Category Archives: Melodrama

Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben Spain-France-Italy 2018)

Laura (Penélope Cruz) and Irene (Carla Campra) meet Felipe (Sergio Castellanos) and his uncle Paco (Javier Bardem)

Everybody Knows opened the Cannes competition in 2018 to mixed reviews (although better than usual for the opening film) and it has taken some time to get into UK distribution. I suspect that audiences have discovered the film to be better than some of the early reviews suggested and the film opened reasonably well in the UK. I enjoyed the film very much and the interesting questions for me revolve around expectations for a film by the director of the Oscar-winning A Separation (Iran 2011) and The Salesman (Iran-France 2016) and the extent to which those same audiences know Asghar Farhadi’s earlier Iranian work.

When the film began I found it fast-moving and packed with incident. I struggled to follow all the dialogue in the subtitles and especially the relationships in a large extended family in a small village community. I also wondered if there was something ‘not Spanish’ about it. Later, as I watched Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz I was reminded of the Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Spain-US 2008and thought how much better this Farhadi film was. But this does indicate that I couldn’t quite forget that this was a film in which the director was not working in his first (or even second?) language. I later read that Farhadi had written the script before he undertook production of The Salesman in 2016 and after he wrote The Past (2013) –  a film largely in French but also with an Iranian character. Re-reading those posts now I realise why, watching the new film, I was reminded of About Elly (Iran 2009). Everybody Knows is a different kind of story in some ways but comparing it to Farhadi’s earlier films and especially About Elly will reveal something, I think. But first I need to sketch out an outline of the new film (without any major spoilers).

Paco and his wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie)

Laura (Penélope Cruz) and her two children, sixteen-year old Irene and her young brother, arrive in a small village not too far from Madrid but sufficiently rural to be isolated. They have come from Argentina to attend the wedding of Laura’s sister Ana and they are staying in the hotel in the centre of the village owned by Laura’s elder sister Mariana and her husband Fernando. Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) is at this point still in Argentina. Laura soon meets Paco (Javier Bardem). He was Laura’s childhood friend and the two were inseparable before she went to Argentina but she hasn’t seen him in the last 16 years and now he has a beautiful wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie) and owns half a thriving wine-producing business. Laura also meets her father who she is shocked to realise has grown old and frail – though he still has a temper. On the night of the wedding party all is going well until Irene, who had gone to bed early feeling a little unwell, disappears and at this point what might have been a familiar family melodrama becomes instead a melodrama thriller. Is Irene in danger? Did she go voluntarily or has someone taken her? We remember that in the opening credit sequence we saw someone wearing gloves clipping a newspaper story and now those clippings are found on Irene’s bed.

What follows is a typical Farhadi narrative as the family  – and the villagers who know something is wrong, but not what it is – begin to squabble and we wonder if lies are being told by some characters and why they might lie. We are back in a Farhadi world where telling lies becomes almost natural and where one lie begats another and so on. The difference is that in the Iranian film, Western audiences are likely to read the telling of lies as indicative of the repression in Iranian society. In About Elly, for instance, a group of married friends from Tehran rent a house by the sea for ‘a weekend away’ and one of the married women invites her child’s nursery teacher, Elly, to come with them. One of the men has just returned from Germany where he got divorced and in a moment of madness the group tell their landlady that he and Elly are a ‘honeymoon couple’. This is the first lie but more will occur when Elly goes missing. Has she drowned in the sea or fled back to the city? What can the group tell the police? They don’t actually know much about her.

The extended family gather to watch a video of the wedding in the hope of finding a clue to Irene’s disappearance.

In Everybody Knows, there is a great deal of family history that is slowly revealed and it will involve questions of social class, landowner and peasant, as well as relationships and infidelities. The village is a small community in which ‘Everybody Knows’. Most critics don’t seem to equate this family melodrama with any kind of analysis of Spanish society – as they would in the Iranian context. Instead, the film tends to be written about as a thriller genre film. On the other hand, there is something about the cast and the setting that invokes an Almodóvar film and Pedro appears in the ‘thanks list’ in the closing credits. The film it most reminds us of is Volver (2006) in which Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) returns to her home village in La Mancha to experience a host of family memories. The veteran cinematographer on that film (and others by Almodóvar), José Luis Alcaine, also photographed Everybody Knows. Several cast members have appeared in Almodóvar’s films.

I have only been able to find Press Notes in French and they reveal that Farhadi first visited Spain “fifteen years ago” and the kernel of the idea for the story emerged then. At that point in 2003 he had only just begun to make cinema films and the script idea changed over the next few years as he became more familiar with the work of the actors he would eventually cast. He wrote the first drafts in Farsi and had them translated, getting feedback until his Spanish collaborators were satisfied that the script was wholly ‘Spanish’. Because of the high-profile stars who were always busy it then took  several years to finally move into production. Farhadi argues that he doesn’t make ‘message films’, implying that he is mainly interested in ‘relationships’. However, I’m sure he knows the history of melodrama and he knows that it has been an important form commenting on and exploring moments of social change. I think therefore it’s reasonable to argue that in the fifteen years or so it has taken the film to emerge, families like the one in this narrative have been affected by changing social mores and issues associated with various forms of migration as well as suffering from the impact of financial crises etc. I don’t want to say more because I don’t want to spoil the narrative for anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet. But I think this will be a narrative worth some analysis over the next few years.

Cruz, Bardem and Darin are arguably the biggest Hispanic-language stars in  international cinema and one of the great pleasures of the film is to see them in scenes together. Farhadi’s great strength is in his rapport with his actors. I’ve seen some complaints that the film is too slow in its second half and that the thriller elements don’t conform to genre conventions. Farhadi’s films are long (this one is over 130 mins) but I found every minute riveting. The narrative does come to a conclusion but not what I would call a full ‘resolution’. There are several unanswered questions as to motivation and also about what happens next. It almost feels like a new story might be about to begin. I’d like to see the next instalment.

Here’s a North American trailer (the film is distributed in the UK and North America by Universal):

Casa de los babys (US-Mexico 2003)

The opening sequence of a nursery in an unnamed Latin American country

John Sayles has been away from UK cinema screens for a long time. I think Honeydripper was the last of his films to get a UK release back in 2008 . These days the ‘godfather of American Independent cinema’ is mostly based in Mexico it seems, or at least concerned with Spanish-language films. Casa de los babys is an earlier film made in Mexico, partly in English as well as Spanish. The film was never released in the UK but I bought a Region 1 DVD some time ago and finally managed to watch it. I wasn’t disappointed.

MGM’s poster for the film ignores the local characters

The ‘House of Babies’ of the title is a seaside hotel ‘somewhere in Latin America’. The country isn’t named but the location for the shoot is given as Acapulco. There are six ‘anglos/gringas’ who have come to this city in the hope of adopting a baby to take back to the US. Sayles has acquired a starry cast, no doubt attracted by his reputation for female-centred melodramas with a political edge. The Americans are Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Darryl Hannah, Lili Taylor and the Irish actor, Susan Lynch. The hotel they are staying in is run by the indomitable Rita Moreno.

Eileen (Susan Lynch) offers a book to one of the boys on the street

The large ensemble cast is no surprise in a John Sayles film. He often writes screenplays which bring together several personal stories and this film is no exception. The criticism of Sayles’ films tends to have been that, because he usually edits his own films, he allows the blend of narratives to develop into a meandering multi-strand narrative. That’s certainly not the case here. He’s still the editor but the film is a concise 95 minutes and if anything is cut short rather than allowed to dawdle.

Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaa) and Skipper (Darryl Hannah) with Rufino (David Baez), a local man who wants to emigrate to Philadelphia

The focus is not just on the Americans but also on the local characters, a maid in the hotel, the hotel manager’s family, three young boys sleeping on the street, a 15 year-old pregnant girl, a student and an older man desperate to emigrate to Philadelphia (the ‘home of Liberty’ as he explains to the women). Each of these characters shares the spotlight at some point, allowing Sayles to explore the complex relationships between ‘North and South’, ‘Latin America’ and ‘Anglo America’. The six women do not necessarily get along. Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is the most aggressive towards the locals, while most of the others are, perhaps naïvely friendly (naïve because the don’t speak Spanish), and grateful for the opportunity. Leslie (Lili Taylor) is the most sussed, a Jewish New Yorker and a single woman who speaks Spanish. Skipper (Darryl Hannah) is mistrusted by some of the others and seen as fitness-obsessed. But like most of the women she has a back story to be revealed.

Asunción (Vanessa Martínez) is one of the most important characters who says little but reveals a great deal. Here she listens to Eileen’s story, although neither can understand the other’s language

I found the film entertaining and rewarding and, typically for Sayles, the narrative plays fair to all the characters, American or Mexican. Audiences might however feel short-changed as this is not a Hollywood film with a neat ending in which we find out which of the women gets a baby. But that’s OK, I think. The purpose of the narrative is to introduce us to the complexities of what adoption means and especially what it means in the power exchanges between North and South. But it also explores what it means for both the childless Anglos and the Latinas who lose/give up their babies.

Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) here with Eileen is the least likeable American character but she has a story as well

Reading some of the negative comments (which are more than balanced by the positive ones) on IMDb it’s amazing just how prejudiced some people can be. This isn’t in any way a didactic film. Sayles simply offers a number of scenes featuring the different characters and allows us to work out for ourselves what the meanings might be when they are edited together. That might sound like it’s a foregone conclusion but really it isn’t. There is a lot more material on the DVD dealing with the production itself and it’s clear that different people involved in the film have their own ideas about the ‘trade’ taking place.

It’s time, I think that some of the UK distributors decided to bring us the more recent John Sayles films on DVD/Blu-ray or download if not in cinemas. We can’t afford to forget what a terrific filmmaker he is – and how different he is to most American filmmakers. Search through the cast list here and you’ll find various actors and crew who have worked with Sayles during the last thirty years and more.

Ciao Ciao (France-China 2017)

The city girl back home

Ciao Ciao is the latest DVD release from Matchbox Films and a welcome surprise. Matchbox Films pick up a diverse range of films, but not usually a film like this which comes with the support of a Cannes Cinéfondation ‘Atelier’ tag and both a World Cinema Support Fund and CNC credit. Screened at the Berlinale in 2017, Ciao Ciao had a French release earlier this year and it perhaps says something about the current specialised cinema market in the UK that this is a DVD release. The film deserves to be seen on the big screen with cinema sound.

Writer-director Song Chuan is an experienced fiction and documentary filmmaker with a background in TV. His only previous cinema feature credit Huan Huan (2011) was a low-budget film with mainly non-professional actors and from a brief plot description it seems to have shared several elements with this new film.

Ciao Ciao with Li Wei

‘Ciao Ciao’ is a young woman who returns to her village in the hills of Yunnan after working in the great urban sprawl of Guangzhou. The film opens with a very long shot of a mountain valley as a train crosses a viaduct and then a car snakes up the mountain road to bring the city girl home. Liang Xueqin as Ciao Ciao is tall and slim with long black hair and with her designer clothes and handbags she is visually out of place next to the village women, yet somehow her performance and the camerawork still convey that she hasn’t forgotten her village life. Even in her high block heels she steps confidently over rocky tracks. We are not given a specific reason for her return, but her parents are evidently pleased to see her and hope that she will take care of them in their later years. They don’t see that her arrival could disturb the local community.

In the Press Notes (which I struggled to translate from the French) Song Chuan explains that he shot the film in his own home village. He suggests that it is now quite difficult to see traces of the village culture he grew up with in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, he suggests, village life in the new high-growth economy means that money is everything and social behaviour is more direct – people do not express their true emotions but treat all exchanges as if they were economic transactions. Ciao Ciao’s mother sells corn liquor to supplement her income, buying it wholesale from an illicit distiller. Cia Ciao falls in with the distiller’s son Li Wei (Zhang Yu). He has also returned from time away from the village and spends his time whoring, drinking and gambling. All three activities involve illegal activity but corruption abounds in the village at all levels. A third character (played by Zhou Quan), a young man who runs a shop and claims to have been a hairdresser in Guangzhou, offers Ciao Ciao a different option. I won’t spoil the plot of what develops as an ultimately dark crime melodrama. It’s in some ways quite conventional in terms of narrative events but it’s presented in interesting ways and Song Chuan’s analysis of ‘the Chinese condition’ is clearly set out. This might be one reason why the film has not been released in China as far as I can see. Another might be the sex scenes which are carefully shot to be explicit without showing genitalia meaning that the film has a ’15’ Certificate in the UK. What is clear from these scenes is the offhand and misogynistic way Li Wei behaves towards Ciao Ciao.

. . . and with the hairdresser outside his shop

The aesthetics of the film are striking and they do seem to have been carefully thought through. My first reaction to the opening scenes was that I was looking at landscapes that might have appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s historical films of the so-called ‘Fifth Generation’ directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. This was odd because Ciao Ciao is presented in CinemaScope framings with very careful compositions – and some of these compositions reminded me very much of Sixth Generation directors like Jia Zhang-ke. His Unknown Pleasures (Ren xiao yao, China-Japan-France 2002) would make an interesting comparison. The difference is that Jia’s films tend to focus on the industrial cities of his own home region in Shanxi province in Northern China. One festival reviewer points out that the early framings are in long shot and gradually they become more focused on medium shots and MCUs as we get closer to the character’s real emotions. This could be the case, though the final scenes return to long shots.

I enjoyed the film and I was grateful to be able to see it. The DVD is available from December 3rd and it’s a very welcome release of an independent Chinese cinema film.

Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara, India (Bengal) 1960)

The classic composition connecting sister, brother, river and railway in Cloud-Capped Star

Cloud-Capped Star is the first film in Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy about the partition of Bengal in 1947 and its aftermath. It could be argued that all of Ghatak’s features between 1952 and 1977, when his last work was released posthumously, were concerned with the partition, but it is the trilogy that has been most widely seen outside India. E-Flat (Komal Gandhar, 1961) and Subarnarekha (1962, but released 1965) are the other two films in the trilogy. Cloud-Capped Star and E-Flat were shown at HOME in Manchester as part of an Indian Partition Weekend in June. DCPs have been struck by the National Film Archive of India. Cloud-Capped Star is also available as a DVD from the British Film Institute.

The narrative structure of Cloud-Capped Star is seemingly straightforward. We meet a family from East Bengal living in a refugee ‘colony’ on the outskirts of Calcutta in the 1950s. The father is a teacher now struggling to get work and the mother has become something of a harridan in her disillusionment. The eldest son Shankar (Anil Chattopadhyay) is a trained musician but idle and like everyone else in the family seems to exploit his sister Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the only one with a regular income. Neeta’s younger brother Montu wants to be a footballer and her younger sister Gita seems most intent on getting a boyfriend. The narrative then plays out as the tragedy of Neeta. She will see the prospect of her own marriage disappear, losing the possibility of marrying a man who eventually ends up with Gita. Neeta’s selflessness will bring about her downfall – she catches TB (from lack of proper food and exhaustion from over-work?). Shankar does finally make the effort and moves to Bombay where he becomes a successful singer. But when he returns he is faced with his sister’s decline. Like many Bengali films, Cloud-Capped Star is based on a novel – in this case by Shaktipada Rajguru.

A classic noir melodrama composition. Neeta (Supriya Choudhury) is seen here through a window into her room, behind lattice-work, with her father and brother in the background representing the pressure on her as bread-winner.
N.B. These screen grabs have been cropped because of technical problems.

Cloud-Capped Star is not about plot, it’s about the artistic presentation of loss and the consequences of partition. This is a true melodrama with meanings expressed through music, sound effects, framing, composition and mise en scène. Meanings are also expressed through editing. Although this was Ghatak’s most successful film with the Bengali public it’s not because the film follows mainstream conventions. It’s because of the tragic story and the portrayal of Bengali culture. The film certainly is a melodrama but its ‘excess’ is not about beautiful colours or lush music. In his monochrome film Ghatak uses noirish lighting for interiors contrasted with the brash sunlight outdoors. The editing ‘chops’ the end of scenes and ‘throws’ us into the next. Some of the beautiful music in the film is undercut by strident sound effects.

Neeta at the point when she first realises that she might have TB. There are several low-angle compositions in the film and here the camera angle enhances the expression in her eyes and her gestures.

The geography of the Bengal Delta is confusing for outsiders – especially since the rivers that break away from the main Ganges-Brahmaputra to form the fan-shaped delta are given different names by different communities and are now separated by the boundary between West Bengal and Bangladesh. Ritwik Ghatak grew up along the Padma River, one of the rivers of the delta now in Bangladesh. Kolkata (Calcutta) stands on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River. The refugee ‘colony’ in Cloud-Capped Star is close to the river (presumably the Hooghly?) and it is the river bank where Shankar goes to sing and where Neeta walks beneath the great line of trees at the beginning of the film – and where later she meets Sanat (Niranjan Ray), her would-be fiance. Ghatak’s camera, in the hands of Dinen Gupta, composes the images of Neeta and Shankar carefully. They are first brought together with Neeta in a close-up in the foreground to the right of the frame and looking left. In the middle ground is Shankar (looking to the right) and beyond him, first the river and then on the other bank in the distance is a train travelling from right to left (see the image at the start of this posting).

Neeta and Sanat (Niranjan Ray) meet by the river

Neeta and Sanat by the river with the train in the background

Neeta in this sequence is placed above Sanat in the frame – a signifier of her moral superiority?

Later in the film, when Neeta meets Sanat by the river it is soon after the crisis point when, having lost Sanat to her sister, Neeta has to ask him for money to pay for Mantu’s hospital expenses – and she herself is showing the signs of TB infection. The long shot above follows a meeting on the footpath beneath the trees at which point Ghatak develops a complex soundtrack mix. The melodious music and background natural sounds of cicadas are suddenly undercut by a wailing sound that could be the engine whistle in the background, but which lingers on as a peculiarly alien sound. At this point, Neeta invokes a sense of despair that she hasn’t confronted injustice and Sanat seems to admit he was wrong to give up his studies and take a job when he could be continuing as a political activist. In Cloud-Capped Star, Ghatak presents the decline of Neeta’s family as a metaphor for the decline of Bengali culture post Partition. Is it important that the locomotive pulling the train in the background is travelling ‘tender first’ – effectively ‘backwards’?

My perhaps rather simplistic reading has Neeta, the most active member of the family who sacrifices her opportunities to use her artistic talents in order to put food on the table for her family, eventually being sacrificed herself. Neeta represents the potential for a new Bengali society that cannot flourish after Partition. Ghatak’s emotional but also analytical storytelling drenches events with music, sound effects and references to poetry scattered through the dialogues. His camera creates complex framings of equally complex staging of actions. The film for me is literally ‘shocking’ in its excess and its cutting – ‘shocking’ in two senses, firstly in its harshness and abruptness and secondly in its disavowal of the conventions we have all too easily internalised from mainstream cinema. The French film theorist Raymond Bellour has produced a detailed, illustrated reading of the whole film that can be found here. As Bellour, quoting Serge Dany, avers, it is indeed one of the greatest of all melodramas. The title may refer to a line from Shakespeare – The Tempest. It may equally refer to the mountains visible from the sanatorium near Darjeeling where TB takes Neeta.

I’ve watched Cloud-Capped Star two or three times and still I haven’t seen everything it has to offer or understood all its meanings. I’m also completely at a loss (because of my lack of musical knowledge) to fully get to grips with Ghatak’s use of music in this film (which includes a song using Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, I think). He was undoubtedly a great filmmaker, not properly appreciated during his relatively short career but influential through his teaching at FTII in Pune in the mid 1960s and globally through his writing on cinema and archive screenings of his films for various filmmakers ever since. Here’s one of the songs in the film.It comes during a sequence in which Neeta comes home and confirms that Montu has left college and has taken a factory job. He is too ashamed to tell his parents and Neeta here offers his first wage to contribute to the household. Her mother is unreasonably angry with Neeta. Both Neeta and Montu are going to suffer. At the start of the clip, Shankar gets a razor blade for a shave and is shamed by the shopkeeper who tells him it is disgraceful that she has to support the whole family. He thinks of her as being like Sinbad the Sailor – carrying the Old Man of the Sea (i.e. her family) on her back. Screenings of Cloud-Capped Star are possible as part of the Independent Cinema Office’s India on Film Tour celebrating 70 Years of Independence in August. Look out for screenings around the UK.

The Commune (Kollektivet, Denmark-Sweden-Netherlands 2016)

Mealtimes come to represent the communal idea in the household.

Mealtimes come to represent the communal idea in the household.

I’m glad I finally got to see this at a public screening (thanks to Square Chapel, Halifax). The Commune is partly a nostalgia trip for those of us who lived through the 1970s – though I was younger than the main characters, I can still recognise the world depicted here (meant to be 1975). Co-writer/director Thomas Vinterberg has his own memories of life in a commune as a small child but his writing partner Tobias Lindholm was not born until 1977. How then did they do in creative terms?

I’m not sure how Danish communes compare with their Anglo-American counterparts but the commune in this film strikes me as a little unusual since it is based in a large suburban house in the suburbs of a coastal town. The house has been left to a couple in their forties with a 14 year-old daughter. Erik, the architecture lecturer (Ulrich Thomsen) wants to sell the house, but his wife TV newscaster Anna (Trine Dyrholm) thinks their family life needs a change and she urges Erik to agree to invite friends to join them in a communal household. My sense of communes tend to be of smallholdings and rural communities or urban squats. This one seems rather bourgeois. Erik and Trine seem too ‘established’ to be in a commune – but they are joined by a younger couple with a child and some singles. The narrative then finally takes off when Erik, still confused by his role in the new set-up, falls for one of his students, 24 year-old Emma.

The narrative promises an exploration of communal life with some great scenes by the sea with everyone together, but then it becomes the story of a marriage and a family and the commune becomes simply the difficult context in which the marriage founders. Having said that, I think the representation of the commune is fair. Quite a few reviewers seem to have assumed that a commune must be about ‘free love’ and that everyone would be swapping partners. That doesn’t happen, but for me it was the other absence that was telling. Reviewers refer to this group of ‘leftists’, but actually there is very little discussion of politics as such and little sense of political activity. I tend to agree with something else that I read, that this script might have been better developed into a TV drama series (or, at the least, into a longer film). Perhaps then some of the stories about the other characters might have been developed further.

I did enjoy watching the film. Vinterberg and Lindholm are too experienced and professional to fail to make a film like this watchable and Thomsen and Dyrholm are very good. Trine Dyrholm in particular makes a viewing experience worthwhile. She always gives everything she’s got. It’s good to see the 1970s too. I liked the decade and its political struggles. I guess we smoked too much, but the clothes were comfortable.

Sweet Bean (An, Japan-France-Germany 2015)

The three principal characters: (from left) Wakana (Uchida Kyara), Tukue (Kiki Kirin) and Setaro (Nagase Matososhi)

The three principal characters: (from left) Wakana (Uchida Kyara), Tokue (Kirin Kiki) and Setaro (Nagase Matososhi)

For reasons I don’t fully understand, the Japanese director Naomi Kawase divides film critics and audiences. A regular presence at Cannes, her films have until recently been seen only at festivals in much of the English-speaking world. It wasn’t until Still the Water from 2014 that she achieved a UK release. Despite all her international festival prizes (or perhaps because of them?), Kawase’s films often attract descriptions such as ‘pretentiousness’ and ‘lacking in narrative drive’. Critics also seem to be put off by her interests in ecology and spiritual connections (which with my limited knowledge I see as traditionally Japanese). Some critics have also put her alongside Terrence Malick in respect of these traits. Her new film has attracted some of the same comments and at 113 minutes its telling of a simple story does suggest a slow pace. However, it didn’t feel slow to my viewing companion and me. We loved the film and both shed some tears – it has also been deemed ‘sentimental’ by detractors, but many in the general audience for the film will like it very much.

The film begins with the morning ritual of a solitary man in his late 40s who is preparing to open his small shop selling dorayaki – sweet red bean paste (the an of the title) sandwiched between simple sweet pancakes. His loyal customers are mainly local schoolgirls but this morning Tokue, a woman in her 70s, drops by enquiring after the part-time job he has advertised. The man (whose name is Sentarô, but who is most of the time simply ‘Boss’) attempts the classic ‘put-off’ strategy to avoid offending Tokue, telling her there is heavy lifting, long hours, low pay etc. She accepts a sample dorayaki and reluctantly leaves only to return the next day with a sample of her own home-made bean paste which she has been making for fifty years. He eventually tastes it and discovers that it is delicious and far superior to the factory-made stuff he buys in. From here on the storyline will be familiar up until the point when we begin to find out more about the three main characters. The backstories are perhaps rather unexpected and though the film’s resolution is fairly conventional, the second half of the film does deliver some insights into Japanese culture as well as exploring more universal concerns.

From the cover of the novel 'Les délices de Tokyo'

From the cover of the novel ‘Les délices de Tokyo’

This is the first time Naomi Kawase has adapted a novel, I think. Many Japanese films are literary adaptations and Durian Sukegawa’s novel was published in France under the title of Les délices de Tokyo (also the film title in France). As with many film festival regulars, Naomi Kawase finds her major overseas support in France and An, like Still the Water is a French co-production. The novel seems to fit Kawase’s overall approach and her interest in the moon and trees seems perfectly in tune with the main story. The film is located in a Tokyo district with enough spare ground for a plantation of cherry trees and the narrative opens (and closes) with a display of cherry blossom. As many reviewers have noted the cherry blossom signifies both the passage of time (a wonderful shot when the roads are covered in blossom fall) and also something about the importance of seasons and the true bond between humans and the natural world. My favourite line in the film was a reference to a brand of sea salt, “dried under the moon on a southern island”.

Tokue makes dorayaki

Tokue makes dorayaki

The cherry blossom reminded me of the German film Kirschblüten (Cherry Blossom, Germany/France 2008) which shares some of the same elements – and received a similar mixed critical response. Like Kirschblüten, Sweet Bean is a film about (broken) family relationships. The third main character is a schoolgirl, Wakana who lives with her mother in a nearby apartment. Wakana is separated from the other girls at school who are cramming for entrance exams for college/university as her mother wants her to leave to earn money. The dorayaki shop is a refuge for her and eventually she will become the initially unwitting agent of the changes in the narrative. As the back stories emerge, we also realise that Tokue and Sentarô are in some ways in a surrogate mother-son relationship. The performances of all three central characters are excellent and the actors Kiki Kirin (Tokue) and Uchida Kyara (Wakana) are actually grandmother and grand-daughter. I was disappointed after the screening to discover that I ought to have recognised both of them because of the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu and that reference seems particularly apt as Sweet Bean would be likely to appeal to the (growing) audiences entranced by Kore-eda’s recent films including Our Little Sister (Japan 2015). Nagase Matososhi) who plays Sentarô is another very experienced Japanese actor and together the trio convey the precise mood that Kawase seeks to create.

Sentaro and Wakana

Sentaro and Wakana

I won’t spoil the second half of the narrative by explaining the social issue involved. It was a surprise to me – but then aspects of Japanese society are often surprising. I’ve seen Sweet Bean dismissed partly because it is seen as an example of ‘food porn’. This strikes me as a particularly crass comment. My experience is that Japan (like several other non-Anglo cultures) has preserved an interest in traditional food culture (as well as embracing a bewildering array of convenience foods) and that these are appreciated by the majority of the population. Japanese culture is also strong in terms of presentation, so there is a desire to make even inexpensive foods attractive. In Sweet Bean we have both alcohol in plastic from a vending machine and sweet cakes dispensed from a traditional shop space – the old and the new together. I seem to remember that there is a big emphasis on food as part of family and friendship culture in Kore-eda’s films as well. If critics don’t like Sweet Bean, I suspect that their take on food is not very reliable either.

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.