Category: Nordic 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.

Trom (Denmark-Faroe Islands-Iceland-Germany 2022)

A view of the Faroese capital Tórshavn, taken from a promotional video for the Faroes based on the photography used in the TV series

Trom is a six part crime serial currently scheduled on BBC4 in the UK but with all six episodes available on BBC iPlayer. Unusually, I opted to watch the whole serial over consecutive nights. I enjoyed the show very much and I’m prompted to write about it in response to the Guardian‘s listing which described it as OK but ‘formulaic’. That term reminds me that when I started my engagement with film studies in the 1970s most Hollywood films were generally dismissed by British critics as ‘formulaic’. I think it came from traditional Eng Lit graduates who had never been taught about genre. Fortunately we now have a more educated audience but we do still get the occasional usage.

A formula is a means of guaranteeing that a process will be capable of being re-produced to enable exactly the same output each time. The whole point of a genre repertoire is to enable filmmakers to select elements to ensure both repetition and difference. Genres are constantly evolving in cycles. All the elements in a narrative may be familiar but the precise mix will be different. Yes, Trom uses familiar elements but certain factors make this particular narrative unique. I’ve never seen a film or TV drama set in the Faroes before. It’s a unique and fascinating setting. Perhaps the most unusual element here is the tiny population size of this ‘autonomous community’ – only 53,000 people, less than most small towns in the UK. I thought that Iceland was relatively small but there are seven times as many people in Iceland. In narrative terms it means that it is quite feasible to create a story in which one character, seemingly an outsider, can investigate a crime, partly by having a connection to many of the people involved the story and also that a single person can have business holdings that seem to have an element of control over every form of activity in the community. It also means that this particular ‘Nordic Noir’ has no difficulty developing ideas about family melodrama narratives since it is quite likely that the children of the principal characters will all attend the same school or college and may become involved in the central narrative.

Ulrich Thomsen as Hannis, the international journalist who returns to his homeland

Early in the serial we see two men board a plane and sit on the same row of seats but on opposite sides of the aisle. Eventually we will realise that Hannis Martinsson (Ulrich Thomsen) is originally Faroese but has been working internationally as an investigative journalist. Ragnar í Rong (Olaf Johannessen) is the man who owns several companies in the Faroes. I’m not going to spoil the thriller plot but I will point out that the investigation will involve the suspicious death of an activist concerned about the ecological and ethical issue surrounding the main Faroese economic activity of fishing in the North-East Atlantic, including whaling. This is another unique element. Very few countries still consider whaling as legitimate and few are as dependent on whaling and fishing as an economic necessity.

Inspector Karla Mohr (Maria Rich) is in charge of the case

Trom is part ‘police procedural’ and again the unique status of the Faroes becomes important. It is an autonomous territory still officially part of the Kingdom of Denmark. In terms of resources, certain actions such as sending for a forensic pathologist or requesting specialist laboratory work require extra time for material to be sent to Denmark or for specialists to travel to the Faroes. This in turn offers the writers small extra windows of time in the narrative when evidence is vulnerable or police investigation is stalled. This is well exploited in the serial. This element has appeared in other contexts. For instance, the South Korean film Memories of Murder (SK 2003), set in the 1980s requires samples to be sent to the US for testing because local experise and technology have not been developed. The situation in the two autonomous territories of Denmark is interesting from a UK perspective. There were three such territories but Iceland became independent after 1944 (both Iceland and the Faroes were occupied by the British during the Second World War). Greenland is the other territory which still has some ties to Denmark. The Faroes are not actually part of the EU even if Denmark is. This means that relations with the UK are different than they might be for Denmark itself. The Faroes are actually closer to Scotland and to Norway than to Denmark. Logically, the extra facilities the Faroese police might need could be obtained in Aberdeen or Bergen, half the distance away.

The serial is based on books by the Faroese writer, Jógvan Isaksen and it is the first TV drama serial/series made on the Faroes. It is certainly a ‘Nordic Noir’, closest perhaps to the Danish TV serials of the The Killing (Denmark 2007-12) – the famous knitted jumpers in that serial were Faroese and they are also a featured in the promotion of Trom. The Killing was a co-production venture which saw Norwegian, Swedish and German support. This is the case with many Nordic film and TV productions. Trom has Icelandic input in funding and crew and there is also Danish and Norwegian involvement. One of the two main writers is Donna Sharpe, a Brit based in Germany. The British interest, in the form of BBC4, is emphasised in the promotional material. The two leading cast members, Ulrich Thomsen and Maria Rich are well-known Danish actors whereas Olaf Johannessen was born on the Faroes. I think others in the cast are Faroese and the dialogue is both Danish and Faroese with a few lines of English. All the performances seem strong to me.

The ending of the serial leaves the prospect of a second part, but at the moment there seems to be a problem in the partnership of the various agencies involved in the production. I hope it is resolved. I enjoyed the show and would appreciate the chance to watch a second serial.

Here is a brief promo clip from an Australian streamer:

The Worst Person in the World (Verdens verste menneske, Norway-France-Sweden-Denmark 2021)

Julie (Renate Reinseve) in the opening shot of The Worst Person in the World

Joachim Trier’s latest film, co-scripted with Eskil Vogt like his first four features, was nominated for two Oscars in 2022 after Renate Reinsve won the Cannes prize for Best Female Actor in 2021. It is distributed in the UK by MUBI, opening in cinemas in March 2022 and on stream since May 13th. Undoubtedly a major film release, the film has been widely discussed and I wondered if there was anything else to say about it, so I was surprised by some of the many reviews I consulted. I should have realised that beyond the usual ‘festival film’ audience there would be some audiences completely baffled by why the film received widespread critical acclaim. There were, as I expected, some negative reviews, mainly by feminist scholars. On the other hand I expected to read descriptions of the film which differed widely in terms of what the viewer thought they were watching. Finally, there were scenes which seemed to me important but were rarely mentioned. So, I think there are some points worth making.

Julie with Aksel in the first flush of attraction.

Trier himself says this is a film about love – following on from his American film, Louder Than Bombs (2015) that focused on grief. What he has produced seems to me a romance drama with some acute character observations and many sequences imbued with a comic edge. The film has been described as a romantic comedy by some critics and reviewers but I don’t think that genre classification fits. In its focus on the woman in a relationship with two men, it’s more akin to Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) – but the two men don’t interact with each other. More importantly, many of the familiar narrative conventions of a romcom are either not present or referenced in unconventional ways. The film was written specifically for Renate Reinsve, an actor who appeared in an earlier Joachim Trier film but who had become rather disillusioned by her lack of opportunities. She certainly repaid Trier’s faith in her performance. We should also note that this a humanist film in that sense that there are no good or bad guys, just finely drawn characters with the usual array of human traits. Trier also utilises a range of stylistic devices including a swift montage of scenes presenting Julie’s (Renate Reinsve’s) changes of direction as a twenty-something and a form of freezing the image while allowing Julie to move through time and space. At other times, the narrative makes good use of Oslo, an attractive city seen here mainly in summer.

The world stops but Julie can race through the city in its frozen moment

This is quite a long film (128 minutes) with sometimes leisurely pacing  – another way in which it differs from a conventional romcom. The opening shot reveals a pensive Julie in a slinky black dress on a terrace overlooking the city. This is from a key moment in the narrative and is held for a relatively long time. The narrative is then divided into chapters – a nod to earlier novels of a sentimental education? The opening shot cuts to the ‘prologue’ and the montage of an indecisive Julie in her twenties. This is followed by the first relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). The opening shot on the terrace then appears at the start of the sequence of events leading to the second relationship with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll just note that Aksel appears again in the third section, though not in a return to the previous relationship and an epilogue shows us Julie a couple of years further on (after Covid has had an impact).

Julie with Eivind. This shot seems reminiscent of La La Land – Trier has said that he did want to make a musical . . .

The examples of sequences that perhaps haven’t prompted that much discussion include Julie’s 30th birthday when she is welcomed by the female members of her family, but not her father who has again made an excuse not to attend. The sequence includes a montage taking us back in time through photographs of her female ancestors. A voiceover tells us that in every generation the women of her family had children by the time they were 30 – and many of them had already achieved important goals outside their family responsibilities. Her father’s absence is marked and followed up so that we see how much he has neglected her but has found the energy to have another daughter with a new partner. These scenes suggest two important pressures on Julie’s sense of self and and what she wants from life. The hostility/neglect by her father seems a classic psychological marker. Does she mistrust most men and expect them to fail her? At the same time her family history of women who have managed to both raise children and have careers in which they have succeeded and been recognised creates pressure and, in terms of her ancestors who were prone to die in their thirties (when Norway was a much poorer country), a sense of guilt – for not making the most of her advantages? It’s a potentially heavy burden. It also confirms that the narrative will centre on Julie – although Aksel also has a dramatic storyline.

Julie takes a different kind of trip . . .

Aksel is at the centre of another sequence which I am still struggling to read. He has become a successful graphic novelist, creating a character that clearly draws on a number of American creations including Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat series from the 1960s which were adapted for an animated film in 1972 by Ralph Bakshi. Crumb was a controversial artist during the period of the American ‘counter culture’ being satirical and anti-establishment but also guilty of ‘graphic sexual and violent abuse of women’. One short chapter in the film is titled ‘Bobcat Wrecks Xmas’. It covers the moment which should be Aksel’s career high when his graphic novels have, like Crumb’s, been adapted for an animated feature which has opened for the Christmas Holiday season. But this is not 1972 and Aksel is being grilled on a radio programme by a critic who he retorts is a ‘post-feminist’ after she refers to his ‘comics’ as ‘inappropriate and murky’, suggesting that his new film is out of date in the present climate. Julie is not with Aksel at this time and she catches the discussion on a video feed from the radio studio which appears muted on the screen in the gym where she is exercising. She quickly finds the feed on her phone and listens to the car-crash as the radio presenter loses control over her guests. Aksel seems more concerned that his work is not accepted as ‘art’ and sees this attack as part of a generational war. Julie, mouth open is both bemused and shocked perhaps. I won’t spoil what happens following this sequence but it did strike me as a sudden shift in the underlying sexual politics of the film. It is a somewhat ‘overdetermined’ reference to current debates. That opening shot of the film comes from the evening when Aksel’s graphic novel is being launched. His career as a writer/artist underpins his relationship with Julie. She works in a bookshop, he writes a book. He is also older – around ten years? Is that enough to make it a generational gap? Do we think of Julie on her running machine as being of the same generation as the young critic in the radio studio?

Julie and Aksel meet up again – in different circumstances . . .

When we consider the narrative as a whole, where do we start? I have to agree to a certain extent with my female friends and colleagues who see the film as an attempt by a man to make a film about a woman and to get it wrong in several ways. It’s been suggested to me that Trier seems very taken by the French New Wave films and in particular the ways in which Jean-Luc Godard put Anna Karina at the centre of his films without ever really giving her what might now be called ‘agency’. I decided to look closely at a couple of long reviews. Jessica Kiang wrote about the film for Sight and Sound (April 2022). She begins with the music playing out over the closing credits, Art Garfunkel’s ‘Waters of March’ (1975), and later in the review she refers to several other pieces of music from the film. I did listen to that closing track and I also noted a Nilsson song and something familiar that turned out to be Christopher Cross. But the one song that really caught my attention was ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ (1936), sung by Billie Holiday. Otherwise I didn’t really notice the music. I was quite surprised to go to IMDb’s ‘Soundtrack listing and discover a long list of titles – something like thirty-six in all. I’m not sure why they didn’t register but perhaps Kiang has a point when she concludes:

. . . if you’re a millennial watching The Worst Person in the World you get to be flattered by an ostensible critique, rather like how Warren Beatty must feel when he listens to ‘You’re So Vain’. If you’re anyone else, you probably don’t think this song is about you – because it isn’t – but still, the tune is catchy and the swirl of mood and melody is a supple if fleeting delight.

Kiang recognises that there is possibly a different reading for ‘millennials’ and those rather older, but she doesn’t think that is a problem. I don’t know which generation Kiang identifies with, but I’m sure she is younger than me. I think older audiences might be less likely to recognise how Julie feels and possibly less sympathetic towards her actions. More pertinently, one of the most acute analyses of the film can be found in Lara Staab’s essay The End Of Joachim Trier’s Oslo Trilogy; The End Of Art And Community’ in the feminist film journal Another Gaze. Staab considers the three films that Trier has made set in Oslo and covering the lives of twenty-somethings in the city. Significantly perhaps, although the characters are different in each of the three films, the lead male character is always played by Anders Danielsen Lie, which creates perhaps the same kind of sense of an alter ego for the director as might be found in, for example, the Antoine Doinel films featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud and directed by François Truffaut. Renate Reinseve has a small part in the second film in the trilogy, Oslo, 31st August (Norway 2011). This second film is a literary adaptation of Le feu follet the same novel adapted by Louis Malle for his 1963 film, reinforcing that sense of Trier’s interest in la nouvelle vague. I haven’t seen the first two films in Trier’s trilogy but Staab makes a strong argument in suggesting that the three films together explore several related questions:

What is a creative life, an intellectual life? What in art is authentic? Are the pursuit of art and the pursuit of love alike – full of suffering, frustration and disappointment? Is it possible to become an adult and to sustain an adolescent level of obsession with books, films and records? Is it possible to be a bit more sensible as an adult – fewer hangovers, less heartbreak when meeting girls and heroes – without becoming bourgeois? Above all, the trilogy is interested in the struggle to balance an intensity of feeling with the matter of everyday life.

Staab concludes what is a long and complex argument by suggesting that in the end this a narrative about the central male character in each of the three films (i.e. the character played by Anders Danielsen Lie), even if the epilogue of Worst Person presents us with what has happened to Julie. All those questions listed above are explored primarily in relation to the male character. Staab’s last line (directed at her young feminist readers?) is “If we identify with Julie, then we are left fatally separated from art, literature and one another, each alone in a room of our own. Is that what we want?”. This makes sense to me as a reading, though I still need to watch the other two films in the trilogy properly. I did enjoy watching The Worst Person in the World very much and especially Renate Reinseve’s performance but the ending is a disappointment. Trier in the Press Notes interview suggests:

This film deals above all with the individual Julie, I did not want to give a presentation on “the woman of our time”! This aspect of looking at the feminine naturally makes its way into the film, through sincere, humorous, satirical situations, and through various anecdotes that I have experienced or imagined.

I think that filmmakers can intend to do something for audiences, but they can’t control how audiences decide to make their readings. So, you takes your choice.

The Worst Person in the World is now accessible in the UK on most major platforms. MUBI has all three films of the trilogy on offer.

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:

Louder Than Bombs (Norway-France-Denmark-US 2015)

The first English language feature by the Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier, Louder Than Bombs, was released on MUBI as part of the lead up to the launch of the director’s latest film, The Worst Person in the World (Norway 2021) in the UK. I remember the original release of Louder Than Bombs, because it seemed to be part of a cycle of films related to journalists in war zones. I’m not sure why I didn’t watch it at the time but I realise now that it is a more complex form of narrative. It represents a particular kind of European filmmaking presented in an American context which has divided audiences and it is a particularly interesting film for this blog.

Isabelle and Jonah

Trier joins a long list of European filmmakers buoyed up by success at Cannes, Berlin or Venice who then attempt to move into productions with bigger budgets and the kind of distribution muscle that international stars and English language dialogue provide. The results are often varied, but North Europeans and Scandinavians in particiular often have the advantage of more ease with English. The Danes, such as Susanne Bier, Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier, have made a number of English language films and Lone Scherfig has been particularly successful in the UK. Joachim Trier to a certain extent hedged his bets with an international co-production and four lead actors with recognition in both Europe and the US (though primarily more in relation to American Independent cinema perhaps). Trier worked with his usual writing collaborators Eskil Vogt, music composer Ola Fløttum and cinematographer Jakob Ihre.

Father and younger son

The film’s title is a play on the different effects of the trauma of war. (It’s also the title of an album by The Smiths.) The journalists here are Isabelle Huppert as ‘Isabelle’, a photojournalist and Richard (David Strathairn) who appears to have worked for the same agency. But the narrative is mainly concerned not with the direct experience of conflict reporting but with the trauma that it causes in Isabelle’s home life. In fact the narrative begins a few year’s after Isabelle’s death when her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is being shown a short video about his wife that will appear as an installation in a retrospective exhibition of her war photographs. Gene agrees to the video and learns that Richard has also been commissioned to write a newspaper piece about his colleague. Gene realises that he is going to have to speak to his sons Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). Jonah is a university teacher and a new father but Conrad is still in high school – the same school where Gene is a teacher. The narrative enigma involves Isabelle’s death in a road accident. Did she fall asleep at the wheel or did she deliberately allow herself to lose control? David tells Gene he doesn’t want to romanticise Isabelle’s death, implying that the strain and stress (and excitement) of reporting conflicts ‘has its toll’. Gene can’t be sure exactly what David means but he is aware of what was happening in the family. Now he must talk to his sons to prepare them for what the exhibition and David’s piece might mean for all three of them.

Gene meets a new young teacher at his school

Why has the film divided audiences, especially in the US? I think it may be because Trier does not confirm a specific linear narrative, providing a clear resolution. Instead he offers different stories concerning the father and two sons, bringing them together at various points when they overlap. We follow the grieving Conrad through some familiar adolescent rites which don’t get any easier for him when Jonah and his dad attempt to intervene. They have their own problems and memories of Isabelle are interwoven in their separate stories. The presentation too is not conventional, though with Eisenberg and Strathairn being familiar from various independent films we perhaps accept this and don’t expect ‘Hollywood’. Conrad’s story includes his fascination with a particular online videogame but the music and other elements of teen films are not there. As one reviewer suggests, the film does take teenage grief and depression seriously and there is a real attempt to explore what grief means to each of the family members. Trier presumably wants us to pick up clues  but doesn’t make this easy for us. For instance, Gene was once an actor and we see a clip from a fairly obscure film featuring Gabriel Byrne (Hello Again, US 1987). We don’t see Gene teaching and I had to freeze frame the image to see that a whiteboard carried notes about analysing Moby Dick is in the classroom where he unpacks his briefcase. It could be another teacher’s room, but an English teacher seems most likely.

The brothers together

I was engaged by the film but there is something about its presentation that I couldn’t quite clue into. I think I liked the story about Conrad the most and I felt it worked better than those concerning Gene and Jonah. I usually respond to Jesse Eisenberg’s performances but I did find Jonah to be an odd character. I don’t think his strange hairstyles helped but it his interactions with Conrad, which we might expect to be difficult, didn’t work for me at all. According to IMDb the budget for the film was around $11 million. I wonder if this is just an American production mark-up on a standard European budget for a film that seems to have been made mainly around the small town of Nyack in the Hudson Valley north of New York. Did Trier have to pay more for Huppert, Byrne and Eisenberg? Was it really necessary to cast Huppert as the photojournalist? I’m always happy to see her in any role but here she is inevitably more like an iconic portrait or a memory on tape. Would a less well-known face make for a different kind of memory? But perhaps I’m arguing for a different film. This one has introduced me to Joachim Trier and I enjoyed it enough to look forward to watching his latest film and perhaps exploring some of his other early work also on MUBI.

¡Viva! 28 #7: Clara Sola (Sweden-Costa Rica-Belgium-Germany-France-US 2021)

My final post from ¡Viva! 28 is another début feature, another film made by a creative team led by women in key roles – and it’s a cracker, one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Writer-director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén was born in Sweden. Her mother is from Costa Rica and her father from Uruguay. Nathalie went to Costa Rica as a child and returned to Sweden to go to university. (See this interview on Cineuropa) She has benefited from various film festival projects because her short films attracted critical attention. Clara Sola screened in the Director’s Fortnight programme at Cannes in 2021. I’m not sure I have seen a Costa Rican film before. I know little about the country, only that it has a reputation as a stable democracy, with good education and healthcare and has become known for eco-tourism.

Clara is the centre of attention at religious festivals

Clara Sola is a narrative in which a woman has been recognised in a small, tight-knit community as having powers which bring her close to the Virgin Mary. It is believed that she can heal the sick and she becomes an important figure in religious festivals and community events. In such cases the woman is usually young and in danger of being exploited. In this case, however, Clara is older at around 40 and appears to have some form of social difficulty, perhaps she is somewhere on the autistic spectrum? She is under the control of her mother, Fresia, who she lives with alongside her niece in a house in the wooded mountains. The three women also have relatives in the nearest village. The narrative disruption which allows the development of a dramatic situation is linked to Clara’s niece Maria who is approaching her fifteenth birthday or quinceañera, a festival occasion which marks the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Maria’s excitement is heightened by the presence of Santiago a young man who comes on most days to hire the white mare Yuca, needed as part of tourist activities in the mountains. Clara has a close attachment to Yuca and to the local flora and fauna in general. She is therefore unhappy that Yuca is taken away, but she too is interested in Santiago, an attractive young man who befriends her and teaches her new things.

Clara with Yuca

Maria’s emergence into a sexual being and her growing friendship with Santiago are followed by Clara who is slowly awakened to her own sexuality – something her controlling mother has always been anxious to curtail. Fresia goes as far as denying Clara an operation to correct a spinal deformity that affects Clara’s posture and her gait. She wants Clara kept ‘pure’, just as she was delivered by God. There is one scene involving chilli juice which will cause a wince or two for anyone familiar with preparing and cooking chillies, ouch! This is a film with not much in the way of ‘back stories’ so the audience is required to take the situation as it stands instead of wondering why this is happening to Clara now rather than twenty or more years earlier. But perhaps Clara’s late ‘awakening’ signifies her mother’s fierce control developed by a conservative religious belief?

Natalie Álvarez Mesén and her co-writer María Camila Arias (who is Colombian and co-wrote Birds of Passage, Colombia 2018) screened in ¡Viva! 25) mix several approaches to create a distinctive style. In several ways the narrative might appear to be heading for melodrama territory and the ‘return of the repressed’ as Clara begins to discover her sexuality. Instead, however, the narrative conclusion is reached almost as a calm revelation, involving magic realism. I found the ending was appropriate and somehow very satisfying.

Director Natalie Álvarez Mesén with Wendy Chinchilla Araya as Clara

The ideas in the script work because of the performances by the principals, all of whom are non-professionals as far as I am aware. Wendy Chinchilla Araya who plays Clara is a dancer. She must have used her knowledge of her body and control over her movements to create the awkward walk of the character. Daniel Castañeda Rincón as Santiago conveys the remarkably patient and sensitive young man very well and both Ana Julia Porras Espinoza as Maria and Flor María Vargas Chavez as Fresia are impressive. Performances by non-professionals require careful direction and this feels like a very assured début film. It is enhanced by the camerawork of Sophie Winqvist who is able to use big close-ups and beautiful long shot compositions in a CinemaScope ratio to place Clara in her environment and close to the flora and fauna she feels part of – she knows the secret names of animals. I think that the credits suggest that much of the footage was shot in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica, a region that includes the ‘Cloud Rainforest’. Beware, you’ll probably want to visit Costa Rica after watching the film.

Clara in the blue dress she wanted strikes out on her own

The good news is that Clara Sola is coming to the UK, having been acquired by Peccadillo Pictures with a possible release date of September 2022. I heartily recommend it. Do try to see it on a big screen if you can.