La mujer del puerto (The Woman of the Port, 1934)

Film posterDespite the taut running time, this feels like a slightly underwritten film. That may partly be due to it being an early sound film, and so still an art form trying to figure out its conventions, but there are long sequences that feel repetitious, even if the intention is to build the melodramatic potential of a plot that isn’t short on soap operatic detail. Andrea Palma is the titular character, Rosario, a woman with a dusky Dietrich-like allure (you can’t avoid that image of her that adorns the poster; it’s almost iconic in the golden age of Mexican cinema), but she is spurned by an unfaithful boyfriend and her father dies trying to protect her honour. Without him she is clearly unwelcome; during these early scenes set in the city, there’s a particularly memorable trio of judgmental older women in her apartment block, who gather around the camera and conspire against Rosario and her father. Needless to say she soon leaves town and, with few options open to her, finds work at the port of Veracruz in a convivial establishment. For a film of this period it’s all fairly clear what’s going on, though a very late twist takes the tale in unexpectedly dark directions. What really makes the film, though, apart from Palma’s excellent performance, is the direction. Russian emigré Boytler may experiment with any number of scene transitions (wipes in every direction, up and down, irises, and lots of lap dissolves), but he has an effective way with overlapping images suggesting memories and premonitions, and coordinates some excellent cinematography replete with expressionist lighting (largely the work of another emigré, the Canadian DoP Alex Phillips, whose credit will show up on several other films of the era). For a film that tells a story of setback piling on setback ultimately leading to tragedy, there’s a feeling not of oppressive gloom but rather a kind of poetic realism (familiar with some contemporary French cinema). This may not be entirely successful, but it’s a fascinating gem from early Mexican cinema.

CREDITS Directors Arcady Boytler Аркадий Бойтлер and Raphael J. Sevilla; Writer Raphael J. Sevilla (based on the novel Le Port by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographer Alex Phillips; Starring Andrea Palma, Domingo Soler; Length 76 minutes; Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 16 July 2019.

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Two Films by Catherine Corsini: Leaving (2009) and An Impossible Love (2018)

Partir (Leaving, 2009)

Film posterSomehow, French films never seem quite as French as they could be until they have Kristin Scott Thomas in them, and so this film feels very French. It has all your classic themes of a slow-boiling relationship drama, not least adulterous passions leading to an explosion of violence and anger. Characters circle around each other, playing a talky psychological game about love, divorce, the ungrateful kids, and the threat of losing everything (or at least one’s access to a thoroughly bourgeois lifestyle). It’s fascinating to me how it is that Scott Thomas is such a fixture of this kind of French cinema, but she is, still, a very good actor.

CREDITS Director Catherine Corsini; Writers Corsini and Gaëlle Macé; Cinematographers Agnès Godard; Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sergi López, Yvan Attal; Length 85 minutes; Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 April 2019.


A woman is followed by a smoking man

Un amour impossible (An Impossible Love, 2018)

Film posterAfter making the 1970-set romance La Belle saison (2015), Corsini returns with a film that steps back a few decades but spans multiple generations. It starts with a young woman who has a passionate affair with a man; he’s charming and then he leaves, and at this point already the type seems familiar, from film as from life (not my own life; I do try to be better than that). But she keeps trying to reconnect with him despite his abandoning her while she was pregnant, and he comes back into their lives for brief moments over the following years, until things take a darker turn. However, even at this point it’s never about the darkness, as about this bond between mother and daughter, and the way that it’s seen by the mother (although the film as a whole is narrated by the daughter).

Virginie Efira’s performance as Rachel is really great, because so much is just on her looking, expressively, and even when she’s supposed to be in her 70s or something (towards the end) and the ageing makeup is alright but she’s hardly convincing as someone that age, it doesn’t really matter, because it all rests in that interaction between her and her daughter Chantal. In the end, then, it’s a character study of someone who loves too deeply, placed in a situation just as much by a society that rewards taking a man’s name as by this feckless man himself (although he is clearly at fault, and an awful man besides), who pursues something — a connection, a patrimony, an idea of the ideal family — that ends up hurting her daughter more than her.

Basically, there’s a lot going on in the film, a lot of barely-buried emotion, which never overwhelms the story, or becomes melodramatic or cloying, but is always there.

CREDITS Director Catherine Corsini; Writers Corsini and Laurette Polmanss (based on the novel by Christine Angot); Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Virginie Efira, Niels Schneider; Length 135 minutes; Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Monday 7 January 2019.

La Vagabonde (1932)

The history of women making films in France, as in the United States, stretches back to the silent era. Musidora’s formative influence as a director and star (in such films as Soleil et ombre and Pour Don Carlos) extends to this Colette adaptation, an early sound film, as she was originally attached to the project. The film was restored in the mid-1990s and was presented again as part of the Musidora strand at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.


Film posterBased on a text (and with a filmed introduction) by Colette, this is a delicately-told story of a woman trying to free herself from the bad, possessive men in her life (it was originally published just as Colette was getting divorced from Willy). The film has long stretches of silent action (though one supposes this is hardly unusual in early sound films) and can be a little unforgiving to watch, and yet there are these beautifully expressive passages, both in the acting (the weary way Marcelle Chantal as music hall actor Renée Nérée pushes a man’s hand off her, or a subtle raise of her pencil-thin eyebrows while drinking wine) and the direction (Renée’s experience with two different men are united via lap dissolves between the scenes, as their actions are a further indictment of chauvinist arrogance and predatory intentions). In terms of tone, it feels like a precursor to the ‘poetic realism’ that would take hold in French filmmaking throughout the decade. As the film progresses, it builds up these short scenes, little vignettes of a sad life, before a final sequence at the docks as she longs to sail away.

CREDITS Director Solange Bussi [later Solange Térac]; Writer Colette (based on her novel); Cinematographers Rudolph Maté and Louis Née; Starring Marcelle Chantal, Fernand Fabre; Length 66 minutes; Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Mastroianni), Bologna, Sunday 23 June 2019.

Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis

Cécile Decugis (1934-2017) has never really been a prominent film name, which is a shame. She may have only made a handful of short and medium-length films as director (which I like well enough), but she makes it to my Women Filmmakers’ feature for her more prominent work as a film editor. She worked on some of the most important French Nouvelle Vague films of the 1950s and 1960s, films which were known particularly for their innovative editing (usually ascribed to their more famous directors). These films include many of the works of Éric Rohmer (she worked with him through to the 1980s), as well as a few other minor works you may not have heard of like À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959) and Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959, along with Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte, another editor, of Martinican heritage). Her activism on behalf of Algerian independence began in the late-1950s with her first short film, and ended up costing her two years in prison from 1960-62. Her own films were often about people in a certain existential confusion, it seems to me, and I got a chance to see them at the invaluable Il Cinema Ritrovato festival (though I only caught half of the full programme).


Kids waiting to be fed

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis”

Women Filmmakers: Sólveig Anspach

I’ve not been having the greatest success at keeping my ‘Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday’ strand going, so I’ve decided to change it up a bit to be more film-focused. I recently watched two films by French-Icelandic director Sólveig Anspach, and they each struck me as interesting works. Digging into her biography, she was born in 1960 of an Icelandic architect mother and a German-Romanian father who had fled Nazi Germany. She studied psychology in Paris, and then filmmaking at FÉMIS, and lived much of her life in France. She sadly died of cancer not so long ago (2015) at the age of only 54. She has a number of documentary works to her name, as well as these feature films below (two of six features she made in total, or seven if you include her TV film) — for some reason each of them having an English language title, even in France. Needless to say, I believe she deserves to be better known.


Elodie Bouchez looks concerned

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Sólveig Anspach”

Two 1988 Films by Agnès Varda: Jane B. by Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!

Both these films were made by Varda as collaborations with Jane Birkin. The idea for Kung-Fu Master! came from Birkin during the production of Jane B. and so Varda helped her realise the concept. Varda’s similarly playful (and similarly titled) final film Varda par Agnès (2019) is released in the UK this Friday 19 July.


Jane Birkin with Agnes Varda reflected in a mirror

Jane B. par Agnès V. (Jane B. by Agnès V., 1988)

Film posterWatching this film for the first time 30 years after it was made, I wonder if Todd Haynes had seen it before making his one about Bob Dylan (I’m Not There). There’s a similar sort of playfulness in the way that it takes a person’s life (Jane Birkin’s in this case) and reworks it, plays with what it means to be represented on film, to be a performer and inhabit roles, and how the (re)presentation changes the meaning of what we see. We see Birkin in a variety of costume dramas and staged tableaux of baroque paintings, or enacting genre scripts (a gangster heist drama, or a love story across generational boundaries with Varda’s son Mathieu, expanded into feature-length as Kung-Fu Master!), as well as talking to Varda in almost (and yet not quite) documentary-like behind-the-scenes setups. It’s fun and perplexing, dazzling and strange, in ways that get to the core of being a public figure, of acting and of filmmaking itself. Plus, it has a very self-awarely digressive style that pulls all this material together and even makes it seem natural.

CREDITS Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Nurith Aviv and Pierre-Laurent Chénieux; Starring Jane Birkin, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Agnès Varda; Length 80 minutes; Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 16 June 2018.


Kung-Fu Master! (1988)

Film posterThis is an odd film, and one can see how it might have languished somewhat in Agnès Varda’s filmography, given its themes. Even so, Varda imparts an earnest inquisitiveness to the whole undertaking that almost redeems the slightly dicey subject matter. It was more of Birkin’s conceit than Varda’s, as middle-aged Birkin falls for her daughter’s 14-year-old school friend (played by Varda’s son Mathieu), and in which she is abetted by her own family. Indeed, much of Birkin’s extended clan appears here, in scenes set in both Paris and London, and so this is also in some way an exploration of family dynamics. The documentary elements extend to scenes, apparently unrelated to the drama as a whole, depicting the panic around AIDS in both countries, and these are almost more troubling than the central plotline (especially given Varda’s husband died only a few years later of complications from this disease), and hearing contemporary schoolyard homophobic taunts is somewhat brutal, even if they don’t go unchallenged. But that central story, with its uncomfortable age and power dynamics, is treated simply, with a strange tenderness, but it never feels comfortable (nor indeed should it), and makes the film as a whole, well… very odd.

CREDITS Director Agnès Varda; Writers Jane Birkin and Varda; Cinematographer Pierre-Laurent Chénieux; Starring Jane Birkin, Mathieu Demy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lou Doillon; Length 80 minutes; Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Tuesday 14 May 2019.

Pour Don Carlos (For Don Carlos, 1921)

A lady is accosted by a military officerThis 90-minute feature may have been cut down from a much longer original, but even what survives has had to be painstakingly put together by a team of restorers from various Cinemathèques, resulting in what was presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato as a work-in-progress. Truthfully I found the historical drama aspects difficult to follow, and there’s a lot that writer/director/star Musidora attempts to fit into this story of a political conflict over bringing Don Carlos (Charles VII) to the Spanish throne in the 1870s. However, Musidora clearly had a love affair with Spain (just as the camera has with her), as she returned to that setting for other films she made in the 20s. Here, she plays a supporter of Don Carlos called Allegria, and for much of the first half of the film is dressed resplendently in a military uniform, cutting quite the gloriously dashing figure. There’s a second section where she’s a poor peasant woman trying to free a colleague from captivity, which comes on rather suddenly, and wasn’t quite as compelling, but Musidora remains a charismatic screen presence.

CREDITS Directors Musidora and Jacques Lasseyne; Writer Musidora (based on the novel by Pierre Benoît); Cinematographers Frank Daniau-Johnston and Léonce Crouan; Starring Musidora, Stephen Weber; Length 90 minutes; Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Mastroianni), Bologna, Wednesday 26 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 244: Elena et les hommes (Elena and Her Men, 1956)

There’s a lot of flustered rushing about in this film that feels familiar from Jean Renoir’s work (like The Rules of the Game most famously, of course). It’s all bright and colourful, and so very very French in its way. Ingrid Bergman as a Polish princess with her many suitors is a delight, too. I’m not sure it’s Renoir’s wittiest film, but everyone comes across as a bit of a fool, even (and especially) the grandest of military and political men, when compared to the effortless charm of Bergman’s Elena, and that feels like the point of the film really. And it’s a good point to make once again, of course.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Jean Serge and Renoir | Cinematographer Claude Renoir | Starring Ingrid Bergman, Jean Marais, Mel Ferrer | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 11 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 11 March 2019)

Criterion Sunday 239: Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936)/Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957)

I am perhaps missing something, but Renoir somehow contrives to make this story of the poorest in society seem like another of his genteel comedies of etiquette and civility, a twirl through upper-class society mores but with shabbier clothes and fewer prospects. It certainly doesn’t feel like something based on a Russian source, but then perhaps in 1936 that’s not the kind of story that was needed. The poor and the rich are just part of a continuum perhaps, all on the same level, and certainly the Baron character moves swiftly and easily between the two. Still, not much seems particularly convincing, though Gabin remains a watchable screen presence in the lead role as a likeable thief.

A few decades later and Kurosawa’s take on Gorky’s slum-set drama really gets the sense of grinding poverty that eluded Renoir, I think. That said, by this point, Mifune’s scowling renegade character seems a little weary, barking at all the other characters in the way that hardly ingratiates him as a charismatic centre. No, instead this film is really about all the other flophouse inhabitants, each of whom has their various intersecting thing going on (and reminds me a little of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana). To be honest, none of it ever really held me, but Kurosawa has a way with the camera and the staging that remains impressive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936) || Director Jean Renoir | Writers Yevgeni Zamyatin, Jacques Companéez, Renoir and Charles Spaak (based on the play Na dne by Maxim Gorky) | Cinematographer Fédote Bourgasoff | Starring Jean Gabin, Suzy Prim, Louis Jouvet | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 11 February 2019

Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957) || Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Hideo Oguni and Kurosawa (based on the play Na dne by Maxim Gorky) | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Kyoko Kagawa, Isuzu Yamada | Length 124 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, DVD, Thursday 14 February 2019

Criterion Sunday 234: Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1979)

I do sort of understand what’s going on here in this strange, carnivalesque, alternately gleeful and bleak evocation of pre-war and wartime Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Its protagonist is a young child, Oskar (David Bennent), who has foreseen his future and decided he wants to remain in the body of a 3-year-old (well, an 11-year-old for the purposes of the actor anyway), using the drum of the title to beat out his own tune as he first reacts against the encroaching Nazification and then finds himself dragged in as well. There are all kinds of sprightly filmmaking touches, the hand-cranked sped-up film of the intro flashing back many decades, the absurdist plot and character details, and of course the ridiculous perversity of this teenager-in-a-child’s-body growing, learning, reading and falling in love. Yet I never can quite connect with him or care about his story: he’s a nasty character — and yes, of course he is, that entirely makes sense — and his story is one with parallels in the bleak hopelessness of the Nazi era, but his childish, imp-like quality is just incessant, and it becomes grating. I never much take to magic realism or carnivalesque absurdity, and there’s plenty of the latter on show here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff | Writers Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière and Franz Seitz (based on the novel by Günter Grass) | Cinematographer Igor Luther | Starring David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler | Length 163 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 1 January 2019