How Old Are You? (India 2014)

Nirupama (Manju Warrier) with her plans for organic horticulture on rooftop terraces.

Nirupama (Manju Warrier) with her plans for organic horticulture on rooftop terraces.

Here is a Malayalam film released in UK cinemas without English subtitles. I was surprised and slightly worried at the prospect of 141 minutes of incomprehension. But I shouldn’t have worried. This is a popular drama (but not a Bollywood-style film) and although I missed a couple of key plot points at the time, I’ve since read the Indian reviews and answered most of my own questions.

How Old Are You? asks that simple question of its female lead and then proceeds to show her first being humiliated and then recovering and ending triumphant. It has been promoted as a film of ‘female empowerment’. It is also the ‘comeback film’ of Malayali star Manju Warrier after 14 years away from the industry she conquered in the 1990s. (It somehow seems to be appropriate that what kept her away was marriage and home-making but now she is divorcing and returning to the big screen.)

Bored at  work . . .

Bored at work . . .

Nirupama is a civil servant in a typical revenue office in Kochi-Ernakulam, the largest urban area in Kerala. She has become bored by her work, the stresses of looking after her household and dealing with her school-age daughter and husband who works as a radio announcer. She is sometimes rude or offhand and she becomes egotistical when her daughter somehow ‘wins’ her the chance to meet the President of India as an ‘ordinary Indian woman’. But she embarrasses herself at the meeting and is humiliated when the incident is picked up on social media, going viral very quickly. Out of this disaster comes the chance for redemption when she is recognised by Susan (Kerala has a large Christian community), an old classmate from university who has become an important person (in business or government – I couldn’t work this out). Nirupama was an inspirational student back in 1996, leading a strike and achieving much for her classmates and Susan reminds her of what she did. Gradually she gets her confidence back and achieves something again – leading to an inevitable ending that most audiences will spot coming. The age question comes when Nirupama learns that her husband and daughter plan to migrate to Ireland, but she can only join them if she can get a job and the Irish recruiters have an age cut-off at 35 (surely illegal in the EU?). She is 36. This scene actually starts the film but I think this must be a flashforward – it’s quite difficult to pin down the chronology of events without dialogue to anchor meanings. The move to Ireland for the father and daughter is both a contributing factor to the change in Nirupama’s outlook on life and a possible obstacle when she becomes successful.

. . . and with her daughter

. . . and with her daughter

How Old Are You? has been very successful in Kerala, being seen as both a comeback for a popular and respected female star and a film about female empowerment. It has been well-received by the English language press in India but I’m not sure how widely it has been seen across the country. (If it hasn’t been dubbed/subbed in English or Hindi, I wonder how accessible it is?). In the UK the film is imported by Indian Movies UK, a Malayali distributor in India bringing films to the diaspora in the UK and Europe. I didn’t realise that there were so many Keralites in the UK. There are stories of full houses in some screenings (there were only five of us in Bradford). Malayalis have also formed important diaspora communities in the Gulf and this Facebook page details screenings of the film in Singapore as well as Dubai, US and Australia. The irony of this success is that from an outsider’s perspective Kerala is in many ways the least likely Indian state to suffer from male chauvinism or repression of women. Kerala has the highest levels of education in India and the highest rating on the ‘Human Development Index’ (HDI). The theme of the second part of the film, when Nirupama accidentally discovers the merits of organic horticulture, is however an important local issue because despite success in new technologies, Kerala is still dependent on agriculture and production of primary goods as well as tourism (with some of India’s areas of outstanding beauty).

Directed by Rosshan Andrrews and written by Bobby and Sanjay, a trio associated with three previously successful films, How Old Are You? is a good example of contemporary Malayalam filmmaking. The film looks good as lensed by R. Diwakaran but the music by Gopi Sunder was too dominant for my taste. One of the advantages of not knowing the language is that it focuses attention on the actors in terms of body language, facial gestures etc. I thought the cast was very good all round and it’s clear that Manju Warrier is the star. One of the strengths of South Indian cinema generally is that the leading actors look like ‘real people’. Malayalam cinema has historically been known for art films as well as popular genre films and I wasn’t surprised to find a conventional genre film with a serious message. How Old Are You? is a drama with only two songs, one played during the closing credits and the other as accompaniment to a montage. I can say that I was never bored over 140 minutes in which I understood only the occasional lines of English (mostly a few words inserted into the Malayalam dialogue). That must say something, although I must confess that the few weeks I spent in Kerala convinced me that it is one of my favourite regions – so I’m biased!

I’d like to watch more Malayalam films and kudos to Cineworld for showing this in Bradford. But it would be nice to know in advance if there are no English subs. Since all the Hindi and Tamil films I’ve seen in the same cinema have had subs, I think it was reasonable to expect them for this screening. The next release from Indian Movies UK, Bangalore Days, is in cinemas this week.

 

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):

Fifties British Cinema: Woman in a Dressing Gown (UK 1957)

Yvonne Mitchell (foreground) as Amy in Woman in a Dressing Gown with (from left) Andrew Ray (Brian), Roberta Powell (Christine) and Anthony Quayle as ‘Jimbo’

Woman in a Dressing Gown was re-released on a DCP (digital cinema package) and Blu-ray/DVD discs in the summer. This re-release is slightly more significant than most since the film has been out of circulation for some time – not seen in cinemas, nor as far as I know, on DVD. It’s an important film, representing commercial British cinema of the 1950s at the Berlin Film Festival where its lead actor Yvonne Mitchell won a Silver Bear. Its director and cinematographer Lee J. Thompson and Gil Taylor were leading figures of mainstream genre cinema at a time when the UK’s industry was still operating a studio system. This marked the film out as a different kind of submission to a film festival to which it was usual to send ‘quality pictures’ from David Lean, Carol Reed or Michael Powell – or perhaps Ealing Studios.

However, Woman in a Dressing Gown also marked the beginning of the end of ‘studio British cinema’. UK cinema admissions started to nosedive in 1956 with the appearance on TV screens of ‘commercial television’ and this film was an adaptation of a TV play by Ted Willis previously seen on the new ITV channel. It isn’t evident from the film which is imaginatively shot (although it is possible to imagine it as a TV play in terms of the limited number of locations).

My main reason for writing about the film, apart from wanting to encourage readers to watch it if they can –  because it is very good – is to question the assertions around its status. Very well received and well-reviewed, the re-release has been most often taken as giving us a chance to see a precursor to the ‘British New Wave’, usually argued to begin with Room at the Top just over a year later. I can see that this makes sense, but I’m more open to the argument that it is part of a much longer-running idea about ‘kitchen-sink drama’ related to theatre and TV during the 1950s and 1960s. A few weeks ago I introduced a screening of the film on this basis and you can download a pdf of the notes for that session here: WIDGNotes

Since the screening I’ve had a look at the new digital archive for Sight and Sound magazine (which perhaps we’ll review in the next few weeks). I went to the online viewing copy of the journal from Autumn 1957 and read John Gillet’s contemporary review. I was interested to see that he immediately picked up the TV connection, which must have been ‘live’ at the time since Hollywood films were just beginning to appear on television. He notes that Ted Willis had clearly learned from the Paddy Chayefsky plays that had made the jump from US TV to cinema films (Marty (1955) with Ernest Borgnine was probably the best-known). Gillet likes the film, but he’s not as enthusiastic as critics today. He thinks that Yvonne Mitchell tries too hard at times and he doesn’t like the ‘tricksy’ camerawork of Gil Taylor and Thompson’s cluttered mise en scène. Ironically, the formal properties of the film are now what make it stand out as a good example of 1950s commercial cinema with a real sense of adventure. (The film was shot in academy format 1.33: 1 – which marks it as visually different to the New Wave films that followed in 1.66:1.) I think that serious film studies is also now more accepting of melodrama and therefore Mitchell’s performance.

The DVD of the restoration is well worth getting and the interview/presentation by Melanie Williams of the University of East Anglia is one of the best I’ve seen on DVD. She discusses some of her own research into the responses of female audiences to what was an important film offering a discourse about women’s lives in the period.

The milieu for the film is not ‘working-class’ as many of the reviewers of the re-release suggest. Nor is it a ‘middle-class’ block of flats as Gillet suggested in 1957. Instead, the couple at the centre of the story are lower middle-class – an important distinction in British society. You can see this in the clip released by StudioCanal on YouTube in which Amy, shocked by her husband’s demand for a divorce, rings him at work – where the ‘other woman’ (Sylvia Sims as Georgie) answers the phone. It’s an odd clip to choose as none of Taylor’s cinematic style is evident:

Women Without Men (Zanan-e bedun-e mardan, Ger/Austria/Fra/It/Ukraine/Morocco 2009)

The CinemaScope framings are well used in Women Without Men

This film sneaked out on a single print in June 2010 in the UK and I missed it. I only became aware of it when researching A Separation. I’m glad that it is now available on DVD as it proves to be an interesting production for several reasons.

Shirin Neshat is an Iranian visual artist best known for short films that appear in gallery installations. Born into an upper middle-class Tehran family she left to study in the US around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. This is her first feature film and she wrote and directed it in partnership with Shoja Azari, variously described as an Iranian-American artist and filmmaker. With two artists at the helm Women Without Men was unlikely to be made as a conventional feature and what was produced does not disappoint in that respect. Although ostensibly based on a historical novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour, the film proves to be a visual treat and something of a meditative art object despite some powerful and emotionally charged passages. (The novelist herself, a celebrated figure in Iran but now exiled in America, appears in the film as a brothel-keeper.)

The setting is Tehran in 1953 at the time of the coup d’état engineered by the British and Americans to secure their oil interests, bringing down the government of Prime Minister Mossadegh and reinstating the powers of the Shah. Four women from different backgrounds are featured with three of them eventually coming together in a large but isolated country house – more like a fantasy garden than a real location. The woman who owns the house is the wife of an Army General who has discovered a liberal café society since an old male friend returned from the West. Another is a beautiful but emaciated prostitute. The other two do know each other but they have different views – one conservative and orthodox but the other radical and not prepared to compromise. The latter leads us into the action of the coup and the attempts by radicals to resist it.

The look of the film is deliberate and very precisely controlled in CinemaScope images ‘painted’ in muted tones through a slow-moving camera lens. (The Tehran scenes are nearly monochrome but colour breaks through in the ‘garden’.) Several images are surreal and the overall effect is heightened by the production constraints. Presumably the two filmmakers were unable/unwilling (?) to return to Iran (the original novel was banned in Iran) so the production was based in Morocco. I have no real idea how Tehran looked in the early 1950s (apart from a few newsreel images) but I’m sure that it was probably significantly different from the Tehran of contemporary Iranian films. I have been to parts of Morocco and the locations used in Women Without Men did seem to cry out ‘North Africa’ pretty convincingly. I’m not suggesting that this is a problem, simply that it adds to the sense of ‘otherness’ as I take North African and Iranian cultures to be significantly different. (Neshat says that she thinks Casablanca does resemble Tehran in the 1950s.) Another way to approach the film is to see it as primarily a ‘globalised’ production. One of the women is played by a Hungarian, the film is photographed by a German and scored by Ryuchi Sakamoto and without the support of various European production funds the film couldn’t have been made.

The DVD carries a long and detailed statement to camera from Shirin Neshat who reveals some interesting aspects of the production. She tells us that the film was a long time in preparation in different countries and that it travelled extensively in post-production with different editors in each country. However, two seemingly contradictory factors held it together. The joint Austrian/Iranian design teams were meticulous in their research but Neshat and Azari didn’t want to make a ‘social realist film’. Neshat speaks about her admiration for East European/Russian and Scandinavian films and specifically mentions Tarkovsky as an inspiration. I did sense this in the film – partly perhaps because of the scenes in long shot in which crowds of protestors clashed with groups of soldiers or where the soldiers swarm into buildings. I was reminded of scenes in Andrei Roublev by Tarkovsky (and The Red and the White by Jansco). These sequences are contrasted in the more static tableaux and the scenes with the slow-moving camera. Neshin also speaks of Roy Andersson and I can see the link to his work.

The black of the women is isolated against the white of the men (and of the desert)

What does it all add up to? I was struck by one comment on IMdb in which it was suggested that the film is metaphorical in terms of the women’s treatment by men and the damage this does to the prospects of democracy in Iran. The film ends with a dedication to the revolutionaries in Iran from the 1906 ‘Constitutional Revolution’ to the recent ‘Green Revolution’. The suggested metaphor then develops the house and garden in the desert as a kind of potentially democratic ‘paradise’ (the first shot of the film follows one of the women entering the grounds via an irrigation canal). The gardener/caretaker is one of the few men in the film shown sympathetically. Neshat herself refers to the garden as a central image in Persian culture and especially in poetry as a symbolic place to engage with the spiritual. The narratives of the four women each represent different aspects of women’s lives in Iran. The westernised woman, though wealthy, is marginalised because of her age and is caught between men of opposing views who both patronise her. The orthodox woman eventually comes to see that marriage in this society is a trap. The most dramatic stories involve the radical and the prostitute. The presentation of the radical character Munis is surprising and I won’t spoil it. No amount of distancing camerawork can negate the shock of the image of Zarin a terribly thin woman scrubbing herself violently in the hammam in a vain attempt to free herself from the disgust she feels at her use by men.

I’m not sure why this film received so little attention in the UK (it was promoted well in the US). I would say it is well worth seeing and especially in the context of the other films by Iranian women, both the internal critics such as the Makhmalbafs and the other diaspora director, Mariane Satrapi of Persepolis fame.The two major criticisms seem to be that a) there are too many ideas in the film and b) that it feels like four separate stories not successfully melding into a single coherent narrative. I don’t see the problem with too many ideas. The second is the view of Sight and Sound‘s reviewer Sophie Meyer who points out that each of the stories had first been presented as gallery installations. My response to this is to argue that art films don’t need to offer coherent realist narratives and anyway putting the installation work into a feature enables many more people to see it who like me are unlikely to be able to get to the exhibitions where the installations play.

There is a great deal of useful information on the filmmaker and the film in the detailed Press Pack available here.

Here’s the official trailer which gives a good indication of the style but also a couple of possible spoilers:

 

Bridesmaids (US 2011)

Jill Clayburgh and Kristen Wiig in 'Bridesmaids', photo: Suzanne Hanover/©Universal Pictures

I watched Bridesmaids partly out of a genuine attempt to research what is popular with contemporary audiences and partly because my partner was intrigued enough to want to see it. We were part of a mainly female audience in a small auditorium (100 seats half full). The audience appeared to have a good time. I laughed out loud a couple of times but I’m obviously not the target audience. I never got completely bored but I did close my eyes and wish some scenes would end sooner than they did.

I haven’t seen many (perhaps even any) truly ‘gross out’ comedies before and I’ve avoided Judd Apatow comedies and so-called ‘bromance’ movies so that probably gives me a different perspective on this (Apatow-produced) film. Let me first put aside the silly debate that the film has generated among some journalists. To even ask a question like “Can women be as funny as men?” is baffling given that two of the funniest shows ever on US TV were the Lucille Ball shows in the 1950s-70s and Roseanne in the 1980s and 1990s. A more pertinent question is how do US film and TV get to remain such sexist institutions in which women have far less clout than men? Bridesmaids is written by two women but directed and produced by men – why? (This extends to all the other creatives on the film – i.e. all men except for the usual female costume designer.)

The film is long for a comedy at 125 minutes. I’m not sure why it has been extended like this. I suspect that the narrative is caught between the demands of a short gag-packed comedy and a longer comedy drama. I enjoyed the drama elements but I was surprised at how sentimental the film was. Even the villain of the film was redeemed in the final reel alongside the conventional happy ending of a traditional romcom. I had been looking forward to the final humiliation of the villain and/or a more realistic ending for the central protagonist. I know that was expecting the impossible but there you go. As for the vomit jokes etc., the first time they were funny but then it got boring (one reviewer I read suggested that these were additions by Apatow et al).

Kristen Wiig is the standout figure in a film in which she starred and co-wrote the script (with Annie Mumolo). I remembered her from Whip It and she created an interesting character I could have followed through a more streamlined comedy drama. It was great but rather sad to see Jill Clayburgh as her mother in her last film. (Clayburgh was in some ways an iconic figure in the 1970s for her performance as An Unmarried Woman.) I also enjoyed seeing Chris O’Dowd though I couldn’t figure out why he was cast or how the narrative justified the inclusion of an Irish character. On the other hand, I was less happy to be confronted by Matt Lucas. Presumably there is some kind of mutual appreciation society involving US comedians from Saturday Night Live and UK comedy performers? Overall I thought that the SNL-style sketches in some scenes weren’t fully integrated with the larger narrative and I would have liked more exploration of the whole cake-making narrative thread

The film is shot in CinemaScope and the opening credits promise a specific location – Milwaukee or possibly Chicago. Yet the whole film appears to have been shot in California. Again, why? Comedies always work better for me when they are rooted in a recognisable community. I think that the producers missed a trick here.

Can we now have Ms Wiig as the star of a film directed and produced/photographed/scored by women? Drew Barrymore has shown she can do two of those roles.

Lady Oyû (Oyû-sama, Japan 1951)

Tanaka Kinuyo as 'Lady Oyû'

Unusually for a film by the great master Mizoguchi Kenji, I found Lady Oyû quite difficult to get into. Oddly though, I now find myself thinking about it quite a lot. Viewed by many critics to be one of the weakest of Mizoguchi’s films and disowned to some extent by the director himself, it still has much to offer and according to Tadao Sato in Mizoguchi Kenji and the Art of Japanese Cinema “Every single scene [in Lady Oyû] is like viewing a masterpiece of Japanese painting” (2008: 66-7).

I would agree with Tadao, especially in relation to the first sequence in the film (from which the still image above is taken), but there are quite a few other issues here. Mizoguchi made three films for three different studios in 1951 and this one was for Daiei, with whom Mizoguchi would have great success overseas in the next few years. (This DVD is one of the twin packs of Mizoguchi Daiei releases from Masters of Cinema.) Mizoguchi was faced with a studio job that was frustrating in several ways. The problems began with the property itself.

Lady Oyû is an adaptation of a novella by Tanizaki Junichiro, one of the most important figures in 20th century Japanese literature. The novella appeared in 1932 as The Reed Cutter. It is a ‘tale’ told to a traveller by a reed cutter on a moonlit night. The tale is about a marriage triangle in which a young man goes to a marriage meeting where he falls in love immediately, not with the young woman who has been chosen for him, but with her older widowed sister. The younger sister eventually marries the man, but refuses to consummate the marriage and explains that she agreed to wed in order that the man could be close to the widow (who shouldn’t marry in deference to her in-laws because she is bringing up her small son). The story is about the obsessive love for a beautiful aristocratic woman who is on a pedestal. Mizoguchi was faced with two changes imposed by the studio – the title was changed and the narrative structure of a tale told in flashback was replaced by a linear narrative. The title change seems a commercial decision to draw audience attention to the image of obsession – but it does mean that the images (and songs) which reference the reeds become puzzling. The shift to a linear narrative is more problematic however. My main criticism of the film is that it has three distinct aesthetics which for me don’t blend together. If they had been presented as flashbacks this might not have been such an issue.

The three different types of sequence presented in the film are: (i) the formal and highly ritualised meetings which include musical performances as well as the initial marriage meeting and the wedding (ii) interior and more intimate scenes, shot in the studio, involving the three main characters and (iii) location shots by the sea and river bank or in the woods. The mix between studio and location seems quite abrupt and reminded me of many Hollywood films of the 1940s (with some quite unconvincing background shots of railways which I thought might be models). On the other hand, scenes are separated by quite long fades to black.

Mizoguchi is best known for two aspects of his work. His wonderfully fluid camera, sometimes adopting a slightly high angle, often follows characters as they move diagonally across the frame. This has been likened to the unrolling of Japanese scroll paintings (emakimono). This camera movement is part of a ‘long take’ style which in more confined spaces becomes translated into what the French call a plan-séquence. In Tadao’s book he offers an anlysis of a single take of 6 minutes and 57 seconds from one of the interior scenes in Lady Oyû. I intend to use this analysis in a class so I’m going to watch it again a few times. The stunning cinematography is the work of Mizoguchi’s long-time collaborator Miyagawa Kazuo.

The other well-known aspect of Mizoguchi’s work is his fascination/obsession with the lives of ‘suffering women’. Partly this was connected to his own early life spent with his mother and older sister (who was forced by economic circumstance to become a geisha in order to support the family). In 1946 women in Japan got the vote for the first time as a result of the ‘democratisation’ process set in motion by the Occupation Authorities. Several of Mizoguchi’s films of the period featured protagonists struggling for women’s rights. Some of these films, like Lady Oyû were set in the later Meiji period (i.e. between 1880 and 1910). One was My Love Has Been Burning (1949) starring Tanaka Kinuyo. Tanaka was a major star in Japanese Cinema throughout the 1930s and into the 1960s and since 1940 she had become Mizoguchi’s ‘go to’ star. But as Tony Rayns, in the useful intro to each of the films in this MoC series, points out, she was known as a ‘strong woman’, positively animalistic in her vigourous portrayal of women fighting for what they believed was right. She was therefore not well-cast as a reserved aristocratic beauty – the kind of woman a young man would put on a pedestal and admire from afar. Much as I respect and highly rate Tanaka, I cannot see her as an ethereal beauty. In Lady Oyû her usual star persona comes to the fore in a remarkable scene where she ‘joshes’ and tickles the young man, laughing joyfully and mischievously all the while.

While I can see these problems with the film, I’ve enjoyed researching Mizoguchi in this period and I’m now looking for the other films that I’ve not seen made around the same time. Does anyone know of an (English-subtitled) DVD of A Portrait of Madame Yuki (1950) made by Shintoho?

BIFF 14: Whip It (US 2009)

Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) and Bliss (Ellen Page) – fierce rivals.

I chose this screening to see a) if Ellen Page would confirm her stardom and b) whether Drew Barrymore could turn her successful producing experience into an effective directorial role. The answers are yes and possibly, but not quite yet.

Whip It (the title comes from a move in roller derby) tells the tale of Bliss (Page), an oddly-named 17 year-old in the small Texas town of Bodeen who is looking for excitement and something that will take her away from her mother’s obsession with local beauty pageants. When Bliss comes across a flyer for a women’s roller derby league in Austin she decides to visit with her friend Pash. Undaunted by the violence and aggression associated with the sport, and lying about her age, Bliss decides to try out for the team. Does she succeed? What will she tell her mom? Will she meet a boy? Is this a teen pic?

Well, yes it is a teen pic and many of the conventions of the youth picture are indeed gleefully explored. But though the plot follows a similar trajectory to Bend it Like Beckham it also has several proper indie elements and as well as Ellen Page’s own back catalogue it draws on Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost World and on both sides of Drew Barrymore’s more extensive back catalogue (e.g. Donnie Darko and Charlie’s Angels).

Bliss with Oliver (Landon Pigg)

Ellen Page is definitely a star. She is in nearly every scene and when she shares the frame I find myself more often than not watching her at the expense of the other actors. There are some echoes of Juno in Bliss, but this young woman is less brashly confident, less smart-mouthed, while at the same time just as assertive. In some ways, the family set-up is similar to Juno‘s with a sensible father who sides with his older daughter (there is a younger daughter as well – as in Juno) and a mother with an obsessive hobby (beauty pageant as against dogs). The main difference is that Bliss is a year older than Juno with a more interesting best friend and, through her involvement with the roller derby team, a wider range of young(ish) women to learn from. This is the strength of the film and I’ve seen several commentators remarking that Whip It offers a real alternative to young women who might otherwise be wrapped up in the fantasies of mainstream teen pictures. Pash works with Bliss at the Oink fast food (pork) diner, but she is going to get into Columbia or Johns Hopkins. The women on the roller derby team have a good time together and in some respects represent ideas about ‘third wave feminism‘. They also drink, frolic in the hot tub and have food fights. The team is coached by a man, but he is not the ‘dominant controller’ (a great performance by Andrew Wilson). Bliss has a romance in the film, but she remains in control. And crucially, the relationship between Bliss and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden, also terrific) is developed towards the end of the film. This was also there in Juno, but in more of a pat, smart way. For Page, also, I think that it is important that she literally throws herself into a role that requires her to skate and get barged off the track. I’ve seen comments that her skating is not convincing, but for non-experts (i.e. most of us) I think it’s OK. It’s always good to be thought of ‘trouper’ who can muck in as an actor, rather than just as someone who can deliver smart quips.

Ellen Page as 'Babe Ruthless' on the track.

Perhaps the comparison with Juno is also important in trying to decide about Drew Barrymore’s producer-director role. However much I liked Juno – and I’ve now seen the film several times – there is still the feeling that it is a clever film, smartly scripted and tightly directed, that just possibly is too good to be true. By comparison Whip It is, at the same time, more ‘open’ and more ‘safe’/conventional. It seems somehow ‘baggier’. I think it could lose a few minutes from its 112 and the ending could be tightened a little. On the other hand, it’s nice not to have a clever ending. On the way out of the screening, a colleague said that they had enjoyed the film, thought it was great for teenage girls but wanted it to be a bit edgier – and I think that’s right. Barrymore brings to the film a very strong commitment to ‘girls having fun together’, some great casting (Juliette Lewis especially, but Eve is not given enough to do) and good direction of her actors. She is also a good sport, playing the character who gets hit most often in the team. The script is by Shauna Cross from her own novel about the roller derby business. The more I research the film, the more it seems that there is a more interesting story lurking somewhere in the background. Perhaps it’s just another Juno coincidence that Cross, like Diablo Cody, has written about her experiences in an entertainment industry activity that attracts both criticism and fan support.

The official website has links to some roller derby material – although I found it more interesting to explore the topic on Wikipedia. It does, however, play some of the music and this is another strength of the film. In fact, the music was the cause of my main complaint about the festival screening since the Cineworld projectionist cut off the end of the credits, meaning that I not only missed the song listing, but also another clip – the end credit sequence is worth staying for, I understand. Whip It is released in the UK on April 7 and this is one strange North American sport that is worth catching up on. Drew Barrymore might not be quite there as a director but she’s very close and I look forward to her next one.

Here she is promoting the film:

And here’s Ellen Page and Alia Shawkat (Pash)