Petite maman (2021)

Another of my favourites of the year, I went to see this twice (the running time helped). The second viewing prompted a long discussion about when exactly it’s set, as it doesn’t appear to be the modern day but the markers of the time period are fairly oblique. The presence of a Walkman suggests to me maybe the early-90s at the latest, but I’m really not sure. Anyway, it’s a U-rated film about children that is still suffused with melancholy.


I’d just finished watching a 10-hour film when I went to see this, so was particularly appreciative of the virtues of concision. This film feels exactly as long as it needs to be. It tells a story that’s about grief and loss, sadness and familial disconnection, but from the point of a view of a child, and formally it sort of matches its narrative structure to that of a child’s game. with all the inventiveness and non sequiturs you might expect, as young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) finds a very similar looking and similarly aged playmate called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) in the forest near her recently-deceased grandmother’s home, with whom she starts to form a friendship. Sciamma has done films about childhood before (the excellent Tomboy) and I particularly appreciate her clear distinction between the two lead actors (sisters in real life, I can only assume from their names) marking them out with different clothes and a hairband for Marion. The film’s conceit becomes clear as it goes on, and yet it still preserves that mystery about really knowing someone else, even the connection one has with one’s own mother.

Petite maman (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Céline Sciamma; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 26 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Monday 20 December 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Earwig (2021)

I don’t like to focus on disappointing films when I’m doing my round-ups, but Lucile Hadžihalilović is one of the more interesting directors of the last few decades (even if her similarly controversialist husband Gaspar Noé tends to be the better known). She’s only made a handful of features, so it’s with sadness that I report I didn’t much like her newest (English-language) feature film. Still, it has all the elements of her style, so undoubtedly there will be big fans of it out there; after all, if Wes Anderson can have people hanging on his every twee set design detail, then there’s no reason why the same can’t be said for Lucile Hadžihalilović (though one suspects part of the problem is the darkness of her vision).


I’ll give it to the Lucile Hadžihalilović cinematic universe that it is at least thematically consistent. There’s a vision at work which seems to link it to her two other feature films, Evolution (2015) and Innocence (2004), filled as it is with early- to mid-20th century fustiness, chiaroscuro tonality, throbbing soundtracks and corporeal strangeness that hints at something Cronenbergian. The atmosphere, in other words, is on point and deeply evocative. There’s not even any dialogue for the first 15 minutes, and when it does enter it has the whispered resonance of thickly Belgian-accented ASMR. A girl (Romane Hemelaers) is cared for by her… father… I think, Albert (Paul Hilton). Her dentures melt and need to be refrozen and refitted each day. A strange man on the other end of the telephone wants something. And then there’s a waitress at a local bar (Romola Garai) injured in a fight with another mysterious stranger. There are elements of a story here, but they never seem to cohere in any way that feels satisfying. Perhaps that’s the point, perhaps one just needs to give into the feeling of it all, and some may well enjoy it at that level, but the whole thing just felt too opaque to really enjoy.

Earwig (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Lucile Hadžihalilović; Writers Hadžihalilović, Geoff Cox and Brian Catling; Cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg; Starring Paul Hilton, Romane Hemelaers, Romola Garai; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 442: 二十四の瞳 Niju-shi no Hitomi (Twenty-Four Eyes, 1954)

It’s over two-and-a-half hours long, and it feels like a great Japanese epic of wartime defeat, humbling itself on the world stage, but yet it humanises the conflict effectively by focusing on a strongly anti-war teacher and her 12 young students, who grow up from little rascals in 1928 to fighting in the war by the end of the film. We never see any war action, but it’s all filtered through the teacher (Miss “Pebble” is her nickname for much of the film, played by Mikio Naruse’s favourite Hideko Takamine), with a strong heft of sentimentality in the musical cues — not one of those twenty-four eyes is dry at any point in the film, it sometimes seems. Still, it’s a lovely film, with wide vistas of the island they all live on, contrasted with close-ups of the children’s faces for maximum pathos. Despite it all being thickly laid on, it never feels overly manipulative: this is a story about loss and sadness, but also of people whose lives continue regardless, and about the value of life itself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Keisuke Kinoshita 木下惠介; Cinematographer Hiroshi Kusuda 楠田浩之; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 156 minutes.

Seen at Courthouse Cinema, London, Sunday 22 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 403: Cría cuervos… (1976)

A film that opens with the death of a military father made when Spain’s leader Generalissimo Franco was dying invites an allegorical reading, and clearly from reading review many have done so. This is a film that is suffused with a feeling of melancholy and loss, as a young girl, Ana (played by Ana Torrent, so memorable in The Spirit of the Beehive), first witnesses her dad’s death and then sees a vision of her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) that seems so real but turns out to be a haunting of sorts. Questions then as to Ana’s own culpability in these deaths and her desire for others makes it a film complicated by all kinds of ways of dealing with and processing grief and loss. The director deftly manages to keep these moods and ideas in play right to the end.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are interviews from 2007 with two of the main actors in the film, Ana Torrent (now obviously grown up and with little in the way of specific memory from that time in her life, though it’s good to see her looking healthy and happy), and a longer one with Geraldine Chaplin, who was the director’s partner and mother of one of his children, who worked with him for much of the preceding decade. Her interview is particularly interesting, in contextualising how it was made, how they did not intend the political reading in any way, and how she had to work almost against Ana in order to get her to react properly. She also mentions that she hated the pop song by Jeanette which is played multiple times in the film, and whose refrain of “because you’re leaving” seems particularly laden with meaning given the film’s theme; she admits she was wrong to think it would fail (the song became a break-out hit), but also she’s wrong because the song is great.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carlos Saura; Cinematographer Teo Escamilla; Starring Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, Conchi Pérez, Maite Sánchez, Florinda Chico; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 26 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 397: Ива́ново де́тство Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962)

Andrei Tarkovsky evolved something of a heavily image-based cinema, which favoured the grandest of visual representations for his ideas, or at least that’s the only way I can explain how so many of the shots in his films remain so indelibly in my mind years later. Which is why I was rather surprised to revisit this film, which has not much lingered in my mind, and realise there’s plenty of jaw-droppingly beautiful camera setups here too, though none stays with me like Masha (Valentina Malyavina) being held over a trench and kissed, as a sort of swooningly romantic yet somehow treacherous and bleak poetic image. There’s a lot to commend this first feature film of Tarkovsky’s, and clearly he would continue to refine and grow his craft (his second feature was the epic Andrei Rublev), but there’s still something very Russian about the sensibility, shared with other contemporary depictions of war like Ballad of a Soldier and The Cranes Are Flying, where war is nothing glorious (and, largely here, unseen) but instead a perilous backdrop to a story of a childhood lost, derailed by the conflict and which never really stood a chance. The visual quality doesn’t detract from the story but it makes it somehow just a little bit bearable to watch.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky Андрей Тарковский; Writers Andrei Konchalovsky Андре́й Кончало́вский and Mikhail Papava Михаил Папава (based on the short story Иван “Ivan” by Vladimir Bogomolov Влади́мир Богомо́лов); Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вади́м Ю́сов; Starring Nikolai Burlyayev Николай Бурляев, Valentin Zubkov Валенти́н Зубко́в, Valentina Malyavina Валенти́на Маля́вина; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 5 August 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 4 February 2021).

Criterion Sunday 388: Le Vieil homme et l’enfant (The Two of Us, 1967)

Given that the director’s birth name is Claude Langmann and he was born to Jewish immigrant parents in 1934, and this film, set in 1944, is about a 10-year-old called Claude Langmann who is sent to stay in the countryside by his Jewish parents, I think it’s fair to assume this is at least semi-autobiographical. In the opening scenes, we see the besieged spirit of Paris in the months leading up to the D-Day invasions (chronicled in 1975’s Overlord, just added to the Criterion Collection shortly before this film) and the liberation of Paris in August that year (covered in Melville’s Army of Shadows, also recently introduced to the collection). Claude’s parents worry about the fate of their kid under the Nazis and so they send him off to the (non-Jewish) family of a friend out in the countryside, where he is exhorted to use the surname Longuet and avoid anything that might give away his ethnic and religious identity, and that’s really where the film gets going. He’s introduced to his new grandfather figure (played by Michel Simon) and when he learns of grandpa’s antisemitic beliefs and Pétainiste solidarity, hilarity ensues. I’m only slightly joking though: ultimately the film isn’t about the terror of being Jewish under a Nazi puppet government (we never learn the fate of his parents back in Paris, for example, and there are no scenes of threat or violence against the boy, mercifully) but instead there are a lot of gently comedic scenes which hint at his situations, like his desperate attempts to avoid anyone looking at his penis, or the exchanges with his grandpa where Claude subtly mocks his antisemitism by using his own prejudices against him. The film largely progresses this way, and while it’s not perhaps fair to say it’s soft-pedalling the war, it definitely has a sentimental view of the past, and this much is acknowledged by the opening text: it’s a child’s-eye view of the war, spent in relative bliss in a rural setting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Berri; Writers Berri, Gérard Brach and Michel Rivelin; Cinematographer Jean Penzer; Starring Alain Cohen, Michel Simon; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 330: Au revoir les enfants (1987)

The title is taken from the final words of the priest, Father Jean, headmaster of the Catholic boarding school to which its protagonists are sent from Paris at the height of World War II, but it could as easily be bidding goodbye to them from where they live with their parents, or indeed to their innocence of course. The film builds up its picture of these wartime kids leaving the city, and shows the mysterious appearance of a few more kids to their classes early on, one of whom, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), sits next to our main protagonist, Julien (Gaspard Manesse), who can be taken as something of a stand-in for the director, given this story is based on his own experiences. It soon enough becomes clear that these new kids are Jewish, and so the tension builds and remains through otherwise quotidian scenes of playing with the class, or eating food together. Characters who seem to be on their side are revealed to have secret collaborationist tendencies, and even refined upper-class spaces seethe with barely-hidden prejudice. However, it’s all handled in a way that allows us as audience to come to that realisation with Julien, without overburdening the narrative, and the acting is naturalistic. The film is shot by Renato Berta, who worked with Straub/Huillet, and brings a certain starkness to the imagery, avoiding sentimentality. This is a very fine film about a bleak period in history.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Extras which had been on a supplementary disc as part of the original box set are included on the Blu-ray reissue, most notably the Charlie Chaplin short The Immigrant (1917), which is seen being screened to the kids within the film, with musical accompaniment from Irène Jacob in her first film role. I’m hardly a connoisseur of Chaplin’s films (I’ve only seen a small handful), but you can see a certain virtuosity in the staging of this, in which Chaplin’s familiar “Tramp” character is an immigrant on a ship bound for New York. We’re introduced to him leaning over the side while the ship rolls dramatically, suggesting he’s heaving his guts out, but the first gag reveals no, he’s just catching a fish. This continues with all kinds of physical comedy — there’s a particularly nice scene in the mess hall, where food slides between the immigrants — and a sweet bit where he anonymously helps out a young woman (Edna Purviance) who’s had her money stolen by a gambler whom he’s won it off. The ending with Purviance is rather abrupt, but it caps a film with a number of solid comedy setpieces.
  • Another extra is a five-minute visual essay about one of the more troublesome characters, an outcast named Joseph, trying to locate and understand what drives him, and the difficulties that drive him to his final decisive action in the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle; Cinematographer Renato Berta; Starring Gaspard Manesse, Raphaël Fejtö, Francine Racette; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 June 2020.

Even When I Fall (2017)

One of the major reasons I like to watch documentaries is that they bring me stories from all parts of the world, from all walks of life, and from the perspectives of people whose lives and experiences I will never share and could often never be part of. This film is directed by two British women (from an anthropology background, I gather), but is filmed in Nepal, touching on child trafficking and exploitation but in a way that really benefits from the time the filmmakers spent with their subjects. It’s a real problem with documentaries that the best ones require a huge amount of time and patience to make, whereas ones which are dashed off quickly tend to be insubstantial and misleading. This film is produced by Elhum Shakerifar (Hakawati Films), who has also produced the excellent Of Love & Law and A Syrian Love Story amongst others, and programmes Middle Eastern and North African films at the London Film Festival (quite often providing some of my favourite film experiences at the LFF each year).


Seeing a synopsis of this documentary, I was not expecting very much, but in blending an account of human trafficking of children from poor, rural areas of Nepal into travelling circuses in India, with the story of their rescue and rehabilitation into their own native circus based in Kathmandu, the film ends up being rather lovely. It’s certainly not a combination that one might expect to pay off: earnest accounts of the wonder of the circus arts hardly make for a natural bedfellow with harrowing accounts of what is essentially slavery, you would think. However, there’s an assuredness to the direction and photography that is aided by, as ever, charismatic and watchable lead characters, most notably two women who have grown up in these circuses, and have found a new sense of direction once reunited with their families. Of course, there are difficult questions — most notably, why their parents sold them in the first place — but the women are all united in trying to ensure that this practice does not continue, as well as fighting against the prejudices people have against circus performers (which seem to roughly align with what 19th century Victorians thought about actors).

Even When I Fall film posterCREDITS
Directors Kate McLarnon and Sky Neal; Cinematographer Ben Marshall; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 16 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 323: I bambini ci guardano (The Children Are Watching Us, 1943)

Vittorio De Sica and writer Cesare Zavattini collaborated on a number of the best-known Italian post-war films, still regularly getting onto those best ever lists, ones like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. This film, made in 1942 and intended for release in 1943 though scuppered somewhat by an escalating war, marks their first collaboration (or the first one that Zavattini put his name to anyway), and it has a lot of the hallmarks that would come to define De Sica’s particular brand of humanism. It has a great empathy for the character of Pricò (Luciano De Ambrosis), a small child of six-years-old, caught in the middle of a wrenching breakup between his parents (Isa Pola and Emilio Cigoli), as the mother is tempted away from the marriage and her son by her lover Roberto. The film’s big events though — the departure of the mother, and the climactic departure (as it were) of the father — are telegraphed very subtly, as the camera remains focused on the child, often indeed being at quite a low angle to the events. The lighting too can be equal to the drama, as in a confrontation between father and son where even at his tender age the son realises he mustn’t reveal what he knows or it will break his dad. It has a melodramatic way, then, but underplayed in the style that would come to define Italian Neorealism, and — for a film made at this time — entirely without any wartime propaganda.

[NB The Wikipedia page lists this as a 1943 film, but it may never have received a proper release that year, which is why Criterion has it down as 1944.]

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are only two extras on the disc, being 8-minute interviews with its surviving star Luciano De Ambrosis (who played the kid), as he reflects on working with De Sica and how much he really remembered about the shoot, and De Sica scholar Callisto Casulich, who gives a bit of background to the filming and release.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Vittorio De Sica; Writers De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Cesare Giulio Viola, Margherita Maglione, Adolfo Franci and Gherardo Gherardi (based on the novel Pricò by Viola); Cinematographers Giuseppe Caracciolo and Romolo Garroni; Starring Luciano De Ambrosis, Isa Pola, Emilio Cigoli; Length 84 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 6 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 318: Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952)

Nowadays this seems to rather divide the critics I follow, though this was hugely lauded on its release (at least internationally), and so I wonder if this plays differently with parents. It certainly fits into the sort of faux-rustic and hazily sentimentalised vision of traditional values that’s always played well to a certain strain of middlebrow filmgoers, at least when it’s in French (and not everything derided by the New Wave as cinéma du papa was bad, but there hasn’t been any shortage of these kinds of titles in all the years since then). Perhaps I’m just betraying some kind of inner cynicism, but this feels too calculated to be effective. The rough, rude peasantry — whether the poor couple seen right at the start who barely give a thought to the bereaved kid, the farmer family who take in Paulette (quite against their instincts), their bitter rivals in the village — all seem to exist solely to contrast with the innocence of the two children. There are also the bookended titles, further pulling this away into the realm of the cozily fabulistic, though the film’s opening minutes have a simple, vicious intensity that is never quite matched for the rest of the running time. Together the two kids make a little graveyard in a derelict mill to all the dead animals they find, starting with Paulette’s beloved dog, getting themselves into trouble with the local priest as the boy starts grabbing all the crosses he can find. I don’t mean to be too down on it, though, because there’s still plenty to commend it, particularly in terms of the expressive acting of these kids. Let’s just say this isn’t to my taste and leave it at that, because it’s certainly brought plenty of others joy.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The disc presents the alternative opening and ending for the film (all that remains in the finished film is the credits written on the pages of a book), but it explicitly has the two kids living happily, hardly peasants any more, and playing by a big pond, where the boy tells the little girl a story about children very much like them. It’s a framing that puts the horrifying context of the film safely in the past, and it’s surely to the film’s credit that they didn’t end up using these sequences.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director René Clément; Writers Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (based on the novel by François Boyer); Cinematographer Robert Juillard; Starring Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 May 2020.