In New Zealand, plenty of the films that make it to the film festival NZIFF are ones that elsewhere in the world would go straight to cinemas and get all kinds of rave reviews, but foreign language films generally have to be quite middlebrow and forgettable to get distribution, so I can only hope that Happening manages to do so, because it’s an excellent period drama.
This isn’t the first film at this film festival I’ve seen which deals with women seeking an abortion, but this one is set in 1960s France, not the most tolerant place to be looking for such a service. However, the film makes a clear case for why it should be accessible, given the struggle our central character Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) goes through. She’s young, inexperienced and clearly ill-equipped to have a child, but puts herself through all kinds of trauma in order to try to have a normal life, while naturally the deadbeat dad (well, a fellow student) has practically no worries about the situation at all. Given the subject matter though, this film strikes a rather dreamy and detached tone, unlike say the grim existential angst of say 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or Never Rarely Sometimes Always, or even the period chiaroscuro of Vera Drake, It makes some of the darker material easier to take in a way, this aesthetic care taken over the look of the piece, without dwelling on flashy period details (the era its set in is picked up from tangential clues mostly, rather than people striding around in silly wigs and fashion). Plus it has a great performance from the young actor at its heart.
Director Audrey Diwan; Writers Diwan, Marcia Romano and Anne Berest (based on the novel by Annie Ernaux); Cinematographer Laurent Tangy; Starring Anamaria Vartolomei, Kacey Mottet Klein, Sandrine Bonnaire; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 19 November 2021.
Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival also presented a number of new films by established directors (auteurs if you will) and one of my favourites of this millennium so far has been Chad’s Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who directed Daratt and The Screaming Man amongst others. He has worked in France with stars recently, but his latest film returns to N’Djamena, specifically about a young woman seeking an abortion (one of the recurrent themes of films at this year’s festival, as of recent years, as this issue becomes increasingly politicised by regimes around the world). Anyway, it may not be his best film, but it’s as good as any other filmmaking on show.
It is indeed possible to sum this film up pretty pithily as an abortion drama set in Chad, from Chad’s pre-eminent director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. But as others in that sub-genre attest, such dramas are as much about tracing the cultural (and often class or race-based) specifics of its setting, and Lingui builds up a fascinating picture of a community of people in a country where the practice is banned, though clearly fairly easy to obtain if you have a lot of money. There’s a lot that the film exposes in the way of bleakness and corruption, but to focus on that would be to ignore the strong and generative support that is created within the community from sometimes unlikely sources. And while the mother is clearly angry at her daughter for having got into this situation at first, as the film goes on her character starts to become more accepting and understanding, reopening ties with her estranged family and, not incidentally, her daughter. It would all be heartwarming stuff if not for the underlying drama, but it’s beautifully told as you would expect from Haroun.
Director/Writer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun محمد الصالح هارون; Cinematographer Mathieu Giombini; Starring Achouackh Abakar Souleymane أباكار سليمان, Rihane Khalil Alio ريهان خليل آليو; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Wednesday 10 November 2021.
Back in the week commencing 15 May, I did a themed week around American indie films directed by women because of the release of this new Eliza Hittman film to VoD streaming services. I also reviewed her earlier film Beach Rats (2017) during that week. Naturally the new release was quite expensive those first few weeks but when the rental cost came down a bit, I did finally catch up with it, and I think it’s one of the strongest new releases this year.
I don’t think there can ever be enough stories of this nature, testifying to ordinary people and the lengths they need to go to in order to keep their lives on an even keel. This is about Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a young woman in a small Pennsylvania town, who’s in high school and clearly gets trouble off her classmates for being too serious — we are introduced to her at a show where the evident theme is 50s Americana, but she sings a doomy song about the patriarchy. At home, her mom has her hands full with Autumn’s younger sisters, plus has a boyfriend who’s a creep. It’s a set up that’s anything but supportive, so when she finds out she’s pregnant (presumably to the dude who’s being particularly aggressively bullying towards her), there aren’t really any realistic options, and the local clinic, while friendly, have their own priorities, leading her to get on a bus with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) and go to NYC without telling anybody. Flanigan is really solid at the core of this film, and a lot of what she’s dealing with remains unaddressed in the dialogue, instead communicated by posture and body language, surly aggressiveness towards her cousin at times, but at other times softening. It’s a quiet, undemonstrative film that works its magic slowly, and it’s the scene that gives the film its title which is the emotional core of the film, which never lapses into melodramatic territory, but just stays with the choice of its protagonist and her seeing that through.
Director/Writer Eliza Hittman; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 9 June 2019.
Mikio Naruse made three films in the year before this one, and I’m willing to bet at least one of those is equally brilliant, because he was very much on form this decade. A lot of his work was adapted from the writing of Fumiko Hayashi, but she is not the source for this one but rather the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata, though it uses a lot of the same key cast as Naruse’s earlier film.
This is some film, one of Mikio Naruse’s finest, and I don’t want to attribute all of its success to one person, because it’s made with such sensitivity by everyone involved, but Setsuko Hara must be considered pretty central to that. Partly it’s the role she’s playing, a wife shunned by her husband (who is having an affair with a younger woman), but Hara is expert at making it not just a tragic account of this woman, but a far more rounded and nuanced portrait of familial relationships, in which Hara’s character is not to be pitied, but instead a really developed character whose motivations and actions cut against the expectations of her society and her family. I just find her every expression to be that little bit heartbreaking (not unlike in Tokyo Story, where she proved that sometimes smiling cheerfully is the saddest emotion of all). The film itself is framed by her father-in-law (So Yamamura), who is disappointed in his son (Ken Uehara) and just trying to understand Hara’s situation and consider what is best for her, which is why his reaction to news of her abortion is both so deeply felt and also so unusual in a film of this era. Surely a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, and I still have so many Naruse films yet to watch.
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (baed on the novel by Yasunari Kawabata 川端康成); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Ken Uehara 上原謙, So Yamamura 山村聰, Yoko Sugi 杉葉子; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 13 January 2019.
I liked Paul Weitz’s last film, Admission (2013), more than many people, perhaps because of its university setting (that’s where my day job is), but also because of its likeable protagonists. Yet I’d never have guessed the same person (responsible, lest we forget, for American Pie as well), might turn in something like Grandma. It’s just so unfussy and unpretentious, plus (surely unusual in the kind of political culture of the modern USA), it takes for its premise the unquestioned assumption that women have the right to want an abortion and be able to get one. It’s not as if the teenage character of Sage (an excellent Julia Garner, whose performance moves from teenage petulance to more sympathetic as the film progesses) is let off the hook for her decisions, just that it avoids the quirk (and moral compromise) of Juno. Still, whatever the excellent qualities of the script (and they should not be diminished, as a good script is the basis for all good films), it’s anchored by a fantastic performance from Lily Tomlin as Elle, an ageing lesbian academic and poet, who is irascible and cranky without ever being loveable exactly, but yet surely has the audience’s strongest sympathy in her response to the news from her granddaughter. It moves towards what you might expect is a group-hug heartwarming family moment, but never quite delivers on one’s worst fears in this regard. It’s a quiet champion of a film, and best of all, clocks in at under 80 minutes.
Director/Writer Paul Weitz; Cinematographer Tobias Datum; Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 31 December 2015.
This film was presented at the London Film Festival. There was no introduction or Q&A.
It may be a co-production between many different countries, while the title may be a little unwieldy, but this Vietnamese film is a serious and stylish take on one, relatively poor, young woman’s life. The lead character is Huyen (Thuy Anh Nguyen), who lives in a little apartment by a railway line, just about making ends meet when she gets pregnant to her somewhat deadbeat boyfriend. Her resulting indecision about whether or how to get an abortion is partly what the title is alluding to, not to mention her boyfriend’s addiction to cockfighting that becomes one of the film’s key metaphors. Huyen’s repeated attempts to go through with the procedure never quite seem to work out for various reasons, and when she gets involved with sex work in order to pay her bills, her feelings alter subtly again when she meets up with a concerned client. One gets the sense at times that perhaps not all of this plotting is entirely believable if taken as naturalistic, but the film’s style pushes beyond that into a more dream-like world. The cinematography is beautiful and lush, though the film’s female first-time director never quite fetishises the poverty of the lead characters (as some other films are wont to do in this kind of setting). There’s a sense of eroticism throughout, as well, although this is sometimes resisted by Huyen as a character. The film ends on an unresolved note — an increasingly common practice these days I fell — but this works well within the narrative which the film has constructed. Definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and a film well worth checking out.
Director/Writer Hoàng Điệp Nguyễn; Cinematographer Quang Minh Pham; Starring Thùy Anh Nguyễn; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Saturday 17 October 2015.
This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by its director (with a small baby in tow) who stayed for a Q&A afterwards, which sadly I was not able to attend due to having another film across town.
I haven’t read many other reviews of this film as it’s quite recent, but I’m guessing a lot of them — including, oh hey, mine as well — are going to name-check Richard Linklater’s work, particularly Boyhood (because of its San Antonio, Texas setting), and they’re going to mention Juno (because of its teen pregnancy themes), but these are superficial reference points. If it has something of a thematic similarity to the latter, that’s pretty much where it ends, because Petting Zoo is very careful to avoid the writerly cliches and the self-conscious quirk of that style of film, preferring a far more naturalistic rendering of the world. The teens here talk like, well, like teens — with all the laconic self-absorption you’d expect, but also a healthy measure of unselfawareness. Layla (Devon Keller) is a good student, and has just received a scholarship to the University of Texas Austin, but has no real sense of direction or indeed much of a home life to speak of (her parents are only really around for one scene, enough for us to grasp why she might not want to live with them). As the film opens, she is hanging out with Danny, a guy her friends are quick to brand a loser when she just as quickly ditches him to move back in with her grandmother. So when she finds out she’s pregnant, it’s not obvious to her what she should do, especially when another guy, a much nicer one, shows up in her life. Acting awards tend to go to ostentatious displays of actorliness, but Keller does excellent, unshowy work at being sort of blank a lot of the time, which can be frustrating for an audience but is exactly right for where Layla is in life, and if there’s a sense of that life closing inexorably in (as so often there is in teen films, always heavy on the dystopia), it’s something the film never gives in to, though you worry at times that Layla might. For all its well-worn themes and situations, Micah Magee’s film nevertheless manages to find an interesting take on these turbulent life events.
Director/Writer Micah Magee; Cinematographer Armin Dierolf; Starring Devon Keller; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Friday 16 October 2015.
I’ve been on holiday in the United States for a few weeks and thus have not been seeing many films. However, thanks to the magic of cheap second-run cinemas (the wonderful Laurelhurst in currently-sunny Portland), I caught up with this comedy which is just being released in the UK. It’s been billed by various pundits as an “abortion romcom” although this is rather misleading and reductive, as the two aspects are fairly distinct. Abortion is hardly a laughing matter, nor is it treated as such; that the central character, Donna, a stand-up comedian, works it into a routine is more to do with her desperation and confusion at the way her life has been going. At the same time, the reality of abortion, and the importance of its availability, is not dodged either. It’s certainly something that could be an awkward blend for this kind of movie, but I think it’s all pulled off wonderfully, no little thanks to the excellent work of lead actor Jenny Slate, who had a single season as a cast member of Saturday Night Live before showing up in excellent smaller roles in TV comedies like Parks and Recreation (another training ground for many of the current generation’s finest comic actors). As Donna, she starts the film off on stage, joking about her relationship, which soon ends, leading a few nights later to some drunken sex with a cute, nice guy she meets at a bar, Max (played by Jake Lacy, who had a role in the last few seasons of The Office US series, and who has a similarly bland likeability here). The ensuing revelations are all handled well, with some low-key (and mostly self-inflicted) drama between Donna and her parents, as well as a series of awkward subsequent encounters with Max which are sympathetically handled, but not conclusively resolved. Quite apart from taking what remains a fairly hot-button issue (especially Stateside), this is a nuanced, well-made and very funny film that deserves every success, and is only more impressive for the sureness of its handling of the subject matter.
Director/Writer Gillian Robespierre (based on the short film by Anna Bean, Karen Maine and Robespierre); Cinematographer Chris Teague; Starring Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Laurelhurst Theater, Portland, Oregon, Thursday 28 September 2014.