Having thought that I’d missed Genova, I managed to catch it in France where it is titled Un été Italian. I seem to have spent a long time extolling the virtues of Michael Winterbottom and defending him in the face of indifference or hostility. As a result, I was a little worried about seeing this feature which has hung around since last Summer before getting a release. It hasn’t helped that the only Winterbottom films that have been deemed commercially successful tend to be those that for me are his least interesting, such as A Cock and Bull Story (UK 2005). It’s a relief then that Genova is a big return to form for Winterbottom fans – and of course another commercial disaster.
For most reviewers, Winterbottom’s main distinguishing feature as a director is that he constantly moves from one genre to another and can’t be pinned down. The implication is that this is a problem, rather than an indication that Winterbottom is an auteur filmmaker who makes films for his own reasons. If he does draw on genre repertoires, it isn’t usually in order to frame a story in genre terms. For mainstream audiences this presents a real problem in that the films do not offer conventional structures – or rather they do not fulfil the expectations that generic story structures set up. This is certainly true of Genova, which perhaps has less ‘plot’ than any other Winterbottom film and instead offers the most intense and emotional representation of a brief period in the lives of the central characters.
If Genova draws on any generic repertoire, it is the current cycle of psychological horror/ghost stories, but its clearest referent is not a modern Japanese or Spanish film but Nic Roeg’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now (UK 1973). In that classic film Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are a couple who are deeply in love, but grief-stricken over the death of one of their children. When they visit Venice they are disturbed by a sense of foreboding in fleeting sightings of a mysterious figure. In Genova, a university lecturer (Colin Firth) loses his wife in a car crash which his two daughters survive. He decides to take the girls to the Northern Italian city of Genoa/Genova for the Summer to help with the grieving process. The comparison between the two films is valid but not helpful towards an understanding of what Genova is actually about. Don’t Look Now is a genuine melodrama/thriller with conscious attempts to draw in an audience through the strength of the bond between the parents and the sheer terror that threatens them in the potentially supernatural mise en scène of the dark canals. Genova is much more circumspect about what constitutes a ‘ghost’ and is in many ways a supremely realist film. In fact, it made me think about another film concerning grief on a trip through Italy – Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Italy 1953).
I’ve called Winterbottom an auteur, but I’m sure he would also credit the authorial contributions of his collaborators. The other ways to approach Genova are via its writer Laurence Coriat and its familiar crew members, especially Marcel Zyskind as cinematographer. Laurence Coriat wrote my favourite Michael Winterbottom film, Wonderland (UK 1999). She is also working with Winterbottom on a long-term project featuring Wonderland‘s John Simm and Shirley Henderson and on a film with Marc Evans, a long-time friend of Winterbottom and Andrew Eaton and the Revolution Films set-up. Coriat is almost an ‘in-house’ writer and with the usual suspects on set, it would seem that Genova must have had a sense of coherence as a project. Having said that, Winterbottom’s shooting strategy and Eaton’s approach to squeezing every drop out of the tightest of budgets must always make shooting a film like this extremely demanding.
The production set-up recalls Code 46 (2003) which also featured a North American star (Tim Robbins) plunged into the world of low-budget ‘guerilla filmmaking’ on the streets of Shanghai. Robbins was not too impressed by the rigours of the shooting method but Catherine Keener in Genova seems more receptive in interviews. Code 46 is a lot more plot driven, but both films tend to have narrative ‘gaps’ that audiences are expected to fill and endings which are very open. I like this and it doesn’t cause me problems.
Colin Firth now lives in Italy so presumably he found himself on solid ground. Catherine Keener plays a friend, an old classmate from Harvard, who works in Genoa. She helps widower Joe and his two girls travel to the city and arranges a temporary post for him at the university. Keener is a well-known in American Independent Cinema. The two girls are played by Willa Holland and Perla Haney-Jardine (who I later discovered I’d seen in the US remake of Dark Water). I think that Firth is meant to be a Brit, though I didn’t really reflect on this as globe-trotting academics are pretty common these days. The low budget production includes a winter driving scene in Sweden and some UK work as well as a Chicago street scene and the main shoot in Italy. The only production issues for me were the casting of Kerry Shale (nice man, but aren’t there any other American actors in the UK – his presence makes me think of plays on Radio 4) and the use of Ryanair as the airline flying into Genoa (from the US?). The real benefit of course is the freedom to shoot in the Zyskind style.
What this means in terms of the emotional feel of the film is the disorientation brought on by hand-held ‘Scope camerawork with sometimes jarring cutting. Everything is filmed in available light, so we linger in darkened rooms or move between dark and light with all the problems of re-adjusting. This makes the film quite uncomfortable to watch, but matches the numbness and lack of focus felt by the characters. The architecture of Genoa also plays a part as characters (i.e. the girls) have to follow a route through narrow alleyways. Zyskind tilts the camera up to show us the bright sky struggling to reach down into the narrow alleys as the girls wonder where they are. This effect matches that of Christie in Sutherland in the similarly dark alleys and canals of Venice. The effect also carries over into a sequence in the woods close to the beach where another search takes place.
In a sense, Genova is an ‘anti-melodrama’. The characters get angry, but mostly their emotions are pushed down. So much in fact that I’ve seen complaints that the Firth character is a ‘bad father’ who seems indifferent to his wife’s death and unconcerned about what is happening to his children. I think he’s shown as behaving in the way many English men would. He suppresses emotion. In a melodrama, this would then ‘return’ to be expressed as an emotional release in some way, but here Winterbottom constructs a narrative with cold realism and the result for me was devastating. I’ve never really rated Firth before (I’m afraid I’ve generally ignored him) but here I thought he was excellent. Two crucial scenes with Catherine Keener struck me as the most psychologically ‘real’ I’ve seen for a long time. Here’s a movie I’d recommend to anyone prepared to question their own emotional responses to film narratives.