The Falling (UK, 2014)

Less than the sum of its parts

Less than the sum of its parts

I recommend going to see this film even though I was ultimately disappointed by it and there’s plenty of spoilers following so beware.

A film about females is a rare event in our Oedipal-riddled world and so The Falling immediately has novelty going for it; it is written and directed by Carol Morley and brilliantly shot by Agnes Godard. It draws upon a true story of fainting girls in a school in the late 1960s; nothing was found to be wrong with them. I experienced similar ‘fits’ in my first year of teaching when up to three lasses would keel over in the middle of my English class. Being male I didn’t attribute this to my teaching.

Morley indirectly diagnoses their complaint to be patriarchy; of course it didn’t need the late ’60s setting for females to be suffering from that disease however things were worse then. It focuses on the friendship between Abbie (newcomer Florence Pugh, on the left above) and Lydia (Maisie Williams familiar from Game of Thrones); the former’s sexual experiences unsettle their relationship. They are at a girls’ school full of repression, exemplified by Greta Scacchi’s Miss Mantel; a great piece of casting as Scacchi was known for libidinous roles earlier in her career. The acting is fabulous throughout the film.

Morley’s first feature was the effective dramadoc Dreams of a Life (UK-Ireland, 2011) which recreated the life of a woman whose body was found years after it had expired in a London flat. The Falling is extremely ambitious and there is so much to like: its obtuse take on nature, the brooding tree and autumnal pond; the inclusion of rapidly edited ‘subliminal’ montages that might be flashbacks; the male voice of the therapist questioning the girls is mixed  to feel as though it’s emanating from your own head (emphasising the hegemony of patriarchy); Maxine Peake, who plays Lydia’s mother, barely has a line but conveys pent-up frustration with the quivering fag in her fingers. All this is brilliant but…

For me it didn’t hang together. It could be the film needs a second viewing but I think the incest was pointless and detracted from the representation of repressed females through sensationalism and pathologising the protagonist. I’ve tagged the film as horror though it’s certainly not conventionally horrific; it’s only toward the end the genre makes its presence felt. It might have been better if horror iconography had been introduced earlier. Incidentally, the credit sequence at the end is terrifically designed.

As I said, it is a film that needs seeing because it deals with female experience and too many of western narratives (and those of other cultures) assume the male experience is paramount. Hopefully Morley will get to make another film soon; too many of our great female directors (Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold for example) struggle to get their films made. Maybe in the next one Morley will be able to more successfully integrate form and content. If this sounds critical then I am being unfair as it is far from shameful to ‘fail’ (if that’s what she has done) when aiming so high. I’m very interested in what female viewers make of the film…

10 Films for International Women’s Day

Vera Chytilová, writer-director of Daisie

Vera Chytilová, writer-director of Daisies

10 cracking movies made by and about women; in alphabetical order:

  1.  Antonia’s Line (Antonia, Netherlands-Belgium-UK-France, 1995)
  2. Daisies (Sedmikrásky, Czechosolvakia, 1966)
  3. Dance Girl Dance (US, 1940)
  4. The Day I Became a Woman (Roozi ke zan shodam, Iran, 2000)
  5. Frida (US-Canada-Mexico, 2002)
  6. Ginger & Rosa (US-Denmark-Canada-Croatia, 2012)
  7. Meshes of an Afternoon (US, 1943)
  8. The Piano (New Zealand-Australia-France, 1993)
  9. Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?, France-Lebanon-Egypt-Italy, 2011)
  10. Winter’s Bone (US, 2010)


The Green Ray (Le rayon vert, France, 1986)

Where do I go from here?

Where do I go from here?

The Bechdel test is mentioned regularly on the feminist sites I look at and The Green Ray, known as Summer in America, certainly passes. It follows Delphine (Marie Rivière) as she decides what to do after a friend dropped out of a holiday at the last minute. Delphine is unhappy and whilst the cause of this is because she’s been dumped by a man the film focuses on her desires rather then men’s. It’s ‘co-scripted’, or rather improvised, by Rivière and director Erich Rohmer and this, with the location shooting, where you can see passers-by looking at the filming with curiosity, gives the film a realist dimension. All the other characters are ‘playing’ themselves including Paulette Christlein, the ‘free spirit’ Delphine meets in Biarritz, who, like the other performers I sampled, never appeared in another film.

The long-takes, and meandering narrative, is similar to the style and form that Richard Linklater used in his Midnight films; the subject matter is similar too. Not a lot happens, or rather, quite a lot happens slowly and I was wondering why I was enjoying the film so much as it seemed to be an example of Rohmer’s whimsy. It helps that Rivière’s is brilliant and the several locations used are beautifully shot. The revelation, toward the end, of what the ‘green ray’ is does give the film a weightier philosophical dimension. I don’t think the title Summer is a good one; presumably distributors were afraid audiences might confuse the film with science fiction.

It has recently been re-released in the UK and it’s well-worth catching this film, particularly if you like Linklater.

Gloria (Chile-Spain, 2013)

A lust for life

A lust for life

When discussing ageing with pupils I suggest that everyone wants to grow old. After a moment of derision they usually realise that the statement is true. However, the ageing body is clearly a monstrous Other in western society where we, women in particular, are urged to avoid showing the outward signs of decrepitude. Gloria, played brilliantly by Paulina Garcia, is a woman who is ‘past her prime’ and a lone divorcee who we meet in a singles bar. She has a lust for life and that, another taboo in mainstream cinema, includes a lust for sex. Few films deal with sex in old age though Hollywood has dipped into this demographic with films like the funny It’s Complicated (2009) and the dreadful Hope Springs (2012) (where giving her husband a blow job solves the marital problems). However neither of this films show the sex, Gloria does in all its glory and ageing bodies.

Sebastián Lelio directs (he also co-wrote) in a detached fashion, often framing in a medium to long shot with a static camera, in a relatively long take, allowing us observe the ‘always-on-screen’ Gloria at a distance. Sometimes this means the action isn’t clearly framed, however the technique works well to offer a certain detachment to the melodrama allowing us to more readily admire Gloria rather than be too emotionally involved in her situation. Gloria doesn’t want our sympathy, she just wants to get on with her life. There are a couple of marvellous melodramatic emblems: a street puppeteer has a skeleton dancing leading Gloria to give her on-off lover one more chance, it repreesnts mortality writ large; she finally rids herself of the ‘lover’ by shooting him with his own splatter gun.

Gloria’s lust for life includes her children but they, whilst loving, are detached from her and have their own lives; they obviously feel their mother no longer has much of a purpose for them. Garcia is marvellous at portraying her disappointment at her offspring whilst never showing them that she is hurt. This dislocation from the past is also a key part of the film’s politics. A dinner table discussion about Chilean society leads Gloria to suggest that children have been hard done by in the post-Pinochet period. Understandably Chileans want to move on from the brutal dictator’s time but Leilo suggests that the bourgeoisie are only concerned with their own cosy existence.

The film isn’t simply about ageing it’s also about gender and men come across as particularly pathetic. Gloria’s paramour, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), whilst undoubtedly in lust, and maybe in love, with Gloria cannot break from his past – particularly his needy daughters. He’s shown to be emotionally stunted as if he believes his desire for  Gloria should be enough to sustain the relationship. He gets what he deserves when she shoots him. At the end we see Gloria, as she was at the beginning, dancing alone. At the start of this dance, however, she is surrounded by women. Leilo may be a bit too  harsh one men: we’re not all that bad!

Gloria is a cracking film that shows us oldies still have a lot of life in us.

The Source (La source des femmes, Belgium-Italy-France, 2011)

Power to the women

Power to the women

The lukewarm review, from the usually reliable Philip Kemp, in Sight & Sound, caused me to overlook this powerful melodrama. Kemp notes some faults in the film, a slightly tangled narrative, but they are far outweighed by the representation of strong Muslim women fighting against patriarchy.

It stars Leïla Bekhti as a young outsider in a North African Arab village who decides to organise a love strike, inspired by Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, to get the men to do some work rather than sip tea all day. Their demand is that water be piped to the village. Aided by a formidable older woman, Leila (also the character’s name) finds all the forces of conservatism arraigned against her. However writer-director, the French based Romanian Radu Mihaileanu, is careful to draw shades of grey with some of the women opposing the strike and some men supporting; the local town council are also shown to be complicit in women’s oppression; ‘if women get water then they will want washing machines next’. ‘Radical Islam’ is also represented and it’s important the representations of ‘liberal Islam’ are circulated in the west as many people’s views of the religion are shaped by the right wing press.

The DVD I saw is 15 minutes shorter than the cinema release (according the imdb) but I’m not sure that I missed much; though I would prefer to make my own mind up. The narrative does sag a little but the vitality, and humour, of the film made it a fulfilling watch.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (US-Swe-UK-Ger, 2011)

'You will do as you're told!'

It’s inherently irritating that Hollywood insists on remaking commercially successful foreign-language films as it’s due to the fact that the majority of film-goers, in America and UK at least, won’t watch subtitled films. Anyone who has watched a subtitled film knows that after a few minutes they are barely noticeable. Hollywood is only interested in making money and the issue of whether the remake can add something to the original matters little to it. Filmmakers, however, often want to put their stamp upon the new version and it can be interesting to look at differences, many of which will be cultural. Hollywood, of course, can also spend more money on the film which, while not necessarily a good thing, can raise the production values.

However, Hollywood will also spend money for the sake of it. After the ‘indie’ success of Sitting Ducks (US, 1980), director Henry Jaglom was offered an enormous amount of money to make a film. He said that he’d make 10 films for that amount; the offer was withdrawn. Money means stars and, although their importance is in decline, this brings an extra set of baggage to the narrative; though the only ‘big’ name in the remake of Tattoo is Daniel Craig (Stellan Skarsgaard is also well known as a supporting actor).

Having read the book and taught the original film I had a lot of baggage when watching the remake. However I admired Fincher’s early films (I wrote a York Film Notes on Se7en, nla) so was interested in what he could make of the film. Incidentally, apropos the previous post, the Kim Newman in February’s Sight & Sound states ‘that Fincher brings cutting-edge Hollywood narrative skills…’ (18a); I suspect that that was scriptwriter Steve Zallian, Kim.

Did I enjoy the remake? No… what follows is a number of points, in no particular order, outlining my dissatisfaction and contains spoilers:

  • the film is well-acted but Daniel Craig is wrong for the role. He’s far too beefy, and carries connotations of action-man Bond, for the role of the non-macho journalist.
  • there are a number of points that reduce Salander’s spiky character including the first sex scene where, as in the original she starts on top but, unlike the original, finishes underneath.
  • After the sex, in the original, Salander gets out of bed and Blomkvist complains he wants her to stay for a post-coital cuddle; the remake fades to black…
  • and fades up with Salander having made breakfast! FFS!
  • Salander saves Blomkvist but then asks his permission to kill Vanger; the original’s denouement is far superior as Salander does what she wants which includes failing to save Vanger after the car crash. She is not faced with this choice in the remake.
  • There is an absurd shot of Salandar with a gun framed in front of the burning car; we’ve suddenly switched genres to a mainstream action flick.
  • Blomkvist’s assent to the death of Vanger removes the moral dilemma from the original in favour ‘let’s kill the bastard’.

So it is an artistically pointless remake with the hard-edges of Salander’s character smoothed off for the patriarchal American audience. The original Swedish title of the book was Men Who Hate Women and while I can understand the publisher changing this to a more commercial title, why not ‘woman’ instead of ‘girl’ – see an excellent post by Anne Helen Petersen.

I did like Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’ score though but found the much-praised title sequence too much like a music video.

UPDATE (11/1/12): Hmm, might have to revise my opinion that title sequence was like a music video… see here.

Katalin Varga (Romania-UK, 2009)

On the road to the past

This is an extraordinary film in that it’s the debut feature of British director Peter Strickland and a compelling vengeance-movie as the protagonist, expelled from her Transylvanian village, seeks the perpetrators of her misfortune. That Strickland had to go to Romania to make a debut feature is a poor reflection on the UK film industry, but this has allowed him to take advantage of the beautiful scenery and the distinctive village culture that, apparently, still exists. The story unfolds tangentially, and slowly, but nevertheless grips the attention.

Cinematographer Márk Györi gives the landscape a sinister beauty entirely in keeping with the narrative. Hilda Péter, as Katalin, has great presence,  inhabiting convincingly her driven character. In fact, the whole cast – a Hungarian theatre company – are excellent. Great music on the soundtrack too.

According to imdb, Strickland’s next film is due in more two years! I’ve categorised the film as Eastern European, rather than British despite Strickland’s producer-writer-director role, because it appears to be absolutely Romanian. Strickland could be a brilliant filmmaker.