Every Claire Denis film offers something new – whether in terms of narrative structure, narration, representations of characters, places or social issues. Let the Sunshine In, which screened at Cannes last year, was ‘slipped in’ between other projects. I’m drawing here on an interview in the English language Press Pack for the film. Denis and her usual collaborator, the cinematographer Agnès Godard, worked on a short text by screenwriter Christine Angot, that Denis had seen ‘read’ by actors she knew, to produce a 45 minute film during a year-long workshop at the Fresnoy National Studio of the Arts. When Denis was then asked by producer Olivier Delbosc if she would become one of a group of directors making a compendium film based on Roland Barthes’ 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, she remembered the short film and contacted Angot. They decided to make their own feature, ditching all of Barthes except for the word and the concept of ‘Agony’. They must have made an impressive pitch because Delbosc agreed to produce their film.
Denis and Angot decided to draw on their own experiences in creating the film (so some of the men are played by fellow directors), but they knew that they needed a unique actor to perform the central role of the woman who searches for but never quite finds love.
. . . we realised it had to be Juliette. Juliette Binoche stood out to us as the ideal vessel for the role of Isabelle. The screenplay called for a creamy, voluptuous and desirable feminine body: a woman whose face and body are beautiful, and whose demeanour in no way conveys defeat. Someone for whom in love battles, victory is still possible, without, however, ever assuming that the outcome is certain.
There is a tease here, naming this character ‘Isabelle’ and it’s fun to ponder how different the film would be with Huppert (riveting lead performer in White Material for Denis) rather than Binoche. But this character is definitely Binoche presented exactly as Denis described. Denis also chose very specific costumes for her such as the mini-skirt and thigh-high boots, the leather jacket and deep V-neck tops. Juliette Binoche looks stunning and as Ginette Vincendeau comments in Sight and Sound, May 2018, “she is, as ever, a major reason to see the film”. So too is the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu at the end of the film. But, apart from La Binoche and Le Depardieu, does the rest of it make any sense? A quick glance at IMDb will reveal quite a few 1/10s and “Worst film ever” comments.
Isabelle is an attractive artist in her 50s, estranged from her husband François (but not averse to the occasional tumble with him) and seemingly not too concerned that her 10 year-old daughter stays mainly with her father. When we first meet Isabelle, she’s in bed with a banker and later she beds a younger actor and then, on a trip to an arts festival, a man she meets in a bar. She flirts with others and may yet end up with the gargantuan Depardieu whose ridiculous patter as a mystic is clearly designed to entice her (though she may well yet end up with the one of the few charming men in the film, played by Denis regular Alex Descas). I’ve just outlined the entire plot.
The point of the film, presumably, is to be found in these various encounters and what they tell us about how Isabelle seeks her idea of love. This search certainly does seem to create ‘agony’ for Isabelle and possibly for us. Like many Denis films Let the Sunshine In refuses easy identification as a specific genre film or even a mix of genres. A renowned French critic like Ginette Vincendeau is reduced to wondering if it is a kind of romantic comedy or ‘woman’s picture’. Vincendeau takes a wrong turn, I think, by querying the lack of elements of social realism (Isabelle’s lack of concern about her daughter, only the briefest glimpse of her working life as an artist) and concludes that the film ‘s location work, which she takes to be a nod towards the original New Wave auteur productions on the streets of Paris, seems to unconsciously juxtapose the obsessions of the wealthy with the everyday lives of the mass of Parisians. I do agree with Ginette Vincendeau that there doesn’t seem to be a feminist agenda in this work by a quartet of experienced and accomplished women in French cinema (director, writer, cinematographer and star). Isabelle has only two meaningful discussions with other women and in both cases it’s about men so there is no chance the film will pas the Bechdel test. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. The whole #MeToo campaign has tended to fare less well in France where many powerful women in film and TV tend to react against easy assumptions of what it means to be a feminist. On the other hand, I would argue that there are more women in leading creative roles, especially as directors in France. I can’t see Claire Denis ever taking any shit from anyone.
Vincendeau argues the film isn’t a romcom (but could the rare sub-genre of the ‘intellectual romcom). She also comments that if it is any way a ‘woman’s film’, it’s a very French version of such a film. At times I did shake my head and wonder what was going on, but I also laughed out loud a few times and behind me in the cinema were female laughs that were much louder. The lack of realism or of conventional motivation for action didn’t bother me too much once I’d realised it wasn’t necessarily meant to feature. I think you could argue that the film is a satire on an echelon of men in the Parisian arts community (and the business community) – and its also a critical look at Isabelle herself. In a key sequence Isabelle is berated by a gallerist for taking up with a man who is not from her mileu – he’s too working-class (I must have missed the clues to his class position). What Isabelle does next is unforgivable – but perhaps it is honest? Two scenes involve similar exchanges between characters in which they skirt round the central thing they want to say. It becomes so annoying that you want to march onto the set and give them a slap. Just get on with it! But again, this is what conversations are often like. The script is mainly dialogue and it’s very clever.
When Alex Descas appeared, late in the film, my heart lifted. Two scenes that followed linked via Descas to the Denis film in which he was a lead actor, 35 rhums (France 2008). At one point a long shot show Isabelle close to a major Paris station with its many railtracks and in another she dances in a bar to the fabulous Etta James singing ‘At Last’. Again, I’m not sure what to make of this but I’m sure other Denis-watchers will have noted them.
I f you are wondering about the title and the way it is translated literally on prints for English-language audiences as in the poster above, it comes from the Depardieu speech at the end of the film. He urges Isabelle to ‘open’ (and uses the English world). I think he then uses the (French) title with the meaning that she will open herself to a sunlit interior. I may have got that wrong because Denis decided on a strange strategy in which the credits rolled down the right side of the screen as Depardieu gave his long mesmeric speech in close-up. Reading the credits and the subtitles and trying to focus on that enormous head and shoulders was virtually impossible. Nice font though and by the way the film is presented in 1.66:1, giving more emphasis to the talking heads. I should watch this film again. I rarely ‘get’ a Claire Denis film first time round. Here’s a clip from the film:
It was a rainy Saturday night with nothing on TV so we rented Words and Pictures. I selected this on the basis that it was a Fred Schepisi film starring Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen and it was described on iTunes as a comedy. This film wasn’t, as far as I’m aware, released in UK cinemas. That says more about assumptions about UK cinema audiences than the quality of the film. And I think that older audiences might enjoy the film. Yes, it’s highly conventional and predictable but Binoche grappling with Clive Owen is always going to be watchable.
The setting is Vancouver standing in for somewhere in New England where Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is an English honours teacher in a prep school, having once been a promising writer. Things are not going well for Jack. His students are not engaged and his son barely speaks to him (I don’t remember any references to the young man’s mother). As a result, Jack is hitting the vodka and his tenure at the school is starting to look precarious. The ‘inciting incident’ for the narrative is the arrival of a new ‘fine art honours’ teacher Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). She’s beautiful, intelligent, and talented – and she has rheumatoid arthritis which is developing quickly. Jack is woken from his slumber by her arrival and he playfully challenges her with word games. He’s surprised when she promotes her art work over his literature with the students she shares with him. He retaliates with a challenge to show that the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true. (He also recognises that the challenge may produce student work to fill his ailing school magazine – that the principal intends to close down.)
The setting and plot do perhaps suggest Schepisi’s fellow Australian Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society and in a different way, The Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts. But those films combined the question of what happens to ‘maverick’ teachers with the story of the impact of their teachings on their students’ lives. Words and Pictures is really only interested in the students as devices to develop the storyline about the potential romance between Owen and Binoche. I don’t think that it is a conventional romcom, however. It is certainly witty and there are moments when it seems about to get serious about the afflictions suffered by the two teachers, both of whom struggle to get back to their best artistic endeavours. But in the end, Jack’s alcoholism seems rather too easy to overcome and Dina’s arthritis is similarly suddenly controllable by medication. A conventional ending beckons and this is indeed mainstream entertainment. The pleasure is in the central pairing. I think Clive Owen is a very under-rated actor and here he is presented as dishevelled, bleary-eyed and far from a romantic lead, but he makes the character work. Juliette Binoche produced her own artworks for the film and the scenes of her composing her large paintings despite her disability are very well done. The two leads work well together.
The film seems to have suffered from an unusual limited distribution pattern over the whole summer of 2014 in North America, but only in a maximum of 216 cinemas for a few weeks and the rest of the time much smaller numbers – I’m assuming that for several weeks it only screened in Canada. It doesn’t seem to have been released in the UK or France. I hope it has found its audience on DVD and download – this is the kind of small film that has been most squeezed in the market over the last few years and it’s the kind of film we miss.
The Wait turned up in my film rental list. I’d put it on the list because it features Lou de Laâge who was so impressive in Anne Fontaine’s Les innocentes. I’m glad I made that call because I enjoyed The Wait, which I missed completely when it snuck into UK cinemas in July 2016, seemingly without any promotion at all. This is surprising since it also offers Juliette Binoche in the début feature of Piero Messina, assistant director on Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. Messina co-wrote and directed The Wait and composed some of the music.
The setting is a villa in the mountains of central Sicily with Etna as a brooding presence in the distance. Here Anna (Juliette Binoche) is in mourning. The film opens with a highly stylised presentation of what we assume to be a funeral – taking place a few days before Easter. As far as I can make out the time period is around 2002 (a TV programme shows Pope John Paul II and there are no smart phones or social media representations). Anna gets a phone call and her ‘retainer’ Pietro collects a visitor from Catania airport. This is Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), the girlfriend of Anna’s son Giuseppe, flying in from Paris. He has invited her to the villa, but hasn’t himself arrived yet for Easter. The rest of the narrative is taken up by ‘the wait’ for Giuseppe’s return. There are several clues to what has happened but Jeanne is kept in the dark – literally at times in the villa. Eventually Anna begins to ’emerge’ and to engage with Jeanne, taking her to a lake to bathe and to a Turkish bath and a museum of antiquity.
The Wait is very beautiful (Sicily is very beautiful) – but it is also very slow. Fortunately Ms Binoche can say nothing more eloquently than most actors and Ms de Laâge has plenty of presence herself. Nothing is resolved, but when Jeanne invites a couple of young men back for dinner there is a climactic moment which will in one sense end the wait. The last section of the film moves into what appears to be a fantasy sequence, aided by the Easter celebrations in the local town. The first time I saw a Good Friday procession (in Madrid many years ago) I was deeply disturbed by the hooded men dressed like the Klu Klux clan. Here, Anna is part of a huge celebration of the stations of the cross with a covered Virgin Mary, a large figure carried through the streets, searching for her son. Anna becomes distressed and is lost in the crowd and then in a narrow alley she is approached by a group of men, many still hooded and she searches through them trying to look beyond the eye holes.
I was struck by some of the similarities between scenes in this film and scenes in Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1953). In that film, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders rent a villa outside Naples with Vesuvius in the distance. They visit the ruins of Pompeii and try to rekindle their love and their marriage. All of the scenes exude tension and emotional frailty. The film ends in a religious celebration in Naples in which the couple become separated. It may be of course that these are the kinds of things tourists do in Italy and no allusion is intended. Reviewers have mentioned other Italian films and directors – Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) for instance and the filmic style of Visconti. One reviewer makes the case for Piero Messina as a clearly very talented young filmmaker (b. 1981) who in this case creates a narrative in which the visual style is too strong for the story (which is inspired a ‘real’ story told to the director and then ‘informed’ by a play and a short story by Pirandello). But no doubt as he gains experience the director will make more use of his stylistic touches? I’m not sure I agree with this, but I can see it is an argument.
I would recommend the film on the basis of the performances of the two leads and the meticulous photography (Francesco Di Giacomo) and production design (Marco Dentici). Piero Messina takes credit for co-ordinating these elements and I think he conveys both a strong sense of place and atmosphere as well as the emotional dialogue between the two women. I should add that the film is presented in CinemaScope ratio and has an intriguing soundtrack with another excellent choice of a Leonard Cohen song for the key party sequence. And that dialogue is in French between the two leads but otherwise in Italian.
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.
This is an odd film redeemed by strong performances and some stunning scenery. The title refers to a Swiss location featuring a mountain phenomenon, the Maloja Snake. This is low cloud that ‘snakes’ through the valley when the conditions are just so. It is also the title of a play by the fictitious author Wilhelm Melchior. Juliette Binoche plays an actor who won acclaim as the younger of two female characters who clash in the play’s narrative. The film’s narrative involves a mise en abîme so that a plan to re-stage the play twenty years on sees Maria (Binoche) now playing the older character against a rising Hollywood starlet. This obvious reference to All About Eve is then doubled as Maria rehearses the role in the valley of the original setting with her press officer/companion played by Kristen Stewart and then on stage with Chloë Grace Moretz.
The writer/director of this clever, multi-layered film is Olivier Assayas. He’s been here before to some extent with Irma Vep in which Maggie Cheung appears as herself taking on the role of Irma Vep in a re-working of the Louis Feuillade films of 1915. Assayas was playing then with ideas about Truffaut’s La nuite américaine with Jean-Pierre Léaud as the director in both films (Assayas was briefly married to Cheung a few years later.) I’m impressed by Assayas as an intelligent director with strong ideas and a detailed knowledge of cinema. But I also find him rather ‘tricksy’ and his films a little cold. There are plenty of things going on in this film and again it has echoes of Truffaut and in its setting also hints at links to the German genre of the ‘mountain film’ – which could suggest a thriller or a melodrama from the 1920s. What is ‘new’ here is the play around the snobbery and hypocrisy that exists in this new age of social media, paparazzi and celebrity and the movement between Hollywood, European ‘serious cinema’ and the stage. It’s significant that Binoche is a French actress and the fictitious author is (I presume) German but when the play is to be re-staged it will be in London (with a German director). All this means that most of the dialogue is in English. Did I also mention that the film begins on a train the day that Maria is heading to Zurich to receive a prize/tribute on behalf of the author only to receive the news that he has died? As I said, complicated.
The film seems to have split audiences. It is over two hours and the plot layers don’t produce an easily-digested coherent narrative. The best part of the film for me was the sequence in the mountains as Maria and Val (Kristen Stewart) rehearse the play. I thought Stewart was excellent. Binoche too is very good as they ‘read’ the play, each very differently and there is a real tension between them. I don’t know much about Moretz but she seems well cast. I’m not surprised that Stewart won a César for her role. I was less engaged by other parts of the film but I watched all of it with interest. This will be released in the UK through Curzon and it will be interesting to see how it fares at the box office.