This film opened the Cannes Film Festival Critics Week in 2017. It also received scripting support from the Sundance Festival. It has finally found its way into UK distribution via Altitude and I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to see it. The festival links suggest an art film, but this is also a film that draws on popular film genres such as romance, horror and fantasy. Inevitably, it’s the kind of film that has received rave reviews and also some very negative ones – but here’s why it is definitely worth seeing.
The starting point for writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza was a terrible event in 1993 which had an impact on most Sicilians. It involved the Mafia and led to much soul-searching across the population. But instead of attempting to tell the story in a realist, procedural manner, the filmmakers (from Palermo) decided to create a form of fantasy/ghost story because that seemed to be a more appropriate way of representing the impact of the events.
The narrative begins as children leave the elementary school in a village in the hills of Central Sicily. A rather beautiful young boy wanders into the woods and is followed by a girl from his class. She hides behind a tree watching him playing with a large colourful butterfly which rests on his hand. Around the girl’s feet a creature is snuffling, a mustelid of some kind (mink, pine marten?). Whatever it is, this is an animal usually very wary of humans. We seem to be in a fantasy situation. A little later the girl is frightened by an angry black dog. Hansel and Gretel in the woods? We will eventually discover that these thirteen year-olds are Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) and Luna (Julia Jedlikowska). Their day ends when Giuseppe, after showing his show-jumping skills on his horse at a remote stables, suddenly disappears. As Luna sits on a rock gazing into the distance, waiting for Giuseppe to emerge from the stables, we see behind her and slightly out of focus what appears to be a police car taking the boy away. When Luna goes to his house, she can’t find any reason why Giuseppe has disappeared.
I won’t spoil the narrative development. I’ll only note that while the rest of the village, including Luna’s parents and the village school, remain silent about the disappearance, Luna and her friend Loredana are determined to find him. Luna is a highly intelligent girl, a talented artist and someone who has the ability to investigate the disappearance in her dreams/nightmares as much as in her waking hours. In the still above she creates what might be an image from her dreams. The drawing reminded me of a recent Spanish-British film, A Monster Calls (Spain-UK-US 2016), though in Luna’s case she wants to rescue Giuseppe from his captors and not summon them. The director of A Monster Calls is J. A. Bayona, whose career took off with promotion by Guillermo del Toro and it is del Toro who is arguably the key reference here with the young girl, the fairy underworld and the all too human horrors of Spanish fascism in Pan’s Labyrinth (Spain-Mexico 2006). There are a number of generic ‘fairy tale’ touches in Sicilian Ghost Story with a pet owl, a falcon and Luna’s rather grim mother (the Swiss actor Sabine Timoteo). One reviewer has described the overall look of the film as ‘gothic and oneiric’ [dreamlike], which feels like a good call. Luna’s red coat (and red jumper) have also been seen as a nod to Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now set in Venice – but ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ seems a better bet.
Luna’s searches, whether ‘real’ or dreamlike are accompanied by winds and especially by underwater scenes in a nearby lake. I thought the cinematography by Luca Bigazzi was excellent – and so it should be since he has been responsible for the look of many well-known Italian films by Paulo Sorrentino and other celebrated directors. Music and sound design is important too with a variety of sound effects enhancing the dreamlike qualities of Luna’s search. I’ve noted that there have been criticisms of the film. Some have complained that the dividing line between reality and fantasy is never clear, but that seems an odd argument since it is presumably the point of the narrative that the experience of the disappearance and its aftermath is difficult to understand and represent as a real event. The real events took place in 1993-5 but the film doesn’t mark this too carefully and it probably makes mistakes in presenting the period settings as eagle-eyed audiences have noted. I suspect the film’s ending will also cause problems for some audiences, but not for me. Overall I found the film to be an imaginative attempt to deal with a major social issue in ways which allowed me to think differently about how communities and individuals within them might respond to terrible events.
This is a tough film which disturbs but which has at its centre an extraordinary performance from Julia Jedlikowska in her first role. The narrative is fuelled by the determination of a single character to keep searching despite the collective hostility of an entire community, most of whose members are too frightened to take action themselves. Luna’s friend Loredana is a reliable friend but without Luna’s devotion to Giuseppe, she will eventually find that time will heal. But I’m wondering what will happen to Luna.
There is an interesting review of the film here.
This year celebrating women in cinema has many anniversaries to promote. One of the most important is the 200th anniversary of the writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstencraft Shelley. This film was surely conceived as a celebration of the bi-centenary. I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been more of a promotional push for it. Or perhaps there has – perhaps in women’s magazines and websites/social media? It’s certainly an interesting second feature for director Haifaa Al-Mansour, following Wadjda in 2013, especially as 2018 is the year in which Saudi women have got the legal right to apply for a driving licence for the first time and cinemas are finally being opened in the Kingdom. Next year is the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, which is commemorated in Mike Leigh’s new film and which brings us to Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary’s husband and a radical poet who wrote a long poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ after hearing about the massacre. His inspirational words “Ye are many – they are few”, are still quoted today. Unfortunately, Peterloo and other events such as the Napoleonic Wars are not mentioned in the film, but it’s necessary to be aware of Percy’s radicalism alongside Mary’s amazing creativity. Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women), died a few days after her daughter was born and her story hangs heavy over Mary.
This is an independent film with funding from three countries. In practical terms, some of location work was in Luxembourg and much of the studio work and post-production was in Ireland. The BFI had a lesser role I suppose but the cast is primarily British apart from Elle Fanning as Mary. The history of the production begins with debutant Australian screenwriter Emma Jensen who received funding support from Screen NSW and Screen Australia and whose agent sold the project to an American producer, who in turn attached Al-Mansour (who had studied in Sydney). Elle Fanning was cast early and then HanWay (the UK company led by Jeremy Thomas) took over as producer and international sales agent.
What kind of costume/heritage/historical biopic (as well as ‘romance’) does Mary Shelley turn out to be? It could be one of those traditional Hollywood studio biopics – except this isn’t a studio pic as such. Could it be one of those BBC-style costume pics or something more radical and modernist? For me, Elle Fanning does rather push it towards Hollywood, though the overall look and feel of the film make it appear more realist in the mode of BBC adaptations of 19th century novels. As Mary, Fanning is perhaps too tall, too healthy and too attractive. There is nothing wrong with her performance, but she stands out as a ‘star actor’. I’m assuming that the initial producer thought getting her on board would make finding financial backing easier and that’s probably correct. I am not criticising Ms Fanning who is undoubtedly a talented actor, but there are many young British actors – Florence Pugh for instance – who might have been considered. As it is, Pugh’s co-star in The Falling (UK 2014), Maisie Williams, is rather wasted in a minor role in Mary Shelley – her status as a star of Game of Thrones came too late perhaps? I think that one possible pointer to what kind of film Mary Shelley might have become is offered by Jane Campion’s film Bright Star (France-Australia-UK 2009) about the young John Keats and Fanny Brawne, a similar pairing of two ‘creative’ young lovers at roughly the same ‘moment’ in history as Mary and Percy. It’s an unfair comparison because Jane Campion, Ben Whishart and Abbie Cornish have more experience. It’s interesting though because both films originated in Australia. Campion chose a title that didn’t immediately suggest the costume biopic and Mary Shelley in fact began with the title A Storm In the Stars – there are at least two scenes in the film in which gazing at the night sky features prominently.
If Bright Star was set in rural Hampstead with flowers and butterflies and cottage gardens, Mary Shelley is signed as ‘gothic romance’ from the get-go. The beginnings of the industrial age are in the background (and so is the not-mentioned war). The key London locations are dark and gloomy St. Pancras and upper-class Bloomsbury, the former partly a studio construction, the latter a Dublin street? The film’s plot gives no indication of specific dates. I found this odd since these were two ‘real lives’ lived at a time when sudden death was not unusual. But perhaps it is just me who wants the clear historical context? As far as I can work out, the narrative begins in 1813, Mary meets Percy in 1814. In 1816 they spend the summer by Lake Geneva with Byron and Polidori and the short story idea for Frankenstein is first developed. The novel is published in 1818 and the narrative ends around 1819.
The film is presented as a romance and as an introduction to the origins of the Frankenstein story – thus the gothic romance. It should be a very dark and passionate story – and a very sexy one. I’m trying to imagine the production meetings and the arguments about how much to ‘push’ the more salacious possibilities of the story and how important a sense of repression/restraiint might be. Although I enjoyed the film I do think it feels rather stifled in its attempts to reach its potential. The script is in tune with the current campaigns around ‘MeToo’ and sexual abuse and with the suppression of the true authors (Mary and Polidori) of stories passed off as the work of Shelley and Byron. That’s all fine but it loses some of its impact when Shelley (Douglas Booth) and Byron (Tom Sturridge) are poorly developed characters with no real substance. They came across to me like a pair of public school boys – privileged and cruel but not displaying any real talent. (By contrast, Stephen Dillane as Godwin, Mary’s father, seems just right.) The whole Lake Geneva sequence cried out for something like the appearance of Elsa Lanchester as Mary in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. 1816 was the ‘The Year Without a Summer’ in which crops failed and the skies were dark with rain – I don’t think enough of this is made in the film. I’m guessing that the budget limitations were partly to blame. Overall though I think the narrative just doesn’t have enough ‘passion’ and ‘wildness’, the key features of Romanticism.
Director Jacques Becker (1906-1960) was at his peak as a filmmaker in the late 1940s and 1950s, having spent much of the 1930s as an assistant to Jean Renoir. In the late 1940s and early 50s he directed a series of ‘social comedies’. Édouard et Caroline is one of these. The denouncement of the so-called ‘Quality Cinema’ or the ‘Cinéma du Papa’ (as François Truffaut called it) by the critics of Cahiers du cinéma spared Becker’s work. In her introduction to this film on the Studio Canal DVD, Professor Ginette Vincendeau describes Becker as being ‘in between’ the reviled quality film directors and la nouvelle vague directors. This was partly because of Becker’s association with Renoir and partly because the young critics recognised both the skill involved in Becker’s work and the stamp of a ‘personal vision’ similar to that which the Cahiers critics celebrated in the work of Hollywood directors such as a Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock.
Édouard et Caroline is almost like a theatrical stage production in that all the action takes place in two contrasting flats/apartments in central Paris (but in different arrondissements?) with only an opening and closing street shot and a few glimpses of staircases. Yet it is also highly cinematic with Robert Lefebvre’s fluidly roving camera. The dialogue and collaboration on the script is the responsibility of Annette Wademant who went on to also wrote significant films for Max Ophüls. She was much younger than Becker and this might have aided the sense of vitality in the interchanges between the central couple. With the camera movement and dialogue, the editing by Marguerite Renoir also helped keep the narrative moving. Because Becker was considered too ‘difficult’ and demanding and because the script in this case was so sparse, he had difficulty finding backers. Consequently the film had a small budget and a strict 30 day shooting schedule with penalties for over-runs.
The titular characters are a young woman from a wealthy family (played by Ann Vernon) recently married to a young man from a poorer background (Daniel Gélin) who is a talented (and properly trained) pianist. They have little money and are living in a one room flat. All the action takes place over a few hours on the night when they have been invited to a party given by Caroline’s wealthy and well-connected Uncle Claude (Jean Galland). He has rented a grand piano and offered Édouard the chance to play for his special guests, some of whom may be able to help him get work and build a career. But Édouard is nervous about the opportunity and feels uncomfortable at the prospect of mixing with the haute bourgeoisie. Claude’s son Alain (Jacques Francis) presents another irritation with his snobbery towards Édouard and designs on his attractive cousin Caroline.
In genre terms, this film mixes elements from Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s with the sharp social observation of Jean Renoir and the sophisticated comedy of a Billy Wilder. As the dreaded party developed in Claude’s salon, I also caught a whiff of later Buñuel (Exterminating Angel (Mexico 1962)). Others have suggested the comedies of Lubitsch and Preston Sturges. I don’t mean to suggest that the film is a mish-mash of styles. Instead it is a coherent social comedy with some darker moments and a developing satire of wealthy Parisians. The plot is simple but the characterisation is strong. The young married couple, brilliantly played by Vernon and Gélin, clearly love each other but the social stress of the party creates divisions between them that get blown up to dramatic proportions. I haven’t mentioned the careful set dressing and costume design as part of the mise en scène. Costume offers the twin drivers of the narrative. Edouard has that familiar split reaction to entering ‘high society’. He despises the flummery of evening dress but feels he must have the correct attire or people will look down on him. The whole thing is disturbing him and when he can’t find his waistcoat, he gets angry. Has Caroline misplaced it? She has her own problem. She feels a different version of the same unease, thinking her pretty dress is now out of fashion and then attacking it with a pair of scissors to make it more like a current couture outfit. Becker and Wademant are able to use these two concerns to drive a wedge between the couple and to disrupt the party and Édouard’s eventual piano playing.
I’d like to say more about the music Édouard does actually play (or rather ‘act’) since a professional musician’s hands double for him. I’m not knowledgeable enough about classical music to comment (I believe it is Chopin) but I do know that Becker himself was a jazz fan and he uses musical taste as one of his weapons in skewering the wealthy patrons here. They listen to Édouard’s playing politely and applaud appropriately but later we see them dancing enthusiastically to the kind of dance music Édouard (and Becker) despise. To add further indignity Becker introduces an American played by William Tubbs. Tubbs was an actor in several French and Italian films in this period. Here he speaks French with a terrible accent but proves to be much more perceptive about Edouard’s talent than the others.
I enjoyed this film very much, particularly the playing of the two leads and the fluidity and choreography of the camera work and direction. The DVD (I think there is also a Blu-ray) has two other extras as well as Ginette Vincendeau’s excellent introduction. One is a long and detailed interview with Annette Wademant, Ann Vernon and Daniel Gélin much later from French TV. The interview, full of details about the production was part of a TV broadcast of the film. What a marvellous idea. Why have we never had such detailed coverage of film in the UK? Finally there is an interview with Becker himself in which he talks about his love of jazz and discusses his satire on those who don’t understand the music. I was prompted to watch the film after watching Bertrand Tavernier’s A Journey Through French Cinema (France 2016). Tavernier tells us that the first film he remembers seeing as a child was by Becker and that several years later as a teenager in the 1950s he began to realise that Becker was one of the greatest French directors. Tavernier’s analysis of Becker’s work is fascinating and has encouraged me to search out more of Becker’s work. He emphasises that Becker was one of the first French male directors to present women as central characters in their own write – something Ginette also discusses, suggesting that Édouard et Caroline suffered in the eyes of critics, partly because its mix of comedy and romance was taken less seriously than ‘masculine’ genre films.
Here’s a very short trail for the film from French TV which allows you to meet William Tubbs and to see Caroline’s dress after her modifications:
Here’s a film that’s lovely to look at and which features an ear-worm song cleverly stitched into the score by Alfred Newman. But in some ways it’s the production itself and the stories behind the script which make it a significant film. Let’s take the production first. It was released in August 1955 as one of the early Fox ‘CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color’ films. At this point, ‘Scope prints were still being released in their original 2.55:1 aspect ratio with a separate stereo soundtrack. The film must have looked and sounded fantastic – as long as you were in a big and refurbished Fox theatre. Director Henry King was nearly 70 when the film was released. He was arguably the most reliable director at 20th Century Fox, responsible for major features for nearly the whole of the studio period and completing over 100 films in his long career. King’s forte was literary adaptations but as soon as he finished work on this film, he started on Carousel (1956).
Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is indeed a literary adaptation of the novel of the same title (but with British spelling) by Han Suyin. It is set in Hong in 1949 as the Chinese Civil War is coming to an end and the Korean War is about to begin. One of the most striking aspects of the production is that much of the film was shot on location in Hong Kong, offering some amazing coverage of the city, its waterfront and the hills above. The shooting of these scenes was the responsibility of Otto Lang who appears to have worked as a 2nd-unit director on several Fox productions. As far as I’m aware Leon Shamroy, like King, a Fox stalwart throughout the studio period, shot the whole film including the Hong Kong and California sequences (and the studio-set material). One of the concerns about early ‘Scope was the suggestion that the need for more light by the anamorphic lens would reduce the depth of field available and that the difficulties of composition would mean a reliance on relatively static medium shots. In this film Shamroy seems to deploy many long shots on the Hong Kong locations and even to some extent in the studio interiors. This is what makes the film so spectacular and a perfect advertisement for what ‘Scope could do. In many scenes he composes using the full width of the screen and includes several charcters in medium long shot (MLS).
The story is relatively simple. Han Suyin is a doctor specialising in paediatric medicine in a Hong Kong hospital. She’s a widow with an extended family in Chungking. She meets and falls in love with Mark Elliott, an American war correspondent. He is married but separated from his wife who lives in Singapore. Mark struggles to get a divorce and Suyin goes back to her family to get their approval for remarriage. With war still in China and coming to Korea, Mark could be sent to cover action at any point. Though they love each other Mark and Suyin know that because she is ‘Eurasian’ (that’s the term used in the film’ for a person with a European and an Asian parent) they are likely to face prejudice whether they are in East or West. Suyin faces prejudice at home in Chungking and in Hong Kong from the racist wife of the hospital’s funder.
The story behind the script is that it is highly auto-biographical. Surprisingly though, Han Suyin (1916-2012) became a supporter of the People’s Republic of China, even though her first husband died in 1947 fighting for the Nationalist Kuomintang. In reality she fell in love with an Australian journalist rather than an American. Presumably she still had some control over the material and it’s interesting to find a Cold War film (with memories of Korea only a few years earlier) in which the Chinese CP is not completely denounced. Suyin’s family in Chungking reming me a little of the household in Springtime in a Small Town (China 1948 and 2002) – much larger, but clearly affluent despite the Civil War. In the hospital in Hong Kong, one of the senior doctors who admires Suyin urges her to return to China and offer her services to the new government. The real Han Suyin did return to China and also later wrote a novel in support of the Chinese-led rebellion against colonial rule in Malaya (she had then married a British officer in Malaya).
The casting decisions on this production will prompt comment today. William Holden plays Mark Elliott and he’s always reliable actor. He seems to have caused a stir in Hong Kong since the fandom that he provoked is a feature of the classic Hong Kong film Comrades: Almost a Love Story (HK 1996) in which Aunt Rosie one of the older female characters claims to have spent the day with Holden in his hotel during the shoot of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. The same actor who plays Aunt Rosie (Irene Tsu) supposedly had an uncredited part in William Holden’s other (British) picture made in Hong Kong, The World of Suzie Wong (1961). The controversial casting might now be seen as Jennifer Jones to play Han Suyin. As a bi-racial character I’m not sure how that casting would be seen today. Is it a case of ‘yellow-face’ casting – a Caucasian actor playing a bi-racial character? Chinese actors, including Chinese-American actors were severely under-represented in Studio Hollywood films. Jennifer Jones had form in this regard. In 1946 she starred opposite Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotten in (her husband) David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (popularly known as ‘Lust in the Dust’) in which she played a bi-racial character as a ‘mestiza‘ – with Caucasian and Native-American parents. Jennifer Jones is convincingly made-up and has the poise to carry the costumes as Han Suyin – but of course that in no way detracts from the arguments about how such casting decisions should be undertaken today. Both Jones and Holden are convincing in their roles and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a romance well worth watching.
In 1937 Jessie Matthews was one of the most popular stars in British cinema. Her musicals/romantic comedies had started to build a profile in North America where she was known as ‘The Dancing Divinity’. Stories persisted about a possible move to the US and a partnership with Fred Astaire. That possibility is one of the potential elements of this film directed by her husband Sonnie Hale. Hale had taken over directing his wife’s films from Victor Saville who had moved from Gaumont-British to work for Alexander Korda at Denham. Saville did go to Hollywood eventually.
Compared to their Hollywood equivalents, the musicals made at G-B’s Lime Grove studios in Shepherd’s Bush were low-budget affairs but didn’t lack creativity. Head Over Heels is designed by the great Alfred Junge and photographed by Glen MacWilliams, a Hollywood cinematographer who had already shot three previous Matthews movies. Head Over Heels is an adaptation of a French play, Pierre ou Jack, by Francis de Croisset whose plays Arsene Lupin and A Woman’s Face were adapted more than once and became Hollywood ‘A’ pictures.
The plot is quite simple. Jeanne Colbert (Jessie Matthews) is a nightclub entertainer in Paris and shopping in the market one day she meets Pierre (Robert Flemyng), a slightly eccentric character (who seems more English than French). Pierre is an inventor and earns a living as a sound engineer in a radio station. He falls immediately in love with Jeanne but doesn’t know how to woo her. When he visits the club where she sings and dances, he sees that she is quite taken with her partner Marcel (Louis Borell) and despairs. Marcel is a ‘cad’ who drops Jeanne when a Hollywood glamour queen Norma Langtry (Whitney Bourne) appears and invites him to America. Pierre sees his chance and eventually gets Jeanne a job in the radio studio but Marcel is destined to return and a struggle between the two men over Jeanne is inevitable.
The radio angle of the film is very interesting. During the 1930s radio was fast becoming the major medium of entertainment for the mass audience. In the UK it was a BBC monopoly and the Director-General John Reith had firm control over its broadcasting policy. Already in the 1930s many Brits turned to continental radio stations for popular music, including Radio Luxembourg which broadcast in English and featured sponsorship of programming like American radio. Pierre sells the idea of Jeanne as ‘The Woman in Blue’ to his radio bosses. She sings advertising jingles and becomes a star. The filmmakers present this in a montage of radio-related images which I found striking. Another interesting technique is the superimposition of Jeanne’s face over footage of Pierre’s hopeless trudging around the nighttime Paris streets in search of her after a break-up. Techniques like this inject some visual excitement into a film which is otherwise limited to three main locations – the nightclub, the radio studio and the dingy apartment Pierre shares with his friend Matty. The nightclub with its outdoor garden for performances is the setting for the dancing in the film, though there is less than in most musicals. There are a number of notable songs by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, the best of which is ‘There’s That Look in Your Eyes Again’. All the songs are sung by Ms Matthews.
If you’ve never seen Jessie Matthews before, you may be surprised by her cut-glass accent which now sounds way over the top. The irony is that Jessie was a working-class girl from Berwick Street, famous for its fruit and veg market in Soho. She was the seventh of eleven children and a genuine Cockney who felt compelled to change her accent dramatically to suit the middle-class voices of 1930s British stage and cinema screen. Her forced identity shift is the mirror opposite of the middle-class young women who had to find voices to play working-class girls. Why did she do it? Possibly because she was headed for the London stage while her musical rival (as a singer only) Gracie Fields didn’t suffer from keeping her Lancashire accent.
In this film the focus is on Jessie as actor and singer and she accomplishes both well. Her Jeanne is a rounded figure, assertive and assured but also vulnerable. But she certainly isn’t prepared to put up with nonsense and her fightback in the too brief final reel is very enjoyable. Part of Jeanne’s trouble is that by breaking her contract (because of the action of Marcel) on two occasions she is barred from working in Paris for three months each time which seems a heavy penalty. All film actors were treated badly by studios and impresarios but independent women seemed to suffer more than most.
It’s a long time since I read a biography of Ms Matthews but her marriage to the comedian Sonnie Hale was difficult and at this stage of her career she began to experience stress and various problems that would affect her career. Hale pressurised her and she wasn’t convinced of his directorial qualities. Some of the ideas discussed above may have come from the experienced crew rather than Hale. I must do some more research before any other Matthews posts. Head Over Heels is on Volume 3 of The Jessie Matthews Revue DVD from Network.
In the clip below Jeanne sings “Head Over Heels’ in her act until she sees her partner Marcel betraying her with the Hollywood star.
This is the first offering in Éric Rohmer’s ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ series of six films in the 1980s. There is a second title for the film, ‘On ne saurait penser à rien’. I find French quite difficult to translate and presumably this refers to the proverb. Wikipedia suggests, ‘It is impossible to think about nothing’ and this is certainly expressed in one of the film’s long dialogue exchanges. Rohmer’s films often revolve around triangles of relationships in which one character chooses between two possible lovers. Here ‘the aviator’ Christian is part of a triangle seemingly pivoting on Anne, a young office worker in her her mid-twenties living in a tiny apartment in Central Paris. Her current boyfriend is François, a 20 year-old student who works occasional night shifts in a mail sorting office to finance his studies. Early one morning, attempting to deliver a note to Anne before she wakes, he is surprised to see her leaving her apartment block with Christian. Later that day, having met Anne at lunchtime, François sees Christian with another woman and decides to follow the couple. His amateur sleuthing leads him into an encounter with Lucie, a bubbly 15 year-old student attempting to do her German language revision outdoors. After a while we realise that there is a second triangle which pivots on François who spends most of the film in dialogue with Anne, Lucie and then Anne again. Christian is in effect a MacGuffin – a character whose importance is in what he prompts as action in other characters. This is the case with François but less so with Anne.
In these later films Rohmer often uses less well-known or non-professional actors. That’s certainly true for the lead here. Philippe Marlaud as François had only appeared in one film before, but that was for Maurice Pialat, one of the major directors of the 1980s, in a leading role. Tragically Marlaud died from burns received in a campsite fire shortly after the film was released. Some of the reviewers describe him as ‘plain’ but I think he looks fine and is very good in the part. Marie Rivière (Anne) and Mathieu Carrière (Christian) are still working as actors with long careers. Rivière worked again with Rohmer and Carrière, born in Germany has worked extensively in both German and French industries. Anne-Laure Meury (Lucie) is the real mystery. She was active in TV and cinema from 1975 to 1989 after which time IMDb has no more entries. She too worked again for Rohmer. The two inexperienced actors stole the show for me. Anne-Laure Meury is so lively and mischievous. I’ve rarely seen an actor make such an impression. Marie Rivière has the most difficult role as Anne. She is terribly thin and Rohmer emphasises this by having her dressed in only a camisole and bikini style knickers (she has been resting in bed) when François arrives at her apartment the second time (see image below). She then has a long conversation with him, constantly covering and exposing herself in a very animated way. If it seems unfair to comment on costume and body movements, bear in mind that Rohmer’s camera style (Bernard Lutic is the cinematographer) tends to frame long dialogues as two shots or if shooting shot/reverse shot, still avoids close-ups to show a character almost in long-shot (i.e. with the whole body in shot). Rivière became one of Rohmer’s ‘stock company’ actors, so she was presumably happy with the scenes (though given all the #MeToo comments recently we can’t be sure).
Rohmer’s style is unique, though some critics have tried to link it to the later style of Richard Linklater’s trilogy of films about the meeting of characters played by Julie Delpy ad Ethan Hawke. I can see that, but I think Linklater imbues his narratives with more dramatic tension and also plays with his stars’ screen presence. From the several reviews of The Aviator’s Wife that I’ve seen I would agree with one who makes a reference to Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, Baisers volés (1968) and Domicile conjugal (1970). I find myself identifying with François who is treated very badly by Anne and teased in a friendly way by Lucie. As with Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel the women are dominant characters and François is unsure and sometimes bungling in his attempt to engage with them. Anne seems like a rather cruel creation by Rohmer, though if we consider her situation and her view on life, it isn’t all that unreasonable. In many ways she is the most modern character. By contrast, Lucie is a young man’s dream – bright, bubbly and fun. She’s very attractive and seemingly full of energy and initiative. On the other hand, her general demeanour and maturity seem unusual for a 15 year-old, so she is plausibly a ‘romantic’ creation.
Rohmer, in retrospect, seems ‘out of time’ in the French cinema of the 1980s. I wonder what contemporary young audiences would make of his stories of love and romance set in the context of ‘Comedies and Proverbs’. Would they find them unbearably slow? Would they be baffled by a world which revolves around postcards and public telephones and notes pushed under a door? I suspect that rather than ‘out of time’, Rohmer’s tales are timeless. This one is currently on MUBI. I have a couple more on disc/tape somewhere, perhaps I’ll go back to them. If nothing else, his films offer an almost documentary take on Parisian streets, buses and the Metro. The trailer below (no subs) gives an idea of how the two stills above were worked into scenes.
Every Claire Denis film offers something new – whether in terms of narrative structure, narration, representations of characters, places or social issues. Let the Sunshine In, which screened at Cannes last year, was ‘slipped in’ between other projects. I’m drawing here on an interview in the English language Press Pack for the film. Denis and her usual collaborator, the cinematographer Agnès Godard, worked on a short text by screenwriter Christine Angot, that Denis had seen ‘read’ by actors she knew, to produce a 45 minute film during a year-long workshop at the Fresnoy National Studio of the Arts. When Denis was then asked by producer Olivier Delbosc if she would become one of a group of directors making a compendium film based on Roland Barthes’ 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, she remembered the short film and contacted Angot. They decided to make their own feature, ditching all of Barthes except for the word and the concept of ‘Agony’. They must have made an impressive pitch because Delbosc agreed to produce their film.
Denis and Angot decided to draw on their own experiences in creating the film (so some of the men are played by fellow directors), but they knew that they needed a unique actor to perform the central role of the woman who searches for but never quite finds love.
. . . we realised it had to be Juliette. Juliette Binoche stood out to us as the ideal vessel for the role of Isabelle. The screenplay called for a creamy, voluptuous and desirable feminine body: a woman whose face and body are beautiful, and whose demeanour in no way conveys defeat. Someone for whom in love battles, victory is still possible, without, however, ever assuming that the outcome is certain.
There is a tease here, naming this character ‘Isabelle’ and it’s fun to ponder how different the film would be with Huppert (riveting lead performer in White Material for Denis) rather than Binoche. But this character is definitely Binoche presented exactly as Denis described. Denis also chose very specific costumes for her such as the mini-skirt and thigh-high boots, the leather jacket and deep V-neck tops. Juliette Binoche looks stunning and as Ginette Vincendeau comments in Sight and Sound, May 2018, “she is, as ever, a major reason to see the film”. So too is the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu at the end of the film. But, apart from La Binoche and Le Depardieu, does the rest of it make any sense? A quick glance at IMDb will reveal quite a few 1/10s and “Worst film ever” comments.
Isabelle is an attractive artist in her 50s, estranged from her husband François (but not averse to the occasional tumble with him) and seemingly not too concerned that her 10 year-old daughter stays mainly with her father. When we first meet Isabelle, she’s in bed with a banker and later she beds a younger actor and then, on a trip to an arts festival, a man she meets in a bar. She flirts with others and may yet end up with the gargantuan Depardieu whose ridiculous patter as a mystic is clearly designed to entice her (though she may well yet end up with the one of the few charming men in the film, played by Denis regular Alex Descas). I’ve just outlined the entire plot.
The point of the film, presumably, is to be found in these various encounters and what they tell us about how Isabelle seeks her idea of love. This search certainly does seem to create ‘agony’ for Isabelle and possibly for us. Like many Denis films Let the Sunshine In refuses easy identification as a specific genre film or even a mix of genres. A renowned French critic like Ginette Vincendeau is reduced to wondering if it is a kind of romantic comedy or ‘woman’s picture’. Vincendeau takes a wrong turn, I think, by querying the lack of elements of social realism (Isabelle’s lack of concern about her daughter, only the briefest glimpse of her working life as an artist) and concludes that the film ‘s location work, which she takes to be a nod towards the original New Wave auteur productions on the streets of Paris, seems to unconsciously juxtapose the obsessions of the wealthy with the everyday lives of the mass of Parisians. I do agree with Ginette Vincendeau that there doesn’t seem to be a feminist agenda in this work by a quartet of experienced and accomplished women in French cinema (director, writer, cinematographer and star). Isabelle has only two meaningful discussions with other women and in both cases it’s about men so there is no chance the film will pas the Bechdel test. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. The whole #MeToo campaign has tended to fare less well in France where many powerful women in film and TV tend to react against easy assumptions of what it means to be a feminist. On the other hand, I would argue that there are more women in leading creative roles, especially as directors in France. I can’t see Claire Denis ever taking any shit from anyone.
Vincendeau argues the film isn’t a romcom (but could the rare sub-genre of the ‘intellectual romcom). She also comments that if it is any way a ‘woman’s film’, it’s a very French version of such a film. At times I did shake my head and wonder what was going on, but I also laughed out loud a few times and behind me in the cinema were female laughs that were much louder. The lack of realism or of conventional motivation for action didn’t bother me too much once I’d realised it wasn’t necessarily meant to feature. I think you could argue that the film is a satire on an echelon of men in the Parisian arts community (and the business community) – and its also a critical look at Isabelle herself. In a key sequence Isabelle is berated by a gallerist for taking up with a man who is not from her mileu – he’s too working-class (I must have missed the clues to his class position). What Isabelle does next is unforgivable – but perhaps it is honest? Two scenes involve similar exchanges between characters in which they skirt round the central thing they want to say. It becomes so annoying that you want to march onto the set and give them a slap. Just get on with it! But again, this is what conversations are often like. The script is mainly dialogue and it’s very clever.
When Alex Descas appeared, late in the film, my heart lifted. Two scenes that followed linked via Descas to the Denis film in which he was a lead actor, 35 rhums (France 2008). At one point a long shot show Isabelle close to a major Paris station with its many railtracks and in another she dances in a bar to the fabulous Etta James singing ‘At Last’. Again, I’m not sure what to make of this but I’m sure other Denis-watchers will have noted them.
I f you are wondering about the title and the way it is translated literally on prints for English-language audiences as in the poster above, it comes from the Depardieu speech at the end of the film. He urges Isabelle to ‘open’ (and uses the English world). I think he then uses the (French) title with the meaning that she will open herself to a sunlit interior. I may have got that wrong because Denis decided on a strange strategy in which the credits rolled down the right side of the screen as Depardieu gave his long mesmeric speech in close-up. Reading the credits and the subtitles and trying to focus on that enormous head and shoulders was virtually impossible. Nice font though and by the way the film is presented in 1.66:1, giving more emphasis to the talking heads. I should watch this film again. I rarely ‘get’ a Claire Denis film first time round. Here’s a clip from the film:
This film was screened in Bradford as part of the UK’s ‘China Film Week’. Bradford was the first UNESCO ‘City of Film’ and is now linked to the similar UNESCO City of Film in Qingdao. The screening was introduced by David Wilson, Director Bradford City of Film and then by the film’s writer Li Chunli. I wasn’t sure what to expect but after watching it, I think When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair was in some ways the right choice, but in other ways an unfortunate choice.
Ms Li told us that this was a ‘family film’. It was advertised as a comedy and it came across as a family melodrama with a strong comedy element. I’m not sure why a film from 2014 should be chosen, but the film’s theme is certainly contemporary and, perhaps surprisingly, it is shared with Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart (China-Japan-France 2015) and has a long history going back to Clara Law’s Farewell China (HK 1990) and earlier. I’m referring to the aspiration of many middle-class Chinese families to emigrate to the ‘West’ for various reasons – and in particular to think about taking their children (or more likely ‘child’) with them to receive a ‘good’ education. This desire has been caught by Qin (Xu Fan), who after fifteen years of marriage to Su (Chen Jianbin), decides that she must prepare to get a job abroad and that her small daughter Pipi (Chen Yinuo) would benefit from the presence of an au pair who speaks English – help with Pipi is also needed because both parents work long hours. Interviewing candidates from around the world she selects Natalie (Gianina Arana), a bubbly young woman from Colombia who speaks good English and passable Mandarin. The problems begin soon after Natalie arrives.
Pipi is being brought up like a little ‘princess’ who is only allowed out in taxis, never public transport. She has organic fruit and her soup is filtered to remove fish bones – and so on. Natalie is a free spirit who likes to play with children and to ‘set them free’. Qin is a make-up artist for film and TV. Her husband (who often sides with Natalie) earns less than his wife as a producer of traditional Peking Opera. Together their salaries can barely pay for the extravagant style of Pipi’s upbringing. It gets worse when Qin signs on with an agency that promises to find her a job abroad (for a substantial fee). At one point Qi meets an old friend who is briefly home after migrating and who tells Qin of the stress she suffers.
The comedy comes from the clash between Qin and Natalie and their ideas about how to raise children – and the mayhem that Pipi is capable of creating as a result. Dad remains in the background but the marriage is clearly suffering and this provides the drama alongside some of the dangerous consequences of the au pair situation. As Natalie points out, if Pipi is always wrapped in cotton wool, she won’t be able to survive in the real world outside. Shu does however chide Natalie at times, pointing out that there are reasons why Chinese families do things that she doesn’t understand. Natalie is a ‘typed’ foreign character and mainstream Chinese films suffer from this kind of typing in the same way as Hollywood and European films. It’s useful, I think, that UK audiences are able to reflect on this. As well as the migration issue, the film picks up on other topical issues like the traffic jams in Beijing, but overall this is the tourist view of affluent China which says little about the rest of the country. It also demonstrates how Chinese comedy films exaggerate awkward situations to develop broad comedy potential with forms of slapstick. I didn’t notice any reference to Natalie’s racial difference but she is typed as being materialistic and individualistic in her approach to life – wanting to be the richest and most successful. Qin acts as if she wants to be the same but recognises that this might be unacceptable. There is an interesting set of questions about ideology here.
But while the content of the film may be a useful insight into aspects of the lives of the Beijing middle classes, the presentation of the film might be more of a shock for UK audiences. I’m familiar with DVDs of Chinese and Hong Kong films and the practice of subtitling in English and Simplified Chinese and I’m used to subtitling generally. But in this case, the very rapid cutting between characters speaking quickly was at first difficult to follow. Overall, the editing in the film seemed to struggle to hold the narrative together. This is odd because as far as I can see the film’s editor, Zhou Xinxia, is the only really experienced head of department in a crew working with an inexperienced director and writer. Perhaps it is the use of music which underlines all of this. Every scene is scored to underline the changes of mood from comedy to romance to drama. The non-diegetic music is relentless and the abrupt changes of musical style are jarring. I’m afraid that the film doesn’t represent the high quality of much of the mainstream (and arthouse) cinema produced in China today. Perhaps the industry has just grown too quickly? We were told that the film featured many well-known Chinese star actors. As far as I can see, most of them are in minor roles. The exception is the lead pair Xu Fan and Chen Jianbin as the parents in the family. Xu Fan has a thankless role as the mother but I found the father to be the most interesting character. Chen Jianbin once featured in Jia Zhang-khe’s 24 City (China-Japan-France 2008). When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair has shown twice now in the UK and I found another screening advertised in Belgium. I’m assuming that the Chinese cultural agencies have sanctioned these screenings for the China Film Office whereas an independent Chinese film would not have been deemed suitable. (Ironically the music recording in the film was listed as being carried out in Singapore and Taiwan.) We might at least have been offered a Feng Xiaogang film (in which Xu Fan has played leading roles in the past) or something from another mainstream director of standing. Still, I’m glad I attended the free screening and I hope for good things from the Bradford-Qingdao partnership.
Here’s the Chinese trailer (no English subs):