Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis

Cécile Decugis (1934-2017) has never really been a prominent film name, which is a shame. She may have only made a handful of short and medium-length films as director (which I like well enough), but she makes it to my Women Filmmakers’ feature for her more prominent work as a film editor. She worked on some of the most important French Nouvelle Vague films of the 1950s and 1960s, films which were known particularly for their innovative editing (usually ascribed to their more famous directors). These films include many of the works of Éric Rohmer (she worked with him through to the 1980s), as well as a few other minor works you may not have heard of like À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959) and Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959, along with Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte, another editor, of Martinican heritage). Her activism on behalf of Algerian independence began in the late-1950s with her first short film, and ended up costing her two years in prison from 1960-62. Her own films were often about people in a certain existential confusion, it seems to me, and I got a chance to see them at the invaluable Il Cinema Ritrovato festival (though I only caught half of the full programme).

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L’Avenir (Things to Come, 2016)

The last two films I’ve seen at the cinema have been this and Andrzej Żuławski’s Cosmos, both French films by directors with non-French ancestry, both set amongst a close-knit group of intellectuals gravitating away from the city, but otherwise films with quite a different temperament. For where Cosmos is dead set with every fibre of its creation against bourgeois affectations, Things to Come instead mounts something of an apologia for the bourgeoisie.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself, and the comparison comes from happenstance, so I shan’t get too bogged down in such comparisons; suffice to say I enjoyed Mia Hansen-Løve’s new film very much (and I am clearly also partial to the consolations of the middle-class). Its pleasures are not immediate, but come from an intense focus on the character of Nathalie (played by an ever-excellent Isabelle Huppert), a philosophy teacher at a French high school, who prides herself on opening her students’ minds, even as her own marriage seems stuck. For characters whose lives are so mired in stasis (whether existentially or literally — there are a lot of very abstruse books, and most characters crack them open to read on a regular basis), the camerawork and staging for much of the film is filled with movement. My feeling of it, though, is that this constant movement settles down after a succession of personal setbacks (Nathalie’s husband resolves to leave her, and her mother dies suddenly). She is left to reassess her life, living for a while with her mother’s cat Pandora at a former student’s countryside commune.

As I said, the film’s pleasures are chiefly in the observation of Nathalie’s life’s rituals, and in little amusing details. I particularly liked, as just one example, the sequence where she tries to angrily consign her now-moved-out-husband’s consolatory flowers to the bin, but finding it too narrow for their showy proportions, bags them up in a blue Ikea bag and throws them in her flat’s rubbish skip, pauses, then goes back to retrieve the Ikea bag. I’m not even sure the divorce is really the key to the film (it seems central to a lot of the film’s write-ups), so much as a structural conceit. Things to Come is more interested in the life of a woman who has moved away from predicating her existence on men (or indeed any sense of community, it sometimes seems); it somewhat reminds me of Gertrud in this respect, even if it doesn’t share many of Dreyer’s formal qualities or staginess.

The film may not have the edginess or punch of some young directors’ works (or indeed that of Żuławski), but it is reminiscent instead of the best of bourgeois French cinema (Assayas, say, or Téchiné), seemingly gentle on the surface yet hiding barbed insights.

L'Avenir (Things to Come, 2016)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mia Hansen-Løve; Cinematographer Denis Lenoir; Starring Isabelle Huppert, Roman Kolinka, André Marcon, Édith Scob; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 3 September 2016.