My penultimate day at the London Film Festival started with a screentalk from Kasi Lemmons, director of Harriet (part of this year’s festival, though sadly a film I shan’t be seeing here, as it was a late addition), but also many other films I’ve loved over the years. Her five feature films were all covered, with clips provided, in an interview chaired by Gaylene Gould, and I’m reminded of how underrated and funny Talk to Me (2007) is, not to mention her seasonal musical drama Black Nativity (2013), though of course it’s Eve’s Bayou (1997) which received the most attention, and for good reason. Lemmons was voluble about her career, which stretches back to her early childhood as an actor, and is an inspiring figure in general, happy to speak to her many admirers after the screening. I did not ask a question, although I do wonder how the film will be received Stateside, given the recent prominent critiques of Black British actors playing iconic African-American figures. I certainly plan to see it though, and Cynthia Erivo has already shown in Widows that she’s a star in the making. Of the four films I saw, they span several countries, including two German films (one from the East in the 1960s, and the other a recent mystery thriller) both with slightly tricksy narrative structures), two black-and-white films (the East German one and a recent Saudi film directed by a woman in a magical realist style), and one documentary.
Partir (Leaving, 2009)
Somehow, 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.
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.
Un amour impossible (An Impossible Love, 2018) [France/Belgium]
After 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.
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.
Another of those films I first saw back in the 90s and enjoyed at the time, as it fit into that dark satirical space where you could laugh at the mind-blowing conceit of it all — documentarians cross the line into complicity with their (murderous) subject in what is presented as a documentary. Oh how we loved the ‘mockumentary’ that decade. So meta! So intelligently mocking! Well, anyway, I’m not sure it holds up, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m not on the wavelength of Belgian humour. I’m not in my 20s anymore is the key I think; I’m not so willing to laugh at rape and murder, however absurd, however ironically distanced. I don’t judge those who do, and I don’t think I’m better than any, it just doesn’t tickle me in quite the same way. It doesn’t help too that the pseudo-documentary style has become so familiar in intervening years. That all said, given the low budget, it’s made with a lot of style, and the performances are all solid. There are even some really good gags. I just find its satirical intent is clear within 10 minutes so the rest is largely padding.
Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is the student short by the filmmakers with a similar low-budget style, Pas de C4 pour Daniel-Daniel (No C4 for Daniel-Daniel, 1987), styled as an extended trailer for an action movie, replete with all the hoary clichés of that genre. It’s fitfully amusing but maybe Belgian humour just goes above my head, or maybe their satire (which involves a blackface character as a manservant) is too subtle. There’s also a video interview with the filmmakers upon the feature film’s release, in which they goof around, and also a small gallery of stills from the production.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde; Writers Belvaux, Bonzel, Poelvoorde and Vincent Tavier; Cinematographer Bonzel; Starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s house (DVD), London, Sunday 16 July 2017 (and years earlier on VHS in Wellington).
The title of this Proust adaptation — centred around Simon (Stanislas Merhar, the Marcel character) and his beloved Ariane (Sylvie Testud, based on Albertine) — suggests it is about the woman. But… who is the real captive here? Well, depending on your temperament, possibly not the audience. I’m being unfair, though: I love Akerman’s films, and this one hinges around male obsession and jealousy. It’s very much about him failing to control, and failing to understand, Ariane — or indeed, women in general… or other people in general maybe. He’s a difficult character to watch, and a real jerk in his quiet, devotional way. Lots of long takes add to the atmosphere nicely, even if I’ll always prefer Akerman’s documentaries over her arthouse genre exercises (as I think of this and Almayer’s Folly, no doubt unfairly).
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman (based on La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust); Cinematographer Sabine Lancelin; Starring Sylvie Testud, Stanislas Merhar; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 6 January 2017.
This is a documentary about a great filmmaker, one who sadly died shortly after its completion, presenting interviews with her contextualising her films and work, as well as clips of the films, and fragments of her working on her latest (and as it turns out, last) film, the brilliant No Home Movie. It doesn’t slavishly copy Akerman’s own style but it imparts a sense of it (heightened obviously by the clips), staying grounded in Akerman’s own words and experiences. Luckily, she’s a voluble speaker and a fascinating screen presence. It may not itself dig deep into Akerman’s oeuvre but it allows plenty of jumping-off points for further discussion and research, and that itself has some value.
Director Marianne Lambert; Writers Luc Jabon and Marianne Lambert; Cinematographer Rémon Fromont; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at JW3, London, Wednesday 14 December 2016.
There is, it seems to me, a strong tradition in French cinema for the kind of atmospherics created by this film of Alice Winocour (who also co-wrote festival favourite Mustang). It properly puts itself inside the head of its protagonist Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts), a soldier on leave due to post-traumatic stress, who takes up a security job to keep him busy. There are textures that remind me of aspects of Claire Denis‘s or Philippe Grandrieux’s works, a sort of low-key threatening feeling that’s constantly in the background. For much of the film it’s very difficult to be sure if this is all just in Vincent’s head, or if it represents an actual danger to those he’s in charge of protecting — Jessie (Diane Kruger), the wife of a foreign businessman, and her son. The tone is expertly mediated through an evocative sound design and electronic score that keeps the mood tense even when little appears to be happening narratively on-screen. It’s an open-ended film with a mysterious resolution that seems to come more from the emotional state of its protagonist than from anything in the diegetic world of the film, and despite what some have written, it never quite follows the well-trodden path of multiple Hollywood action thrillers covering the same kind of themes. Certainly for those such as myself who have not been the biggest fans of Schoenaerts’ acting work (admittedly I’ve only seen films of his in English), this is a welcome surprise and an intelligent, absorbing thriller.
Director Alice Winocour; Writers Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron; Cinematographer Georges Lechaptois; Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Diane Kruger; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Wednesday 30 March 2016.
It didn’t exactly make a large splash on release, but that’s a pity because this is a very welcome documentary about ageing Muslim women who had moved from Morocco to Belgium when they were young, and are easing themselves back into society after married lives spent largely shut away (the title is the familiar promise of better things ahead when they die). The documentary certainly pays attention to its most colourful character in the extroverted singer and performer Tata Milouda, but in fact there’s a tight-knit group of women at the film’s heart, and eventually we get to know most of them, particularly Mina who takes on narration duties. We see them attending Milouda’s gigs, taking language classes in a local cultural centre, making day trips around Belgium and eventually travelling to New York. It doesn’t delve into prejudice or racism so much (one certainly expects a lot more of it when they undertake their US trip), but rather focuses on the practicalities and rewards of living life in the present, along the way giving voice and representation to a group who are often unfairly demonised by Western media.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Hadja Lahbib; Cinematographers Yannick Dolivo, Vincent Hufty, Jonas Canon and Cyrille Blaise; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 21 January 2016.
Re-watching Akerman’s œuvre over the last few years with the help of film collective À Nos Amours has been instructive in tracing some of the repeated themes and motifs of her work. A lot of those can be found again in this final film of hers, which returns once more to her mother Natalia as subject, a presence who has haunted so many of Chantal’s films, even as she hasn’t often appeared. Compared to some of her more recent work, there’s a warmth and playfulness to the conversations between Akerman mère and fille which make it positively comical for stretches of its running time. And yet this is a film about loss and death, both that of Natalia (who died at the end of 2014) and, inevitably, sadly, Chantal herself. That sense of finality is played out in the metaphor that opens and closes the film, of a strong wind buffeting the fragile signs of life in a barren landscape (presumably Israel), which finally dies out. But it’s equally brought to mind by the spectral resonances here of all her film work. There are long lateral tracking shots taken from a car of this dusty environment (recalling D’est), shots taken through net curtains (Là-bas), and plenty of long, often empty, fixed shots through doorways (Hôtel Monterey). The domestic space in which most of the film takes place, Natalia’s Brussels flat, recalls too Chantal’s most famous early works, particularly Jeanne Dielman (1975), and her earliest, 1968’s short film Saute ma ville. The kitchen of that first film — in the Akerman family home when Chantal was aged 18 — still oddly resembles the one where Natalia sits and eats her breakfast here even though it’s a different home, while of course Jeanne Dielman’s methodical household tidying is clearly based on Natalia. For all that it’s freighted with this latent emotional baggage, it’s only ever captivating to watch these images (at least, such was my experience), both those shot in the family home (home no longer, as the title testifies) and on a laptop from Chantal’s travels — an implicit critique surely of all those recent narratives that try to lay the blame at technology’s door for some social failing of human connection. But death remains painful and powerful and the final stretches are difficult to watch, as Akerman’s mercurial 50 years of filmmaking cuts to black.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chantal Akerman; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Friday 30 October 2015.
It’s not been uncommon over the last couple of decades for French films to mine a disturbing terrain of imagery and emotion, but the problem I’ve had with directors like Gaspar Noé and Bruno Dumont is quite often that their cinema of transgression tends to rely on nasty, bloody, vicious things like rape, torture and murder. But perhaps, the slender œuvre of Lucile Hadzihalilovic suggests, nothing is quite so transgressive as life. After a wait of over ten years since her last film Innocence comes Evolution (already a fondness for titles which work in both English and French), which has something of a similar trajectory in dealing with that liminal stage in which children move into being teenagers. Hadzihalilovic has a way of converting societal expectations around protecting children from the adult world into something more tangibly oppressive: where in Innocence it was the girls’ boarding school, where new students entered in a coffin, here it’s an isolated island town with only boys (of whom Max Brebant is the protagonist) being looked after by mother figures, who seem to be participants in some kind of communal procreative rite backed up by a medicalised procedure to ensure their sons never become men. It’s this medical aspect which is most disturbing, suggesting eugenics and involving some kind of invasive surgical experimentation. At the same time, there’s a blurred boundary around gender identity and procreation: we never see any men, the women on the island don’t appear to have sexual organs, and the surgical procedures call into question exactly who is gestating the foetuses and how they are being brought to term. Of course none of this is intended to make literal sense — throughout the film, there’s an eeriness to the lighting and colours that imparts a distinctly oneiric quality, especially combined with the non-expressive acting, its female leads apparently chosen for the blank mask-like faces (particularly that of Roxane Duran as Stella, a nurse with a strange connection to Max’s character). And so the story has more of a timeless, mythical quality, much like the director’s first film. I can only hope there won’t be another 11 year wait for the next one.
Director Lucile Hadžihalilović; Writers Hadžihalilović and Alanté Kavaïté; Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse; Starring Max Brebant, Roxane Duran; Length 81 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Tuesday 13 October 2015.
A Nos Amours, a collective dedicated to the highest ideals of cinema as art, has been screening month by month over the past few years all the works of Chantal Akerman, of which this was the penultimate instalment. So it was hugely saddening to hear of her death since I saw this film only a week ago. She will always be remembered for the great Jeanne Dielman (1975), not to mention her other major films of the 1970s including Je tu il elle (1976) and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), a personal favourite. Her newest film, No Home Movie, will be screening on 30 October (I already have my tickets) and there’s a major installation/exhibition at Ambika P3 starting on that date also, so there remains a chance for film lovers to celebrate her work here in London.
I don’t think there’s any easy way in to Akerman’s work, but Down There probably isn’t it. It makes very few concessions to audience pleasure, but it is after its fashion very rigorous about what it presents. The film consists mostly of fixed views from within a Tel Aviv apartment, shot on a grainy video through the close-set blinds of the apartment, both showing the world outside (neighbouring apartment blocks and these vague glimpses we get of their residents going about their lives) at the same time as presenting an idea of entrapment. It’s a personal essay film, dealing with Akerman’s time living in Israel and her relationship to that country, which can at best be said to be ambivalent. Periodic voiceovers have Akerman musing on her situation, on what’s been happening outside her apartment block (a recent explosion) and on her family history, while we also hear her take phone calls and brush people off. It makes for a suffocating sense of (self) imprisonment only lifted towards the end by a brief sequence on a beach, and some shots that aren’t taken through the blinds. Down There may not be the easiest film to approach, but it feels like a very intimate, artistic take on personal history and Jewish identity.
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographers Akerman and Robert Fenz; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 1 October 2015.