My final day of the London Film Festival sends me to three films from Asia (two directed by women), and all of which deal with families in their various guises, though Bombay Rose has more of a romantic flavour than the other two. All three represent reasons why I continue to love contemporary cinema, and value the films that the LFF presents.
Day four of the London Film Festival is the first weekend, and so the first day on which I have bought myself tickets to more than two films — only three, mind, and with fairly generous spacing, so there’s no running from screen to screen today. Two of them are in Spanish (one is Catalan although mostly in Castilian, the other Uruguyuan) and two are coming of age stories (The Sharks and The Orphanage). Oh, and all three are directed by women of course.
With The Farewell in UK cinemas today, another recent film by a Chinese-American filmmaker was one of the finest documentaries out last year, although it only touches on themes related to the Asian diaspora experience (as when its director, who is a fellow skateboarder, appears on-screen). There have been a number of recent films about kids expressing themselves and finding a community through skateboarding (like Skate Kitchen), and this documentary is a fine addition to this burgeoning sub-genre.
I guess the obvious thing to say is that this isn’t a film about skateboarding, though the first shot of them gliding through the streets — a kinetic moment of movement and light and joy — is repeated throughout as a sort of motif. It underlines the film’s real point, which is about the precarious transition between entrapment and escape. Some of what keeps these men stuck in their lives (and there are three of them including the director Bing Liu) is partly down to society, but is also it turns out somewhat reflective of the domestic situations in which they all grew up, and that starts to become the focus of Bing’s questioning. This leads to scenes which are both heartbreaking and also really very painfully confrontational, such as Bing putting his mother under the spotlight, or about Keire’s relationship with his father, which feel sometimes like things that are too abjectly personal to be on camera. And then there’s Zack’s own patterns of domestic abuse, which Bing never really confronts his friend directly about, and which he leaves largely unresolved, while suggesting (perhaps more hopefully than anything else) that he could yet have matured. In any case, there’s a lot of material here, a lot of painful, confrontational material, nakedly emotional, but also there’s that through-line: the joy of skateboarding that brings these men together and makes them — they hope; we hope — better people, and helps at least some of them to break free from their pasts.
Director/Cinematographer Bing Liu 劉冰; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, 27 March 2019.
Born in Argentina in 1966, Lucrecia Martel had a typically Catholic upbringing for the region, albeit such that she only enrolled in an ultra-Catholic school in order to study ancient languages. There she excelled in science and had intended further study in zoology, and even dabbled in farming, but was drawn into more practical studies in consideration of making a living, and bit by bit was drawn into filmmaking, in which occupation she was largely self-taught. She made short films and some documentaries for television during the 1990s, and has made only four feature films for cinema, but already in that time she has proven a keen eye for framing, and a laconic way of drawing out a story. Indeed, after bursting onto the international scene with La Ciénaga in 2001, she has been a model for successive Latin American women directors, if not for an entire strand of arthouse film production. Her films are not immediately accessible, and perhaps that explains her slow output (and the dizzying array of producers and sources of money her films sometimes list), but she also crafts them all very deliberately so perhaps the waits are worthwhile.
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.
- 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).
In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.
Having started my Australian-themed film week with Celia, I’m skipping back ten years to a real classic of the era, and a film that launched the career of one of Australia’s best known directors, Gillian Armstrong, whose 1992 film The Last Days of Chez Nous I’ve also reviewed on here. (NB I only realised after watching and writing the text below that this has recently been released on the Criterion Collection, but it won’t be until 2032 that I’ll get to that film, so expect another review in, er, 13 years.)
This film is now 40 years old, and I wonder whether a lot of the issues that it addresses, the rich emotional lives it affords to its characters, and particularly the way it resolves the central romantic pairing, are still somewhat ahead of their time even now. There are certainly plenty of filmmakers who could do some catching up. Published originally in 1901, My Brilliant Career is a late-19th century story of colonial Australia starring a young Sam Neill (who almost 40 years later would be in a quite different rendering of a similar period in Sweet Country). Here he plays Harry, a dashing young man competing for the hand of Sybylla, but it’s very much her film, and that of Judy Davis who plays her. Indeed the very first scene sets that much out, as Davis makes an iconic entrance* reading the words of Miles Franklin, that this is a story about her. It’s also a story about finding one’s own way in the world (shades of The Souvenir which I just watched yesterday) and about colonial-era class relationships, though the society it depicts remains very white (there are some Aboriginal servants, but these are only glanced briefly in the background). At this remove, it feels like there’s a preponderance of Australian cinema dealing with its colonial European past from the 1970s, though that’s partly just how brightly Picnic at Hanging Rock still shines, but each of these films deserves its place in expanding the possibilities of a specifically Australian cinema, and Syb (as Harry calls her) feels like a very modern woman, even now, even in 2019.
* I don’t know if it’s iconic, but it should be.
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Eleanor Witcombe (based on the novel by Miles Franklin); Cinematographer Donald McAlpine; Starring Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 September 2019.
Gurinder Chadha is the director most famous for Bend It Like Beckham (2002), though she made a splash with her first film Bhaji on the Beach (1993). She’s a British filmmaker, born in a British colony (as Kenya was) and who has lived in London for almost the entirety of her life, and is particularly good at locating stories of characters with South-East Asian backgrounds within a diverse cultural milieu that never feels suffocatingly white (as it sometimes can in other middle-class middle-brow British films). That said, of course, racism is a persistent issue in the background of her stories, and we still see those who are intent on denying the multi-ethnic nature of British society, like the skinheads in this latest film.
It’s rare to see a film this earnest and dorky, but it’s honestly very hard to take against it, however much I found it teeth-grittingly cheesy at times. The thing is, it takes its premise — the real life story of Javed (Viveik Kalra, based on the screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor), a young Pakistani kid growing up in Luton discovering the music of Bruce Springsteen and finding connections to his own life — and plays it completely straight, without laughing at it or making jokes (though people certainly make fun of him). The first act sets up 1987 school life, complete with British versions of the classic American high school cliques, dominated by the sounds of the post-punk synth-based new romanticism of the mid- to late-80s, such that when our protagonist is handed some Bruce cassettes and starts listening to them, the music is quite different from what we’ve heard thus far. It even puts the lyrics up on screen to emphasise the effect, as he runs through a storm to the sounds of “The Promised Land” with back-projections on the council house walls: this is Gurinder Chadha’s version of total cinema, undoubtedly. It sorta works too, though I think I’d find it even more affecting to watch this on a plane, or on the couch when sick (that’s not a diss; it’s just one of those kinds of films, really comforting at a base soul level). The standout actor here turns out to be Javed’s Sikh best friend Roops (Aaron Phagura), who turns him onto Bruce, and whom I’d have been pleased to see a lot more of.
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor (based on his memoir Greeting from Bury Park); Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Viveik Kalra, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Tuesday 13 August 2019.
Born in the capital of Senegal in 1943, and trained as a teacher, Safi Faye had worked with filmmaker Jean Rouch and went on to formally study ethnography (gaining her doctorate in Paris). Therefore, this perspective runs strongly through her work, which frequently blurs the line between documentary and fiction. Her ethnographic focus is not, however, on documenting some exotic Other but often on her own family and their rural background (further explored in her 1979 film Fad’jal, named for her parents’ village), reclaiming it perhaps from the hands of Rouch and the French and European colonialists who deeply affected the entire region (if not, indeed, the continent).
A fairly sweet and innocuous film about childhood, set in 1950s Sweden, and it feels very… Swedish? The title refers to the young protagonist’s dog, as well as his reveries at night, while looking into the stars, about Soviet space travelling dog Laika. It’s at once sentimentally nostalgic yet without the cloying sweetness you might get in an American film with the same theme. As a film, it just sort of pleasantly washes over you, and nobody in the film seems too horrible, which is its own reward when you’ve been watching documentaries all weekend about genocidal imperialist aggression (as I had been, but that’s another review I suppose).
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lasse Hallström; Writers Hallström, Brasse Brännström and Per Berglund (based on a novel by Reidar Jönsson); Cinematographer Jörgen Persson; Starring Anton Glazelius, Melinda Kinnaman; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 November 2017.