Monthly Archives: November 2013

European ‘international’ productions

There was a bit of a stink last week when The Family was released in the UK. This film, written and directed by Luc Besson for his EuropaCorp was panned by virtually all the leading UK critics. They may well be correct in giving it the thumbs down. I haven’t seen the film, though I’m tempted to check it out (if it lasts long enough in cinemas). I’m intrigued because I read the source novel a few years ago. The novel – about an American mafia family, hiding under ‘witness protection’ in France – was written by Tonino Benacquista who despite his name is French and he has a generally very good reputation. The original title was ‘Malavita‘ which translates as ‘Badfellas‘. I thought the novel was a diverting amusement, but my interest now is in the ignorance of some UK critics who a) fail to notice that it is a French story and b) that it is essentially a French film, albeit filmed in English and starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard wondered how much of the film was shot outside LA (apart from a sequence in New York most of the film was shot in France). The main problem, I suspect, is that Luc Besson’s mix of extreme violence and comedy just doesn’t work in Anglo-American film culture.

So far  the $30 million film has grossed over $50 million worldwide and will probably eventually make a profit. Besson consistently turns out commercially successful ‘international’ films in English with Hollywood stars and production budgets small by US standards but high for Europe. I’m using the term ‘international’ to stress that these films in English are not necessarily addressed directly to a domestic European market but are intended to compete with Hollywood product in the international market. The Family has an American (independent) partner, Relativity Media, but is essentially a French production. Nearly all these films are condemned by critics but audiences want to see them. Little is written about Besson’s success but I’m interested now because I’m starting to watch some of the better films produced on a similar basis in Europe (mainly France and Italy) in the 1960s and early 1970s. I’ve seen some crackers so far and I’m going to discuss them in an evening class course running next term at Cornerhouse in Manchester. Watch this space!

Trial on the Road (Proverka na dorogakh, USSR 1971/1985)

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The Leeds International Film Festival excelled itself with this tribute to director Aleksai German who died earlier this year aged 74. I didn’t do any research before the screening and I was completely blown away by some of the scenes as well as intrigued by the overall ideological discourse of this anti-war film set during the bitter fighting in the Western Soviet Empire in the winter of 1942/3. It was only after the screening that I realised that I did know about German (or Gherman/Guerman to distinguish the hard ‘G’). I’m fairly sure that I saw My Friend Ivan Lapshin in 1987 but I remember little about it except that I liked it very much. (The film is now regarded as one of the greatest Russian films.)

German was viewed with suspicion by the Soviet censors and it wasn’t until perestroĭka under Gorbachev that his films began to be seen in Russia or in the West. Trial on the Road was completed in 1971 but not released until 1985 (the date on the 35mm film print screened at the Hyde Park Cinema). The film is based on a story by German’s father Yuri, a legendary writer who wrote films for the director Grigori Kozintsev and acted as a war correspondent during 1940-5. He also wrote short stories and novels, one of which, Operation Happy New Year, became the basis of Trials on the Road. When the younger German began to show an interest in cinema he worked first under his father’s old colleague Kozintsev in the late 1950s. Find out much more about Aleksai German’s films from this interesting blog.

Trial on the Road (there are other English translations such as Checkpoint etc.) is a film about The Great Patriotic War and therefore in the 1970s expected to show the heroism of the Red Army. There is heroism in the film, but it’s complicated and there is realism and humanism to the fore. The ‘Eastern Front’ was the major theatre of the Second World War in Europe (or ‘Eurasia’). Many of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states opted to or were forced to fight for the Nazis or the Red Army as they were occupied by one then the other. Others simply became refugees. Many must have changed sides to stay alive. It wasn’t clear to me where exactly this film was set but there are references to Estonia and to the railway line to Pskov – a town in Western Russia close to the borders with Estonia and Latvia.

Lazarev is a former Red Army soldier who defected to the Germans but now wants to change sides again and fight for the partisans behind the German lines. He surrenders to a group of partisans who might just be expected to shoot him as a traitor. (And this has been argued as one of the reasons that the film was not released under Brezhnev – it was seen as counter to the conduct of the war.) Instead the militia leader (or ‘Senior Citizen Lieutenant’ as the subtitles put it) Lokotkov decides that Lazarev could be useful in an audacious plan to steal a food train. Lokotkov also demonstrates a basic humanity. The ‘trial’ of the title refers to the various struggles within the partisan group over Lazarev and the plans for the train. Lazarev proves himself in an attack which captures a German military car. In doing so one of the other partisans is killed and the Red Army Major attached to the partisans tries to blame Lazarev for the death. But Lokotkov (the leading character in the film) gets his way and the plans are brought to fruition. The actor playing Lazarev, Vladimir Zamansky, is said to have been cast because he was not a celebrated actor or a recognisable face. He struck me as an enigmatic but attractive figure, often silent but with a face that could light up – the only flaw in the casting for me was the notion that he had been a taxi driver before the war (I probably have the wrong view of taxi drivers). The main point is that although he does perform ‘heroically’ in redeeming his earlier conduct in going over to the enemy, he can’t be the official ‘hero’ required by the censorship authorities under Brezhnev.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

This is warfare of the most brutal kind carried out in an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland of snow-covered plains, ramshackle villages and sparse woods. German shot the film in black and white with three different cinematographers used for his complex tracking shots across the terrain. Two of the set piece scenes are among the best I’ve ever seen. In one German soldiers appear as wraiths out of the fog overwhelming a Russian lookout. I know that’s been done before but the handling of the scene is terrific. I won’t spoil the second example which was just stunning. The ending of the film celebrates the advance of the Red Army into Germany, but again the director avoids the triumphal and the super-heroism decreed by Soviet socialist realism. Instead he hones in on comradeship and a meeting of the principals from the food train hijack.

This is a must see. I discovered that a free download at reasonable quality is on the Internet Archive website (with links to an English subtitle file. None of German’s films is easily available on DVD outside Russia yet his high status as a filmmaker is not in doubt. If anyone else is brave enough to screen this in a cinema near you, drop everything and go.

Classe tous risques (France/Italy 1960)

classe-tous-risques-1960-11-g

This could be an image from a neo-realist film on the streets of Milan.

The BFI’s reissue programme with its gleaming restorations distributed as DCPs is doing wonders for the reputation of classic European cinema – and Keith will be pleased to learn that this example is in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. Claude Sautet, who died in 2000, was known in his later career for dramas like Un coeur en hiver (1992) and Nelly et M. Arnaud (1995) but in his earlier career as a writer and director he worked on genre films including this classic polar. Polars are crime films of various kinds and this is one of the very best featuring Lino Ventura in his prime and Jean-Paul Belmondo just getting established (his earlier film with Godard was also released in 1960).

Lino Ventura (Abel) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric)

Lino Ventura (Abel) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric)

The Franco-Italian co-production (a growing industry practice in the early 1960s) starts in Milan with Ventura as a career criminal and a wanted man who has killed trying to get home to France. (The title has been claimed as a pun on ‘Tourist Class’ but I prefer to think of it as a man who travels ‘at all risk’ – there is no quarter if he is caught by the police as he faces execution by guillotine.) The film includes a journey between Nice and Paris (with Belmondo as driver) which had become almost de rigeur in the polars I have seen. I was reminded of the Jacques Demy film La baie des anges (1963). Class tous risques is a relatively long film for the time (115 mins) and Sautet uses the screen time to great effect in developing the characters. The main commentaries on the film mention three things, linking it to film noir, neo-realism and the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. I don’t think this is a film noir, either in terms of the mise en scène or the theme. For one thing it doesn’t have the misogyny associated with the femme fatale. There is a woman who would betray Abel (Ventura), but she is a not a femme fatale. The women are mostly loving and supportive. It is not like a Melville polar – it’s far less romantic and instead veers towards neo-realism in the authenticity of both settings and relationships – the author of the original novel, José Giovanni had himself experienced the criminal life. It begins with a terrific chase sequence in Italy and includes passages in which Ventura must look after his young children.

I love the cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet and the music is by the ever reliable Georges Delerue. One of the things that makes the film great is its complete lack of sentimentality and its devastating ending. This is a sure-fire classic. Now I must dig out my copy of Touchez pas au grisbi, in which Ventura makes his debut down the cast list with Jean Gabin as star. If Classe tous risques comes your way via an inspired film programmer, rush to see it.

Steve Coogan in Philomena (UK 2013)

philomena07

Philomena (Judi Dench) and Martin (Steve Coogan) with the nuns in Tipperary

Philomena will be a big hit and it deserves to be so. There will be plenty written about it so I’ll confine myself to just a few comments. The biggest surprise for me was the seemingly ‘personal’ or ‘authorial’ stamp of Steve Coogan. The film may star Judi Dench and be directed by Stephen Frears, but it feels like Coogan is the driving force. He identifies with the subject matter (as a working-class/lower middle-class boy from a Manchester-Irish Catholic background), he produced the film using his own company Baby Cow, co-wrote the film with Jeff Pope and he takes one of the two leading roles as the Martin Sixsmith character.

The highlights for me (and other audiences will pick others) are those scenes in which Coogan/Sixsmith struggles with his own mixture of anger, frustration, cynicism and some form of revelation. For anyone interested in film acting and the exploitation of a ‘persona’, Coogan is a fascinating case study. He’s an accomplished mimic and comic actor but his success in creating ‘alternative’ comic personalities such as Alan Partridge means that it’s sometimes possible to see Coogan on screen struggling to contain three different characters inside the same role. For me The Look of Love earlier this year demonstrated how this can all go terribly wrong, whereas The Trip was a complete success. Coogan’s persona also fitted his portrayal of another North-Western character in 24 Hour Party People, again for Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom got it wrong with The Look of Love and credit, it would seem must go to Stephen Frears for keeping Coogan in check in his role as Sixsmith.

There is an interview on the Guardian film website with Coogan and Sixsmith together which I found quite fascinating. Sixsmith is yet another North-West boy (from Cheshire) but Oxford and stints in Moscow and Washington for the BBC have given him the confident sheen which Coogan hasn’t quite got. Watching Coogan as Sixsmith in the Washington scenes of Philomena, there is a tension because of this but it works to help represent the struggle going on within the character. At other times, I thought “those are Coogan lines” – there is a lovely bit of ‘business’ when Coogan/Sixsmith spots a photo of Jane Russell on the wall in a house of nuns and confuses her with Jayne Mansfield, blurting out that they were both ‘big’ women. Somehow these scenes too seem to help the characterisation.

Philomena is one of those popular films that have the potential to get people talking about important social issues. It’s a quality production with Robbie Ryan looking after camerawork and Alexandre Desplat as composer. It has some oddities in its narrative construction, partly the result I imagine of adapting a book which itself is a narrativised account of Philomena Lee and Martin Sixsmith’s search for the son she ‘lost’ 50 years earlier. It also poses an interesting question for narrative theorists. I won’t spoil the storytelling but do watch out for the use of old home movie footage that is introduced early in the film – before any of the characters on the screen could have seen it. I’m not sure what you could call this as it is a flashback and flashforward at the same time. I’m now interested to see what form any future critical writing about the film takes. I had feared that Philomena might be just another of those dull ‘awards films’ but it is much more interesting than that. I have seen some IMDB comments suggesting that it is another King’s Speech. Philomena has had similar ratings problems in the US (there are two or three, wonderfully effective, ‘fucks/fecks’ in the film) – but don’t worry it’s much more interesting than that earlier box-office winner.

Walesa: Man of Hope (Poland 2013)

We watched this film a fortnight ago and it seems a little strange that I haven’t thought much about it since. I’m hoping that Keith will have some comments to add.

I’ve always been a fan of Andrzej Wajda and I looked forward to this biopic of Lech Walesa very much. It’s the final part of a loose trilogy of films stretching back to Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981). In the first of these films Wajda adopted an approach not dissimilar to contemporary films from other countries. He mixed fictional and archive material in a film that tells the ‘real’ story of a model worker in the 1950s. This story is uncovered by a young TV director making a documentary. The second film then explores what happened to the son of the bricklayer from the first film. It focuses on the Gdańsk shipyard in the late 1970s with an appearance by the real Lech Walesa. Man of Hope focuses directly on Walesa himself but again utilises an investigatory narrative structure so that the early part of Walesa’s story (i.e. from his first brush with the authorities on the night his first child is born during the food protests in Gdańsk in 1970) is told via the device of an interview conducted by a visiting Italian journalist in 1983. The film ends with the downfall of the Polish government in 1989 and Walesa clearly an important and charismatic leader of a workers’ movement –but with some doubts about exactly what he did and how it affected the eventual outcome.

Wajda has been making films since the early 1950s and Man of Hope is of course very well executed with good performances by the two leads, Robert Wieckiewicz and Agnieszka Grochowska as Lech and Danuta Walesa. Many critics have pointed out that only Wajda is capable of so expertly melding the fictional and archive footage to recreate specific events from the 1980s. However, the enterprise is fraught with dangers. There are several different audiences for the film, each with different views on Walesa and the history of Poland during the post-war period and up to the present. Walesa himself has gone through periods of popularity culminating in his election as the second President of the New Poland in 1990. Since 1995, when he narrowly failed to be re-elected, he has lost support at home whilst still being lauded in international circles.

Wajda is said to have seen this production as a personal goal, although it followed his earlier film about the Polish officers killed by the Russians at Katyn. That really was ‘personal’ and concerned his memories of his father. I’m not sure how he feels about Walesa. He promised a film about Walesa that would not be hagiographic and Man of Hope does cast some doubts on the legend, including references to Walesa being forced to act as a stooge for the Polish secret police in his early days – something he at first naïvely accepted. Did he then repudiate the links later?

Danuta Walesa at home in the family's tiny flat with the Walesa children.

Danuta Walesa at home in the family’s tiny flat with the Walesa children.

I don’t know enough about Polish political and social history to make any kind of reasoned comment on how the ‘real’ Walesa is represented. I’ve never taken to him as a public character. He was not a trade union leader in the conventional sense or a socialist. His social views seem highly conservative. In fact I confess that the collapse of Eastern European communism has always seemed to me a mixed blessing – out of the frying pan of Soviet state capitalism and into the fire of privatisation, the (not) free market etc. The story about the rise of Solidarity has the capacity for great drama, but without the depth of historical knowledge needed to analyse events I turn to the more personal stories. In Man of Hope I found Danuta to be more interesting as a character – left to cope with the children and humiliated by the Polish authorities when she returned from Oslo with her husband’s Nobel Peace Prize. (I noted in my review of Katyn that Wajda had represented the women at home in order to show the effects of the Russian invasion in 1939.)

Wajda’s film is in the end perhaps too polished. Wajda himself has argued that Polish films were artistically stronger when making films was a struggle against censorship. Now films with serious themes struggle to find audiences unless they become more conventional (and perhaps shorter – this one at 125 minutes is much shorter than its two predecessors). At least in the UK it has got a release from the Polish independent distributor ‘Project London’. In its first weekend it was in 44 cinemas but managed only a £1,497 screen average. But in Poland the film topped the box office with the best opening of the year and attracted 150,000 cinemagoers over the first weekend. Fandor rounds up some of the American reactions (to screenings at festival, I don’t think it’s out in the US yet) and I noted that Marilyn Ferdinand praises the “energetic mise en scène of the Gdańsk shipyards and Wałęsa’s crowded home filled with children and union activists”. I do agree that this was one of the positives of the film and it is simply good to see images of a mass of workers in an industrial dispute. The workers’ tactics sometimes struck me as naïve – presumably this is due to the years of repression of free trade unions. The lack of proper union leadership was perhaps why an opportunity arose for a charismatic outsider like Walesa?