The Truth (La vérité, France-Japan, 2019)

Returning with trepidation

I pretty much avoid reading anything about films I want to see but still felt the a sightly negative vibe about Kore-eda Hirokazu’s first non-Japanese film. Having read some reviews now they’re certainly not negative but they are also not ecstatic, which they should have been. Kore-eda is a master at portraying family dynamics and transplanting his aesthetic to Paris has not mattered at all. Indeed, the casting of Catherine Deneuve allows for a reflection on acting and stardom that is likely to have been more appreciated in the west than if he’d used a legendary Japanese actor. I’m sure the film isn’t about Deneuve herself, though there is a poster for a fictional film Belle de Paris that obviously references Belle de Jour (France-Italy, 1967), but the driven egotism, and its costs, that is (or may be?) required to be at the absolute pinnacle of any field is the central theme of the film. In recent films I’ve felt Deneuve relies too much on her charisma for the performance, she’s not exactly ‘dialling it in’ though maybe the roles weren’t challenging enough – for example, Potiche (France, 2010). She’s certainly prolific, making an average of two films a year in the last decade, but in The Truth she is sensational; maybe being cast with the great Juliette Binoche led her to raise her game?

Binoche plays Lumir, the slightly-estranged daughter of Deneuve’s Fabienne whose just-published autobiography appears to be anything but its title: The Truth. The long-running tensions that, to an extent, bind families together are brilliantly shown, usually through facial expression. Ethan Hawke, slightly underused but that’s the role, is also excellent as the ‘second-rate’ actor husband of Lumir who remains affable despite Fabienne’s occasional jibes.

Fabienne is making an SF film where she plays the daughter of a terminally ill woman who remains ‘forever young’ by travelling into space and returning every two years for a short while. It’s a brilliant concept (apparently based on something by Ken Liu) that facilitates a meditation on age and a child’s relationship with their parents. The film is investigating, though not to any great philosophical depth, the nature of truth and if that sounds heavy the film is also very funny in an off-beat way.

As always in Kore-eda, the direction of children is magnificent. Lumir and Hank’s daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), serves as an intermediary between the not-quite warring adults without pretension. Lumir is a scriptwriter and gives her daughter some great lines to flatter Fabienne who earlier asked for lines to smooth over conflict with a miffed personal assistant. How often in life do we think of lines to say before an encounter?

Kore-eda’s ‘dislocation’ from Japan has been seamless and he even manages to include trees, though not in blossom as in his Japanese films, as emblems of a time of life.

The Day After I’m Gone (Israel-France, 2019)

So near yet…

This is writer-director Nimrod Eldar’s feature debut and an accomplished one it is. The opening is a beautiful shot of a fairground ride slowly revolving and it lasts so long it’s clear it has some symbolic value. It’s a daring start, not seeking to engage audiences immediately into the narrative and the film itself takes a distanced view of the dysfunctional daughter-father relationship of Roni and Yoram. It’s the subject of melodrama however Eldar dials back to emotions to reflect the numbness felt by the protagonists who are superbly played by Zohar Meidan and Menashe Noy.

Yoram works as a vet in a safari park (he’s better with animals than with people?) though the scenes there reveal little of his character and one encounter with ‘stupid visitors’ seems pointless. Similarly, we only see Roni when she’s with her Dad and though it’s clear that the characters are withdrawn because of the loss of a mother/wife there’s no sense Yoram was any better at connecting before their tragedy. There’s one intensely dramatic scene which is shown ‘from a distance’, from the father’s perspective, but is nevertheless effective. However, the film would have benefited if both characters’ ‘back stories’ had been given a little more detail.

Even though we see his failings as a dad, at least Yoram tries to do something to resolve the crisis and they visit their extended family headed by a racist patriarch. This allows Eldar to, tangentially at least acknowledge, the constant crisis Israeli lives are overshadowed by: their subjugation of Palestinians. However, as the film is about family and not politics it’s understandable that the issue is not dealt with in detail. There’s also a scene were youngsters ‘perform’ the song ‘I love Israel’ and the expressions of the protagonists tell us all we need to know what they think about the sympathies of this right wing family. Even though Yoram may have had good intentions he can’t get through his male stupidity and it seems he feels the victim rather than his 17-year-old daughter.

Eldar’s direction is subtle, for example there are long takes of the protagonists in a car which require the leads’ strong performances as they wordlessly wrestle with their difficulties. Sound is important too, simple things like a cheering football crowd in the distance are given resonance, and the tricky, because potentially sentimental, ending is handled very well.

If some areas are under-developed there’s more than enough to thoroughly engage us in the private grief of two alienated individuals.

Son-Mother (Pesar-Madar, Iran-Czech Republic, 2019) – CIFF2

Life at the bottom

 Having recently posted about two Iranian films by ex-pat filmmakers, it’s good to see one made in the country itself though it’s doubtful whether it will be screened there. It’s directed by feminist Mahnaz Mohammad who has been imprisoned for her feminist campaigning but bravely hasn’t let that subdue her in this her first feature which is written by Mohammad Rasoulof. It concerns Leila (Raha Khodayari), a factory worker and single mother trying to make ends meet in a dysfunctional society. Leila’s problem is she’s being courted by widower Mr. Kazem (Reza Behboodi) which leads to gossip amongst her workmates that is predictably misogynist.

In addition, economic pressures on the factory, no doubt enhanced by America’s Trumpist sanctions, mean workers are being laid off and are fearful of their position. Leila’s failure to join in a protest further alienates her colleagues from her. She has two children to look after and is estranged from her family so has no support.

The film is in two parts: ‘Son’ and ‘Mother’. Slightly perversely the titles refer to the opposite points-of-view; the first part chronicles Leila’s travails whilst the second follows the son, Amir (Mahan Nasiri), who has to deal with the consequences of not being able to join his mother with Mr. Kazem due to social mores. He’s about 10-years old and his soulful face speaks volumes as he tries to cope as best he can. Presumably the titles are emphasising the characters’ preoccupations.

In a repressive society it is of no surprise that everyone is looking out for themselves hence neighbourliness is in short supply; this was also evident in Under the ShadowTurning ‘the people’ against one another, divide and rule, makes tyranny easier; this is one of Trump’s modus operandi. Iran has been vilified, not entirely without reason, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and yet has continued to produce some marvellous films. Under repression the urge to speak out by artists is often strongest and, of course they have much to say about misfortune. In western democracies only minorities are obviously exploited and many believe even that isn’t the case.

Ashkan Ashkani’s cinematography captures the bleak cityscape and the director’s documentary background is evident in the social realist mise en scene. When she was unable to attend Cannes in 2011 Costa-Gavras read a letter she sent, stating: “I am a woman, I am a filmmaker, two sufficient grounds to be guilty in this country.” Hopefully she’ll have more opportunities to speak as she has plenty to say. It’s available here.

 

Something Different (O necem jiné, Czechslovakia, 1963)

Concrete abstract

There’s something quite dazzling about Vera Chytilová’s first fiction feature; though roughly half of it is a documentary of sorts. There are two narratives: world champion gymnast Eva Bosáková training for her last event and housewife Vera (Vera Uzelacová) dealing with the difficulties of childcare and being a housewife. Although it is clear that Bosáková’s narrative is documentary, and it climaxes with her final performance, it is shot in often highly abstract ways which are anti-realist. Whether the framing is using extreme close-ups of parts of her body or unusual angles (there are some astonishing overhead shots), Chytilová is not representing reality simply. In addition, Bosáková constantly tells her trainer-husband she can’t do things (possibly an unusual image for a sportsperson to display) and many of the movements are obviously choreographed or Jan Curík’s cinematography would have no chance to keep up with them. I’m not denying the reality of what we’re seeing but noting that the stylisation gives it a constructed feel. From a sporting perspective it is notable that gymnasts of the time were very unlike the bendy youngsters of today but no less brilliant.

The second narrative outlines Vera’s mundane life and is shot far more conventionally. Here we are in a familiar melodrama of an inattentive husband and a wife whose life horizons are severely constricted; though nowhere near as long as Chantal Ackerman’s feminist classic Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Belguim-France, 1975) – which I haven’t seen – there is enough routine shown to give a deep sense of ennui. Several times Vera pauses and says, to herself, “What was it I wanted?”

He’s not even interested in having sex with her

The only link between the two narratives is Bosáková’s appearance on Vera’s television once. However, the two strands are entwined with the superb editing of Miroslav Hájek, facilitated by Chytilová’s camera placement, that uses graphic matches to link the disparate locations. So a close-up of leg might be matched by a close-up of the same shape in the ‘other’ narrative.

Although it may seem that Bosáková has more freedom that Vera she is, mostly, coached by men telling to do things she doesn’t want to do. However, the resolution to her narrative does offer her some hope for the future; for Vera, however, the pattern seems unlikely to change.

Chytilová’s Daisies is on the great Czech New Wave films and although Something Different comes nowhere near the brilliance of that it is something different that is well worth seeing.

The Proud Valley (UK, 1940)

The workers united…

I knew nothing of the background to The Proud Valley but the swerve towards propaganda at the end felt tacked on; as it transpired to be because war was declared whilst the film was being made. Until then the subversive aspects of the film were particularly interesting and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the scriptwriters Alfredda Brilliant and Herbert Marshall were members of the left-wing Unity Theatre. In addition, having a black hero (the incomparable Paul Robeson) nailed the film as progressive. Apparently Robeson was friends of the husband and wife writing team.

Although Robeson’s acting skills are limited he only has to sing eradicate any problems with his presence. He ends up in a Welsh mining village where, because of his singing voice, he is embraced by the choir. Racism, fortunately, isn’t ignored but the ‘problem’ of his colour for some characters is glossed over quickly. Instead, this man-mountain represents workers’ solidarity, particularly in the face of the mine’s owners who are happy not to reopen the pit after an accident. Such was the lot of the working person in those days… still is of course.

Originally the end featured the community reopening the pit on their own however the start of war meant the film became the first of Ealing Studio’s ‘war effort’ productions and the characters march to London to petition the bosses to open to help with the conflict. Benevolent ‘Sir John’ agrees to give it a go and all ends well; except Robeson’s character sacrifices himself when they are reopening the mine. ‘Bosses and workers’ pulling together was undoubtedly the propaganda message required at the time but it isn’t necessary today. So I wonder why scriptwriter Anthony McCarten felt he needed to add a fictional scene to Darkest Hour (UK-US, 2017) where Churchill rode the London Underground to consult ‘the people’? Worse, ‘the people’ included an Afro-Caribbean man with whom he appears to bond through quoting Shakespeare, so eradicating Churchill’s racism!

I also wonder about the ‘necessity’ of David Goliath’s (Robeson) sacrifice. The romantic interest in the film, as it was unlikely there’d be the odd black woman lurking in the Valleys, is taken by white characters so there could be no happy romantic ending for David; indeed he sacrifices himself for the couple. It creates an emotional ending, but the celebrations for the pit reopening do follow hard behind his death in order to ensure the happy emotion. Couldn’t he have continued just as a member of the community or didn’t he belong after all?

Maybe I’m being over-critical, after all the film is progressive in many ways. As entertainment it struggles; Robeson sings little but there is some sparkling dialogue. It is, however, a testament to Robeson whose connection to Wales continued for many years after the film.

Tehran Taboo (Germany-Austria, 2017)

On the margins in Tehran

Directed and co-written (with Grit Kienzlen) by Ali Soozandeh, this is a startling representation of Tehran from the perspective of a prostitute. Startling because it is impossible for films made in Iran to show such things; Soozandeh emigrated to Germany over 20 years ago. In the 1990s Iranian cinema produced a ‘new wave’ of films with directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, the Makhmalbaf family and Jafar Panahi that were ‘validated’ by western criticism. Even in these films censorship meant that it was impossible to represent the earthier side of human life, if the directors had wished to do so directly. So the films are a bit like mid-20th century British cinema, exemplified by Brief Encounter (1945), where the only stiff things in the narrative are lips. Hence seeing Tehran Taboo is something of a shock especially as the first scene shows a prostitute attempting to give a blow-job in the front seat of a car whilst her five-year-old son is sitting in the back.

The woman, Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), is the character around which three narratives are woven: her attempts to look after her boy; a neighbour’s wife stifled by Islamic orthodoxy; a young would-be musician being conned into providing proof of virginity after a one-night stand. If the narrative around Pari seems to contradict her actions described in the first paragraph it is a tribute to the film that we understand that she has no choice but to do what she does. The hypocrisy of the ruling clerics is laid bare as is the stifling patriarchy that many women suffocate under.

As can be seen from the image, the film is rotoscoped: live action film is rendered as animation. Soozandeh explained he chose this method as he couldn’t film in Tehran and didn’t want to fake the city by shooting in Jordan. Hence, the animation’s lack of photo realism ensures that the representation of the setting is not compromised as it’s clearly not realist. The impact on the spectator is not unlike that of Waltz with Bashir, another serious rotoscoped film. However, unlike in the earlier film where the visuals conveyed the dreamlike memories of the protagonist, here it is obviously reality that is being rendered. The impact of this is to emphasise we are seeing what ‘shouldn’t’ (at least as defined by the censors in Iran) be seen: it’s both unreal and real. ‘Unreal’ because it is animated; ‘real’ because no doubt that such events depicted in the film happen.

This was Soozandeh’s debut feature; I look forward to the next one.

I vitelloni (Italy, 1953)

Art out of ordinary life

I vitelloni doesn’t have an English language title because it’s untranslatable. Wikipedia suggests The Bullocks or The Layabouts and the subtitles on this restored version (on MUBI UK) uses ‘young bucks’, which is appropriate. Five young lads are bored in Rimini (co-writer and director Frederico Fellini’s home town) and do what young lads do (probably) everywhere: dream of a better life through self-entitlement. It is also strikingly Italian: Fausto (Franco Fabrizzi) (a ‘ladies man’ in the terminology of the ’50s) is already 30-years of age and finds himself, at the start of the film, in a ‘shotgun’ wedding’; Alberto (Alberto Sordi) readily weeps about the grief his sister gives their mother.

Only the intermittent narrator, Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), seems to have his head screwed on but even he lies to his sister (to whom Fausto is married) about his mate’s infidelities; though it’s clear the deception of his sibling is as much to protect her as his friend. Such was the sexual politics of the time.

Fellini’s start in cinema was as a scriptwriter for neo-realist classics Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta, 1945) and Paisan (Paisà, 1946). Neo-realism was over by the 1950s but the influence is still evident in this film in the ordinary settings and ordinary characters. However, Fellini’s master of camera placement, particularly in crowd scenes, scream artifice rather than the ‘slice of life’ evident in, for example, Bicycle Thieves. The ballroom scene, for example, is a consummate masterclass in shooting masses of people coherently. Weaker filmmakers would use a montage including extreme long shots of the dancing mob and medium shots of legs in movement and so on. Fellini, too, uses montage but also has the camera moving through the mass and managing to artfully frame the characters at the same time. The effect is to give energy the portrayal of the scene to show how much fun everyone is having.

Artfully composed

To describe shots as ‘poetic’ can be obfuscating, however the scene at the beach where the protagonists stare into the distance (image at top) has a melancholy that not even the characters seem to be particularly aware of. Hence it is poetic as the image has more to offer than what at first meets the eye. Similarly, the wind swept, littered, deserted squares (something of a characteristic of Fellini’s films) give a sense of desperation that has an existential edge; this was particularly the case in La Strada (1954), one of his most famous films, when Gelsomina (Giulietta Massina) is trying to escape from her ‘husband’.

The Goddess (Shen nu, China, 1934)

Suffering motherhood

Despite the closure of cinemas, and having an inordinate amount of time to watch them, the films-to-see keep piling up. Recently I stumbled across ‘videos on modern Chinese culture, curated by faculty of the Department of Asian Studies of the University of British Columbia’ on YouTube giving me zero excuse not to investigate films that I’d never been able to see and had virtually no knowledge of.

Goddess, a ‘silent’ film despite being produced in the mid-thirties showing China was behind slightly in the transition to sound, proved to be a full-bloodied melodrama of maternal sacrifice. Ruan Lingyu plays the unnamed ‘goddess’; titles at the start tell us she is a prostitute and, because she is a devoted mother to her baby, the titular deity. Wikipedia tells me that ‘goddess’ was also a euphemism for prostitute in Shanghai at the time where there were 100,000 ‘street walkers’. Typically of melodrama, the downtrodden woman is the hero and the film is progressive in some ways: one of the narrative problems is that she has to overcome is social prejudice. According to Yingin Zhang, in Chinese National Cinema (2004), progressive (leftist) films in China at the time usually were a result of the scriptwriters and states that:

‘it was not unusual that the leftists praised one film by a director and then criticized his next work. Such examples include Wu Yonggang’s Goddess…, an acclaimed leftist classic, and his Little Angel [was] judged to be reactionary…’ (68)

This is puzzling as, according to imdb.com, Wu both directed and scripted Goddess. In an interesting essay ‘The Goddess: Fallen Woman of Shanghai’, Kristin Harris shows how the film was balanced between a progressive representation but at the same time fulfilled the reactionary needs of the KMT Nationalist Party which was increasing its censorship of the arts at the time. Hence, the goddess had to be punished for her transgression, as a prostitute, even as the narrative shows her to be innocent. Of course Hollywood maternal melodrama rarely offered happy endings for their victim-heroes either.

The fact that the film strongly references Hollywood productions, Stella Dallas (1925) in particular springs to mind, is not surprising as this ‘first golden age’ of Chinese filmmaking was heavily influenced by American productions. That said, there are some very striking moments in Wu’s film, particularly at the inevitable ‘murder of the pimp’ scene where the violence is directed at the camera with Lingyu’s fierce expression clearly showing she is at breaking point.

Breaking point

Lingyu was a big star and killed herself only a few months after the film was completed; she was 25. Apparently the pressures of fame and gossip columns, along with an abused childhood, broke her. She’s the subject of Centre Stage (Ruan Ling Yu, Hong Kong, 1991), directed by Stanley Kwan with Maggie Cheung in the title role; a film that’s been waiting patiently on my shelf for some time so that’s another one that will need adding to the pile.

Ema (Chile, 2019)

Lurid tale

I’ve really enjoyed the two Pablo Larraín directed films I’ve seen: No (Chile-France-Mexico-US, 2012) and the brilliant Jackie. In comparison Ema is disappointing (it’s on MUBI this month), though the problems with it are to do with Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno’s script rather than direction and performance.

A film featuring Gael García Bernal is always going to be worth seeing though he’s only in the supporting role of Gastón and even he struggles to make his choreographer character convincing. He’s married to Mariana Di Girolamo’s Ema and at the start they have returned a 9-year-old child they adopted to Children’s Services because he was too difficult for them. Hence it’s difficult to warm to the principles but I think the film assumes you will, at least, sympathise with Ema. The way the child, toward the end, is able to rationalise his rejection is beyond belief. And ‘beyond belief’ characterises the narrative contrivances of the film though that would not matter if the melodramatic contortions had been psychologically convincing: they were not.

However Di Girolamo’s performance is superb and Larraín’s direction brilliant; Sergio Armstrong’s cinematography and Estefania Larrain’s set design are also stunning. Nicolas Jaar supplies the excellent music. Lurid green is a key colour and in this context one I associated it with envy and decadence; but the narrative doesn’t support that reading. Hence there is a disconnect between the ‘moral’ of the tale and the look.

The narrative posits an opposition between conventional modern ballet and Reggaeton, street  dancing and music. Gastón reviles the latter, finding it crude, whilst Ema revels in its subversive qualities. Their marriage is crumbling and their artistic differences could have been emblematic of that: Gastón as a conventional bourgeois vs. the street subversiveness of Ema. However, in a scene with a social worker, it is clear that Gastón too is beyond the (at least in Chile) bourgeois pale. I mention Chile because homophobia, as its portrayed in the film, seems more overt than it is in other western countries (Gastón isn’t gay however is assumed to be because of his profession). Indeed, the dancing of both forms is brilliant however it skews the narrative as too long is spent indulging in watching performances when they’re not linked clearly to the film’s themes.

Ema has a penchant for using a flame thrower, another metaphor for burning away bourgeoise sensibilities; however, as in the dancing, on screen the pyromaniac scenes just looked great without convincing they were informing the narrative. I think The Guardian review nailed it when saying the script was under-cooked.

All that said, if you have access to MUBI I recommend watching it!

La prisonnière (aka Woman in Chains, France-Italy, 1968)

Breaking the bourgeoisie

This was writer-director Georges-Henri Clouzot’s last film (and the final of three being screened on MUBI) and it is an interesting expression of the ’60s Pop Art zeitgeist intermingled with ‘daring’ challenges to bourgeois sensibilities. The film’s sexual politics would take some unravelling as the ‘sexual liberation’ of the time was male friendly and any film that is about exploiting the female body needs careful consideration: is it merely titillating or is it representing misogyny critically?

Elizabeth Wiener plays Josée, a sort of hip ‘belle de jour’; Luis Buñuel’s 1967 film of that name had portrayed a bored bourgeois housewife moonlighting as a prostitute. Josée isn’t bored, she’s working as an editor on a film about domestic abuse, and her partner, Gilbert (Bernard Fresson), is a Pop Artist hustling for recognition. Laurent Terzieff plays Stan (short for Stanislas) who exhibits modern art and has a fetish for bondage photography featuring naked women. Josée finds herself strangely attracted, and appalled, to the idea of being photographed in submissive and sexual positions.

Another film lurking just behind the frame is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (UK, 1960); truly one of the most disturbing films ever made. Fetishistic close-ups of Stan’s lens reminded me of Powell’s classic, though in La prisonnière the ‘perversion’ is benign. Wiener is quite brilliant at conveying how conflicted she feels about wanting to submit when she sees herself as a modern, emancipated woman. It is a key contradiction that any feminist can feel: knowing that equality is key to self-realisation but harbouring potentially reactionary ideas at the same time. Although the film investigates this to an extent it’s probably something that cannot be wholly reconciled so any failure to elaborate a resolution is understandable.

By the time we get to the end the script (in collaboration with Monique Lange and Marcel Moussy) the film seems to have given up trying to resolve the tensions but it does finish with an incredible nightmare sequence into which Clouzot seems to have dropped every avant garde film technique he could. It’s a strange climax to the film; usually the tension that such sequences engender require many more minutes of narrative to ground: it offers more questions that answers.Tthe film is worth seeing just for this phantasmagoric sequence alone though this is not to say, by any means, the rest of the film is worthless. Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (UK-Italy, 1966) is another point of reference, particularly through the representation of popular culture. It’s admirable that Clouzot, in his 60th year, was trying to connect to the zeitgeist.

In the UK, at least, the film was released as Woman in Chains, possibly so that it wouldn’t be confused with the TV series The Prisoner (UK, 1967-8) though more likely because it offered the promise of eroticism that certain ‘smutty’ cinemas traded upon at the time.