Tagged: feminism

The Worst Person in the World (Verdens verste menneske, Norway-France-Sweden-Denmark 2021)

Julie (Renate Reinseve) in the opening shot of The Worst Person in the World

Joachim Trier’s latest film, co-scripted with Eskil Vogt like his first four features, was nominated for two Oscars in 2022 after Renate Reinsve won the Cannes prize for Best Female Actor in 2021. It is distributed in the UK by MUBI, opening in cinemas in March 2022 and on stream since May 13th. Undoubtedly a major film release, the film has been widely discussed and I wondered if there was anything else to say about it, so I was surprised by some of the many reviews I consulted. I should have realised that beyond the usual ‘festival film’ audience there would be some audiences completely baffled by why the film received widespread critical acclaim. There were, as I expected, some negative reviews, mainly by feminist scholars. On the other hand I expected to read descriptions of the film which differed widely in terms of what the viewer thought they were watching. Finally, there were scenes which seemed to me important but were rarely mentioned. So, I think there are some points worth making.

Julie with Aksel in the first flush of attraction.

Trier himself says this is a film about love – following on from his American film, Louder Than Bombs (2015) that focused on grief. What he has produced seems to me a romance drama with some acute character observations and many sequences imbued with a comic edge. The film has been described as a romantic comedy by some critics and reviewers but I don’t think that genre classification fits. In its focus on the woman in a relationship with two men, it’s more akin to Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) – but the two men don’t interact with each other. More importantly, many of the familiar narrative conventions of a romcom are either not present or referenced in unconventional ways. The film was written specifically for Renate Reinsve, an actor who appeared in an earlier Joachim Trier film but who had become rather disillusioned by her lack of opportunities. She certainly repaid Trier’s faith in her performance. We should also note that this a humanist film in that sense that there are no good or bad guys, just finely drawn characters with the usual array of human traits. Trier also utilises a range of stylistic devices including a swift montage of scenes presenting Julie’s (Renate Reinsve’s) changes of direction as a twenty-something and a form of freezing the image while allowing Julie to move through time and space. At other times, the narrative makes good use of Oslo, an attractive city seen here mainly in summer.

The world stops but Julie can race through the city in its frozen moment

This is quite a long film (128 minutes) with sometimes leisurely pacing  – another way in which it differs from a conventional romcom. The opening shot reveals a pensive Julie in a slinky black dress on a terrace overlooking the city. This is from a key moment in the narrative and is held for a relatively long time. The narrative is then divided into chapters – a nod to earlier novels of a sentimental education? The opening shot cuts to the ‘prologue’ and the montage of an indecisive Julie in her twenties. This is followed by the first relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). The opening shot on the terrace then appears at the start of the sequence of events leading to the second relationship with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll just note that Aksel appears again in the third section, though not in a return to the previous relationship and an epilogue shows us Julie a couple of years further on (after Covid has had an impact).

Julie with Eivind. This shot seems reminiscent of La La Land – Trier has said that he did want to make a musical . . .

The examples of sequences that perhaps haven’t prompted that much discussion include Julie’s 30th birthday when she is welcomed by the female members of her family, but not her father who has again made an excuse not to attend. The sequence includes a montage taking us back in time through photographs of her female ancestors. A voiceover tells us that in every generation the women of her family had children by the time they were 30 – and many of them had already achieved important goals outside their family responsibilities. Her father’s absence is marked and followed up so that we see how much he has neglected her but has found the energy to have another daughter with a new partner. These scenes suggest two important pressures on Julie’s sense of self and and what she wants from life. The hostility/neglect by her father seems a classic psychological marker. Does she mistrust most men and expect them to fail her? At the same time her family history of women who have managed to both raise children and have careers in which they have succeeded and been recognised creates pressure and, in terms of her ancestors who were prone to die in their thirties (when Norway was a much poorer country), a sense of guilt – for not making the most of her advantages? It’s a potentially heavy burden. It also confirms that the narrative will centre on Julie – although Aksel also has a dramatic storyline.

Julie takes a different kind of trip . . .

Aksel is at the centre of another sequence which I am still struggling to read. He has become a successful graphic novelist, creating a character that clearly draws on a number of American creations including Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat series from the 1960s which were adapted for an animated film in 1972 by Ralph Bakshi. Crumb was a controversial artist during the period of the American ‘counter culture’ being satirical and anti-establishment but also guilty of ‘graphic sexual and violent abuse of women’. One short chapter in the film is titled ‘Bobcat Wrecks Xmas’. It covers the moment which should be Aksel’s career high when his graphic novels have, like Crumb’s, been adapted for an animated feature which has opened for the Christmas Holiday season. But this is not 1972 and Aksel is being grilled on a radio programme by a critic who he retorts is a ‘post-feminist’ after she refers to his ‘comics’ as ‘inappropriate and murky’, suggesting that his new film is out of date in the present climate. Julie is not with Aksel at this time and she catches the discussion on a video feed from the radio studio which appears muted on the screen in the gym where she is exercising. She quickly finds the feed on her phone and listens to the car-crash as the radio presenter loses control over her guests. Aksel seems more concerned that his work is not accepted as ‘art’ and sees this attack as part of a generational war. Julie, mouth open is both bemused and shocked perhaps. I won’t spoil what happens following this sequence but it did strike me as a sudden shift in the underlying sexual politics of the film. It is a somewhat ‘overdetermined’ reference to current debates. That opening shot of the film comes from the evening when Aksel’s graphic novel is being launched. His career as a writer/artist underpins his relationship with Julie. She works in a bookshop, he writes a book. He is also older – around ten years? Is that enough to make it a generational gap? Do we think of Julie on her running machine as being of the same generation as the young critic in the radio studio?

Julie and Aksel meet up again – in different circumstances . . .

When we consider the narrative as a whole, where do we start? I have to agree to a certain extent with my female friends and colleagues who see the film as an attempt by a man to make a film about a woman and to get it wrong in several ways. It’s been suggested to me that Trier seems very taken by the French New Wave films and in particular the ways in which Jean-Luc Godard put Anna Karina at the centre of his films without ever really giving her what might now be called ‘agency’. I decided to look closely at a couple of long reviews. Jessica Kiang wrote about the film for Sight and Sound (April 2022). She begins with the music playing out over the closing credits, Art Garfunkel’s ‘Waters of March’ (1975), and later in the review she refers to several other pieces of music from the film. I did listen to that closing track and I also noted a Nilsson song and something familiar that turned out to be Christopher Cross. But the one song that really caught my attention was ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ (1936), sung by Billie Holiday. Otherwise I didn’t really notice the music. I was quite surprised to go to IMDb’s ‘Soundtrack listing and discover a long list of titles – something like thirty-six in all. I’m not sure why they didn’t register but perhaps Kiang has a point when she concludes:

. . . if you’re a millennial watching The Worst Person in the World you get to be flattered by an ostensible critique, rather like how Warren Beatty must feel when he listens to ‘You’re So Vain’. If you’re anyone else, you probably don’t think this song is about you – because it isn’t – but still, the tune is catchy and the swirl of mood and melody is a supple if fleeting delight.

Kiang recognises that there is possibly a different reading for ‘millennials’ and those rather older, but she doesn’t think that is a problem. I don’t know which generation Kiang identifies with, but I’m sure she is younger than me. I think older audiences might be less likely to recognise how Julie feels and possibly less sympathetic towards her actions. More pertinently, one of the most acute analyses of the film can be found in Lara Staab’s essay The End Of Joachim Trier’s Oslo Trilogy; The End Of Art And Community’ in the feminist film journal Another Gaze. Staab considers the three films that Trier has made set in Oslo and covering the lives of twenty-somethings in the city. Significantly perhaps, although the characters are different in each of the three films, the lead male character is always played by Anders Danielsen Lie, which creates perhaps the same kind of sense of an alter ego for the director as might be found in, for example, the Antoine Doinel films featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud and directed by François Truffaut. Renate Reinseve has a small part in the second film in the trilogy, Oslo, 31st August (Norway 2011). This second film is a literary adaptation of Le feu follet the same novel adapted by Louis Malle for his 1963 film, reinforcing that sense of Trier’s interest in la nouvelle vague. I haven’t seen the first two films in Trier’s trilogy but Staab makes a strong argument in suggesting that the three films together explore several related questions:

What is a creative life, an intellectual life? What in art is authentic? Are the pursuit of art and the pursuit of love alike – full of suffering, frustration and disappointment? Is it possible to become an adult and to sustain an adolescent level of obsession with books, films and records? Is it possible to be a bit more sensible as an adult – fewer hangovers, less heartbreak when meeting girls and heroes – without becoming bourgeois? Above all, the trilogy is interested in the struggle to balance an intensity of feeling with the matter of everyday life.

Staab concludes what is a long and complex argument by suggesting that in the end this a narrative about the central male character in each of the three films (i.e. the character played by Anders Danielsen Lie), even if the epilogue of Worst Person presents us with what has happened to Julie. All those questions listed above are explored primarily in relation to the male character. Staab’s last line (directed at her young feminist readers?) is “If we identify with Julie, then we are left fatally separated from art, literature and one another, each alone in a room of our own. Is that what we want?”. This makes sense to me as a reading, though I still need to watch the other two films in the trilogy properly. I did enjoy watching The Worst Person in the World very much and especially Renate Reinseve’s performance but the ending is a disappointment. Trier in the Press Notes interview suggests:

This film deals above all with the individual Julie, I did not want to give a presentation on “the woman of our time”! This aspect of looking at the feminine naturally makes its way into the film, through sincere, humorous, satirical situations, and through various anecdotes that I have experienced or imagined.

I think that filmmakers can intend to do something for audiences, but they can’t control how audiences decide to make their readings. So, you takes your choice.

The Worst Person in the World is now accessible in the UK on most major platforms. MUBI has all three films of the trilogy on offer.

How to Be a Good Wife (La bonne épouse, France 2020)

The staff and students of the school. (all photos courtesy Memento Films ©) Carole Bethuel

Comedies are often the most difficult films to write about and foreign language comedies or even same language comedies from different cultures are more difficult still. This is certainly the case with How to Be a Good Wife. Cineuropa has labelled the film an ‘arthouse comedy’ which I find a little puzzling. This seems to me to be a mainstream film in terms of genre and narrative structure. The only things ‘arty’ about it are some of the cultural references for audiences outside France, including the concept of the farce. I can’t think of another film with quite the same mix of elements though the romcom/sports film Populaire (France-Belgium 2012) has some of the elements and is even photographed by Guillaume Schiffman who shot How to Be a Good Wife. I’ve also seen references to some of Francois Ozon’s work such as Potiche (France-Belgium 2010). But with Potiche we enter discussions about well-known auteurs and there are some reviews that suggest that How to Be a Good Wife is simply not in the same class and that Ozon or Pedro Almodóvar would do a better job.

Paulette fronts a TV report from the school

Here is the plot outline of How to Be a Good Wife which features Juliette Binoche, Yolande Moreau and Noémie Lvovsky – all excellent. It is the start of the school year in September 1967 and at a small private school for ‘young ladies’ in Alsace the three teachers are awaiting the somewhat reduced number of girls for the current session. This is one of the many such French institutions that taught girls to be fabulous homemakers and dutiful wives and mothers, but little else. The headteacher Paulette (Binoche) is married to the school’s owner who does little except spy on the girls, otherwise the couple’s relationship is not going well. His sister Gilberte (Moreau) is not married and pines for love. The hardest-working of the trio is Sister Marie-Thérèse. The film has two conventional themes. One is surviving as an institution and the other is the prospect of romance and liberation for Paulette and Gilberte – and for the 17 year-old students. For this, the timing is crucial because the school year will run through to May 1968 when an annual school trip to Paris is scheduled. Feminism is just beginning to creep into the mindset of the wider public in France and the film includes several direct references to the changes that are happening. It also includes a couple of historical references to the aftermath of war and one incident that some audiences may find shocking in the context of what seems a frothy comedy. This insertion of some ‘serious’ elements has been a factor for critics and reviewers to claim that the satire on political and social change is badly handled.

Gilberte and the girls cook a celebration meal

The film’s director is Martin Provost who co-wrote the script with Séverine Werba. Provost has built a reputation with four previous features each focusing on a woman as the central character. Seraphine (2008), Violette (2013) and The Midwife (2017) all made an impact but not in UK cinemas. Yolande Moreau played the painter at the centre of the biopic of Séraphine Louis, Emmanuelle Devois played the writer Violette Leduc and The Midwife featured Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve. This use of well-known stars and star-actors attracted audiences in France. The current film was released in France in 2020 and the whole release, both domestic and international, has been somewhat curtailed by the pandemic.

Sister Marie-Thérèse is the comic figure who is in many ways the most capable – a familiar fenre figure

What to make of it? I enjoyed the film and in particular the three central performances. La Binoche has what seems like a lot of fun. There is a fourth character who offers Paulette romance. He is played, again with gusto, by Edouard Baer. The film is bookended by two set pieces. In the first, Paulette introduces the the new girls to the school’s curriculum which will teach them the important lessons of becoming a homemaker, wife and mother. She does this formally using a blackboard and teacher address. At the end of the film she repeats the procedure but in the form of a musical number which some have dubbed a ‘Jacques Demy’ take-off. I love Demy and I thought this was fun. I suppose the question is whether younger audiences who have no knowledge of the 1960s ‘liberation’ of women and young people generally, will respond to the ways in Provost stages many of the scenes. I don’t see why not. There are several important messages delivered quite cleverly. I’m sure it’s still a revelation that up to this period a woman couldn’t open a back account without a husband’s consent. The film did remind me in some ways of British boarding school comedies of the 1950s in the way that the context brings the students and teachers together. Schools like the ‘École Ménagère Van Der Beck’ (domestic science school) were still relatively numerous in France up to 1967, but none survived after 1968. 

Paulette and the bank manager enjoy a fling

This film is in a CinemaScope ratio and the bright colours show off 1960s ideas about fashion. The music score by Grégoire Hetzel seemed to work for me. I’m sure there were some contemporary songs played diegetically but I can’t find the titles. The girls in the school, with a handful picked out for brief narratives of their own, are well cast and believable as 60s young women. I would say that this is an enjoyable mainstream film but I recognise that for some it’s Marmite – something to love or to hate. I hope I’ve given you enough insight to make up your own mind. I don’t think the film has a UK distributor yet.

Here’s the Australian trailer (with more spoilers than given above):

La belle saison (Summertime, France-Belgium 2015)

An early meeting of the MLF in Paris in 1971

This film was recommended to me and I’m very glad I managed to watch it on BBC iPlayer. Unfortunately it will have left when you read this, but it may be streaming elsewhere. It offers a narrative about being part of the early feminist movement in France in 1971, but presents it in the form of a lesbian romance. It’s very much a product of women’s filmmaking in France, written by Catherine Corsini and Laurette Polmanss, directed by Corsini, produced by Elisabeth Perez and photographed by Jeanne Lapoirie. The narrative is straightforward. Delphine is a young woman who has grown up on a farm in the Limousin Region of South-West Central France. It’s the least populated region in France. Delphine is clear about her lesbian identity but also aware of her parents’ wish that she would marry her childhood friend Antoine. She decides to avoid confrontation by making a move to Paris, taking a job at the retail distribution company Félix Potin and by accident meets a group of women making a street protest about women’s rights. Through this chance meeting she becomes involved with Carole, a teacher of Spanish and one of a group of feminists. There is an obvious attraction between the two and Carole will eventually leave her (male) partner for Delphine. When Delphine’s father has a stroke and she must return home, Carole decides to visit her ‘on the farm’. But can they continue their affair? What’s possible in Paris might not be accepted in rural France.

Carole and Delphine together in rural France for the first time

I enjoyed this film a great deal. One attraction was to see Cécile de France in the role of Carole. It’s a difficult role in some ways as the character’s behaviour moves between being open and supportive and sometimes being more reckless and allowing her political aims to affect her personal relationships. I think I first saw Ms de France in L’auberge espagnole (2002) in which she plays an Erasmus student. She does not seem to age and I was surprised when I realised that she was approaching 40 when she made this film. The storytelling in La belle saison doesn’t offer some of the conventional information we might expect from a story like this, so we know little of Carole’s background. How old is she meant to be? And what kind of teaching does she actually do? Is she really a free agent, able to drop everything to join Delphine? The narrative moves so swiftly and so confidently that neither of these questions occurred to me at the time. Cécile de France may be the star but the central character is Delphine played by Izïa Higelin. Ms Higelin is both an actor and a singer and in 2015 she had relatively little feature film experience – this was just her third film (her second was Samba 2014). As with Carole, it isn’t quite clear how old Delphine is meant to be. Izïa Higelin was in her early twenties when she played the role. (The film’s Press Notes suggest that Carole is 35 and Delphine is 23, but if that is stated, I missed it.)

Delphine (Izïa Higelin) is in the character most challenged by changes in the early 1970s

Why am I so obsessed with the age of the characters? I think it’s because the discourse of ‘womens rights’ in 1971 is so concerned with what women are ‘allowed’ to do. Delphine is a confident, assertive young woman in Paris, discovering that she can take part in the activities of the group which includes Carole. But back in Limousin she is aware that it is simply not done for women to act in certain ways and that if she does so she will offend her parents or alienate the other farmers (in what seems like a co-op operation), especially Antoine. Carole can be reckless, but Delphine needs to be careful – although she has the capacity to act if she thinks it through. My memories of 1971 in London seem to be more about the emergence of the Gay Liberation Front (which met for the first time at the LSE a few months after I graduated). The Women’s Movement in the UK seemed to have been around for a while and women I knew were already becoming politically active in different ways. It’s important to note that two important changes in the law in the UK were the 1967 Abortion Law Reform Act (and access to the Pill for all women via the NHS) and the 1970 Equal Pay Act meant that women in the UK were ahead of French women in these two cases.

Carole (Cécile de France) with Monique (Noémie Lvovsky). (Great cheesecloth shirt)

In France in 1970 many prominent women signed the ‘Manifeste des 343 salopes’, claiming to have had an illegal abortion themselves, while also demanding the legalisation of abortion. The Bobigny affair (and trial) in 1972 saw many people including the new feminist movement (MLF), come to the support of five women (and their lawyer, Gisèle Halimi) who were tried for helping a teenage girl to have an abortion. During the May ’68 events, scholars have suggested that women engaged in the uprisings saw the positive opportunities for challenging the established sexual order, but also the negatives in terms of male activists not prepared to change their attitudes and behaviour towards female comrades. As a result, the development of MLF (Mouvement de Libération des Femmes) arose from the coming together of women’s groups established in the late 1960s. This issue is there in the views expressed by some of the women in the MLF meeting represented in La belle saison.

In 2018 I taught an evening class alongside Dr. Isabelle Vanderschelden, French Section Lead at Manchester Metropolitan University, and the historical details outlined above came from our notes. Isabelle used a clip from La belle saison and told us that:

The film’s characters are named after two emblematic feminists of the 1970s: the actress and filmmaker Delphine Seyrig and the experimental filmmaker Carole Roussopoulos, who founded together in 1982 the ‘Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir’, whose main objective was to collect, produce and broadcast films and audiovisual documents on the rights, struggles and artistic creation work of women.

Isabelle also added that:

Corsini also wants to place the film in the context of social events in 2010s France – including the ‘mariage pour tous’ debates and the legislation of 2013 in France which enabled same sex marriage.

This ties in with some of the comments made by Catherine Corsini (b. 1956) in the Press Notes when asked why she chose to set Summertime in the 1970s:

I really wanted to pay tribute to feminist women, who have often been vilified, called sex-starved neurotics . . . For years I haven’t really been a true feminist myself, I almost agreed with that vision of them. But I quickly came to realise that I owed many of the benefits I live by today to these women who fought and campaigned for them. Many of them were homosexual. Thanks to this movement, they were finally able to make themselves heard. Actually, the homosexuals have really been instrumental in the emancipation of women in general. I was appealed to by the vitality, the audacity of the feminist movement. I don’t see anything quite similar today. I realised that feminism puts the human element first, and it has been the main principle in the writing of the film.

This was the first film that Catherine Corsini made with her partner Elizabeth Perez on board as producer. The film certainly celebrates the lesbian romance. The cinematography captures the beauty and joy of working in the rural landscape in ‘la belle saison’ and especially when the couple’s lovemaking is depicted outdoors as well as in the bedroom. There may be too much flesh on display for some viewers (based on some user comments I’ve seen online) but I didn’t find it gratuitous. More interesting is Carole’s relationship with Delphine’s mother Monique (Noémie Lvovsky). Carole is motivated by both simple goodwill in enjoying working with Monique, but also by her wish to promote the idea that women can run farms and be leaders in the community. This illustrates the basis for tension in the household as Delphine recognises that she can’t push too hard. The men in the film who are ‘personalised’ (as distinct from those who are physically attacked by the MLF group) are not criticised as such. They are seen as having to deal with what is happening. But the narrative isn’t really interested in them as actors in this particular story.

Antoine (centre, Kévin Azaïs) has to come to terms with Delphine’s decisions

The narrative resolution of La belle saison is ‘open’ with an optimistic sense of looking forward but it isn’t a conventional ‘happy ending’. The film is nostalgic for those of us who lived through the period and I certainly responded to the long hair and those cheesecloth shirts that took me back to the early 1970s. (Also the Janis Joplin tracks – see the trailer below.) I can understand some of the criticisms of the film but I think that Catherine Corsini succeeded in doing what she set out to do. If you agree and you enjoy this film I would also recommend Corsini’s earlier and later films Partir (Leaving 2009) and Un amour impossible (An Impossible Love 2018), both reviewed on this blog.

Daisies (Sedmikrásky, Czechoslovakia, 1966)

Nutty Czechs anyone?

Nutty Czechs anyone?

Vera Chytilová died in March and Daisies is probably her most celebrated film; it is brilliant. Two Marias (Ivana Karbanova and Jitka Cerhova) waltz through the film on an anarchic romp which starts off with them eating apples. The symbolism is obvious, as is the bananas, sausages and hardboiled egg that they snip at with scissors while a would-be lover claims he’s in love (by which he means lust). It’s slightly peculiar to say that the girls (Peter Hames in The Czechoslovak New Wave states they are 17) are trampling on bourgeois sensibilities in a so-called communist state, but the privileged middle classes obviously existed there too. In a nightclub, where the clientele are being entertained by the  Charlston, the Marias randomly drink others wine and generally make a nuisance of themselves. They allow themselves to be taken to restaurants by older men only to bail out before the men have their ‘wicked way’. They also decimate a banquet, evidently laid out for an audience listening to Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods (where the bourgeoisie meet their fate).

The film’s epitaph sums it up: ‘This film is dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is trampled on trifle’. There’s plenty of trifle in the final scene, flying around in true slapstick fashion and the anarchic comedy of Max Sennett is clearly a touchstone for Chytilová as parts of the film are speeded up in the manner that ‘silent movies’ used to be. Czech surrealism, such as Jan Svankmajer (in scenes of pixilation – animation using live actors), is also evident as some of the art movements of the 1960s, such as ‘cut ups’. It’s a terrific brew of full of humour and brio and, most of all, feminism.

The film opens, and ends, with images of bombing. I took them to be a reference to the Vietnam war. The girls’ adventure starts by them deciding that everything’s spoiled in the world. Hence, their assault on bourgeois sensibility is an attack on the way the world was at the time; and it’s still like that. Clearly Chytilová was attacking more than trifles.

I was reminiscing about university with a friend and she remembered that she was part of the ‘300 group’ that aimed to get 300 MPs into Parliament. That was over 30 years ago! This film’s nearly 50 years old and the battles for equality between the sexes still need fighting. Young women could do far worse than learn some attitude from these Marias.