Criterion Sunday 328: Le Souffle au cœur (Murmur of the Heart, 1971)

I’m not quite sure how to take this film by Louis Malle. It seems like a provocation — if a rather gentle one — in many respects, especially with the mother-son relationship between our protagonist Laurent (Benoît Ferreux) and his mother Clara (Lea Massari). Indeed, the tone is rather gentle despite all the trouble Laurent gets up to, as if it were a soft-focus remake of The 400 Blows perhaps — it’s set in the 50s as well, though aside from mentions of the war in Indochina, that is largely about the set dressing and the style. He’s not ultimately very likeable though, and perhaps that’s just me missing the charm all the characters in the film seem to see in him, and perhaps the fact it’s a lightly fictionalised autobiography of the director blinded him to those qualities (or maybe it’s just honesty), but Laurent has the smug look of a future leader of society, like the jerks his brothers are or the young people he seems to hang around when in recuperation (thanks to the medical condition that gives the film its title). With all this incident, at times it just wants to be a slight sex comedy, at other times it’s far more interested in his mother and her struggle in her relationship with a boring doctor father. For me, it never quite resolves into anything, and as far as period 70s coming of age films, I prefer Peppermint Soda (1977).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • All the extras are on a supplementary disc, which I shall comment on in the post for the box set.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle; Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Benoît Ferreux, Lea Massari, Daniel Gélin, Michael Lonsdale; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 20 June 2020.

Two Made-for-TV Biopics about African-American Women: Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and The Rosa Parks Story (2002)

Moving on with my films-seen-on-YouTube theme, it can be a great resource for television movies, given many of them never received “proper” releases. Two that I saw in close succession were fair-to-middling biopics about prominent Black women of the mid-20th century, albeit covering quite different stories in some ways. It may be telling that while one was itself directed by an African-American woman (Julie Dash! a great director at that), the other was directed by a white woman; however, the production history and writing credits suggest it’s not quite so straightforward. In any case, the film about Dandridge certainly dwells more on the more negative aspects of her life, although it’s covering a whole career rather than just a single defining time in civil rights history. It’s probably worth looking into the comparison between the two more closely, except that neither is a particularly memorable film in the end, though both are successful in their own ways.

Continue reading “Two Made-for-TV Biopics about African-American Women: Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and The Rosa Parks Story (2002)”

Criterion Sunday 301: An Angel at My Table (1990)

Janet Frame is one of those iconic New Zealanders (not least because of her bright corona of red hair) who probably isn’t much known outside the country — or wasn’t until this biopic by Jane Campion. It’s a remarkable work that tracks her life via a tripartite structure (taken from the three memoirs Frame wrote): we see her as a young schoolgirl, then as a teenager, and finally played by Kerry Fox as an uncertain adult venturing out into the world after a period of difficulty. By which I mean that she was sectioned into a mental hospital for eight years of her life, for absolutely no medically-sound reason as it later turned out (just that everyone thought she was a bit odd). Campion does her best to find a balance between the darker elements and a sense of poetic license and even joy, and ultimately the film is about Frame finding her place in the world and her poetic voice. It’s all gorgeously shot and mounted, set in rural Otago before Frame later moves to London and Spain. Fox does well to convey Frame’s withdrawn character in an engaging way, and this is one of Campion’s best films.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the 10 minute The Making of An Angel at My Table (2002) documentary by one of the producers of the feature which gives some behind the scenes context for the making of the film, mostly told by Campion herself, as well as Campion on her festival and press tour, promoting the finished film.
  • There are six short deleted scenes which add a few more little details to the characterisations.
  • There’s a fine stills gallery with some production photos, including the actual Janet Frame with her three actors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writer Laura Jones (based on the autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Kevin J. Wilson; Length 158 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 12 December 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 17 March 2020).

Julie & Julia (2009)

As long as we’re watching films on Netflix, there is a rich seam of upbeat, rosy-tinted content, whether banal seasonal movies, romcoms, stand-up specials or the singular work of American master Nora Ephron, whose last film was this curious tale of two women divided by time but united by a love of very fatty food.


I am decidedly not someone who is ever going to eat any of the food seen on-screen in this film; of all the major world cuisines, I sometimes feel as if classical French cooking is about the least likely to get in my belly (at this point in my life, now that I’m vegan). However, like growing up atheist in a nominally Christian country, you can’t help but avoid its influence over your everyday life, and what’s more everyday than eating? Julia Child is, of course, one of the key figures in popularising French cooking in the English-speaking world (well, in America; you could make a case that Elizabeth David was more influential in the UK), but it’s her presence on TV that probably holds the most appeal to an actor as expressively imitative as Meryl Streep. Truly her scenes — ably supported by an always-watchable Stanley Tucci — are the backbone of this film, with all due respect to Amy Adams and Chris Messina, who are also likeable but aren’t Meryl and Stanley. Of course, true life stories aside, Nora Ephron is the key creative woman in this enterprise, and her filmmaking can be divisive, but I have always broadly liked her films, and this one is no exception. It’s a soufflé, a warmly-coloured confection with glowing kitchens to match any in a Nancy Meyers movie, but it’s also a film with a generous warmth towards its subjects and which is every bit as incisive about upper-middle-class New York marriages as anything else you can find on Netflix right now, and probably more easily rewatchable too.

Julie & Julia film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nora Ephron (based on the memoir by Julie Powell, and the autobiography My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme); Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt; Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 10 December 2019.

Phantom Thread (2017)

Although the two principal characters do get married in this film, and there are certainly wedding dresses involved (for the lead character is a fashion designer), this isn’t really about marriage. It’s a relationship drama, though, and a rather twisted one at that, a three-way pull between Reynolds (Day-Lewis), his sister played by Lesley Manville, and a young woman who comes between them and tugs on Reynolds’ affections.


I was all ready to dismiss this film as yet another reworking of the eternal tropes of controlling older men and pliable younger women, an exercise in the manipulation of power dynamics via class, wealth, and the tedious tropes of masculine genius. After all, you can’t watch an awards contender, let alone a Paul Thomas Anderson film, without it being trailed in advance by untold reams of critical dissection that help you along to an opinion on a film you’ve not yet seen.

However, I think what I specifically like about it is the way that it moves from being one thing at the start — an idea of a handsomely mounted prestige costume drama (literally so: it’s about someone who makes clothes) — to something quite different by the end. To a certain extent this reflects the way the power dynamics shift, so that what starts as being about a controlling mercurial ‘genius’-like figure and the psychic toll you imagine he’ll inflict on this young ingenue-like woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), to the way Alma starts to find power within their relationship and the way he starts to willingly submit to it, becomes really the heart of the piece.

There’s certainly something of Hitchcock to this story, as it seems to be about a man shaping a woman’s identity to his own needs (a hint of Vertigo), yet I think there’s a lot more care taken with the construction than that. For a start, Alma is really the key character here, the one who drives the film in ways that Day-Lewis’s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock does not, for he is just a man. It’s quite fascinating the way she subsumes Reynolds’ gaze and turns his controlling behaviour back on him, to a certain extent. I won’t go into details, but I think the power dynamic (while clearly unequal) is very interestingly handled, and Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ sister Cyril/mother surrogate is a key to unpicking it. Everything, ultimately, seems to be bound up in that central metaphor of stitching and impermanence.

This isn’t all that’s going on, though. Every filmmaker at some point in their career (if they have one) will make a film about their own creativity, and this feels like that, with Reynolds being the director stand-in. He is, after all, very much just one person within an industry, and this industry relies on the labour of women, in particular. The scenes of the women arriving at the start, of his workers standing around in their smocks just quietly getting on with the work, and then when Reynolds falls ill near the end, the way they work all night on his (their) project are among the more magical sequences in the film, a sort of emotional backbone to his own fragility as an ‘artist’.

Along with its careful symbolism, Phantom Thread has the feel of classic in terms of the way it’s shot (by Anderson himself as far as I can tell, and what a lushly grainy look it has, especially on 35mm), and the period 50s fashions on display. It’s artfully studied, and that suits the story I think. Things resolve with a certain element of perversity, of wilful helplessness, articulated not least in the focus on eating. I’d not been a fan up until Inherent Vice, but I do believe Paul T. has entered the imperial phase of his filmmaking.

Phantom Thread film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho (35mm), London, Monday 5 February 2018 (and most recently on 70mm at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Sunday 5 January 2020).

Rocketman (2019)

This is perhaps an outlier in my themed week of British costume dramas, but it’s a period piece and you couldn’t possibly say it doesn’t have costumes, so I’m including it. Obviously it’s a biopic of the life of Elton John, and it’s mounted with impressive brio (even if maybe it’s not entirely for me, I’m willing to believe it is better than the similar production the previous year about Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, which director Fletcher took over late in proceedings).


I don’t think I’ve ever specifically chosen to listen to an Elton John album or song, but of course they’ve often been on in the background or on soundtracks and such, so a lot of them remain familiar to me. That said, the point I’m making is I’m not really in the demographic for whom this film strikes any particular chord, as I’ve never been a big fan, but I concede that Dexter Fletcher has a solid touch with a musical and this one is good fun to watch. The performances are all good, and it has some nice set-pieces, such as the one where Elton goes from almost dying to being pushed on stage, seemingly in a single sequence. The framing device — him unraveling at an addicts’ group therapy session — is rather too convenient as a way to pull the narrative through his whole life, and he does a lot of confronting his earlier self and family/friends in feverish flashbacks, but it’s a musical, so it rather trades in elevating the quotidian to a magical and surreal level, and at that it succeeds nicely.

Rocketman film posterCREDITS
Director Dexter Fletcher; Writer Lee Hall; Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Friday 7 June 2019.

Two Recent Films by Amma Asante: A United Kingdom (2016) and Where Hands Touch (2018)

The end of this week sees the release of another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, at the prospect of which I am distinctly underwhelmed, but it gives me an opportunity to round up some reviews I’ve done of British costume dramas and period films, which continues to make up perhaps the bulk of British filmmaking (or so, at least, it sometimes seems). I’m starting with Amma Asante, a veteran of the genre with Belle (2013). I’m covering her last two films here, and while I don’t think them both entirely successful (some have been far harsher online about the most recent), I think they still come from an earnest place of wanting to tell more stories about the past than we usually see on screen (certainly in the British costume drama). I think that much is worth celebrating.

Continue reading “Two Recent Films by Amma Asante: A United Kingdom (2016) and Where Hands Touch (2018)”

Zimna wojna (Cold War, 2018)

If we’re covering recent Polish cinema, it’s impossible to avoid the filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski, who came to prominence with British films like Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004), but returned to his native language for Ida (2013). His most recent film goes back into a period setting for another lush, tortured romantic drama.


Somehow buried deep in its genetic code, this film is a musical. Structurally it feels as if it’s inspired by jazz (in a way that La La Land or Whiplash only wish they could be), with a loose, almost improvisational texture, and solos for each of the players. At the very least, one can say it is suffused with music. It deals with a love affair between a pianist and a singer, but in some ways the two characters getting together didn’t grab me: their love felt like more of a pretext for a key change, as we move through time from late-40s rural Poland — where prospective singers (including our heroine Zula, played by Joanna Kulig) are auditioned for a folk ensemble, while our male protagonist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) does field recordings of popular peasant songs — to Warsaw in the 50s, then tangents to various major European cities throughout the 50s, and ending sometime in the mid-60s. The cinematography is gorgeous, while for the story, extraneous explanatory bits are elided in favour of the feeling that the actors convey to one another, little phrases of a love ballad reworked into something with political and even religious meaning — the carapace of Catholicism and Communism figure throughout — but hidden deep within. (Plus bonus marks for wrapping up such an epic narrative within 90 minutes.)

Cold War film posterCREDITS
Director Paweł Pawlikowski; Writers Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki and Piotr Borkowski; Cinematographer Łukasz Żal; Starring Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 29 July 2018.

The Death of Stalin (2017)

In new releases this week, there’s a limited release for Chinese documentary Present. Perfect., which I’ve already reviewed, so do check that out if you are able to, because I liked it. The big film out this week, though, is Armando Iannucci’s new film which premiered at last year’s London Film Festival, The Personal History of David Copperfield, so naturally I’ve been doing a themed week of adaptations of Dickens… That’s not actually true; I just forgot to set up any posts to go out this week. That said, I haven’t seen all that many Dickens-themed films recently — though the Criterion Collection has David Lean’s 1940s ones of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and there was that Ralph Fiennes film which touched on his life, The Invisible Woman (2013). So here’s a review of Iannucci’s last film.


I like Armando Iannucci’s comedy quite often, and here I laughed (or at least smiled) quite a bit. The performances are fantastic, and there’s more than one candidate for stealing this film (Rupert Friend or Michael Palin are highlights, and Jason Isaacs is just brilliant), while Simon Russell Beale as Beria and Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev are just as strong and consistent as ever. And yet, there’s a dark heart to this blithe blustering comedy of political ineptitude that’s barely ever hidden: the idea that when murderous despotic regimes are allowed to run their course for decades, the moral vacuum that results amongst those who remain is so total that even as we want to cheer for those who are most sure of themselves (and Isaacs’ Zhukov is surely chief among them), at the same time these characters all behave with utterly repugnant immorality. I suppose the way that Beria’s sexual depravity is woven into the comedy is a case in point — hardly hiding it, but also making it something of a throwaway sideshow to the comedic japery of authoritarian power struggles. I liked it, and I admired it as filmmaking, but seemingly in spite of my better instincts.

The Death of Stalin film posterCREDITS
Director Armando Iannucci; Writers Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin (based on the graphic novel La Mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin); Cinematographer Zac Nicholson; Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Paddy Considine; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 23 October 2017 (and again on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 2 November 2019).

The Irishman (2019)

Today sees the UK release of Harriet, but only two weeks ago we got a brand new biopic from Martin Scorsese. For that I did a themed week around very long films, but this week’s theme means I can revisit that film and post a review. I liked it. I gather some didn’t or felt it somehow less consequential in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but a lot of people have been gunning for him for some throwaway but no less deeply felt comments about superhero movies. Still, there’s a place for everything in modern cinema, and even if three-and-a-half hour gangster epics are mostly being made for streaming services now, it was still a solid box office draw given the very large packed cinema I saw this one in on a Saturday afternoon.


Look, I mean yes Scorsese has some good films (even some great ones) in all genres, but the stuff he’s always been best at capturing is the world of gangsters — a shady world of men closed away behind dark glasses in subterranean lairs — but those worlds have changed as he’s got older. Now the gangsters are old too, they’re old men who have lost things in life, maybe lost everything, lost their friends, alienated their families and are just these old men, dying off and being forgotten. No matter how powerful you were, how much influence you had, eventually people forget your name, your legacy and everything that made you important when you were in your prime, and that’s eventually what it feels like he’s getting at by the end of this film. The de-aging technology has been much discussed, but even when these men are presumably playing 20 or 30-year-olds, back in the 1950s, they still look like old men, move in a hulking slow way — I don’t think that’s wrong for the characters, but in practice they always seem old no matter what the time period is. The timelines are all mixed up, though, as events from one era rush into those from another, because this is a story being told from the perspective of that old, forgotten gangster, as snippets of events seem to hit him and pull him along, and for all of its length, the film is never slow or boring, provided you like this slow-burning vibe that Scorsese is going for. Pacino does his usual big thing, though increasingly looking like Steve Van Zandt as he gets older in the film (and Little Steven is in the film too, in a small part, playing some old school crooner on stage I believe), but the rest of the cast are all about intensity, not least Joe Pesci, who feels like the real standout in this ensemble. It’s a good film, is what I’m saying.

The Irishman film posterCREDITS
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Steven Zaillian (based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham; Length 209 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.