Girlhood (Bande de filles, France, 2014)

Group therapy

Whilst youth is hardly overlooked in cinema, female protagonists are a minority and if the colour of their skin fails to be white, then western cinema seems barely interested. Hence Girlhood is already a necessary watch given its focus on this double-minority. It’s also important, such is the burden of representation on films that focus on diversity, that they do not misrepresent. Given the writer-director is Céline Sciamma, who’s white and not from the banlieue setting, there might have been a question of authenticity. However, her first feature Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, France, 2007), was also a (minority-gay) girls’ coming of age tale; her next film Tomboy (France, 2011) – which I haven’t seen – similarly focused on teenagers. The fact the film is more about being poor (financially and in education) and female than about ethnicity is appropriate as class and gender, as categories, can be at least as important than race .

That said, I’m not sure why the film didn’t grab me as much as I expected. It’s superbly done with convincing performances but maybe I wasn’t in the mood. Newcomer Karidja Touré, as Marieme, is particularly engaging as she forges her own identity through friendship under the shadow of patriarchy and an uncaring system. I found it difficult to shake La Haine (France, 1995) out of my head – a very different film from the same milieu – which is unfair to Girlhood as it wasn’t trying to be a ‘female’ version of the earlier classic.

Certainly a film worth seeing.

Elle (France-Germany, Belguim, 2016)

Just the ticket

Thrillers are mean to take us out of our comfort zone. If our lives are routine and safe then the urge to feel afraid, whilst in a position of absolute safety, can be a strong one; particularly amongst the young. Director Paul Verhoeven succeeds in creating this discomfort through the visceral portrayal of rape; making us jump in our seats with shocks and squirm in suspense; and, most importantly, he skewers bourgeois ideas by challenging our expectations about women (and reinforcing them, sadly, about men).

That said I’m not sure what say about Elle and that might be the point of the movie. It is a typical Verhoeven film and although I’m not keen on the auteur ‘theory’ in a few cases it is enlightening. His Hollywood films were often provocative: the possible homophobia in Basic Instinct (1992) and misogyny in Showgirls (1995); the sledgehammer satire of Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997). On the other hand, Black Book (Zwartboek, Netherlands-Germany-UK-Belguim, 2006) was more straightforward in focusing on the wartime thrills and so may it not be ‘typical’ Verhoeven. Which is one of the problems of auteurism: forcing films into preconceptions.

What provocations does Elle offer? The April issue of Sight & Sound has for/against pieces: Ertika Balsom and Ginette Vincendeau respectively. The brilliance of Elle lies, in part, in the fact that both writers are possibly right.

Roland Barthes described ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts: the former is closed and offers a clear ‘preferred’ reading; the latter is open allowing the reader to ‘write’ their own text; in other words, decide what it means. Elle is a ‘writerly’ film, though all texts are open to an individual’s interpretation some, such as this film, offer much latitude when it comes to trying to pin down meaning.

I suppose, what I am saying, is I’m not sure about what I feel about Elle. And this ambiguous response is what, I think, Verhoeven is after. He’s not offering us pat ideas or a black and white representation of the world but one that requires thought, particularly about areas we don’t necessarily want to think about. At this point stop reading if you haven’t seen the film as spoilers follow and preconceptions about the film are likely to muddy the spectator’s response.

The only preconception I had for the film, apart from the baggage of Verhoeven, was that it was a rape revenge thriller and Huppert was brilliant (of course). I also thought, probably because it was feted at Cannes, it would be more arthouse than commercial. Huppert is brilliant but, even though it started with a rape, it doesn’t follow the revenge trajectory (this rewriting of the genre is one of the most interesting aspect of the film) and whilst it is a commercial film it is far too unsettling for 21st century Hollywood (early ‘70s Hollywood might have made it) and it’s not surprising that Verhoeven could find no A-list actors to pay the Huppert role as he had intended it to be an American film. He had Nicole Kidman in mind; her glassy fragility would have offered a very different performance to Huppert’s indestructible visage. Kidman may have played the character as more neurotic than Huppert which would work against most of the film (or at least the film as it appears with Huppert) but might have made the film’s conclusion more convincing (except I’m not sure he wanted it to be convincing). I apologise for the lack of clarity but ambiguity is the response the film encourages.

Michèle is raped in the first scene and it is surprisingly restrained in the way it’s filmed (for Verhoeven) but that’s only because we return to the event on two more occasions where the restraint is undone. Then Michèle clears up the smashed crockery; doesn’t inform the police; does not tell her friends until a few days later. So it is immediately clear that we are dealing with a very unconventional kind of ‘she’ . This is reinforced when we find she’s the co-owner of a video game company that produces texts that include rape as part of the gameplay. She’s forthright in telling her mother to look her age and not play with toyboys; she also tells her son he’s been duped by his girlfriend and that the baby isn’t his (based on skin colour) while everyone else coos at the newborn. Although she is hard it is clear that she’s also protective of her son. Her decisiveness is clear including the fact that left her husband after he hit her, though they remain friends. This friendship does not stop her gleefully driving into his car when she’s parking next to it.

The rape-revenge tag would suggest that Michèle would spend the film tracking down her assailant but while she does take measures to seek out who assaulted her, this isn’t the prime narrative thrust. We are observing her life in the aftermath of the rape and we’re not invited to like her; she’s having an affair with her best friend’s husband, and her sexual tastes appear to be unconventional (which may make her more likeable – that depends upon you). She’s a member of the bourgeoisie, classical music is prominent in her home and she gives dinner parties. Some commentators have mentioned the film’s debt to Bunuel in the portrayal of these parties but they owe more to soap opera, with their bickering, than surrealism. The point is that, other than her friend Anna, there are no wholly likeable characters in the film; a bit like real life then. The men, in particular, are pretty rancid and it ironic that the weakest of them all should be the one that… That’s a spoiler too far.

Motivation for Michèle’s refusal to engage the police is explained through her serial killer father who was caught when she was 10; she was even implicated in the psychotic slaughter of 27 people. Her father, who’s seeking parole 40 years after the event, killed after he was preventing from blessing the children of the village. The Catholic faith also looms in the devoted neighbour who wants to watch the Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve during one of Michèle’s parties; at least one of which was thrown to get at her ex-husband’s new (younger) girlfriend.

As you can see, there’s lots going on but it is adeptly welded together until the final scenes. As a thriller it’s very effective: I jumped three times which is a record for me in my fifties. However, the ending… pat resolutions abound so much so that I doubt Verhoeven believes we should take them seriously and the last shot, of a reconciled Anna and Michèle deciding to live together, walking arm in arm though a cemetery must be a joke… isn’t it?

 

The Past (Le passé, France-Italy-Iran)

Temporal triangle

Contemporary triangle

Asghar Farhadi’s profile rose recently as he became a victim of Trump’s bigotry when he was (temporarily for now) unable to travel to America for the Oscar ceremony because he happened to be Iranian (and Muslim). Such crass prejudice exists because many people cannot deal with nuance: vast groups of people are consigned to the Other to confirm supposed superiority. In contrast, Farhadi’s films (that I’ve seen: The Separation and About Elly) focus on the entangled dynamics of relationships showing  complexity without crass judgement about who’s to blame.

In The Past, Ahmad (Ali Mousaffa) returns to Paris to finalise his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who’s in a relationship with Samir (the brilliantly bewildered Tahar Raham). The film progresses with a series of changes of perspective; just when you think you understand the dynamics of the relationships new information alters our viewpoint. It’s as if the narrative is a series of frames of reference that are added as soon as we think we know what is going on. The growing complexity beautifully portrays the mess, and excitement, of human relationships.

The victims, as far as there are any when couples fall apart, are the children. The teenager, Céline, (Aleksandra Klebanska) is particularly vividly drawn as she torments herself with guilt because of her (imaginary?) role in the destruction of the relationship between Ahmad and Marie.

Superb acting and thoughtful direction, windows and doors obstruct communication, as well as humour (Ahmad’s discussion with Marie is interrupting – in editing – by Samir’s drilling), make this a gripping film.

 

But You Did Not Come Back, Marceline Loridan-Ivens (Faber & Faber, 2016)

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This brilliant memoir of Auschwitz and after is as much about memory and loss as about the depravity of the Nazi machine. Loridan-Ivens featured in Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France, 1961), which was ‘spotlit’ in the recently published 2nd edition of Introduction to Film:

SPOTLIGHT: CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France, 1961)

Argos Films

Director: Edgar Morin, Jean Rouch

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France, 1961) grew directly out of Free Cinema:

 

Chronicle’s origins can be traced back to 1959, when Morin and Rouch served on

the jury for the documentary-driven Festival dei Popoli in Florence. Impressed by the

sympathetic portraits of complex social worlds in works like Karel Reisz’s We Are the

Lambeth Boys (1958) and John Marshall and Robert Gardner’s The Hunters (1957),

Morin asked his colleague if he’d be interested in collaborating on a film that tried

something similar in Paris. (Di Iorio, 2013)

 

As Michael Chanan puts it: ‘There are very few films that so completely break the rules and

invent new ones’ (2007: 177), making Chronicle of a Summer one of the most significant films

ever made. As co-director Jean Rouch says, in his voice-over at the start of the film:

‘This film was not played by actors, but lived by men and women who have given a

few moments of their lives to a new experiment in cinema truth.’

 

The last two words in their original French, cinéma vérité, became emblematic of the type

of film. Like Direct Cinema, cinéma vérité used advances in lightweight equipment to shoot

events as they happened; however Rouch, with Edgar Morin (an anthropologist), departed

from Direct’s rhetoric that the filmmakers were bystanders merely relaying the action, as they

didn’t try to disguise the fact that they were making a film. Both, for example, appeared on

screen in Chronicle talking to the participants about a range of contemporary issues such as

the Algerian war and racism.

 

The film begins with a conversation with Marceline Loridan about how she felt being

involved in the documentary. Initially her role is as a vox-pop interviewer asking passers-by

if they are happy. These early scenes are shot candidly with poorly composed framing. After

this the film focuses on three students, an African student, an Italian car worker and a union

man. Rouch and Morin were trying to gauge what ‘France’ thought about the world in the

summer of 1960.

 

The film’s ability to capture these spontaneous conversations was no doubt extremely

impressive at the time. From a contemporary perspective the technical brilliance is somewhat

lost; however, the snapshot of the time ensures that the film remains vital viewing. For example

Marceline, it transpires, is a survivor from Auschwitz and in a harrowing monologue she

recounts her time there. This is filmed at she walks through a deserted Place de la Concorde

talking to herself (her lips can be seen clearly moving some of the time) whilst the camera

dollies backwards in front of her. Chanan explains:

 

Marceline is talking into a lapel-mic clipped to her dress (they were still experimenting

with its use), the camera mounted in the back of a Citroën 2CV … (2007: 177)

 

It could be coincidental, but when she talks of being a little girl the camera noticeably recedes

from her, making her look relatively small (see below). This image bridges the moment

with the past when she was separated from her father in the concentration camp; it is emotionally

devastating.

 Marceline recounts her harrowing time at Auschwitz in Chronicle of a Summer

Marceline recounts her harrowing time at Auschwitz in Chronicle of a Summer

Later, when another participant, Mary Lou, is talking about her fears of being alone, the

close-up of her visibly distressed face, though she is trying to smile (put on a ‘brave’ face),

portrays the raw emotion she is feeling. Just as it seems to be becoming exploitative, we are

voyeuristically observing someone’s pain, Morin, who’s talking to her, says we shouldn’t talk

about it and the scene is immediately cut.

 

An African student, Landry, talks about how he’d like Africans to be appreciated for

more than their dancing, and he is portrayed as an African explorer in France: a brilliant

post-colonial characterization.

 

 

The film concludes with reflections on itself, fi rst from the participants and then Morin

and Rouch in conversation. The participants’ views are fascinating as, after they have seen a

rough cut, they appear to disagree on the meaning of what they have seen (I say ‘appear’

because we are obviously seeing what Morin and Rouch decided to include in the fi nal version,

though I don’t doubt the veracity). Although Morin originally felt that these reactions

suggested the film had failed, he concluded that the contradictory reactions it generated were

proof of its strength because it showed how diffi cult it was to truly understand other people.

The views the participants have on Mary Lou’s emotional rawness range from suggesting

she is playing up for the camera to ‘she was wonderful’. The conclusion we can draw is that,

ultimately, truth is dialogical in that, in simple terms (following the work of Bakhtin, 1981),

it can only be arrived at through discussion.

Classe Tous Risques (Consider All Risks, France-Italy, 1960)

Classy Ventura and Belmondo

Classy Ventura and Belmondo

Released just before Belmondo was unleashed upon the cinematic world in Godard’s Breathless, Classe Tous Risques is a fascinating glimpse of mainstream French film but not in the form of Truffaut’s ‘old man cinema’. In 1954 Francois Truffaut’s polemic, that heralded auteurism, was published in Cahiers du cinema. Here he railed against the ‘cinema du papa’; in other words it was a young man’s moan against the boring mainstream. He called for the auteur to give a personal vision that was cinematic, rather than script bound. It wasn’t until Truffaut, and the other directors of the nouvelle vague, began making movies at the end of the decade that his vision was fulfilled.

Claude Sautet, who became commercially successful in the 1970s, was picked to direct by the star Lino Ventura who plays a gangster having a ‘last hurrah’ as he makes his way back to Paris with his young children. The direction is good, the scene when Belmondo is arrested is great, but what struck me about the film was the use of location filming. Clearly they were shooting on the street with lightweight equipment, so important to the ‘new wave’, and the passerbys are ‘working’ as free extras.

The hardboiled narrative, based on a José Giovanni novel (he also co-scripted), is engaging enough and the performances are excellent.

Free Men (Les hommes libres, France, 2011)

Muslims and Nazis

Muslims and Nazis

French films revisiting the role of their north African colonies have become somewhat in vogue in recent years; such as Days of Glory (Indigenes, Algeria-France-Morocco-Belgium, 2006). Free Men focuses on the true story of how the Grand Mosque, run by Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (played with suitable gravitas by veteran Michael Lonsdale), helped protect Jews from the Nazis. That’s a great story in itself given the conflagration that is engulfing Israel and the Occupied Territories at the moment. ‘Muslims and Nazis’: I don’t think I’d ever put the two together before watching this film which emphasises  how the former are hidden from western history. The film, co-written and directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi, is to be welcomed on that basis but I also throughly enjoyed watching Tahar Rahim play Younes, a composite character, who finds his moral compass and joins the Resistance.

Rahim’s face is a wonderful tool, whether under questioning from the Petain police or wondering how to ‘chat up’ the woman he fancies, as its mobility dramatises the thoughts whirling around his head. There’s some great music too as Younes befriends a Jewish singer masquerading as a Muslim.

Bright Days Ahead (Les beaux jours, France, 2013)

Does age matter?

Does age matter?

It’s rare for any medium to deal with a sexual relationship between an old woman and a younger man (The Mother, UK, 2003, springs to mind) and Bright Days Ahead would be welcomed if only on the basis that it breaks the rule that old woman are not sexy. Of course it helps that it is Fanny Ardant in the role of the older seducer but the film doesn’t skimp upon the travails of extra-marital affairs where age is an issue. The film relies upon performances to keep it afloat and all the principals are excellent but it is Ardant the sticks in the mind.