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Arab Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Films by women, French Cinema

LFF #3: Young women – causing trouble or getting what they want?

Day 3 of my LFF visit produced a more varied programme than the first two days. Again I chose three films out of a total of more than 30 screenings across eight screens. The link between them is that they each feature one or more young women who aren’t simply decorative or submissive to men.

I started back in the Vue West End in the largest screen but with only a 70% audience for The Princess of Montpensier (France/Germany 2010) from Bernard Tavernier, the only big name director on my schedule. This has got UK distribution so I hope it is widely shown. It’s a 16th century swashbuckler combining political intrigues with a fascinating love story in an adaptation of a Madame de Lafayette short story. The setting is the struggles of the 1560s between the Catholic Monarchy and the Huguenot Protestant Reform group led by the Comte de Condé. The Comte de Chabannes is fighting for the Reform but gives up the struggle and turns his back on the war after a particularly brutal skirmish. Fate then places him back with his ex-pupil, Phillipe, Prince de Montpensier, whose father has arranged his marriage to Marie (an outstanding Mélanie Thierry). Unfortunately Marie is in love with Henri, Duc de Guise, Philippe’s rival at the French court. Chabannes finds himself torn between loyalty to Philippe and attraction to the ‘brash innocence’ of Marie as he tries to keep his head.

Mélanie Thierry as Marie when she is told by her mother to 'submit' and marry Philippe

The film is sumptuously shot in CinemaScope with glorious scenery – but it is also violent and bloody when necessary. It’s long at 139 mins, but I was enjoyably engaged throughout and I could have taken more. The performances are all good and it is a very skilfully confected film all round. The reviews following its Cannes screening this year were mixed, but I would go with the positive ones which praised the re-invention of the costume drama with realism, wit and intelligence. If you like costume dramas with just the beautiful images and a sense of dreamy romance, be warned. This will make you think.

The French trailer (it’s due out in France on November 3rd) gives you a good idea of the look of the film and hints at the violence. The young woman at the centre may be forced by convention to ‘submit’ to the men in society, but she’s more than capable of behaving as she wants when it comes to provoking love and desire as well as jealousy – though she doesn’t necessarily get what she wants.

The Mascara Band – women who can't be identified for fear of reprisal

Microphone (Egypt 2010) is undoubtedly the film that I have enjoyed most so far. Billed as an independent film about the underground art scene in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, it boasts some wonderful music director and some inventive ideas about telling its story. The director, Ahmad Abdalla, was present for a post-screening Q&A and he proved to be highly enthusiastic with an infectious personality. He explained that initially he had imagined a documentary about a single graffiti artist, but gradually the film just grew and grew. It’s now 120 mins but that represents a cut with much more material still available.Abdalla explained that making it a fiction feature helped it get distribution in Egypt since documentaries have never received a cinema release. (He hopes for 15 prints in Egypt which though still far behind the commercial films on 50 prints is still good for an independent – but the film still has to get past the censors.

Microphone never had a formal script and most of the musicians and artists play versions of themselves. The fictional story concerns Khaled (played by a major star of Egyptian Cinema, Khaled Abol Naga) who has returned to Alexandria after working for seven years in New York as an engineer. His old friend finds him a job in an organisation that manages projects for art and community work in the city. Khaled finds that the city has changed. On the one hand, there is a vibrant underground art scene that he slowly discovers and comes to appreciate very much. On the other, the authorities and other social pressures mean that it is very difficult to organise/promote the scene. The central narrative involves Khaled’s attempt to put on a concert featuring independent music acts, including hip-hop, metal and traditional music. At the same time he tries to communicate with his father and in a scene with his ex-girlfriend (which is chopped up and played intermittently out of sequence) he learns that she is now leaving to do a PhD in London. Khaled says that he will always carry a little bit of sadness with him after he realises that he has lost her.

The film includes many performance scenes as well as skateboarding, graffiti art and an enjoyable narrative strand about a filmschool (in the Jesuit college) in which a film professor tries to explain the difference between documentary and reportage and fiction. There is a useful website and the film’s soundtrack is being prepared for international release. I’m seriously considering buying it. I’ve thought in the past about visiting Alexandria and now I’ve seen the art (and the trams) and heard the music, I think it might be time to give it a go. Perhaps Alexandria could become the next Havana for music lovers?

Samira Maas is Joy

Joy (Netherlands 2010) directed by Mijke de Jong has a strong central performance by Samira Maas, a law student who had never acted before. She flew over to be at the screening and arrived in time to give an equally impressive performance in a Q&A.

The narrative for the film is very slight (and the film is only 78 mins long). Joy was abandoned by her mother as a baby and brought up in care. Now out of the hostel and working in a menial job she has persuaded the local authorities to show her the file on her mother. Will she meet her mother after all these years? If she does how will it affect her relationship with her Serbian boyfriend who invites her to his family celebrations and her relationship with her younger friend from the hostel who is heavily pregnant and wants her to be her birthing partner? Both these relationships with their strong emotional pulls cause cracks in Joy’s otherwise protective carapace. Is she really the hardbitten shoplifter and tough woman of the streets?

I thought at first this was going to be a slice of social realism, but although it does use its subject matter in that mode, the look and feel of the film is more expressionistic with a colour palette of mainly blues and greens and a sense of focusing on a single character who is somehow isolated from her environment. It is shot on HD in ‘Scope which gives it a different feel as well. In her statements after the screening. Samira Maas implied that the director manipulated her into dramatic situations, not so much directing her as forcing her to react to what the script set up. Maas is clearly an intelligent young woman who accepted this treatment in order to produce the required performance without being affected by it. She told us that she is interested in legal work on behalf of children and this no doubt influenced her decision to take the role. The flavour of the film is perhaps available via the trailer. Overall I was impressed by the performance and for this reason I thought that the film was worth seeing. I’m not sure that there was enough in the narrative otherwise but I’m intrigued enough to wonder what the earlier two films in de Jong’s loose trilogy about young women were actually like. All three were also written by women.

Press notes (in English) are available to download here.

The Dutch trailer gives an indication of the style:

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