Category: Womens Film

Women’s Animation from Near and Far

This was a programme selected by the Leeds Animation Workshop and screened at the Hyde Park Picture House. The occasion was to mark forty years of Leeds Animation Workshop and their total of forty films. Rona Murray celebrated and praised their contribution to both animation and women’s struggles over the years in a ‘thank you’. Before that we had a fine programme of animated films by women filmmakers from a variety of countries and in a variety of forms with a stimulating range of subjects.

No Offence, Leeds Animation Workshop (1996).

This was part of a series of films the Workshop made using the ‘fairy-tale’ form. In this case the topic was sexual harassment at work. In an original twist a Queen disguises herself as an ordinary female worker to investigate the behaviour of her managers. The tale includes reforms to end the harassment. The narrative is told with the distinctive voice of Alan Bennett.

Otesanek, Czech Republic 2017. Director Linda Retterová. 6 minutes

This film is an updated version of the traditional tale, ‘Little Otik’. There is an earlier version by Jan Švankmajer and Eva Švankmajerová (2000). This version is less macabre and the ‘Otik’ character is a carved trees stump in the form of a child. But s/he also devours everything in sight. The animation uses felt and embroidery as the materials for stop-motion.

The Black Dog (1987). 18 minutes.

This is a film by Alison De Vere who was a key figure in British animation from the 1950s until the late 1990s. The ‘Black Dog’ of the title is a shaman figure in a dream world which parallels work by surrealist artists. The fantastical settings are finely done and traverse a range of imaginative imagery.

The New Species, Czech Republic, 2014. Director Katerina Karhánková. 6 minutes.

The film follows three children as they attempt to identify a mysterious bone. On the way we also see representation of adult ways with children.

Phototaxis, USA (2017). Director Melissa Ferrari. 7 minutes.

The film uses the ‘Mothman’ myth from West Virginia; dramatised in the feature The Mothman Prophecies (2002). The film draws quite complex parallels between this and an addiction epidemic in the region. The film is fairly experiential in its techniques, including paper with superimposed pastels.

Black Soul, Canada (2000). Director Martine Chartrand. 9 minutes

In this narrative we see an older black woman and her grandson as she proffers examples of their cultural heritage. The film uses paint-on-glass techniques. The colours are luminous whilst the film’s trajectory is versatile.

Three Thousand, Canada (2017). Director Asinnajaq. 14 minutes.

This film combines newsreels [partly from the 1920s], ethnographic film and film of indigenous art work to explore the worlds of the Inuit peoples. It uses both animation techniques and film footage.

Nutag-Homeland, Canada (2016). Director Alisi Telegut. 6 minutes.

The film-maker is of Kalmyk origin. This people were formerly in the North Caucuses but now they are settled by the Caspian Sea. Their history is one of travails and forced migrations. The film presents poetic images of this through hand-painted frames.

The Fruit of Clouds, Czech republic (2017). 10 minutes.

Another film by Katerina Karhánková. In this a small colony of delightfully realised woodland creatures have an unusual diet. One brave individual finds an abundant source of this.

Own Skin, Leeds (2018). 3 minutes.

Geena Gasser and Saskia Tomlinson enjoyed an internship at the Animation Workshop. This hand-painted film examines the pressures of the body image.

They Call Us Maids: The Domestic Workers’ Story, Leeds Animation Workshop (2015). 7 minutes.

This film uses the actual experiences of migrant women works to expose the exploitation and oppression that they frequently suffer. The film relies on hand-painted water colours. It was commissioned by the Pavilion arts project and worked with Justice 4 Domestic Workers.

The whole programme was a rich palette of animation. There were a variety on techniques on show. And the subjects ranged widely as did the form of the films. Most of the titles had not been seen in Leeds before so this was a real treat.

Hopefully we will see more with a celebration at the Leeds International Film Festival of this important anniversary.

Women Animators From Near and Far

This programme at the Hyde Park Picture House is a celebration of the Leeds Animation Workshop on its fortieth birthday. The Workshop was inaugurated in 1978, though the collective had been working together since 1976 on their first film, Who Needs Nurseries. The fact that the Workshop has survived is itself a feat. The majority of the workshops and collectives from the late 1970s and 1980s have now disappeared though their members till contribute to Independent British Cinema. But the Animation Workshop have also been active in production, having produced a total of 40 animated films, one every year. A new work made with their support, Own Skin, screens in this programme. Animation is a slow and painstaking form of film, requiring care and attention to every single frame.

They have also produced a varied and imaginative range of films. Who Needs Nurseries, concerned with the needs of pre-school children, is an example of a campaigning film. Give Us a Smile (1983) is a powerful agitational film addressing issues of sexual harassment and violence. The experiences presented are based on real cases and the examples of reactionary male attitudes are direct quotes. These are interlaced with pictures, drawing, media quotes and songs. Through the Glass Ceiling (1994) dramatises this issue through a modern version of a classic fair-tale. As well as drama the film uses wit and irony. More recently They Call Us Maids: The Domestic Workers’ Story (2015) addresses the situation of migrant worker caught in a form of modern slavery. This was another campaigning film made with ‘Justice 4 Domestic Workers’. It uses beautifully produced water colour drawings as the basis of the animation.

Clearly one factor in the long survival of the Animation Workshop is commitment. But they have also remained adept at negotiating the shifting shoals of financial support for work that falls outside the commercial area of the film industry. Their first work was funded by the Equal Opportunity Commission. Their early years relied on the funding available from the system set up under the ACTT (ow BECTU) Workshop Declaration, which was supported by a range of organisations, including Channel 4. They also secured funding from the British Film Institute in this period.  In the 1990s the Workshop tapped into the funds arriving from the European Union. They Call us Maids: … involved the Pavilion Arts Project, Leeds-based organisations and crowd funding.

The programme this coming Tuesday includes They Call Us Maids:… and No Offence (1996), addressing work-based harassment and using another modernised fairy-tale in a witty mode.

 

The programme also includes films by their colleagues in Britain and farther afield in Canada, the Czech Republic, and the USA. Apart from the pleasures of good animation work the selection will offer a variety of views on a variety of social issues and themes. The film-makers will have a chance to talk about their work. The complete programme is on the Picture House Webpages and the screening is also part of the current Scalarama Festival.

‘Black Soul’, Canada 2000

From September 26th until the 29th the Workshop will run a ‘residency’ at 42 New Briggate (alongside the Grand Theatre). This is the new venue of the Pavilion. There will also be an evening screening on the Thursday and a lunch-time talk on the Friday. Details on the Workshop Facebook Pages.

The Heiresses (Las herederas, Paraguay-Uruguay-Brazil-Germany-Norway-France 2018)

Angy visits Chela’s house

This is a truly ‘global’ film production as the range of funders testifies. I also noted Alan Fountain’s name on the credits. Alan was the leader of ‘alternative’ film programming for Channel 4 in the 1980s and in the 1990s a champion of independent filmmaking globally. I was shocked to discover that he died unexpectedly in 1969. Perhaps he was involved initially in this production? It must take a long time to put these kinds of films together. But if you want something different, Latin American cinema is often the best place to look these days. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film made in Paraguay by a local filmmaker before – mainly I’ve seen international or other Latin American national film industries using the country as a location.

Written and directed by Marcelo Martinessi as a first feature this is an unusual subject for a male filmmaker – a film completely about a world of women with barely a glimpse of a man in the background. Chela and ‘Chiquita’ are two women in their sixties who have lived together for thirty years and are now struggling to survive financially. The daughters of wealthy parents they are now forced to sell off the furniture and objets d’art in Chela’s family mansion in Asunción. But now the financial authorities have caught up with Chiquita’s debts and the promissory notes she has signed. She is convicted of fraud and sent to prison for what may be a few weeks or months. Chiquita is outgoing and lively and the withdrawn and now bewildered (but still cantankerous) Chela is left to contemplate life with only her new maid, Pati for company. One day, however, a neighbour calls and more or less demands that Chela drive her to her bridge game. Chela feels obliged to help and carefully navigates her father’s old Mercedes through the old residential district. Despite her protestations, Chela eventually accepts some money ‘ to pay for fuel’ and over the next few days she becomes the taxi driver for all the elderly bridge players (all women). Then she meets a younger woman at the bridge game (where she waits for her ‘clients’). Angy (Ana Ivanova) is tall and lean and street smart and Chela is smitten. I won’t spoil the narrative further but there are obvious questions. How far will Chela go in exploring her new world (at times she is almost like a teenager)? She has no driving licence and she is pocketing cash, will she end up in prison too? What will happen when Chiquita is released?

Chela waits for her bridge-playing passengers

When the film began, in the dark and gloomy mansion with the camera peering out of a wardrobe or from behind a door to watch prospective buyers sifting through the family silver and crystal glass, I wondered if watching the film might be a struggle for me. It seemed a waste of the CinemaScope frame, but within a few minutes I was engaged and I found the unfolding story totally gripping as it moved slowly forward. The script is beautifully written with characters carefully observed. Ana Brun as Chela won the Silver Bear at Berlin as Best Actress and I was amazed to discover this was her first feature film (I was convinced I’d seen her before). Angy and Chiquita are similarly key roles with strong performances by Ana Ivanova and Margarita Irun, again with limited experience of feature films. The only aspect of the film that troubled me was the role of the maid. Pati is an ‘indigenous’ or mestizo character. Paraguay is an unusual South American country in which Guarani, a language of several indigenous groups is an official language of a bi-lingual state and the majority of the people can speak it alongside Spanish. It is spoken in the film. Pati has been brought up in a convent where she has learned several skills, including how to massage Chela’s feet. I think on reflection that Martinessi makes quite subtle comments about social class and ethnicity in the film and Chela’s relationship with Pati does change over the film – much as we are required to re-think any assumptions about Pati. I mention these points because the use of maids by European élites is a common feature of the narratives of several of the Latin American films of recent years that have found their way into UK distribution or the international festival circuit.

Chiquita opens the shutters at the beginning of the film and Chela is disturbed by the light

Music is an important part of the film but Latin American music culture is not my strong point. In her Sight and Sound review (September 2018), Maria Delgado explains what she calls the songs’ ‘wry commentary’ on the narrative events (but beware this reveals spoilers about the narrative). Chela is also an artist (though it is difficult to tell whether she has real talent or if it is just a hobby to pass the time) and she will have a dialogue about painting with Angy. These potentially expressive devices and the rich detail of the mise en scène suggest to me that The Heiresses is a melodrama. The film is distributed in the UK by Thunderbird and the official website includes details of where it is playing in the next few weeks. Don’t miss it if it comes to a cinema near you.

The Weaker Sex (UK 1948)

Cecil Parker as Commander Radcliffe and Ursula Jeans as Martha Crane during the lead-up to D-Day

This is another gem from Talking Pictures TV that I’d never heard of before. It’s an intriguing film given the year of its release and its narrative that covers the period from a few days before D-Day in 1944 to the time of the film’s release in 1948. It’s therefore a ‘Home Front’ film covering both the last years of the war and the first three years of peace – and austerity. The continuous theme is about dealing with rationing and attempts to run a home. Not surprising then, the central character is Martha Crane, a middle-class woman in her 40s, widowed and living in her large family house on the south coast near Portsmouth with her two grown-up daughters, both Wrens. Their young brother is in the Navy, serving in the same ship as his older sister’s husband. The spare rooms in the house are occupied by a shore-based naval commander and a young army sergeant (who has quickly developed a relationship with the younger sister). The film opens with the arrival of an agency ‘Mrs Mopp’ hired to relieve Martha of some of the housework. As this character list suggests, the story is based on a stage play by Esther McCracken with the title No Medals.

The playwright Esther McCracken.

I’m surprised that this film does not seem to have attracted much scholarly attention. (It’s not mentioned in Robert Murphy’s book about British films and the Second World War.) The film’s title is clearly ironic and in that sense is a nod towards The Gentle Sex (1943), the comedy drama about young women coming forward for various kinds of military service. It also sits alongside Millions Like Us (1943) and This Happy Breed (1944) with its focus on families moving from peace-time into war – though it is the only film of its kind, that I know of, moving from wartime into peace. The film, like the original play before it, seems to have been popular at the box office and given the interest of feminist film scholars in the woman’s picture and home front melodramas of the 1940s, I can only conclude that the film has been unavailable. Now it is free to watch on Bfi Player (only in the UK). The film is also interesting in terms of British film history. It is a ‘Two Cities’ production made at D&P studios (Pinewood). Two Cities was one of the production companies operating under the Rank funding umbrella. It was one of the companies generally expected to provide the ‘quality’ or ‘prestige’ productions with the genre films left to Gainsborough and, t0  lesser extent, Ealing. But this function of Two Cities was usually covered by Filippo Del Giudice, the company’s founder. The Weaker Sex is produced by Paul Soskin, a Russian-born producer. It doesn’t appear to have had a particularly large budget, but the cast is strong with Ursula Jeans as Martha Crane and Cecil Parker as the naval commander. Thora Hird is the Mrs Mopp character, Mrs Gaye (‘Mrs Mopp’ was a character in the radio comedy programme ITMA and soon became a popular way to refer to ‘cleaning ladies’). Lana Morris, who would go on to become a familiar face in British films of the 1950s is the younger daughter. Rank contract players such as Bill Owen and Gladys Henson also appear and I spotted Eleanor Summerfield as a bus conductor. The film was the second directed by Roy Baker and it was photographed by Erwin Hillier, already with a high reputation after his work with Powell and Pressburger on A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945).

Back to days on the beach after the war

Cecil Parker is excellent as the Commander, offering that seemingly bumbling exterior beneath which a sharp mind and a calm authority can ‘get on with the job’. Ursula Jeans was married to Roger Livesey and the couple appeared together in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). In The Weaker Sex she plays a role that Celia Johnson might have played if the film had been directed by David Lean. The film’s title is ironic and Martha has real strength that no doubt added to the appeal of the film at the UK box office. The focus on Martha (and her daughters) is also important in pointing towards the pressure they feel to contribute to the war effort. Martha feels she hasn’t done enough but the film’s narrative demonstrates the importance of her wartime role on the ‘Home Front’. Whether the audience felt the same about her struggles with rationing after the war was over is another question. I must try to find other films like this.

Dark River (UK 2017)

dark river

Ruth Wilson in Clio Barnard’s ‘Dark River’ (2017)

As a local, I had always slightly resisted the name-change that accompanied Cornerhouse Manchester’s location move, even though it was to a fantastic and purpose-built modern venue, integrating theatre, cinema and art gallery.  Increasingly, however, I’ve had to admit that even the cinema alone has a right to call itself HOME, justified by the range of films showing and their frequent special events; they make me, happily, more of a stranger in my own.

The latest addition to these experiences was a screening, on Friday night, of Clio Barnard’s new film, Dark River (2017).  The film was accompanied by a Q&A, chaired by Mia Bays of Bird’s Eye View, with Barnard and her producer (on this and for The Selfish Giant (2013)), Lila Rawlings.

The film itself is a portrayal of a sibling relationship, one existing under the shadow of traumatic past events.  Avoiding any more detail, it is enough to say that this is a powerful story of the effects on those who survive abuse and of the complex legacy of secrecy, complicity and passivity that all of those involved are forced to carry with them.  And, also, without attempting a detailed piece of writing on Barnard and her previous films (her work deserves greater contemplation) this is a call to encourage anyone reading to see this film.

Barnard’s first feature, The Arbor (2010), about the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, was a blend of documentary footage and drama. The film layered real places and people, featuring the Arbor estate in Bradford where Dunbar lived; stylistically, this footage constantly intertwined with staged performance.  Professionals acted out excerpts of her plays on the estate and actors lip-synched to audio-interviews with Dunbar’s friends and family, recalling her struggles and her troubled life. Despite its apparent artificiality and the strange dislocation of words and the person speaking them, or really because of it, those experiences were communicated in powerful, emotional terms. Mark Kermode, in introducing the film for the BFI Player, also commented on the ‘truth’ about memory that emerges through its innovation.

Dark River revolves around traumatic memory and represents it sensitively, sparingly and with great emotional power. The Q&A at HOME raised interesting questions which were answered thoughtfully by Barnard and Rawlings, both passionately engaged with the subject matter as well as the perennial challenges of low-budget filming in Britain. Barnard talked about the experience of working with such intuitive and professional actors in Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley. Their ability to convey much about a relationship, one which has become wordless through the repression of intolerable feelings, gave her the luxury of being able to strip back the dialogue constantly through the filming. It is a very silent film; Lila Rawlings made a connection the siblings lack of communication and of working within a landscape depicting boundaries. It constructs an unsentimental portrait of this part of the world; Barnard emphasised her commitment to ‘rural realism’ – of her films as engaging with the realities for those who live in these places which can be romanticised in British (English) culture. Place works symbolically in this film, without ever losing touch. Filmed near Skipton, North Yorkshire and around Malham, Barnard, with Adriano Goldman as cinematographer, shoots it spare, rugged and visceral as if seen through its protagonists’ eyes.  Janet’s Foss provided the filming location as the place where Alice can immerse herself under the water – literally and metaphorically. Dark River is part of a disparate, impromptu trilogy, through release timing, with The Levelling (2016) – about a girl returning to her family farm – and God’s Own Country (2017), a love story set in Yorkshire, which represents the countryside as a real world. However, each film has its own very specific qualities onscreen and in the narrative, a validation of the processes at work on each of them and their separate interpretations of ‘rural realism’.

In terms of representing the world of the farming community, I couldn’t help thinking of Far from the Madding Crowd – not just because of the sheep, but because of one point in relation to Thomas Hardy’s stories that I hope Barnard would find sympathetic.  Hardy’s world is a difficult one, of people like Barnard’s characters – struggling, suffering, earning little and understanding their connection to the land in the most difficult way, not just through a superficial love of its beauty. Whilst Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass (2010) directly provided the point of inspiration for this film, it is Bathsheba Everdene who haunts it in the farming scenes at least. Alice (Ruth Wilson) has ambition and competence in what is still a man’s world.  Interesting to place it next to director Thomas Vinterberg’s luxuriant 2015 adaptation of Hardy’s novel of a woman struggling, played very strongly by Carey Mulligan but set in glorious, colour-saturated countryside.[i] Hardy would approve of Barnard’s film, I believe.

This is, though, first and foremost about the central relationships, both those present and non-present, with Sean Bean playing the lost father. It was a lively Q&A (many thanks to Mia Bays) with questions and responses to the film including the soundtrack, the implications of the ending, the representation of the land. Christine Bottomley, who worked with Barnard on The Arbor, was in the audience and commented on the ‘calm space’ that Barnard could create that allowed actors the safety to explore all emotional possibilities. A quality of silence, then, informs her practice as well as her films.  This is certainly visible in the deeply-observed relationships in Dark River. Lila Rawlings – when asked – gave up one key word to characterise Barnard’s work – ‘empathy.’

See here for Tony Earnshaw’s detailed report and interview on the set of the film.

Bird’s Eye View are piloting a scheme to recruit ‘influencers’ (‘BEVIs’) – people willing to champion female-centric films and spread the word, locally and online. The scheme is centred, at first, on HOME (Manchester), Genesis/Curzon Soho/PictureHouse Central (London), Tyneside Cinema (Newcastle), Plymouth Arts Centre.  Influencers will receive free tickets to event screenings, DVDs, subscriptions and money-off codes.  Anyone interested should contact BEV: mail@birds-eye-view.co.uk with the heading ‘BEVI’.

[i] In thinking about realism, this is the same Vinterberg who emerged in the Dogme film movement of the 1990s, with its manifesto establishing rules of aesthetic restraint, and who recently made the excoriating drama The Hunt (2012). His Hardy film, a beautiful adaptation with some strong performances, may be recent but it is arguably less innovative than John Schlesinger’s 1966 treatment of Hardy’s novel, which had Nicholas Roeg as cinematographer.

Chantal Akerman: No Home Movie (Belgium-France 2015)

A Daughter's Perspective: 'No Home Movie' (2015)

A Daughter’s Perspective: ‘No Home Movie’ (2015)

This is a blog written last year (for Women’s Film and Television History Network), on the first screening of Akerman’s last film and its accompanying exhibition.  Although the exhibition has finished, I hope this captures an idea of these intense films as the moving and powerful No Home Movie is released in the U.K.

The two-year retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s films, curated by Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts under the title A Nos Amours, had its last screening on Friday 30th October (2015) at the Regent Street Cinema, with her latest film No Home Movie (2015). Following Akerman’s recent tragic death, there was still a palpable sense of shock, and an appropriately emotional and dignified introduction was given by Akerman’s long-term collaborator and editor, Claire Atherton. She has been in London for the last fortnight helping to curate the NOW exhibition, the first complete showing of some of Akerman’s installation works, which is at Ambika P3, a gallery space at the University of Westminster (exhibited until 6th December 2015). Both the film and Akerman’s installation work are simultaneously revelatory and quintessentially Akerman and demand to be seen. Below, are some brief, first impressions.

The large, light space has been converted into something very subterranean and dark to suit the films’ projection and their emotion. In a mixture of single films, often with an audio commentary, and multi-screen installations, there is no single dimension, and the choices made in this report are idiosyncratic ones. In a piece entitled Maniac Summer (2009), a large-screen projects images including Akerman working in her flat, families playing outside in a park and a street scene. Along a perpendicular wall, the images appear to dissolve and deteriorate, turn to black and white, and, on the facing wall, coalesce into abstraction. Staying within that room over an extended period brings a shift in perception of time and space and a move beyond observing simple juxtapositions, and, in a very Akerman-like manner, the sheer intensity (if given time) breaks through to something much more experiential. The accompanying notes suggest this work fits with her commitment to exploring the legacy of the Holocaust: “looking for, and finding, traces, shadows, remnants” since, given the continent’s recent history: “what else should a European be sensible of?”. Her mother grew up in Poland and was imprisoned in Auschwitz, and in the work D’Est: au bord de la fiction (1995), a room is filled with rows of televisions, divided into groups of three, showing footage from Akerman’s journey across Eastern Europe. The filmmaker voices a poetic monologue in an accompanying video, about a journey through a history that no longer has a capital H.

The daughter’s relationship with the mother is everywhere in this exhibition as it is in No Home Movie (2015). During Maniac Shadows (2013), their outlines move across the beach – together and apart. Elsewhere, Akerman on screen, with the merest backlight highlighting her figure, reads from a memoir about her mother’s failing health. Her trademark warm, throaty, strongly-accented voice (pervading the whole exhibition) contributes to this piece’s emotion. And, as Akerman’s work has been concerned with many forms of grief, so this exhibition itself has become a site of loss, vividly representing her simultaneous presence and her absence.

Akerman’s mother passed away last year, and she is the central figure of No Home Movie, which also includes Akerman’s sister, Sylviane (who attended both the screening and the exhibition). Scenes capture aspects of family life with their ailing mother in her Belgian flat very realistically, with flashes of extremely relatable family tension between them. Abstract sequences from Akerman’s filmmaking travels punctuate the motionless camera witnessing daily rhythms inside the flat. Maman moves in and out of shot as does Akerman and also the home helpers; we watch the domestic routine – of course, this reminds us of Jeanne Dielman 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) but there are also echoes, here, of the relationship of News from Home (1976-7). We hear her mother’s rhythmic throat noise, an effect of old age but musical, comforting and quickly familiar. Akerman commands a multiplicity of tones: abstract, intimate, contemplative and dryly humorous. As J Hoberman says in a quote at Ambika P3, “Comparable in force and originality to Godard or Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman is arguably the most important European director of her generation”. I would like to finish with another stolen phrase from a young woman who sat next to me and cried many times during the film. She said it had shown her the dignity of being human. If only Akerman had been there, as planned, to hear the comments and sustained applause that greeted the final credits.

Joy (US 2015)

Joy as the harassed young woman at the beginning of the film

Joy as the harassed young woman at the beginning of the film

I didn’t think much of American Hustle, but I liked The Fighter and David O’Russell’s 1999 film 3 Kings. Joy seems to have had very mixed reviews and has been treated as almost an independent film with a reduced release. It hasn’t been a massive box office success and its IMDB rating reflects audience disappointment. I wondered about seeing it but it does feature Jennifer Lawrence in the lead and she’s always watchable. So, I ended up as the sole audience member in a tea-time showing in my local 300 seat cinema. The manager even came into the auditorium to see if I was OK and to offer me blankets for the cold. And it was cold. But I still had a good time.

I’d heard radio reviews and read press reports that this was a mish-mash – several films jumbled up etc. etc. But I thought it was totally coherent with great narrative drive and 124 minutes sped by. Perhaps I was simply mesmerised by Ms Lawrence? I guess the film is a form of biopic about Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop and other products for her company Ingenious Designs and subsequently an important presenter on the Home Shopping Network. I knew nothing about this so I think I followed the narrative that Russell and Bridesmaids writer Annie Mumolo created without every worrying about its ‘fidelity’ as a biopic.

Joy as mother in Mildred mode

Joy as mother in Mildred Pierce mode

What did strike me was the way in which Jennifer Lawrence completely controls the narrative – and dominates every scene. Given the strength of a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd and Virginia Madsen (and later Bradley Cooper) that’s no mean achievement. At one point I thought to myself, “she’s got it” – the star image of the great female icons of Studio Hollywood. This could be Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. I was pleased to find these thoughts echoed by Graham Fuller in Sight & Sound (February). As Fuller points out, Russell presents a strong woman without the need of a love interest (the suggestion of how she might feel about the Bradley Cooper is at the end of the film and doesn’t drive the narrative). There is a brief moment where crime/physical/judicial jeopardy is a threat but other wise she is Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce sans sex and crime – and still riveting to watch. What does drive the narrative is her dysfunctional family and the shenanigans of small-scale manufacturing as an entrepreneurial activity. Since the ideological discourse of the film is about entrepreneurs and the American Dream (with an anecdote about David O. Selznik and Jennifer Jones underpinning Joy’s determination to make it) I should feel antipathy towards the film, but identification with Joy takes over. Fuller is again on the money with his reference to Erin Brockovich and perhaps what is attractive is the class struggle embodied in the narrative. The time period of the film did not feel very specific to me, partly because Russell uses such a wide range of popular songs and music from TV and films. I was quite happy watching the film as if it was a 1970s blue-collar film. The factory that Joy sets up reminded me of various films, including The Pajama Game (1957) with Doris Day and, much more recently, the sweat shop in Real Women Have Curves (2002). Watching various trailers and online promotional features, it’s evident that Russell had the rights to a lot of music material, some of which he uses very well. I was most affected by his use of ‘Expecting to Fly’ by Buffalo Springfield, but also puzzled by the preponderance of music from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Is there some kind of commentary on Joy’s story in this?

I’m not sure why the film has been criticised for jumbling different genres. Perhaps it is the narrative strategy that allows Joy’s grandmother to have a voiceover narration or her mother to dominate the narrative at times via her immersion in soap opera worlds as a form of escape. Both these seemed fine to me as aspects of the influences, positive and negative on Joy’s story. The film is frequently referred to as a comedy. I suppose it is, but for me it was more like a melodrama. Two other thoughts that don’t seem to have got much attention elsewhere. One is the confirmation of the ‘women’s picture narrative’ via the best friend, Jackie (Dascha Polanco) whose action at a crucial point saves Joy. The other is just to mention Édgar Ramírez, the Venezuelan actor who plays Joy’s ex-husband. I knew I’d seem him before and I later realised he was Carlos in the Olivier Assayas film about Carlos The Jackal.

Joy in her final winning 'avenger' mode

Joy in her final winning ‘avenger’ mode

I’m sure that there is a lot more to say about Joy and I would be interested in it as a student text – except it’s rather long at 124 minutes (though it isn’t too long as a narrative). In the third image above, you can get a flavour of the ‘overdetermined’ nature of Russell’s imagery. Having dealt with the opposition, Joy in her aviator shades, leather jacket and rough cut hair peers in a Christmas shop window in downtown Dallas. She looks at a Christmas display of a trainset with scenery and models as artificial snow falls from above the window (an interesting invention in itself). Joy is thinking about the world she created out of paper cut-outs, damaged in a row between her parents. I think it was Nat King Cole on the soundtrack and  for me snowflakes always make me think of Citizen Kane. There are many commentators online who thought that Joy was boring. I despair.

Carol (UK-US-France 2015)

Therese and Carol share Carol's perfume . . .

Therese and Carol share Carol’s perfume . . .

Carol is a Christmas treat come early – but also a beautifully-made film that will endure. It’s an important film, not just because it’s a great love story which ends with at least the possibility of a happy outcome for two lovers, but also because it is made with such intelligence and love of cinema.

A great deal has already been written about the film and it comes complete with numerous interviews featuring its principal creators and actors so that we have a good idea of what director Todd Haynes was trying to do with Phyllis Nagy’s script. I don’t want to simply repeat what others have said so here are some personal observations.

Therese's apartment with the framing of constraining walls.

Therese’s apartment with the framing of constraining walls.

My own reaction to the film was to be completely absorbed from the first frame. Is it really a 118 minutes long? There have been criticisms of the pacing but when each frame is so dazzling and the performances so strong we don’t need great pace as the narrative detail accrues so easily. If I had any expectations of what I was going to see they would have been about Highsmith as source material and Haynes as the re-interpreter of Sirk in Far From Heaven – both major pluses for me. The first realisation is that this isn’t Sirk. Haynes in his Sight and Sound (December 2015) interview with Ryan Gilbey suggests that Sirk takes a distanced, Brechtian view of American society in the mid-1950s, carefully using mise en scène to ‘display’ the structures of the middle-class world of the country club with bright colours and expressive lighting. By contrast Carol plunges us into a much murkier environment as the stills above demonstrate with their muted palettes of browns, greens and pinks. Often the characters are shot through rain-spattered windows, round corners and down corridors. The mise en scène constrains and traps the characters and we are ‘immersed’ in the narrative. This isn’t to suggest that the image is visually impoverished in some way. Sandy Powell is in charge of costumes and both the leads wear the clothes well. I’m going to have to watch Carol alongside Brooklyn to think about the different use of costumes for the same setting in time and place.

Carol is set very precisely over the Christmas and New Year period of 1953/3 with Eisenhower preparing for his presidency. America is still in the last days of Truman’s post-war recovery. The deadening conservatism of the affluent Eisenhower years critiqued by Sirk is still to come. Haynes’ partner in the visual project is his regular DP Ed Lachman (who was with him on Far From Heaven and the remake of Mildred Pierce for HBO). Lachman gives a fascinating account of his preparation for shooting Carol in a Variety interview. In particular, Lachman reveals the importance of a number of New York photographers of the period, shooting in colour. I spotted the obvious Edward Hopper homage but I didn’t know these photographers. One is Saul Leiter who died aged 89 in 2013. The image below shows the kind of shot which clearly influenced Lachman and Haynes.

An interesting example of Saul Leiter's work with the different planes of colourframed and reflected through windows and doors (from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/28/arts/saul-leiter-photographer-with-a-palette-for-new-york-dies-at-89.html?_r=0)

An interesting example of Saul Leiter’s work with the different planes of colour framed and reflected through windows and doors (from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/28/arts/saul-leiter-photographer-with-a-palette-for-new-york-dies-at-89.html?_r=0)

Lachman reveals that:

. . . we actually looked at mid-century photographers who were photojournalists. A large part of them happened to be women, people like Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt and then later Vivian Maier. These were photographers who were starting to experiment in colour. So that gave me the idea of trying to reference a visualisation of, let’s say, early Ektachrome, rather than Kodachrome, rather than colour negative. And that’s why the colours have this kind of coolness/warm mixture. I play with magentas and greens. The colour didn’t have a full spectrum the way colour is seen today.

Esther Bubley 'Elevated train platform with gum machines. New York City. c 1951' from: www.estherbubley.com

Esther Bubley ‘Elevated train platform with gum machines. New York City. c 1951’ from: http://www.estherbubley.com

I’ve tried to choose some images with bright reds from these photographers, partly because the vibrant reds of 1950s Technicolor/Eastmancolor melodramas are still there in Carol – and they stand out much more against the muted palette of the streets and rooms. Lachman and Haynes also decided to shoot on Super 16 filmstock, again in order to downgrade the bright colours of the Sirkian melodramas and to re-insert the grain which in modern digital photography can be artificially generated but never looks right. I did find the first few shots of the film disconcertingly grainy but I soon forgot about that. The screen in the cinema we attended was relatively small and I’m intrigued how the images would have held up on a bigger screen.

Cate Blanchett in a street scene in which her red coat dominates

Cate Blanchett in a street scene in which her red coat dominates

The car, the lipstick, the gloves . . .

The car, the lipstick, the gloves . . .

It should be apparent by now that as a visual narrative, Carol works superbly. The music works pretty well too, Carter Burwell’s score and the collection of early 1950s songs work to bring out the emotion of the different scenes. (You can find a list of the songs here.) Overall, I would call Carol a romantic melodrama. I found the romance completely convincing and the last scene stands alongside Nina Hoss in Phoenix as the ‘closing scene’ of the year for me. Both Blanchett and Mara say everything with their eyes – just like Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn.

Carol is still a melodrama and it’s also a ‘woman’s picture’. If it wasn’t for the ‘out’ lesbian affair, this could be a Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford picture with the husband who wants to take her daughter away from her as part of the divorce settlement and a ‘female best friend’ to talk things through with. Kyle Chandler as Carol’s husband ‘Harge’ (a name I’ve never heard before) is suitably ‘solid’– a very masculine figure who uses his heft in confronting Carol. At times he reminded me of Jack Carson who played a rather different role in the original Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford. Cate Blanchett plays Carol as a physically powerful woman, emphasised in some of the shots of her lying on a bed in those quite close-fitting early 50s dresses. She contrasts well with the slight and sensitive Rooney Mara as Therese.

Carol is more than just an updated, ‘modern’ version of a 1950s romance. The film couldn’t have been made in the early 1950s and now it has been made it puts Patricia Highsmith’s narrative firmly in the spotlight, demonstrating what is possible when talented people work with the best material and a real sense of purpose. C’est magnifique!

Here is what is in effect an ad for Varese Sarabande Records the company releasing the soundtrack. It gives a good indication of how the music creates a mood and how the cinematography described above works in practice: