La mujer del puerto (The Woman of the Port, 1934)

Film posterDespite the taut running time, this feels like a slightly underwritten film. That may partly be due to it being an early sound film, and so still an art form trying to figure out its conventions, but there are long sequences that feel repetitious, even if the intention is to build the melodramatic potential of a plot that isn’t short on soap operatic detail. Andrea Palma is the titular character, Rosario, a woman with a dusky Dietrich-like allure (you can’t avoid that image of her that adorns the poster; it’s almost iconic in the golden age of Mexican cinema), but she is spurned by an unfaithful boyfriend and her father dies trying to protect her honour. Without him she is clearly unwelcome; during these early scenes set in the city, there’s a particularly memorable trio of judgmental older women in her apartment block, who gather around the camera and conspire against Rosario and her father. Needless to say she soon leaves town and, with few options open to her, finds work at the port of Veracruz in a convivial establishment. For a film of this period it’s all fairly clear what’s going on, though a very late twist takes the tale in unexpectedly dark directions. What really makes the film, though, apart from Palma’s excellent performance, is the direction. Russian emigré Boytler may experiment with any number of scene transitions (wipes in every direction, up and down, irises, and lots of lap dissolves), but he has an effective way with overlapping images suggesting memories and premonitions, and coordinates some excellent cinematography replete with expressionist lighting (largely the work of another emigré, the Canadian DoP Alex Phillips, whose credit will show up on several other films of the era). For a film that tells a story of setback piling on setback ultimately leading to tragedy, there’s a feeling not of oppressive gloom but rather a kind of poetic realism (familiar with some contemporary French cinema). This may not be entirely successful, but it’s a fascinating gem from early Mexican cinema.

CREDITS Directors Arcady Boytler Аркадий Бойтлер and Raphael J. Sevilla; Writer Raphael J. Sevilla (based on the novel Le Port by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographer Alex Phillips; Starring Andrea Palma, Domingo Soler; Length 76 minutes; Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 16 July 2019.

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Two Films by Catherine Corsini: Leaving (2009) and An Impossible Love (2018)

Partir (Leaving, 2009)

Film posterSomehow, 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.

CREDITS 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)

Film posterAfter 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.

CREDITS 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.

Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès, 2019)

Film posterVarda was doing a number of talks around the world in the last few years before she passed, and this film is sort of based around those, going back over her life with clips from her films, as she talks about what made her excited, what she liked to film, her philosophy of living, as well as some of the people she met along the way. Given its clip-show format it’s hardly the equal of her recent documentaries, or her greatest fiction filmmaking (all of which is imbued with a documentary fascination with peoples’ lives), but if anyone has earned this kind of warm and gentle summation, then it’s certainly Agnès Varda. And of course this film, like her presence — which is a constant throughout — is very much warm and gentle.

CREDITS Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Claire Duguet, François Décréau and Julia Fabry; Starring Agnès Varda; Length 115 minutes; Seen at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.

La Vagabonde (1932)

The history of women making films in France, as in the United States, stretches back to the silent era. Musidora’s formative influence as a director and star (in such films as Soleil et ombre and Pour Don Carlos) extends to this Colette adaptation, an early sound film, as she was originally attached to the project. The film was restored in the mid-1990s and was presented again as part of the Musidora strand at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.


Film posterBased on a text (and with a filmed introduction) by Colette, this is a delicately-told story of a woman trying to free herself from the bad, possessive men in her life (it was originally published just as Colette was getting divorced from Willy). The film has long stretches of silent action (though one supposes this is hardly unusual in early sound films) and can be a little unforgiving to watch, and yet there are these beautifully expressive passages, both in the acting (the weary way Marcelle Chantal as music hall actor Renée Nérée pushes a man’s hand off her, or a subtle raise of her pencil-thin eyebrows while drinking wine) and the direction (Renée’s experience with two different men are united via lap dissolves between the scenes, as their actions are a further indictment of chauvinist arrogance and predatory intentions). In terms of tone, it feels like a precursor to the ‘poetic realism’ that would take hold in French filmmaking throughout the decade. As the film progresses, it builds up these short scenes, little vignettes of a sad life, before a final sequence at the docks as she longs to sail away.

CREDITS Director Solange Bussi [later Solange Térac]; Writer Colette (based on her novel); Cinematographers Rudolph Maté and Louis Née; Starring Marcelle Chantal, Fernand Fabre; Length 66 minutes; Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Mastroianni), Bologna, Sunday 23 June 2019.

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).


Kids waiting to be fed

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Two 1988 Films by Agnès Varda: Jane B. by Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!

Both these films were made by Varda as collaborations with Jane Birkin. The idea for Kung-Fu Master! came from Birkin during the production of Jane B. and so Varda helped her realise the concept. Varda’s similarly playful (and similarly titled) final film Varda par Agnès (2019) is released in the UK this Friday 19 July.


Jane Birkin with Agnes Varda reflected in a mirror

Jane B. par Agnès V. (Jane B. by Agnès V., 1988)

Film posterWatching this film for the first time 30 years after it was made, I wonder if Todd Haynes had seen it before making his one about Bob Dylan (I’m Not There). There’s a similar sort of playfulness in the way that it takes a person’s life (Jane Birkin’s in this case) and reworks it, plays with what it means to be represented on film, to be a performer and inhabit roles, and how the (re)presentation changes the meaning of what we see. We see Birkin in a variety of costume dramas and staged tableaux of baroque paintings, or enacting genre scripts (a gangster heist drama, or a love story across generational boundaries with Varda’s son Mathieu, expanded into feature-length as Kung-Fu Master!), as well as talking to Varda in almost (and yet not quite) documentary-like behind-the-scenes setups. It’s fun and perplexing, dazzling and strange, in ways that get to the core of being a public figure, of acting and of filmmaking itself. Plus, it has a very self-awarely digressive style that pulls all this material together and even makes it seem natural.

CREDITS Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Nurith Aviv and Pierre-Laurent Chénieux; Starring Jane Birkin, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Agnès Varda; Length 80 minutes; Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 16 June 2018.


Kung-Fu Master! (1988)

Film posterThis is an odd film, and one can see how it might have languished somewhat in Agnès Varda’s filmography, given its themes. Even so, Varda imparts an earnest inquisitiveness to the whole undertaking that almost redeems the slightly dicey subject matter. It was more of Birkin’s conceit than Varda’s, as middle-aged Birkin falls for her daughter’s 14-year-old school friend (played by Varda’s son Mathieu), and in which she is abetted by her own family. Indeed, much of Birkin’s extended clan appears here, in scenes set in both Paris and London, and so this is also in some way an exploration of family dynamics. The documentary elements extend to scenes, apparently unrelated to the drama as a whole, depicting the panic around AIDS in both countries, and these are almost more troubling than the central plotline (especially given Varda’s husband died only a few years later of complications from this disease), and hearing contemporary schoolyard homophobic taunts is somewhat brutal, even if they don’t go unchallenged. But that central story, with its uncomfortable age and power dynamics, is treated simply, with a strange tenderness, but it never feels comfortable (nor indeed should it), and makes the film as a whole, well… very odd.

CREDITS Director Agnès Varda; Writers Jane Birkin and Varda; Cinematographer Pierre-Laurent Chénieux; Starring Jane Birkin, Mathieu Demy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lou Doillon; Length 80 minutes; Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Tuesday 14 May 2019.

35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum, 2008)

Film posterDenis 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.

CREDITS 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).

Pour Don Carlos (For Don Carlos, 1921)

A lady is accosted by a military officerThis 90-minute feature may have been cut down from a much longer original, but even what survives has had to be painstakingly put together by a team of restorers from various Cinemathèques, resulting in what was presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato as a work-in-progress. Truthfully I found the historical drama aspects difficult to follow, and there’s a lot that writer/director/star Musidora attempts to fit into this story of a political conflict over bringing Don Carlos (Charles VII) to the Spanish throne in the 1870s. However, Musidora clearly had a love affair with Spain (just as the camera has with her), as she returned to that setting for other films she made in the 20s. Here, she plays a supporter of Don Carlos called Allegria, and for much of the first half of the film is dressed resplendently in a military uniform, cutting quite the gloriously dashing figure. There’s a second section where she’s a poor peasant woman trying to free a colleague from captivity, which comes on rather suddenly, and wasn’t quite as compelling, but Musidora remains a charismatic screen presence.

CREDITS Directors Musidora and Jacques Lasseyne; Writer Musidora (based on the novel by Pierre Benoît); Cinematographers Frank Daniau-Johnston and Léonce Crouan; Starring Musidora, Stephen Weber; Length 90 minutes; Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Mastroianni), Bologna, Wednesday 26 June 2019.

Облако-рай Oblako-ray (Cloud-Paradise, 1990)

Film posterA rather delightful late-Soviet comedy about a small town, where Kolya (Andrei Zhigalov, doing a holy fool type character) bumbles around, annoying people with his insipid questions about the weather, before hitting on the notion that he’s going to move away to the East to get a job, a ploy to prove to them that he’s not the good-for-nothing they think. Thus a film that opens with the camera gliding down from the heavens to the ground of this grim apartment block to confront a sea of deadpan faces — Kaurismäki-style stares into the abyss of hopelessness and entropy — immediately does an about-turn as everyone Kolya knows becomes excited by his sudden news, and quickly enough he finds he can’t back out of the lie. There are a succession of these little set-piece scenes of celebration, and at times it feels like it could burst into musical numbers (the few songs that pepper the film were sadly untranslated, but had more of a solemn setting to them). It’s a film that metaphorically suggests the Soviet Union in a period of transition, desperate for any (even made-up) hope for change.

CREDITS Director Nikolai Dostal Николай Досталь; Writer Georgi Nikolayev Георгий Николаев; Cinematographers Yuri Nevsky Юрий Невский and Pyotr Serebryakov Пётр Серебряков; Starring Andrei Zhigalov Андрей Жигалов, Sergey Batalov Сергей Баталов, Irina Rozanova Ири́на Роза́нова; Length 79 minutes; Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Tuesday 25 June 2019.

Une saison en France (A Season in France, 2017)

Film posterA warm, human story about an excellent father (Eriq Ebouaney) and his kids trying to make a new life in Paris after fleeing civil war in the Central African Republic. It moves slowly, showing the father’s life working in the markets (having been a French teacher back home), and that of his brother, who’s a former philosophy professor, still dressed up snappily in a suit and tweed jacket as, dispiritingly, we realise he’s heading towards a shop where he’s working on security. All of them have new connections, new relationships, they have jobs and places to live, and yet ultimately no security, and the film is absolutely focused on just how tenuous everyone’s hold on security is in this kind of place, especially as we move towards the end, surveying the bleakness that awaits, the systemic deracination that Western nations (and Europe specifically) have effected on those who are in this desperate situation.

CREDITS Director/Writer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun محمد الصالح هارون; Cinematographer Mathieu Giombini; Starring Eriq Ebouaney, Sandrine Bonnaire; Length 100 minutes; Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 20 June 2019.