Heal the Living (Réparer les vivants, France-Belgium 2016)

Simon (Gabin Verdet) and his girlfriend Julette (Galatéa Bellugi)

This is the third feature by the French auteur Katell Quillévéré. It’s adapted from a novel by Maylis De Kerangal and the screenplay is by the director and the highly-experienced Gilles Taurand. I’d seen and enjoyed Ms Quillévéré’s first two features, Love Like Poison (2010) and Suzanne (2013), and I was keen to see the third, although I knew it would be difficult for me to watch hospital scenes in an operating theatre (I’m very squeamish). The title is ‘bald’ in its meaning – to save lives by using the vital organs of healthy people who have died in accidents.

Simon’s parents Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (Kool Shen)

Anne Dorval as Claire, te heart’s recipient

The film is unusual in taking an emotional subject and structuring the narrative in such a way as to possibly slightly distance the audience. I have to be circumspect here since I watched the last section of the film through my fingers. In the first part of the narrative we follow three young men obsessed with surfing. They drive out to a beach near the port of Le Havre very early one morning and enjoy an exhilarating session, but as they drive back there is a tragic accident and 17 year-old Simon is seriously injured. This opening sequence is almost dialogue free and it really is a tour de force. Simon’s parents are summoned to the hospital and it is the task of Dr. Thomas Rémige (Tahar Rahim) to explain to the distraught parents that Simon is actually ‘brain dead’ and that they might consider donating his organs. Meanwhile in Paris, Claire (French-Canadian actor Anne Dorval) is told that her weak heart is failing and that she needs a transplant. I don’t think I’m spoiling the narrative to then reveal that the third and last section brings the other two strands together.

What is unusual is that Katell Quillévéré has decided to present the film almost like an observational ‘day in the life’ documentary. Although Tahar Rahim is top-billed as the ‘star’ of the film, he is only on screen for a short time. This is an ‘ensemble film’, so Quillévéré gives us a number of other characters, each of whom plays a small part in the overall story, but each of whom is in a sense ‘humanised’ in what is a highly-organised medical process. These characters include Simon’s girlfriend and the newly-appointed nurse who looks after him on the life support system, Claire’s doctor in Paris and her two grown-up sons, her ex-lover etc. and in the final section, the two junior doctors (?) who accompany the heart on its journey from Le Havre to Paris and contribute to the surgery team.

The registrar (Bouli Lanners) and the cardiologist (Tahar Rahim)

Jeanne (Monia Chokri) the nurse on the left has her own private ‘moment’ during the busy day

It is a brave move to play down all the possibilities of a family melodrama and not to invoke any genre touches in presenting such an emotional story. Reading reader’s comments on the best-selling novel that forms the source material, I learned that the film’s title comes from a line in Chekhov’s play Platonov (1878): “Bury the dead and repair the living”. The novel in French has been translated twice in English (for UK/Canada as Mend the Living and in the US as The Heart). I think the film’s English title is clever in referring to ‘healing’ rather than the more prosaic ‘mending’, although on second thoughts, ‘mend’ is quite an interesting term too. I’m intrigued that quite a few literary reviewers referred to the ‘straight to video’ or ‘movie of the week’ material of the narrative and commented on how the literary style ‘lifted’ the material. I thought of emotional drama/melodrama, but putting down such stories as implied by the comments above reeks a bit of snobbery, I think. I would have to agree, however, that it is Katell Quillévéré’s sheer skill in her staging of events and direction of her ensemble cast, all of whom are very good, that makes this such an accomplished film. Despite its ‘documentary/procedural’ feel, she also offers us at least two moments of fantasy that are beautiful to watch and work very well in the presentation of the story. The cinematography and editing are particularly good. The score is by Alexandre Desplat and it complements the editing and provides an emotional base for the narrative. The novel emphasises that all the events are contained in a 24 hour period. The film doesn’t explicitly state this (and I didn’t think about it) but there is always a sense of ‘controlled urgency’.

Heal the Living didn’t get much of a cinema distribution in the UK and even where it was available, not much of an audience. That’s a shame. I think Katell Quillévéré is a real talent. I’m not sure this is my kind of story but I was still engaged throughout and very impressed by how it is presented. If you are a fan of such stories I urge you to seek it out. (It’s on Curzon Home Cinema and no doubt other outlets.)

Fidelio – Alice’s Journey (France 2014)

Alice (Ariane Labed) is a woman in a traditionally male environment (at least as seen in films).

Alice (Ariane Labed) is a woman in a traditionally male environment (at least as seen in films).

At a time when the number of films directed by women has become a major issue in the anglophone world, it’s worth noting that in France things have moved on considerably. In a review of Mon Roi (2015) by the actor-director Maïwenn (Sight & Sound, July 2016), Ginette Vincendeau makes the point that currently over 25% of directors in France are female and that the major Paris film school Fémis now has gender parity in its student body. France offers the best opportunities for female filmmakers. However, Vincendeau goes on to point out that many of these female directors don’t necessarily share the expectations of feminist critics and audiences in terms of the films they decide to make – often auteurist works about individuals rather than social issues.

Lucie Borleteau (b. 1980) worked as an assistant to leading directors, including Claire Denis, before producing three ‘medium length’ films and then her début feature Fidelio – Alice’s Journey. She co-wrote the film with Clara Bourreau and drew on the expertise of her best friend who joined the Merchant Marine. The idea of a narrative about a woman on a large cargo vessel with a small group of men raises the possibility of a range of ‘gender issues’, but Borleteau’s work with the Greek actress Ariane Labed as Alice focuses on sexual desire and ideas about love and relationships as seen by a very self-assured and confident young woman.

Alice and her ‘journey’

Borleteau’s approach is signalled in this extract from an interview with her that is included in the film’s Press Notes:

(Interviewer) . . . the reality of people and situations, the way Alice has to constantly navigate the everyday sexism that comes with existing in a world of men was so familiar. There’s no climactic moment of overcoming anything specifically, it’s just a lived experience.

(Lucie Borleteau) Absolutely, I did not want it to be as if it’s a fight. She’s not a young mechanic, she’s 30 years old, she has experience, and nobody can say she’s not qualified. But of course, you have sex photos all over the ship, in cabins, and when they go for a port-of-call party, there are girls and all that. But that’s from what my friend told me about. In every situations, sometimes there are harder examples of sexism, and sometimes it can be quite casual. It’s good also to make films that are close to real life today. To me, films with a big climax where the character overcomes sexism are now old-fashioned.

Alice makes a clear distinction between love and monogamy. But the film is nonjudgmental.

Absolutely.” 

In Ariane Labed’s marvellous performance we see a woman who is at ease with who she is and what she wants to do. Part of that ease is expressed in her approach to lovers old and new. The film includes several scenes from Alice’s sex life, each of which is presented with an honesty and absence of coyness that fits the mood of the film.

What is Alice’s ‘journey’? The ship makes a journey which certainly has an end point. Its name is ‘Fidelio’ and this is reference to ‘fidelity’ is one of the symbolic elements in the film – as is the appearance of a poisonous snake in the bowels of the ship. In conventional terms the film’s narrative does not have the ‘closure’ of much of Hollywood. Alice doesn’t go on a ‘journey’ towards redemption or self-knowledge. Instead, the open-ending allows each of us to decide what happens next to Alice and the other characters. Audiences are likely to have different views on Alice’s behaviour and therefore on where she will go next.

When I discussed this film with an audience I was pleased to discover that most of them liked the film and agreed with the director’s statements. It struck me that in the film Alice gets to deliver dialogue that we might have heard before from male characters in a mainstream film about sexual encounters from a male point of view and this is one of the ways in which Lucie Borleteau makes a statement without being didactic. There is just one incident in which Alice is subject to a sexual assault and she deals with it in a way that seems perfectly reasonable but Borleteau shows that her actions have consequences. The narrative also gives us enough to question whether Alice’s overall approach to sex and personal relationships is as straightforward as she makes out – and as ‘pain free’. There is one scene in which Alice returns home to an extended family of sisters and this seemed like a whole new narrative strand could open up – perhaps another film?

Shipping and globalisation

It’s interesting to see a film about contemporary shipping. There are moments of almost documentary-like ‘procedure’ in the film, but mainly the globalised shipping world is represented through the ship’s crew and the communications with the (unseen) owners. Some scenes were shot on a ship sailing between Marseille and Tunisia. Interiors were mainly studio based. From a British perspective it is interesting to see the way aspects of French culture remain important on board ship and how all the ship’s officers are French even if the rest of the crew is multinational and English is often required for communication with Filipinos and other crew members. The British Merchant Marine seems to have virtually disappeared with ships registered under ‘flags of convenience’ and multinational crews. The only recent films I can recall seeing that feature merchant shipping have been French or Danish. Shipping in the globalised world is a cut-throat business and what happens to the Fidelio seems very real. I think Lucie Borleteau’s film offers us a great deal and should be more widely seen.

Fidelio is another gem from New Wave Films. Here is the trailer:

Mon Roi (France 2015)

Tony (Emanuelle Bercot) and Georgio (Vincent Cassel)

Tony (Emanuelle Bercot) and Georgio (Vincent Cassel)

StudioCanal has a habit of what strikes me as ‘dumping’ French titles on the UK market. They open in a handful of cinemas with little promotion and then go straight to DVD or online. These are sometimes titles from interesting directors or they have been hits in France but are presumably not expected to do well in the UK (e.g. La famille Bélier last year). Mon Roi is a film by actor-writer Maïwenn. Her previous film, Polisse (France 2011), won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was widely nominated for awards. It too had a relatively limited release in the UK, despite significant success in France. I was tempted to see Mon Roi at HOME in Manchester, partly because Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review gave the film ‘One Star’ and described it as “an unendurable confection of complacent and self-admiring nonsense: shallow, narcissistic, histrionic and fake”. I’ve been agreeing with Bradshaw too often recently and this looked like an opportunity to end that run.

The ‘Roi’ in question is Georgio (Vincent Cassel) who tells his new lover Tony – Marie-Antoinette – that he is not a ‘jerk’ but ‘the King of Jerks’. The film begins in a familiar way with an accident in which Tony has a spectacular skiing accident (offscreen). We guess from various clues that the accident was at least partly her own fault, through inattention or deliberate foolhardiness. As a result of a serious injury she must spend several weeks/months at a rather nice rehabilitation centre by the sea. This gives her time to think back over the previous 10 years and her volatile relationship with Georgio. In flashback we see how they met and how the relationship developed.

Tony at at the rehab centre.

Tony at at the rehab centre.

I have to admit that there was a moment in the first half of the film when I wondered whether I could cope with watching the affair develop and then unravel. But later on I began to get more interested and overall I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t use ‘Five Star’ ratings but if I did this would be at least a Two Star and possibly a Three Star film. It certainly seems to provoke Love/Hate reactions with critics and audiences, but overall seems to score positively. Part of the interest is in the casting. Vincent Cassel plays close to his usual persona but is capable of both ramping it up and toning it down – and the latter can be quite chilling. Tony is played by Emmanuelle Bercot who I barely know of at all. Bercot is also an actor-director and she took on this challenge in the midst of directing her own films. She has the difficult task of ageing 10 years and at first I struggled to recognise the ‘younger’ woman as the same actor I saw in the rehab centre. She achieves this both through a change in her hairstyle, but also something about her eyes which I couldn’t quite figure out. Cassel has to age as well, but his features are both so well-known and so distinctive that I had no problems with his character. As I’ve often noted, films directed by women tend to have a more frank attitude towards representing sex on screen. There is certainly a lot of both Bercot and Cassel exposed on screen. They didn’t seem to have body doubles and for a pair of actors born in the late 1960s they both look in very good condition. I certainly didn’t have problems with the depiction of their sexual relationship.

Tony is a lawyer giving a public lecture watched by Georgio at the start of their relationship.

Tony is a lawyer giving a public lecture watched by Georgio at the start of their relationship.

Georgio is certainly a jerk – an arse I would call him. Tony is an independent woman, a high-flying criminal lawyer who falls deeply in love and agrees to marry and then have Georgio’s baby, both actions that will later rebound upon her. Her younger brother and sister-in-law see through Georgio, but that doesn’t mean Tony is a fool. The rows between Tony and Georgio are fierce – Bradshaw’s ‘histrionic’ perhaps – but they didn’t feel fake. I know men with some of Georgio’s traits and they seemed real to me. The final scene is in its own way chilling and Tony simply looked stunned. Bradshaw dismissed the flashback structure and all the rehab scenes but I enjoyed these. The centre seems to cater for young men with sports injuries and I thought the play with social class, gender and racial identity between Tony and the ‘lads’ was interesting.

Mon Roi feels very ‘French’. That’s perhaps a facile statement, but the film has a quality I can’t describe and it seems to go with a certain sense of humour, a perception of what is ‘cool’ and a willingness to explore the extremes of relationships. I liked all the performances and I’m struck again by just how many female filmmakers in France can get films made and into distribution compared with their British sisters. It’s a shame this hasn’t had a wider release and more discussion about the characters. Emanuelle Bercot tied with Rooney Mara (for Carol) as Best Actress at Cannes for her performance as Tony. I’m not sure I agree with that but she is certainly very good.

The Tree (L’arbre, Australia-France 2010)

The two youngest children, Charlie and Simone (Morgana Davies)

The two youngest children, Charlie (Gabriel Gotting) and Simone (Morgana Davies)

I’m not sure how I missed this transnational production but, as the UK release schedule expands, smaller releases like this one appear only fleetingly in cinemas before going straight to DVD. I came across The Tree as one of the two earlier features by Julie Bertuccelli, director of School of Babel. (The film did actually close the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 but it was out of competition and therefore not much discussed in the international media.) There are several reasons why The Tree is worth watching. These include the production context, the presentation of Australian landscapes, the direction of child actors and another chance to catch a performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg.

The Artificial Eye Region 2 DVD carries an interesting ‘making of’ documentary (including a sequence of ant wrangling) in which we learn that Ms Bertuccelli was eager to adapt the Italo Calvino novel The Baron in the Tree, but then discovered that this wasn’t possible and started to look for other stories with a tree as a central character. When she read the novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree by Judy Pascoe she was immediately attracted and, with her producer Yael Fogiel, contacted the Australian adaptation rightsholder Sue Taylor. The three women got on well and an Australian-French co-production was organised with funders from both countries, including local film commissions and TV stations.

The original novel focuses on a little girl who experiences the death of her father and then believes that his spirit has in some way taken up residence in a large tree adjacent to the family home. While the rest of her family have their own ways of dealing with the father’s death, Simone climbs into the tree where she can ‘hear’ her father’s voice. Julie Bertellucci decided to change the central narrative by focusing on Dawn, the mother played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and her close relationship with Simone (aged 8 in the film). The other three siblings are three brothers, two older and one only a toddler. Since the oldest boy is studying for school-leaving exams there is a wide age range in the family and the five characters have very different perspectives. The shift to the mother-daughter relationship rather than simply the child’s view is interesting in the spin it gives to the film’s address to its audience. One of the commentators on the book’s appeal writes about Simone’s narration as being similar to Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird. Shifting to the mother-daughter scenario makes the film more consciously about ‘women’s lives’. Julie Bertuccelli adapted the novel herself and with her female producers and a mother-daughter central pair this was just too much female input for one disgruntled male spectator on IMDB.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is Dawn, posed here against one of many beautiful landscapes

Charlotte Gainsbourg is Dawn, posed here against one of many beautiful landscapes

The story is located in rural Queensland and the film was a long time in preparation as the director searched for the perfect tree. She didn’t want to design/construct a tree. Her documentary background convinced her that the tree had to be ‘real’. Eventually, after two years and many tree viewings the team found a giant Moreton Bay Fig tree (in the novel I think it’s a flame tree of some kind) in Bunnah in Queensland. Standing on its own with an interesting view of the local landscape, the house was constructed around the tree – providing one narrative thread since these fig trees have enormous root systems that threaten drainage pipes and the structural safety of the house itself. At the start of the film we see that the father’s job entails physically moving the wooden houses in the district by low loader, a kind of ironic marker for later events.

Bertuccelli’s focus on the mother leads to what many will see as a highly conventional narrative – she starts another relationship ‘too soon’ after her husband’s death. Yet this story is also a way of commenting on her marriage – she hasn’t worked for the past 17 years (or perhaps not at all) and she knows few people beyond the local women who are mostly older. She needs to get a job and to see something of the world beyond the house. By contrast Simone retreats towards the tree. The core of the narrative offers us an emotional narrative driven by the child’s imagination which draws on ‘arboreal magic’ and the potential power of the wider environment – the drought which threatens all the vegetation and the violent tropical storms. The story in this sense relates to both specifically Australian stories about the bush (I think that there is only one short sequence in which a boy who may be part of a local indigenous community appears with some wildlife) and to more general dramatic narratives in which families face natural disasters. So, how does a non-native Australian director fare in the environment? From my perspective she does well. The ‘reality’ of the tree certainly works. She tells us that the storm was photographed on the spur of the moment when it happened – rather than through preparation and design.

The tree stands in its 'magical reality'

The tree stands in its ‘magical reality’

But the film ultimately stands or falls on the central relationship and the two actors. I always find Charlotte Gainsbourg compelling but as Simone, Morgana Davies is remarkable. Her language (and delivery) sometimes sounds like an older child but her mix of strength and vulnerability seems absolutely right. The narrative may be slight in terms of action/events but it is rich in meanings and emotions and the film worked for me overall. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian found it to be an “outrageously twee, spiritual and supercilious drama”. That seems a bizarre comment. Julie Bertuccelli shows how each of the children behave differently in response to their father’s/husband’s sudden death. Dawn is not the mother who bravely holds the family together. The children have strength in their own responses and though there are conventional aspects to the story concerning Dawn and the man she starts a relationship with, overall the narrative remains open-ended. The film is a form of family melodrama with elements of both fantasy and realism.

My only surprise was the size of the budget at €7.7 million. This is a ‘large’ budget by UK standards. French productions have become more expensive in recent years, partly through the inflated fees paid to actors. Charlotte Gainsbourg is certainly a star actor, but I’d be surprised if it was her fee that pushed up the cost. On reflection, it seems to me that the money went on preparation and an extended shoot. It was Bertuccelli’s first time directing children and as well as many retakes for the younger children, she seems to have encouraged the children to be a family on the shoot and not only in front of the cameras. I think that this shows in the finished film as they are believable as a family. Unfortunately the film was not successful in cinemas in Europe (around €2 million at the European box office) and I doubt that the Australian box office was any better. Perhaps the film will be the long term sleeper and prove profitable on DVD and TV as Screendaily predicted. I hope so, it deserves to be seen.

The Past (Le passé, France-Italy 2013)

Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Samir (Tahir Rahim) (photograph © Carole Bethuel)

Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Samir (Tahir Rahim) (photograph © Carole Bethuel)

I’m surprised at the relatively low-key distribution of this Asghar Farhadi film in the UK. It’s had some great reviews but it seems a crowded marketplace at the moment (it would have been good to see it in January-February when there were no other major foreign language films around).

This is Farhadi’s first film in French. The accompanying press pack suggests that he had already been working towards a European production before he was awarded some French public funding after the success of A Separation – one of the most celebrated films to win the Foreign Language Academy Award. A Separation also did phenomenal business in France with over 1 million admissions. I wonder if the film is understood differently by audiences familiar with Farhadi’s Iranian work and those coming to him for the first time with this French-language work? The obvious difference would seem to be that in the Iranian films we are nearly always looking for metaphors and allegories whereas the French film will presumably be taken at face value as a form of family melodrama?

The story involves a woman, Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who has been married twice and is now having an affair with Samir (Tahir Rahim), a married man whose wife is in a coma. Marie has persuaded her second husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) to return to Paris from Iran in order to formally agree to divorce her. She has two daughters from her first marriage, Léa and Lucie, and Samir has a young son, Fouad. These six are the principal characters in the drama. Marie meets Ahmad from the airport and immediately he is wary because she has not booked a hotel for him. Instead she wants him to stay at their house where the three children are also staying. He soon discovers that his presence is required for another reason besides the simple legal procedure. He is needed as a kind of counsellor since it is clear that all is not well in the household.

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) with Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and Fouad (Elyes Aguis) (photo © Carole Bethuel)

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) with Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and Fouad (Elyes Aguis) (photo © Carole Bethuel)

At first, with the divorce looming I thought this might be a continuation of A Separation. Then it occurred to me that it was more like a French version of About Elly. In that film, once a lie is told, everyone must continue to lie in order not to expose any impropriety in their various relationships (i.e. all the characters are aware of the difficult position of women in Iranian society). In The Past, characters don’t trust each other to cope with the truth, but by lying they make it more difficult to come to terms with exactly what has happened. I’ve subsequently realised that as in Farhadi’s three previous films it is the outsider Ahmad who acts as the disruptive agent in the opening up of the narrative – not deliberately on his part, but simply because he comes from ‘outside’.

Asghar Farhadi has many strengths as a writer-director. He writes wonderful scripts with interesting characters. He directs actors brilliantly and he is able to move the narrative forward seamlessly, albeit at a pace which would be too slow for Hollywood. Fortunately, there is no requirement to cut at Hollywood rhythms so Farhadi’s complex narratives can unfold at the pace he determines. The film is 130 minutes long and at one point when Farhadi peels back yet another layer of the onion that is the script I did feel that perhaps he had taken just one step too far in his convoluted plotting, but his skill is so great that I was soon following the next section of the narrative and through to the delicately handled and well-judged closing moments.

Lucie (Pauline Burlet) whose revelations drive the narrative (photo © Carole Bethuel)

Lucie (Pauline Burlet) whose revelations drive the narrative (photo © Carole Bethuel)

In a film like this it is all too easy not to notice the effort that goes into the construction of scenes. The film was budgeted at €8 million which is significantly higher than the current UK budget for this kind of film, but modest by some French standards. The interiors were constructed in a studio and for the exteriors Farhadi decided not to include any iconic Parisian sights which would detract from the drama. The press pack interview with cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari who also shot A Separation and earlier worked for Panahi, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf is revealing. He suggests that the tension and frantic activity in A Separation (in which there are many quasi-legal disputes about who did what) was achieved through handheld camerawork. The Past started as another handheld shoot, but Farhadi soon changed to using a static camera. At the same time some scenes have many short shots and plenty of pace while others have relatively long takes. Kalari argues that Farhadi is very ‘organic’ (he doesn’t use that term but I think it matches what he means). He tries to avoid the artificialty of ‘acting’ or ‘perfect compositions’. Here’s an extract from the interview in which he explains what is different from the approach in A Separation:

. . . here the camera takes on the point of view of each character. In this film, the characters get close to each other, while still maintaining a certain distance from one another. But they are gathered together in sorts of choral sequences. And so, Asghar Farhadi has taken on the way each character views the others and the situation. And then, there was also something that my team was constantly talking about here, something they found both disconcerting and interesting: Mr Farhadi placed the actors in the most uncomfortable situations and the most complicated in terms of lighting and setting up the shot. He would place them in doorframes, which is something we avoid at all costs in the cinema . . .

One thing to note here is that Farhadi is not a ‘social realist’ or ‘neo-realist’ in his approach (see discussion of A Separation on this blog). In some ways, and perhaps because of his theatre background, he seems nearer to Mike Leigh. (Farhadi also rehearses his actors for several weeks before shooting begins, taking them through various exercises and encouraging them to learn about their characters.) I should also point out that for most of the film, Farhadi makes only a limited use of music and the film only begins to resemble a melodrama in the final section. I do wonder about the symbolism of some elements of mise en scène but I think I need to see the whole film again before I explore the idea further.

I note that one of the features of Farhadi’s script for A Separation was that it was in some ways a universal story, even though it included elements only found in Iran. The Past is also a universal story but without the obvious restrictions on social behaviour that exist in contemporary Iran. Could the film be set anywhere in the West? Is there anything specifically ‘French’ about it? One obvious observation is that the restrictions in Iran derive from certain attitudes towards Muslim teachings and in France the whole question of ‘integration’ and the secular French state is still very much a live issue. There is no reference to Muslim culture as such in The Past. As far as I am aware, Marie is not from a ‘minority community’ in France – but she has chosen to live with first Ahmad and then Samir (one of the children suggests that Samir looks a little like Ahmad – that he is a kind of ‘replacement’). Samir’s wife is similarly not from a specific minority. The French accent is a key distinguishing mark here (once again lost to us cloth-eared anglos). Samir’s shop assistant (he has a dry-cleaning business) is an illegal worker  who has ‘an accent’. Ahmad also speaks French with an accent (the actor had to be coached – we never learn just how long the character might have lived in France). There does seem to be a focus on migrant and second/third generation immigrant communities. France is home to many significant refugee communities and Paris is home to a significant Iranian diaspora community – and we should remember that one of the issues in A Separation is whether or not the couple’s daughter would have a better future abroad. Casting is also important. Samir is played by Tahar Rahim, a rising young star associated with key roles related to North African identity in France. But he and the other two lead actors insist that ethnicity/cultural identity/French social issues were not part of the film. Ali Mosaffa says that it is simply a ‘human story’. As if to emphasise this Rahim tells us that Farhadi asked him to watch De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and to focus on the father-son relationship. That slippery concept of the humanist film is very much there in The Past – everyone has a perspective and a reason for doing what they do. They all behave like ‘real people’ do and they have their ‘ups and downs’.

I have to end by praising all the actors’ responses to Asghar Farhadi’s direction. I must pick out Bérénice Bejo since her’s is the most dramatic change of image from The Artist and Populaire. In those films she is smart and indeed ‘Peppy’ in The Artist. In The Past she is weary in loose-fitting, almost shapeless dresses with her hair loose and little make-up – and she looks wonderful. Perhaps it’s the Anna Magnani/Ingrid Bergman look from Rossellini’s films?

Asghar Farhadi’s work is featured in Chapter 6 of The Global Film Book. See also the entry on Fireworks Wednesday on this blog.

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold, France 1958)

The great star of the polar Lino Ventura is a police officer questioning Jeanne Moreau

The great star of the polar Lino Ventura is a police officer questioning Jeanne Moreau

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is the latest cinema re-release by the British Film Institute. The film has often been argued to be the first ‘French New Wave’ film or at least an important pre-cursor’ to the New Wave proper which began with Chabrol’s Le beau Serge in the same year. I showed the film as part of an evening class considering ‘A new look at the French New Wave‘ in 2009 and I thought it might be useful to post those notes here.

Outline (no spoilers)

This film has a complex plot with narrative twists. These are concerned with two separate narratives that become intertwined. In the first narrative an adulterous couple set up a serious crime which goes wrong when the man is trapped in a lift. In the second a young couple go on a spree when the boy steals the car of the man in the lift. Once linked the two stories lead to a typical noir conclusion.

Commentary

ScoreLiftAscenseur pour l’échafaud became a commercially successful film offering action, suspense, crime and twisted romance. In some ways traditional in featuring a ‘locked room’ crime, the narrative also embraces the Hitchcockian romance thriller. Because of its inclusion of younger characters, innovative camerawork and direction and a stunning jazz score by Miles Davis, the film also feels much more modern than most 1950s films. However, given its relatively ‘straight’ treatment of its material, it is distinguished from the later New Wave films by Godard (À bout de souffle) and Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste) which utilise similar genre elements, but treat them in a more ‘playful’ way.

Louis Malle early in his career

Louis Malle early in his career

Like the young Cahiers critics, director Louis Malle was obsessed with cinema. But instead of writing about film like his contemporaries who attended the Cinémathèque and wrote for Cahiers du cinéma, he plunged straight into learning about filmmaking. Originally enrolled to study science at the Sorbonne, Malle switched to the French film school IDHEC. He never completed the course because he took up an offer to become an assistant to Jacques Cousteau the underwater explorer. Malle soon proved to be a wonderful underwater photographer. He also learned direction and editing and at the age of 23 he shared a Palme d’Or with Cousteau as co-director at Cannes in 1956 for the documentary film The Silent World. Malle also had experience of observing/assisting director Robert Bresson and in 1957 he began work on his own first feature film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. He thus became one of the youngest of all the ‘young directors’ of la nouvelle vague. After the success of his first film, Malle quickly followed up with the controversial Les Amants (The Lovers), again with Jeanne Moreau. This was a far less likely candidate for the New Wave, but Malle’s third film Zazie dans le métro (1960) placed him back alongside Truffaut with a zany comedy about a small girl whizzing about Paris with her uncle, complete with cinematic references and jokes. Malle went on to make a further twenty-seven features, including several documentaries and films made in the US in English. The American critic Pauline Kael noted that Malle’s refusal to work within a specific genre or any other form of categorisation of style or thematic meant that he was often dismissed as a dilettante. The high quality of many of his films suggests that this was a bad mistake by those critics.

No other French director of the 1960s, outside the Cahiers group, has had such wide international recognition. Is this particular film really New Wave? It seems sensible to classify Ascenseur pour l’échafaud as at least a significant precursor to the New Wave for the following reasons:

  • Louis Malle was undeniably a ‘young first-time (fiction) feature filmmaker and the film narrative includes a young couple who represented the ‘problem youth’ of 1950s European and American culture;
  • the film was shot on the streets of Paris by Henri Decaë who along with Raoul Coutard would introduce the innovative cinematography of the New Wave (like Coutard, Decaë was experienced as a documentary camera operator, having served with the French Army in WW2);
  • the film was based on a ‘Serie Noire’ novel by Noël Calef and is in many ways an amalgam of the American B film noir with the French policier/polar;
  • Malle was already involved with a production company, NEF which had already co-produced Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and would go on to produce all of Malle’s films.

These four features of the production would be echoed in subsequent New Wave films by other directors. It’s also important to note that Ascenseur pour l’échafaud was a traditional genre film in terms of its structure and in Jeanne Moreau it had an actor with real presence who had been performing since the late 1940s both on the stage and in films, including B policiers with the great Jean Gabin. Moreau fought to make the role of Florence bigger than it was in the novel. The male lead, Maurice Ronet was another theatre-trained actor who had started in films in 1949 and was established in French Cinema before Ascenseur pour l’échafaud made him an international star. Moreau and Ronet both appeared in films during the New Wave period and subsequently for New Wave directors. Moreau because of Jules et Jim, is now remembered as a ‘New Wave star’, whereas Ronet is remembered for his work in Malle’s films (especially Le feu follet, 1963) and his lead in René Clair’s Plein soleil (1960). These seem like arbitrary distinctions. A closer look at the credits of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud shows several future ‘players’ in the New Wave. Jean-Claude Brialy has a walk-on part, Jean Rabier, a future cinematographer, is an assistant here alongside Henri Decaë. The Bresson connection is apparent in the scenes in which Julien (Ronet) is trapped in the lift; Bresson was one of the more ‘personal’ directors who was valued by the Cahiers critics. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is a polar (the French term for a crime picture is virtually untranslatable and refers to a broader genre than the policier or police procedural). In his 1997 book on French Cinema in the 1980s, Phil Powrie, looks back on the development of the polar and suggests three key features of the genre:

  • it focuses on a hero who is ‘marginal’ to mainstream society;
  • it carries comments on contemporary society;
  • it indicates the state of French-American cultural exchange.

We could fruitfully look for these three features in many of the films of the New Wave and not just those which are obviously polars based on American pulp fiction sources. The focus on young characters in a changing society is there in most New Wave films and the ‘play’ with American culture at this moment in French post-war history is evident everywhere. It’s apparent in the pinball machines in the cafés, the incursion of American jazz onto the soundtrack, the ubiquity of American cars and the references to Hollywood. (Although in most of the films, and especially in Truffaut’s, it’s mixed with traditional aspects of French popular culture.) Again this wasn’t necessarily ‘new’ and is evident in earlier polars, such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1956). Also quoted as a precursor of the New Wave, this was the first of Melville’s attempts to use the conventions of American crime films to tell French stories. The importance of the extensive Miles Davis score in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud also links up with the work of another, later, New Wave figure, Jacques Demy with his obsession over American musicals. In one sense though, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is different. This is in its political references. The marginalised hero of the film, Julien, is an ex-paratrooper who has returned to France after fighting in the colonial wars in Indo-China and North Africa. He transfers his ‘action skills’ to crime, operating in the world of oil industry espionage. Along with the presence of the young couple on the run, this feels like a French parallel of the concerns of American B noirs. The appearance of the German couple as tourists also prompted comments. Louis Malle was often a controversial director and his later films dealt with taboo issues such as the Occupation in France (Lacombe Lucien, 1974 and Au revoir les enfants, 1987). More than most New Wave films (Godard’s Le petit soldat is the exception), Ascenseur pour l’échafaud seems to be aware of the issues of the moment.

Reference

Powrie, Phil (1997) French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity, Oxford: OUP

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!