Category: French Cinema

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.

Benedetta (France-Belgium-Netherlands 2021)

Benedetta is paraded before her trial begins

Paul Verhoeven’s films are difficult to write about, partly because any commentary is going to be framed by existing discourse about the director’s previous films and the notoriety they have received as well as the misunderstandings about what they might mean. I have seen less than half of Verhoeven’s output and I haven’t necessarily enjoyed all of what I’ve seen, but I’ve seen enough to know that he is a talented and skilful director and that he always ‘delivers’ something worth watching and arguing about. Also on this blog is a posting on Elle (France-Germany-Belgium 2016). Benedetta has already been discussed widely so I’ll focus on just some of the questions about what kind of film it is and how it might be read in the context of its production and eventual reception.

Charlotte Rampling as the abbess Sister Felicia

Lambert Wilson as the nuncio from Florence

The film is now available on MUBI (and through the MUBI app on Amazon Prime) in the UK. MUBI also released the film in UK cinemas. This availability means I can go back and look at scenes in detail. I’ve also downloaded the (dual language) Press Pack via Unifrance. An interview with Verhoeven reveals that he often isn’t sure why he chooses certain topics, but in this case the book by Judith C. Brown Immodest Acts (1986) was brought to him by a long-standing collaborator. Verhoeven, who had been interested in the possibility of a ‘sacred’ narrative for some time, was attracted by the fact that the book was based on the actual notes of the trial of Benedetta, then the abbess of a convent in Pescia, Tuscany in the early 17th century. She was accused of a lesbian affair with a younger nun. This seems to be the only documented case of a trial of this nature and Verhoeven was also intrigued by the detailed account of their sexual liasion. Thirdly he realised that this was a film about a woman who had made herself powerful in a patriarchal society dominated by religious authority. These three reasons for selecting the project fit in nicely with Verhoeven’s perceived modus operandi – the chance to provoke through scenes of lesbian sex, but with the exploration of a woman’s agency as justification.

Benedetta faces the soldiers guarding the city . . .

The oddity about the setting of the film for me is the question of the precise historical period. Benedetta was born in 1590 and her ‘visions’ began in 1614. The trials she faced began in the 1620s. In the film, the presence of bubonic plague plays an important role. The ‘second plague’ in Italy has been dated as starting in 1629 with Florence affected in 1631-33 and this fits the narrative of the film, being brought from Florence to Pescia. Why then does the Press Pack tell us the events took place in the late 17th century? In one sense it is not important but it is annoying when films present events to a general audience with no real conviction. I found the setting confusing because at first I assumed we were in a much earlier time period, partly because of the soldiers in armour. It wasn’t until later that the carriage of the nuncio (the papal authority in Florence) arrived, giving a sense of the 17th century. At this time the Italian states were not unified and most, like the Grand Duchy of Tuscany were not as developed as many parts of France and England. Pescia was a small city but it had three convents and demand by families to see their daughters looked after in a convent at a time of economic strife is represented in the film by Benedetta’s arrival aged 9. Verhoeven and his screenwriter David Birke stick fairly closely to historical facts with just a few inventions. Overall this is an intelligent film. As a non-believer, I found the narrative development to be plausible – engaging but not shocking.

The shoot used the Cistercian Abbey of Le Thorenet in Var, France

The technical credits on the film are all very good, particularly the cinematography by Jeanne Lapoirie. I realise now that I have seen a great deal of her work especially for François Ozon and Catherine Corsini. I think that it must have been good for Virginie Efira who plays Benedetta to have worked with Lapoirie on her previous film, Impossible Love in 2018. It was because of Efira’s performance in that film that I was quite keen to see Benedetta. Verhoeven reveals that his film was shot digitally and hand-held, commenting that the developments in digital cinema allowed scenes in indoor settings to be filmed with only available light, including candlelight. IMDb lists the locations used as ranging across several sites in Italy and France and I note that convent interiors and exteriors used three locations, one in Italy and two in different French locations. I’m not surprised the shoot was expensive at around US$24 million, large for a European production. The score by Anne Dudley is also effective in the presentation of 17th century Tuscany:

I drew on the film’s beautiful landscapes, complex storyline and the entangled tapestry of social dynamics to compose the soundtrack. Renaissance choral music was an influence on the score, with female voices having a prominent role. (Anne Dudley from her website)

The film did remind me of some other convent-based films. The story shares a narrative line about the abbess spying on a nun who she believes is transgressing in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947). In the case of Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh this is more accidental than Charlotte Rampling’s actions as Sister Felicia in Benedetta. There is also another direct visual connection between the two films that I won’t spoil. I was also strongly reminded of the Roger Corman film, The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Although the stories are very different, both films take place in Italy during a plague and Vincent Price’s Prospero plays a similar role to that of Lambert Wilson’s nuncio in Benedetta – and Jane Asher plays a peasant girl Francesca with the innocence of the young Benedetta. Verhoeven tells us he cast Lambert Wilson after seeing his role as the abbot in Of Gods and Men (France 2010). Benedetta is blessed with four outstanding performances and as well as Efira, Rampling and Wilson I must mention Daphné Patakia as Bartolomea, the young woman who seeks refuge in the convent. Because of abuse by her family she is no longer ‘innocent’ and virginal. In narrative terms she provides the second ‘disruptive’ force following Benedetta’s visions. Patakia is Belgian-Greek and was identified as one of the ‘Shooting Stars’ of European cinema in 2016. For Virginie Efira, born in 1977, the role of the adult Benedetta requires her to portray a young woman in her early twenties, just as she does in An Impossible Love. Once again she does this convincingly for me.

Daphné Patakia as Bartolemea, the lover of Benedetta with the figure of the virgin, an important prop!

Benedetta had a difficult time getting into cinemas. This wasn’t primarily due to the expected protests from religious groups but because the director had an accident close to completion which required a long recovery and then Covid prevented the film’s launch. The film was mainly shot in 2018 and appeared at Cannes in 2021 before a release in France and the US. The context of its release means that reading the the narrative is perhaps slightly different than it might have been when we were all somewhat less familiar with the conditions of living through a pandemic. When shooting began on the film, the idea of an ‘intimacy co-ordinator’ was just starting to be implemented on some Hollywood shoots. Verhoeven has a long history of provocation in terms of displays of, mainly female, nudity in his films. He must also have been aware of the allegations made by the two young lead actors about director Abdellatif Kechiche’s behaviour on set in Blue is the Warmest Colour (France 2013), a film with extensive lesbian sex scenes. That film received criticism from some LGBTQ+ commentators, including questions about working with male directors. The debates about the ‘male gaze’ in France seem to have been slightly different in France than in the US/UK, although at least one leading actor, Adèle Haenel, has spoken out strongly against what she sees as a sexist film industry. Charlotte Rampling has been involved in several controversial films in her long career and therefore unlikely to be fazed by any questions about Benedetta. In a Press Notes interview with Virginie Efira, she sums up working with Verhoeven and her co-star Daphné Patakia on the sex scenes like this:

The sex scenes were very pleasant to do, thanks to Paul, and Daphné of course. A sex scene is easier to perform when you sense that the other actor or actress is at ease, not thinking that something they don’t want to give will be stolen from them . . . There was everything in those scenes. It was like a choreography. Paul had storyboarded everything, but he was very open to our suggestions. It was very collaborative and upbeat.

Of course, the interview was part of the promotion for the film, but watching the film I didn’t get the impression that the actors were being coerced in any way. Perhaps more statements will emerge over time, but I doubt it. Whatever criticisms might be made of Paul Verhoeven, I think he is sincere in making films about women who are given agency in his narratives. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed and admired this film as a an historical narrative.

A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’été, France 1996)

Margo and Gaspard

Éric Rohmer’s earlier film in his ‘Four Seasons’ collection, A Tale of Springtime (1990) offered us three young women and one man (with two absent boyfriends). A Summer’s Tale again offers us three young women, but the difference this time is that the central driver of the narrative is Gaspard, a young man on holiday on the Brittany coast around Dinard and Saint-Malo. Gaspard is using the flat of a friend and waiting for the possible arrival of his girlfriend Léna who is currently travelling in Spain with her sister. If she appears in time, Gaspard hopes to take her to the island of Ouessant (Ushant in English) but it doesn’t seem a very firm plan. In the meantime Gaspard will encounter two other young women, Margot, working temporarily in her aunt’s créperie, and Solène who lives a few miles away and visits her aunt and uncle who have a boat. The indecisive Gaspard is reluctant to admit to being interested in either Margot or Solène or to commit fully to the currently absent Léna.

French culture seems to take Summer more seriously than the English. At least that’s my perception. Paris famously empties for the Summer and heads towards the coast. There are more holiday spots along the extensive French coastline and fewer large resorts I think. Memories of beach holidays loom large and many French films have taken the beach holiday as the perfect setting. I’ve read that Rohmer himself had a holiday in Dinard as a young man and the suggestion is that he was particularly invested in this film. That might also be a reason for the decision to shoot the film in the old Academy ratio, which was unusual in French cinema by the 1990s. Rohmer, born in 1920 was in his 70s when he made the ‘Four Seasons’ films. I don’t think this is apparent in his decisions about scripting, casting and direction in the three tales I’ve seen so far. The four central characters all seem to me to be well-drawn and the dialogue is, as usual, intelligent and witty.

Gaspard and Solène sing his shanty about ‘The Pirate’s Daughter’

Just as in A Tale of Springtime, there is a slight narrative line in the film which links all four characters together in a subtle way. Gaspard has finished his MA and is hoping to build a career as a music composer. Perhaps ‘career’ is the wrong term – he doesn’t seem that interested in making money. He has with him an acoustic guitar and a small cassette recorder and attempts to write songs, having promised to write a song for Léna. One day Margot persuades him to join her in visiting an old sailor (she’s an ethnologist interested in the history of the area). The old man sings the couple a local sea shanty and Gaspard is inspired to create his own original sea shanty about a pirate’s daughter. He’s still perfecting it when he meets Solène who learns the words and, in effect, ‘owns’ it. When Gaspard finally meets Léna and they discuss the trip to Ouessant, she tells him that she found a novel set on the island. Gaspard claims to know the novel well. The author André Savignon did indeed spend time in Saint-Malo and wrote two or more novels set on Ouessant and another entitled Nid de corsaires (Nest of pirates). Léna then sings part of the shanty ‘Santiano’ (a very popular modern French shanty using the tune of a Mexican song about General Santa Anna) and then reminds Gaspard that he was going to write a song for her. What is he going to do now? Gaspard’s songwriting ambitions might, however, offer him a way out of his quandary.

Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) is handsome and talented and, as Margot observes, is very attractive to women. The actor, who has had a long and successful career, is just the right age (23) in 1996 and had been acting since he was 10. He portrays Gaspard as both a ditherer and as someone who doesn’t seem aware of the hurt he causes because he is so self-centred. He’s the perfect candidate for some Rohmerian education. The three young women are each assertive and more than capable of ‘playing’ Gaspard. Because this is a beach narrative each of the three is seen in a bikini, a shirt tied for a bare midriff, short skirts etc. (Gaspard is also often bare-chested). In its own way this is a very sexy film despite only a few moments featuring kisses and caresses. The three women are each very different, creating different problems for Gaspard in his attempts to have meaningful conversations with them.

Gaspard with Léna

Margot is played by Amanda Langlet who as a young teenager was the Pauline of Rohmer’s 1983 film Pauline at the Beach, set on the Normandy coast, North-East of Dinard. Margot is the oldest of the three women, the most experienced and perhaps she is the character who embodies Rohmer’s central ideas. She treats Gaspard much as an older sister might and, if it wasn’t for her, he might never have ventured far out of his room. Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon) is the most direct of the three. She knows what she wants and plans how to get it. Léna (Aurelia Nolin) seems the most concerned about status and ‘fitting in’. In some ways it is not a surprise that she was Gaspard’s girlfriend while he was a student – and that he might find a relationship with her more difficult after experiencing the different attractions of Margot and Solène.

It’s often said that filmmakers begin to lose something of their creativity as they move into later life – or that the works of their last years are interesting but flawed. I don’t see that being a criticism that might apply to Rohmer on the evidence of the three Four Seasons tales I’ve seen so far. A Summer’s Tale is another delight, beautifully photographed by Diane Baratier. The music by Sebastien Erms and Philippe Eidel and the whole discourse around sea shanties worked very well for me. If you want an engaging and intelligent film about Summer romances, I recommend this film highly. It’s not surprising that Rohmer remains an influence on many aspiring filmmakers.

A Tale of Springtime (Conte de printemps, France 1990)

Jeanne and Natacha meet at the party

The last of Éric Rohmer’s ‘collections’ of films is the ‘Four Seasons’. Three of the four ‘tales’ in the collection are now streaming on MUBI. A Winter’s Tale (France 1992) was discussed on this blog back in December. That film had a fair amount of incident and a conventional plot. A Tale of Springtime is perhaps more recognisably ‘Rohmerian’ with relatively little ‘action’ and much more talk, but that doesn’t make it in any way less engaging.

Jeanne in Igor and Natacha’s apartment

The idea of a Four Seasons collection is that each narrative will in some way relate to a specific season, both in terms of setting but also theme. The setting here is Paris in late April/early May. Its theme relates to the idea of Spring as a time for young lovers with the ‘sap rising’. The narrative opens on a Friday afternoon with a young teacher leaving her work at the ‘Lycée Jacques Brel’ (which Wikipedia tells me is in Saint Denis on the Northern edge of Paris). She drives to an untidy apartment and begins to clear up the mess, then retrieves some clothes and packs a bag before driving to a second apartment in the city centre. This second apartment is much tidier, but she can’t stay here as it is already occupied. She collects more clothes – Spring is a time for different outfits. The mise en scène of both apartments is detailed and precise and the teacher, Jeanne, is stylishly dressed (in a modest way) for 1990 (although one reviewer, more attuned to fashion than me suggests she is still dressing in an 80s way). Next we see Jeanne at a party in the suburbs given by an acquaintance. She doesn’t really know the other party guests but gets talking to a younger woman, Natacha, who seems equally marginal to the swing of the party. The pair decide to go to Natacha’s city centre apartment and Natacha offers Jeanne a room for the night since she doesn’t want to use either of the apartments she visited earlier. All will become clear later but for now Jeanne and Natacha simply want to talk.

The house in the country

Natacha is studying at a conservatoire and she plays her new study text, a Schumann piece, for Jeanne. Don’t worry, I’m not going to explain the whole plot but, through Natacha, Jeanne will meet the owner of the apartment, Natacha’s father Igor, who is rarely at home because work takes him on trips and he lives much of the time with his younger girlfriend Ève who is a similar age to Jeanne. Natacha also has access to two houses, the second being a small house in the countryside outside Paris with a walled garden and trees coming into blossom. Because Jeanne has a car, it’s easy for the two new friends to visit the house where at one point they will meet Igor and Ève.

The three young women are together at the country house

Jeanne is a calm young woman, not easily ruffled, but she will begin to wonder if Natacha is trying to match her with Igor. Natacha is clearly not keen on Ève. This becomes the narrative enigma. Will Jeanne and Igor find themselves together and what might happen? This is familiar Rohmer territory, meticulously planned out and presented via long conversations with a particularly enjoyable discussion about philosophy between Jeanne and Ève, observed by a slightly bewildered Igor and Natacha. (I was equally nonplussed since my knowledge of philosophy is limited – a UK education is much less likely to include philosophy than one in France). Jeanne is studying for an MA in Education and loves teaching philosophy to her working-class students in high school. Ève is engaged in a research degree and is perhaps showing off a little. This film, unusually for Rohmer includes a number of musical pieces as well as the philosophy discussion.

Jeanne doesn’t want Ève to leave

I found A Tale of Springtime to be a delightful film. At the centre of my enjoyment was the performance of Anne Teyssèdre as Jeanne. I was dismayed to visit IMDb and to discover that this was her last film to date although she has appeared on TV in the last few years as a reader. I think she gave up acting for health reasons and became a writer. Rohmer himself commented that of all the performances in his films, her’s was the only one to be irreplaceable. The film couldn’t work without her in the central role. It’s not just her beauty but the way she carries herself and presents herself. The other performances are also strong. Florence Darel  as Natacha is very different – more judgemental and more full of vitality. I note that in his Monthly Film Bulletin review (June 1990), Tom Milne contrasts the mise en scène of the four rooms that Jeanne encounters and tries to relate them to the philosophy discussion, concluding that Natacha is the true ‘transcendentalist’ – the subject of the philosophy discussion. Jeanne is the one who likes order. I’m not sure Milne is correct about his description of Natacha, she seems to demonstrate some traits of transcendentalism but possibly contradicts others. I tend to classify characters by what they say and what they do and what is apparent in terms of their social/political views. I know I would want to know more about Jeanne’s classroom practice. Interestingly Monthly Film Bulletin published an essay on Rohmer by Raymond Durgnat in the next issue (July 1990). As always, Durgnat offers a host of ideas, observation and analysis which is certainly stimulating but difficult to summarise.

Jeanne tests Igor – and herself?

There is a resolution to the narrative but it is not ‘dramatic’ except in the sense that a relatively trivial mystery is solved. That mystery refers to an incident that might inform the tensions in the triangle between Natacha, Ève and Igor. But it is Jeanne who is the ‘agent’ in the narrative and if she has learned something about herself and how she might act in the future that is a satisfactory resolution to the narrative. I’m determined now to watch A Summer’s Tale (1996). I know that for some audiences, Rohmer’s films are just too slow or too talky, but if you enjoy watching and listening to a small group of characters, Conte de printemps is highly recommended.

Deception (Tromperie, France 2021)

Arnaud Desplechin’s film was screened at Cannes in 2021 and released in cinemas in some territories in early 2022. It is now available to stream on MUBI. I presume that this means that it is unlikely to appear in cinemas in the UK and US. If so that would be a shame but not perhaps unusual. Deception is an adaptation of the 1990 novel by Philip Roth and presenting such a text in the aftermath of #MeToo does raise a number of questions. Roth, who died in 2018, became more controversial as a writer towards the end of his career as attitudes towards gender relationships changed. As a novelist he adopted several identities, each of which was a version of himself and Deception presents us with ‘Philip’, an American writer who spends time living in London in 1987 attempting to to write a new novel. His practice is to reflect on his previous extra-marital affairs. Each day he leaves the house rented for himself and his wife and visits a small flat intended as a study. Here he meets a younger Englishwoman. The three other women, besides his wife, who feed into his thoughts include an ex-lover and friend in the US, a young Czech exile and a former student from his teaching days at a university. The novel he is writing is dialogue heavy and appears to make use of his conversations with these women. Are they ‘real’ conversations or a product of his imagination?

Distractions at work? (photo Hanna Besson)

1987 is  two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is important in terms of Philip’s interest in Eastern Europe, but otherwise the only markers of the time are the phone sets and a red telephone box. Desplechin had wanted to adapt the novel for many years and had actually had a conversation about it with Roth after a reference on the DVD of Desplechin’s 2004 film Kings & Queen. He returned to the idea during lockdown which made him think of the writer’s room which allows Roth’s ‘Philip’ to shut out the world. The Press Notes for Deception include interviews with Desplechin and his two stars, Léa Seydoux as ‘the English lover’ and Denis Podalydès which I read after the screening. I was struck by Desplechin’s assertion that ‘realist cinema’ locks characters into their own little box whereas he likes the idea of the writer’s room where the characters can be ‘free’. This then translates to the director’s approach to the adaptation and his collaboration with his co-writer Julie Peyr and his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. Despite the English setting, the cast are all leading French actors and the dialogue is in French. The ‘room’ is re-imagined in different ways over the narrative, starting on stage in the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris. We never see Philip travelling and his memories of meeting a young Czech woman are played out against black and white film footage, back-projected. During the long scenes of interaction with the English lover (who is never named), the camerawork includes many close-ups  and effects like iris-masking.

Anouk Grinberg as Philip’s wife (photo Shanna Besson)

My own preference is for realist/sociological detail but I do enjoy the use of fantasy and effects in scenes so I was quite prepared to follow Philip’s thoughts in this way. I have read some of Roth’s works, but mainly the earlier novels so I didn’t have too much difficulty with the idea of a writer who plays around with his own identity in his texts. The most concrete issue of Philip’s identity is arguably his ‘Jewishness’ which is discussed at various points including his interest in other Jewish novelists, his family history which he traces back to his family roots in Galicia in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the profile of modern Israel. He also states that English Jewry is ‘soft’ compared to the more vigorous American Jewish culture. It’s at this point that I did find it slightly problematic, wondering if this was only Roth’s viewpoint, one invented by ‘Philip’ or whether there was also a French perspective in there somewhere? ‘Englishness’ appears only in terms of the pub where the lovers meet or complaints about the weather.

Screebgrab (the film is in ‘Scope) of Emmanuelle Devos as the ex-lover in the US

What to make of the world of Philip, the thoughts in his head and his interactions and memories with the four women? Is there a misogynist charge? The film narrative is divided into chapters, one of which, ‘The Trial’, is a theatrical staging of the case against Philip conducted solely by women. Desplechin says this is a pure Kafka sequence and Philip defends himself against all charges. Apart from the director and his lead actor, most of the other significant figures in the film are women. At this point I should say that the five women who play the four lovers and the wife and the women in the court give excellent performances and whatever I do think of the film overall, the actors (including the great Emmanuelle Devos ) are a major source of pleasure alongside the camerawork and art direction. The music by Grégoire Hetzel is also very good. The central question is really about the extent to which Léa Seydoux bought into the script. She is literally the most exposed character in the film with some of the most provocative lines, all delivered with panache and heart. If I have any doubt it is only about Roth’s view of the world. This is a film narrative which plays out within the sealed world of the writer’s head, with only tantalising glimpses into the characters’ relationships to events in the wider world outside. The lover has a young daughter who is never seen and an unhappy marriage, so perhaps she wants to just enjoy the hours away from her family or is her motherhood simply not relevant in the context of her afternoons with Philip? The lovers do discuss what having a child can mean at one point but just as we don’t know what Philip’s wife does while he is away in his room, that’s as far as it goes.

Léa Seydoux, beautifully lit (photo Shanna Besson)

I think I surprised myself by enjoying the film more than I thought I might. That may be mostly because of the performances, the direction and the presentation. Léa Seydoux and Denis Podalydès are a joy to watch at work.