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.

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35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum, 2008)

Denis regular Alex Descas and this year’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning director Mati Diop take the key roles in this film, which remains one of my favourites of the decade. Much of my love for it is not so much in what happens as in how it unfolds — just the one scene in a backstreets Parisian bar soundtracked to the Commodores’ “Nightshift”, which is for me the emotional core of the film, seems to lay bare all the dynamics going on amongst these characters: a father, Lionel (Alex Descas); his daughter Jo (Mati Diop); an older woman and neighbour, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), who’s always been in love with the dad; and Grégoire Colin as Noé, who has a crush on Jo. They are all trapped a little bit, as neighbours in an apartment block, as people whose lives seem to be following a set path (in the case of Lionel, who drives trains, very literally so) and who don’t know what exactly they do want. There’s a sense of pain at getting older, but also a comfort in gestures like eating together, with the film opening and closing on images of rice cookers, the sort of symbolic centrepiece of shared family meals (and it’s no surprise, perhaps, to learn that an Ozu film was the inspiration for this one). I love the feeling of movement, the cautious emotional resonance, and the burnished look of the film. It’s a glorious ode to the richness of life and even a modern city symphony in its own way.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Claire Denis; Writer Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau; Cinematographer Agnès Godard; Starring Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Grégoire Colin, Nicole Dogue; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 26 May 2019 (and earlier at the Renoir, London, Sunday 26 July 2009).

The Falling (2014)

Films set at girls’ schools form a fairly distinct ‘coming of age’ subgenre by this point, many of them distinguished by their undertow of the uncanny. I’m drawn back to Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004), ten years ago now but still provoking indelibly eerie memories, so the fact that The Falling even comes close to the power exerted by that film is, I’d say, a good thing. It too is shot by a French woman (Agnès Godard, frequent collaborator of Claire Denis) and like that earlier film, the rites of adolescence are intricately bound up with mystery and death. Set in 1969, it centres on two young women, Lydia (Maisie Williams) and the free-spirited Abbie (Florence Pugh), but mainly within the context of their time at school, as they and their classmates share experiences and set themselves against the brusque Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi) and the airily unconcerned headmistress. What’s interesting is not so much what happens, as in the languorous atmosphere, in which significant events are revealed in an almost off-handed way at times. The camera frequently returns to a sylvan scene of trees looming over a small pond, often empty shots of threatening portent, as if summoning some Pre-Raphaelite vision of drowned maidens, and it certainly adds to the general sense of uneasiness. By the end, things get pretty charged in ways that I’m really hoping function as allegory (in a live Q&A the director was keen to stress that at least some of it wasn’t autobiographical), but as a piece it is stylish, and carried by some excellent acting.

The Falling film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Carol Morley; Cinematographer Agnès Godard; Starring Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake, Florence Pugh, Greta Scacchi; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 13 October 2014.

Les Salauds (Bastards, 2013)

Films About FilmmakingIt may be that I’m rather shoehorning this new Claire Denis film into my themed month. It’s certainly not about filmmakers in a traditional sense, but there’s an element of it that recalls, say, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in dealing with a nasty fringe of exploitational filmmaking, not intended for public consumption.


At some level this new film by French director Claire Denis is an hommage to film noir, that famous Hollywood style of filming crime dramas in the 1940s and 1950s which emphasised the characters’ sexuality just as it muddied its contrasty black-and-white filming with shades of moral grey. Bastards is not filmed in monochrome, but there’s plenty of darkness through which the characters drag themselves, as if hinting at barely-suppressed pools of torment. There’s a crime at its heart, too, but that takes some time to come to light. It also touches on themes familiar from Denis’ other films, a compact yet wonderful body of work of which this is a further facet.

The story focuses on container ship captain Marco (Vincent Lindon), who has jumped ship to come back home to France to deal with some family drama that involves his sister Sandra and her daughter, Marco’s niece Justine (Lola Créton). Also involved, in a more shadowy way, are financial tycoon Edouard (a basilisk-like and sunken-eyed Michel Subor, channelling shades of Eddie Constantine and Philip Baker Hall by way of Pope Benedict) and his younger wife Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni). The film’s structure presents this only elliptically at first, with shots of the various characters — Marco looking out from his ship somewhere in the Middle East, Justine wobbling down a deserted Paris street naked except for her high heels, Sandra dealing angrily with police — that hints at something disturbing having happened (or perhaps happening), but it takes some time before things become more clear. We know fairly early on that with Justine there is a backstory of torture and sexual abuse, so the film’s darkness is primed from the outset, even if this isn’t precisely one of those films of the ‘New French Extremity’ which flourished in the 1990s.

It all seems to be building towards a final reveal, but needless to say it’s nothing that the sly suggestiveness of the narrative structure or the relentlessness of the film’s atmospherics have not already heavily implied. Nevertheless, the final crudely-shot images seem to make this in part a film that comments on the dark heart of filmmaking itself, thereby implicating Denis and her own position as manipulative auteur (director and writer, arch-orchestrator of all this darkness). Still, she’s hardly the sole credit behind the scenes, and she has by this point recruited a very tight core crew of artisans, which include some beautiful (and, surprisingly to me, digital) photography from her long-time DoP Agnès Godard, as well as a controlled soundtrack from another recurring collaborator, the band Tindersticks, whose score focuses on droning, repetitive sounds, ratcheting up the growing tension with insistent ticking noises alternating with pulsating throbbing waves of sound, which reverberate — like the occasional threatening reappearance throughout of car engines — in a good cinema auditorium.

I get the sense from some of the critical reaction I’ve read that this film by Denis underwhelmed many, but I feel that maybe it’s because of the thoroughgoing level of threat that suffuses the film. Maybe also it’s the sense that nobody — not the characters, nor the audience — are expected to get out unscathed. It is the character of Edouard who is called a “bastard” on-screen, and yet the film’s title is in the plural. There’s a small role for Grégoire Colin (so memorable in Beau travail) as a predatory pimp-like character, and he’s certainly a candidate too. But one increasingly gets the sense that the nominal hero Marco may himself be one of the bastards — he’s a man who, like many in Denis’ films, is something of an exile from his society, and here he returns to get involved where (perhaps existentially) he should not be. Moreover, maybe the title even extends to those orchestrating the drama and by implication the audience watching.

Yet while on the one hand it’s a film in which there are a number of powerful predatory men as well as female victims of their desires, it refuses to present its women as merely passive victims. As Justine, Créton in particular has a really inscrutable and unflinching demeanour; her presence was compared by audience members (in the director Q&A after the screening I attended) with a heroine from a Dreyer film (Bresson’s “models” also spring to mind), and that seems about right, in the sense of her seeming to transcend suffering through (an unexpressed) religious grace. It’s a film that spends a lot of its time putting us in the space of these eponymous male characters, so the way the women react becomes something of a surprise, if not a challenge to viewers (Créton’s acting seemed to strike a nerve with one audience member at the Q&A, certainly).

It’s a film with many shades of meaning, that deals with some pretty dark desires, but it’s quite different from the really upfront strain of audience-implicating nastiness that Michael Haneke regularly trades in (or a more recent American film like Compliance, for example). It’s difficult to precisely say, but its effect in the end is as inscrutable as Créton’s face, though there are enough flashes of beauty and mystery amongst the squalid ugliness of the characters and their relationships to keep this film in mind for some time after seeing it. There’s also enough ambiguity in the characters to provoke discussion as to their motives and their respective fates, and at the very least this feels like the proper way to honour the film noir.

Bastards film posterCREDITS
Director Claire Denis; Writers Jean-Pol Fargeau and Denis; Cinematographer Agnès Godard; Starring Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Lola Créton, Michel Subor; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Wednesday 5 February 2014.