Category Archives: Directors

Thérèse Desqueyroux (France 2012)

Therese and Bernard in the forest.

Therese and Bernard in the forest.

Claude Miller died soon after completing this his 15th feature film. It was a distinguished career which included a period when he was production manager for first Jean-Luc Godard and then, for some time, François Truffaut. (See this obituary for more background.) Two films from him as writer-director that I remember enjoying are Un secret (2007) and Betty Fisher and Other Stories (2001). The first of these drew on Miller’s own background, born into a non-religious Jewish family, and the second was an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel with Sandrine Kiberlaine as the central female character under pressure. Both the anti-semitism of French society in the twentieth century and the pressure on a young woman feature in Thérèse Desqueyroux, an adaptation of a 1927 novel by François Mauriac, previously adapted for a film by Georges Franju in 1962. Mauriac is a canonical figure in French literature and won the Nobel prize in 1952. His granddaughter Anne Wiazemsky was an actor in the 1960s and 1970s and later a novelist. She married Jean-Luc Godard and appeared in several of his films.

I haven’t read the novel or seen the earlier adaptation (in which Emanuelle Riva takes the central role) so I’m not able to make comparisons, but I would certainly be interested in seeing the Franju film. The lead in Miller’s film is taken by Audrey Tautou and that was one of the attractions for me. It was interesting to see Ms Tautou in a role that challenges audience assumptions about her star persona (cf her role in Delicacy (2011). The story is set in a very distinctive location – the Landes pine forests of Aquitaine, south-west of Bordeaux – in the 1920s. Thérèse is introduced as a teenager playing idyllic games with her friend Anne. Both girls come from local families which own large acreages of the forest, making a good income from wood and resin collection. But whereas Thérèse is the daughter of a radical and thinks for herself, Anne is more conventional – though her obvious enjoyment of hunting might be read in different ways. The surprise is that six or seven years later Thérèse agrees to marry Anne’s brother Bernard – like his sister highly conventional in his attitudes towards love, marriage, family and status. The mystery is why Thérèse allows herself to fall into this trap and her first test is how she will respond when her sister-in-law has a romantic affair with the handsome son of another local family. Bernard decrees that the affair is unsuitable and that the family’s good name is being besmirched. The young man clearly has Jewish blood – Thérèse refers to his family as ‘Portuguese’.

Thérèse shells almonds in the dark house – her calm in contrast with the rising sense of disturbance in the household.

Thérèse shells almonds in the dark house – her calm in contrast with the rising sense of disturbance in the household.

The National Media Museum programme guide described the film as a costume melodrama which led to certain expectations and I want to explore what ‘melodrama’ might mean in these circumstances. Thérèse as the central character is certainly a potential melodrama figure – in particular as the woman ‘in peril’ in the suffocating embrace of Bernard’s family. I think that there is a case for relating this to the ‘woman’s film’ scenario. On the other hand, there is no female best friend to confide in (the relationship with Anne changes) or much of a possibility of a ‘positive’ romance to pursue. There are certainly plenty of opportunities for scenes of ‘suffering’ as an intelligent and curious woman is expected to ‘behave responsibly’. Melodramas are usually concerned with emotions that are repressed or suppressed – and which then ‘return’ or are ‘released’ through an excess of music, colour, cinematography, mise en scène etc. In this case, there is a certain austerity about the mise en scène and the music, although often there, seemed unobtrusive (mostly classical piano pieces) to me. However, the dark house in the forest is clearly Gothic and when Thérèse meets Anne’s lover it is, of course, by the sea. The internal/external world is also represented through a series of sequences which might represent Thérèse’s thoughts, dreams or nightmares.

I won’t spoil the narrative but I will reveal that the resolution is not perhaps what we might expect after Therese is driven to fairly desperate measures and if you have seen the marvellous earlier film with Audrey Tautou, À la folie . . . pas du tout (2002), you might see a resemblance in the final shots of the two films. The hint of Hitchcock is also shared by the two films. I suppose I’m suggesting here that there is an element of film noir in this melodrama. I was intrigued to discover that Claude Miller decided not to follow the flashback structure of the book but instead to tell the story in a linear narrative – which actually makes the story more mysterious (and alters the portrayal of the husband).

When I came out of the film I wasn’t sure if I had ‘enjoyed’ it, but I’ve been thinking about it since and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a form of melodrama and that Claude Miller demonstrated great skill in his last film. All the performances are good and Ms Tautou has successfully extended her range. As Bernard, Gilles Lelouche also acts against his established character type (he usually plays comedic roles) and he also succeeds. I’m not sure that the film got the promotional push it needed on its UK release so you might struggle to find it but during a summer of tedious blockbusters this is an intelligent gem and I hope that I’ve intrigued you enough to want to see it.

The film’s Press Book is here (in French and in English).

Here is the Australian trailer (it reveals something about the plot that I have largely concealed):

Like Someone in Love (Japan-France 2013)

Takanashi Rin as Akiko

Takanashi Rin as Akiko

What a pleasure it is to watch a film by a great director. This film by Abbas Kiarostami takes its title from a classic Jimmy van Huesen/Johnny Burke song and it has only a rudimentary plot, beginning and ending seemingly in the middle of something. Yet the simple events of the narrative, involving no more than seven speaking parts, are presented in such a way that concentration never lapses and the mundane appears extraordinary. The plot involves Akiko, a young woman from ‘out of town’ attending university in Tokyo and working as an escort/bar girl in the evenings. She should be meeting her grandmother who has come to the city for the day, but she should also be revising for an exam. She tries to put off her boss who wants her to visit a client – a man he ‘respects’. The boss is insistent, so she will have to go.

Kase Ryo as Noriaki, the fiancé

Kase Ryo as Noriaki, the fiancé

The whole narrative covers less than 24 hours and most of that time is taken up by conversations, recorded messages, phone calls etc. featuring Akiko, her boss, the elderly client and Akiko’s boyfriend. As in Kiarostami’s earlier films, it isn’t so much ‘what’ is said, but more the mode of speaking and the effectiveness (or not) of communication that carries the meaning. Kiarostami provides the audience with beautifully composed and arranged scenes in which questions are raised but not answered with any conviction and we are left to provide our own meanings.

Following Certified Copy (France-Italy 2010), this is another Kiarostami film in which the Iranian filmmaker makes a film outside his own language and in a completely different culture. There is always a question over how filmmakers from ‘outside’ will represent Japanese culture, but most non-Japanese watching this film will probably not notice that this is an external view. Much has been made of the possible Ozu connections in the use of the camera, especially given Kiarostami’s own comments on the Japanese master. I’m not sure about this but I did feel some connection with another Ozu disciple, the Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, especially via his Tokyo-set Café Lumiere. Kiarostami chose Yanagijima Katsumi as his cinematographer and his background includes work for Kitano Takeshi. I also enjoyed his work on Dreams for Sale in the last London Film Festival screenings. It’s possibly the opening nightclub scene that makes me think of Hou, but much of the rest of the film utilises long takes inside a car (as in the image at the head of this posting) and these are very much part of Kiarostami’s own style.

The question most cinephiles will ask themselves when they leave the cinema is about how they should interpret the title. I went straight to YouTube to find the version of the song used in the film. It’s a glorious track by Ella Fitzgerald from 1957. Its use is, in Kiarostami’s own words, there to represent what a person of his generation (Kiarostami is in his early seventies) might still be listening to. This is reinforced in the film’s dialogue when the client, Professor Watanabe, sings a few lines of ‘Que sera, sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)’ which for me will always refer to Doris Day’s version in the Hitchcock 1956 re-make of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much. The suggestion is that the old man perhaps acts ‘like someone in love’ or that he experiences events ‘like someone in love’. On the other hand, Akiko is interested in the old man’s music and his copy of a well-known Japanese painting. But we can’t be sure what she feels and indeed the main discourse in the film is ‘miscommunication’ – perhaps caused by more than one ‘someone in love’. I should also report that there is an element of danger and violence lying beneath the surface. Overall this is a film that is pleasurable to watch but which will also make you think, especially after its provocative final shot.

Rossellini #1: An Introduction to Roberto Rossellini (1906-1977)

Ingrid Bergman with Roberto Rossellini during the filming of Europa ’51. Rome, 1951 (AP Photo / Walter Attenni) from http://www.ilpost.it/2013/02/01/foto-darchivio-12/italy-rome-roberto-rossellini-and-ingrid-bergman/

The British Film Institute has just released a digital restored print of Roberto Rossellini’s important film Viaggio in Italia (Italy 1953). I’m preparing an introduction to the film and I realised that there is nothing on the blog directly about Rossellini, one of the most important directors in the history of global film. I’ve dug out some notes that I compiled for an earlier event in 2006 at the time of Rossellini’s centenary and I’ve updated them slightly.

Introduction: Rossellini and the ‘problem’ of Fascism and ‘neo-realism’

Any presentation of the work of Roberto Rossellini has to deal with a central issue in fi lm studies and more generally in cultural history. In most popular histories of the cinema, Rossellini is associated with the influential film movement known as ‘Italian neo-realism’. In particular, Rossellini’s film Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City), produced in 1945 has been hailed as the first ‘neo-realist’ film. That position was later challenged by scholars who made claims for Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (Obsession) made in 1943. But by the 1970s and the development of film studies, scholars began to re-assess their ideas about Italian cinema and to recognise that the roots of neo-realism were to be found in the early 1930s cinema of Jean Renoir in France and in the Fascist Cinema of Italy in the late 1930s. But the re-appraisal of Italian Cinema faced two problems. On a pragmatic level, most of the Italian films of the later Fascist period are difficult to see (certainly in the UK and US). Secondly, what Hay (1987) refers to as the “almost sacred trinity” of neo-realist ‘auteurs’, Rossellini, Visconti and Vittorio de Sica, had all been involved in the Fascist industry and it was difficult for them personally and for their supporters to re-assess their relationships with the Fascist state of the 1930s. De Sica did cover this period in his 1970 film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Federico Fellini (a boy in the 1930s) famously gave his view of the period in Amarcord (1973). But Rossellini, who became part of the Fascist film industry in 1936 did not look back to the period. Indeed, one feature of the late 1940s discussion of neorealism’ was the rejection of Fascist cinema as ‘worthless’.

Fascist Italy and the cinema

Roberto Rossellini was the son of a successful architect in Rome and he was 19 when Benito Mussolini assumed full dictatorial powers over Italy in 1925. On 27 April 1937, Mussolini inaugurated the new film studios of Cinecittà in Rome and the establishment of Centro Sperimentale – an élite film school. Both these innovations survived the Second World War and became part of a successful postwar Italian Cinema. Rossellini stumbled into the industry when he needed to earn money – having spent his family’s money on a playboy lifestyle. He counted as friends at this time not only Mussolini’s son Vittorio, but also future leading figures in the Italian Communist party. Through his connections he was able to get work as a sound technician, an editor and eventually as a scriptwriter. The three films Rossellini made during the war, La Nave Bianca (about a hospital ship), Un pilota returna (a pilot escapes from a prison camp) and L’Uomo della croce (an army chaplain on the Russian front) are all ‘propaganda films’ presenting heroic images of individuals in wartime. To some extent, they sound like British propaganda films of the time. Guarner (1970: 11) suggests that:

“. . . if they are considered apart from their set purpose as films, they reveal a personality distinct from other Italian films of the time . . . they do show sufficient respect for reality, care for objective mise en scène and perceptiveness over detail to raise them above the other Fascist films of the period.”

Guarner was writing at the height of the ‘authorship’ phase of film studies and he possibly overemphasises the ‘personal’ approach of Rossellini. What is more likely is that Rossellini learned from other filmmakers who had also developed some ‘realist’ techniques.

Rossellini and ‘neo-realism’

The roots of neo-realism are now seen to be in the 1930s, but there is no doubt that, in 1945, Rossellini’s film Roma città aperta caused a sensation in cinemas not only in Italy but also in the US and the UK, where it arrived in 1947. Film Review in the UK, a popular film annual, greeted the film with the following tribute:

. . . one of the most completely damning , moving and altogether inspiring anti-Nazi films ever made . . . tremendously effective both as entertainment; by turns exciting, amusing and terrifying . . . varyingly photographed, technically inferior [Open City] was always beautifully acted. Direction was assured, witty and full of brilliance; inspired to the extent of giving those sudden, human, familiar little touches to a movie which makes it suddenly, breathlessly alive.

This is a very fair and perceptive review. Rossellini and his collaborators made the best of what equipment and filmstock they could fi nd in the ruins of Rome and mixed it with melodrama, comedy and action. The film has since become mythologised as ‘realist’, but it was the more considered Paisà (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1947) that more clearly fitted the developing neo-realist ideal. All three films include location shooting and use of non-actors in many roles, but they also required studio shooting and they made use of the highly emotional music provided by Rossellini’s younger brother, Renzo.The failure of Germany Year Zero, a very bleak and emotionally shattering film, saw the end of one kind of realist filmmaking for Rossellini – ironically before Rome, Open City had been fully distributed. Rossellini went on to be a great innovator, but also a good interviewee about his methodology. The following quote is a useful guide to Rossellini’s cinema and to neo-realism more generally:

The subject of the neo-realism film is the world; not story or narrative. It contains no preconceived thesis, because ideas are born in the fi lm from the subject. It has no affinity with the superfluous and the merely spectacular, which it refuses, but is attracted to the concrete. . . It refuses recipes and formulas. . . neo-realism poses problems for us and for itself in an attempt to make people think. (Roberto Rossellini in Retrospettive, April 1953, reprinted in Overby (1978))

This argues for cinematic realism as a progressive aesthetic opposed to ‘entertainment cinema’ and in favour of ‘education’. (Rossellini was taken up by Marxist critics in the 1970s, but he remained a Catholic humanist intellectual throughout his life). One of the central features of Rossellini’s camerawork in his ‘neo-realist trilogy’ is the combination of the ‘long shot’ and the ‘long take’. The long shot is the ideal framing device to show crowds and the movements of soldiers in battle. Its use in Hollywood tends to be restricted to establishing shots and genres like the western where ‘figures in a landscape’ are important. Usually, however, stories are told in mid-shot and medium close-up with attention paid to individual characters. Long shots are also difficult to organise on studio sets, where framing is often required to disguise the fact that a set is just a collection of ‘flat’ walls without a ceiling. Allied to the long shot is the use of deep-focus which allows the filmmaker to compose a shot in-depth with objects in the foreground and the background, both in sharp focus. Different actions can take place within the frame and the audience can select to look at the foreground or background. Deep-focus works well on location and like the long shot was common in silent cinema before bulky sound equipment began to restrict camerawork.

A long take is any shot lasting longer than about 20 seconds (the Hollywood average throughout the studio period is about 12 seconds). For the filmmaker, the long take poses problems because all the actions must be carefully worked out in advance. Long shots and staging in-depth help because they give greater possibilities of movement in the frame. Alternatively, moving the camera by panning or tracking allows greater freedom. The panning and tracking camera, shooting in long takes, is a feature of Rossellini’s films at various times, especially in the more action-orientated episodes of Paisà.

Rossellini’s fi lms tend to focus on stories about ‘ordinary people’ in situations which are in one sense ‘ordinary’ – except that in Italy in the late 1940s ‘ordinary life’ was often quite ‘extraordinary’. Here is a useful quote from another spokesman for neo-realism, scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini describing the starting point for a typical neo-realist film:

“A woman goes into a shop to buy a pair of shoes. The shoes cost 7,000 lire. The woman tries to bargain. The scene lasts perhaps two minutes, but I must make a two-hour film. What do I do? I analyse the fact in all its constituent elements, in its ‘before’, in its ‘after’, in its contemporaneity. The fact creates its own fiction . . .” (See Williams (ed) 1980: 29-30)

Zavattini can ask himself, “Why does the woman want the shoes?”, “What else will she not spend the money on if she does buy the shoes?”, “How important is the sale to the shopkeeper – does he know the woman?” etc. In Rossellini’s terms the narrative comes from ‘the world’, from the ‘reality’ of an everyday experience.

Rossellini and Bergman

In 1948, Rossellini received a telegram from Ingrid Bergman offering to work for him for next to nothing, so impressed was she with his neo-realist films. Rossellini didn’t know that Bergman was at the height of her popularity in Hollywood, but he saw the possibility of Hollywood money and invited her over to Italy. They started a passionate affair and she starred for him in Stromboli (Italy 1950). Stromboli saw Rossellini shifting his approach in two significant ways. The story involves a Lithuanian woman who in the aftermath of war finds herself in a displaced persons camp in Italy. Karin (Bergman) chooses marriage as her passport out of the camp and finds a Sicilian fi sherman on his way home from a prison camp in South Africa. With Hollywood money, Rossellini made the most of the landscape of the volcanic island of Stromboli. He also continued a policy of using several local people in acting roles, but this time placed amongst them one of the biggest fi lm stars in the world. Suddenly the film becomes almost a documentary on Bergman as a sophisticated woman attempting to act with an amateur cast – just as the character, Karin, finds herself stuck on a ‘primitive’ island from which she feels she must escape. The Hollywood studio, RKO cut the film by nearly 20 minutes and it flopped badly in an English language version in America. Now the film, at its original length is considered by many critics to be a masterpiece. Audiences are likely to dismiss the film or to be overwhelmed by it. Partly this is a function of the completely ‘open ending’ when it is not clear what Karin will do about ending or maintaining her marriage.

Eventually, Rossellini and Bergman were divorced from their previous partners and they married. Rossellini proved a jealous husband/director and would not allow Bergman to work for anyone else. In 1953 he cast her in a fi lm often cited as having a major influence on the French New Wave in the late 1950s, Viaggio in Italia. This film continued the idea of using the predicament of the actor as a feature of the narrative. Bergman plays the wife of an English ‘gentleman’ who inherits a house in Italy. The couple have a ‘difficult’ marriage and they think that a holiday to complement their trip to Naples to sell the house might improve their relationship. George Sanders plays the husband and he found working for Rossellini very difficult, not least because Rossellini and his scriptwriter constantly changed the script the night before a day’s shooting so that Sanders and Bergman were unaware of what might happen. In one famous scene, the couple are sent to the ruins of Pompeii where Rossellini knew that a startling archeological find was to be revealed. Their consternation became part of the plot. On this film Rossellini proved that, as long as you have a clear overall plan, you could make it up as you go along – something Jean-Luc Godard has never forgotten.

‘The cinema is dead’

Rossellini and Bergman split up in 1957 and in 1961, Rossellini declared cinema dead and launched into a television career. From now on he eschewed conventional narratives and sought to make ‘historical films’ with a strong educational purpose. There were clear links to his earlier films in that he concentrated on his characters as ‘people’ first and important historical figures second. He concentrated on detailed research into the clothes, furnishings and everyday rituals of the central characters who were played by non-actors, or at least non-stars. The details were accurate but the sets were not lavish and the camerawork was as simple as possible.

Rossellini wanted an unobtrusive camera that could record the action without unnecessary cuts or dramatic close-ups. To this end he invented a remote control zoom device that enabled him to easily change the focal length as the camera moved just enough to capture the whole scene and the movements of the characters in a restricted area. The most acclaimed of these films, made for French television, recorded The Rise to Power of Louis IV (France/Italy 1966). Others focused on Socrates, Blaise Pascal and Cosimo de Medici. In 1976 he produced a life of Jesus and when he died in 1977 he was said to be working on a film about Karl Marx.

Conclusion

These notes refer to only a selection of Rossellini’s film credits from a career spanning forty years. By necessity, they are limited to the films that have received public distribution in the UK. Apart from Rome Open City, Rossellini’s films have not been major box office successes – they have been more discussed by critics and other filmmakers than by popular audiences. Yet Rossellini’s films and his ideas about films have been very influential, both on filmmakers outside the US entertainment system attempting to apply neo-realist ideas and to modernist filmmakers like those of the French New Wave, as well as his early collaborators such as Federico Fellini and younger Italian directors such as the Taviani Brothers. Since his centenary in 2006 one or two more titles have become accessible with English subtitles in the US and as imports from Italy. I hope to watch some of these and write about them on the blog.

Roy Stafford, 20/5/06

References and further reading

Peter Bondanella (1993) The Films of Roberto Rossellini, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jose Luis Guarner (1970) Roberto Rossellini, London: Studio Vista

James Hay (1987) Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy, Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press

David Overby (ed) (1978) Springtime in Italy: a Reader on Neo-Realism, London: Talisman

Pierre Sorlin (1996) Italian National Cinema, London: Routledge

Christopher Williams (ed) (1980) Realism in the Cinema, London: Routledge Kegan Paul

Robin Wood (1980) ‘Roberto Rossellini’ in Richard Roud (ed) Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, London: Martin Secker & Warburg

The best starting place for a websearch on is via Senses of Cinema

Trance (UK 2013)

A good example of the kind of images created by Anthony Dod Mantle with reflective glass – entrapment by mise en scène.

A good example of the kind of images created by Anthony Dod Mantle with reflective glass – entrapment by mise en scène.

Danny Boyle has been all across the UK media for the last few weeks. I came out of a screening of Trance and found myself in the car listening to a long interview with him on the Radio 4 Film Programme. I’m not sure that this exposure is necessarily good for him – the best thing he’s done recently was to quietly refuse a knighthood. He’s a nice guy and a great filmmaker but now that he is a national treasure, expectations of his work have sky-rocketed. I get the impression that Trance is deliberately dark and nasty – he  has called it the ‘evil cousin’ of his Olympics show. Perhaps it was the right film to make to escape from the gushing praise and to reclaim some ‘edge’ in his filmmaking.

Francine Stock’s interview did tease out some of the elements of Trance which I think can be ‘triangulated’ in a number of ways. On one level, as Boyle suggested, it is a return (with John Hodge) to the three-hander about greed that was his first cinema feature Shallow Grave in 1994 – but now the characters are that much older and a good deal nastier. The setting for the narrative is initially the art world and the two men/one woman situation. In fact there are many elements in common with the Jo Nesbo adaptation Headhunters (Norway 2011). That film has more humour and is essentially an action thriller. The other well-known art theft scenario that comes to mind is a two-hander and a ‘romance-thriller’, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 and 1999). Trance is much darker, drawing heavily on film noir – Boyle repeatedly called it noir/noirish in the interview. He also said, and this is key I feel, that the stolen object is purely symbolic – it represents something valuable that has been lost, but finding it is about power rather than just money. So what we get is a game about being in control and achieving the power when there are two other competitors. Who do you side with and who do you attempt to push out of the ring first? (The painting is a Goya used in several ways in the plot.)

I suspect that many of us are going to be racking our brains as to which noirs the film reminds us of. I can see that there are some resemblances to Out of the Past (Build My Gallows High, 1947), another three-hander, but in tone Trance is more like the later 1950s noirs from the real hard-boiled guys like Robert Aldrich with Kiss Me Deadly or Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (both 1955). Having said that, I’m not sure that the script is able to maintain the same tone throughout and at times it seemed to become more playful. The noir milieu depends on mise en scène, editing, sound and having good performances. Boyle is very keen on the importance of sound and I did notice it in the film, not just the music score which is interesting, but more so the sound effects and the voices. Boyle picked out sound as being important in an immersive sense – making us feel that we are trapped inside the head of a character experiencing hypnosis. However, effective though this is in the film, it’s the camerawork that really confirms a sense of ‘disturbance’ and claustrophobia. The hypnotist lives in one of those old Georgian terraces with a lift that has cage-like metal grille doors, perfect for shooting through (camera and guns) and other scenes take place in clubs, warehouses and bedrooms with glass walls, mirrors and concealed lighting. I thought that the camerawork was very good, but I did have doubts about the digital image which in a couple of shots didn’t have the deep blacks and clarity in low light levels that I expect from noirs.

The crime gang led by Vincent Cassel.

The crime gang led by Vincent Cassel.

The film is very much a three-hander. Even though there are important secondary roles, it is James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson who must carry the film. I’m not sure why but I have problems with McAvoy as a lead in this kind of film. The problems are probably with me rather than him as he seems popular as an action hero, but there it is. I can’t explain it and in theory he is well cast – but he just doesn’t do it for me. Cassel on the other hand rarely puts a foot wrong in anything he does and he has the presence for a film like this. Rosario Dawson is terrific. I haven’t seen any of the Hollywood blockbusters she’s been in but I realised later that she was in two Spike Lee joints (He Got Game and 25th Hour). She has the definite strength and screen presence to stand up against Cassel. With these three leads and the rest of the criminal gang, Boyle has a ‘cosmopolitan cast’ for a film which he tells us could be set anywhere. There’s some truth in that but in a couple of scenes I thought “this can only be in London”. I’ve seen some reviews that mention Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises as another ‘alternative view’ of London’s criminal mileux, but apart from Vincent Cassel, I didn’t see any other similarities – the one thing Trance clearly isn’t is a film set in a specific cultural context.

I’m not sure whether the film will be successful. It’s quite a talky film with relatively few action sequences. The narrative inevitably twists upon itself because of the hypnosis sequences and I’m not sure that the multiplex audience or Danny Boyle’s hardcore fans are that taken with this kind of noir. I would need to see it a second time to begin to analyse how well the script stands up – at the moment it seems like the weakest element of the film. But having said that, new ideas keep popping up –  none of the three principal characters have much in the way of backstories and I’m not sure what that means. The film is being seen by several reviewers as ‘style over substance’ but I think there is more to it than that. On the other hand, audiences who go looking for Inception or something similar will be disappointed. Anyone who says that the plot doesn’t make sense ought perhaps to remember that even Raymond Chandler couldn’t explain the plot holes in The Big Sleepnoirs are meant to be like dreams (or nightmares).

Two final points – it was good to see Tuppence Middleton getting a major film credit to follow her BBC appearance in The Lady Vanishes. I’d love to know how much Apple contributed to a film which is probably the most effective ad for a ‘gadget’ I’ve seen so far.

Hitchcock (US 2012)

Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as Alma Reville welcome Scarlet Johannsen (as Janet Leigh) to the cast of Psycho.

Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as Alma Reville welcome Scarlett Johannson (as Janet Leigh) to the cast of Psycho.

I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed Hitchcock. It isn’t any kind of rigorous analysis of the man or of filmmaking as a process and it has one major miscalculation in the script from my perspective. But for what it is – essentially a romantic comedy drama (definitely a Hitchcock category) about a long-married couple – I think it works very well and I laughed many times as well as once feeling quite emotional. In other words, my reactions were rather different to those I experienced with The Girl.

Hitchcock is based on the book by Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. The book was published in 1990 and it has taken 12 years to get to the screen. The film focuses on the marriage of ‘Hitch’ and Alma Reville and his struggle to make the film that he wanted to make for his own artistic reasons – but which eventually turned out to be his biggest money-spinner. Scriptwriter John J. McLaughlin sticks fairly close to what I assume is the material from the book except for two inventions. The first is a recurring nightmare that Hitchcock has about Ed Gein, the serial killer who was the real life model for Robert Bloch’s story of Psycho. There was too much of this for me and I think the idea of Gein ‘haunting’ Hitchcock could have been done differently and certainly more economically. Secondly, McLaughlin invents a close writing relationship between Alma and the screenwriter Whitfield Cook. Cook did indeed have a relationship with the Hitchcocks and in the 1940s he wrote an unsuccessful Broadway play in which Patricia Hitchcock featured as a teenager. In 1949-50 he worked at various times with Alma on the scripts for Stage Fright (1950) and Strangers on a Train (1951). These are the last two mentions he gets in Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius. I don’t think it really matters that McLaughlin resurrected Cook as a ‘player’ in 1959. I take it that Alma was having one of what I suspect were many little spats with Hitch and that Cook is offered here as a diversion for her before she gets back on board with Psycho.

Alma Reville and Alfred Hitchcock at home in what looks like the 1960s. (image from: http://acertaincinema.com/media-tags/alma-reville/)

Alma Reville and Alfred Hitchcock at home in what looks like the 1960s. (image from: http://acertaincinema.com/media-tags/alma-reville/)

My feeling is that the film was very well cast. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel as respectively Janet Leigh and Vera Miles are very good. All the other supports are good too especially Toni Collette as Hitchcock’s PA and James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins. Hopkins, for me, ‘inhabits’ Hitch more successfully than Toby Jones – but then the script is more friendly than in The Girl. It requires Hopkins to be more playful and he enjoys himself. The crunch for most audiences will come with Helen Mirren’s performance as Alma. Clearly, she is too tall and too glamorous. I’m not intending to  be mean to Alma, but in 1960 women over 60 rarely looked as svelte as Ms Mirren. Several people have echoed the line about Mirren suddenly becoming (her best-known character) Jane Tennison from Prime Suspect whenever she has to act decisively. I can see this, but I have to be honest and say that it didn’t occur to me at the time. I accepted that she was Alma and I’m pleased that she was seen to contribute so much to the production of Psycho. Everything I’ve read suggests that Alma was a very bright woman who knew the industry well. I was pleased to hear the dialogue line when she reminds someone that when Hitchcock started working in the industry, he was her junior. I was able to forget that Mirren didn’t look like Alma and I enjoyed her verbal exchanges with Hopkins.

The real problem is not with the film but with the distribution and promotion and the audience expectations. In the US this was a ‘small film’ with a budget of $15.7 million (I’m using this Hollywood Reporter article for background). It was given a limited platform release in November 2012, presumably to have a stab at Oscar nominations. It only managed one technical nomination but Mirren and Hopkins got acting noms from several other awards panels. In the UK, however, it got a full ‘saturation’ release to all multiplexes – a big mistake in my view since I think this is a conventional genre film skewed towards older audiences who will probably be entertained much as they have been by other titles with similar ingredients. I was more entertained by this than by The King’s Speech or The Exotic Marigold Hotel. Hitchcock has got little to offer to audiences under 35 and many of the references in the parts dealing with Paramount in 1960 will mean nothing. Does anybody under 50 remember much about Jerry Lewis now?

The major problem that the producers had, according to the Hollywood Reporter article, is that they couldn’t use any material from Psycho itself because Universal, who own the rights (Psycho went to Universal when Hitchcock joined Lew Wasserman in buying a stake in the studio following MCA’s purchase) refused to have any dealings with the Hitchcock production. This was because Patricia Hitchcock, who still controls the Hitchcock estate, didn’t want to support a film about her parents. Universal still have an interest in some of Hitchcock’s best-known films and didn’t want to offend his daughter. All Hitchcock’s TV shows had been made for Revue Studios, owned by MCA and subsequently part of Universal. All of this means that Hitchcock is ‘light’ on many aspects of the filmmaking process in those Revue Studios where Psycho was shot. Consequently, the film will probably disappoint hardcore fans. But if you just want to watch something entertaining, I think the film is fine. I should mention the director Sacha Gervasi, a Brit previously known for directing the heavy metal doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil (Canada 2008). I thought he supported his actors well and the film looks good in what Jeff Cronenweth has referred to as a bright Technicolor look created by shooting on a ‘RED Epic’ digital camera.

The Girl (UK/Germany/South Africa 2012)

Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren

Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren

The first of the two recent Hitchcock films was broadcast on BBC2 on Boxing Day. Produced for HBO, The Girl focuses on the difficult relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and his new blonde star Tippi Hedren during the production of The Birds and Marnie during 1961-3. (The second film, Hitchcock, is released in the UK in February 2013 and deals with the making of Psycho in 1959.)

‘The Girl’ was the name Hitchcock (played in this case by Toby Jones) and his wife Alma (Imelda Staunton) gave to Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller). The script is by Gwyneth Hughes (an experienced UK TV writer) who drew on a book by Donald Spoto (Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies) which in turn refers to interviews given by Hedren herself. Hitchcock, a notorious prankster with a history of sexual repression, has been accused of ‘controlling’ Hedren and forcing her into situations in which he abused her with acts of psychological cruelty, sexual suggestion and possibly direct sexual assault. He had been married to Alma since 1926 and she is presented as partly complicit in casting Hedren, a former model with no previous feature roles, as ‘our girl’. Later in the narrative it is suggested that Alma was upset by her husband’s obsession with his star.

Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock in on the set of 'Marnie' (note that Hitchcock was slightly taller than Hedren, whereas Toby Jones is shorter than Sienna Miller)

Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock in on the set of ‘Marnie’ (note that Hitchcock was slightly taller than Hedren, whereas Toby Jones is shorter than Sienna Miller) (Image from the Ronald Grant Archive)

The lead performances in the film are fine but the actors face the problem that Hitchcock and Hedren were well-known public figures. Hitchcock is arguably the most famous film director of all time because he was visible on his TV show in the 1950s and also as promoter of his own films. Tippi Hedren starred in the two films, attracting both positive and negative responses. Despite excellent mimicry of Hitchcock’s vocal style and walk and the aid of prosthetics, Toby Jones doesn’t resemble the director and Sienna Miller doesn’t really try to become Tippi. (Miller is not unlike Hedren in appearance but her voice is quite different and she doesn’t have the same brittle quality that Hedren showed in her performances.) This is not a criticism of either actor, just a recognition of the difficulty of playing a ‘real person’ who is so well-known. The most successful biopics are often those where the actor strives to represent the personality more than the physical resemblance. For me the casting decisions on The Girl had a fatal impact on the representation of the relationship. I was already disturbed by the claims deriving from Spoto’s work. Hitchcock was clearly a man with an unusual personal history and his treatment of Hedren was almost certainly reprehensible. But Hitch and Alma are both dead while Tippi Hedren is still able to comment. She has confirmed the abusive behaviour in general terms but hasn’t herself given the details that form the central part of the film narrative’s appeal to some audiences. As a consequence, there is a form of audience frustration fuelled by the fact that Hitchcock fans are prone to see Hedren’s comments as a form of ‘payback’/revenge. Hitchcock kept Hedren to her contract after she refused to work on his next picture after Marnie. The comments on IMDB about The Girl seem to be mainly rage about Hitchcock’s behaviour or attacks on Hedren as a ‘bad actress’ who deserved to have her career ruined. (The script doesn’t properly explain the way the industry worked in the early 1960s but Hedren

I think that there are at least two other stories covering the same events which could have been presented. The first would be the story about how Hitchcock produced great performances from an actor with limited experience. We do get to see a scene in The Girl which is illuminating. Hitchcock is shown demonstrating to Hedren how to lower her voice and how to do as little as possible in order to create the meaning that he wants. Director Julian Jarrold constructs this scene very well and it is convincing. But there isn’t enough material like this and the film fails to explain the film production process for the lay audience. The second possible story is the long marriage (in 1962 of 36 years) of ‘Alfie’ and Alma. Again there is a scene in which Alma joins Hitch in a screening room to watch rushes but it is never properly explained that Alma was herself a film editor and scriptwriter (as ‘Alma Reville’) who had her own career before she devoted herself to supporting her husband and his work. By the 1960s she was no longer credited but it was still the case that Hitchcock sought her approval on every major artistic decision. Alma knew about his methods and how he treated actors. I’d have preferred a story about what went on between the couple during their work with Tippi Hedren – focusing on the work as much as the troubled relationship with Hedren.

Although I wouldn’t call myself a Hitchcock fan as such, I have seen most of his films – and Marnie is possibly my favourite Hitchcock. I think Tippi Hedren is riveting to watch in her role as Marnie Edgar. It is disturbing to think that to produce that performance she was mistreated by Hitchcock as The Girl suggests. However, I didn’t really learn anything new from The Girl and it left me dissatisfied. Interestingly, though, it did end with a title suggesting that Marnie has now been recognised as Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. I would agree with that, but many others wouldn’t and in commercial terms films like Torn Curtain and Frenzy were probably more successful.

Although a HBO production, The Girl is essentially a UK film shot partly in South Africa, I think.

I’m now looking forward to Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as Alfie and Alma in Hitchcock. I suspect it will be a different kind of film.

Here is the original screen test for Tippi Hedren that is treated rather differently in The Girl.

Leeds IFF 2012: Tanaka Kinuyo Workshop

Tanaka Kinuyo as star in 1940s Japan

Tanaka Kinuyo (1909-77) was one of the first female stars of Japanese cinema, achieving true star status in the 1930s when Japanese studios produced more films than Hollywood. Her stardom lasted into the 1950s when she became known to international audiences for her roles in the films of Mizoguchi Kenji which won prizes at Venice. But, just as important, she was only the second Japanese woman to direct a feature film and went on to direct a total of six titles in the 1950s and 1960s.

Leeds Film Festival is mounting a five film retrospective of Tanaka’s acting and directorial career with one film each from Mizoguchi, Ozu (see Keith’s review of A Hen in the Wind) and Naruse (see Keith’s review of Mother) and two by Tanaka herself. A half-day workshop was organised by the University of Leeds Centre for World Cinemas and the Mixed Cinema Network with the support of the Japan Foundation and the Sasakawa Foundation.

The workshop was introduced by Michael Smith from the University of Leeds, who sketched out Tanaka’s career as both actor and director and argued strongly for her importance in world cinema – which has not, as yet, received appropriate recognition. He argued that her relevance was three-fold: she was the first woman to develop a body of work as a director, she worked over a long period when the lives of Japanese women were changing at a faster rate than ever before and she made films as both actor and director that focused on women’s lives. Smith’s introduction ably served to provide the context for the more focused papers of the other three speakers to work effectively. He told us about Tanaka’s trip to Hollywood in 1949 (a ‘goodwill’ trip during the period of Occupation) and how on her return she was criticised because she appeared to have picked up American mannerisms. Tanaka’s star image had developed in such a way that she could represent both the ‘modern’ and the traditional Japanese  woman – the girl next door and the proto-feminist career woman. As such her star image was important to Japanese audiences.

An image from the 1955 film A Moon Has Risen, directed by Tanaka Kinuyo from a script by Ozu and starring Ryu Chisu

Irene Gonzalez from SOAS then explored the two Tanaka-directed films in the festival programme in terms of their themes of women’s lives in the context of Japan in the 1950s. The Eternal Breasts (1955) is a romance melodrama about a young poet who was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 1930s. Girls of the Dark (1961) is a story about young women and prostitution that refers to the earlier genre cycle of panpan films about the officially sanctioned prostitution during the Occupation. Prostitution was made illegal in 1958 but by then it was well-established institutionally. Both films were written by Tanaka Sumie (no relation), a ‘Christian feminist’. Gonzalez looked in detail at a sequence from Eternal Breasts in which she questioned the ‘female gaze’ in terms of both one woman looking at another on-screen, but also a female filmmaker creating an image of a potentially sexualised woman for the gaze of a cinema audience. This was then taken into a discussion of Tanaka’s approach to the ‘taboos’ of breast cancer and the daily lives of prostitutes. The conclusion was that though Tanaka was relatively conservative in her aesthetics (she was influenced by the great directors she had worked for as an actress) she was certainly prepared to take on the taboo subjects. Irene Gonzalez explained that the original novel for Girls of  the Dark included explicit homosexual relationships between the women. Tanaka Sumie’s script avoided homosexuality altogether, but Tanaka deals with it without being explicit. Two other points were made by Gonzalez that I thought were interesting. The first female Japanese filmmaker was Sakane Tazuko who made a feature in 1936 but then went (was sent?) to Manchuko (Manchuria), presumably to work in the Japanese film studio there. She made no further films when she returned from Manchuria after 1945. The actress who played the luminous star role in The Eternal Breasts was Tsukioka Yumeji, Nikkatsu’s main female star of the period. I’d have liked more about the industrial context of Tanaka’s work – perhaps I need to do some digging.

The third paper by Lauri Kitsnik from the University of Cambridge was entitled ‘Dancer, Doctor, Virgin, Wife: early star image of Tanaka Kinuyo’. This was a most enjoyable presentation in which Lauri’s enthusiasm was matched by the clips from early silent films including Dragnet Girl (1933) and later films of the 1930s including Yearning Laurel (Tree of Love, 1938) in which Tanaka is a nurse singled out to sing at a concert. Another, Kinuyo, the Lady Doctor (which I haven’t managed to find on IMDB) showed Tanaka in what I presume was a romantic comedy with an almost slapstick scene. Lauri Kitsnik certainly opened our eyes to the diversity of Tanaka’s career and raised all kinds of questions about how her star image was handled in the 1930s – again I wanted to know more about how the studios handled their stars like Tanaka. In the early 1930s she was making as many as seven or eight films a year. Many have been lost but some estimates suggest that she made over 200 features.

Tanaka Kinuyo in Mizoguchi’s ‘The Life of Oharu’ (1952)

The final paper by Alex Jacoby broached the whole issue of how we understand Tanaka’s performances in terms of the ideologies of the films themselves – and by extension what we might learn by focusing directly on Tanaka rather than on other readings which might be predicated on what we know about the films’ acknowledged ‘auteur directors’. Jacoby’s strategy was to look again at the two famous award-winning films by Mizoguchi Kenji, Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho Dayu (1954) but to focus on Tanaka rather than the usual readings of the films’ resolutions as undertaken by scholars in the West. He then moved to consider other Tanaka films in the 1940s and 1950s, some for Mizoguchi but also for other directors. This was an interesting exercise but I would need to see some of the other films again – or for the first time – to really appreciate what might be learned. However, it was clear that this was a worthwhile project and one which pointed towards a more general re-assessment of directors such as Mizoguchi, taking into account the use of star performers. This paper reinforced the earlier demands for a general reassessment of Japanese stars in the classical period.

Many thanks to Michael Smith and Prof. Lúcia Naguib from the Centre for World Cinemas for hosting the event. Great lunch too!

The 2010 Workshop run by the Centre for World Cinemas in the Leeds Film Festival is covered on this post.