Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

Back in the week commencing 15 May, I did a themed week around American indie films directed by women because of the release of this new Eliza Hittman film to VoD streaming services. I also reviewed her earlier film Beach Rats (2017) during that week. Naturally the new release was quite expensive those first few weeks but when the rental cost came down a bit, I did finally catch up with it, and I think it’s one of the strongest new releases this year.


I don’t think there can ever be enough stories of this nature, testifying to ordinary people and the lengths they need to go to in order to keep their lives on an even keel. This is about Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a young woman in a small Pennsylvania town, who’s in high school and clearly gets trouble off her classmates for being too serious — we are introduced to her at a show where the evident theme is 50s Americana, but she sings a doomy song about the patriarchy. At home, her mom has her hands full with Autumn’s younger sisters, plus has a boyfriend who’s a creep. It’s a set up that’s anything but supportive, so when she finds out she’s pregnant (presumably to the dude who’s being particularly aggressively bullying towards her), there aren’t really any realistic options, and the local clinic, while friendly, have their own priorities, leading her to get on a bus with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) and go to NYC without telling anybody. Flanigan is really solid at the core of this film, and a lot of what she’s dealing with remains unaddressed in the dialogue, instead communicated by posture and body language, surly aggressiveness towards her cousin at times, but at other times softening. It’s a quiet, undemonstrative film that works its magic slowly, and it’s the scene that gives the film its title which is the emotional core of the film, which never lapses into melodramatic territory, but just stays with the choice of its protagonist and her seeing that through.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eliza Hittman; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 9 June 2019.

Beach Rats (2017)

The reason for this week’s themed focus on American films directed by women is because the director of today’s film has a new one out on streaming in the UK at the end of the week, the abortion-themed drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always. This wasn’t her debut film, but it feels like some kind of breakthrough and got a fair bit of attention on the festival circuit. It’s a bleak gay story, as so many are, but with an artfulness helped by the cinematography of the great Hélène Louvart (who has shot Alice Rohrwacher’s films amongst others).


If I can be said to have a ‘type’ when it comes to movies, it’s probably the artfully distressed hazy focus-pulling indie intensity of this over the sun-dappled baroqueness of, say, Call Me by Your Name (the film I went to see just before this one) — but it’s not really fair to compare them, just because they both happen to have gay themes. In fact, this film seems to be more a film about everyone’s favourite post-millennial theme: toxic masculinity. It’s about a group of bros with short cropped hair and very well-defined abdominal musculature who aimlessly sit around and smoke weed. Our protagonist Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is dealing with some family drama, but seems to be sort of coasting, interested in men but also very much hiding it from those around him, performatively dressing himself up in hyper-masculine aggression and Instagrammable heteronormativity. I’m sort of over these kinds of stories (gay coming-of-age narratives) leading to bleak places, but in this kind of place, with these kinds of men, it all feels depressingly pre-ordained. Still, it grabs me as a real piece of filmmaking.

Beach Rats film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eliza Hittman; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 24 November 2017.

Corpo celeste (aka Heavenly Body, 2011)

Another film you won’t currently find on Mubi, but this debut feature by a major modern filmmaker is just one of the types of strands Mubi regularly presents. In fact, it’s one of the places I’ve been most fortunate to catch up with the early films of important contemporary filmmakers. As just one example, right now (i.e as of 25 March 2020) you can find Neighbouring Sounds, the debut film by Kleber Mendonça Filho (of Aquarius and Bacurau fame).


I loved Rohrwacher’s latest film Happy as Lazzaro and seeing her first feature film reminds me that a lot of what I loved there is present in all her work. It doesn’t feel heavy-handed at all to me, but rather a very gentle coming of age narrative, about a young girl (Yle Vianello) who starts to really get a sense not so much of adulthood itself, as of the disappointments that this world she’s entering can present, specifically around religion. She has come to Italy, a devoutly Catholic country, after a period of having grown up in Switzerland, and finds the church there to be somewhat disappointing, and the classes she attends just a little bit lacking in serious intent. While Santa, one of the lay women who runs the classes, fusses over the very much middling priest (Salvatore Cantalupo), our heroine Marta sits there impassively watching and judging all the nonsense that is passed off as being part of faith. It’s true that some of the symbolic reaches the film goes for are pretty strong — the crucifix mounted to the roof of the priest’s car as he speeds around the mountain ridges feels like one such — but overall this film prefers to focus on the quiet and melancholy experienced by Marta as she navigates this world.

Corpo Celeste film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Yle Vianello, Salvatore Cantalupo, Anita Caprioli; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Wednesday 15 January 2020.

Lazzaro felice (Happy as Lazzaro, 2018)

As I do a few weeks’ of some of my favourite films I’ve seen this year, ones I haven’t already covered, I can’t possibly miss out this Italian film, which much to my surprise was one of my favourites and is sure to do well in the end-of-year polls (at least, in my one).


I never much connected with The Wonders (2014), though I felt that was largely down to me (there’s a lot that I liked about the film even so), so it’s with some relief that Alice Rohrwacher’s follow-up film really grabbed me and never let go. It’s unassuming in its way, with that 16mm photography by Hélène Louvart imparting an almost nostalgic air to proceedings, with the frame’s gently rounded edges and dust accumulating around the edge of the image (all of which is appropriate, perhaps, given the sort of timeless, cut-off, rural setting in which the film opens). Yet this is no rustic peasant drama, and pretty soon the film starts to take turns that make it feel like a fairy tale or a morality play, and by the time our wide-eyed Lazarus figure is reborn (played by Adriano Tardiolo), it starts to take on the feeling of an almost religious parable.

There’s a lot going on here — mostly revolving around themes of exploitation of labour and of compassion — but there are moments of pure lyrical poetry such as are rare in any films, a blending of image, movement, music and sound that elevate individual moments somehow, perceptibly, into a rapturous ecstasy (before returning to the squalor of everyday life). Which isn’t to say it’s a film that’s all off in the clouds like a Malick picture, because it always has that neo-realist feel, it’s just that even through these down-and-out characters, the grime amongst which they live, the few opportunities they’ve been given in life, there’s also something transcendentally cinematic about the storytelling, and a search for some kind of meaning that puts it among some of the more spiritual films I’ve seen (and I suppose makes it appropriately Italian).

Maybe I’m putting too much on it; it’s a film whose abiding mystery is such that I can’t quite express what I particularly loved about it. Generally, too, I am suspicious of any films that may make claims on some kind of vaunted artistic status (though I don’t think the film itself is pushing that), but this really does feel special.

Happy as Lazzaro film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Adriano Tardiolo, Alba Rohrwacher, Nicoletta Braschi, Sergi López; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 9 April 2019.

Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir

I was first exposed to Annemarie Jacir’s films via Wajib at the London Film Festival in 2017, but I’ve since caught up with her first two feature films. She was born in Bethlehem in 1974, but left to study in the United States. She has written poetry, but is now primarily known for her filmmaking, and is at the vanguard of Palestinian film culture, which I can only imagine is a precarious enterprise in itself (after all, her films gain their funding from many different sources from several different continents, making their co-production credits pretty extensive). Moreover, her work deals with the status of the displaced, whether historically (as in When I Saw You) or in a contemporary setting, and sometimes more directly confronts how it is to live under a state of occupation.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir”

Peur de rien (Parisienne, 2016)

I love films about immigrant experiences, as they render tangible how a person encounters another society and negotiates their place within it (a feeling that I can relate to, in however limited a way) — and the outside perspective can provide real insights into the society under discussion, in this film no less. Parisienne (or “fear of nothing” in its original French title) is about Lina (played by radiant newcomer Manal Issa), who has moved from Beirut to Paris in 1993 — this, it turns out, is a period film, with requisite careful detail of fashion and music (and it seems the director was really into Frank Black back then). Lina is dealing with a volatile family situation and responds by throwing herself into her studies, not to mention a succession of somewhat interchangeable French boyfriends. In this respect, I really like the way the director Danielle Arbid sets up unequal relationships of power for her teenage protagonist, in some ways the core of the film’s characterisation — from early scenes as she fights off the untoward attentions of her uncle, to these entitled, slightly older, white guys (including Vincent Lacoste), most of them well meaning, but just unrelenting in their insistence; there’s a sublimated violence to their advances that’s nicely brought out (I don’t know whether on purpose but it seemed to be there).

At a narrative level, the film is somewhat meandering, and the camera echoes this at a formal level, being given to wandering off, or cutting in close-ups of gesture and set decoration. If at times it feels like there’s no real message exactly, then that is surely of a piece with the storytelling: Lina is a young woman still forming her ideas and trying these on via various social connections (she even falls in with some skinheaded neo-Nazis at one point, leading to a bit of discussion of Le Pen père, which suddenly feels not so distant in time). It’s a film about finding strength and seeking identity, and in that it’s very successful.

Parisienne film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Danielle Arbid دانيال عربيد; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Manal Issa منال عيسى, Vincent Lacoste; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Thursday 17 November 2016.

Le meraviglie (The Wonders, 2014)

This is, to my mind, a very strange film. It’s the kind of film where I’m left at the end wondering if I’ve just seen some kind of masterpiece, or something no more than merely a little bit odd and quirky. I can’t pretend to be able to resolve that issue, but the fact that it leaves me uncertain as to my response is, I think, a good sign. Partly the effect is to do with the odd blend of realisms both neo- and magical. For the former, it’s not just that the film is Italian, but it’s in the rural setting, the story of a family ekeing out a meagre living against the odds, the unflashy cinematography and the unglamorous actors. The family is a stern and humourless father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), a caring but busy mother Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) and four daughters, the eldest of whom is Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu). They live and work in a shabby old rundown property, where they raise bees and harvest them for honey, and there’s plenty of detail about the day-to-day grind of making and selling honey. However, at some point, Gelsomina learns about a TV contest to find the best local artisanal producer, and she enters her family (much to the anger of Wolfgang). And this is where the magical bit seeps in, the sense of otherworldiness coming not just from the TV host (Monica Bellucci) but in subtle little ways — of which the family’s pet camel is probably the most overtly humorous — all fully integrated into the neorealist progression of the narrative. However you take to these touches, it’s still at heart a coming of age story, and a family drama, and a sensitive depiction of rural apiculture in a capitalist world that wants to fetishise such production far more than effectively support it. It exerts a strange fascination — despite the domineering patriarch, it’s a film filled with female creativity and imagination (quite aside from all the core technical credits, it also features a fantastic performance from unaffected newcomer Lungu as the central character) — and it’ll probably be a film I want to return to in a few years. Maybe I’ll have grown into it by then.

The Wonders film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Alba Rohrwacher, Monica Bellucci; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 23 July 2015.