Holy Tour (La Grand-Messe, Belgium-France, 2018)

Nearly at the end of the road

The British (or is it the English?) like to think they have a distinct quirky humour (Monty Python for instance) which is probably a result of the fact that humour tends to be culture specific (unless it’s slapstick) and appreciation of other others’ funny bones is difficult. Certainly Holy Mountain counts as quirky: retired cycling fans spend a week waiting for the Tour de France (the 2017 edition) to whirl past them on the Col d’Izoard; 4km, or so, shy of the summit and finish line.

Such is the engagement of directors (Valéry Rosier and Méryl Fortunat-Rossi) with their subject that I spent the first few minutes unsure whether the film was fiction or documentary. The naturalness of the characters is such that the presence of the camera is almost certainly barely an impediment to their behaviour. This might be because the protagonists, to the extent they can be called as such, are old – at least 70s old I think – and really don’t care to make a positive impression. Maybe they were flattered that two young men wanted to film their lives. Of course, I’m not suggested that we are viewing unadulterated reality; that can never be the case in texts as they are, by necessity, mediated. In addition, the directors are credited as scriptwriters and they have moulded their footage as highly entertaining slices of lives.

The camera gets everywhere: the foot of an old couple’s bed as they say ‘goodnight’ to each other to a comically shot farmer cutting his field (all we can see is his bare torso moving through long grass). Rosier and Fortunat-Rossi have an eye for composition and often frame the characters in long shot so we see they’re simply lounging around waiting against the often stunningly beautiful landscape.

And when the tour does arrive, one of the characters watches the television to see if she can be seen on it rather than the race speeding past. She’s disappointed and concludes they should park on the other side of the road next year! There’s humour from the grumbling of the old folk as the young ‘drunken idiots’ arrive on the day of the race. When they crowd around a television in a mobile home to see the finish, minutes after the leaders have passed them, the broadcast signal – in true absurdist fashion – drops only to return after the race has ended.

Old folk are under represented in the media (at my age that’s starting to rankle!) and it’s good to see, even with all their ailments (bad knees and so on), a group of wrinklies having good natured good times.

The Swallows of Kabul (Les hirondelles de Kaboul, France-Luxembourg-Switzerland, 2018)

Patriarchy conflicted and repressive

I’m unfamiliar with the novel, written by Yasmina Khadra (a pseudonyn for a male army officer who was in the Tunisian military when the book was published), but the animated rendition is a powerful indictment of repression against women. Strikingly, it also shows the damage done to men by the violent patriarchy enacted by the Taliban in Afghanistan at the turn of the century. While the film, unlike the book I understand, gives us little of the backstories of the protagonists (the feminist Zunaira who refuses to wear a burkha and so can’t go out was a magistrate for example) the effect is to give it a mythological quality. This is enhanced by the beautiful watercolour animation and, particularly, the fleeting appearance of the swallows of the title; they, unlike women in Kabul, can go where they like.

The narrative, realised by directors Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec, concerns two couples: Zunaira and her disillusioned husband (who to his horror finds himself taking part in a stoning of a prostitute), Atiq, and jailer, Mohsen, whose wife, Mussarat, is terminally ill. The couples’ paths cross, eventually, with the early part of the film outlining the quotidian existence of the oppressed in Kabul. The nihililsm of the fundamentalist strictures against music and dance are soul destroying examples of the joylessness of life under autocratic rule where the personal no longer matters unless you are a member of the elite (who are men and shown enjoying prostitutes). The Taliban were an invention of the CIA who were used (no doubt willingly) to fight back against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan during the 1980s; the blowback from which has, of course, been spectacular.

I’m trying to imagine how the film would be different if it were ‘live action’. Maybe it’s my association with animation as being for children (which tends to be the case in the west) gives it connotations of ‘fairy tale’. This is striking as the Kabul of the film is hell on earth and so the disjuncture between the expectation of animation presenting a world that is, in the end, reassuring, and the reality of the setting works to show how evil the repression of the Taliban is. That said, I’ve no doubt the film would work equally well with actors. Apparently the film was first shot with their cast and the filmed scenes formed the basis of the animation.

Of course animation isn’t ‘just’ for children; Grave of the Fireflies,Takahata Isao’s devastating portrait of post-war Tokyo, springs to mind. As for another film that deals with the same issues as The Swallows of KabulOsama (Afghanistan-Ireland-Japan-Iran-Netherlands, 2003), written and directed by Saddiq Barmak, is even more devastating.

Savage (Les fauves, France, 2018)

Savage? Really?

My second instalment of Myfrenchfilmfestival2020 fared no better than my first, however Savage is more coherant than Jessica Forever. Lilly-Rose Depp (celebrity royalty but she performs well) plays Laura who, it transpires, is a troubled teen spending time at a camping site with her cousins and aunt. I say ‘transpires’ as the ‘set-up’ doesn’t make it clear she is the protagonist; her cousin Anne (Aloïse Sauvage) seems to be equally important at first. This isn’t an issue but in a conventional (would-be) thriller, narrative economy is to be expected and the rather diffuse opeing suggests the script (written by director Vincent Mariette and Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq) isn’t quite up to the task.

It appears the campsite is being plagued by leopard attacks (police presence is pretty minimal for some reason) but Laura discovers through casual burglary (which Anne joins in) the truth. It’s not clear why the cousins like breaking in to their neighbours on the site and it seems more of a plot device (leading to Laura’s discovery) rather than a psychological insight into character. This lack of clarity infects the film as a whole and shows how difficult it is to write scripts that nail the plot devices to a film’s theme in a convincing way. It’s a film with possibilities but they never coalesce into a convincing whole.

Comédie Française’s Laurent Lafitte, seen in School’s Out, adds a brooding presence but his motivation is unclear. It’s apparently about him wanted people to reconnect with wild myths but this is undercooked. This is potentially a very interesting thread for a thriller; the attraction of the genre may be about feeling a primitive fear that cosseted folk of today miss. But the potential is never articulated, it’s one idea that’s mixed with genre tropes in the hope that a palatable result follows.

Camille Cottin brings charisma to the role of Inspector Camus (a name laden with philosophical potential completely missing from the script) but I wasn’t even convinced she was actually a flic until Anne refers to her as such. There seems to be a point about gender being made through her character but…

Enough moaning. I’m not saying I’m worrying about my €7.99 investment in the festival (yet) but I’m hoping for more of a buzz from my next screening. The picture quality, incidentally, is excellent and apparently you can access the festival through YouTube but I haven’t worked out how so I’ve been streaming the films on television through my phone.

Jessica Forever (France, 2018)

Sort of super hero

Writer-directors Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel won an award for their short As Long as Shotguns Remain (Tant qu’il nous reste des fusils à pompe, France, 2014) at the Berlin film festival and hence this, their feature debut, was greeted with interest. And the first part of the film is interesting, a dystopian future where orphans are treated like, and actually seem to be, homicidal maniacs and hunted down by the state. ‘Fortunately’ Jessica (Aomi Muyock, who starred in Gaspar Noé’s Love) is on hand to maternally protect them. If my summary sounds a bit facetious that’s probably due to my annoyance at the film’s failure to be convincing. Dystopias tend to be warnings about the present and the treatment of orphans, particularly those housed in institutions, can be highly problematic; in the UK many girls, in particular, find themselves in abusive situations. However Poggi and Vinel never convince me their society is a metaphor for anything.

Jessica’s orphans are all male and she is barely older than them (they are probably in their 20s) making her maternal role problematic at best. The boys are clearly hormonal and it’s barely convincing that none of the men would fancy her, and given their behaviour, not try to act upon their desire. It’s not until toward the end of the film that sex is treated as a key aspect of being young. Psychologically it’s simply not convincing and the ending doesn’t solve any of the narrative issues.

It’s also the first feature of cinematographer Marine Atlan and she comes out of the film with a lot of credit. Altan gives the settings, often middle class suburbia, a slightly ethereal feel which creates a sense of uncanny suitable to the dystopia. Muyock is adequate in the virtually silent main role but she isn’t given much material to work with. Sally Potter, speaking recently on Radio 3, stated that the script is the key element of film, the architecture on which everything is hung, and in the case of Jessica Forever, its lack of coherence meant the film was almost certain to fail.

I saw it as my first screening of Myfrenchfilmfestival which runs online for a month from 16 January and includes 31 films (19 shorts available for free) for a nominal €7.99. Although Jessica Forever hasn’t been a good start the festival is certainly worth a punt and hopefully other national cinemas follow suit and sponsor cheap online distribution as most/all of these films won’t be seen outside festivals in the UK.

Amanda (France, 2018)

Struggling with life

Spoiler alerts!

Director, and co-writer Mikhaël Hers, has made an interesting film that considers bereavement, PTSD and a twentysomething’s life challenges from an unusual perspective. David (Vincent Lacoste) is the young man who, happily, has few responsibilities: he makes his living by acting as a landlord’s go-between and by pruning trees. He does have to collect his 7-year-old niece, Amanda (Isaure Multrier), from school occasionally and their relationship forms the narrative arc that ends, strangely, at the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

David has been estranged from his mum (Greta Schacchi) from an early age and his sister, Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb), is a single parent. Clearly parenting is a key theme especially when the latter is killed in a terrorist attack; will David become Amanda’s guardian thus forcing him to take on responsibilities? It is the manner of the bereavement that offers the unusual perspective and it’s not entirely clear whether the film is investigating the trauma of such attacks or whether that is simply a catalyst for David’s life changing experience; I’m not sure the film knows. The attack, of which we only see the aftermath, is brilliantly staged by the way, clearly conveying the shock of finding a post-attack scene, especially when loved ones are involved. Would it have made any different if Sandrine had been killed in, say, a hit-and-run by a drunken driver? The only other time the realpolitik intrudes is when a hijab-clad woman is being abused for what she’s wearing – Peter Bradshaw explains the limitations of this scene in his review.

Regardless, the development of Amanda and David’s relationship is done well and the principles offer excellent performances. To complicate things his putative girlfriend, Léna (Stacy Martin), is injured in the attack and her difficulty in adapting to her PTSD is well drawn but doesn’t seem to relate specifically to the issues of parenthood. The two threads don’t entangle harmoniously.

The scriptwriters certainly had a problem with their denouement, which takes place on a bonding trip to Wimbledon. For reasons beyond me Amanda gets emotionally involved in the climax of a tennis match which is left at ‘deuce’ and apparently is a resolution for her. It’s mentioned in passing that David used to play tennis but that’s the only link between the characters and the sport. It’s true that on the trip to London he meets his mother for the first time in many years, thereby suggesting some kind of rapprochement between them, but it’s not elucidated what will happen next.

However, I enjoyed the film if only because it did offer an unusual perspective even if it failed to say much about it.

High Life (UK-France-Germany-Poland-US, 2018)

Life sentence

It’s difficult to write about Claire Denis’ latest film after just one viewing not because it is particularly dense, and so hard work to watch, but its rich allusiveness and elliptical narrative offer more questions than answers. As the Sight & Sound reviewer points out, the first English-language films of arthouse directors can lead to simplification; not in Denis’ case.

Arthouse science fiction immediately brings to mind Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR, 1972) and there’s no doubt that it was in Denis’ mind when making High Life. In the former, an alien sentient ocean learns about humanity by bringing back to life loved ones; in the latter, life sentence prisoners are sent on an interstellar voyage to harness energy from black holes (Silent Running, US 1972, 2001: A Space Odyssey, UK 1968, are other references). The similarity between the films, apart from the standard SF trope of investigating what it means to be human, is in the mise en scene of the spaceship corridors and the flashbacks to wet and wooded Earth. Although not as dense as Tarkovsky’s film, Denis’ refuses to offer easy understanding as we are given little information about characters’ motivations; even though there is an intermittent voiceover from Robert Pattinson’s protagonist, Monte. We probably learn most about Juliette Binoche’s diabolical Dr Dibs who is determined that procreation will happen, in an unorthodox fashion, during the voyage.

Even if you struggle somewhat, as I did, with the narrative there is Yorick Le Saux’s sumptuous cinematography to revel in and Olafur Eliasson is cited in the production design; he was responsible for the awesome Tate Turbine Hall installation, Weather Project. The manifestation of a black hole is memorable if a little off-putting as the blackness surrounding the cinema screen was darker than the hole itself. However, although Denis consulted scientists when writing the script, it’s clear (in one scene particularly) that the needs of art over-ride the laws of physics (which is as it should be).

Elliasson’s Weather Project

Am I clearer about what it means to be human after seeing the film? I’m not sure because the choice of characters as ‘lifers’, some of whom live on the feral end of the spectrum, skews the sample; though Andre Benjamin’s Tcherny exudes humanity. Monte himself if something of an enigma and as such is superbly played by Pattinson; an actor to be praised for his choice of material when he could have been a ‘matinee idol’. What I am sure about is the haunting quality of the film, in part due to Stuart Staples’ score, because I’m interested to see if I can understand more about the film (and so about life) and to enjoy the startling imagery again.

It’s worth noting that ‘babies in space’ is an unusual representation and the opening of the film focuses on  Monte with a child. They are affecting scenes that emphasise human bonding even when the technological interface is paramount, as it is in a spaceship.

Faces Places (Visages villages, France, 2017)

Still worth watching

Agnès Varda’s last feature film is a true joy. Crowd funded to allow her and street artist, and co-director, JR, to travel in his photo booth to shoot locals and briefly turn them into icons on their walls. There’s a wonderful whimsy, not withstanding the horrible animation of the credit sequence, to the project that conceals the directors’ desire to celebrate the under-represented. These aren’t ethnic minorities, I spotted only two black people in the film, but the ordinary person who populate the parts of France they visited. Thus miners and dockworkers of the working class are shown as well as women.

It’s obviously JR’s schtick to stick up giant images on buildings. They are only paper so don’t last long; like our lives. The black and white images are incredibly striking; moving the last woman living in old miner’s houses to understandable tears. Varda tells her it’s supposed to make her happy; the director’s humanism shines throughout. One of the few overtly political moments was the contrast between goat farms: one burns off their horns to increase production the other doesn’t.

The unlikely friendship between the artists, 60 years apart in age, is one of the joys of the film which is infused with humour. Their relative size, he seems to be twice as tall as she, is one running joke. In one scene an optician’s letter chart is mimicked by people on steps holding letters. Varda says they need to wobble to represent what she sees; she was suffering from an eye disease. It’s both funny and sad showing how Varda came to terms with her infirmity.

So much of television is full of reality TV where characters get to respond to whatever ‘after’ the narrative has provided them with. In Faces Places, though, the ‘after’ is genuinely awe-inspiring: seeing their images writ large and there is plenty of satisfaction in hearing the ‘ordinary people’s’ responses. At a factory, groups of shift workers are placed together to form a community that is, in reality, never there at the same time.

Varda’s film career started with the French new wave and the only sour note in the film is fellow pioneer Jean-Luc Godard’s curmudgeonly non-appearance at the end. Sadness also infuses watching the film now as Varda only died two weeks ago; she comments upon impending death in the film. However, the experience of the film is life affirming because she continued to work and continued to share her humanist perspective with us all. She will be missed.