To complement its offer of ‘Four Seasonal Tales’, MUBI has also been carrying three short documentaries directed by Eric Rohmer and made by the company he founded with Barbet Schroeder, Les films du Losange in the 1960s. I’ve only just found them and they are about to disappear from the streamer. Here are just a few thoughts about what they might add to an understanding of Rohmer’s work. I think they are also available on one of the DVD packages from Criterion.
Nadja à Paris (France 1964) is a 13 minute film shot by Néstor Almendros which follows a student, Nadja Tesich as she moves around Paris. Nadja provides the voiceover commentary. Born in Belgrade, but brought up in the US, she is a student at a university in parkland in the 1960s but is able to study at the Sorbonne for her research on Proust. This sounds like the kinds of arrangements that I remember from the 1960s when American post-grad students could spend time in Europe for research unencumbered by a defined syllabus. The Cité University where she is based reminds her of American campus universities and everything she might need is close at hand with a whole range of cultural events, including theatre and cinema. But the Latin Quarter is not far away and she prefers to wander in the city. She admits her visits to the Sorbonne are infrequent. Instead she visits the old bookshops and sits alone in pavement cafés. Ultimately she finds herself visiting the working-class area of Belleville. She enjoys drinking with a group of older men who are writers.
Nadja is a familiar subject for Rohmer – a young woman finding her way. There is no romance here but she seems absolutely one of the young women celebrated in la nouvelle vague and indeed in the British New Wave (in 1964 heading towards ‘Swinging London’). She even wears a matelot-type top reminiscent of Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle in 1959 and as she lopes across the park she has the same sense of freedom as Julie Christie in Billy Liar (1963). In many ways this short could be an extract from one of Rohmer’s early fiction films set on the streets of Central Paris.
Une étudiante d’aujourd’hui (1966) is a more conventional documentary study of the the changes in French higher education that saw a big increase in the number of young female students in the 1960s and especially in the sciences. Again this is a black & white 13 minute short film, shot by Néstor Almendros and edited by Jackie Raynal. It demonstrates Rohmer’s interest in the sociological changes in French society along with the economic growth of the period. There is some distressing animal research using cats which certainly dates the science but there is also a presentation of a new phenomenon, the married couple, both involved in higher education. This extraordinary little sequence shows a middle-class couple in an apartment with fashionable furniture and decoration. This seems at odds with the shots of crowds of students juxtaposed with the building of new universities.
What is most striking visually is that the students are mainly dressed in conservative, traditional outfits more associated with the office. For women it means dresses or skirts, handbags and court shoes until some don a lab coat. There is a ‘voice of God’ commentary apart from a brief exchange between a researcher and her supervisor. In some ways there are too many lines of enquiry for a short. I would have liked to know more about the building of universities outside Paris. France must have been experiencing the same kind of growth of the HE sector as the UK during the 1960s. At least Rohmer does include this statement, an early indication that he was interested in getting ‘out and about’ outside Paris.
The American title of the film is ‘A modern coed’. I guess the literal translation would be ‘A female student of today’. We wouldn’t use ‘coed’ in British English, but then I think the UK was probably behind both France and the US in the numbers of young women entering HE in 1964-5.
Fermière à Montfaucon (France 1968) offers a different type of documentary again, although in a way it is similar to Nadja à Paris. Again this is 13 minutes but this time in colour and made, I think, for French television. The subject is a farmer’s wife in Montfaucon (in Aisne, a rural départment in Northern France). We seem more in the territory of an Agnès Varda narrative. The farmer’s wife tells her story of working on a small family farm. The same problems existed then that also plague small farms now. There is just the couple with a small boy of school age who cycles to school. She says (on the voiceover) that she was happy to come to the countryside and become a farmer’s wife but many women don’t and many farmers stay single. She adds that women who do take up the opportunity must be organised.
She works hard in the house and on the farm. At harvest time, they can’t afford to hire extra workers so she has to help even more. In some shots she seems quite smartly dressed to be milking but those bright white boots are actually wellies. She does seem to prefer dresses and skirts to trousers and I was relieved when I saw she had found some trousers for her role of stacking hay bales. She also recognises that it is important to get involved in the village community and she has become a town councillor. This woman has not ‘fallen into’ her role. She knows what she is doing and organises herself accordingly. It does smack a little of the ‘model citizen farmer’, but as in his fictional tales, Rohmer simply focuses on daily routines as well as the special roles she fulfils at harvest time and for the community. You feel that Rohmer must have learned a great deal in preparation for some of his later films.
It’s interesting that Rohmer’s subject is nearly always a woman younger than himself but he always takes care to allow them to speak for themselves – except in the case of the ‘modern student film’ which perhaps might have worked better with more comments from the students. I enjoyed these short docs, mainly I think because they offer an interesting comparison to my memories of the UK in the 1960s. Rohmer’s later skills are developing at this stage but his ability to find interest in the mundane is already there.
Close to the Autumn equinox on September 22, MUBI brought us Éric Rohmer’s An Autumn Tale, completing its presentation of the director’s ‘Four Seasonal Tales’. This was the last of the four that Rohmer made at the age of 78. (All the previous three tales are discussed on this blog.) Three further features and a short followed to complete his career output by 2007 and he died in 2010 aged 89. It was a remarkable directorial career which started late, in his thirties, but really got going when he was ousted from his editor’s role at Cahiers du cinéma in 1963. Before turning to directing, Rohmer had already been a writer, film critic and editor.
An Autumn Tale is indeed set in the Autumn, though dates are never mentioned, during harvest time. The Spring and the Autumn equinox both have metaphorical links to love, the first to young love and the second to the fruits of love or to the love of those in middle age. The setting is the Rhone Valley with Montélimar as the nearest town. Isabelle (Marie Rivière) and Magali (Béatrice Romand) have known each other since they met at school, aged 7. Now they are in their forties with grown-up children. Isabelle is happily married but Magali is widowed and is aware of the loneliness that she tries to blank out by working hard on her vineyard. Isabelle is intent on matchmaking and sets out to find a potential mate for her friend. As the narrative opens, Isabelle is attempting to persuade her daughter, whose wedding is coming up, that Magali should be invited and that perhaps her wine should be available at the reception.
With just this simple starting point, Rohmer constructs a delightful film that steps delicately and wittily through a comedy of manners and the prospect of romance. He finds an intriguing way in which to make Isabelle’s task more difficult, introducing Rosine (Alexia Portal) the girlfriend of Magali’s son Léo. Rosine is a wonderful creation. She isn’t really interested in Léo but she adores Magali and she has her own plan to foster a relationship between her ex-tutor Étienne (Didier Sandre) and Magali. The only other significant character is Gérald (Alain Libolt) who answers the personals ad that Isabelle puts in the local paper. Isabelle’s husband sensibly stays in the background throughout. Here are the basic ingredients which Rohmer mixes so well to form his typically entertaining and engrossing film.
An Autumn Tale won the screenplay prize at Venice and is generally acknowledged as one of the best of Rohmer’s films. It has the advantage of two members of the director’s stock company in the two lead roles. Both Marie Rivière and Béatrice Romand each appeared in several earlier Rohmer films. Like most of his films this is dialogue heavy and underpinned by great performances. But the sense of place is also important and with his cinematographer Diane Baratier, who photographed all his films from 1993 onwards, Rohmer achieves a true representation of the Rhone Valley in Autumn. The film captures both the colours and textures and the play of Autumn sunlight. It also captures the sounds of rural Provence and the wind rustling through the trees. MUBI carries several commentaries on the film and I was struck by several recurring observations. One essay I read commented on how Rohmer has always differed from his erstwhile colleagues at Cahiers du cinéma who also became directors. He is the one who has maintained a documentarian’s interest in settings. As Ginette Vincendeau points out the film begins with a signpost indicating the name of the village and the newspaper Isabelle uses for the ad is published in Montélimar. Rohmer’s films utilise the transparency of classical Hollywood that enables the narrative to move easily and imperceptibly between scenes. The film may be dialogue heavy but it feels light and fast-moving, though thoroughly embedded in a ‘real’ middle-class community.
Both Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ginette Vincendeau refer to the Hitchcockian feel of the plotting. Isabelle and Rosine are both engaged in forms of deception, although their intentions are generally good. Rosenbaum also suggests that Alain Libolt is a little like Charles Boyer, the French lover of Classical Hollywood. There are moments when characters may accidentally meet or overhear/overlook the actions of others. But it all fits together seamlessly. This is a film to restore your faith in cinema.
You can find an interview with Rohmer conducted by Michel Ciment in 1998 in which the director discusses the four films in the ‘Tales of the Seasons’. (The YouTube video has English subtitles available.) He points out that in the Autumn and Spring films the central characters are shot differently than in the Winter and Summer tales. He tells us that the Winter and Summer tales are about philosophical approaches to life and that we believe the characters so that we often see them moving as they converse. By contrast Autumn and Spring are about deception – the characters are often afraid (?) to say what they feel. Because of this we need to see them head-on and in shot-reverse shot as they talk to each other. Rohmer also reveals that he chose his two female leads because they act in particularly expressive ways. They have voices that are “not monotonous like theatre voices” and they use their hands in particular ways – Marie/Isabelle clasps them above her head while Béatrice/Magali crosses her arms. This sounds a little strange until you go back and notice that yes they do this on several occasions. They are ordinary gestures that most actors don’t use as regularly but which many of us do, quite frequently. See the images above and below.
You can sign up for a trial on MUBI and catch all four of the ‘Tales of the Seasons’ over seven days or watch them via the MUBI app on Amazon Prime. Alternatively you can buy a box set of all four films on DVD (Region 2) at a reasonable price. Rohmer has sometimes had the false reputation of producing cerebral heavy films. This film dispels that notion gloriously. Here’s the French trailer (I couldn’t bear the American one).
Screened on BBC4, this film confounded my expectations. I knew it was a film starring Anaïs Demoustier and that it was directed by her brother, Stéphane. I knew it was a courtroom drama and I assumed it dealt with the robbery of a bracelet. In fact, the term bracelet, is used in France to describe what in the UK would be called an ‘electronic tag’ fitted round the ankle, allowing an accused person to be living at home with restrictions on movement. The other thing I didn’t realise was that this was a re-make (I’m not sure how ‘loose’) of an Argentinian-Mexican film from 2018 titled Acusada (The Accused). The film is presented in the 1:1.66 aspect ratio which does help to create the slightly more claustrophobic feel of the courtroom.
This unusual narrative offers us a courtroom drama from an odd perspective – that of an ‘observer’ in the court. We are not placed ‘with’ the prosecution or defence case. It also allows us to identify with the father of the girl in question, Lise Bataille (Melissa Guers). Bruno Bataille (Roschdy Zem) is at times an observer in court but we also see him trying to maintain some discipline at home. It is clear that he doesn’t know Lise as well as he thought he did. Lise’s mother, Céline (Chiara Mastroianni) is absent from the court for the first part of the proceedings – she must work as both she and her husband are self-employed. With two such starry actors as the parents, it’s interesting that Anaïs Demoustier was given the role of the Prosecutor. Her performance is quite chilling and I found it unconvincing (and I’m a fan of Ms Demoustier). The French judicial procedure seems to conduct a case like this – a charge of murder – as requiring the presence of three avocats, one for the Prosecution, one for the Defence and a third representing the victim (in this case the mother of the murdered girl, Flora?). The court is presided over by a judge. Compared to an English Crown Court, the proceedings are more informal but allow examination of any witness, or the accused, by the judge and the three avocats.
The narrative takes place in the present but a prologue shows the arrest of Lise two years earlier. She has spent most of the last two years at home with her ‘bracelet’, pursuing her education by correspondence course. She was sixteen when arrested and is now eighteen. This is significant since her relationship with her parents has changed. There is no real explanation as to why it has taken two years to reach the Assize Court. I don’t wish to spoil your narrative pleasure but like one of the IMDB ‘user’ commentators, after years of watching Engrenages (Spiral), I do wonder what the investigating judge has been doing for two years and why the evidence of murder seems relatively thin.
Courtroom dramas are invariably conventional in that the audience is primed for familiar moments such as brilliant rhetoric from counsels, a witness breaking down and most dramatic, the sudden appearance of new evidence. In this case, if such conventions are employed it is with little attempt to dramatise the moment. Lise gets to give an emotional statement, but also to remain silent in response to some questions. Her counsel, an older woman, seems well-prepared and comes across well. The prosecution appears almost dismissive and intent on coming to a conclusion. The pleasures offered by the narrative are partly the pleasures of the ‘procedural drama’ – like a documentary with the tedious parts taken out. But as the case unfolds in court it seems to change towards a moral questioning of Lise’s behaviour as a 16 year-old. Flora was her close friend and classmate and together they did the usual things that teenage girls do except that, now in the era of social media, many of their actions are recorded on their phones and shared with others. Flora’s phone contains material shown in court and we get the feeling that what is shown is news to Lise’s parents.
I’m not sure what to make of the film, but I was certainly engaged by the narrative and in a different way to the usual puzzle-solving fascination of most courtroom dramas. It did seem to me a narrative that connected with contemporary concerns. The performance of Melissa Guers is remarkable for a young actor who had never worked on a film before. I’m not a parent and the Press Notes make clear that the director was motivated to some extent by his desire to explore what it means if a courtroom becomes the place where the life of your child is exposed to a wider audience in terms of behaviour of which which you have been unaware. I should note that Lise also has a younger brother (eight years younger) who is responsible for some key information. The family melodrama probably gets less time than the courtroom drama but it is equally important.
The Girl With a Bracelet is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for two months. I think it is definitely worth watching. I think the trailers give away too much of the plot so I’ve left them out.
Celle que vous croyez was a 2016 novel by the French writer and lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris, Camille Laurens. Ms Laurens won the Prix Femina for an earlier novel and as a woman in her late fifties she was well-placed to write about the sexual adventure of a woman in her fifties who is also a lecturer in Comparative Literature. I wish I’d known this when I started watching the film. I wish I’d also remembered which film directed by Safy Nebbou I had seen several years ago. I didn’t remember until afterwards that it was L’empreinte de l’ange or Mark of an Angel in 2008. If I had remembered, I might have had different expectations and approached a reading differently. The earlier film featured Catherine Frot in a form of melodrama cum psychological thriller. Ms Frot plays a single mother aged around 50 with a small son.
As it was, I sat down to watch Who You Think I Am, broadcast on BBC4 in its Saturday night ‘European drama’ slot, without any knowledge other than the film starred Juliette Binoche. I watched the film with my partner and after about an hour we both agreed that the character played by Binoche was a silly or foolish woman who didn’t realise the mess she had got herself into. At this point my partner decided she preferred to watch the news so I watched the final half hour the following day on iPlayer. I discovered that there were a couple of major twists in the narrative and I began to explore the background to the film in more detail. I realise that because I don’t use social media apps for any kind interaction that involves personal details, I’m not the best judge of narratives that are built on that premise. I’ll have to tread carefully.
Juliette Binoche plays Claire a fifty-something lecturer seen exploring the fate of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, author of Les liaisons dangereuses, with her students. She shares custody of her two sons with her ex-husband and she has just been left by her younger lover Ludo. We gradually learn these details as Claire talks to a psychiatrist, Dr Bormans (Nicole Garcia). Eventually we will realise that the narration in the film is dubious since Claire is in effect writing a story in which she is the central character. It appears that after Ludo has left her, she attempts to make contact with him or perhaps to ‘spy’ on him but she ends up engaging with his friend Alex (François Civil) instead, ‘liking’ one of his photographs – he is a professional photographer. She then makes a decision to create a fictitious profile for herself as a younger woman, ‘Clara’ and makes the details available to Alex. In narrative terms this is a second ‘disruption’ in the equilibrium of Claire’s world (if we take her separation from her husband as the first). Everything that follows is to some extent an outcome of this move. I don’t wish to spoil the narrative for those of you reading this before watching the film but it must be obvious that the narration must engage with the enigma. Can Claire keep this as an online only encounter or will she or Alex decide that they must meet face to face. If that happens, how will Claire respond?
I want to focus on the presentation of Claire/Clara and how this might be read. I was a little surprised by the generally very favourable responses to the film by many leading international critics after its screening at Berlin in 2019. These are to some extent opposed by some of the later audience responses that find the narrative too slow or boring. The film is edited very skilfully with the result that we get caught up in the whirlpool of Claire’s actions and it becomes difficult to distinguish what might be her recollection of what has actually happened and what might be fantasy. Juliette Binoche is on screen for nearly the whole running time of the film. Dr Bormans is mostly watchful and silent so we are not sure what her diagnosis might be. It is actually a complex narrative and I was never bored but something did trouble me. The only critic I read with whom I felt an affinity was Ginette Vincendeau in Sight and Sound. She argues that the narrative offers us a story about a 50 year-old woman taking younger lovers and this promises a rebuff to the assumption that cinema treats older women as ‘invisible’. But really the narrative doesn’t fulfil this promise. In creating a much younger avatar of herself, Claire not only ‘steals’ a younger woman’s identity (i.e uses a photo of a ‘real’ young woman) and also dupes a young man. I understand the whole process is known as ‘catfishing’. Her actions run the risk of seriously damaging the young people concerned and her own responsibilities seem to disappear (we don’t see much of her two sons). Vincendeau further argues that Laurens’ novel “multiplies and contrasts points of view, but director Safy Nebbou’s adaptation flattens out the narrative to Claire’s perspective”.
The key question might be, since Claire successfully found Ludo, couldn’t she find another younger lover a second time ‘in the flesh’ rather than ‘virtually’ through deception? Granted Ludo is a few years older than Alex but still considerably younger than Claire. And Claire is played by Juliette Binoche who could reasonably attract anyone. I did feel that Binoche deliberately tried to make herself less conventionally attractive by her choice of spectacles and hairstyle. She also ‘acts’ the role of a woman taking valium in the way that few other actors can do. By casting Binoche, Nebbou is consciously drawing on our memories of Binoche in similar roles. There is also the intriguing question of what a young man might expect from a liaison with a literature professor. Nebbou offers us an image of a woman whose post-coital reading seems to include Rainer Maria Rilke – I had to look up the Austrian poet’s writings to get a sense of what she was exploring.
The Press Pack Interview has some interesting insights into Safy Nebbou’s approach. He reveals that during the time he was writing the script he himself was duped online by a woman of Claire’s age engaged in ‘catfishing’. He also suggests that as he worked on the film he was thinking about Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Kurosawa’s Rashomon among other filmic and literary references. I note that he has previously adapted a story by Vertigo‘s original authors, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac as Bad Seeds (France 2012. The Hitchcock connection has been picked up by several reviewers and I did feel by the resolution that what I’d seen was a melodrama-psychological thriller that could indeed have been a Hitchcock narrative (or perhaps one by Henri-Georges Clouzot?). Who You Think I Am is a complex and well-made film. It is anchored by the central performance by Juliette Binoche. The co-scriptwriter is Julie Peyr who has worked with Arnaud Desplechin on three films. Nebbou insisted on having a female co-writer. The film is presented in ‘Scope by Gilles Porte and it has a deliberate use of modern Parisian architecture, including what looks like the Pompidou Centre (see the above image). Claire lives “in a modern high-rise, surrounded by windows, a sort of glass box. When night falls, her reflection appears in the picture windows and her double can thus come into play . . . ” (Nebbou in the Press Pack interview). The score by Ibrahim Maalouf is recognisable as a melodrama score, particularly in the climactic sequences. I’ve seen references to the film as a romance. If it is, it seems a dark one to me and one that exists somewhere between reality and fiction.
Who You Think I Am appeared briefly in UK cinemas in April 2020 as the pandemic took hold. It is available in the UK for two months on iPlayer where perhaps a wider UK audience might find it (as they have Lullaby, a film based on another controversial recent French novel). It appears to have sold globally as well and is available on major streamers. I think the film is definitely worth watching despite what I see as flaws. I think some of the more negative responses may be because the film moves into what some might see as American psychological thriller territory. I wonder if an American production company would gamble on a remake. It would be a brave woman who would take on the Juliette Binoche role (i.e. to be compared to Binoche) but it could be entertaining to play at casting the young man. I’m conscious that several of the films I’ve discussed this year feature modern ‘romances’ with ‘scenes of a sexual nature’ as TV channels sometimes warn us. In one sense I welcome this as we are at least seeing ‘adult dramas’ which seem to be disappearing from mainstream Hollywood. But I’m not sure this depiction of online sexual relationships rings true for me. The few older people I know who have tried online dating apps seem to have enjoyed their encounters without resorting to this kind of duplicity.
Jacques Audiard has completed ten features so far. It might not seem very many since his first was in 1994. But then he was already into his forties and his first successes as a filmmaker were as a writer, following a similar path to his father Michel Audiard. His early scripts and his early directorial credits were mainly polars, crime films, but gradually he has ventured into other genres as well. I’ve seen all of his directorial features and it does seem to me that he has been the most consistent French filmmaker of his generation. I was a little surprised that Les Olympiades seemed to last only a few weeks in UK cinemas and that I’ve had to wait to watch it on MUBI. It doesn’t seem to have been badly reviewed in the UK and I think that the problem must be more to do with audiences being unsure about what kind of a film Les Olympiades really is.
The film’s French title refers to a specific architectural project in the 13th arrondissement of Paris – thus the more prosaic English title. The project was designed to celebrate the Grenoble Winter Olympics of 1968. It offers a range of high rise blocks that were intended to attract young professionals. It has also seen the development of a Chinese-Vietnamese quarter. However, the subject of the film is developed through the adaptation of several stories by the American graphic novelist Adrian Tomine. Audiard and his writing collaborators, Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, have woven aspects of the narrative threads of these short stories into a seamless single narrative. There are four central characters, three youngish women and one youngish man (‘youngish here means mid twenties into early thirties) and the narrative explores their different problems and approaches to love, sex and romance in the modern city. There is clearly a danger that the narrative could become episodic and not really hang together but I certainly felt that one of the many pleasures of the film was the writing and for me it worked very well.
We start with Émilie, a young woman from Taiwanese family, and Camille, an African-French doctoral student, working as a school teacher to earn the money to pay for his further study. Émilie is living in her grandmother’s apartment with the old woman in a care home. Émilie rents out a room in the apartment to supplement the meagre income she receives from the casual jobs she takes, in a call centre and then later as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant rather than trying to use her ‘Sciences Po’ (social sciences degree). Camille arrives as her lodger. Nora arrives as a mature student in Paris from Bordeaux. She tells another student in her first lecture that she is 33. It’s possibly not a good idea and Nora struggles to fit in. Émilie and Camille are physically attracted to each other and an intense sexual relationship soon develops. Nora has a very different experience. In an attempt to ‘fit in’ at a student party she buys a wig and a short skirt and several students think she is a porn webcam girl known as ‘Amber Sweet’. This will not turn out well. Later we will find out a little more about Nora’s life in Bordeaux but for now she is forced to leave her course and try to get work as an estate agent using her previous work experience. It is in this guise that she will meet Camille, now nominally managing a small estate agency business for a friend while still working on his thesis. The other characters in the narrative are Emilie’s family (mainly encountered via telephone calls) and Camille’s father and his sister Eponine. If there is a weakness in the script it might be the story of Eponine, a teenager attempting to write material for a stand-up comedy routine. This feels like it could be another narrative thread entirely. It serves mainly to comment on/challenge Camille’s behaviour. The fourth main character is ‘Amber Sweet’ who Nora befriends over the webcam connection in her rather naive way. ‘Amber’ perhaps functions in the narrative structure in much the same way as the families of Émilie and Camille, although of course she has the potential to have a different kind of relationship with Nora.
What kind of narrative have the writers (all three of whom are also directors) managed to construct from the short story material? Jacques Audiard has suggested that one of his influences was his memory of Eric Rohmer’s 1969 film Ma nui chez Maud. So strong was the impact of that film that Audiard cast the film’s star Jean-Louis Trintignant in his début feature, Regarde les hommes tomber in 1994. In Ma nuit chez Maud, the Trintignant character is a single man, an engineer who returns to France from work abroad (and who is named Jean-Louis). Over the Christmas holiday in a snowy Clermont-Ferrand Jean-Louis finds himself stranded over night in the apartment of a woman he has only just met. They talk late into the night about love and religious values. Though a sexual liaison looks possible, Jean-Louis, a religious man who has briefly spotted a young woman at Midnight Mass he is attracted towards, does not respond to Maud’s implied invitation. Audiard suggests that Adrian Tomine is perhaps similar to Rohmer as a someone writing ‘moral tales’ and therefore perhaps Les Olympiades might be seen as a kind of 2021 response to Rohmer’s story. It is Émilie who most clearly marks the change in sexual mores with her use of Tinder-like apps – although it does occur to me that in much closer times to Rohmer’s story, Erica Jong had already introduced the “zipless fuck” in her 1973 novel Fear of Flying. I don’t want to spoil the narrative too much but I will point out that there is one instance in the film when Emilie’s attachment to her phone and app does produce an instant and quite joyful example of what Erica Jong might recognise.
I guess that with two female co-writers, one of whom is currently a highly celebrated writer-director, Les Olympiades might be seen as a narrative with a female perspective – three women to one man featured. But I’ve seen some comments about the “same old male gaze”. I don’t really understand this but I do agree with the comments that complain about sex scenes which feature more female nudity than male. I suspect that however such scenes are shot, the classification guidelines prevent any sight of male genitalia while exposed female breasts are now fairly routine. This film is an 18 in the UK. We get a pixelated image of a penis on a mobile phone screen – surely most people aged 18 have seen an erect penis by now, especially if they have engaged with Tinder-type dating apps? If this discussion makes the film sound like some kind of arthouse porn movie, it’s not mean to. This is a narrative that engages with serious issues but also has real elements of humour and observation. The three principal characters are humanised characters with flaws, just like the rest of us. At one point I thought to myself, “these are decent people, it’s nice to enjoy their company”. Émilie is perhaps too selfish but she has endearing qualities as well. Similarly, Camille is sometimes arrogant/too clever but basically a nice guy and Nora is damaged by her past experiences but someone you’d like to help. Lucie Zhang who plays Émilie is appearing in her first lead role and Makita Samba as Camille, though more experienced, is also stepping up in terms of the high profile that an Audiard film is given. Both are very good but the film from my point of view is stolen by Noémie Merlant as Nora. She is probably best known for her leading role alongside Adèle Haenel in Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (France 2019) for Céline Sciamma. Jehnny Beth as Amber Sweet is well cast and convincing in her unusual role. Contrary to some critics and ‘users’, I think the writing and the direction are highly-skilled and both effective and affective.
The film is presented in black and white apart from one shot in colour and presented in 1.85:1 by Paul Guilhaume. That splash of colour in a monochrome film reminded me of La haine (France 1995) as do several other shots. This isn’t too surprising. Matthieu Kassovitz, the director of La haine appeared in a lead role in Audiard’s first two films and there are several similarities in the two narratives, especially in the representation of a particular district of Paris, similarly multi-racial but more down-market in the earlier film. Like La haine, Les Olympiades also features an interesting score, in this instance by Rone, the electronic music producer. It’s not really my kind of music but it did seem particularly resonant at times.
My conclusion is that I enjoyed the film, even though the sex lives of thirty-somethings are generally a mystery to me. I think that the film needs to be seen more widely and you can find it on Apple, BFI and Curzon plus other platforms. One of several moments that I really appreciated was when Camille is asked why he left teaching. Was it the students in a tough school? No, he says, they were fine, it was the the authorities who kept changing the system every six months and made teachers’ lives hell. Who knew French education was in the same terrible mess as that in England? Do give the film a try. It can’t hurt.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.