Submarine (UK 2010)

Jordana and Oliver

Submarine is likely to split audiences but although I’ve heard people say that it has no likeable characters and isn’t funny, I was pleasantly surprised to see a range of very positive reviews on IMDB. I enjoyed it – though I found it more poignant than funny. I did snigger and chortle a few times but I think it is younger audiences who have found it hilarious.

Submarine is Oliver’s story – Oliver Tait, 15 year-old Welsh schoolboy, pre-occupied, pretentious, egocentric etc. He literally narrates his own story. This could be infuriating if you don’t like extensive voiceover narration (Nick doesn’t and he didn’t like the film) but it worked for me. Oliver (Craig Roberts) has two primary concerns (outside of his desire to become ‘cultured’). He wants to lose his virginity and finds himself in a relationship with a classmate, Jordana (Yasmin Paige). But in the midst of this emotional journey he also sets out to ‘solve’ the marital problems of his parents (played by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins).

Authorship

The novel from which the film was adapted appeared in 2008, written by Joe Dunthorne and immediately acclaimed for its original take on adolescent life. I’ve not read it but a brief glance at some of the reviews suggests that both the tone and the characters in the novel (and its first person narration) have survived the adaptation process. Submarine was Dunthorne’s first published novel after graduating from UEA’s creative writing programme. The Joe Dunthorne website carries some interesting material – including the covers of the book from various translations (e.g. in Russian, Dutch, German, Hebrew, Brazilian). This augurs well for an international film release.

When Warp Films bought the film rights their selection of a director was clearly going to be crucial and Richard Ayoade was an inspired choice. He was known to them for his video direction (see below) but to the wider public he is a TV and stand-up comedian. He has now become internationalised so there must be many outside the UK who recognise Ayoade as a supremely talented comedian and comic actor. I only know him through his incarnation of ‘Moss’ in the IT Crowd, but a little research reveals the breadth of his creativity. I hadn’t been aware that he has directed videos for several leading bands, including the Arctic Monkeys – which presumably explains the raft of Alex Turner songs on the soundtrack for Submarine.

The film offers direct references to the ‘authorial influences’ on display – J. D. Salinger, Serge Gainsbourg, Woody Allen etc. Many reviewers have mentioned Wes Anderson and the similarity to Rushmore in particular is quite marked. However, I think Ayoade is going back to what influenced Anderson and Allen – the French New Wave. The film’s titles and the use of intertitles/chapter headings are directly lifted from Godard along with the literary and cinematic referencing. But in some ways, I think that the true auteurist link is to Truffaut – not least because of the first person narration and literary adaptation, the repeated shots of Oliver running across the shore à la Les quatre cents coups and the deadly seriousness of Oliver/Antoine Doinel (Truffaut’s young alter ego in several films). The scene in which Oliver takes Jordana to a screening of Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc (1928) after first plying her with Shakespeare, Nietzsche and Catcher in the Rye is a wonderful pastiche of Godard/Truffaut topped off with a joke. The direct reference is to Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) in which Nana (Anna Karina) goes to a screening of the same film. Jordana, of course, has been given a version of the Louise Brooks/Anna Karina hairstyle to complete the allusion. So, Ayoade is just as clever as Oliver – but a lot more playful.

Anna Karina as a bored prostitute in Vivre sa vie

Setting and Representation

Dunthorne’s story was set in South Wales and Submarine was produced with funding from both The Wales Creative IP Fund and The Film Agency for Wales. The film was shot in a Swansea school and around Barry Island (location for UK TV comedy series Gavin and Stacey). I think this setting is important as it allows a range of locales from the funfair to industrial sites, rather comfortable suburbia to the windswept shore. The locale also becomes a little mysterious or at least ‘other worldly’ because the narrative is not set in a specific time period. ‘Sometime in the 1980s’ is one possibility but the usual indicators – cars, clothes, pop songs etc. aren’t used here to tell us the precise time period. Besides the two young leads the three adults featured are all made to look a little odd. Paddy Considine plays a pretty loopy character spouting psychobabble and wearing silly outfits with a strange haircut. The role reminded me strongly of the Patrick Swayze role in Donnie Darko (but not quite as dark). Oliver’s father (Noah Taylor) is clearly suffering from depression and his New Zealand accent adds to the strangeness of his overall appearance (I mean ‘strange’ only in the sense of  the whole tone of the film). Presumably this is also part of how Oliver views his parents. I felt sorry for Sally Hawkins who is asked to play Oliver’s mother. She often seems to get unsympathetic roles (so good to see her in a positive light in Made in Dagenham). Here she is dressed in awful outfits in attempts to age her enough to be credible as the mother of a 15 year-old.

In interviews during the opening week of the film’s release, Richard Aoyade maintained a fairly lugubrious stance, stating that Oliver wasn’t a particularly pleasant young man but that the film and its comedy were more interesting because of that. I think he’s right but it is a gamble with a popular audience. The film looks like finishing its run with around £1.3 million from its UK cinema release. That’s pretty good for a film of this type and I expect it to do equally well on DVD. The US release will be June 3 – no other territories yet to my knowledge.

Press Kit (from Toronto International Film Festival)

Here’s the UK trailer:

Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnes, France 2008)


The 'beach' in Paris outside Varda's home in the Rue Daguerre (named after Louis Daguerre, one of the inventors of photography)

The French movie channel Cinémoi is currently free for a two month period on Virgin cable in the UK and I’m trying to see as many films as possible. Les plages d’Agnès is Agnès Varda’s autobiographical essay about her life and work and I wasn’t sure what to expect – despite being a fan. I needn’t have worried. This is a magical film which is as much about Varda’s visual ideas as an artist as it is about cinema. The title refers to various beaches (or at least coastlines) that feature strongly in her life story plus a beach of the imagination that she creates to represent the Parisian period when she met Jacques Demy, her partner for 30 years before his death just as she finished her film about him, Jacquot de Nantes in 1990.

Agnès Varda (born 1928) left Belgium in 1940 when the Nazis invaded and ended up in the Mediterranean port of Sète in Vichy France. This is the second ‘beach’ – although she spent her time on boats and the dockside. The first beach is in Belgium. From Sète she eventually graduated as an art student bound for Paris. Art led in turn to photography and film and her first film in 1954, La Pointe Courte, was set in a fishing village close to Sète. Other beaches are near Nantes and on the coast of Southern California where she went with Demy in the late 1960s.

This is a fascinating film in terms of structure as well as ideas about cinema and art and various filmic techniques. The beach on the Île de Noirmoutier in La Vendée, Pays du la Loire, takes the place of a stage in a one woman show – complete with actors and circus performers acting out aspects of memory. One of the interesting visual devices involves mirrors and frames with a central moving image framed by smaller static images. Perhaps the standout device that I almost feel tempted to try out myself is a film of the streets and characters in Sète shot in the 1950s which is projected onto a small screen. The projector and screen are secured on a cart which is then pushed around the same streets in the dusk, which makes the black and white images clearly visible  – and stunning and beautiful in the simplicity of the sequence.

We learn a lot about Varda, her love for Demy and her two children – who appeared in many of her films. We also learn about her friends including Godard, Resnais and Chris Marker and something of her politics and thoughts about being in California with the Black Panthers amongst others. As many other commentators have noted, what is so uplifting and inspiring is the sheer vitality and imagination of this remarkable filmmaker, scampering about (a “plump and pleasant person” as she describes herself) and producing beautiful and fascinating images. I think anyone despairing of cinema at a time when it seems to be losing some of its magic should watch Beaches and rejoice.

This trailer illustrates some of the points made above:

Cambridge Film Festival #3: Archives, New Wave and Chinese Banking

Our third day began with the Arts Picturehouse’s regular archive film screening, enhanced during the festival with a double-header programme. Jane Jarvis, Screen East Digital Heritage Co-ordinator, presented the results of a joint project with the French archive responsible for Normandy in a programme that promised ‘Bon appetit!’ and included extracts from a range of films dealing with regional foods, the highlight of which for me was eel fishing, both in the Fens and in the open sea. Alex Davidson from the BFI Film and TV archive then unearthed a number of food related clips. These were well-chosen. A three minute extract from a 40 mins Peak & Frean’s film from the 19o6 showed the operation of the biscuit factory in Bermondsey.

Fanny Craddock, TV chef

This is in the BFI Mediatheque (which has  an access point in the Cambridge City Library) and looks very interesting. Wartime ‘Food Flashes’ are always fun and a Lotte Reiniger animation from 1951, Mary’s Birthday, was wonderful in its creative presentation of food hygiene issues. But the main treat was a 1967 TV programme from one of the first celebrity chefs, Fanny Craddock. The food she prepared (and the context – ‘The Bride’s First Dinner Party’) had the audience gasping in disbelief.

Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut

Two in the Wave is the title of Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary about the relationship between François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. This documentary was quite similar in format to yesterday’s Glenn Gould doc. So much archive footage exists plus the films themselves, newspaper clippings and magazine articles that the subjects could virtually tell the story themselves, despite Truffaut’s relatively early death and Godard’s current reluctance to be interviewed. I’m not sure that there is much ‘new’ in the documentary, but if you don’t know the details of the story they are entertainingly presented here. I was particularly struck by the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma that made those articles that we used to read in translation seem so fresh in their original page layouts. Equally, Laurent has access to some wonderful stills and crisp new prints of New Wave films. It seems extraordinary now that audiences in paris in 1961/2 were not much interested in films like Godard’s Une femme est une femme or Jacques Demy’s Lola. Enjoyable and informative, the film is a treat for both nostalgists and younger film fans.

The third film of the day was an intriguing prospect that in the end was I think disappointing but still interesting. Empire of Silver (HK/Taiwan/China 2009) is a Chinese historical drama with epic pretensions. Set at the end of the 19th century and up to the 1911 Boxer Rebellion it looks stunning with shots over cityscapes and desert landscapes filling the CinemaScope frame with beautiful imagery. The story, adapted from a novel by Cheng Yi, concerns the Kang family of bankers from Shanxi in the North of China who are involved in building up and modernising the banking system in China. I missed part of the opening credits, but the story seems to be told in flashback by the youngest member of the family who is a babe in arms in 1911 and is therefore addressing the current generation as a very old man.

Aaron Kwok and Hao Lei in Empire of Silver

The Kang family has four sons, one of whom is a deaf mute. When the eldest and most likely heir is seriously disabled in an accident and the fourth son has a nervous breakdown, the wayward third son becomes the family’s only hope for the future. This means liaising with his father, but apart from disagreeing as to how to run the business, No 3 son also has a major issue concerning his father. As a young man he had a young woman ‘assigned’ to teach him English and with whom he fell in love, only for her to be married to his widowed father and thus become his stepmother. If all of this wasn’t enough for a family melodrama, the backdrop of the narrative is the clash between the decaying Imperial order, the Christian churches in China and the Boxers who oppose them and the troops sent by Western powers to support their business interests. It ought to be a potent mix, but I don’t think it works. One serious problem for non-Chinese audiences is that there are no recognisable stars (i.e. from either international arthouse cinema or popular Hong Kong action films). The third son (they don’t have names in the family) is played by Aaron Kwok who came out of Cantopop in Hong Kong and then became a Taiwan/HK star, but I don’t recognise the titles of his films. The remainder of the cast are mainland stars, mainly of TV and films not released outside China. Jennifer Tilly is rather wasted as an American churchman’s wife. In a story where most male characters dress in a similar manner with shaved heads, it is quite difficult to follow individual characters in what is a complex plot. Star recognition helps the audience get a foothold.

The obvious question is why release this film internationally. It has taken eighteen months since Berlin in 2009 for this film to be prepared for release in the West via Hanway Films. Jeremy Thomas is Executive Producer and the post-production seems to have been carried out all over the world – why? Clearly a film that features a narrative of banking crises and a debate about the morality of banking, as this film does, possesses a USP during the current international banking mess. However, I don’t think that this mostly talky film with a couple of brief action sequences is likely to intrigue audiences. I have to agree with Variety‘s reporter who suggests that the film looks like the “carcase of a bigger film”. I kept thinking something was missing. Theatre director Christina Yao with her first film (directed and co-written) needs a bit more help in getting audience juices flowing. As it is, they will mostly appreciate the efficient camerawork and production design from Hong Kong regulars Anthony Poon and Chung Man Yee.

BIFF 11: Le fantôme d’Henri Langlois (France 2004)

Henri Langlois

Bradford International Film Festival programmer Tom Vincent introduced this documentary by saying that he’d been inspired by seeing the film and that he believed that Henri Langlois, legendary founder of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in the 1930s, was an important figure in establishing the importance of exhibition practice in film culture. I agree totally and all film programmers should be required to read about Langlois or watch this documentary.

If this is history that you don’t know, the Wikipedia page on Henri Langlois gives the basic background. Anyone with pretensions to be a cinéphile will know that it was the screenings of films (three or four screenings a night) in the tiny auditorium of the cinémathèque that allowed the young Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer et al to acquire the background that would enable them to become first critics and later the directors of la nouvelle vague in the 1950s. But there was much more to Langlois than only being an exhibitor – even though that was crucial. He more or less invented the notion of a properly curated film archive, rescuing films from the trashcan, keeping them out of the hands of Nazi occupiers (and potential censors) in 1940 and eventually opening a novel kind of film museum.

The documentary, written and directed by Jacques Richard (who seems to have made two earlier films about Langlois and the film museum) is primarily a procession of talking heads with occasional film clips and newsreel reports. Interviews with Langlois himself (clearly at different times, given his changing hair length and increasing bulk) are intercut with statements by a host of French directors, critics and archivists. One of the pleasures of the film is to spot all the names that you might just have read about in the French Cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, seeing which ones are still alive and which exist only in archive footage etc. The most engaging personality turns out to be Chabrol. The old rogue is interviewed outside a café but it’s worth straining to hear above the traffic noise as he gives his memories.

There are roughly three parts in the documentary (which runs for 128 mins). The first covers the 1930s through to the 1950s as Langlois developed the cinémathèque, the second focuses on the increasing problems associated with the clash between Langlois the maverick curator and the bureaucracies of state funding, culminating in the famous 1968 protests when Langlois was removed by the Culture Minister. The final section covers the creation of the film museum and the last days when Langlois finally got the recognition he deserved, including an honorary Oscar (which he seems to have appreciated far more than some of us cynics might have expected). This section includes hilarious archive footage in which Langlois attempts to pin a medal on Alfred Hitchcock – several times to accommodate the photographers. This reminds me of the only Langlois anecdote that I remember from the time. Hitchcock’s three films made for Paramount between 1954 and 1958 (Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry and Vertigo) for some reason could not be shown in the UK as the rights had expired and not been renewed. So for the whole of the 1970s (when Hitchcock was a major focus for film studies) there was no legal way to see the films. During this period the NFT in London programmed a Hitchcock retrospective without the trio – only for Langlois to turn up with a copy of Vertigo in a large hold-all. The NFT refused to show the film. I’ve no idea if this is true. Can anyone corroborate? Anyway, it’s a good story and it fits with the Langlois in this documentary.

The film is available on a Region 1 DVD from Kino and there is rumoured to be a longer version of the film somewhere.

La fille coupé en deux (France/Germany 2007)

Ludivine Sagnier as Gabrielle

Ludivine Sagnier as Gabrielle

Written by Stephen Gott

Warning: The following contains extensive plot spoilers.

Having recently had the opportunity to see one of the original films of the “nouvelle vague“, Claude Chabrol’s Les Cousins (1959), it was interesting to see Chabrol’s latest release The Girl Cut In Two (2007) and find out if he was still riding the ‘wave’. I think the answer is yes and that there’s still plenty of life in the old surfer yet. The perversity of Les Cousins is repeated here, but perhaps with more relish, by the director.

As in the earlier film, we have a character called Charles, but although he lives in the country, he is no innocent. We also have a Paul, a wealthy playboy, who to say the least is unstable. Both men have been damaged and corrupted by sexual encounters with members of authority in their youth. For reasons unclear, they dislike each other – a situation made worse by the appearance of Gabrielle, a local TV weather-girl who they both desire. Charles is a successful writer, who lives with his “saintly” wife, in a house containing paintings of female nudes and phallic like sculptures. He also owns a town appartment, where he seduces the innocent Gabrielle (interestingly, the name on the appartment door is ‘Paradise’). Later, he takes her to a private club to meet some of his friends and guides her up a spiral staircase to a twisted world of sexual perversion.

Up to this point, Gabrielle had been wearing light, soft colours, but from now on she begins to wear more blacks and greys. Infact, it’s at this point that Charles loses his interest in her, as she loses her innocence, leaving the way clear for Paul. Paul is a loose cannon, in one of Chabrols favourite targets, the bourgeoisie. His family and their friends are portrayed as mainly cold and boring, with the exception of his younger sister (who eyes up every passing male with a pulse). They literally have the power to get away with murder (Paul it seems, had drowned his elder brother,whilst a child and later, with his friends, he had kidnapped a young girl). As the film progresses, Paul realises that Gabrielle doesn’t love him and is still infatuated with the satanic like Charles and becomes more and more unstable. In a scene which echoes Les Cousins, he points an unloaded gun at Gabrielle and then at his own head. At this point of the film Gabrielle is seen to be wearing more reds and is driving around in a red sports car. In fact, Chabrol book-ends the film in a predominance of red, as if warning the viewer of the dangers with in. In a film which is loaded with Langian mis en scène,we must not forget the Hitchcockian voyeurism. Like Charles, who gets his kicks by watching Gabrielle have sex with his friends, Chabrol reminds us that we entertain ourselves by watching the lives of others, whether it be on film, TV, or in real life. At the end of the film he turns the tables on the viewer by having Gabrielle stare back at the film audience (a technique he used in the final shot of Les Bonnes Femmes in 1960).

Chabrol  continues to give us his view of the world. It’s an imperfect world but a world I think he still believes in. In a kind of epilogue to the film, Gabrielle’s magician uncle (who is known as Mr Merlin) takes her to his hotel “The Renaissance”. He offers her a new beginning in his magic show, a sequence which is shot in a style similar to the films of Georges Méliès, the French filmmaker and magician who was not only in at the dawn of “Cinema” but was perhaps the man who first gave film its “Magic”.

Nouvelle Vague Directors: Jacques Demy

Jacques Demy and Jeanne Moreau on location for Baie des anges © Raymond CAUCHETIER / 1993 CINE TAMARIS

Jacques Demy and Jeanne Moreau on location on the Riviera for Baie des anges © Raymond CAUCHETIER / 1993 CINE TAMARIS

Jacques Demy (1931-1990) is the New Wave director who, like Louis Malle, is difficult to categorise. Some link him to the ‘Left Bank Group’, but this is primarily because he married Agnès Varda in 1962. Otherwise he had little in common with the politics of Alain Resnais or Chris Marker. In some ways he was closer to Truffaut and he certainly knew all the Cahiers gang, presumably via Varda or from his film school contacts. There were several distinctive aspects of Demy’s cinema which made it ‘personal’ and ‘different’.

Demy was fascinated by American Cinema – but by musicals rather than B films noirs. Nearly all of his films present a romance drawing in some way on the musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. He was also a fan of various aspects of classical French Cinema and French popular music culture. Demy was a native of the West Coast of France in the region around Nantes and this coastline provided the backdrop for his best known films, Lola (1961), Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Les demoiselles de Rochefort in 1967. These films draw on various Hollywood sources – On the Town (1949), the Stanley Donen film about sailors on leave in New York is an obvious influence on Lola. The stars of Demy’s New Wave films are the women (and the music of Michel Legrand). In his first four films these are Anouk Aimée, Jean Moreau, Catherine Deneuve and Deneuve again with her sister Françoise Dorléac. By 1967 he had a full star cast – Danielle Darrieux, Michel Piccoli, George Chakiris and Gene Kelly. Demy moved to the US to make Model Shop in 1969 and after this his career foundered. The early quartet of films have survived however and are well worth watching, both for their own specific qualities and because they represent a different side to the New Wave.

Demy’s second film was La baie des anges (Bay of Angels 1963). Jeanne Moreau as a platinum blonde is a bourgeois wife with a gambling habit. The film starts with a typical New Wave tracking shot by Jean Rabier (who had been an assistant to Henri Decaë on Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’énchafaud (1958) before shooting several films for Chabrol and then for Varda and Demy). The camera appears to be mounted on a car or truck which is driven at speed along the deserted promenades of the Riviera. It reminded me of Jean Vigo’s ‘city symphony’ film A propos de Nice (1929) photographed by Boris Kaufman. The action then switches to Paris where a young man in a boring accountancy job is persuaded to visit a casino by a colleague. When he wins a considerable amount on the roulette table, Jean (Claude Mann) decides to change his holiday plans and instead of visiting relatives in the country he finds a hotel in Cannes and starts to visit the casino. Here he meets Jackie (Moreau) who he had briefly seen earlier being thrown out of a Parisian casino.

The main part of the film is a melodrama about sex and money. Jean and Jeanne have a tempestuous and whirlwind affair driven by the thrill of gambling with its intense highs and lows and moments of exhilaration and despair. There is passion and indeed violence in the relationship and the narrative has an ‘open’ ending that is quite abrupt. What this points to is the curious mixture of ‘fantasy romance’ and cold realism that seems to infuse the films I’ve watched.

I enjoyed Baie des anges. At times I thought to myself, “there isn’t much plot”, but at the same time I realised that I was engrossed by the rich texture of the images and the way in which the narrative unfolded. Moreau is a star actor, but I wasn’t completely convinced by Claude Mann. Sometimes he appeared perfect for the role and sometimes out of his depth. Jeanne Moreau’s hair was my main concern. I presume that it was meant to signify ‘artifice’/’brittleness’. I certainly didn’t like it, but it worked in the sense that it somehow enhanced Moreau’s extraordinary ability to look soft and alluring one moment and hard and frankly terrifying at others.

I’m hoping to watch more from Demy soon. In the meantime, there is a clip from Baie des Anges on an earlier posting here

Senses of Cinema article and links.

Nouvelle vague Stars 5: Stéphane Audran

Stéphane Audran and Bernadette Lafont in Les bonnes femmes

Stéphane Audran and Bernadette Lafont in Les bonnes femmes

There was a period in the early 1970s when I was so struck by Claude Chabrol’s Le boucher (1970) that I sought out all his other films. I’m sure, however, that a major part of my intense interest in these films was simply in watching Stéphane Audran on the big screen. In those days, repertory cinema in London made it possible to catch up with art films from the 1960s so there was often a Chabrol film, with his then wife Audran, showing somewhere.

I’m not sure if a career mainly working for one director qualifies Stephane Audran as a ‘star’ of la nouvelle vague, but she was certainly the star of Chabrol’s films. Her career began with small roles in two mainstream features in 1957/8 when she was in her mid twenties. This was followed by a small role in Eric Rohmer’s first feature before her first (small) role for Chabrol in Les cousins in 1958. In 1960 she is one of the four shopgirls in Les bonnes femmes, but for the next few Chabrol films she has only minor roles with the exception of the little seen L’oeil du malin (1962) in which she is one of the three leads. Her rise to stardom comes with Les biches (The does) in 1968 – in which she plays one of a pair of bisexual women who become involved with Jean-Louis Trintignant. She had married Chabrol in 1964 and for the next few years, the couple had a golden period producing well-received bourgeois crime thriller/melodramas.

Claude Chabrol was easily the most prolific director of his generation. Between 1958 and 1970 he made 22 films (4 of which were ‘segments’ in portmanteau films). It’s hardly surprising that Audran didn’t have too much time for work with other directors. Chabrol also tended to make the same kinds of films – mostly related to his great interest in Hitchcock’s work. Stéphane Audran became his ‘cool blonde’. I need to go back and watch some of the classic films from the late 1960s and early 70s again, but my memory is that Stéphane Audran could manage to create a tension between an elegant and aloof cool sophistication and hints of vulnerability. I did watch Le boucher again a few years ago and it stood up very well. (In the book on Chabrol by Robin Wood and Michael Walker, Walker points out that where most mainstream critics praised the film highly, Cahiers du cinéma turned against Chabrol for the first time.)

Here is the trailer for the elusive L’oeil du malin – could a UK or US distributor find this and put it out on DVD please?

. . . and as Ginette in Les bonnes femmes.