Category: Romance

Manohar & I (Ami O Manohar, India (Bengali) 2018)

The woman at the centre of the story

A strangely engaging film, Manohar & I is difficult to classify. Is it an abstract art film about loneliness, a mystery or a form of romance? Certainly it is not a conventional popular genre film. Instead it offers a very slow-paced narrative set mainly on the streets of central Kolkata and two homes in villages outside the city. Most of the film was shot on an iPhone and processed in black & white in a widescreen ratio of approx. 2:1. It has a running time of nearly 2 hours so patience is needed.

The film is book-ended by an image of stars in the night sky. A dialogue between an unseen child and father reveals to us that every person has a star that represents their loneliness. The ‘I’ of the title is a youngish woman working in an office in central Kolkata. We first meet her watching vultures circling high in the sky above a Kolkata street. She discusses the vultures with an older man who we will soon learn is called Manohar. What kind of couple are they? They aren’t related and the questions exchanged between between them suggests they do not yet know each other well. Eventually we realise that they meet simply because they are going home from work and travelling in more or less the same direction to catch their trains taking them back to homes outside the the city. We see them make several such journeys, often walking together and once taking a tram. We will follow both of them home. I won’t spoil the rest of the narrative except to note that the woman has an older sister who seemingly never leaves the house and mostly watches TV with the sound turned low, though we can hear that it often seems to be a natural history programme with an English language commentary – we never actually see what is on the screen. We also follow Manohar home but his living arrangements are much less clear.

The older sister who rarely leaves the house

I was reminded of two other Indian ‘independent’ films while watching this one. 36 Chowringhee Lane (India 1981) was the first film directed by the renowned Bengali actor-director Aparna Sen. The link here is the loneliness of the central character and the setting which is in the centre of Calcutta around Chowringhee and the Anglican cathedral. I didn’t recognise any of the street settings of Manohar & I but it is very much a film about Kolkata and does feature some of the older buildings of the city. The other film I was reminded of was The Lunchbox (India 2013). In this case the links are to the presentation of an odd romance which involves lonely characters and the important plot point that sees the male character discussing his intention to retire from his Mumbai job and move to a smaller resort town. Manohar talks about his own imminent retirement to what he refers to as his ancestral home in Giridih, a small mountain city in Jharkhand, the state carved out of Bihar in 2000. Giridh has a history of both industry (coal mining) and tourism, especially for the middle classes of Calcutta. Satyajit Ray, the great Bengali filmmaker, spent time in Giridih as a child. Both these films are aesthetically quite different to Manohar & I but there is something about the lives of ordinary people who work in the big city which is common across all three titles.

I’ve never shot any footage with an iPhone so I’m hesitant to comment on how the look of the film was created. I assume that for the static shots, often held in long shot for long takes, the director Amitabha Chaterji and Madhura Palit, both credited for photography though she shot most of it, used a tripod. The images are often in strongly contrasted black & white. The footage was processed from colour but many sequences are at night (it is supposed to be winter in the city) and in the Kolkata streets the bright lights of street vendors help to create the contrast with dark shadows. The pace is slow and this is emphasised on a couple of occasions when a transition leads to a seemingly blank black screen held for what seems like a long time until details of a room slowly begin to emerge, much in the way that the human eye gradually adjusts to a dark room. There is a long sequence in which the couple talk on a tram ride and we see the crowds on the evening streets in the background. I think there are two extremes for presentation of dialogue in a film, both of which can signify the reality of everyday speech. One technique is rapid fire with lines from different characters ‘overlapping’ as in Hawks’ His Girl Friday (US 1940). The opposite as used in Manohar & I is speech in short sentences or phrases, broken up with long gaps and that’s what works here.

A poster featuring Manohar (Shyamal Chakraborty)

Mahonar & I is a film about lonely people in a big city and in that sense it is universal, but if you have any sense of Kolkata as a city then this is also a very personal film about India’s once premier city under the British Raj which has since lost ground to New Delhi and Mumbai. Much of the old central area still has tree-lined streets of Victorian and early 20th century houses and it’s interesting that a scene towards the end of the film sees the younger sister going up to the roof of her office building and seeing a huge crane on a building site where a high-rise block is shooting up not far away. Somehow we know this view signals a change in the narrative. Kolkata is also a city of railways and both central characters use the local commuter network to get to and from their work.

Omar Ahmed chose this film as one of ’10 great films set in Kolkota’ that he sets out on the British Film Institute website – well worth a read. He also includes 36 Chowringhee Lane. Manohar & I has been quite a successful ‘festival film’ both inside and outside India. It is currently available on MUBI in the UK. Manohar & I actually had its UK première at HOME in Manchester as part of the October 2021 ‘Not Just Bollywood’ Festival and you can read an interview with the director Amitabha Chaterji on the HOME website by Dr Sanghita Sen. The director tells us that he was originally an engineer and had his own business in software development. He wasn’t particularly interested in filmmaking until a friend took him to an Ingmar Bergman retrospective at Nandan, the state film centre in Kolkata. His viewing of Wild Strawberries (Sweden 1957) bowled him over and he began to watch a much wider selection of films. Kolkata has always been a city with an intense involvement in film culture and he gradually moved into filmmaking, determined to keep close personal control over what he made. This is his first film and despite the difficulties he faced in distributing the film because of the pandemic, he has been able to start making his second feature.

Manohar is the only named character among the principals. He’s played by Shyamal Chakraborty. The younger sister is played by Monalisa Chatterjee and the older sister by Senjuti Roy Mukherjee. These are the only credited actors. I did enjoy the experience of watching the film, partly because of my interest in Bengali film culture. I’ll certainly look out for future films by this director.

Trailer

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.

The Best Years of Our Lives (US 1946)

The sailor, the flyer and the soldier, heading home

It’s close to time for Sight and Sound‘s decennial list of international critics’ ‘best films’. I’m not very keen on these lists but they seem to amuse a lot of cinephiles. I’m intrigued as to what criteria the selected critics use for their personal choices (i.e. outside of the guidelines they are sent by the journal) and why they end up with mainly the same kinds of films from the same directors. I’ve seen the majority of the 250 films on the 2012 list and I’ve enjoyed many of them. Indeed, many of my favourite films are on the list. But what about those that aren’t? How come, for instance, that The Best Years of Our Lives is not on the list and, as far as I can see, no films by William Wyler, the German émigré director who arrived in the US in 1920, aged 18 and was active in Hollywood from 1925 to 1970. Second only to John Ford in Best Director wins at the Academy Awards, Wyler directed some of Hollywood’s ‘biggest’ pictures such as Ben Hur (1959) as well as Westerns, musicals and melodramas and films notable for the performances of stars such as Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn.

The Best Years of Our Lives was a box office winner in 1946 in both the US and  UK and was duly recognised with seven Academy Awards. Unlike many films rooted in a specific historical moment, the film still works just as effectively in 2022 as it did in 1946 and in the early 1970s when I first watched it. What makes it so special?

Outline

Three demobbed servicemen find themselves thrown together on a flight back to their home town, aboard a military aircraft in 1945. Lt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was a navigator/bomb aimer. Sgt Al Stephenson (Fredric March) was with the US Army and Homer Parrish was a seaman below decks on a US carrier in the Pacific, but has spent time in a military hospital. They return to rather different family situations. Al returns to his family and his secure job in a bank. Fred visits his parents before trying to find his wife and Homer moves back in with his parents and wonders whether his marriage to the girl next door will eventually go ahead. The narrative follows the next several months as each of the men discover that ‘civvy street’ has changed since they’ve been away and the war is rapidly being forgotten as people try to focus on the future. The men might aim to go their separate ways but chance means that they soon meet again at the bar owned by Homer’s uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael). Before he sees his wife again, Fred meets Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). This creates a slightly different structure in the sense that Fred has two relationships in the narrative. In broad terms, the narrative gives roughly equal space to all three stories, though perhaps Fred ‘s actions evoke more issues, partly because of his attraction to Peggy and therefore his role in Al’s story as well.

Fred with Al’s daughter Peggy

Commentary

The origins of the film are in a novel, written in blank verse and titled Glory to Me, by MacKinlay Kantor in 1945. The independent producer Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights but then asked playwright Robert Sherwood to write a screenplay which extended MacKinlay’s narrative and changed it significantly (to MacKinlay’s dismay). MacKinlay had been a war correspondent in Europe and he used his own experiences as well as interviews with US servicemen to inform his story about three veterans who return to their Midwestern home town in 1945 and face problems in returning to civilian life, both as workers and family men. The titles of the novel and the film are ambiguous I think. Which were the ‘best years’ of these lives – the years spent away in the war or the years coming to terms with post-war life? Hollywood films are usually optimistic, so presumably it’s the latter. The novel’s title actually refers to a line in a popular gospel hymn by Charles H. Gabriel. The phrase is used repeatedly to refer to the moment of arriving in heaven to see the face of Jesus Christ which will be ‘glory to me’. The suggestion might be that reaching home in ‘Boone City’ should be like reaching heaven, but actually it means facing a series of difficult problems for each man.

One of Al’s problems is a propensity to drink too much but Millie is there to hold him up

I haven’t read the novel but from various reviews (e.g. on ‘Good Reads’) it seems clear to me that the film is much ‘softer’ in presenting the problems than the novel. Other changes might have been the result of the usual Hollywood politics involving actors and contracts. The most significant change is that Fred, who in the novel is a still a young man in his early 20s, is played by Dana Andrews (aged 37 when the film was released). The age difference is most pronounced when Fred is forced to consider returning to work as a ‘soda jerk’ in a drugstore after his three years away. It’s ludicrous that Andrews could have been a soda jerk at 33 but somehow the actor and Wyler as director manage to create a narrative in which we suspend disbelief. But actually the ages of actors and characters are out in several cases. Fredric March who plays the bank clerk Al, called up when he was 38, was in reality 49 when the film was released and Teresa Wright, playing his daughter Peggy, who we assume to have been an older teenager when he left for war, was 28. It’s worth pointing out that Hollywood has always been fairly relaxed about the real ages of stars in comparison with their characters. Even so, the disparities here do raise questions in a film about a specific time period of a few months in the second half of 1945.

Homer struggles to be comfortable with Wilma. In these scene Wilma comes round to find him cleaning his rifle, a potentially clichéd symbol of his masculinity but carried through by the performances. She helps him into his pyjama jacket.

The other significant change arguably improved the film’s impact. The novel’s Homer suffers a form of paralysis which affects his control of his arms, but for the film the non-professional actor Harold Russell, who had lost both his hands in an accidental explosion while training troops, was cast. Russell’s prosthetic ‘claws’ make a clear visual statement and his ‘natural’ performance enhances the representation of a wounded soldier – although in the film he is a seaman working below decks on a carrier. The top-billed star of the film is Myrna Loy who plays Al’s wife Millie. Loy had been in films since 1925 but had become a major star following the success of The Thin Man in 1934. Her relaxed relationship with her co-star William Powell and their well received comic scenes together would later help to ‘humanise’ the scenes between Al and Millie. Loy was also quite well-known for her wartime work in Hollywood for the Red Cross and the Naval Auxiliary canteen and this too added to her public reception in The Best Years of Our Lives. On the other hand, she had just turned 41 when the film came out, meaning her character would have had her daughter at age 13!

Fred with his wife Marie

There are three other significant roles for women in the film. Virginia Mayo plays Marie, Fred’s wife, not too pleased to see him back and Gladys George is Fred’s stepmother Hortense. Cathy O’Donnell as Homer’s pre-war girlfriend Wilma was a new contract player for Sam Goldwyn and a few years later she would make a big impact in Nick Ray’s first feature They Live By Night (shot in 1947). Her Goldwyn contract  was matched, at least in terms of working on Goldwyn’s independent productions, by several others in the film’s cast and crew. Although the film is clearly focused on the three men who return from war, I think it is the female roles that make the film stand out. That’s possibly because the film is a melodrama at heart. It is through their interactions with the four women that the men’s problems are brought to light. Without the women these men might really struggle to find their way after being institutionalised in the forces.

Fred’s father reads out the citation for a medal his son has won and Hortense listens . . .

Fred wanders through the graveyard of bombers waiting to be scrapped

One of the interesting factors about the film’s reception is the way that aspects of the film ‘speak’ directly about the same concerns that underpin many of the films of the period later recognised as films noirs. For instance, Fred experiences the sense of humiliation and unfairness that might drive a traumatised veteran towards crime or violence. The novel that was the basis for the Humphrey Bogart film In a Lonely Place (1950), a celebrated film noir melodrama, has a central character who is a flyer experiencing a well-paid life in the USAF in the UK with good pay and status who finds it impossible to return to a mundane job without a high salary and status On the other hand, Al finds it difficult to to follow banking practice and wants to make loans to people whom he feels are deserving. Milly is the sensible and loving wife who understands her husband and keeps him on track. She has also passed on her values to her daughter. The film works best within the slightly heightened sensibility of the melodrama. A juxtaposition of scenes cuts between Fred’s father reading his son’s medal citations which Fred has left behind as he seeks to move on and Fred himself wandering through a graveyard of military aircraft, including the B17s in which Fred flew. The one scene that didn’t work well for me is when Al gifts his son the mementoes of his time in Japan. It’s a stiff performance by the young actor playing the son, but perhaps this is what Wyler wanted? Either way, the son doesn’t figure much in the remainder of the film – his sister is much more important.

Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus enables photography to create a narrative (see below)

Samuel Goldwyn may have been an independent but he hired quality personnel  and facilities. The leading players in The Best Years of Our Lives all give solid performances and the creative team includes Gregg Toland as cinematographer. Toland became well-known established in Hollywood during the 1930s and in 1940-41 his work for John Ford and Orson Welles was widely discussed. He was known for his use of deep focus and innovative lighting. He had worked with Wyler on three previous films and although the photography of The Best Years of Our Lives was not overtly expressionist there were particular scenes which became classic study texts. One was the scene in Butch’s Bar when Al has been giving Fred a stern talking to about his ‘friendship’ with Peggy. Fred says he will phone Peggy and break off their relationship and as he leaves the bar he notices the phone booth by the door and goes in. (see the image above.) As he is dialling, Homer arrives and invites Al to listen to the new piano piece he and Butch have worked out. Butch sits at the piano with Homer and they play a duet. Al stands by the piano and admires Homer’s playing with his prosthetic hands. After a few moments he turns to look at the phone booth where Fred is speaking to Peggy (or at least we presume he is). Because of Toland’s camera set-up he can show this movement in deep focus from Homer in the foreground all the way back to Fred in the booth in the top left quadrant of the image. The other aspect of the shot is the low angle and effective lighting which feels natural rather than staged. It’s also impressive that Fred is framed in the window of the booth and not obscured by the position of a customer at the bar. This shot must have required very careful blocking and a long time to prepare for the shoot. Toland took his time. He was expensive but the results were impressive. The film topped the box office for 1946. While Toland’s work contributed to a realist aesthetic enabling the audience to put together aspects of the lives of the characters – the three men are linked visibly here – the music in the film composed by Hugo Friedhofer was a more conventional score for a melodrama, serving the narrative and reinforcing the emotional power of the film. The score won one of the seven Oscars awarded to the film.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen the film but it had lost none of it’s power when I watched it again. It tells a universal human story about separation from loved ones, about the trauma of war and the struggle to reconnect in a way that is engaging for a wide audience. It’s nearly 3 hours long but never drags. If you’ve never seen the film I urge you to give it a go. In the UK it is available to rent/buy on Amazon download. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray. Here’s the early scene when Al and Fred drop off Homer for his homecoming:

In Bed with Victoria (Victoria, France 2016)

Vicky and Sam, her ‘au pair boy’

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

Vicky out for the night . . .

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

Vicky with Vincent . . .

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

. . . and posing with her defence witness

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

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

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.

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

Margo and Gaspard

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

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

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

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

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

Gaspard with Léna

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

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