The Bridges of Sarajevo (France-Bosnia-Herzogovina-Germany-Italy-Switz-Portugal-Bulgaria 2014)

An image from Sergei Loznitsa’s contribution

This compendium/portmanteau film features the work of 13 European directors who were asked to represent aspects of Sarajevo’s turbulent history. The film was completed for the centenary of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which triggered the First World War. Since then the city, which had been in Austrian-Hungarian control since 1978 after centuries as part of the Ottoman Empire, experienced a period as part of the Kingdom of Serbia, occupation by the Nazis who set up a puppet fascist state during the Second World War, become part of the post-war Yugoslavian Republic and then experienced the horrors of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s with a siege lasting four years. Now it is the capital of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzogovina. Each director has around 8-9 minutes to say something about Sarajevo and its story and the separate contributions are linked by an animation featuring representations of Sarajevo’s bridges.

I need to confess first that my knowledge of the history of Sarajevo over the last 100 years is not what it should be and that the wars of the 1990s left me completely bewildered (having been a supporter of Tito’s Yugoslavia as a ‘non-aligned country’ in the Cold War). Perhaps because of this, I realised that I was drawing on my understanding of Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo(UK 1997) in my attempts to understand these short films. I was surprised how much I’d absorbed from the script of that film by Frank Cottrell Boyce and how many of the incidents from that film were familiar in this new film.

The thirteen directors, as indicated by the production nationalities above, come from several different countries. The four names most familiar to me directed contributions clustered together in the middle of the film. They are each quite distinctive. Jean-Luc Godard’s familiar large ‘banner’ statements in white upper case type are presented against still images and a montage of clips (I recognised at least one from Eisenstein). Similarly, Angela Schanelec shows us big close-ups of a small group of characters translating the statements of the 1914 assassin Gavrilo Princip with an un-blinking camera eye. Cristi Puiu offers us a long shot of a middle-aged couple in bed reading at Christmastime from a book which prompts the man to make several prejudicial remarks about various ethnicities and national groups in the Balkans – apparently it’s all the fault of Hungarians. The most striking visual treatment is from Sergei Loznitsa who superimposes large still photographs of combatants over street scenes from Sarajevo (both images in black and white). These superimpositions are striking and provocative – see the image at the head of this posting.

I’m not going to go through all thirteen contributions (but see below for more details). Inevitably, in a compendium film, some contributions work better than others for specific viewers – not because they are necessarily superior in terms of aesthetics, emotional impact or political sensibility, but often because of how they are juxtaposed with other contributions and how the rhythm of the overall film works for the viewer. I found some of the simpler personal stories about memory and migration and about family relationships to be not only affective in helping me to feel the impact of war, but also to remind me of the ways in which the Balkan Wars made their presence felt elsewhere in the world.

The on-screen text at the end of Leonardo Di Costanzo’s contribution. It tells us that 240,000 of the 5.9 million Italians mobilised were either imprisoned or executed for desertion, indiscipline or ‘auto-mutilation’ in an attempt to get sent home.

If you want a detailed description and an analysis of all the contributions you could try this review by Jay Weissberg in Variety. Weissberg knows a great deal about the history (or he is a very good researcher). His explanations of each contribution are helpful but I found some of his judgements made me very angry. I was particularly interested in the contribution of Italian director Leonardo Di Costanzo. His film doesn’t mention Sarajevo directly in its focus on Italian recruits fighting in the Dolomites in the Great War. It features a harassed officer forced to send out men to eliminate a sniper, who kills each one in turn. At the end of his film Di Costanzo presents some text informing us about the young men drawn into war to fight for a nation state only 70 years old. Weissberg comments: ” . . . such a didactic, straightforward approach would be better in a film made for high-school students”. What a silly statement. I’ve always found the Italian involvement in 1914 difficult to follow and I found the text helpful. The Italians fought against the Austrian-Hungarian forces and this film sits alongside the Cristi Puiu film (that Weissberg maintains is the best contribution) in identifying the nationalist rivalries which erupted in the break-up of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire which together controlled the whole of the Balkans before the rise of Serbia in the 19th century.

I think this film is available on various online sites and it is certainly worth seeing if you want to learn more about the 20th century events in the Balkans which still reverberate with meanings today.

Trailer (with French subtitles):

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!

Berberian Sound Studio (UK-Germany 2012)

Toby Jones as Gilderoy. Image © Artificial Eye

Peter Strickland’s debut feature Katalin Varga was such a striking film that I had great expectations of Berberian Sound Studio. To a large extent those expectations were fulfilled, but I also have some lingering doubts – not about the quality of the filmmaking, but about what the film offers to audiences. This is the kind of film that makes much more sense when you read the comments from fans. But I suspect that there are other audiences who don’t have the specific genre knowledge and who will be baffled . Challenging an audience is something I generally applaud, so what’s going on here?

The narrative takes a rather timid and introverted British sound recordist known simply as ‘Gilderoy’ (played by Toby Jones) on a trip to Italy to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex. This is the mid-1970s and Gilderoy seems unaware of the tradition of the giallo – the lurid form of Italian horror/crime film which in dubbed form played in mainstream cinemas across Europe. The masters of the genre included Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Because of my aversion to ‘gore’ and ‘splatter films’, I’ve only seen two gialli that I remember, both by Argento. Even so, I can easily see how carefully Strickland has devised his satire – or is it an hommage? It isn’t a horror film as such, but it is disturbing as well as sometimes very funny.

Gilderoy lives at home with his mother in Dorking in deepest Surrey (and also the site of a Martian invasion in War of the Worlds). His experience is on nature documentaries and children’s films. His arrival in Italy is like the appearance of a sacrificial lamb. The film’s titular sound studio is populated by lecherous Italian production staff, beautiful young women and assorted strange characters. As one of the women points out, Gilderoy needs to assert himself if he is going to get paid. Toby Jones is perfect as the mild-mannered man who will find it hard to survive.

The film never strays out of the sound studio – except in Gilderoy’s imagination. Italian films of the 1970s were all ‘post-synched’ for every element of the soundtrack, so the ‘action’ of the film comprises voice dubbing, forms of music production and lots of foley work involving stabbing, squashing and splattering a variety of vegetables – with the pulpy remnants gradually rotting away in a bin. It doesn’t sound much to go on, but cinematographer Nick Knowland and editor Chris Dickens do a wonderful job with montages of the knobs and dials of vintage audio equipment alongside the rotting vegetables, and various actors attempting to find the right kind of scream for a woman being tortured with a red-hot poker!

The Press Notes tell us that “Peter [Strickland] himself has dabbled in sound art and electronic production as part of the trio The Sonic Catering Band. Tracks written by Strickland are featured in the film. There is a character called the ‘goblin’ in the film (voiced by a man who looks like he has escaped from an Italian golf club): Goblin was the band who provided the music for Dario Argento’s films Profundo Rosso and Suspiria. Strickland has also used the band Nurse With Wound in both this film and his earlier Katalin Varga. The sounds themselves (of the stabbing, squashing etc.) are wonderfully realised and the overall technical quality of the film is very high. Like Katalin Varga, this is a European film made by a ‘European’ Brit and a multinational cast. This time, however, the shoot was at Three Mile Island studios in East London, even though it is partly backed by German money and Screen Yorkshire supporting Warp Films (who are based in London and Sheffield). All the producers were keen to work with Peter Strickland, recognising him as a major talent.

The weakness for the general audience, apart from a lack of familiarity with all the references, is going to be the way that the narrative loses its drive in the last third. I won’t give away the ending and I think that it is an appropriate way to end this particular narrative, but it doesn’t perhaps live up to what audiences might be expecting.

Artificial Eye Pressbook

Official Artificial Eye trailer:

Apologies to Europe!

Ironically, when British Cinema has had arguably its best year as a cultural producer for a long time, we are saddled with a Con-Dem government that makes me ashamed to whisper my national identity. The Europhobic zombies who sit on the Tory backbenches look as if they have managed to damage everything this last weekend by putting pressure on a cowardly Prime Minister who has used his veto to take the UK into exile while the rest of the EU tries to work co-operatively.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. The British film industry has often been slow to take advantage of European audio-visual support programmes, preferring to spend time worrying about Hollywood rather than looking towards our European partners. There are plenty of exceptions of course and this year we have celebrated the success of the new StudioCanal operation and the UK/French/Swedish co-operation on Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy.

Most independent film producers in Europe look for support from Eurimages – the fund set up by the Council of Europe and its 36 member states. Today it was announced in a Screendaily report that Eurimages, “the Strasbourg-based fund” had “an interest in working relationships with third countries who are close to Europe and have a European tradition such as Israel, Argentina, Canada and South Africa where you have a certain common understanding about film.”

This seems like a good idea. It’s interesting to note that only one European state is not a member of Eurimages. Which country could that be I wonder? See if you can find the UK amongst the 36. No? Well that will be because the UK is a ‘special case’. It’s pathetic really.

StudioCanal – a new European studio operation

As we suggested in our comments on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, StudioCanal are shaping up to operate as a pan-European producing and distributing studio. On 29 September an announcement in Paris outlined a three-year deal with a London-based private investment fund, Anton Capital Entertainment (ACE) worth €150 million and helping to create a total fund of €500 million for productions and acquisitions over the whole period.

Screen International, which broke the story included a quote from StudioCanal CEO and chairman Olivier Courson:

. . . productions could be divided roughly into four categories: international (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), family entertainment and animation (Samy), genre films (Last Exorcism, Unknown) and features aimed specifically at one of its base territories of Britain, Germany and France (Cloclo).

This is a significant move and establishes StudioCanal as a significant player in the international film market. Courson singled out Tinker Tailor as the kind of international production with a spread of European creatives that the company hopes to go on making. Two future productions quoted are a Coen Bros. US-set film (possibly via Working Title again?) and a starry Michel Gondry film with Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (UK/France/Germany 2011)

Mark Strong as a British agent sent to Budapest

I was eager to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the lack of commas appears deliberate) simply because of my admiration for Tomas Alfredson’s previous film Let the Right One In. I wasn’t disappointed in his direction. I enjoyed the film very much and I think it is one of the best designed films (by Maria Djurkovic who has a long line of credits in UK film and television) I have seen in a long time. If I’m not overly excited by its success, it is simply because it is an adaptation that follows the earlier lengthy TV series from 1979 rather than being something new. Still, there are several interesting aspects to the production and to this release.

The first is that despite the (middle-class and public school) Englishness of the property, this is very much a European film. It marks the first official release for the re-branded StudioCanal – a French company which has autonomous British and German subsidiaries that are both involved in this production, alongside StudioCanal’s long-time UK partner, Working Title. The film shot in Budapest and Istanbul as well as London. It was directed by a Swede, photographed by a Swiss-Dutchman (Hoyte Van Hoytema), edited by a Sweded  and much of the effects work and design work was carried out in Sweden. The excellent music is by the Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias.  (There is some excellent use of songs in the film with George Formby’s Mr Wu and a great rendition of Charles Trenier’s ‘La mer’ by Julio Iglesias.)

The acting is, as expected, exemplary and I’ll leave it to others to work out whether Gary Oldman achieves as much or more – or less than Alec Guinness in his portrayal of George Smiley. Otherwise it is splendid ensemble work all round.

I’ve enjoyed some Le Carré’s later novels but I haven’t read the Smiley titles. I’m a little concerned that the success of this film will start off a series of further adaptations, possibly with Alfredson attached. Not that he wouldn’t do a good job, but I’d like to see him try something else. For the moment though, Alfredson’s spy story stands up well against two other sober spy dramas, Sidney J. Furie’s Len Deighton adaptation The Ipcress File (UK 1965) and my admittedly hazy memories of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (UK 1965). The latter directed by Martin Ritt was another Le Carré adaptation with (I see now) George Smiley as a minor character played by one-time Maigret star Rupert Davies. Richard Burton was in the lead. Perhaps because I saw this as a teenager not that many years after the Berlin Wall went up, it made much more of an impression on me. Tinker Tailor now appears as more of a good yarn than a commentary on the times.

Interesting official website.

Love Life (Netherlands 2009)

Stejn carries a sick Carmen

(This entry was originally published in September. The film was released in selected cinemas in the UK on December 3rd.)

The English title of this hit Dutch film is somewhat misleading. It may be ‘puntastic’ and clever, but unsuspecting audiences could find themselves watching something rather different to their expectations. The original title is Komt een vrouw bij de dokter – roughly translated as ‘A woman goes to the doctor’. What she and her partner discover is that she has an aggressive tumour in her breast. Since this happens fairly early in the narrative, most of the film concerns the different reactions of the couple and how their relationship is affected by the developments.

The film was the biggest hit of the year in the Netherlands. It is based on a best-selling novel by ‘Kluun’ (partly based on his own experiences) and then adapted as a film by Reinout Oerlemans, who, as far as I can work out, is something like the Simon Cowell of Dutch TV. A former TV soap star he became an all-round TV presenter/personality with his own production company and one of the richest young men in the country (born 1971). The film stars Carice van Houten as Carmen and Barry Atsma as Stejn. Van Houten is arguably the biggest star in the Dutch industry and Atsma is an experienced performer, mostly on TV, with a six-pack that seems to be an important of his appeal. (I mention this because there are many nude scenes – for both actors.)

It should be apparent immediately that the film is potentially controversial as a high profile story with well-known celebrities in a Dutch context. The immediate question is whether the film will travel outside the Netherlands – not many Dutch films have attracted audiences in the UK. I won’t give away the main plot points although it’s fairly obvious which way things will go and of course the Dutch audience already knew the outcome. The important factors are that Carmine and Stejn are rich – very rich by most people’s standards. They meet when both are rising stars in the advertising industry and eventually Stejn and his business partner Frenk set up their own agency and the money pours in. By this point Carmen, despite her undoubted talents, is rather sidelined in the business and is bringing up the couple’s daughter. Stejn is hungry not only for wealth and power, but also for sexual excitement with other women, both in Amsterdam and on his trips abroad. This starts soon after the couple are married and continues after Carmen is diagnosed. As well as the nude scenes, the film also shows the effects of cancer treatment in fairly graphic (but very artfully ‘composed’) scenes. It is this mix of ingredients – a rich and spoiled man who many (me included) would love to smack in the face and an attractive young woman humiliated by medical treatment – which is likely to cause a fuss.

Anyone who reads the comments on IMDB knows how some Americans get very excited/agitated about the nude scenes in European films and this one will get them going. Variety‘s reviewer described the film as ‘like a TV movie’. It’s true that this kind of narrative material often does turn up on American TV – but not I think in treatments like this. Shot in CinemaScope with a very glossy look, the film certainly doesn’t look like its production budget was less than 4 million euros. The only way to describe the look of the film is ‘expensive’ (the couple go to a Pacific Island beach resort and the houses and offices are like monuments to the lifestyle of the modern Dutch haute bourgeoisie) and full of aerial and crane shots. I was very much reminded of J.G. Ballard and his novels of alienation in modern hi-tech cities. For me, dealing with this kind of lifestyle is a real struggle and although I found the film fascinating, I can’t say that I ‘enjoyed’ it.

The real issue is whether UK audiences will go for a story about a man who can’t reconcile his love for his sick wife with his desire for sex. Dutch viewers like this blogger seem to have gone for it in a big way. I’m glad I’ve seen it more because it offers a weird example of a male-centred melodrama focusing on a woman’s physical and emotional pain. Yes, I think it is a melodrama of sorts with its ‘excessive’ visual allure and some interesting fantasy sequences using digital effects. I think that my main problem is that although the film made me think about the issues (and indeed how a man deals with his sex drive when his partner is reduced to vomiting and weakened by radiation treatment is a real issue), I didn’t really learn much about these characters – there is very little ‘back story’ and we learn little about how they ended up rich and successful. Stejn has male friends as well as his ‘other women’ and they momentarily look like they might fill in the background, but this isn’t developed.

If you get the chance to see this on a big screen, it is certainly worth considering. Here is the UK trailer so that you can get a sense of the glossy look. Stejn’s ‘other woman’ is Roos played by Anna Drijver.