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.)

Assassin (Taiwan/HK/China 2015)

Shu Qin is the assassin Nie Yinniang

Shu Qi is the assassin Nie Yinniang, who spends time observing from vantage points

Assassin is the kind of film that you don’t expect to understand after a single screening. As I left the cinema an audience member spoke to an usher who asked him what he thought of the film. “Well, it was very beautiful”, he said, “I didn’t understand it all, but that’s OK because I enjoyed the experience”. I feel much the same, except I thought I understood quite a bit of it until I spoke to my viewing companion and then started to read the reviewers who did understand it and who had actually discussed it with director Hou Hsiao-hsien (such as Tony Rayns in Sight and Sound February 2016). As I read more about it, the film made more sense but also revealed some of the aspects that I’d either missed altogether or seen but failed to make sense of. I do hope to watch the film again, although I’m not sure where. Assassin is not playing in many cinemas and I do worry about how StudioCanal are organising its distribution. In the meantime there are aspects of the film I’d like to discuss and I’m conscious that there is almost a ‘meta-text’ being constructed in the various discourses about the film both in print and on the internet.

The aunt who trains Yinniang as an assassin

The aunt who trains Yinniang as an assassin

The story of Assassin involves a young girl Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) betrothed at 10 years-old to her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) in Weibo, a province on the Northern edge of the empire. When a change in family policy prevents the marriage, the girl is taken to the imperial capital by her aunt who trains her as an assassin to serve the empire. Thirteen years later the young woman ‘fails’ to complete an assassination task and her aunt sends her back to Weibo with orders to kill her cousin, now the governor of the region and becoming a threat to the centre. The main part of the narrative deals with what happens when Yinniang clashes with her cousin.

Tian in his chambers

Tian in his chambers

Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien hadn’t made a feature since Le voyage du ballon rouge, a co-production with France in 2007, when he completed Assassin in 2015 and then won the Director’s prize at Cannes. Before 2007 he made two other films which got distribution in the UK – Three Times (2005) and Café Lumière, (2003) both also co-productions with France and Japan respectively. Before 2003, Hou’s work was quite difficult to see outside East Asia despite his status as one of the most important auteurs in global cinema. (His earlier films in the late 1980s were shown in the UK but have not remained in print.) As a consequence, I suspect some of the reviewers faced with Assassin had little context in which to try to ‘place’ his Cannes prizewinner. To confound critics further, Hou had not previously made a film set in the far distant past, so when he announced his interest in adapting a 9th century tale from the Tang period and exploring the wuxia or martial chivalry genre, a lot of blind alleys seemed to open up.

Tian's wife in her gold mask takes on Yinniang

Tian’s wife in her gold mask takes on Yinniang

In many ways, approaching the film as a wuxia seems to me if not a ‘mistake’, at least a ‘problematic’ enterprise. For most viewers in the West, wuxia is only familiar through the work of a handful of filmmakers, most of whom are auteurs like Hou. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Ang Lee and Hero by Zhang Yimou are the two most widely-seen examples of films with strong elements of wuxia and, even so, neither film is fully satisfying to Chinese fans of the genre. Wuxia implies a ‘period setting’ and a conflict which at its centre concerns the opposition of distinct groups or individuals who practice a school of martial arts – i.e follow a specific teacher and a code of honour. The action sequences will take place in what is known as jianghu. This term seems to have several meanings, but all of them suggest a different, alternate fictional world in which there are different ‘rules’ and identities and in which martial actions are directly linked to philosophical and spiritual questions. (A detailed discussion of jianghu and the elements of wuxia is included at the end of my notes on Hero.) Rayns (2016) suggests that the whole world of the Tang dynasty might be seen as jianghu in Hou’s envisioning of the period. What is certainly true is that there is a profound contradiction between Hou’s approach to the staging of the historical period and his use of certain familiar wuxia elements.

A Kurosawa-style composition from the prologue – another long-shot composition

A Kurosawa-style composition from the prologue – another long-shot composition

Wuxia narratives (popular in novel form as well as films –Hou seems to have remembered the novels of his youth rather than the films of the great Taiwanese master King Hu) feature the jianghu which can include super-powers for the warriors. This is famously represented by wire-work choreography that allows actors to fly or to leap up into a tree or on to a roof where swordfights can be staged in spectacular fashion. These warriors have sword skills that enable them to deflect arrows and athleticism to dodge flying blades. They can shoot arrows that split hairs etc. The jianghu also includes the possibility of the supernatural with ghosts and witchcraft. All of these elements are present in Assassin, but they sit alongside an intensely realist presentation of the ‘real world’. Hou’s inspiration for the some of the military scenes and also of the remote villages in Weibo is in the work of Japanese filmmakers and especially Kurosawa Akira’s approach to the production of Seven Samurai (Japan 1954). This approach relies on getting the historical details correct as far as possible:

I wanted to try my hand at the genre [i.e. wuxia] one day – but in the realist vein which suits my temperament. It’s not really my style to have fighters flying through the air or doing pirouettes on the ceiling; that’s not my way, and I couldn’t do it. I prefer to keep my feet on the ground. The fight scenes in The Assassin refer to those generic traditions, but they are certainly not the core of the drama. All else aside, I have to think about my actors. Even with protective padding and other safety precautions, even using wooden swords, such scenes are necessarily violent . . . Actually, the biggest influences on me were Japanese samurai films by Kurosawa and others, where what really matters are the philosophies that go with the strange business of being a samurai and not the action scenes themselves, which are merely a means to an end and basically anecdotal. (Hou quoted in the Assassin Press Notes)

It’s possible to see the problems for some critics (and even more so for some distributors) in this apparent contradiction. Hou seeks out the realist presentation and eschews too much reliance on action – which for many fans is the major attraction of wuxia. Comparisons with Zhang Yimou’s wuxia films are interesting because Zhang too is interested in those ‘philosophies’, but where Zhang stages the narratives in often spectacular settings – large palaces, hundreds of extras etc. – Hou chooses much more intimate settings – small palace chambers, clashes between groups of a dozen or so warriors etc. Hou also selects to use ‘narrow’ screen shapes – Academy 1:1.37 for the prologue (in monochrome) and something slightly wider for the main film (I thought 1:1.66 but IMDB says 1:1.41, which I’ve never come across before) with at least one insert of 1:1.85. Hou also favours long takes featuring a static or a slowly tracking camera. He doesn’t create the sense of movement with the camera or edits – only with the moments of swift movement by the actors within the frame. For much of the time, the principal character Yinniang waits quietly in the shadows, observing the scene before she acts. As a consequence, some audiences find the film ‘boring’ or ‘uninvolving’. Against this, many scenes are breathtakingly beautiful. Hou travelled to remote areas in Inner Mongolia and Hebei to find the silver birch woods, mountains and streams that become the ‘authentic’ settings for his story. Even with my limited knowledge of Chinese visual arts, I recognised the emotional power of the settings. The beauty of the settings is enhanced by Lee Ping-bing’s cinematography. A long-time collaborator with Hou, Lee uses monochrome and colour in startling ways creating a palpable texture for images featuring rain and mists. I was sat quite close to the screen and sometimes there was a high level of grain in the image and at other times the image seemed processed. There were also some very subtle shifts of focus in some of the long shots of figures moving through landscapes. As far as I can tell, Lee shot most of the film in 35mm (except perhaps for the monochrome prologue – on 16mm?). It’s frustrating that I haven’t as yet found any further details online. The interior mise en scène is just as meticulously constructed with costumes and sets designed by Hwarng Wern-Ying. Again the historical detail is more important than any melodrama excess but Yinniang often observes from behind curtains, gauzes etc. which match the mists in the exterior scenes.

A long-shot composition with action in the foreground and misty mountains in the background

A skewed long-shot composition with action in the foreground and misty mountains in the background

Thinking about Assassin in relation to the films of Zhang Yimou, I remembered that Hou had been one of the producers of Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991), a film that intrigues between the wives/concubines inside a war-lord’s house – itself a carefully constructed setting. Zhang also sought out new and spectacular settings for his second wuxia, The House of Flying Daggers (2004). Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Flying Daggers is a wuxia romance with female warriors in central roles and this is a description that might fit Assassin. However, it is another Zhang Yimou film that seems most relevant to me. The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) has a similar structure of brief moments of action set between what is effectively a power struggle within a royal household. It’s much more spectacular than Assassin but the importance of the intrigue and the conflict of family ties and real politik is similar.

Hou’s final trick in making life more difficult for the audience – and adding layers to the intrigue – is to use another story told by a character as a kind of key. This is the story about the bluebird given as a gift. The bird fails to thrive until someone suggests that a mirror is put in the cage and then the bluebird revives, singing and dancing to its own reflection. Here is the clue to both the script and casting decisions. Many of the characters are ‘doubled’ and the casting and costumes/make-up seem to deliberately attempt to confuse the viewer – they certainly did for me. Thus it isn’t easy to distinguish between the wife and the concubine of Tian Ji’an and similarly Tian himself is sometimes easily confused with his officers. My first task when I re-watch the film will be to make sure I know who is doing what to whom.

Assassin9

Yinniang’s mother – seen in flashback as remembered by Yinniang. This sequence is presented in 1.85:1 with the rest of the film in 1.37:1

Whatever my problems following the narrative, I have no doubts that this will be one of the most interesting films I will see this year. And I haven’t even mentioned the music by Lim Giong which also needs more of my attention. I’m sure I saw a reference in the credits to music from ‘Dakar’ (in Senegal?). I must find out more. Trailers can never possibly convey the pacing or complexity of a film like Assassin but you can get to see some of the beauty and some of the features outlined above in this trailer:

Hou Hsaio-hsien is a case study director in Chapter 11 of The Global Film Book.

Thérèse Desqueyroux (France 2012)

Therese and Bernard in the forest.

Therese and Bernard in the forest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stacking up the numbers on Hollywood remakes – a win for subtitles?

Trying – and probably failing – not to feel smug, I offer you this article in today’s Guardian by number cruncher Charles Gant. A week before the release of Headhunters, confidently expected to be a worldwide hit as a Norwegian film, Gant reports that MGM has conceded that David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will make a loss in cinemas (despite grossing over $230 million). Gant questions why Hollywood makes a seemingly pointless remake – our sentiments entirely. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg is reported as being interested in taking the lead role in Summit’s remake of Headhunters.

Having just read Headhunters – and enjoying it very much, I’m very much looking forward to the film and I’ll be introducing it on April 14 at the National Media Museum in Bradford as part of a talk on Nordic Crime Fiction. Please come along.