Monthly Archives: July 2013

Before Midnight (US 2013)

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) check-in to a hotel.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) at check-in in the hotel.

So here is the most talked about film of the moment – a film which must mean something to anyone who has ever been in a relationship of any kind that has lasted more than a few years. It’s a beautiful-looking film with terrific performances by its two leads speaking the lines they created with director Richard Linklater – who demonstrates just how well he understands cinema as an art form. There are thousands of words already out there in which fans describe how much they love the film and a smaller number by those who want to find fault. I’m going to try to look at the film a little differently by thinking about in terms of its formal properties and the questions it raises about representation and ideology.

I should explain that I didn’t see the film in which the couple played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke first met – Before Sunrise in 1994. I did see the second film in which they re-kindled their relationship in Before Sunset (2004) and I remember that I enjoyed it very much but, possibly because I hadn’t seen the first film, nothing really stuck in mind other than the general idea of a film narrative based on a long conversation  between two people. I think that the third film stands up on its own. No doubt those who have seen all three will argue that it is much better viewed as a three-part long-form narrative. Linklater’s brilliance is that he can clearly please both camps.

The central question about the film for me is how the narrative, both in its content and in its formal strategies negotiates what I see as a series of contradictions or ‘binarisms’. The first of these is the use of cinematic devices connoting realism/naturalism v. the tightly structured and controlled two-hander acting displays. The devices include the long take, long shot sequences including the 14 minutes in the car, the scenes at the house, the walk through the village and the long hotel room sequence. In fact, after adding in the opening at the airport, there aren’t many more locations/set-ups in 109 minutes – most of the ‘action’ takes place in just five settings. If you haven’t seen the film, I should briefly sketch the outline (without giving away spoilers). Jesse (Hawke) is an American novelist who met Celine (Delpy), a French environmental project worker, on a train and then spent time in Vienna in 1994. In 2004 they meet again when Jesse is in Paris and decide to live together. Jesse has to leave his wife in Chicago with his young son. At the start of Before Midnight we meet Jesse saying goodbye to his son (now 14) at the airport in Kalamata in the Pelopponese region of Greece. The boy has been enjoying a vacation with his father and his new family and is now returning to his mother in Chicago. Outside the airport Celine is waiting. The boy’s departure is the ‘inciting moment’ because Jesse realises how much he has enjoyed being with his son and it prompts him to think about how he could be a much bigger part of  his son’s teenage years. But this is something which would clearly affect Celine and her future. The couple will have to talk.

The long take, long shot approach is associated with realist filmmaking, stretching from Renoir and Mizoguchi in the 1930s via a host of filmmakers, but perhaps most notably the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s, up to the present. Although it does occur in aspects of Hollywood cinema it is generally anathema to the streamlined, central-character-based Hollywood narrative form. In Before Midnight Linklater makes his strategy explicit by having Celine talk about a film she saw as a teenager. She doesn’t name the film, but its unique plot details – a married couple wandering through the ruins of Pompeii and being affected by the bodies of parents and children preserved by the lava flows – can only be from Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954). Many of the audiences for Before Midnight won’t understand the direct reference so it isn’t particularly useful to compare the relationships between Delpy and Hawke and Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in the Rossellini film. Even so, by making the reference at all, Linklater looks ‘out’ from the naturalism of the couple on the streets of a Greek village to the artifice of a cinema feature.

Walter Lassally (left), Ethan Hawke and Yiannis Papadopoulos relax while the women work in the kitchen!

Walter Lassally (left), Ethan Hawke and Yiannis Papadopoulos relax – while the women work in the kitchen!

The outdoor scenes, captured by the Greek cinematographer Christos Voudouris offer a ‘real place’ utilising the fantastic light. Linklater also includes some local colour caught in the long shot framing. More strikingly he elects to include passages of dialogue in the background in Greek that are not subtitled. There is also a moment when Celine talks in rapid French, also not subtitled. In neither case is the lack of translation a problem in moving the narrative forward – but what it does do is underline the sense of this being a film narrative that is taking place in a real location (in Rossellini’s ‘real world’) rather than a Hollywood confection that needs a colourful background. However, in the long hotel sequence, the verbal exchanges between Delpy and Hawke become more like a stage play – I thought of Coward’s Private Lives. This tension between the ‘natural’ (artfully constructed of course) and the skilfully contrived is linked to a second set of binarisms of character and actor and then of male and female, French and American, scientific/social/rational and artistic/romantic.

Delpy and Hawke are ‘film stars’ who manage to resolve the conundrum of the star image – how to project that sense of being somehow ‘special’ but at the same time just like you and me, to use their fantastic skills of timing and verbal dexterity to make the scripted seem naturalistic. This is highlighted in the scenes around the dining table when Patrick (Walter Lassally) speaks. Lassally at 85 has had a remarkable career in the cinema as a German refugee who became a leading cinematographer in the UK in the 1960s, eventually winning an Oscar for Zorba the Greek in 1965. Now he lives in Crete, so although he has not (as far as I know) acted before, his presence in the film is perfectly understandable. Yet when he speaks, he can’t manage the naturalistic speech of Delpy and Hawke and his lines therefore point towards their performances. Delpy by contrast can suddenly switch into another kind of performance when she pointedly plays the bimbo for everyone’s entertainment.

At times during the screening I actually closed my eyes because I found some of the dialogue just too real and too painful. At other times I allowed myself to become distanced from the conversation so that I could think about what the two characters represent. I felt at times that Delpy was being very ‘French’ and Hawke very ‘American’. There has been a great deal of discussion about the scene in which Julie Delpy plays topless. What’s more to the point, I think, is that she plays a romantic lead in an American film in which she is a 42 year-old woman with a real woman’s body, a little thicker and broader in places, but still beautiful and very sexy. By comparison Ethan Hawke seems rather brattish and definitely less mature, less ‘rational’ in his attitudes. It’s never clear how much the audience is expected to see Celine as at least in some way based on Delpy and Jesse based on Hawke. This is relevant because the plot includes the idea that Jesse has had successful novels published, supposedly based on the two earlier encounters between himself and Celine.

The long walk through the village and down the country road.

The long walk through the village and down the country road.

Reading interviews with Julie Delpy after the screening I’m a little puzzled as to what she was aiming for in her contributions to the script. She talks a lot about her feminism and she clearly alienates some American audiences with her atheism. These two facets do figure in Celine’s make-up as a character. Watching the film I did feel that at times Celine seemed too whiney and shrew-like – though most of the time I was completely with her. By contrast Jesse seemed too much like a little boy lost who had some useful practical arguments but who perhaps didn’t want to face up to facts. But perhaps this is the brilliance of the film? These are complex developed characters, not romcom cardboard cut-outs. I’m still thinking about the film. Go see it – you won’t be disappointed.

Rossellini #5: Reading Viaggio in Italia (Italy-France 1954)

voyagetoitalyFB

This classic film by Roberto Rossellini was re-released in the UK on a new DCP in May. A more helpful English translation of the title than the usual ‘Voyage to Italy’ is ‘Travel in Italy’ or ‘Journey Through Italy’ as it covers the time spent by an English couple on a trip to the Naples region trying to come to terms with their own relationship and the impact of Italian culture. As in many of the Italian films of this period, there have been several versions of this film. In the version for the UK, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as the couple speak English. Italian characters speak Italian amongst themselves and some characters speak both languages.

One of the major issues in appraising the film in 2013 is the need to deal with its reception in the mid 1950s (it opened in Italy in 1954 and was seen in other countries over the next couple of years). In America the film flopped badly, but it is difficult to know how much this was associated with the scandal of the Bergman-Rossellini relationship, which was one of the biggest tabloid stories of its time. (Bergman and Rossellini had a child before Bergman’s divorce and her subsequent marriage to Rossellini.) The other problem in the US might have been cuts that robbed the film of some of its important scenes. By contrast, the film was highly praised by critics in France where the Cahiers du cinéma writers hailed it as the first ‘modern’ film. The enthusiasm of Godard, Truffaut et al was typically excessive and a more common reaction by popular audiences then (and to a certain extent ever since) was one of boredom because ‘nothing happens’.

It seems clear now that the Cahiers critics did have a point – and given the more favourable reception of similar films a few years later, Rossellini was once again ‘ahead of the curve’. The film is defiantly ‘unconventional’. José Luis Gaurner in his 1970 Studio Vista book on Rossellini puts the argument very well:

 . . . its subject [is] the breakup of a marriage, but it is not a tragedy. It is about reconciliation, but it is not a comedy. It revolves around Italy, but it is not a documentary . . . As a film about reality and time, it comes into the sphere of the essay. (Guarner 1970: 58)

This concept of an ‘essay’ refers us to the later films of Jean-Luc Godard in particular – light on narrative pleasures but rich in ideas and explorations of culture and politics. This is the form of filmic ‘modernism’ that also leads towards Antonioni and others in the late 1950s and 1960s and which is still part of contemporary cinema (a film like Nuri Bilge Cyan’s Climates (2006) perhaps, or the films of Joanna Hogg such as Unrelated (2008) or Archipelago (2010)).

Rossellini is interested in the marriage between two people who are not Italian and how their relationship is affected by their exposure to Italian culture. This in itself suggests the urge to explore ‘reality’ rather than the familiar conventions of entertainment cinema. Although many couples have wonderful holidays abroad, sharing the delights of exposure to other cultures, holidays are also potentially difficult to negotiate. How do we know how different people (ourselves and our partners) will react to new situations? The usual tensions in a relationship are exposed in new situations. A Hollywood take on an Italian holiday is likely to develop as a romance or a thriller, but Rossellini is not interested in these kinds of narratives.

The car as a barrier between the couple and their environment – or perhaps a cage in which they are trapped?

The car as a barrier between the couple and their environment – or perhaps a cage in which they are trapped?

Casting, scripting and direction

Ingrid Bergman was by 1953 very familiar with her husband’s approach since she had already experienced two difficult and challenging roles in Stromboli and Europa ’51. On the other hand, Rossellini’s use of his wife/star had become almost obsessive (she wasn’t allowed to work for anyone else) and there had been aspects of the scripts of the earlier films which might in some ways have related to the Bergman-Rossellini marriage. As Katherine, Bergman was already under a certain pressure.

Rossellini cast George Sanders – one of several English actors working mainly on Hollywood productions – as Alex. Sanders had no idea of what to expect and he found Rossellini’s approach bewildering and frustrating. In interviews years later Rossellini claims that Sanders hated the way he was forced to work – and of course his discomfort is evident in his performance, which produces exactly what Rossellini wants.

Rossellini maintains that he had a very clear idea of the film he was going to make, but he refused to write it down as a script to give to his two stars. Instead he would supply the dialogue for the day’s shooting but would often change aspects of the shoot dependent on the ‘reality’ of the situation he found in the location. In one much discussed scene Rossellini was tipped off that a ‘discovery’ was about to be unveiled in the archaeological work in Pompeii. He re-organised that day’s shooting and Bergman and Saunders were required to respond to the events as they unfolded. How much of this was contrived (and embellished in later interviews) is open to conjecture but it is certainly true that the film includes several scenes in which Bergman and sometimes Sanders are confronted with aspects of Italian antiquity as well as the Catholic rituals of Neapolitan life, sometimes with quite disturbing results.

In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Rossellini also used the language differences between Bergman/Sanders and the local people who act as servants in the large house where the couple are staying (selling the house which is a bequest by ‘Uncle Homer’ is the ostensible purpose of the visit to Italy). Far from ‘nothing happening’, the narrative is a tightly-wound structure in which the tension comes from the couple’s relationship with each other and the unsettling effects of the environment on each of them separately and together. Rossellini and his cinematographer Enzo Serafin manage to frame the central characters such that the mise en scène is both ‘realist’ and ‘expressionist’, especially in the several scenes where Katherine visits the classical sites of the region and its museums. (See the poster at the top of this piece in which Katherine is shown to be shocked by the eroticism of some of the statuary.)

Alex and Katherine seem far away from each other and lost in the ruins of Pompeii.

Alex and Katherine seem far away from each other and lost in the ruins of Pompeii.

SPOILER

Reading the closing sequence

The whole film up until the last sequence appears to be about the disintegration of a marriage. In fact some of the English titles used by distributors makes this explicit. Yet from the comments above it should be clear that the characters are actually learning something about themselves and each other because of the impact of the ‘otherness’ of Italy. The last two sequences involve the visit to Pompeii when Katherine is overwhelmed by the discovery of the figures of a man and woman miraculously ‘discovered’ in the lava and then finally the car journey which ends with the couple trapped in the crowds for a religious procession.

In Sight and Sound July 2013, Brad Stevens offers a reading of the ending of the film which places it in the small town of Maiori on the Amalfi coast some distance from Naples. Maiori has been the setting for several Rossellini sequences and holds a film festival with a Rossellini prize according to its Wikipedia entry. However, the implication is that the couple are driving through the outskirts of Naples and this is how André Bazin analyses the closing sequence. This isn’t a documentary, so Rossellini simply chooses a suitable location and what is important is that Alex and Katherine find themselves trapped in the crowds in a street where a religious procession is taking place. They are forced to stop their car and get out and in the mêlée that surrounds them as believers rush towards the effigy of a saint carried in the procession, Katherine is separated from Alex. When he realises what has happened, Alex struggles to find her and when they are re-united something miraculous does indeed happen.

The final shot of Katherine and Alex

The final shot of Katherine and Alex

Throughout the closing scenes Katherine has become more emotional while Alex appears to be repressing his emotions – though he says that he has been ‘moved’ by the discovery of the figures at Pompeii. In the previous sequence when Katherine visits Naples with the wife of the agent who is looking after the house, she keeps noticing the number of pregnant women on the streets and the number of women pushing prams. It’s as if there is an explosion of fertility. Later when she and Alex discuss divorce, she wonders if it would have helped if they had children. This seems like an obvious set of narrative connections but Rossellini presents them in a convincingly seamless way – we have to work to make the connections and reflect upon them. The procession which eventually ensnares the couple is, according to Bazin in an essay entitled ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (1955), one of the annual events associated with Saint Januarius, patron saint of Naples. The local people clearly believe in the restorative powers of the saint and we see a man gesticulating as if he is pleading for/celebrating relief from poor eyesight. Bazin suggests that what we have seen throughout the film is a subjective view of the local environment by Katherine:

“It is Naples ‘filtered’ through the consciousness of the heroine. If the landscape is bare and confined, it is because the consciousness of an ordinary bourgeoisie itself suffers from great spiritual poverty. Nevertheless, the Naples of the film is not false (which it could easily be with the Naples of a documentary three hours long). It is rather a mental landscape at once as objective as a straight photograph and as subjective as pure personal consciousness. We realise now that the attitude which Rossellini takes towards his characters and their geographical and social setting is, at one remove, the attitude of his heroine towards Naples – the difference being that his awareness is that of a highly cultured artist and, in my opinion, an artist of rare spiritual vitality.” (Bazin 1971: 98-9)

In the final scene Katherine can ‘see’ another future – and Alex is finally moved to see with Katherine. Whether this will help to save the marriage is another question – which Rossellini leaves open. His panning camera eventually turns away from the couple and the film finally ends suddenly with one of the bandsmen in the background looking offscreen. It is this framing that Brad Stevens discusses in Sight & Sound. Stevens make the excellent point that this ending with its last glimpse of the bandsman, emphasises for the audience that Katherine and Alex are just another couple amidst the throng of people. Just as Katherine and Alex leave the protective shied/cage of their car, we leave the protected viewing position in which the two characters are privileged and rejoin the ‘real world’. I’ve watched the ending a few times to check these ideas and although I take Stevens’ point, two other observations interest me. One is the camera movements that are both ‘required’ in order to represent the narrative space and also ‘expressionist/symbolic’ in underlining the distance from the events felt by the audience. Rossellini has a camera placed higher up in order to see the procession in the distance. This position also allows us to look down on Katherine and Alex and to see how they are surrounded by people. This isn’t camerawork that we would associate with realist modes (since there is nobody in the scene who could have this perspective) and it would require going back over Rossellini’s earlier films to evaluate if it is a consistent aspect of his style. The second observation emphasises the understanding that Rossellini has taken his actors and crew into a ‘real’ street procession. Just behind Alex and Katherine when they get out of the car are two characters dressed in white suits/coats with white headdresses that might be turbans or something similar. The two men appear to be Indian or African and one is holding a paper cup which might contain crushed ice. I wonder if they are selling ice cream or a cold drink like sugarcane juice? Were traders like this common on the Amalfi coast in the 1950s? Any help on this is appreciated. What the presence of these two does do is to reinforce that sense of a story taking place in a ‘real’ Italy.

If you can find this in a cinema, please go and see it. If you can’t make the big screen, a DVD/Blu-ray package is available from the BFI. Here is a link to Moviemail’s offer.

References

Bazin, Andre (1971) ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (originally published in Cinema Nouvo, August 1955) What is Cinema?, Vol II, Berkeley: University of California Press

Gaurner, José Luis (1970) Roberto Rossellini, London: Studio Vista

BFI link to Geoff Andrew on Viaggio in Italia and the Neo-realism Season in London.

The East (US/UK 2013)

Apparently 'spin the bottle' is popular in anarchist circles.

Apparently ‘spin the bottle’ is popular in anarchist circles.

The East is one of those films that tries to be ‘radical’ in a Hollywood context. It’s a Scott Free Production (Ridley Scott’s company with Tony Scott receiving a posthumous credit) released by Fox but generally discussed as coming  from its writer-director Zal Batmanglij and writer-star Brit Marling. The couple have already produced two earlier titles which I haven’t seen. This one didn’t work for me but it  is interesting in terms of its generic roots and some of its casting decisions.

Marling plays Sarah, an ex-FBI agent now working for a private intelligence/security organisation. Her task is to infiltrate an ‘eco-terrorist’ group called ‘The East’. The group organises ‘jams’ – stunts designed to extract vengeance in the biblical sense of ‘an eye for eye’ directed towards the owners and CEOs of corporations who have caused direct harm to communities through their commercial policies on pollution, (lack of) testing of products etc.

The scenario of police/’security’ officers on deep cover missions, often lasting several years, is news again in the UK at the moment and it is an interesting topic. But this fictional US story (though supposedly using some real news stories as material) is rather different in that the lead character seems able to leave the group and come back and operate with two separate identities. The film narrative draws on several older cycles of films from various genres, supplying plot lines and also characters and visualisations. I was reminded of scenes from Gattaca (the security company itself as a fortress – bland and corporate on the outside like the hospital in Coma). Much of the iconography of someone on the run/undercover around Washington DC is reminiscent of Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State. Not so much in plot terms but in its political implications the film reminds us of the cycle of paranoia thrillers from the early 1970s such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Unfortunately, The East doesn’t carry the same disturbance factor for the audience.

‘The East’ is one of several separate ‘cells’ which are linked together. I didn’t really understand this and the politics of ‘anarchist’ groups is never properly represented or discussed. Crucially in terms of visualising the cell’s activities, The East appears to operate from a derelict house set in woodland somewhere on the Eastern seaboard. This gives the ‘community’ a ‘return to nature’ feel that one hand feels very traditional – the Thoreau-like sense of ‘real America’ – but also refers to Hollywood’s ideas about hippy communes, survivalist terrorists in the backwoods or perhaps survivors in some kind of post-apocalyptic dystopia. There is also a religious discourse that I have to confess I didn’t properly latch onto. Being ‘washed’ in the lake is a feature of being accepted by the group – as I read afterwards. I also didn’t understand what Sarah was doing all the time, but I read in other reviews that she is meant to be a committed Christian who listens to ‘Christian radio’ (I always wondered who listened to those stations or God TV – it seems a very unlikely pastime for an undercover agent). The most positive spin I can put on the woodland setting is that it reminded me of the final scenes of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 with the ‘rebels’ walking around the woods memorising books that have been burned in the outside world.

The big problem with the film is that the narrative form usually associated with this genre has only a few possible outcomes. The hero is usually either a counter-culture/radical character or a professional God-fearing American security officer. The latter can ‘win’ by closing down the terrorist cell, the former must die, get brainwashed or there must be a compromise that allows the corporate villains to be brought back into the capitalist fold. Hollywood can’t really countenance anything else. In this case Sarah’s character complicates the narrative in that she finds her own ‘third way’ of dealing with things. I won’t spoil the narrative development but it seemed naïve at best as a way of closing the narrative.

Ellen Page (left) and Brit Marling.

Ellen Page (left) and Brit Marling.

Ms Marling is clearly an intelligent woman who has written a strong female role for a thriller – but for me the star of the film should have been Ellen Page who is rather wasted in a smaller role. Having said that, Ms Page is very distinctive and doesn’t fade into the background well. Brit Marling’s Sarah goes undercover by lightening her hair but this means that she looks like she’s slumming it for most of the time and at the end of the film all I could think was that she looked ‘prissy’ in a skirt and blouse. I’m not sure why, but this seemed to be inappropriate in some way. But I don’t want to be too hard on the film. It is low-budget by Hollywood standards and has had only a limited release in the North America. In the UK it has got into multiplexes with 123 prints, just scraping into the Top 15.

The film is a US/UK production and from my perspective it is interesting that the other three main characters are played by a Canadian (Ellen Page), a Swede (Alexander Skarsgård) and a Yorkshireman (Toby Kebbell) – and very good they are too. I don’t think the film works but I’m pleased to see a real attempt to make this kind of film and I look forward to more films on topics like this.

The Girl From Nowhere (La fille de nulle part, France 2012)

Jean-Claude Brisseau as Michel and Virginie Legeayas Dora

Jean-Claude Brisseau as Michel and Virginie Legeay as Dora

Here is a film that had both Variety and Screendaily railing against its pretensions in the face of a prestige prize win – the Golden Leopard at Locarno. Writer-director – and in this instance, leading man – Jean-Claude Brisseau is an auteur of the ‘second wave’ of French directors after Godard and co. Born in 1944 he began to direct in the 1970s but is generally known for just two titles, Celine (1992), nominated for a prize at Berlin and Secret Things (2002) which Cahiers du cinéma selected as its film of the year alongside Kiarostami’s Ten. Secret Things was an ‘erotic thriller’ and Brisseau was later fined and given a suspended sentence for sexual harassment of two of the women he auditioned for the film. He then released a film with a narrative based around a similar scenario to that which brought about the prosecution. This might explain why, when he eventually turned away from erotic narratives, he made a low-budget film using his own savings (around £50,000) which was immediately in the black after its Locarno win since the prize money eclipsed the budget.

Fans of Secret Things (which even Roger Ebert reviewed as an enjoyable and well-made sex film) will find that although there are a couple of nude scenes in The Girl From Nowhere, the narrative does not develop as a cynical viewer might expect given the pairing of an old man and a young girl. Michel (played by the director) is a retired maths teacher who lives alone after his wife’s death 29 years earlier. He occupies a spacious Paris apartment he inherited via his wife’s wealthy family (Brisseau’s own flat – so you get to see his tastes in books and films). He spends his time reading and watching films and writing a book questioning philosophical and religious beliefs. Disturbed by a commotion in the stairwell outside his apartment one day he discovers a young woman being beaten up by a man who then runs off. He takes the young woman into his apartment. She is clearly injured but refuses both doctor and police. He decides to look after her until she recovers, but then finds out that he needs her – specifically to help him with his book, but also because she reminds him of his past.

The low-budget keeps the action restricted more or less to the apartment and the surrounding streets and much of the film comprises conversations between the two principals. If you don’t like talky French flicks this may well put you off. Personally I found both characters interesting and engaging. The digital camerawork by David Chambille using mostly available light is accomplished and presented in 16:9 framings. The music track is used sparingly and overall this is a well-made little film. Brisseau has taught film at the main French film school, FEMIS and on a technical level the film is a good advertisement for the possibilities of low-budget films. The only time I was really conscious of the lack of budget was when the plot requires an outside shot to be still without wind – but the wind in the background is clearly visible ruffling hair etc. The other facet of the film that made Variety and Screendaily so irate appears to be the fact that Brisseau is not a professional actor. This never occurred to me watching the film. I thought both principals were fine. Virginie Legeay clearly knows the director well since she was at FEMIS and she worked with him on his 2006 film The Exterminating Angels – the one based on his legal problems. On that film and this one she is also credited as Assistant Director.

So what goes on between the old man and the young girl? I won’t spoil the narrative pleasures, only reveal that there are moments of ‘paranormal’ activity – quite well presented and sometimes quite disturbing. It’s also noticeable that Legeay’s character is called ‘Dora’, famously one of Freud’s case studies. Michel is reading Freud (but ‘the girl’ does not exhibit the same behaviour as Freud’s Dora). In general thematic terms, the conversation is about loneliness, memory, dealing with growing old, romance and relationships – issues which the two characters can discuss and possibly offer forms of support to each other.

5579303_origThere are two reasons why I would recommend this film. First, it is a well-made film with intelligent and interesting characters that certainly kept my interest. The paranormal incidents added to the intrigue. Second, the whole venture challenges the role of film critics. What makes a film ‘pretentious’? For that matter what makes for ‘good acting’? Is it indulgence to cast yourself in a role or simply pragmatic if you don’t have the funds to pay an actor? Is ‘cod philosophy’ a bad thing in constructing a film narrative? You can watch the film yourself and decide.

The Girl From Nowhere toured the UK and US as part of the French Cinema export programme ‘Rendezvous With French Cinema 2013’ but it hasn’t got a UK cinema release. Instead a DVD is released by Matchbox on July 8. The distributor has gone, perhaps unsurprisingly, for a cover emphasising the eroticism angle, but this is misleading about the narrative as a whole. The image refers to one of the ‘paranormal’ moments in the narrative.

The DVD is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

 

 

Populaire (France-Belgium 2012)

Luis (Romain Duris) and Rose (Déborah François).

Louis (Romain Duris) and Rose (Déborah François)

This is the film that I have enjoyed most in the cinema this year. I found it compelling entertainment for two reasons. One was the casting of Romain Duris and Déborah François and the other was the use of costume, colour, lighting, graphics and music. Duris and François are my favourite francophone actors of the current crop and that might explain why I am so taken with a film which too many critics seem to have dismissed as simply ‘conventional’. Philip French has announced his retirement from the Observer but in one of his last published reviews he gave the film the full works and found many interesting connections – whereas his colleague on the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw, dismissed it with hardly a second glance. That’s a big mistake because there is plenty to see.

Budgeted at a whopping €14.7 million, Populaire has been inevitably linked with The Artist and Mad Men because of its meticulously presented period detail. It shares The Artist‘s female star Bérénice Bejo (in a small but important role) and its cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman and it’s set in 1958-9 with the same attention to period offered by Mad Men. But that’s where the connection to the TV series ends – and the lazy hype perpetrated by distributors has arguably damaged the film’s box office. Think instead an hommage to the American sex comedies of the 1950s with Duris as Cary Grant or Jack Lemmon and François as an amalgam of all those greats such as Doris Day and before her Judy Holliday – but also decidedly Déborah François. This feeling of borrowing from Hollywood is underlined by the clever use of colours and lighting – like the bright colours of early Technicolor. The music is also well chosen with a mix of French and Anglo-American popular styles. There is a real sense of that keen French interest in American modernity associated with the need for speed – the typing competition is an excellent vehicle for this. Populaire is the first feature by director Régis Roinsard who had the original idea and co-wrote the script. It has its flaws and weaknesses but overall it works extremely well. Of course, a romcom/social comedy set in the 1950s raises questions about gender and we’ll come to those later. First though a brief outline.

Rose is the hopeless secretary.

Rose is the hopeless secretary.

The local finals in Normandy.

The local finals in Normandy.

Rose takes piano lessons from Marie (Bérénice Bejo)

Rose takes piano lessons from Marie (Bérénice Bejo) in order to improve her dexterity.

Rose is a young woman bored by live in her Normandy village where her father owns the village store. When insurance agent Louis advertises for a secretary in a nearby town she applies for the post and gets it – because she is pretty and Louis is a letch, we assume. In fact she is hopeless as a secretary but she can type like a whirlwind. Louis keeps her on and begins to train her for the typing speed contests which were apparently all the rage in the late 1950s. From then on the narrative structure is highly conventional with Rose going on to contest the ‘World Championship’ in New York. Along the way there are a couple of innovations and some tricky decisions over what to show/hint at in terms of offering what might be seen as nostalgia to a contemporary audience. (The ‘Populaire’ is a model of typewriter manufactured by the Japy company of Paris who become Rose’s sponsors when she wins the national title.)

Rose as the new star of promotions for Japy typewriters

Rose as the new star of promotions for Japy typewriters in one of the witty musical montages

The romcom demands that Louis at first doesn’t recognise his own desire for Rose, allowing him to be quite determined and distanced in his ‘use’ of her typing skills to achieve the success as a trainer that eluded him as an athlete himself. He is that familiar figure, the man in his late thirties running the family business but feeling that he has not succeeded. Rose loves him from the start but is too proud to show it, going along with his madcap training schemes to please him. The narrative material that Roinsard attempts to work with here includes a backstory that involves Louis as member of the Résistance in the latter stages of the war – which in turn led to his separation from his childhood sweetheart (Bejo), now married to an American who parachuted onto her parents’ farm in June 1944. For me, none of this worked, partly I think because despite his many talents I just couldn’t see Duris  in the Résistance – but perhaps the fault is mine, there is no reason why a man looking good in a sharp suit in 1958 shouldn’t have a wartime past. But the back story does lead into some potentially darker sides to the drama. Allied to this the sudden appearance of Louis’ family at Christmas provides one of the highlights of the film.

In the end, the film stands or falls for me on the performance of Ms François and she is formidable. She has the ability to move convincingly from village shop assistant to flirtatious romcom heroine, from childlike student to steely contestant and from clumsy office worker to assertive and confident young woman. In all of these roles she is convincing and she dominates the screen. The criticisms of the film’s ‘sexist’ and ‘gendered’ view claims that the film is conservative and backward looking and this is linked by some commentators to the inclusion of one sex scene and one ‘gratuitous’ ‘wet blouse’ moment – see the image at the head of the post. In the UK the film was given a 12A certificate which seems about right – but in the US it seems to be heading for ‘Restricted’.  The sex certainly is an issue for a film which I’ve suggested is attempting to work like those 1950s Hollywood comedies with their Hays Code approved scripts. A similar problem comes up when characters appear to be speaking ‘out of time’ – e.g. with references to smoking and when Rose cries “but this is 1959” (and therefore she can be a ‘liberated’ young woman). I think, on balance Populaire gets these decisions right. I also think that, like Doris Day and Judy Holliday before her, Déborah François is capable of taking the script away from its ideological implications of a submissive and restricted female underclass. Rose is a strong woman who works hard to get what she wants, standing up to whoever gets in her way. The narrative does validate the skills of the typist and it underlines the fact that secretarial work was one of the ways by which women were able to become independent and to establish themselves in the office before moving into a wider range of white collar jobs.  The film has suffered because of some of the negative reviews. I hope more audiences are able to see it and enjoy it for what it is – a conventional romcom with great performances that recalls some of the under-rated popular films of the 1950s. It has already created a buzz among the collectors of antique typewriters!

Rose on the big stage

Rose on the big stage

And if you do enjoy this, can I recommend Déborah François in the generically very different La tourneuse de pages (The Pageturner) which nonetheless has some narrative similarities?