Monthly Archives: July 2010

24 City (China/Japan/France 2008)

Joan Chen plays a worker who is nicknamed ‘Little Flower’, a character from a hit 1979 film starring . . . Joan Chen

Jia Zhangke has emerged as arguably the leading figure of what used to be called the ‘Sixth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers – trained in Beijing Film School, but then financed on independent projects by TV money and foreign investment. 24 City was a hit at Cannes in 2008 but wasn’t released until May 2010 in the UK. It marks something of a shift away from his ‘hometown films’ set in the Shanxi region of Northern China discussed in a posting last year by Nick, but sounds similar to Still Life (2006) which unfortunately I missed (but which Nick also reviewed). I’m so glad that I managed to catch 24 City on a cinema screen.

I thought that this was a wonderful film and worth seeing for several different reasons. For film studies it offers a fascinating case study for documentary practice. It is in fact a hybrid form melding documentary witness statements with performances of scripted ‘memories’ and a conventional documentary record. The title refers to a major redevelopment in the city of Chengdu in South-West China, in which a former large aeronautics factory is being dismantled in order to build a new commercial development (shops/apartments?) – to be called ’24 City’ in a reference to a local traditional poem. What gives the metaphor (i.e. capitalist enterprise replaces socialist defence planning) resonance is that the factory originally moved to Chengdu in the 1950s from the North East, bringing 4,000 workers with it and was then set up as a ‘secret’ entity, part of, but separated from, Chengdu itself.

As well as detailing the transformation of the factory site (the production facilities are dismantled and transported to an industrial park outside the city for a new venture) we are offered the personal stories of workers who came to Chengdu at various times over 50 years and learn what life was like in this unusual set-up. But Jia adds to these ‘true stories’ with a quartet of further personal stories ‘performed’ by leading actors (I think that these stories are actually composites put together from over a hundred interviews the production team conducted). The most moving of these is delivered by Lü Liping, a well-known Chinese actor who starred in two well-known Fifth Generation films, Old Well (1986) and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Blue Kite (1993). The other familiar faces are the Chinese-American Joan Chen and Jia’s iconic actor Zhao Tao. Personally, I have no problem with this mixing of ‘real’ and ‘constructed’ witnesses. All witness statements are constructions – they are simply coded as such in different ways. However, many commentators do have problems with this strategy. The other ‘problem’ for some audiences is that the pace is slow and although there are beautifully shot scenes of the factory and work in the last few months of operation, most of the content is of talking heads. The witnesses are shown in long shot/MS as well as MCU and I thought that overall the visual quality of the film was very well thought out and for me added to a riveting watch.

The big question is, of course, what does Jia tell us about the workers (and the managers/contemporary capitalists), the history of the factory and the changes in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) over 50 years? The answer isn’t straightforward. Because of the techniques outlined above, I do think that sometimes the historical detail gets confusing. There are intertitles giving details about each interviewee, but there is still a sense of confusion about when events actually took place. Even the Press Pack is not totally clear on this. My knowledge of Chinese geography and history since 1949 is sufficient to have followed most of the narrative of the film, but I’m still puzzled as to exactly when and why things happened. For instance Jia in the Press Pack tells us that the factory was founded 60 years ago – i.e. before the foundation of the PRC – and that it moved to Chengdu in 1958. It was certainly operating in the early 1950s, making parts for the MiG-15s used by the Chinese and North Koreans in the 1950-53 War with the US and South Korea. Part of the confusion might arise because of a Chinese reluctance to give detailed historical commentary in case it attracts attention from the authorities. In his essay on the film, Tony Rayns suggests that the factory moved because of the rift between China and the Soviet Union in 1956 – i.e. defence manufacture moved further away from the Russian border.

But Jia claims that he doesn’t want to present a straight narrative history, instead he concentrates on personal lives (like Zhang and Zhuangzhuang in their historical family melodramas set in the period 1950-90). This throws up interesting popular culture observations such as the popularity of the Japanese TV series Blood Suspect in the 1980s which made its young stars into role models for Chinese youth. Similarly with Taiwanese pop. I do tend to get uneasy with these kinds of popular memories which often seem to be utilised in an attack on socialist planning and praise of capitalist enterprise. On the other hand, I find the community and ‘official’ mass singing to be nostalgic and quite romantic in its expression of solidarity. There was a tear in my eye to see a group of older female workers sing the Internationale. Overall, I think it best to see this as a poetic documentary about the working process and the flow of industrial history as well as a humanist drama about change in a society that seems at once familiar and alien at the same time. As someone who grew up in the 1950s with a wartime aircraft factory down the road and avoiding gangs of local kids on the streets as I made my way to school, much of this story rang true.

One of the films of the year released in UK cinemas.

The Killer Inside Me (UK/US 2010)

Lou (Casey Affleck) and Amy (Kate Hudson) in a scene that might have been The Last Picture Show

The release of this film made me think of that phrase often used about weddings and funerals in Michael Winterbottom’s native Lancashire – “there was a lot said”. Unfortunately, most of what was said by general commentators in the media focused on the charge of misogyny and gratuitous violence which first arose at Sundance and has dogged the film ever since. The result is that some of the audience who might appreciate the film have chosen not to see it.

But is there anything worthwhile to say about the film as a film and an example of cinematic art? I wouldn’t argue that it is a particularly outstanding film, but it is a good example of the work of a significant team of filmmakers. I’m not going to focus specifically on the violence in the film – I was one of those viewers aware of what would happen, so I just covered my eyes and didn’t watch the two offending scenes when the most brutal moments came. I’m still not sure what I think about these scenes that I heard rather than saw, but I don’t think I missed anything since the brutality was signified very effectively through the sound effects. On the other hand, I’m not going to argue against the director’s decision to include them as part of his presentation of the narrative. Rona is going to offer her thoughts on this.

Plot

For anyone who hasn’t read about the plot of the film, The Killer Inside Me is a close adaptation of a crime novel by one of the most ‘hardboiled’ of American pulp writers, Jim Thompson. The title refers to a young sheriff’s deputy in a small Texas town who commits a series of murders – perhaps rationally to protect himself, perhaps not. As the title suggests, there is a mis-match between the young man’s outward demeanour and what is going on inside his head. This is a classic film noir narrative, set in the early 1950s (which in Hollywood marked the most vicious period of the noir crime film).

Commentary

What makes the film interesting initially is that it is the work of one of the two most prolific and celebrated production teams in British Cinema – here tackling a completely American property for the first time (even if it is actually their third independent US production). Revolution Films, the company set up by producer Andrew Eaton and director Michael Winterbottom, has produced films at an astonishing rate since the mid 1990s with sixteen features (including one documentary) in sixteen years. Many of these films have featured at Cannes, Berlin, San Sebastian etc. winning a number of prizes. Only Ken Loach with Rebecca O’Brien and Paul Laverty comes anywhere near this record. Yet Loach wins out because his films win bigger prizes and usually much bigger audiences. It’s a tribute to Andrew Eaton’s producer skills that Revolution’s lack of commercial success doesn’t seem to prevent them from financing the next production. Presumably there is enough income from ‘ancillary’ sales to balance the books.

I think that there are two reasons why Revolution Films don’t make it with audiences and with mainstream reviewers. The first is that Winterbottom’s choice of subject matter combined with rigorous aesthetic choices and narrative experiments results in films either dogged by controversy or lacking in immediate mainstream appeal. I offer you the film under discussion here alongside A Mighty Heart and 9 Songs on the one hand and films like Genova or Code 46 on the other. So, the films don’t hit big in the multiplex – but if they win festival prizes why don’t they work in the arthouses? Arthouse audiences are often quite conservative in the sense that they like to know what they are getting and Winterbottom confounds easy ideas about auteurs who make the same film over and over. Instead he makes melodramas, postmodern comedies, science fiction, romantic comedy, realist thrillers, westerns, literary adaptations – no film is like the last one and each is also likely to be stylistically different.

I ought to put my cards on the table. For me, Wonderland (UK 1999) was the best British film of the 1990s and The Claim (UK/Canada/France 2000) the most ambitious and best realised production of the past twenty years (well, you try adapting The Mayor of Casterbridge as a gold-rush western and shooting it in an Albertan winter). I’ve seen everything since 1994 apart from 9 Songs (UK 2004) and every one of the films has been interesting in different ways. Overall, however, I’d say that the more controversial and more ‘popular’ subjects have been less interesting than the left-field ones. And that is possibly my problem with The Killer Inside Me.

Winterbottom has said that his main aim was to create a ‘literal’ adaptation of the novel. I think he felt that Thompson had created a unique perspective on crime – from within the mind of the killer. Certainly the narrative is constructed with Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) at its centre and we only see other characters when they meet Lou. The two obvious points to make here are that Lou is the classic ‘unreliable narrator’ and we have no way of knowing how much of what we see is actually fantasy and secondly that this strategy allows Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran to argue that any charges of misogyny should be directed towards the fictional character (and, presumably, Jim Thompson). The creation of an unreliable narrator seems to me to be a valid artistic decision. The second point is more problematic. Thompson is a complex figure as a writer and according to his wife Alberta was . . . “a gentle sensitive man who loved animals and was of course a devoted husband and father” (quoted by Nick Kimberley in the introduction to a compendium of Thompson’s novels, Zomba Books, London 1983). He was writing at a specific moment in American popular culture and from a specific perspective as a struggling pulp writer. The question Winterbottom doesn’t seem to have answered is why adapt the novel now and why feign surprise that many will find the film offensive?

There is undoubtedly a case to be made against Revolution for simply seeking out controversial projects or perhaps creating a self-image such that for productions like A Mighty Heart Winterbottom seems like the most straightforward choice of director. It’s also worth noting that the previous Revolution Films production was the Red Riding Trilogy for Channel 4. Winterbottom wasn’t directly involved with that production as far as I know, but Andrew Eaton certainly was. But I don’t really want to explore Revolution’s history here. Instead I’ll focus on two issues: the aesthetics of the film and its status as film noir.

Winterbottom and aesthetic choices

What you get in a Michael Winterbottom film is something that looks and feels different. That’s obvious in the credit sequence of most of Revolution’s films and here there is some lovely use of typography with a strong country soundtrack. From then on, Winterbottom and his regular cinematographer Marcel Zyskind create very cold and clean images of the Texas oilfields (with some shooting in Oklahoma). If the intention was to look for a ‘Thompson aesthetic’ – the look of Hud, The Last Picture Show, Written on the Wind etc. The print I saw was digital which enhanced the feel of bleakness. Other than this textural quality, I didn’t notice the camerawork and colour that much – because the narrative is so gripping and the plot moves forward so quickly (as in the novel). (I can’t believe the IMDB posters who find the film ‘boring’ or who don’t see any ‘characterisation’.)

The textural feel is supported by the excellent costume design and casting choices. I thought at first that Joyce and Amy were just too beautiful for a small town prostitute and a schoolteacher, but the casting is consistent with Winterbottom’s aim to be ‘true’ to the novel.

Film noir

Now that I’ve read the novel, I’m tempted to think more about the genre repertoires and themes which the film explores. The Killer Inside Me qualifies as noir in a number of ways. Thompson is clearly a pulp writer – though none of his novels were made into films at the time. He did work on film and TV scripts later in the 1950s and 1960s – but mostly in other genres. Perhaps his crime novels were considered too violent? Or perhaps they were too far ahead of popular taste?

The violence towards women features in several noirs of the period. In Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), Gloria Grahame is disfigured by scalding coffee deliberately thrown by Lee Marvin’s violent thug. In Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a young woman is tortured to death. In both films, however, the extreme violence is offscreen (see the clips below – the end of the Kiss Me Deadly intro):

The ‘narration’ of The Killer Inside Me is in some ways similar to that of the William Holden character in Sunset Boulevard, but the theme of the film looks forward to later films such as Psycho. Thompson’s writing style shares with Winterbottom’s directorial style in impatience with spelling everything out. Audiences have to work hard to put together the plot information, but there are plenty of clues. Lou Ford is insane (though US audiences seem to have missed this in many cases). His behaviour is influenced by childhood trauma and he entertains himself with his father’s medical books (the soundtrack also offers us Mahler, Richard Strauss and Donizetti alongside Western Swing to represent Lou’s two worlds). The only elements in the book that don’t appear in the movie (unless I’ve already forgotten them!) are a visit to Lou’s house from a quack psychiatrist and Lou’s use of prescription drugs to pep up his sexual performance. Both of these could be part of 40s/50s noir but the childhood trauma seems like a relatively new reason for the injection of violence into the doomed life of the male protagonist. In earlier noirs, the trauma is often associated with wartime experience. The novel reveals that part of the reason for Lou’s aggression towards the DA Howard Hendricks is that Lou is fed up with hearing about Hendricks’ war experience and the shrapnel lodged in his body. Lou himself is 29, so at the time of the main US recruitment of young men to fight in 1944 he would have been 21. Why didn’t he enlist? Why too is there no sense of the Korean War or the mounting anti-Communist hysteria? Is this again because we are inside the head of an insane man – someone with a sickness that blots out the rest of the world?

Conclusion

I suspect that a closer examination of The Killer Inside Me will prompt some more thoughts when the DVD becomes available. Meanwhile Winterbottom and Eaton have a new project – Promised Land, exploring the Stern Gang, the notorious Jewish guerilla group that murdered several British soldiers and police officers (as well as ordinary Palestinians and two major diplomats) in Palestine in the 1940s before the 1948 war. That won’t be controversial in the US will it?

Heartbreaker (L’arnacoeur, France 2010)

Alex stoops to seducing Juliette by dancing the Patrick Swayze role in her favourite film, Dirty Dancing.

The hit of the year in France, Heartbreaker is slowly dying in UK cinemas on a limited release (around 60 prints). The same audiences who have shunned it in multiplexes, presumably because they would have to read subtitles, will no doubt flock to the inevitable Hollywood remake. C’est la vie as the English character in the film says – the loss is theirs. I would be very surprised if Hollywood can serve up anything as funny and sexy as this. There is no American actor I can think of who could compete with Romain Duris.

It’s a compliment of sorts that Hollywood couldn’t make anything more glamorous or more slick. This is a very conventional romcom. Duris is Alex, who works as a professional to break up engagements that somebody (usually a parent) doesn’t want to see reaching the altar. Supported by his sister and her husband, Alex sets up extravagant cons that seduce the women targeted. But he has principles – he only works on women who are unhappy in their relationships (although, of course, they don’t always know that they are unhappy). Then one day he meets Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) and you can guess the rest.

I’ve written about Romain Duris in the romcoms of Cédric Klapisch and in dramas such as The Beat That My Heart Skipped. I wasn’t totally convinced by the Klapisch roles, but I rate him highly. The real surprise in the film was Vanessa Paradis who I thought was excellent – very beautiful, sexy and smart. Life with Johnny Depp can’t be too stressful. The other two principal cast members are also very good (Julie Ferrier as the sister Mélanie and François Damiens as her husband Marc). Monaco (and Morocco) look great. I laughed a lot and even cried at the end – perfect entertainment.

The UK trailer:

Les herbes folles (Wild Grass, France 2009)

The stylised cinema sequence in which Marguerite stalks Georges.

I’ve seen relatively few films by Alain Resnais and certainly nothing since the 1970s. However, I was primed for Les herbes folles because several people had asked me to explain it. They seemed angry because it had been so frustrating.

Approaching the film from this perspective, I rather enjoyed the whole thing, but it did feel like an extended joke about cinema, narrative and the emotional responses of audiences. No bad thing perhaps? My enjoyment was heightened because three of the leads were familiar from many of the French films from the last few years. I hadn’t noticed before that André Dussollier has worked consistently with Resnais for many years, as has Sabine Azéma. I don’t remember seeing her before, but she seemed familiar somehow. (She is also Resnais’ partner.)

Plot outline (no major spoilers – they probably wouldn’t help anyway!)

Marguerite (Azéma) is a dentist with a passion for shoes and flying (i.e. being a pilot of a small aircraft). One day she buys some new shoes but has her bag snatched in Paris. Georges (Dussollier) is a (retired?) house husband in a solidly bourgeois outer Parisian suburb. He finds Marguerite’s wallet abandoned by the bag snatcher and eventually takes it to the police. A set of awkward relationships then develop between Marguerite and Georges, the police (Mathieu Amalric), Marguerite’s colleague Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos) and Georges’ wife (Anne Consigny). There are clearly ‘back stories’ for the characters that don’t fully emerge, so as an audience we must try to make sense of where these relationships might lead and what the characters’ motivations might be – or whether this is indeed important or not.

Resnais and narrative

There are several clues to the Resnais style/approach that make it much more accessible. First, Resnais is a fan of theatrical comedy and in particular the British writer-director Alan Ayckbourn. Resnais has adapted two of Ayckbourn’s plays. He also draws some of his cast from the Comédie-Française. I got a strong whiff of Ayckbourn in many of the encounters in Les herbes folles – which often seemed to comprise a series of sketches. Resnais has generally adapted either plays or novels as the basis for his films and in his early career he was associated with the avant garde nouveau roman movement, adapting works by the leading figures Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras. Les herbes folles is an adaptation of a novel by Christian Gailly called L’incident (1996). As far as I can make out, Gailly is also interested in narrative and self-reflexivity. I think I read somewhere that Resnais makes two jokes about adaptation in Les herbes folles. First he has an extended sequence in which Georges goes to a screening of a re-released Hollywood film, The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), a Korean War drama with William Holden and Grace Kelly. Resnais is often associated with the French New Wave of the late 1950s/early 1960s. I’m not sure he actually ‘fits’ that description, but showing visits to the cinema is a central feature of the films of Truffaut and Godard. You know that they will have chosen a specific film for a reason. Here, however, Resnais stages the sequence in a highly artificial way and he claims never to have seen the film – he is only using it because it is in the novel. At the very end of Les herbes folles, there is a short scene that appears to have no connection to anything else. Resnais says that it does occur in the novel – but elsewhere in the narrative.

Yet, to return to film references, the approach to narrative in Les herbes folles seems to invite audiences to think about other films that they might have seen. The opening of the film is quite striking, focusing mostly on the feet and legs of Marguerite with her yellow handbag. One of my first attempts to study film in terms of its textual detail focused on the opening to Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) – which begins with a close-up of a yellow handbag and pulls back to follow the handbag’s owner, shown only from the rear and mostly from the neck down. Another famous Hitchcock opening, Strangers on a Train (1951) begins by following two pairs of feet/lower legs arriving at a railway station. I don’t know the extent to which Resnais was a Hitchcock fan but there are Hitchcockian elements in the humour/farce here. In fact the film moves easily between romance, film noir, comedy and horror. Rona watched the film with me and commented at the end that Resnais should leave ‘Lynch country’ to David Lynch. I’m not much of a Lynch fan, but I could certainly see something of Blue Velvet, especially in Resnais’ use of a bold of palette striking colours. The other strong thread running through the film is flying with Georges as what in the UK would be called an ‘anorak’ (having an encyclopaedic knowledge of a specific topic, usually requiring technical terminology/detail) and Marguerite referred to in terms of the female aviation pioneers of the 1930s. One film that also came to mind in the aerodrome sequences was Patrice Leconte’s Tango (1993). The Bridges at Toko-Ri also features a flying narrative.

So, Les herbes folles is an elaborate puzzle narrative – but don’t go expecting a satisfying resolution, there isn’t one. Enjoy its playfulness, lovely performances, glorious colours etc. Personally, I found it very funny. I’ve seen it described as ‘youthful’ and ‘skittish’ but it seems more like the (confident and assured) work of an 88 year-old who knows everything about cinema and feels able to indulge himself.

Here is the (terrific) American trailer in HD which illustrates most of the above. Enjoy!

. . . and here is the opening to Marnie (watch at least the first 7 minutes):

Agora (Spain 2009)

Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) demonstrates the questions surrounding gravity and the movement of the Earth to her students in Alexandria, watched by her slave Davus.

After the mildly diverting but ultimately turgid Robin Hood, it was a relief to turn to a filmmaker with more imaginative ideas about presenting historical worlds. Alejandro Amenábar began his career with a string of distinctive films spanning horror, science fiction and melodrama, each of which were big hits at home in Spain. They topped the Spanish box office and broke records but apart from the English language The Others (2001) they haven’t had the same impact abroad. This is unfortunate and serves to highlight the dismissive way in which Anglo-American Cinema relegates any film from another culture to the arthouse sector. Such an approach mars an otherwise interesting review of Agora in Sight and Sound by Sophie Mayer and has formed a confused discourse around the film’s eventual distribution in the UK.

This is the second English language film from Amenábar, featuring an international star in Rachel Weisz and a strong supporting cast. It was produced on a large budget, by European standards, in Malta – standing in for 4th/5th Century Alexandria. The narrative offers us a crucial moment in Mediterranean history – when ‘Christianised’ Roman subjects in the Egyptian city of Alexandria wrested power from the ‘pagan’ Greek aristocracy who had created the renowned library in the city. It presents a political, religious and military struggle around dogma, doctrine and ‘natural philosophy’ that focuses on the pivotal figure of Hypatia, the brilliant astronomer, philosopher and teacher.

Plot outline (no major spoilers)

Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is a philosopher and teacher, clever and beautiful, who is responsible for the education of the next generation of (male) leaders of Alexandria. The young men adore her, in particular Orestes (Oscar Isaac), but also her own young slave Davus (Max Minghella). But Alexandria is moving towards widespread civil revolt, led by Christian ‘activists’. This leads to a confrontation between the Greeks who still rule the city, the increasing numbers of Christian converts and the Jewish community caught between them. Meanwhile the Roman authorities stand back and play imperial policy games as the occupying power in the region.

Throughout this turmoil, Hypatia tries to continue her scientific work which combines mathematics and astronomy and seeks to theorise about the movement of the Earth and the planets. But she finds herself caught up, as a rationalist, in the religious and political struggles within the city – now led by her ex-pupils.

Wikipedia has a useful entry on Hypatia if, like me, you aren’t familiar with this clearly important historical figure. An agora, by the way, is a public square where proclamations might be made.

Commentary

I found this to be a film which first engaged me through its impressive staging, performances and direction then lost me for a short section when the narrative faltered – but which then grabbed me ferociously for the stunning final third. The flaw in the narrative was the way in which Amenábar attempted to move the story forward, explaining what happened in the interim period via on-screen text accompanied by science fiction-style zooms in and out of Alexandria as a dot on the map. I struggled to pick up the story again for a few minutes. On reflection, I think that presenting this story on film is a very difficult task and that generally Amenábar’s ideas work very well and perhaps when I watch the film again it will flow seamlessly. The other slight weakness was the performance of Oscar Isaac – but perhaps this was because he’d been the rather effete and silly King John in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood that I saw the day before. Did his character in Agora really come up with a line of contemporary American speech or did I imagine it? The whole question of casting and dialogue coaching for narratives set in classical Greece/Rome has always been intriguing.

Amenábar chose a casting strategy which seemed based primarily on notions of ‘realism’. The Greeks and Romans are played by West Europeans whereas the Egyptians (i.e. the slaves and the leaders of the Christians) are played by actors from the Mediterranean region or in the case of Hypatia’s older slave and technical assistant Aspasius, the Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi. This strategy produces the first of several controversies likely to be associated with the film. The ‘villains’ of the story are the Christian bishop, and later Saint, Cyril, played here by Sami Samir and the main Christian agitator Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom). I can’t find anything about Samir’s background but I’m familiar with Barhom who is a well-known Palestinian actor from Galilee. So, in one sense, we have ‘authentic’ casting in terms of ethnicity and regional origin. On the other hand, this presents us with Christians whose appearance suggests the modern day Taliban – Ammonius leads a mob dressed in dark robes and headdress, many of whom are heavily bearded.

Sami Samir as Cyril in one of the Spanish posters for the film.

The metaphor/allegory possibilities of the film have been picked up by many commentators and there are several avenues to explore. The film could be taken to be an attack on the traditional institutional hierarchies of the Catholic churches (Orthodox and Roman), on contemporary ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity or perhaps as a general anti-clerical account of the interference of the Church in civil society. There is nothing in Amenábar’s overall approach that recalls Luis Buñuel directly, but when I think about it, several of his films have a stance that is anti-authoritarian and sometimes specifically anti-clerical. (I’m thinking specifically of Mar adentro.)

The film can also be seen as a critique of imperial power in that the Romans are really unable to control the local holders of power and in a sense thus contribute to the carnage. But the central narrative about Hypatia refers to cinematic form of the biopic which in this case combines the story of a rationalist figure attacked by religious fanatics (the Galileo story) and the brilliant woman condemned by the actions of lesser men. Madame Curie comes to mind as a traditional Hollywood biopic with some of these elements. I won’t spoil Agora by revealing which aspects of the biopic are included and which left out.

All of this suggests that there is an enormous range of ideas in Agora and I think it will repay a second and third viewing – and an exploration of historical sources. This was clearly a major undertaking for Amenábar and for a producer/writer/director/composer who produced his early films at a remarkable rate this was a long production process – completion coming five years after the release of Mar adentro. For me, Amenábar is a major director and I’m saddened by the comparative box-office failure of his films outside Spain. You’ll probably need to wait for this film on DVD, but I think that the wait will be worthwhile.

London River (France/Algeria 2009)

Strangers meet in London River

I’ve been waiting for this film ever since I read about the proposed production a couple of years ago and I wasn’t disappointed when it finally opened in the UK. Ironically, I saw it on a Friday night and it’s as far away as you can get from the ‘feelgood’ film that many people feel that they need at the weekend. Philip French in today’s Observer refers to “stoical realism” which is rather good. It’s deeply moving and a fine example of humanist cinema.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Brenda Blethyn is Elisabeth, a widow with a smallholding on Guernsey and Sotigui Kouyaté is Ousmane, a West African working as a forester in France. After the bombings of July 7, 2005 they both travel to London in search of their grown-up children. Elisabeth has not heard from her daughter Jane for a couple of weeks and now she is not answering phone messages. Ousmane has not seen his son since he was a small child. He makes the trip at the behest of his estranged wife in Africa. At some point it is inevitable that Elisabeth and Ousmane will meet as they make enquiries in the same small area of North-East London.

Commentary

Writer-director Rachid Bouchareb gained an international profile with Indigènes (France/Algeria 2006), the hit film that successfully rewrote the history of the African contribution to the liberation of Vichy France in 1944. By contrast, London River is a film which focuses completely on its two central characters and eschews the politics of the bombings. Even so, the film offers several interesting social observations about diversity in contemporary society.The two central performances are excellent – and very different. Bouchareb decided that he wanted to work with Brenda Blethyn based on her Oscar-winning performance in Secrets and Lies and he delayed the shoot by a year until she became available. Kouyaté, a well-known Malian and Parisian actor, had appeared in Bouchareb’s earlier Little Senegal (France 2001). (He sadly died in April this year.) The ‘non-style’ of the film is explained by two factors. First, Bouchareb himself tried hard not be influenced by any other filmmakers and second, he faced severe production restraints. (I would still categorise the film as melodrama despite the lack of ‘excess’ in presentation, but I need to see it again – there is an intriguing metaphor about forestry and elms that I need to think about.)

The exteriors were all shot by a French crew on location in London for just 15 days when the weather was poor and the locals seemingly suspicious. Blethyn had to learn enough French to converse naturally with Kouyaté and for the two of them to improvise on set. The film was shot on 16mm (the Press Pack confusingly suggests that the original aspect ratio was 1: 1.66 but released as 1: 1.85). Interiors were all shot in France. There were also exterior shoots in France and Guernsey.

Apart from the characterisations what struck me most about the film was the representation of London. Most of the action is set in the area around Finsbury Park. Presumably Bouchareb chose this area because it has a large Turkish population and also attracts Arab Muslims. It prompted me to think about Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (UK 2002) in which French star Audrey Tautou plays a Turkish young woman (and in which Sotigui Kouyaté was a Somali man, I think). Frear’s attempted to show the ‘other London’ of the refugee/migrant worker, but even so he didn’t quite get that feel of the ‘outside eye’. For that, you need to go to directors from outside the UK. The shots of Guernsey and Brittany reminded me of Truffaut’s Anne and Muriel (Les deux Anglaises et le continent, 1971) when he tried to use the Celtic connection between Brittany and Wales. But Truffaut also made Fahrenheit 451 in the UK with Roehampton as a futuristic town. Around the same time, Antonioni presented his views of London in Blow-up (1966) and I was reminded of the park in Charlton used as the backdrop for the photograph of the film’s title when the couple in London River sit in the park (see the image above). Again in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Patrice Chérau’s Intimacy (2001) we get a different London as visualised by an outside eye. The difference in Bouchareb’s film is that his choice of location and decision to bring in his own crew and actors (the shopkeeper who is Elisabeth’s landlord during her London visit is played by Roschdy Zem, one of the leads in Indigènes) creates a London community of great diversity. Even an interrogating police officer, who also speaks French, proclaims that he is “a Muslim too”.

This representation of London diversity is both ‘realist’ (London now reasonably claims to be the world’s most cosmopolitan city) and at the same time expressionist in dramatic terms. Elisabeth is presented as coming from Guernsey where her social life is triangulated by her brother, her conversations with her dead husband (killed in the Falklands War and her local church group). The Guernsey setting conveniently suggests why she might have a working knowledge of French (non-UK residents please check out Wikipedia) and it also suggests why she might be overwhelmed by being suddenly plunged into the midst of North London’s streetlife. (This is compounded by the use of French and Arabic as the medium for much of the dialogue.) How her reactions are read by audiences is a function both of Brenda Blethyn’s terrific performance and the experiences of the viewer. As Blethyn herself says, it would be wrong to leap to conclusions about Elisabeth. She is confused, frightened and bewildered. She says things that are easily seen as hateful and offensive, but we should be able to understand what is happening to her. Unfortunately, there are already some stupid comments on IMDB. On the other hand, I note that the highest ratings for the film come from women over 45.

This is one of my films of the year so far. July is the month in the UK when there seems to be a new French film every week. The French films that get to the UK are often very rewarding and London River sets a very high standard for those to follow. Please go and see it.

Here’s the trailer:

The film was released in the UK by a small independent distributor. There is an excellent official website with a downloadable press pack:

http://www.tadrart.com/tessalit/londonriver/gb.html