Criterion Sunday 527: La Graine et le mulet (The Secret of the Grain aka Couscous, 2007)

Made before director Abdellatif Kechiche fully leaned into being a lecherous old man director, this — like his more famous 2013 film Blue Is the Warmest Colour (even if that gets a little overwhelmed by some lengthy interludes) — has a heart that is based in a small immigrant community, on the lives of people who don’t have very much and struggle to get what they can in life. It follows Slimane (Habib Boufares) whose work on the docks is coming to an end and who needs to find something else. His life and his large family are all introduced via lengthy scenes where we get to spend time with each of them, and it’s a fine way to introduce a complicated and messy family. Eventually it all leads to a big explosion of melodrama, but Kechiche handles even that with a fine sense of balance, even if everything seems to be left hanging unresolved at the end. But perhaps the film is better for that, and we can perhaps choose to imagine a healing for the fractious double-family created by Slimane, with on the one hand the many children he had with his ex-wife (the lauded chef of the couscous and mullet dish to which the original French title refers) and on the other his younger partner and her daughter (newcomer Hafsia Herzi), ostracised by the other half of the family. The film largely keeps all these characters and broiling events under control as Slimane moves slowly towards opening his own restaurant showcasing the titular meal/grain and gets some fine performances from its local and presumably largely non-actor cast.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Abdellatif Kechicheعبد اللطيف كشيش; Writers Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix غالية لاكروا; Cinematographer Lubomir Bakchev Любомир Бакчев; Starring Habib Boufares
حبيب بوفارس, Hafsia Herzi حفصية حرزي, Bouraouïa Marzouk بوراوية مرزوق; Length 154 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 17 April 2022.

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.

Annette (2021)

It’s that period between Christmas and New Year so it’s time for me to post up reviews of my other favourite films of the year, as most of them will be making it into my best of the year list. One recent release is the latest film from Leos Carax, which has plenty of people hating it, and other passionate fans. I’ve never really been into Sparks, though Edgar Wright’s documentary earlier in the year helped me to get my bearings, but I enjoy their arch orchestral pop music and it fits very nicely into this grand folly of a film. That’s exactly the kind of film Carax makes, though, when he does turn his hand to it (his last was 2012’s equally absurd, equally grand, equally green Holy Motors), so I’m not complaining. There are long stretches where it doesn’t work, even is a little bit dull (I find myself unable to warm to Adam Driver’s character for example), but right from that bravura coup de cinéma opening sequence, when the film does spark, it really has no equal in the rest of cinema.


This certainly reads from the reviews as if it’s a love it or hate it sort of film, and I can see why, but that’s always been the case with Leos Carax’s films I feel. That said, its curious blend of self-awareness and anti-naturalism starts right from the opening number (“So May We Start?”), so you should get a good sense pretty quickly if it’s not for you, but it feels to me a bit like La La Land if that film had properly committed to the emotions. Both films have a sort of emptiness to them at their core, too, but this feels like a stylistic choice, about two people who want some meaning in life but can’t ever get beyond the surface level, never doing much more than saying what they think they should feel rather than actually feeling it. And so having a child who’s a puppet feels like a perfect expression of this abyss (“A-B-Y-S-S”, Henry even spells it out). It’s a film filled with affect, beautiful shots that seem bravura (early on we get Henry’s hands coming in from the side of the frame threateningly towards Ann’s neck before veering into an embrace almost imperceptibly) that turn out to be cleverly foreshadowing, a bold use of colour (green, usually), and those Sparks songs which just grind the themes down until they feel a little bit fresh. Look, I can’t pretend it all worked, but (Adam Driver aside) it’s exactly the kind of thing I love to see on the screen, an ideal showcase for a grand folly of self-indulgence.

Annette (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Leos Carax; Writers Ron Mael and Russell Mael; Cinematographer Caroline Champetier; Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Titane (2021)

The closing night film of the New Zealand International Film Festival ended up being the Cannes Palme d’Or winner Titane, which is certainly a very bold and disturbing film to be winning major awards but there’s something to that. I was never quite sure if I really loved it while it was going on, but I do know that it was surprising and confrontational, and quite baroquely stylish, with an excellent performance from newcomer Agathe Rousselle and grizzled veteran Vincent Lindon.


Watching this Cannes prize-winning film most strongly reminds me of the work of Claire Denis. The influence of David Cronenberg is perhaps most obvious in its body horror genre trappings, but for me Denis is the influence that seems clearest to me, and partly that’s a matter of tone. The one time I’ve seen Denis discuss her film at a live Q&A was after a screening of Bastards, which also stars Vincent Lindon and is set in a twilight world riven with anger (at least in my recollection), and reading interviews with this film’s director Julia Ducournau reminds me of the way Denis would confront her critics, never seemingly more engaged than when she was outraged by an angry comment.

Clearly there’s a lot that audiences and critics are divided over with Titane, and some of the criticism is probably quite at odds with what Ducournau intended, but it seems at heart to be about human connection. Along the way it dispenses with trite psychologising — we see Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) briefly as a child, but any relationship she has with her parents is very much only indirectly implied, and the reasons for her turning to murder are never really delved into — in favour of a heady immersion into a stylised world of machines and flesh. This isn’t the romantic abstraction of, say, Ex Machina, but instead a very fleshy world of scars and body transformation, which hints at a trans subtext (though the filmmaker denies that) and certainly speaks to gender fluidity, an in-your-face be-queer-do-crimes vibe. That said, when she comes into contact with Vincent Lindon’s firefighter, the film changes perceptibly to being one about acceptance and love despite everything — and there’s a lot there for his character to blindly accept.

The filmmaking is fearless when it comes to bodies, and that much is certainly evident from Ducournau’s debut feature Raw, but it’s also very much within a genre framework where this kind of horror is a little bit abstracted from the emotional reality (a scene with a knitting needle lands very differently in, say, Happening) without entirely relinquishing that primal response. That can make twists like Alexia’s relationship with the car make a certain amount of poetic sense, but her relationship with Vincent seems pretty profound too, and he is great in what must have been a challenging role. The textures of the colours and images, the propulsive music and relentlessness of the endeavour carries it, along with a fair amount of jet black humour. I’m not even sure if it’s a great film, but it feels pretty special.

Titane (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Julia Ducournau; Cinematographer Ruben Impens; Starring Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 21 November 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 435: The Furies (1950)

One of the things I love about this era of filmmaking is that the great stars were just these unassailable icons, and questions about how old the character they were portraying should have been (a lot younger) or how believable their relationship was with the inevitably dull and rather wooden guy cast opposite as the romantic lead (not particularly compelling) fade away almost to irrelevance. The fact — the only salient fact — is that Barbara Stanwyck is in charge here, and she’ll let you know it, like Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar a few years later: an icon. As it is here, another moral might be: don’t name your New Mexico landholding after vengeful characters of Greek mythology, because surely someone will be punished and it’s likely to be the one hubristic enough to have chosen the name, though in fact there’s just a lot of punishment to go round here and the look of the film emphasises that, all glowering monochrome skies weighing heavy on the actors. This is, looking back, a great film, more interested in the character dynamics between father and daughter than in the weedy guy (Wendell Corey) who for all his relatively young years when this film was made still somehow seems too old, too conservative, too boring for someone as flashy a character as Stanwyck’s Vance (though she is older). Luckily the father is played by veteran Walter Huston, in his last screen role, and the sparring between them is the core of the film, driving the narrative and providing plenty of fodder for the avenging deities to work with.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Anthony Mann; Writer Charles Schnee (based on the novel by Niven Busch); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 30 May 2021.

On the Rocks (2020)

Sofia Coppola has made some films I love, while never quite being a filmmaker whose work I seek out. Somehow at their worst — and this is one of her weaker films — they feel quite safe in some ways, but for me The Beguiled and The Bling Ring have been fascinating dramas about what it is to be American. Perhaps this is too, and like those other films it has a very specific sense of place, even if (like all her films) it’s abstracted from lived reality into something rather cozily familiar.


Halfway through watching this film and I was very willing to dislike it, but by the end it had grown a little on me. I still don’t think it’s one of director Sofia Coppola’s most accomplished works, but it’s a deft little miniature about those kind of very privileged New York City people that too many filmmakers make films about. Part of what grated on me, what made me want to dismiss the film, is that by halfway through a quotidian story of a middle-class Black couple (Rashida Jones and Marlon Wayans) negotiating their relationship after many years of marriage, gets sidetracked into being the Bill Murray show. He plays Jones’s father, an art dealer and something of a fantasist who knows everybody and has an easy charm, but his character pushes this into being a different kind of film. His ongoing habit of opining about women is of course tedious, and the way that he makes things about himself becomes what the film is about: his soliloquies are very much to showcase all the ways that Jones has to roll her eyes at him, while his impishly adventurous spirit leads to a catharsis that pulls the movie back to something that feels more emotionally truthful. It’s not a masterpiece, but I did end up liking it just a little bit.

On the Rocks film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola; Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd; Starring Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Academy Cinemas, Auckland, Thursday 29 October 2020.

LFF 2020: The Cheaters (1930)

The highlight of the archival strand of the London Film Festival was undoubtedly recently rediscovered Iranian film The Chess Game of the Wind, which I saw at the online version of Il Cinema Ritrovato (though I haven’t posted about it here yet). However, there was also this silent programme of Australian director Paulette McDonagh’s surviving feature, alongside a fragment of her earlier Those Who Love (1925).


This surviving Australian silent film, directed by Paulette McDonagh and starring her sister Isabel (as “Marie Lorraine”), has a somewhat hoary old feel to it, given the advances being made in silent (and indeed sound cinema) at the time in other parts of the world. It’s a melodrama of criminals and cheats, but also a romance in which “Marie” falls for the son of an old enemy of her father’s, prompting all kinds of contorted plotting that I didn’t fully keep up with. Still, it’s jaunty good fun and a perfectly solid bit of early filmmaking from a nation not known for its cinema for quite a few decades yet.

The Cheaters title cardCREDITS
Director/Writer Paulette McDonagh; Cinematographer Jack Fletcher; Starring Marie Lorraine [Isabel McDonagh], Arthur Greenaway, John Faulkner; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Monday 12 October 2020.

LFF 2020: Farewell Amor (2020)

The 2020 London Film Festival (LFF) just closed yesterday with a smaller more focused programme, conducted largely online via the BFI Player, though they offered some socially-distanced screenings of the more popular titles — along with one or two only in the cinema. I wasn’t ready for the in-person screenings, though as I’ve chronicled on this blog I have recently ventured back to a few (carefully selected to be sparsely attended) cinema screenings. Anyway, I’m now in a managed isolation hotel in Auckland (day five, certified Covid-free for now), so I missed the last few days of the LFF, but I did get to see some of the first week of titles and I’ll be doing a week focusing on those.


Some of the best American films are stories of immigrants making their way in the big city. Last year in the LFF we had the fabulous Lingua Franca and this year is this story of an African family (from Tanzania via Angola during the latter’s civil war) reunited finally after 17 years apart. The husband has been working as a New York taxi driver, and we meet them as they come together at the airport, before following each of the three of them in separate strands which loop back and then intersect again in a few places. These are lives in flux, and the film has empathy for each of the three — the father Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who is trying to hide that he’s had a previous long-term relationship, before the return of his wife Esther (Zainab JAh), who after the stress and troubles of the war and the loss of her husband has found solace in Jesus, and the daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), trying to hide her interest in dance from her mother. It’s a gentle film in many ways, though there are emotional traumas not far below the surface that it alludes to throughout, and it’s a beautiful one as well.

Farewell Amor film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ekwa Msangi; Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole; Starring Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Saturday 10 October 2020.

The Roads Not Taken (2020)

I’ve had a bit of break again for the last week and a half, as things are busy at work, and preparing to move to the other side of the world, but I’ve seen a few more films in cinemas (all directed by women as usual), and as Miss Juneteenth is out this Friday in the UK, I’ll post reviews of the cinema releases I’ve seen since the last week I dedicated to these. I’m starting on Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday with the new Sally Potter film, a great director and already a veteran of several decades. Perhaps her recent films haven’t been my favourite of her work, but she’s still producing interesting drama at under-90-minute lengths.


Sally Potter’s most recent film is about a fragile relationship between the creative urge and memory in an older man, as his mind becomes fragmented in a period of dementia. It uses Javier Bardem in a small apartment by the subway tracks in New York, and contrasts this quotidian and slightly sad setting with him living by the sea in Greece as a writer, and again with Salma Hayek in Mexico, each time pursuing relationships that, as the title suggests, perhaps he never did do and perhaps has only imagined. So in fact, we get three outcomes for the same man’s life, three ways things could have gone, and who’s to say which is right; perhaps in his dementia, he’s imagining these lives, but perhaps just as much he (as a writer in Greece) has written the life of the man in NYC, whose daughter (and this is a stretch) is played by Elle Fanning. I like a lot of what Potter is doing here, but I don’t think it really quite comes off — partly perhaps because Bardem’s dementia performance seems like a caricature, or a fancible creation by a writer (although, to be fair, it could be a creation by another character within the film as much as outside it). I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but I think it’s a nifty idea.

The Roads Not Taken film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sally Potter; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 15 September 2020.