Tag Archives: lesbian film

Circumstance (US/France 2011)

Nikohl Boosheri as Atafeh (left) and Sarah Kazemy as Shireen

Chambers Dictionary defines ‘circumstance’ as the ‘logical surroundings of an action’. For me, this film is itself a circumstance more than it is a film. My first thought was that it was an ‘event’ – there is so much surrounding it that is non-diegetic – outside the world of the film’s narrative. Let me explain. This is a film ostensibly about a social issue in Iran, namely the social and cultural restraints that govern the public behaviour of young women in the Islamic Republic. But, as is the case with several other significant Iranian films, Circumstance was made outside Iran (in Beirut) by an exilic/diasporic cast and writer-director using French and American funding. I’m using exilic here to refer to Iranians who have left Iran because of real or anticipated persecution and diasporic to refer to less contentious economic migrants, some from much earlier periods.

The story focuses on a wealthy Tehran family. I never found out what the father did, but he went to university in California and he loves classical music. The mother is a medical practitioner. The main focus is their 16 year-old daughter Atafeh who has developed a passionate relationship with a girl at school, Shireen. Shireen is much less wealthy and she lives with her aunt and uncle – her parents having been executed by the regime as academics with the wrong politics. She spends as much time with Atafeh as possible, visiting her and going on her family trips. The classic inciting agent in the narrative is Atafeh’s older brother Mehran who returns from rehab – required because of his drug problem. Mehran’s behaviour is ‘strange’ according to his father. He appears to have become religious in what has up to now been a secular family.

At points in the first part of the film I wondered if this was the same world explored in Asghar Farhadi’s films or those of Jafar Panahi (especially given Panahi’s own spacious apartment as revealed in This Is Not a Film). But it’s soon quite clear that this is a very different fictional world. I don’t speak Farsi so I couldn’t judge how the cast handled the dialogue, but a quick glance at the IMDb comments from Iranians suggests that most of the leads, apart from the actress who plays the mother, had major problems speaking the language. What I could spot, however, were the many holes in the plot. Farhadi’s films are very carefully scripted with intricate plot developments, but in Circumstance I literally ‘lost the plot’ at certain points as I simply couldn’t understand why things were happening. Some of the actions lacked credibility for me. (The same comments come from Iranians.)

At the heart of the film is the affair between the two young women. This is presented partly through fantasy sequences in which the pair imagine a ‘free’ world in Dubai where one will become a nightclub singer managed by the other. There are also ‘real’ sequences provocatively presented with manicured hands and painted lips caressing flesh – but little overt sexual display. At other times the girls visit daytime and nighttime underground clubs. The ultimate daring activity is to take part in dubbing foreign language import/black market DVDs, specifically Milk and Sex and the City. This underground alternative popular culture for the young in Iran is represented (in an earlier time period) in Persepolis. Although I haven’t seen it, I take it also to be present in Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats. But Ghobadi and Marjane Satrapi were writing films about what they experienced living in Iran. Maryam Keshavarz, the young Iranian-American writer-director of Circumstance, says that she based her script on her experiences on holiday in Iran and talking to her relatives. I felt at times as if the film was an American perspective on Iranian culture. The major issue is the behaviour of the brother, Mehran. I couldn’t work why he did what he did, how he did it and why nobody stood up to him. I don’t want to spoil the narrative outcome, but at the end of the film I remained puzzled.

On the positive side, I particularly enjoyed the performance of Nikohl Boosheri as Atafeh and the film certainly has a vitality about it. I thought that the story about the two young women was going somewhere before the narrative veered off course. I’m glad I watched it but I fear its status will be more of an ‘event’ at the centre of a controversy rather than as a film.

Circumstance is distributed in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures. The screening I attended was part of the POUT Film Festival touring LGBT films around the country. It goes on general release on 24 August.

An American trailer which gives a taste of the film’s style: 

Films From the South #6: So Hard to Forget (Como Esquecer, Brazil 2010)

Julia (Ana Paula Arósio, left) and Helena (Arieta Correa)

I enjoyed this film very much – just the right antidote to miserable weather on a Sunday. As one of the blurbs reads, you wouldn’t expect a story that begins with a character suffering a form of depression to end up as light and entertaining – but this does. Julia is an English Literature Professor in Rio de Janeiro. The film begins with some chaotic video clips of her tour of the UK, only to then reveal that her partner Antonia has left her. Julia is finding it hard to function at work but is rescued by Hugo whose civil partner Pedro has died. Hugo is an irrepressible character who proposes to buy a new house by the sea and invites Julia and another friend, Lisa (also separated from a partner) to share it. As you might expect, several visitors to the house provide diversions from too much introspection and, in particular, Helena challenges Julia to re-engage with the world.

So Hard to Forget is witty, beautifully acted and nicely presented with a pleasing eye for visual details by director Malu de Martino from a book by Miriam Campello. Despite having several collaborators the script seems to work fine. As Julia, Ana Paula Arósio has the intensity and presence of an actor like Rachel Weisz, who I think she resembles in some ways. Known mostly for her television work in Brazil, she handles this lead role well, portraying a woman who is brilliant but harsh with other people.

The film is currently in the UK on a limited release by Peccadillo Pictures, the LGBT specialists who will give it a UK DVD release in 2012, but it should be on general release as I’m sure it appeals to gay and straight audiences alike. With its references to both Emily Bronte and Virginia Wolf (either of whom might have influenced Julia’s coiffure) and then Sarah Waters and k.d. lang, I’m not sure what this says about Brazilian society, except that one part of it embraces globalised Anglo culture.

In the Peccadillo Pictures Press Notes Malu de Martino has this to say about her choice of subject matter:

“In recent years, Brazilian movies have increasingly dealt with social issues as a vehicle to gain a better understanding of our reality. Films dealing with personal dramas, on the other hand, have been relegated to an inferior category due to the distressful social conditions which countries like Brazil experience.”

I think that this is a good point. It had occurred to me that the film didn’t look ‘Brazilian’ – in fact it looked and felt more like some of the independent films I’d seen from Argentina. That’s probably my ignorance, but de Martino has certainly made a useful challenge to any preconceptions about Brazilian films seen overseas.

Trailer (with English subs):

The Kids Are All Right (US 2010)

Lisa Cholodenko with Mia Wasikowska as Joni and Julianne Moore as Jules

This is a thoroughly entertaining romantic comedy/drama with excellent performances and witty dialogue. What’s interesting, I guess, is that it is classified as an independent movie because a) it is about a lesbian couple and their family, b) it is actually co-written and directed by a lesbian director and c) it’s a low-budget film. Watching it in a sparsely-populated multiplex screen at an early evening show on a Tuesday I was struck by how the projectionist seemed to have turned down the volume so that I could hardly hear it when usually in the same multiplex I am deafened. I noticed this because the opening of the movie is relatively quiet in action terms. My feeling is that this is the kind of movie that could have been made in the era of classical Hollywood – if you took away the restraints of the Hays Code.

I did see Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature High Art (Canada/US 1998) but I confess that I don’t remember it well – though I do remember that I enjoyed it. Possibly, I would have enjoyed this latest film even more if there had been more drama. A bit more restraint on behalf of the central characters might have been interesting, but then the joke of the film seems to be, pace the title, that the adults are all over the place emotionally and the kids are quite cool.

The best jokes for me were the ones about organic gardening and I’d like to come out as a straight guy who loves Joni Mitchell and especially ‘Blue’.

So, kudos to everyone involved and thanks for a great night out. But I fear that this crowd pleasing will push out Winter’s Bone from the awards ceremony and that would certainly be a shame.

BIFF 1: And Then Came Lola (US 2009)

The poster shows Ashleigh Sumner (left, as Lola) and Jill Bennett (right, as Casey). Sandwiched between them is Cathy DeBuono (as Danielle). This poster was taken off the company’s Facebook site as too provocative in its display (see the film’s website)

The blurb on this film’s website announces it as: [a] “time-bending, sexy, lesbian romp, with an irreverent nod to the popular art-house classic Run, Lola, Run“. A pretty good description really. Lola (Ashleigh Sumner) is a photographer who has virtually no time left to deliver a set of prints to save her current partner Casey (Jill Bennett) from losing a design contract. The film shows three of Lola’s attempts to get across San Francisco, find the prints and deliver them to Casey at a bar where she is entertaining her client Danielle. In the process we learn about Lola’s love life and her circle and explore a range of sexy scenarios.

Clearly I’m not the target audience for the film, but judging from the laughter at the back of the cinema it was being understood and enjoyed by those who are. I’ve reviewed a number of lesbian features over the last couple of years and most of them haven’t offered any particular problems to straight male viewers. But I confess to being a little more wary of this one. Certainly the film is well shot and edited. It’s pacy and fun with good animation inserts and a strong soundtrack, some of which I quite liked (again it’s not my style of music). I gather that most of the cast and crew are ‘out’ and I wonder how to react to that in terms of American film and TV (it seems to be a big deal still). My problem is that while the lead actor, Ashley Sumner, came across simply as a strong performer with real screen presence, most of the other actors seemed to be playing lesbian ‘types’ and since I’m not exactly au fait with the nuances of lesbian iconography I’m not sure what to make of their performances. I guess I was a little put off by the characters of Casey and Danielle who seemed too close to the buffed types found in the ‘erotic thrillers’ that end up cut on cable TV.

(L-R) Co-Director Ellen Seidler, Ashleigh Sumner (LOLA), and Co-Director Megan Siler at OUTFEST 2009. (Taken from the film’s website)

The festival programme notes suggested that this ‘lighter’ play with the Lola rennt idea was more successful and more enjoyable than the original. I’m not sure about that. I liked Lola rennt a lot at the time (in 1998), but it was very much a film of its time, hugely important in re-introducing German Cinema to an international audience and offering a kind of pomo romp when that meant something. Choosing to parody it in 2009 seems simply a tongue in cheek gesture – a playful nod to all those porn re-workings of famous Hollywood titles perhaps? (The filmmakers, Ellen Seidler and Megan Siler claim Lola rennt as one of their favourite films.)  One of the bonuses of the film is that like the original and its scenes of Berlin, here we get to see bits of San Francisco – a city almost entirely populated by lesbians and gay men in the imagination of the filmmakers.

These lesbian films are destined for a life primarily on DVD and VOD and this one has been picked up for UK distribution by Peccadillo Pictures. It may have some more festival screenings in the UK, but the DVD is due out on May 24th. Well worth a look I think and the website is very good.

Daughters of Darkness (Les lèvres rouges, Bel/Fra/West Germany 1971)

Andrea Rau as the vampire's 'companion'

Andrea Rau as the vampire's 'companion'

I imported this DVD from the US. The 2003 disc from Blue Underground is NTSC but coded Region 0. I was following up a suggestion from Stephen when I was discussing Let the Right One In and looking for different European takes on the vampire film.

Directed by the Belgian Harry Kümel, the film is a European co-production filmed in English with all the actors delivering their own dialogue. This gives an intriguing flavour to the exchanges. The date suggests an affinity with the more extreme end of European horror cinema, but I found this to be much more subtle and less sensational than, for instance, Dario Argento (which is not a criticism of Argento). The casting coup in acquiring Delphine Seyrig for the central role is the key to the film’s success. She is breathtaking in every way.

The film belongs, in one sense to the cycle of lesbian vampire films at the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s. I confess that I avoided these at the time, though I remember some critical attention paid to this title and director. Seyrig plays the iconic character of these films – Countess Elizabeth Bathory who allegedly killed 800 virgins for their blood. This time, the ageless Countess is touring Belgium with her young companion, leaving in her wake a number of drained corpses of young women. When the couple arrive in Winter in the deserted seaside resort of Ostende, they are delighted that the isolated hotel on the promenade has only two other guests – a young couple in the honeymoon suite, supposedly waiting for a ferry to the UK (although the young man seems very reluctant to catch it). Now their fate is sealed.

The seaside setting is very well-used. The wind-swept dunes and the dark building looming out of the night is the perfect Gothic setting. The only other location of note is Bruges which the young couple visit, only to stumble across the police discovery of another body. This sequence was so reminiscent of Don’t Look Now that I couldn’t help thinking that Nic Roeg must have seen it. The old medieval town with canals and narrow streets just cries out for fleeting glimpses of figures rounding the corner or the slow passage of the dead carried on a stretcher. Seaside and canals – there is something about the water’s edge as a signifier of moving into another world.

Large empty hotels are also disturbing environments and Kümel and his team are inventive with decor and costume. The first two-thirds of the film moves quite slowly, but the last third is action-packed. There is an interesting essay on the film in Jump Cut, arguing that the film offers itself up to a feminist reading. This is well-argued and pretty convincing. The young man is quite a problematic character and the narrative certainly tends towards sympathy with the three women.

I’m getting increasingly interested in the way in which vampire films play with the ‘rules’ of the genre. Daughters of Darkness utilises the fear of the light and running water and exploits the role of the vampire’s servant/companion played nicely here by the German Andrea Rau, who is interviewed in the DVD Extras. It must have been a nice change from her usual roles in German sex films. It’s interesting that although there is a fair amount of nudity including ‘full frontal’ shots of Rau in Daughters, the most erotic moments are probably associated with Seyrig’s gentle caresses and beautifully delivered suggestive dialogue. The role of the companion seems more complex in this film as there is a sense of her own desire as well as of ‘service’ to her mistress. On the other hand, the role of the ‘vampire hunter’ in the narrative is more peripheral than usual – perhaps this is an attempt to implicate the audience with the hunter figure much more of a voyeur than an active agent.

This is certainly a horror film to watch again in terms of its take on the vampire genre.

Spider Lillies (Ci qing, Taiwan 2007)

Isabella Leong (left) as Takeko and Rainie Yang as Jade in Spider Lilies

Spider Lilies was shown in the UK as part of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival on tour (following an awards win at Berlin). The two central characters are Jade, a young woman who makes a living as a ‘web-cam girl’, performing for online punters in her room, and an older young woman Takeko, who runs her own tattoo parlour. Both the women have difficult family histories. Jade lives with her grandma (who occasionally wanders in front of the web-cam) and Takeko has a younger brother who is now in a care home after being traumatised by witnessing his father’s death during an earthquake. Mothers are absent. The plot sees Jade deciding that she needs a tattoo. When she visits Takeko’s parlour she sees the striking image of spider lilies (which have legendary status in local folklore). She also recognises Takeko as the older girl with whom she fell in love as a 9 year-old. Will the two women get together again after ten years? What do you think?

There are two subplots concerning weak young men (the brother is a third weak young man). One character is a narcissistic would-be hoodlum who attempts to extort money from other youths in order to get more tattoos from Takeko and the other is a shy young policeman who is supposed to be collecting evidence about Jade’s online activities.

I’d hoped to discover new young talents here and there are some pluses. Both the leads give engaging performances (one is a Taiwanese pop and TV star, the other an experienced Hong Kong film star/model), the music is good and I liked the presentation of the rather gaudy world of the internet and tattoos. But the only narrative sequence that really interested me was the online seduction of Jade performed in parallel by Takeko and the policeman, both using pseudonyms. It’s already a cliche of course, but I found it engaging and intriguing.

The film opens very slowly and as I was very tired I found it difficult to concentrate and to absorb narrative information – I may well have missed things (e.g. I think Takeko’s mother was Japanese and that she went to live in Japan, but I might have got that wrong). The second half moves more quickly, but I found the sub-plots ludicrous, the editing clumsy and the insertion of some special effects ham-fisted. My companion suggested that there was probably a good short film here that was unadvisedly allowed to expand far beyond what the story idea merited.

The major audience issue, I presume, for the lesbian audience is how well the relationship is portrayed. Lesbianism is still largely a taboo subject in some East Asian cultures (in Korea, for instance, where the film has an 18 certificate and presumably in Singapore where it is R21 according to IMDB). It seems to me that there is not enough of the relationship on screen and that the sex is handled very discreetly (seems coy to a Western viewer). Perhaps it is the social situation which attracts lesbian audiences? The IMDB comments seem very divided as to whether the film works. Some mention other East Asian films for comparison. Of these, I would recommend Memento Mori (South Korea 1999) as far more interesting. Having said that, I would certainly consider watching the next venture by the creative talents on Spider Lilies (director Zero Chou, writer Singing Chen and stars, Rainie Yang and Isabella Leong). By then, the writer and director might have tightened up their act. I may be being a little harsh in saying this and there is an interesting interview with Singing Chen, who directed Bundled (Wo jiao A-Ming la, Tawan 2000), on the World Socialist Website from 2000. It’s also the case that the director Zero Chou is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker and that Spider Lilies is her fourth fiction feature. See Wikipedia. So, perhaps Spider Lilies was just a slip-up?