Category Archives: French Cinema

Populaire (France-Belgium 2012)

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

Louis (Romain Duris) and Rose (Déborah François)

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

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

Rose is the hopeless secretary.

Rose is the hopeless secretary.

The local finals in Normandy.

The local finals in Normandy.

Rose takes piano lessons from Marie (Bérénice Bejo)

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

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

Rose as the new star of promotions for Japy typewriters

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

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

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

Rose on the big stage

Rose on the big stage

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

The Woman in the Fifth (La femme du Vème, France/UK/Poland 2011)

Ethan Hawke as Tom Ricks. This is representative of compositions in the film which show the character often 'penned in' by his environment.

Ethan Hawke as Tom Ricks. This is representative of compositions in the film which show the character often ‘penned in’ by his environment.

There are many interesting ways into The Woman in the Fifth. It’s another French film in which Kristin Scott Thomas plays a role which requires her character to adopt a background to explain the fact that she speaks English and French and up to five other languages. It is also  an entry into the relatively small world of films by Polish-born directors working out of the UK and travelling to Paris (Polanski ‘s films have a slightly different combination of the same factors). It’s a film in which Ethan Hawke plays an American in Paris who doesn’t end up spending the night with Julie Delpy and finally it follows another adaptation of a Douglas Kennedy novel, The Big Picture (France 2010) with Romain Duris.

Put those four ‘ways in’ together and you’d expect there to be a fair amount of interest generated by the film, but it seemed to do poorly in UK cinemas and I was lucky to catch it on Film 4 – where non-anglophone films now seem to be becoming more marginalised. It isn’t hard to see why the usual audience for Scott-Thomas or for Hawke’s Paris romances wouldn’t be attracted. Hawke’s character is a man seemingly ‘on the run’ and the narrative offers little about what has happened earlier except that he is a lecturer and a writer visiting Paris where he has a 6-year-old daughter and an estranged partner who has taken out a restraining order to prevent him seeing the child. Tom Ricks (Hawke) soon finds himself effectively ‘down and out’, having had his suitcase and money stolen. Chance lands him in a dingy room above a café in a working-class district of the city with a dubious job offer that will allow him to pay the rent. What happens after that demands quite a lot from any audience expecting a mainstream thriller.

Kristin Scott Thomas, "elegantly erotic".

Kristin Scott Thomas, “elegantly erotic”.

Director and adapter Pawel Pawlikowski came to the UK as a teenager and was first a documentary filmmaker before directing two of the best British films of the last twenty years Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004). These two films appeared to combine elements of British and East European  filmic realisms, the first bleak and satirical in its depiction of a seaside town used to hold asylum seekers, the second more lyrical, but also slightly disturbing in its representation of adolescent passions in a beautifully rendered West Yorkshire summer. The Woman in the Fifth offers a similar mix of elements reminiscent of both British and Polish cinema, but also French cinema that probes into the world outside the Paris tourist traps and aspects of film noir.

The film’s website offers statements by both Pawlikowski and Hawke. Whether you want to visit it before or after the watching the film is an important decision to make. I read the comments afterwards and that was the best decision for me. I ‘ll try not to spoil the narrative. This is a film where casting and all the key aspects of film language from costume through cinematography, set dressing/choice of locations, costume and music combine to create a very distinctive ‘feel’ to the narrative. Pawlikowski’s previous collaborators, Polish cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski and British music composer Max de Wardener,  contribute a great deal. Visually the film inhabits a Parisian world which I recognise from the films of Claire Denis and Jacques Audiard with interiors which remind me of Polanski’s The Tenant and one or two non-Parisian locations. Pawlikowski and Lenczewski spent a long time looking for unusual locations and then for ways of shooting them to create an expressionist world in which Tom Ricks seems forever to be hemmed in or made vulnerable i some way. The music is sparse and again unsettling. As the director’s comments suggest in the ‘Production Notes’, the music doesn’t conjure up the horror film but instead is quietly seductive but just a little ‘off’ or atonal – and therefore disturbing.

The script requires that Ethan Hawke be dishevelled and weighed down by his heavy black spectacles but that he interacts with three women. Delphine Chuillot as Nathalie, his wife, has a relatively small role, mainly in long shot, but Kristin Scott Thomas as an elegant and eroticised femme fatale figure is as good as you would expect. As the Polish waitress, Jania, Joanna Kulig is equally good and very sexy in a completely different way to Scott Thomas.

Ethan Hawke sans specs for once with Joanna Kulig.

Ethan Hawke sans specs for once with Joanna Kulig.

I don’t really want to say much more about the narrative. I thought at first that it was going to be like Dirty Pretty Things and that Tom would uncover some shady goings-on, but though the milieu is simar, it is a very different kind of film. Pawlikowski suggests that his Paris and the story he has moulded belong to an imaginary world, presented as they are via an American story with American, French and Polish characters. Perhaps this is why I was also reminded of Orson Welles’ version of Kafka’s The Trial with Anthony Perkins as poor K stumbling about a city he doesn’t know.

The more  think about the film, the more interesting I find it. Approach it with an open mind and don’t worry too much if you really don’t understand what is going on – you can think about it afterwards! The ‘Fifth’ in the title by the way refers to the Fifth Arrondissement in Paris, one of the oldest parts of the city on the Left Bank and in the ‘Latin Quarter’ – and a long way from the district where Tom finds himself.

Rebellion (L’ordre et la morale, France 2011)

Philippe (Mathieu Kassovitz) has the difficult role as negotiator

Philippe (Mathieu Kassovitz) has the difficult role as negotiator

One of the best films to be released in the UK in 2013 looks like being one of the least seen. That’s a shame. If you are one of what I imagine to be many cinephiles disappointed that Mathieu Kassovitz had seemed unable to make another film as powerful as La haine, here is proof to the contrary. L’order et la morale is a hugely ambitious film that took Kassovitz several years to make. It recounts what happened in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia in 1988 when an ‘uprising’ of Kanak people on one of the small islands of Melanesia resulted in a ‘hostage situation’ involving a group of French gendarmerie. Unfortunately, the timing of the events during the French presidential election backfired on the rebels. Despite the best efforts of the negotiation team led by Captain Philippe Legorjus of the GIGN (the counter-terrorist unit of the Gendarmerie), the situation was ‘resolved’ with overwhelming military firepower and loss of life. The script is largely based on the memoirs of Legorjus, played by Kassovitz himself in the film.

Kassovitz was once known as l’enfant terrible of French cinema. La haine (1995) was a great critical as well as commercial success in exposing police relations with the youth of les cités, the workers’ estates surrounding Paris where many second-generation migrants grew up. But Kassovitz’s next film Assassin(s) (1997) attacked the media and the young director was savaged by some of the same critics who had praised him for La haine. That film has never been released in the UK and I haven’t seen it. After that Kassovitz moved into directing English language genre films with steadily declining success – while at the same time developing a career as an actor, including an important role in Amélie, enabling him to develop an international profile as both actor and director. What is clear now is that he spent a great deal of time and effort in working on L’ordre et la morale. In the end he decided to play the central role himself, primarily for pragmatic reasons in that the production was so protracted that he couldn’t reasonably ask another actor to take the role. He’s extremely good at suggesting the highly professional approach of Philippe Legorjus (an approach he discusses in the film’s Press Pack).

I confess that the film does demand an audience willing to follow the complex rivalries between the different organisations that comprise the French armed forces and also the unique problems associated with the French political system and its electoral processes. Like the American president, the President of France can sometimes find himself (no women yet) constrained as an executive by the actions of a legislature run by the opposition. But in France the situation is even more crippling because of the cabinet government led by a Prime Minister. In 1988, socialist President Francois Mitterand faced a re-election contest against the candidate of the right, the Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac. This was the climax of the period known as ‘Co-habitation’. I don’t fully understand how the split of executive powers affected the events in New Caledonia. Mitterand should have had more power in dealing with events overseas, yet as a French ‘overseas territory’ perhaps New Caledonia was considered part of France and this was an ‘internal security’ issue?

The film narrative is essentially a long flashback to the events which led up to the nightmare conclusion. The first forward momentum is the ‘scrambling’ of the GIGN company and their flight from Paris to the other side of the world. When they arrive in New Caledonia they find that some local gendarmes are being held hostage by rebels but also that the French Army has arrived en masse and that any hopes of a peaceful negotiation are threatened by the gung-ho actions of the Army commanders.

Rebel leader Alphonse Dianou played by Iabe Lapacas

Rebel leader Alphonse Dianou played by Iabe Lapacas

It eventually transpires that Philipe Legorjus has contacts in Paris who are linked to Mitterand while the Army share the perspective of Chirac and Legorjus will eventually find himself faced by Chirac’s own minister Bernard Pons who is sent out to manage the crisis on the ground. The narrative driver is that Legorjus himself and a small number of his team of negotiators eventually meet the rebels – who are, of course, not the ‘fanatics’ portrayed by Chirac and the right-wing. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but the gripping central narrative places Legorjus himself in an almost impossible position. He attempts to remain professional and a man of honour – but he finds himself participating in brutality. He meets his obligations to some but betrays others. There is no black and white only the murky greys of colonial repression. The central figure of the rebel leader (amazingly played by the real man’s cousin who was a post-grad student in France when Kassovitz found him) is an idealistic young man whose actions are undermined by the local nationalist leaders who are also playing political games. All of this is familiar from too many situations around the world but Kassovitz makes it all real and painful. It’s a long film, mostly talk but with some intense action sequences and an intriguing ‘score’ by the ‘industrial percussion’ group Les Tambours du Bronx. There is also some great community singing under the end credits.

Rebellion is a long film (136 minutes) and it represents a remarkable achievement by Mathieu Kassovitz. He plays the central character as a man who internalises and manages to stay cool under pressure (most of the time). As director he manages an enormous ensemble cast with some experienced French actors, but also many non-professionals. I was gripped throughout and fascinated by the depiction of events. Nobody comes out of the events themselves with much credit and by all accounts many of the leading participants have tried t claim that the film is inaccurate. This article by an Australian scholar and former diplomat with experience of New Caledonia suggests that the film does tell at least some of the ‘truth’ and also points out that Mitterand (who won the election) did attempt to develop ‘peace and reconciliation’ after signing the orders to end the hostage-taking with military force. The film was shot in French Polynesia rather than Melanesia but it was eventually shown in New Caledonia – and seemingly well-received. The final credits remind us that there will be votes in 2014 on a process leading towards possible future independence.

I’m not sure if the film will get more cinema screenings in the UK but I urge you to seek it out on DVD when it appears on September 2nd (why so long, Lionsgate?). I think I’d like to return to the film then when a few more people have seen it. Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite:

In the House (Dans la maison, France 2012)

Claude (Ernst Umhauer) spies on Rapha's mum, Esther (Emanuelle Seigner)

Claude (Ernst Umhauer) spies on Rapha’s mum, Esther (Emanuelle Seigner)

This film turned out rather differently than I expected from my brief glance at reviews. (The best are by Ginette Vincendeau in April’s Sight & Sound and Philip French in the Observer.) Many of them suggested that the film switched gear or ‘disappointed’ with its closing section, but for me it remained coherent all the way through and the ending fitted perfectly. I think I was expecting the kind of comedy offered in Potiche or 8 Women but this was more a witty satire than a broad comedy. I’ve read a number of reviews each of which seemed to make reasonable points but none of which matched by own response to the film. I think that this is partly explained by the fact that I haven’t attempted to map François Ozon’s filmography in auteurist terms and I’ve simply taken the films I have seen as superior entertainments. Further research reveals that indeed the handful of Ozon’s films that I’ve seen are the most popular and that in France he is situated somewhere between the mainstream and auteur cinema – 8 Women had over 7 million admissions in Europe.

In the House (a dreadful title in English with all kinds of unhelpful connotations – as the cashier on the ticket desk said, it sounds like Queen Latifah should be the star) is a kind of moral tale in the form of a satire on bourgeois conceptions of art and family relationships. (Philip French helpfully informs us that the title is a reference to Henry James’ preface to Portrait of a Lady in which he refers to a ‘house of fiction’.) M. Germain (at one point we do learn his name, but I won’t spoil the moment) and his wife Jeanne are a middle-aged couple in a small town in an unidentifiable part of France. She runs a small art gallery and he teaches French at a lycée. He despairs of his sixteeen year-old students and she struggles to find art to sell (the gallery is now owned via an inheritance by twin sisters with few ideas about art). M. Germain has two surprises. The school is to suffer the fate of too many English schools – a ‘back to the future’ change of direction with a return to uniforms and an emphasis on ‘standards’. But this is offset by a discovery that one of his students, Claude, is a promising writer. The problem is that what Claude writes is a provocative description of how he has explored a friend’s house and spied on the boy’s mother. Germain is caught in a dilemma – does he expose Claude or encourage him to develop his talent? The boy’s writing is compelling and Germain (and Jeanne) are soon hooked. Each writing assignment produces a new ‘instalment’ of Claude’s ‘infiltration’ of the household of Rapha and his parents and each ends with the classic come-on, ‘to be continued’.

Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Germain (Fabrice Luchini) are the couple seduced by Claude's storytelling.

Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Germain (Fabrice Luchini) are the couple seduced by Claude’s storytelling.

It all made me think of Buñuel. Claude, beautifully played by newcomer Ernst Umhauer, is the beautiful boy, seemingly charming but also sly and far too bright for everyone’s good. We are seduced by him just as much as Claude, Jeanne and Rafa and his family. The lycée is named after Gustave Flaubert and the key text here is Madame Bovary. At this point, my knowledge of literary theory and especially of French literature is certainly a bit shaky, but as I remember it, Madame Bovary indulges in adultery to generate some excitement in her tedious marriage. She has some fun, but it all goes wrong in the end. It’s not too difficult to see In the House as a play around the Madame Bovary figure. It works in a number of ways but the key line seems to be when M. Germain reads out Claude’s description of being aroused by the ‘scent of a middle-class woman’. This is shocking in several ways. Claude seems old beyond his years and the intimacy suggested by the phrase seems more in keeping with the later French realists like Zola rather than the Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Kafka, whose novels are lent to Claude by M. Germain. There is more to it than that though and if you know the works you will enjoy thinking about writing styles and about approaches to realism and to ‘moral tales’ – the ending curiously resembles Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari!

I’m not going to spoil the narrative any more – don’t read Philip French until after you’ve seen the film, he gives far too much away as usual. But you should expect the pleasures of a satire on both modern education practices and the ridiculousness of certain forms of avant-garde art. I’ve seen comments that the film is too clever, but I’ll happily watch films like this and I think it’s the most enjoyable film I’ve seen so far in 2013. All the performances are very good. Please go and see it. (A note for Des – in this film Ms Scott Thomas’ accent is explained by reference to her ‘Yorkshire relative’.)

Les neiges du Kilimandjaro (The Snows of Kilimanjaro, France 2011)

The opening shot of Snows of Kilimanjaro – the union meeting in which the 20 men to be made redundant are chosen.

I’d almost forgotten about Robert Guédiguian – which is a terrible admission since I like his films very much. This one left me in tears and emotionally drained with just a small nagging doubt about the politics. My emotional response suggests that this is a very effective family melodrama and I do think that it is a perceptive and intelligent film about contemporary political ideas. The whole enterprise has been undertaken with love and a clear principled stand.

The basic premise is not unlike the beginning of Couscous (La graine et le mulet, 2007) with an older worker made redundant in a dockyard and the consequent issues around marriage/partners and family conflicts. In this case however, Michel is also a union steward faced with redundancies that the union can’t (or possibly won’t) fight. He puts his own name into the lottery to decide which twenty men will go and duly picks himself as one of those to go. We learn that Michel is a lifelong socialist whose hero is Jean Léon Jaurès (the great French socialist leader from the turn of the century who was assassinated in 1914) but now he is contemplating retirement in his late 50s.

At first everything is fine and Michel and his wife Marie-Claire are given a wedding anniversary present of a safari holiday in Tanzania including a trip to Kilimanjaro by their children. But then something very disturbing happens that shakes up the couple and their closest friends, Raoul (Michel’s closest workmate) and his wife Denise, who is also Marie-Claire’s sister. I won’t spoil the narrative, but what happens certainly puts Michel and Marie-Claire into a difficult position and forces Michel in particular to question his own actions. Did he really fight for the jobs of the younger workers who were made redundant. Has he become old and complacent, just another passive member of the bourgeoisie? What he and Marie-Claire do then (she has her own concerns and takes her own line) causes a rift with their grown-up children, both of whom have families, in a scene that has echoes of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. At the same time, a potential rift between Michel and Raoul also hinges on what we might see as traditional working-class politics and the response to moments of crisis.

Robert Guédiguian is perhaps the nearest French equivalent of the Ken Loach-Paul Laverty school of filmmaking. He has made several films set in the working-class districts of Marseilles. All of these films feature Ariane Ascaride (Guédiguian’s wife) and often Jean-Pierre Darroussin – and here the two play Marie-Claire and Michel. Like Loach, he also has a regular script collaborator, Jean-Louis Milesi. Guédiguian also sometimes makes specific use of his own Armenian ancestry, here represented by the references to Jaurès who was also part Armenian. The other inspiration for the film was a poem by Victor Hugo. The poem and a speech by Jaurès can be found in the Press Pack from Mongrel Films.

The political observation at the centre of the film is that in Guédiguian’s view there is no more a ‘working class’, at least as a coherent entity. Employment has changed in France as in most of Western Europe so that unionisation has been weakened by the loss of large-scale employment in factories, shipyards, mines etc. Younger workers especially have only experienced the individualist ideologies of the modern workplace. Subjected to consumerism, de-regulation and all the other soul-destroying aspects of modern capitalist culture, they have never experienced the solidarity of the unionised workforce, nor realised what those working-class movements won in terms of employment rights. It isn’t their fault and in many ways they do face a tougher world.

Milesi’s script and Guédiguian’s direction produce a film narrative that manages to be both provocative in terms of asking difficult political questions and also warm-hearted and celebratory of the central loving relationship between Michel and Marie-Claire. I think that you could argue that the ending is still in some ways ‘open’ and that not all issues are tidied up, but certainly on a sunny day, eating outside on a terrace overlooking the port, Marseilles isn’t quite like a wet Wednesday in Greenock or Salford which might be the location in a British social realist equivalent.

My nagging doubt is the omission of any analysis of the reasons for the collapse of unionised employment – or real engagement with what the union needs to do to support and educate younger workers. The film isn’t really interested in the work of the men – we never learn what exactly they do, whether they are dockers, ship-repairers or whatever. Perhaps I’m asking for too much. This is a romantic melodrama with a leavening of contemporary political concerns – and it is very enjoyable. The title has a double meaning referring to the dream of visiting the mountain, and a popular chanson which has memories for Michel and Marie-Claire.

 

Contre toi (In Your Hands, France 2010)

Kristin Scott Thomas as Anna Cooper in her classy apartment

This is an odd little film finally getting a release in the UK, presumably based on the central performance by Kristin Scott Thomas – a major attraction for UK arthouse audiences. However, I’m not sure that word-of-mouth will make this a hit. The English title doesn’t help the film. ‘In Your Hands’, I realise is possibly a play on the phrase describing the responsibilities of a surgeon – ‘Your life in their hands’? Scott-Thomas plays Anna Cooper, a surgeon specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology, who is abducted one evening and kept in a locked room by a rather wild but very pretty young man. My limited French doesn’t run to idioms, but I’m guessing that the French title might translate as something like ‘Against You’. This would be a better title since the main narrative question is “How much ‘against’ her captor will Anna be?” or perhaps how close, literally ‘against’ him, she might become? (I read afterwards that the director did want the English title but its French translation had already been used.)

Writer-director Lola Doillon sets up these questions from the beginning since she first shows a frightened and bewildered Anna escaping from the house where she has been held and a little later sat in a police interview room seemingly telling her story in flashback. So we lose the suspense of whether the captor will murder Anna and instead we wonder about what kind of relationship might develop between the two since we remember the so-called Stockholm syndrome. The narrative does have a twist which I won’t reveal but I suspect many audiences will guess correctly. (The captor’s name, I understand, is the same as the person who first described the Stockholm syndrome.)

The narrative didn’t really work for me. The characters aren’t particularly interesting but it’s possible that some (female?) audiences will identify with Anna. There is an emphasis on her loneliness as a divorcée without children and seemingly few close friends. In terms of the male gaze, this does feel like quite an intimate film with Scott Thomas almost never off the screen. There is something almost erotic about her careful dishevelment. Somehow she still looks elegant and poised even after she has supposedly not washed or changed her clothes for a couple of days. I think the problem is more with her captor played by Pio Marmaï – the narrative would have worked better for me if he had been older and/or less pretty.

I suspect that my main interest in the film was as an example of French cinema’s seeming ease of access to directing for women as writer-directors. I’m not sure that this qualifies as ‘auteur cinema’ but it is a second film by Ms Doillon, whose parents are in the industry – her father is a director and also a teacher at FEMIS. I also read that she is married to the high-profile director Cedric Klapisch (who is thanked in the credits). With those kind of connections perhaps it is not too difficult to put together a budget. There is nothing wrong with the direction of the actors but I don’t think the script offers enough. The film is only 81 minutes long but it felt longer. It did in some ways remind me of a far more interesting film, À la folie… pas du tout (France 2002) with Audrey Tautou, written and directed by Laetitia Colombani – a director of a similar age whose second feature didn’t make it to the UK.

7 Days in Havana (7 días en La Habana, France/Spain/Cuba 2012)

Melvis Estévez is Cecilia, the young singer torn between a new future in Spain or staying with her boyfriend

A ‘portmanteau’ film typically offers two or more short films collected together and presented as a single feature. The concept was once quite popular in Europe during the 1960s and is sometimes now used as a vehicle for directors commissioned by film festivals. 7 Days in Havana offers films by six well-known auteur directors plus the Hollywood actor Benicio Del Toro with his second short. Each film is set in Old Havana, featuring the Hotel Nacional, the Malécon and the area around El Capitolio. A small group of characters appears in more than one film, but some of the films are completely separate in terms of characters and stories. Cuban writer Leonardo Padura wrote three linked stories with his partner Lucia López Coll; the directors themselves created the other stories. The production was supported by Havana Club, the Cuban rum producer involved in promoting Cuban arts and culture internationally. The film is stuffed with Cuban music, but strangely no ballet.

In Anglo-American film culture this type of film seems to be termed an ‘anthology’ film and it has a very poor reputation. It’s odd then that in the UK, the British Film Institute’s P&A fund should have supported the film’s release from Soda Pictures so that it has appeared for a week in the two multiplexes in Bradford rather than a limited number of showings in our specialised cinema. I feared the worst when the box office figures came out – and they showed a derisory screen average of £362 across 30 sites for the opening weekend. I don’t quite understand why Bradford’s two multiplexes were in that group. Perhaps Soda Pictures can explain why they did it?

A quick glance at some of the UK critics’ responses to the film reveals mainstream reviewers who don’t know much about French or Hispanic cinemas and are completely baffled by the best of the seven offerings from Elia Suleiman. In his segment the Palestinian director, always his own leading man, is a solitary visitor to Havana seemingly caught between Fidel Castro’s speeches on his hotel room TV set, the views out over the sea and the stately grandeur of the Hotel Nacional’s gardens. This segment has some glorious cinematography, catching the light perfectly. Lots of Europeans, including many Brits will have visited Old Havana and I’m tempted to say that, along with the music, the views of the city are themselves worth the price of a cinema ticket. And indeed some reviewers put the film down as simply ‘touristic’. But that’s misleading. Suleiman’s segment is an exquisite piece of art cinema and most of the other stories are more genuinely concerned with real social issues for the residents of the city than with tourist images.

Working out who had directed which segment was not too difficult. Del Toro’s features an American film student/novice actor looking for night-time ‘action’ and it was the least successful for me. With its film festival theme it set up Emir Kusturica the Serbian director playing a version of himself rather ungraciously receiving a festival tribute but bonding with his assigned driver, a trumpeter who takes his guest to a local jam session. This was a film by Pablo Trapero, the Argentinian director who is actually a big fan of the Havana Film Festival – one of the most important events for Latin American Cinema. Gaspar Noé played his usual ‘controversial’ card with a Santeria ritual carried out in an attempt to ‘cure’ a young teenage girl of her love for a girlfriend. I found this quite disturbing but compelling. Julio Medem offered star power in the shape of Daniel Brühl as a Madrid agent attempting to lure a night-club singer to Spain – effectively breaking up her relationship with her boyfriend, a baseball player who would rather take a raft to Miami. This led into the stories by the Cuban filmmaker Juan Carlos Tabio and French director Laurent Cantet, both of which offer narratives associated with particular aspects of Cuban society – doing more than one job, shortages of various foodstuffs and household goods, working together as a community etc. Stylistically these three stories become like a form of Cuban telenovela – and offer roles for well-known Cuban actors such as Mirtha Ibarra, Jorge Perugorria and Vladimir Cruz.

But what you want to know is “Is this as bad as the critics say?” No, it isn’t, these are all talented filmmakers, but the format is difficult to handle. It’s hard for me to judge perhaps because a) I know at least some of the work of all the directors, b) I support Cuban cinema, c) I like Cuban music and d) I’ve been a tourist staying in ‘Old Havana’. I couldn’t fail to find the film interesting and much of it enjoyable. If you are approaching the film cold, it may be more of an uphill struggle. Although artistically the two strongest segments, the contributions by Suleiman and Noé are separate from the other five stories which could be made to work together – but then why not have a single script and one director? Perhaps the other missing ingredient is a bit more fantasy that could be injected into the melodrama?