My first day of four films was day five of the festival, which I started with an archive screening of a new restoration of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with an alternative ending sequence thrown in at the end (wisely ditched from the original film in my opinion), then a new British film introduced by its director, a Tunisian-French co-production with a star more familiar with French cinema, and finally the last screening of Rose Plays Julie, part of the official competition, and a striking Irish film which bristles with technical sophistication.
Sweet Charity (1969) [USA, certificate PG]
Bob Fosse’s first feature film was an enormous flop at the time, and this new restoration makes it clear how wrong audiences were at the time. Of course, it’s overlong, so its failure isn’t perhaps surprising, but it is a thrilling piece of cinema. Shirley MacLaine channels Gwen Verdon in the title role (and the latter’s recent embodiment by Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon makes perfect sense when you look at MacLaine here), a hopeless romantic who’s working in a hostess club as a sort of dancer/prostitute, who is to say the least unlucky in love. The film is based originally on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, and you can certainly see Giulietta Masina in MacLaine as well. Not every number adds to the story — in fact, there are plenty which just seem to add colour and verve to the proceedings, such as the “Rhythm of Life” church group led by Sammy Davis Jr., or the two back-to-back dance numbers sending up sophisticated Italian modishness. Indeed, as you might expect, there is some endlessly inventive choreography on show, not to mention elaborate set design: this film cannot have been cheap, and perhaps that’s another reason for its failure. Whatever its past may be as a production, the film jumps out of the screen with grandly restored colours and no shortage of talented dancing, not least from Paula Kelly and Chita Rivera as Charity’s best friends in the club, Helene and Nickie. The three of them do a number together on a rooftop in which they sing of their ideal jobs, all of which are heartbreakingly pedestrian in ambition, and the entire staging seems to recall the “America” number in West Side Story almost perfectly, another bitter reflection on American capitalism and its lack of real opportunity. In all, this is a restoration that recalls the greatness of a perhaps maligned and slightly lost classic of the genre, worth recalling instead as one of the greats.
Director Bob Fosse; Writer Peter Stone (based on the musical by Neil Simon, and on the film Le notti di Cabiria “Nights of Cabiria” by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Pier Paolo Pasolini); Cinematographer Robert Surtees; Starring Shirley MacLaine, John McMartin, Paula Kelly, Chita Rivera, Ricardo Montalbán, Sammy Davis Jr.; Length 149 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 6 October 2019.
Make Up (2019) [UK]
A new British film which sticks to a simple set-up but is filmed with precision and style. A young woman, Molly Windsor’s Ruth, shows up at a Cornwall beach resort towards the start of winter, intending to hook up with her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn), but who finds herself drawn into a state of jealousy over the possibility that he may have been cheating on her, which is where Jade (Stefanie Martini) enters the picture. There’s a nicely controlled sense of the slow loss of Ruth’s sanity — or at least that is what is suggested by the repeated flashbacks, the lingering close-ups of suggestive recurrent images, the dissonant soundtrack and an atmosphere of at times supernatural dread that is evoked in these eerily empty beach resort scenes. When this horror-like dread shades over into the possibility of a new relationship, you get the sense that the director is perhaps working through some anxieties in a way that really brings to the fore some of the terrors, perhaps tied to being so young and vulnerable in a hostile environment.
Director/Writer Claire Oakley; Cinematographer Nick Cooke; Starring Molly Windsor, Joseph Quinn, Stefanie Martini; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Sunday 6 October 2019.
بيك نعيش Bik Eneich (aka Un fils, A Son, 2019) [Tunisia/France/Lebanon/Qatar]
There is never any shortage of slow-burning relationship dramas in any given film festival, and this Tunisian-French co-production is exemplary of the particular strand which involves seemingly happy couples falling out over long-buried secrets that have risen to the surface. In this case, they arise when the son of Fares (French actor Sami Bouajila) and Meriem (Najla Ben Abdallah) is hospitalised and fighting for his life, and the blood tests seem to suggest that perhaps his parentage isn’t what the two of them originally thought. This cues up a long series of fractious stand-offs, and desperate attempts to reconnect both with each other and with a former life, all of which runs up against harsh Tunisian adultery laws (similar laws were in play in the recent film Sofia as well). The two lead actors do excellent work in a very understated way, which is an excellent choice I think given the tendency to go big on these kinds of emotions.
Director/Writer Mehdi Barsaoui مهدي برصاوي; Cinematographer Antoine Héberlé; Starring Sami Bouajila سامي بوعجيله, Najla Ben Abdallah نجلاء بن عبد الله; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Sunday 6 October 2019.
Rose Plays Julie (2019) [Ireland/UK]
There is perhaps at the heart of this story something gritty and very personal, which could lend itself to a more social realist sort of presentation, but directors Lawlor and Molloy treat it in a far more heightened manner that suggests Greek tragedy, with expressive operatic music and a slow-building sense of foreboding. The filmmaking on show here is precise and controlled, and though it could easily be taken as I think overly portentous, for me it works wonderfully well and atmospherically. Ann Skelly as the titular character (Rose/Julie) does a lot of very controlled staring that suggests an inner strength of resolve and power that even Aidan Gillen — who always seems to play the creepy abusers — has difficulty matching. It all ends up in a place that feels rather stagily theatrical, but it also feels somehow right for the characters, and you get the sense of filmmakers who have constructed their text in such a way that even the characters themselves seem to know what is dramatically expected of them (Rose, after all, is playing Julie), and that perhaps is at the core of its tragic method.
Directors/Writers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy; Cinematographer Tom Comerford; Starring Ann Skelly, Orla Brady, Aidan Gillen; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 6 October 2019.