Agnès Varda has just had her 90th birthday and a season of her films is touring UK cinemas. If you’ve never seen an Agnès Varda film, you should seek out your nearest screening forthwith. Varda is a cinematic genius and Le bonheur is marvellous. On the DVD I watched, Varda introduces her film as part of a tribute to her by the TV arts channel ‘arte’. She chooses a vacant lot in her neighbourhood and, because arte is bilingual, she invites a young German boy to translate for her. The wasteland is decorated with posters for her films and she carefully positions herself for the camera so that the backdrop changes to the leaves of a group of saplings waving in the sunshine. She explains that she loves nature and she especially likes picnics, so in Le bonheur there are three. This intro is reminiscent of her autobiographical film The Beaches of Agnès (France 2008) in which she creates a beach on the street where she lives in Paris.
The setting and the approach to filming Le bonheur is in line with Varda’s ideas throughout her career. The location is Fontenay-aux-Roses, a small community in the South-Western outer suburbs of Paris. In 1964 it must have still been almost like a rural village. François (Jean-Claude Drouot) works for his uncle’s small carpentry company. Drouot is tall and handsome and at this time he was the star of a French TV historical adventure series set during the Hundred Years War – perhaps that is why Varda names him François Chevalier (i.e. a ‘knight’). Drouot’s own wife Claire plays Thérèse Chevalier and the couple’s own small children play Pierrot and Gisou Chevalier (none of them are professional actors). Unsurprisingly, family life chez Chevalier often feels like it is being ‘captured’ by a documentary camera – and this extends to scenes featuring other members of the extended family and some of the scenes where friends and neighbours visit the small house or meet the Chevaliers in social situations. (Thérèse is a dressmaker and young women come to her for a wedding dress.) The family are seemingly blissfully happy during these summer months. But Varda has ideas about what ‘happiness’ might actually mean. I guess I should warn you if you haven’t seen the film or heard about its reputation. Many audiences have found the film ‘shocking’ for a number of reasons. The UK film certification board gave it an ‘X’ in 1965 (no one under 16). The DVD I watched carries an ’18’ certificate but the BBFC website lists a ’15’ (confusion like this is not unusual as tastes and moral codes change over time). The ‘advice’ from the board is that the film contains ‘sexualised nudity’. But this isn’t what shocks.
I should place a SPOILER warning here.
I can’t really discuss the film if I don’t reveal the main plot points, so if you want to watch the film without any foreknowledge don’t read on until you’ve seen it. The plot is very simple. François is so happy in his marriage to Thérèse that when he meets an attractive Post Office counter clerk, Émilie (Marie-France Boyer), he feels that he can add to his own happiness by falling for Émilie and loving her as much as he loves his wife. For a time François makes love to both women, sometimes on the same day. Émilie has moved to Fontenay from Vincennes on the other side of Paris and she joins in the local social celebrations, on one occasion attending the same event as Thérèse. The situation can’t last. During an idyllic summer picnic in the woods, Thérèse tells François she’s never seen him look so happy. Unable to contain himself, François tells her about Émilie, assuring Thérèse he loves her just as much as before. He explains this with a reference to an orchard of apple trees. He’s very happy in the orchard with his family, but he sees a beautiful apple tree on the other side of the wall and decides to investigate. Now he is happy inside and outside the orchard. With their children asleep under a bush, François and Thérèse make love. When François awakes, Thérèse is gone. She has drowned in the nearby river, whether by design or accident isn’t very clear. A few months later François and Émilie are re-united with the two small children.
The film was a big success in France and around the world. The DVD carries a short discussion about the film involving four people, two journalists, a producer and a woman running a women’s charity. Two of these people saw the film on release, the others have seen the film more recently (the discussion is in 2005, I think). I suspect that the discussion points will probably be repeated by groups of people who see the film in 2018. The key issue seems to be what did the writer-director, an avowed feminist, want to say in 1964 when she shot the film? To expose the naïveté and arrogance of the man or to satirise ideas about family life and bourgeois ‘happiness’? But before making pronouncements it is a good idea to consider the formal aesthetics of the film. It is very beautiful to watch with images carefully composed and framed. Colour is used in dramatic ways. In her intro Varda explains how after 40 years the colours had faded but how, by painstaking work with original negatives, the restoration has reproduced the colours of the original.
The colours in the film are bold primary colours emphasised in two ways in contrast to the pastel shades of summer picnics. At one point, Varda’s camera (under the control of Charles Beausoleil and Jean Rabier, long-term collaborators with Varda and her husband Jacques Demy) discovers a series of shopfronts, each painted a single primary colour – red, blue or green. Did Varda repaint these buildings? A sunflower set against a field of corn is a study in yellow. Varda also challenges conventions by using fades and dissolves which are suffused by a single colour rather than the traditional black. She uses different techniques to show an instant rapport when two characters meet – cutting rapidly between close-ups. Similar camera techniques are used in other scenes. At one point the camera tracks left and right along a street party scene with locals dancing. As the camera passes a large tree in the foreground, the focus shifts and when sharp focus is regained, the dancers have changed partners. Thérèse is wearing a red dress, Émilie is in green. François dances with both women (there is no suggestion that the women know each other) among several other partners. This scene is a good example of how Varda’s documentary camera is allied to an expressionist sensibility – as it is in Cléo de 5 à 7.
Le bonheur is not a realist film with a sociological underpinning, despite the documentary feel. It’s a film of playful devices and moments of intertextualities. The colours and aspects of the plot link it to Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg – François met Thérèse during his military service and brought her back to Fontenay to marry. One of the strongest links is the tradition of al fresco eating that recurs in French art. At one point a film is playing on the TV set in the uncle’s home. The film is Jean Renoir’s 1959 Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Picnic on the Grass). Both Manet and later Monet produced paintings with the same title during the Impressionist phases. Renoir himself had earlier used the ‘picnic’ as a vehicle to set up a multi-narrative, including seduction, in Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country, 1936). In Renoir’s 1959 film an older character pontificates about happiness. The odd thing about this scene is that the film is in colour, but as far as I’m aware, French TV did not begin regular colour transmissions until 1967. This anachronism is repeated with a reference to Viva Maria!, Louis Malle’s film starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau together for the first time. It was not released until the end of 1965 in France but Thérèse tells François she wants to see it. She also asks him (while stroking his back) “Which one do you prefer, as a woman?” “As a woman, you”, he replies. There is then an immediate cut to the carpentry workshop where we see that the door to the food cupboard is festooned with pin-up images of Bardot – and one of Moreau. At first, I thought we see François opening the cupboard door, but it’s one of his workmates. Even so, the cut reminded me of that moment in Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist (1960) when a character swears on his mother’s life and a swift insert sees the old lady keeling over. Just before the Bardot/Moreau moment in Le bonheur, the image of François shaving is juxtaposed with a soap advert that fills the screen with ‘Un savon d’homme!’ (a soap for men!). The sequence immediately before this is a smiling Émilie behind the post office counter, clearly smitten with François. Varda tells a story completely through montage editing. The use of an advert is picked up in Amy Taubin’s essay for the Criterion DVD label which re-released the film in the US. She compares the film to Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (France 1967). That film takes ‘her’ to be both a wife and part-time prostitute as well as signifying Paris. The film is a commentary on consumerism and politics in the new, ‘modern’ Paris of 1966. In Varda’s film, made only two years earlier, the new high-rise flats of Paris are only glimpsed a couple of times in the distance. Otherwise her film is both ‘traditional’ in depicting small-town France and ‘timeless’ in its exploration of the mores of love and life and community. In the discussion of the film on the DVD, one participant sees it as a story set in a ‘Garden of Eden’.
I love this film. I’ve written nearly 2000 words and barely scraped the surface of what Varda achieved in 80 minutes. I will have to watch scenes again to see just how the editing works before thinking more about the carpenter and his lovely wife and beautiful children. And I haven’t even started on the stamps that Émilie sells and the posters in the Post Office.
In the original trailer below, you’ll see an iconic pop image of Sylvie Vartan but the music on the trailer is Mozart – two pieces which form the main music soundtrack of the film. I’m something of a philistine re classical music and on this occasion I found the Mozart too loud and too distracting but many others have commented on the music as an excellent choice, suggesting that it perfectly matches the tone of the comedy/drama.
HOME in Manchester starts its Varda screenings this week with a 1 hour intro by Isabelle Vanderschelden on Thurs 26th followed by Varda’s first feature La Pointe Courte (1954) and on Friday her latest film Faces/Places (2017) – Le bonheur screens Saturday 4th August. In London, the BFI Varda seasons continues this week and FACT Liverpool has several Varda screenings (Le bonheur on 8th August) as part of Liverpool Biennial 2018. Le bonheur shows three times at Watershed, Bristol in early August and Curzon has a ‘Gleaning Truth’ season of Varda films at various of its cinemas during August. There are other venues with similar programmes so don’t miss the opportunity this summer – check out your local specialised cinema!
Netflix and Amazon don’t interest me as subscription services – except that not being a subscriber means that it isn’t possible for me to fully understand what they mean for other cinephiles because I don’t know the full extent of what they show. I have used both iTunes and Curzon World to watch films, paying a fee each time, but MUBI represents something different. After 30 days of free viewing with a promotional voucher I’m now a subscriber at £1 per month for three months. They are certainly prepared to give me a long taster before charging me the standard £7.99 a month. At this point I do feel I’ve got a reasonable idea of how the service works and whether I would recommend it.
The MUBI model is to offer a new film (i.e. added to the current slate) each day. Once added that film is then available for the next 30 days. These titles are free to watch and re-watch over the 30 days for all subscribers. In addition, MUBI offers a rental section which is much more select than the big providers – just 128 films are currently available. These titles are available for rent for as little as £2.49 with a handful of current films costing £4.49. The rental period is standard – once you’ve paid you have 30 days to organise a viewing which must be completed in 48 hours once you start viewing. What kinds of films are on offer as rentals and as selected ‘film of the day’? On the whole these are definitely cinephile offerings. Many are ‘festival films’ – films which you are unlikely to find easily on a cinema release or even on DVD or Blu-ray in the UK. MUBI operates in several territories and has deals which enable it to put films in front of UK subscribers that could not otherwise be seen. I’ve already blogged on films by Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec that certainly fall into that category. All of the titles are ‘curated’ in some way, selected in accordance with various criteria according to auteur status, avant-garde, documentary etc. There are American independents and Hollywood auteurs such as the melodramas of Douglas Sirk at Universal or Jacques Tourneur’s Technicolor Western Canyon Passage. There are films from Europe, Latin America and Asia with a couple from Africa, but nothing so far that I’ve noticed from India. There is a small selection of films that MUBI has distributed itself – to cinemas and online. What else does MUBI offer? Curation means that you can dig quite deep into MUBI’s archives to find pieces written for its ‘Notebook’ on a wide range of films and topics. These pieces by writers, some of whom are familiar to me, are of varying lengths and complexity/access. MUBI’s sense of community is also fostered by its Twitter feed (and subscribers receive email alerts). One feature that is both useful and annoying is the provision of pages on lots of films that have been available in the past, may be available on other MUBI sites in different territories – and may return to the UK site. To give an example, there are eight films for rental from Walerian Borowczyk, but all 40 of his films have a page on the MUBI site. On these pages are cast lists and user reviews as well as links to appropriate Notebook articles.
I’ve actually been registered with MUBI since 2010 (it was previously known as The Auteurs), but have not subscribed up until now. I always understood that the idea behind MUBI was to generate a ‘conversation’ about films that was properly global, something this blog is obviously going to support. For a long time though I thought that I could be satisfied by the films on offer in my local cinemas. Alas I’m increasingly beginning to despair at what’s on offer and to worry that as I become more decrepit I won’t want to travel so far to watch films in cinemas. I haven’t actually reached that point yet, but it is comforting to know that there is a service out there. In the last thirty days I have watched around eight films on MUBI and dipped into a few more without as yet finishing them. The service is clearly worth £7.99 per month. My home broadband signal (very fast by UK standards produces a very efficient streaming service and I’ve no complaints about the quality of the image. I want to watch around a third of the films on offer, perhaps another third I’ve already seen and the rest don’t interest me that much, though I’m game to try some of them. The problem remains that watching on my TV doesn’t equate to seeing the films in the cinema – but the possibility of re-watching them is very appealing. Overall, I’d say that it is a worthwhile service that I look forward to exploring further.
MUBI was founded in 2007 by Turkish engineer and entrepreneur Efe Çakarel. It has had partnerships with several film-related organisations over the last eight years and is now available in several parts of the world via Mac and PCs, iOS and Samsung Smart TVs. In 2015 it was reported to have a global subscriber base of over 7 million.
This Thai film is exceptionally beautiful and invites the viewer to experience something at once universal but also highly specific. I had two different personal responses to it which I’ll quickly get out of the way, but which are both germane. The film’s English title makes me think of a song written and performed by Sandy Denny which was recorded in 1976 but not released until several years after her death in 1978.
Yesterday’s gone and will be forgotten
And today is where every new day starts
Got to be free as the leaves in autumn
You may be sad but it never lasts.
And maybe, by the evening we’ll be laughing
Just wait and see
All the changes there’ll be
By the time it gets dark.
It’s a beautiful song and has since been covered by Mary Black and others. It doesn’t appear in this film but the year 1976 is key. That was the year in which the film’s director Anocha Suwichakornpong was born. It was also the year that an infamous massacre of students by the Thai military took place at a university in Bangkok. This incident is central to the ideas behind the film. I’ve only visited Thailand once, for a few days in Bangkok en route to Japan in 1977. I’m ashamed to think that I don’t remember anything about that massacre (or even whether I was aware of it at the time). And in a sense that is what the film is about too – the impossibility of representing history through film as an art form. (The Thai title refers to a district of Bangkok but the filmmaker has said that it isn’t a ‘destination’ as such.) Anocha Suwichakornpong trained as a filmmaker in the US. She might have heard the song title there.
The film has no conventional plotting but it does have a narrative. It opens with compositions of individual women looking out of windows. One of them has a camera and we are looking at them from behind. Such framings through windows and doorways, sometimes emphasised by mirrors, occur throughout the film. We soon realise that this will be a film about filmmaking and that it will include a form of mise en abîme – a film within a film, or rather, different versions of the same film? A conventional film narrative appears to begin when two women arrive at a spacious and elegant country house. The younger woman, ‘Ann’ is a film director and she has invited the older Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), who was a student in 1976, to accompany her to the house and to be interviewed about her life. Before this moment we have seen what appears to be a re-staging of a military assault on young people. Ann is played by Visra Vichit-Vadakan who directed Karaoke Girl in 2013. The conversations between the two women skirt around Ann’s motives in making the film and Taew’s reluctance to see herself as an important historical figure. But the significant comment is made by a much younger woman who serves the couple breakfast at a forest café. This character, Nong, is played by Atchara Suwan, and she will appear in many scenes in the film. She’s a kind of ‘every working woman’ in Thailand – a waiter on a river cruiser with a restaurant, a cleaner in a hotel and head-shaved Buddhist novice. When she meets the two women in the café and learns why they are there, she tells the director that Taew should write her own story.
The events of the past with the political activity of the students and the repressive actions of the military are played out at various points. Later in the film an almost documentary study of workers on a tobacco plantation slides into a study of a young actor and pop musician, Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri). This shifts the focus away from the countryside to the city and the modern world of the celebrity. Ann and Taew re-appear but played by different and more ‘starry’ actors. Finally, we are in an edit suite. Is this the film about Taew about to be completed? There is a possible narrative twist in this sequence, but equally important is the focus on the artificiality of the filmic image. The final shots of the film reminded me of the extraordinary colours of The Tears of the Black Tiger (Thailand 2000), Wisit Sasanatieng‘s fabulous tribute to the Western and the romance film. During the sequence in the edit suite, which features some English dialogue, one of the characters appears to be named ‘Pang’. The Pang Brothers, Danny and Oxide Chun, grew up in Hong Kong before becoming well-known filmmakers sharing the main creative work on actions films and horror films in Thailand since 2000. I don’t know if this is a deliberate reference. I also noted the use of a simple but very emotional piano and string arrangement of a musical piece to accompany footage of Peter and his girlfriend and this reminded me of various East Asian romance films.
If all these seemingly disparate elements make this film sound as if it is difficult to watch or that it might feel incoherent, nothing could be further from my experience of watching it. What is surprising, perhaps, is that the film seems so calm and thoughtful, despite dealing with what is an almost despairing argument about a society which seems to be unable to confront its own history and narrativise and narrate it so that succeeding generations can learn how not to repeat the mistakes. But perhaps the calm approach is ultimately more fruitful? It isn’t really a problem solely for Thai cinema. We all have problems with our history and how it is represented. I should watch this film again and look out for more work by Anocha Suwichakornpong. I probably also need to learn more about Thailand’s history – as an Asian country that wasn’t colonised by the West, but has had close ties with Japan and conflicts with its neighbours (before and after colonialist periods). There are a couple of scenes in the films of almost deserted roads, some at night, which some reviewers have referred to as nods towards ‘Lynchian surrealism’. I didn’t get that, but I did think about Thailand as a ‘left-hand drive’ country, like Japan and India (and Hong Kong), despite the influence of the US and the switch to right-hand drive by the country’s neighbours. I guess what I’m saying is that By The Time it Gets Dark feels like more than an art film and that it appears to be saying something about Thai culture. But the film is a product of the festival circuit. Electric Eel Films is the Thai producer looking to make quality films but support also comes from Rotterdam and Doha Festivals, the Hubert Bals Fund and producers in several countries.
Last night I watched Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (Copie conforme, France 2010). Kiarostami died earlier this year so engaging with one of his later works seemed appropriate in this terrible year when so many great artists have been taken from us. But the immediate reason I watched this specific film was because a scene from it figures in one of 2016’s best films, L’avenir (Things to Come, France 2016). I hope to post on that film later so here I’ll just note that Nathalie, the central character of L’avenir played by Isabelle Huppert, visits a Parisian cinema on her own and watches Juliette Binoche as the lead character in Copie conforme. (L’avenir is carefully set in 2010 when Copie conforme was released.) This cinema visit is a bit like those once common in Godard films such as Vivre sa vie (1962) – in which the Anna Karina character watches Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) and tears run down her face. Nathalie has a different experience in her cinema, but it is equally a part of a complex study of her character. I’ve been working on Isabelle Huppert as actor and star, so I was intrigued that she is shown watching her only real rival as the star actor of contemporary international art cinema. This linking of films, ‘stars’ and directors sets up the whole debate about art cinema and its particular forms of intertextuality. In some cases what we get are direct quotes (so the clip of one film seen on a cinema screen in another – a ‘real’ film that becomes a social reference in a fiction film and perhaps a mise en abîme in which the filmic reference acts as a commentary on the fictional cinema visit). The Anna Karina reference is slightly different because it depends on the cultural background/memory of the viewer to identify a film from 34 years earlier. I’m sure there are other examples that other audience members might find more compelling (but this one seems very apt). References like these are fairly common forms of allusion in art cinema.
So how does this relate to Copie conforme? The Kiarostami film is the subject of a post on this blog by Nick Lacey (and an aside by Keith Withall who argues that it is a film “in which style appears to dominate substance”). I don’t intend to necessarily engage with either of the earlier posts. I’m most interested in the level of allusion in the film and how this relates to the film’s central idea and its significance (or otherwise) in contemporary art cinema. Copie conforme was Kiarostami’s first official feature shot in Europe (although he had previously contributed ‘segments’ to films such as Tickets (Italy-UK 2005). It is at once ‘Italian’ (all the action takes place in Tuscany) and ‘international’ (most of the dialogue is in English, some in French and some in Italian). The crew is Italian and Iranian but the whole production feels under the control of Kiarostami. The narrative covers a few hours when ‘Elle’ an art dealer played by Juliette Binoche takes a visiting British writer ‘James Miller’ (William Shimell) who has just given a reading/lecture to the Tuscan village of Lucignano which as well as being pretty and charming is also a favoured location for weddings and has a gallery well-known for a painting known as the ‘original copy’. Miller has written a book about artworks and the concept of the copy, arguing provocatively that the copy can have the same value as the original. While exploring this proposition, Kiarostami’s narrative has a twist in which the audience is asked to decide if the couple (i.e. Binoche and Shimell) met for the first time today and are falling in love while displaying the behaviour of an old married couple or whether they have been married for many years and were initially simply pretending not to know each other – perhaps to bring back memories of their own wedding in this village? In one sense, it doesn’t really matter what their relationship is. This is an art film and the artist is ‘playing’ with the form and with his audience. That is the nature of art cinema, but given the presence of a star like Binoche (a first for Kiarostami) there is also the possibility that a broader audience may be left dissatisfied by the ‘open’ ending. Critics were divided, so in Sight and Sound (September 2010) an enthusiastic Geoff Andrew interviews both Kiarostami and Binoche but in the reviews section of the magazine, Philip Kemp dismisses the dialogue as ‘banal’ and accuses Kiarostami of offering us a “faded facsimile, a paint-by-numbers reduction of a long tradition of European (mostly Italian) art films”.
Kemp does admit that Kiarostami’s “poetic eye rarely deserts him, and visually the film is sometimes captivating”. I think this is damning with faint praise. The camerawork and ‘staging’ (in this case, the use of locations) is excellent throughout. (In the documentary that accompanies the film on the Artificial Eye DVD, the Italian cinematographer Luca Bigazzi says that at first he could not understand Kiarostami’s approach and was not sure how to meet his requirements – but he seems to have caught on very quickly.) Philip Kemp’s critique suggests that Kiarostami is offering a copy and the ‘originals’ are films like Viaggio in Italia (Italy-France 1954) by Roberto Rossellini, La notte (Antonioni, Italy 1961) and The Sheltering Sky (Bertolucci, UK-Italy, 1990) with elements of Last Year in Marienbad (Resnais, France 1961). I’ll focus here on the first of these titles since my memories of the others are not very clear. The parallels between Rossellini’s film about an English couple on holiday in the hinterland of Naples and Kiarostami’s film about a couple in Tuscany are immediately apparent. Despite Elle’s local experience, she is still not Italian and with James she forms a ‘non-Italian’ couple subject to similar comments and assumptions by the villagers as experienced by Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) in Rossellini’s film. Although George Sanders was an experienced actor and a star player in Hollywood, he wasn’t familiar with Rossellini’s approach and Rossellini deliberately kept him in the dark so that his grumpiness became part of his performance. Kiarostami doesn’t seem to have treated Shimell as badly but even so his lack of acting experience means he is pushed into aspects of performance that might be uncomfortable. Some scenes in Copie conforme, such as the restaurant conflict between James and Elle, could easily be part of Viaggio in Italia.
The central relationship of the couple is actually different between the two films but we know that Kiarostami was aware of Rossellini – he was one of the leading Iranian directors who drew on the work of the Italian neorealists. I don’t want to explore this further – only to establish that the elements of ‘copying’ and ‘allusion’ are evident. They give me a lot of pleasure. As does the use of other allusions. For instance, the scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière plays a minor role as an older man (with his wife) who Elle and James meet. There is an entertaining discussion about a statue as a work of art (another Viaggio in Italia reference?) and then the old man gives James a piece of advice about his relationship. I found this amusing since Carrière is perhaps best known internationally for his collaborations with Luis Buñuel in the 1970s – in films that mock the codes of bourgeois behaviour. It’s important though in such comparisons of films, to remember that a film – a ‘time-based’ art form is not the same as a novel or a painting. I’m just as interested in the four films mentioned here because of their leading players – four beautiful, sexy and intelligent women around whose performances the narratives of these films are constructed. (Vivre sa vie isn’t one of the ‘copied’ films but the pattern of allusions made me think of her.) We don’t think enough about the star images of these actors in art rather than genre films. These four actors have different star images and it would be interesting to play the ‘commutation test’ game with them. This involves imagining switching the actors between films and trying to work out whether the narrative would change. I think Copie conforme would be a different film if ‘Elle’ was played by any of the other three. Each would bring with them different qualities from the kinds of films we associate with them. Bergman might offer a higher pitched and more melodrama type of performance. Huppert might be more matter of fact and Karina more vulnerable or perhaps more playful.
I think what I’m trying to say here is that art cinema (or whatever else we want to call these kinds of films) does not necessarily have to present us with an exciting narrative and the central theme doesn’t have to be ‘new’. I don’t mind the repetitions and in fact that is sometimes where the pleasure lies in comparing how auteur directors and their cast and crew handle similar set-ups. It occurs to me that this seems to be a justification for ‘postmodern’ films and I can hear Keith sharpening his pencil to correct me. However, I think the intertextual pleasures I discuss here were around before the 1980s and this is more about an institutional condition of a form of cinema in which a ciné-literate audience can create their own narratives and join in with the ‘play’. I note from the Criterion website that Kiarostami had already made a film with similar subject matter in 1977 and that The Report is now available on the Criterion Blu-ray of Copie conforme – it has rarely been seen outside Iran. After the 1979 Revolution, the Iranian authorities banned the film and Kiarostami felt unable to explore a failing marriage (possibly autobiographical in the same way as Rossellini?) in his next Iranian films. As Godfrey Cheshire comments in his interesting essay on the website, this suggests that Kiarostami was not just picking up on an ‘outmoded’ form of European art cinema, but also making a political gesture as part of his exile from Tehran.
In the clip below we see Jean-Claude Carrière giving fatherly advice to James. This was improvised so William Shimell looks suitably nonplussed.
The Here After is a début feature from Magnus von Horn, a Swede who attended the famous Łódź film school in Poland where he teamed up with a Polish student, Mariusz Wlodarski. After several prize-winning short films and a documentary, The Here After produced by Wlodarski with a partly Polish crew was an official co-production, shot in Sweden, in Swedish. The film, like many other European films, tapped into the regional film fund of Film i Väst and the credits also suggest some form of support from the National Film and TV School in the UK and the French film school Fémis. The Swedish production company involved is Zentropa International, one of many ventures associated with Lars von Trier who started the Danish Zentropa with his colleague Peter Aalbæk in 1992. Zentropa is now 50% owned by Nordisk and ranks as the biggest Scandinavian producer. With this kind of muscle it isn’t surprising that The Here After screened in Cannes and that it has received a release in Poland, Scandinavia and UK with France due in May.
Von Horn has adopted the strategy of telling us nothing about the characters or the situation and forcing us to learn as much as we can as the action unfolds. We see a young man, John (played by a well-known young Swedish pop singer, Ulrik Munther) who appears to be being released from some kind of secure institution. His father has come to collect him and drives him home to a farm where we meet his younger brother, his grandfather and the family dog. John’s mother is never mentioned. There is a great deal of tension between John and the three other family members but his situation doesn’t become clear until he returns to school and an extremely hostile reception from the other students. What has he done? We will eventually find out, but again not directly, only through piecing together what’s said and following the action. John will make a new friend in Malin, a girl who is new to the school and doesn’t know the history (but who is inquisitive). Otherwise, virtually everyone is suspicious if not aggressively hostile.
At first, I felt quite hostile towards the film, partly because von Horn adopts a visual style with lots of shallow focus and which along with other devices such as shooting through windows/doors, often in long takes, helps to distance the audience from the narrative. I understand that this expresses John’s state of mind but it isn’t easy to watch. I was surprised to discover afterwards that the film was shot by Łukasz Żal, the Polish cinematographer who was one of the two contributors to the look of Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013), one of the most astounding visual treats of the last few years. Much is made on the film’s website about the meeting of Scandinavia aesthetics and Polish emotional intensity:
“An over-aesthetic Scandinavian world clashes in the film with Polish sensitivity, creating a new Polish-Swedish quality in world cinema.”
“Łukasz Żal’s cinematography, enclosed in the sombre, sophisticated visual layer of the movie, enables the transition of the pain which accompanies the main character of ‘The Here After’ into an aesthetic experience. The world where John is doomed to live is meticulously scrutinised by the director. Von Horn and Żal have managed to wrap the bitter story in a soft, poetic form, giving rise to a remarkable sensitivity and a coherent cinematic language.” (See http://www.the-here-after.com)
There is a danger here of getting just a little too precious. As far as I can work out, the images are either drained of colour or it is particularly gloomy in Sweden in March (or May? – I couldn’t quite read the calendar on the wall). Either way, this is a world of predominantly blues, greys and greens. I think that I did eventually manage to gain some kind of entry into John’s world and the struggle may well have been worthwhile to experience ‘poetry’ and ‘sensitivity’. But I’m not sure that is what I wanted or expected from the film. I want here to speculate on issues of genre and representation. The Here After signs itself as an art film and as such has succeeded in getting widespread support. But I was also reminded of two other relatively recent films with similar narrative elements. The Swedish film Flocken (2015) has a similar visual style, a not dissimilar location and concerns a younger school student ostracised in her small community because she accuses a boy of sexually assaulting her. Flocken has not got a UK distributor and I wonder if it is thought too generic and not sufficiently ‘arthouse’? Another film which has something of the tone of The Here After is Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did (Ireland 2012). This latter film did get a release and Abrahamson has become a very successful director straddling arthouse and mainstream ‘quality film’. All three films share a narrative in which a teenager does something that ‘shocks’ a relatively small tightly-knit community, leading to disturbing group behaviour and the sense that the various social institutions involved are less effective than they should be – implying perhaps some kind of metaphorical statement about a failing society. I think this is potentially a genre topic and relates to a wide range of films that play with morality, group behaviour and sensitivity around youth and adolescence. Back in the 1960s this would have been classed as a ‘social problem film’ in the UK. Then the narrative would have been expected to deliver an authority figure who would ‘solve’ the problem, but in these recent films a lack of narrative resolution has almost become conventional.
The Here After takes place in an unspecified region, although both the director and the young lead are from Halland county in Western Sweden. It seems to me that there are several films which portray life for adolescents outside Sweden’s main cities as tedious and dull. One of the best known is Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål (Sweden 1998). The original title of the film is the cry of teenage girls bored to death with living in Åmål. (The film was sweetly re-titled Show Me Love for release in the US and UK.) The Here After focuses on the more violent behaviour of teenage boys, but also on the way in which some of them are supported by parents for whom group solidarity is more important than any form of moral behaviour or social justice. Like What Richard Did, The Here After is based on/inspired by a news story. Even if there is a ‘truth’ in such a narrative, it still seems to me that there is a danger of ‘typing’ small town Scandinavia as particularly dismal in terms of social relations. Perhaps there is some Swedish scholarship on these kinds of films?
The Here After has received almost universal acclaim – though not too many screenings. It opened on just 10 screens and on its first weekend took only £330 per screen. None of the reviews I’ve read seemed interested in the kinds of sociological questions I wanted to ask. If this is meant to be Sweden, the judicial system and the rehabilitation of offenders seems out of kilter somehow. Of the various reviews, Jonathan Romney makes the most telling point when he describes Ulrik Munther as ‘delicately handsome’ and suggests that his pop star profile is well exploited (at least in a Swedish cinema market context). But too many reviews simply see von Horn as a diligent student of Michael Haneke. I was impressed by Munther’s performance and I certainly appreciated the way tension was built up but I would have liked more in terms of narrative development and more for the audience to chew on.
Ich seh, Ich seh finally arrives in the UK as Goodnight Mommy after opening at the Venice Film Festival in 2014 and getting a release in several major territories in 2015. It hasn’t got much of a UK release (25 screens) with little promotion that I’ve seen from Vertigo. Yet, here is a beautifully-crafted film which surely has the potential to be a cult success. Its problem, perhaps, is a visual aesthetic that suggests art cinema and a number of narrative devices and generic tropes that suggest horror or psychological thriller. Inevitably, because it is Austrian, critics have made references to Michael Haneke and to potential metaphors about a Nazi past – possibly because the opening includes a colour film extract from what might be footage of the Von Trapp family singers. More importantly though, the film is produced by the other Austrian auteur, Ulrich Seidl and the co-directors and co-writers are Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz – Seidl’s nephew and partner. Franz has worked on Seidl’s films such as Import/Export (Austria 2007) and the Paradise trilogy (Austria 2012-13). Already it is clear that some horror fans are delighted with the film and others dismiss it – and at the same time, some audiences have problems with the clinical presentation. John Patterson in the Guardian uses The Babadook (Australia 2014) as a reference point – I’m not sure the tone of the two films is similar, but certainly there are some elements that are shared.
Outline (No spoilers)
The film relies on audience interpretations, playing with ‘reveals’ of narrative information – so many of the reviews risk spoiling the narrative. I’ll simply describe some of the things we see. Two boys of around 10 years old are playing in the countryside. Lukas and Elias are near identical twins, although one appears slightly smaller/skinnier than the other. They eventually return to a modern and stylish house on the edge of the forest. Their mother has her face heavily bandaged as if she has had cosmetic surgery or has been in an accident. She seems to treat the boys quite coldly with firm discipline. The boys react with disobedience and they begin to suspect that this woman is not their mother or that she has changed. A narrative of conflict develops. The film has only a few other marginal characters who visit the house and the boys take a trip into the nearest town, otherwise the action is confined to the house, the forest and the surrounding countryside. There is a resolution to the conflict and, in narrative terms, the film is a generic horror film/psychological thriller with possible narrative twists.
For me, the film draws on several classical tales and some well-known horror films. The scenario is in some ways reminiscent of The Others (Spain/US 2001)/The Innocents with a mother figure and children. The physical resemblance between the boys did confuse me and the fact that they are blond, ‘pretty’, intelligent and athletic/strong made me think of the Village of the Damned (UK 1961). When they wore home-made masks I thought about the out of control boys in Lord of the Flies. None of these film references imply anything beyond the fact that the visual style creates an atmosphere, a tone that is unsettling and that the presence of children in a scenario like this can easily shift from the domestic to the disturbing. I’m not sure about the suggested metaphors about Austria’s past, but certain images – of the forest, hide and seek in a field of maze, burning stubble after harvesting wheat (is burning stubble allowed in Austria?), a deserted town street, a dark lake etc. – do have a sense of foreboding or at least a hint of something that could go wrong. It is the expert handling of these images and the creation of ‘disturbance’ that works so well in the film. Later the conflict between the mother and the boys intensifies and becomes violent. I watched one sequence through my fingers because I’m squeamish, but I didn’t find the violence to be gratuitous.
I admired the film for both its craftsmanship and its creativity but I’m still not sure about its narrative. I was still puzzling over what might have happened hours later. There is already a complex internet discourse about what actually happens in the narrative and what is implied as having happened earlier. I would recommend the film and I wish it was getting more exposure.
I’m glad I finally got to see Youth. When I came out of a virtually empty cinema, I wasn’t sure exactly what I thought of the film. Later I looked back at what I’d written about Paulo Sorrentino’s previous film The Great Beauty (2013), which won so many awards, and realised that I’d felt more or less the same about that film. Both films are very beautiful with stunning cinematography by Luca Bigazzi, carefully chosen music and strong performances. Both also seem to be referencing Fellini and other art cinema directors in some way but, as I begin to reflect, the films are also significantly different.
I’m not sure about the technical reasons for this, but shooting in Switzerland creates incredibly clean and sharp images – is it a function of the light? Much of Youth is shot in an alpine resort and in the surrounding valleys. The location and several other shared elements made me think of Clouds of Sils Maria (France-Switzerland 2014). Both films feature older performers faced with younger counterparts and both in some way counterpose American and European culture. Interestingly (in the context of Brexit), the ultimate British actor, Michael Caine, does very well in this Italian film and is quite believable as a composer/conductor who has lived in Venice. He also looks remarkably like Tony Servillo, Sorrentino’s lead from The Great Beauty with his glasses and swept back grey hair. While I’m not very keen on Caine’s politics (as he espouses them) I’ve always been impressed by his acting skills (and despaired of his penchant for accepting parts in terrible movies). Play your cards right Michael and you could have a late career like Dirk Bogarde in interesting European films.
I suppose that Youth is indeed about the concept of youth – perhaps that notion that not until you are really old do you fully understand what youth might mean and what you can do with it. I enjoyed Paul Dano’s performance as a young actor who seems to be getting somewhere near the understanding that Caine’s character finally achieves. The Harvey Keitel character, Mick Boyle has rather more problems – including the heavily disguised Jane Fonda. It took me a while to recognise Fonda. What’s also different about this film is the reference to ‘real’ characters including the pop star Paloma Faith (playing herself) and actors representing the Queen and Prince Philip (referred to bizarrely by someone from the royal household as “the Prince Philip”) and Diego Maradona. Whether the actor playing Maradona (as immensely fat) is really playing ‘keepy-uppy’ with a tennis ball or whether it is CGI, I don’t know but it is a terrifying commentary on ageing and skill/talent.
Youth will stay with me in some form. At the very least it is good to have a reminder that films don’t need strong narratives to say something or simply to entertain. It may well be that it will repay a second viewing.
Art films, or more precisely foreign language art films, are struggling to find an audience in the UK. (Sight & Sound, February 2016 has an editorial bemoaning this situation and it was discussed in Keith’s post.) At the same time, the value of the videogames market keeps on increasing. It seems at least possible that some of those audiences who have stopped watching art films are now playing certain kinds of videogames. I hadn’t thought too much about making this connection until one of the guest critics on Radio 4’s Saturday Review (download here) remarked that certain kinds of videogames were for people who liked to work hard at ‘reading’ a story. It was probably Naomi Alderman (the novelist who writes about gaming for the Guardian), but all four reviewers of two videogames that have been successful in 2015 said that the experience was more like ‘work’ in that they had to take notes in attempting to construct a narrative. They compared playing videogames with both films and television – suggesting that TV, by comparison, was so ‘easy’ that if it were invented now there would be outrage about how it was rotting the brains of its audiences.
So, is this a useful observation? We need to be careful because there are so many variables in play here. First, it isn’t the so-called ‘specialised’ cinemas that are losing audiences. What they are doing is increasingly moving towards showing Hollywood blockbusters and Anglophone ‘quality films’. Audiences have stopped watching foreign language art films partly because they are difficult to find in cinemas. But they haven’t turned away from subtitles. On Sunday night Channel 4 started broadcasting a German language drama and has announced free streaming of several more series via its ‘Walter Presents’ offer (which looks very exciting). BBC4’s Danish/Swedish subtitled serial Broen ⎮⎮ Bron, which finished over Christmas, attracted on average 1.4 million UK viewers. The biggest audience for a foreign language film in UK cinemas in 2015 was not much more than 100,000 viewers.
We are constantly told that the videogames industry is bigger now than the film industry in value terms – and probably in terms of the number of players. Such comparisons are difficult to make. Games often cost much more to buy/rent than films (but probably provide better value in terms of hours of engagement). Videogaming also covers a wide range of different kinds of interactive experiences. I’m not able to compare them, but I suspect a game played on a phone while sitting on a train is a different proposition than the two games discussed on Saturday Review. One of these, Fallout, is a big budget blockbuster and the other, Her Story, is an ‘indie’ game. The reviewers found that both required ‘work’ to construct a narrative, but Her Story sounds nearest to the experience of art film, even though its potential narrative is closest to crime fiction, i.e. a supposedly ‘generic’ rather than ‘literary’ narrative.
I did once play computer games, back in the early 1990s. I eventually concluded that a) I wasn’t very good at it – I lacked certain skills and that b) I could also become addicted to certain kinds of relatively simple games. So I stopped. I realise that videogames are now much more sophisticated but I’m not really attracted – though I have read several compelling arguments about how they have helped advance ideas about narrative. The crucial question is not about the small group of dedicated cinephiles but about younger audiences who might enjoy videogames, subtitled TV dramas and foreign language art cinema. How should cinemas attract them back? How should we educate distributors and exhibitors so that they consider this audience and cater for it? Anyone got ideas?
Here’s the trailer for Her Story: