationship with Julie no doubt engages many audiences and is described by some as ‘immersive’. Joanna Hogg’s approach is not to write a script as such but to give her characters a summary of their roles and to create interactions on set. Hogg has worked consistently with editor Helle le Fevre since Unrelated. Le Fevre edits during the shoot and discusses scenes with Hogg at regular meetings but says “I work from the cutting room. I don’t go on set, and I don’t need anybody in the cutting room. I’m as far away as possible from the set, because then I see everything fresh.” (Interview on Seventh Row) The process works well and accommodates Hogg’s practice of casting professional and non-professional actors in scenes together. Burke is an experienced actor but Swinton Byrne  had no prior professional experience as far as I can see. She appears with her mother Tilda Swinton in several scenes in which mother and daughter create alter egos as Julie and her mother. Honore Swinton Byrne is very good indeed and her attractive personality comes across seemingly effortlessly without any obvious technique. Tilda Swinton’s performance as a ‘county lady’ is extraordinary, but like Tom Burke’s, seems constructed specifically for a purpose.

Anthony introduces the idea of fantasy rather than realism to Julie in this awful location. Those Union Jack ‘drapes’!

Because the two Souvenir films have been discussed so much and Joanna Hogg has given interviews, we know a great deal about how the film was made (with support from BBC Films and the BFI). It appears that the production re-purposed a former RAF base in Norfolk which stood in for the fictitious film school and the film school scenes and those in Julie’s flat were created on sets within a former hangar. The outdoor scenes were then shot on various locations. But in a sense the location footage doesn’t add any kind of realist material. Hogg doesn’t use any of what is often referred to as dead time – travelling too and fro. But sometimes those inconsequential moments can tell us a great deal about characters. Julie is a young woman in London who never seems to be catching a bus, travel on the tube, shop in a street market. Instead we just see Harrods’ chimney from the window of her flat. This means that key aspects of 1980s London such as IRA bombings, political protests and uprisings of Black youths are only referred to on a radio broadcast, discussed at dinner in her parents’ home or as a muffled explosion outside the flat. The narrative takes place in a bubble.

Julie and Anthony visiter her parents (she’s here with her mother played by Tilda Swinton). This could be a landscape from a Michael Powell English country scene.

At one point Anthony suggests that Julie should think about Powell and Pressburger, the Archers, as British filmmakers who use aspects of fantasy in their films. I realise now that Joanna Hogg is a fan and as I type this she is discussing, with Martin Scorsese, The Film Foundation’s screening of a new 4K restored print of I Know Where I’m Going (UK 1945) in an online recording. In the mid 1980s several of Powell and Pressburger’s films were being restored by the National Film Archive and if you were lucky you might see Michael and/or Emeric in the cinema when they were first screened. In film studies this was the period when P&P and the whole idea of a British cinema that was not solely ‘realist’ was being debated and rescued from the dead hands of earlier critics. Was Joanna Hogg there in the Odeon Leicester Square or the cinema of the Museum of London for such screenings? She tells us now that seeing I Know Where I’m Going was important for her and she has joined Scorsese’s Film Foundation – he also acted as Executive Producer on The Souvenir.

The older men who are Julie’s tutors at the film school played by Steve Gough and Dick Fontaine

Julie on set in Souvenir Part II

Joanna Hogg’s filmmaking influences are most on display in The Souvenir Part II. The second film concerns Julie’s recovery from the experience of her relationship in the first film. She follows Anthony’s advice and, as a form of catharsis/therapy she changes her graduation film into an attempt to ‘process’ what happened in her relationship. She has to deal with a bunch of older male tutors at the film school who aren’t sure about what she is doing as well as her her generally very helpful peers who become her crew but don’t always understand what she is asking of them. The part of the second film that I enjoyed most was the dream sequence in which Julie herself is presented in a fantasy world. She is played in the rest of her graduation film by Garance (Ariane Labed, the Greek-French actor-director). The dream seems to me to be very P&P and includes elements from Hogg’s film school interest in the musicals Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1953) with Cyd Charisse’s red dress. Part II is only meaningful as a companion piece for the first film. This film demonstrates that Julie is finally learning something about film. In the first film, the screen image is 1.66:1, the widescreen shape of the French New wave. In the second film all the standard aspect ratios from Academy through to ‘Scope make an appearance at some point. The students themselves discuss French cinema of the 1980s (the Cinéma du look) and there is a part for an ‘up himself’ director and alumnus of the film school played by Richard Aoyade that runs across the two films. In the second film he is making a musical and this seems to refer a specific moment in 1980s British cinema – the flop of Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (UK 1986). I should also mention the cinematography in the two Souvenir films by David Raedecker. Occasionally this breaks away from the short takes in interiors and offers us long shots which are more expressive in their presentation of the story events. Hogg also uses several British New Wave songs in The Souvenir and other pieces of music in Part II which I didn’t recognise. Robert Wyatt’s version of Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’ in The Souvenir is quite startling given the oblique references to politics in the film.

One of the long shots from Souvenir

I could happily spend more time investigating Julie’s film education but the real question is what to make of the two films together. The first film could be a standalone romance drama and the two together have been argued to be a narrative of a young woman’s gradual understanding of her own creativity. Everything is very ‘meta’ and arguably quite brave. It’s been suggested to me that Hogg’s playfulness here involves her own sense of how naive she was as a young filmmaker. It’s interesting to look up her career and to realise that her five auteur films have been made since the 2000s and that she spent around fifteen years working on music videos and television drama series, none of which I’ve seen. I think overall my view of her work hasn’t changed very much. My admiration for her skills and creativity has certainly grown but I’m still not emotionally moved by her characters. It did occur to me that a mini season of films about filmmaking drawing on memories of youth in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s might see the two Souvenir films shown alongside Shane Meadows’ This is England (UK 2006) and Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (UK 1999). Here’s the trailer for The Souvenir Part II – a couple of shots in the trailer remind me of Lynne Ramsay’s work? Oddly, the two Souvenir films have different distributors in the UK which might make them difficult to see together, so take the opportunity now if you can on MUBI.