The General (Ireland-US 1998)

Brendan Gleeson as Martin Cahill and Jon Voigt as Inspector Kenny. Cahill often hid his face when questioned or interviewed.

Does British film culture appreciate its filmmakers enough? John Boorman is one of the most distinctive producer-writer-director figures to have made films in the UK. He left the country to work in Hollywood but then to settle in Ireland partly, I think, because he felt that filmmaking in the UK was not a serious undertaking.  He has been recognised in the UK with a knighthood but not with the level of appreciation by his peers that he deserves.

The General was perhaps the last of Boorman’s films to make money and to achieve critical recognition, though he has completed four films since (the last of which was Queen and Country in 2014). The General was screened in competition in Cannes and Boorman won the Best Director award for the second time. It is now streaming on MUBI but in a print which is slightly different to that which appeared in cinemas in 1998. The film was released as a ‘Scope picture in black and white and therefore not a film that Hollywood studios were prepared to pick up for distribution – i.e. to pre-buy and therefore to effectively co-finance. Boorman had to make the film using his own resources and to borrow a large chunk of the budget from the bank. He also received some Irish public funding. Only after the Cannes win did Warner Bros. agree to distribute the film in Europe. Boorman has argued that in the 1990s no studio would support black and white films because TV stations wouldn’t show them. His film was eventually released on home video in the US. The film was actually shot on colour stock and printed to monochrome and the version on MUBI is presented with almost all the colour bleached out and just some vestiges of pale colour visible in certain scenes. Boorman talks about lighting for colour and black and white at some length in an interview printed in Sight and Sound, June 1998.

Cahill’s gang meeting in a local snooker hall.

The ‘General’ of the title is the Dublin cat burglar turned gang-leader and ‘folk hero’ Martin Cahill who became a well-known figure in Ireland during the 1980s and early 1990s. He was assassinated in 1994 in a hit claimed by the Provisional IRA. Boorman credits Paul Williams for his book on Cahill published in 1995. Because Cahill’s story was so well-known, Boorman decided to start the film with his assassination and then narrate the events as one long flashback. His choice of black and white was also partly concerned with wanting to create some historical distance. It’s not difficult to see why Boorman was attracted to the story. Many of Boorman’s films feature protagonists prepared to take on the world and Cahill was a rebel, a very complex personality but also one easy to engage with, despite the vicious and cruel aspects of his behaviour. He is played in the film by Brendan Gleeson who in 1998 was just beginning to break through in lead roles in Irish films. From the photos I’ve seen Gleeson bears some resemblance to Cahill and he obviously researched the role carefully.

Cahill with the sisters he met as a boy (Frances on the left played by Maria Doyle Kennedy and Tina played by Angeline Ball)

Cahill was an interesting figure for several reasons but primarily because he was a working-class lad who, at least initially, became a thief and a burglar because of his family’s fairly desperate economic situation. In an early scene we see him refusing to be rehoused because it would mean losing his place in a community he felt comfortable living within. Later he developed a more sophisticated persona as a joker who was eventually rehoused by the council closer to the affluent suburbs of North Dublin and gradually his ambitions as a criminal developed substantially. He taunted courts and played the system quite intelligently while at the same time developing the kinds of habits that would trip him up eventually. He had no real vices apart from crime except for a love of posh cars and motorbikes – flaunting his wealth while still ‘signing on’ the dole. The ‘Robin Hood’ tag came about because he divided the spoils of his major crimes equally among his gang members. But he could also be horrendously violent to any of his gang who disobeyed orders and his criminal activity was also damaging to the community he purported to support. Boorman does not take sides. He presents Cahill in context and offers us a police inspector (a composite of real Garda officers) played by Jon Voight, who is in some ways a similar kind of a figure but with police authority behind him. I’ve only given a brief description of Cahill – there is much more to add that the film presents in interesting ways.

Adrian Dunbar as Cahill’s ‘lieutenant’ Noel Curley

I’m not sure why I missed this film in 1998. I certainly remember its release but I guess I must simply have been too busy with full-time work to be able to see it. I’m conscious that the image of Ireland within the EU has changed since the 1980s but Cahill’s story has remained within the consciousness of filmmakers. Joel Schumacher’s film Veronica Guerin (Ireland-UK-US 2003), about the killing of a well-known journalist, also features Martin Cahill and his gang and much more recently the Irish TV crime serial Hidden Assets (Ireland 2021) features the ‘Criminal Assets Bureau’ set up in order to trace and recover the money and valuables stolen by the likes of the Cahill gang. Hidden Assets stars Angeline Ball who in The General plays one of the two sisters from Martin Cahill’s childhood who he eventually makes part of his family – he married one and with her consent also had children with her sister. The other notable actor in The General is a young Adrian Dunbar who plays Cahill’s closest gang member Noel Curley. This is ironic in terms of viewing in the 2020s since Dunbar is now one of the key figures in the success of Line of Duty, the TV series about the unit investigating police corruption in the UK.

Cahill takes out a street light in one of several cleverly worked schemes

The other aspect of The General is the sense that this is about a city and a country that has changed profoundly over the last 25 years. Ireland has thrived as an EU member, in many ways overtaking the UK in wealth creation and liberating itself from many of the restraints that held back Irish society for so long. Boorman made a film exploring the effects of the so-called ‘Irish tiger’ economy in The Tiger’s Tail (2006), again starring Brendan Gleeson. Irish cinema has also developed, throwing off its much of its dependence on the UK and US and finding its own stories. The 1990s was also the time that Roddy Doyle’s novels about working-class life in North Dublin were filmed – The Commitments (1991), The Snapper (1993) and The Van (1996). The other impact on Irish life that has been important in changing the country was the Good Friday Agreement that came into force in December 1999 and which reduced the activities of the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries, both of which play a role in Martin Cahill’s story. He dismissed both sets of paramilitaries and this lack of political awareness was a major factor in his downfall.

The General is a very entertaining watch, made with real flair, crowned by a superb central performance by Brendan Gleeson and with strong contributions by the supporting cast. Boorman uses two Van Morrison songs on the soundtrack which work well. As well as streaming on MUBI, The General can be rented cheaply on Microsoft (but I don’t know which version this might be).

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:

Michael Walker 1942 to 2022

Michael at Il Ritrovato with friend Ogawa Sawako in 2014

If you are fan of the British-based Movie magazine you will have read some of Michael’s articles: if you are a regular or frequent visitor to either Il Cinema Ritrovato or Le Giornate del Cinema Muto you will likely recognise Michael: you may well have enjoyed his passionate and detailed discussions of both mainstream and art cinema: and you may well have read one or more of his major books on distinctive aspects of world cinema.

Michael sadly died earlier this week. For some years he had suffered from a rare disease which affected his lungs; a Covid infection was too serious for him, even with hospital treatment.  He will leave behind many friends who feel the loss and acquaintances who will not again enjoy his critical analyses, his humorous anecdotes and, notably, his generous hospitality.

Michael was born into a Yorkshire family close to Robin Hood’s Bay. After grammar school he went to Oxford University, studying science. But he quickly became keen on the movies and the varied types of film on offer in a university town; a happy provision that I enjoyed a few years later. When he moved to London he at first lived in a communal household: later he settled in Herne Hill: another famous but earlier resident was Ida Lupino, an actor and filmmaker that we both admired. Michael became a regular at the National Film Theatre; a venue that he attended and enjoyed throughout most of his life. He soon also joined the people involved in the journal Movie, launched in 1962. This was a journal with a fresh take on cinema and strongly influenced by the French theories on film and their engagement with the idea of auteurs and an emphasis on the study of mise en scène.

An early publication was a collaboration with Robin Wood (who introduced Michael to the Movie circle) on Claude Chabrol (Studio Vista, 1970). I remember Michael telling me that during the writing of the book he was offered the opportunity to go to France and interview Chabrol in person. Michael reckoned he was packed and ready to go in twenty minutes; a feat I could never emulate.

Michael was a frequent contributor to both the journal and to the several Movie book collections on Film Noir and on The Western. One of his major piece was on ‘Melodrama and the American Cinema’ in issue 29/30. He analyses a series of generic variations on melodrama, starting with the films of D. W. Griffith. An important aspect of the article is the treatment of the ‘Melodrama of Protest’; a genre to which Britain’s Ken Loach has made an important contribution. Sadly these days it is not that easy to access copies of the print editions of the journal; our local University library has only a few copies out of the three dozen issues.

Michael also moved into teaching in Further Education at the Isleworth Campus of Hounslow Borough College, (since 1993 West Thames College). He was based in the General Studies Department where I was fortunate to spend a teaching practice for a Certificate of Education training. The General Studies Department was a lively and stimulating staff group. Michael taught A level Film Studies. With his usual attention to quality and detail he had a basement room converted into a mini-cinema, with its own projection box. Wednesday mornings the two year student groups would gather to watch the week’s study film. The most memorable screening for me was Douglas Sirk’s 1959 Imitation of Life. This is a modern classic and the director a favourite of the Movie group. It does have a celebrated emotional climax; on this occasion the soundtrack was almost drowned out by the responses of the audience.

After retirement Michael was able to attend both Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, which for a few years moved to nearby Sacile. Both these archive festivals offered splendid but demanding programmes; for most years on 35mm prints. Apart from the films there were frequent meal breaks where there were lively discussion on the films, the filmmakers and some of the critical questions people raised. Michael was always fully involved in these discussions with a long and varied experience of cinema from all round the world. In 2018 he contributed an article on the classic Leave Her to Heaven for a volume on ‘John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama’ (John Libbey 2018) which accompanied a major retrospective at Il Cinema Ritrovato. And he contributed a review of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto to an online edition of Movie, including the interesting history of the festival. He was still able to attend in 2019 despite his illness, after which both cinema and social intercourse suffered from the pandemic and lockdowns.

Retirement also enabled Michael to bring together his years of viewing, critical discussion and research in a series of impressive books on film. The first addressed Michael’s long-term interest in motifs and later their companion concept tropes as well as his enthusiasm for Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s Motifs (Amsterdam University Press, 2005) studies all the Hitchcock films and a variety of motifs across the titles: predictably ‘Blondes and Brunettes’ and ‘Handcuffs and Bondage’: ‘Dogs and Cats’: intriguingly ‘Food and Meals’: and ‘Keys and Handbags’: among an extensive selection. The book also enjoyed appendices of material on the films and indexes that enabled cross-referencing by either title or motif.

The next book addressed contemporary films as ‘Modern Ghost Melodramas’ (Amsterdam University Press, 2017). Among the topics was ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ dealing with the Japanese Ring / Ringu cycle (1998 and 1999). He also discusses the Hollywood remake which he thought was pretty good. There is the ‘gothic strain’ with The Gift (USA 2000): there is one of my favourites, Dark Water / Honogurai mizu no soku kara as ‘Ghosts in the Women’s Film’: and some major film artists such as Jacques Rivette’s Historire de Marie et Julien (France 2003). It is an extensive study over 400 pages.

The most recent work deals with Michael’s longest and most intense study, film endings. Endings in the Cinema (palgrave macmillan 2012). The study is of endings as such and explores in particular the motifs and tropes found in concluding sequences. The sub-title presents the emphasis ‘Thresholds, Water and the Beach’. An index offers titles that include one for every year since 1942, the beach ending filmed on location being a somewhat modern phenomenon. Friends would advise Michael if they saw a film with a beach ending. He had a problem with one year, 1976. Happily a mutual friend, John, came up with The Eagle has Landed, which is also a canine ending.

Writing the books helped him to keep going as his illness developed. He was working on fresh studies: a contemporary subject ‘modern female spies’: and a long-standing interest ‘persecuted wives’. But he has left a rich legacy of books and articles on a wide range of films and cinemas. He also leaves his friends with many memories of screenings and festivals: of stimulating conversation on movies: and a number of wry moments and tales which still raise a smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a brief promo clip from an Australian streamer:

In Bed with Victoria (Victoria, France 2016)

Vicky and Sam, her ‘au pair boy’

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

Vicky out for the night . . .

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

Vicky with Vincent . . .

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

. . . and posing with her defence witness

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

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

Benedetta (France-Belgium-Netherlands 2021)

Benedetta is paraded before her trial begins

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

Charlotte Rampling as the abbess Sister Felicia

Lambert Wilson as the nuncio from Florence

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

Benedetta faces the soldiers guarding the city . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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