LFF 2019 Day Eight: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Maternal (both 2019)

My eighth day of the festival should have been filled with more films, but I ended up not going to the third. Perhaps you could say the long hours were getting to me (I did feel my eyelids getting heavy briefly during Portrait), but actually something else came up. However, the two I did see both presented fascinating films about women’s lives, neither of which featured men at all (or almost never), though of course patriarchal control was never too far from the surface.

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Criterion Sunday 259: À ma sœur ! (aka Fat Girl, 2001)

It’s fair to say that, even from her very first film and certainly up until today, Catherine Breillat has been a rather troublesome and controversial figure, increasingly as much for her confrontational views as for her movies (for example, comments minimising the Weinstein allegations, and dismissing the #MeToo reckoning, though these appear to have been in the context of an ill-tempered run-in with Asia Argento). Indeed, Breillat doesn’t exactly fit very neatly into feminist critiques of film, or at least you get the sense that she’d certainly resist that kind of reading. For all that, she’s made some excoriating films, and none more so, I think, than À ma sœur! (released in the US as Fat Girl; apparently Breillat likes the English-language title better, but it certainly seems to change the focus of the film).

This is a work that for all its dark subject matter is really about sisterhood, and while this may suggest a sentimental point of view — and there are some lovely, supportive scenes between the two sisters Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and Elena (Roxane Mesquida) — Breillat was of course never going to be content to leave it at that. Instead there are some almighty power plays going on between the two (and equally between the two sisters and their parents, who are fairly detached from their daughters’ emotional states). On a family holiday, Elena falls for a handsome older Italian law student, Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), while Anaïs looks on, pouring scorn on Elena’s gullibility (when she speaks up at all) and apparently fully cognisant of where it’s all leading. All of this unfolds in long sinuous takes, whose gliding grace only seems to intensify the emotion underpinning the relationships. When Fernando wants sex, we barely get a chance to look away from his disingenuous flattery and cajolement, alternately tender and piqued, until he gets his way. In the context of all this, the ending then seems to take the film in an even darker direction, albeit with a strangely defiant final freeze frame reminiscent of The 400 Blows — not that I’d anticipate Breillat following up with an entire series about Anaïs (as Truffaut did with his character), though one can but imagine where her life takes her at this point.

Sometimes Breillat’s dark imagination, the way she plays out these sexual power dynamics (often between young women and older men) can make her films feel unsatisfactory, but in this one she seems to find a way of bringing out the humanity underlying the nastiness. The film could be dismissed as exploitational or emotionally vampiric perhaps, but it never loses sight of the people at the heart of these characters, and their capacity for enduring and reconfiguring disappointment and trauma, at which both the leads excel.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 5 minute behind the scenes making of featurette, which shows Breillat directing and shooting some scenes, along with a few brief interviews.
  • Two interviews with Breillat are included, one at the Berlin premiere, where she gets into some of the dramas of the film, and the other in which she discusses her working methods, the actors, and the alternative ending — of which there’s footage included.
  • The French and US trailers are included, which have much the same soundscape, though of course the French one includes dialogue from the film where the US one does not. The US trailer also does that thing of basically recapping the entire movie and even includes the final shot of the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Catherine Breillat; Cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis Γιώργος Αρβανίτης; Starring Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero De Rienzo, Arsinée Khanjian Արսինէ Խանճեան; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 16 July 2001 (then later on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 10 July 2019).

Revenge (2017)

In my post about The Mafu Cage, I mentioned writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who has also written a book about the Rape Revenge film. This recent French outing fits into that particular sub-genre, which sort of lurks off to the side of the horror film, its films often nasty and exploitative, which can be varied as to the way they treat the moral quandary at their heart.


This is definitely one of those films that feels like it’s in dialogue with retro trends. Like The Guest and its ilk from the US, it seems to be reimagining the 80s exploitation flick, with a helping of French cinéma du look values, while also in those bold title cards and twisted sexual politics calling back to Baise-moi (2000) and films by Gaspar Noé, et al., which attacked with glee certain notions of gendered violence. But if you are willing to accept its larger than life formal qualities — a saturated sun-drenched Mexican setting, its rape-revenge premise, the superhuman survival qualities of its four characters (a woman and three nasty, predatory men), and all the fake blood that exists in the world (that hadn’t already been used by Raw the year before) — it’s quite a ride. Its central character of Jen (Matilda Lutz) starts out as the kind of cipher for female sexuality you might find in a Michael Bay heroine, but soon comes to find a stoic resilience to pain that sets up the final two-thirds of the film, though beyond that there’s hardly much characterisation: this is a very simple concept, executed (as it were) very well.

Revenge posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Coralie Fargeat; Cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert; Starring Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, Guillaume Bouchède; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 12 May 2018.

Dans ma peau (In My Skin, 2002)

Of the horror films which are directed or written by women, ones that dwell on themes of body horror do seem to be popular, and I’m sure plenty has been written about that. Cannibalistic themes have been the focus both of Claire Denis in Trouble Every Day (2001) and more recently in Julia Ducournau’s Grave (Raw, 2016).


This may not perhaps be surprising, given this is a film about a woman progressively pulling away her skin as a form of self-mutilation, but this film is really intensely disturbing. Of course, like any good modern horror film, it’s not just a story of a particular woman (played by the director, Marina de Van), but in a sense a film about dissociative, destructive feelings towards one’s own body. Our lead character is successful in her business career, but there are throughout little vignettes with her work colleagues and her boyfriend, articulating small but noticeable ways in which they control her body — pervasive and persistent forms of abuse which set the stage for her own proactive extension of her bodily wounds. I think there’s plenty that’s fascinating going on here under the surface (if you will), though it all operates at such a pitch of studied, detached intensity that I continued to find it difficult to focus while watching.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marina de Van; Cinematographer Pierre Barougier; Starring Marina de Van, Laurent Lucas; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 31 October 2017.

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

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.

Film posterCREDITS
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) [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.

Film posterCREDITS
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.

Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès, 2019)

Varda was doing a number of talks around the world in the last few years before she passed, and this film is sort of based around those, going back over her life with clips from her films, as she talks about what made her excited, what she liked to film, her philosophy of living, as well as some of the people she met along the way. Given its clip-show format it’s hardly the equal of her recent documentaries, or her greatest fiction filmmaking (all of which is imbued with a documentary fascination with peoples’ lives), but if anyone has earned this kind of warm and gentle summation, then it’s certainly Agnès Varda. And of course this film, like her presence — which is a constant throughout — is very much warm and gentle.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Claire Duguet, François Décréau and Julia Fabry; Starring Agnès Varda; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Friday 28 June 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.


Based 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.

Film posterCREDITS
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).

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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.

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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.

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