Independencia (aka Independence, 2009)

Following on from my post about John Gianvito’s documentary diptych about the Philippines, which touches on Filipino independence in the late-19th cenutry, another film set touching on the same historical events was made by a Filipino filmmaker in 2009. It has a distinctive style, different from that of his more famous compatriot Lav Diaz, but captures something about how the past intertwines with the present.


There’s a strange and haunting atmosphere imbued with the uncanny that haunts a lot of Guy Maddin’s similar pastiches on silent films, but with more poise and mystery. For a film so short it also nevertheless reminded me of Lav Diaz’s (much longer) film A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), in that both are set around the turn of the 20th century, at the time just after the Philippines gained its independence from Spain, and which spend a lot of time in lush jungle terrains, though Independencia brings up the American occupation that came soon after independence (and whose effects are arguably still felt, as John Gianvito covered in his documentary epic, mentioned above). What sets Martin’s film apart is the style, which mimics that of early cinema, shot of sets using the sometimes harsh and inconstant natural light of the sun, lending that uncanny quality I mentioned earlier, a sense of a film dealing with a distant past and yet one which nevertheless persists.

Independencia film posterCREDITS
Director Raya Martin; Writers Martin and Ramon Sarmiento; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Tetchie Agbayani, Sid Lucero, Alessandra de Rossi; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 November 2017.

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

Partir (Leaving, 2009)

Somehow, 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.

Film posterCREDITS
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) [France/Belgium]

After 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.

Film posterCREDITS
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.

La Belle saison (Summertime, 2015)

Who amongst us isn’t a sucker for likeable sun-dappled French lesbian romances set against the background of feminist struggles in the early-1970s? This film focuses on a romance between two unlikely women — a young farmer’s daughter, Delphine (Izïa Higelin, apparently better known as a singer), and Carole, a Parisian feminist activist (Cécile de France, who despite her name is actually Belgian). Delphine struggles to hide her feelings from her rural family and friends, so moves to Paris, where she quickly falls in with the ostensibly straight Carole at a feminist meeting. This setting is familiar from earlier works like Agnès Varda’s L’Une chante, l’autre pas (1977), but it’s captured well here, with the fierce political polemics and passionate leafletting in support of a shared cause. The two women fall for one another of course, though not all the plot contortions are believable. Nor can I hardly speak to the emotional truth of what it is to be a woman in love with another woman, but I’m also willing to believe that the writers and director of this probably know more than the guy behind, say, Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Still, the performances by the two leads are vibrant and really nicely done, so I liked this film.

Summertime film posterCREDITS
Director Catherine Corsini; Writers Corsini and Laurette Polmanss; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Cécile de France, Izïa Higelin, Noémie Lvovsky; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 18 July 2016.

גט – המשפט של ויויאן אמסלם‎ Gett: Ha’mishpat Shel Vivian Amsalem (Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, 2014)

There’s a powerful intensity to the presentation of this film, which is essentially a courtroom drama. Partly that comes from the fact that it is pretty much confined to a single room, where wife Viviane (co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz) is attempting to obtain a divorce agreement (or gett) from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian). The room has a bland, clean starkness, and there are only a few camera set-ups possible to capture the two benches where Viviane and Elisha sit with their respective counsels, and the three judges who sit listening to their arguments. But a lot of the intensity is to do with the mismatch between the unchanging solemnity of this bureaucratic setting and the absurdity of Viviane’s situation, which unfolds over five years, with frequent titles indicating the passage of months between appearances. It’s not just that divorce seems normalised to modern Western viewers, it’s that the religious demands of the Israeli society within which the Amsalems live place all the burden onto the wife, with the husband largely unpunished for making little effort to mount a defence. There are no grandstanding speeches (when Viviane’s lawyer or she herself attempt anything of this nature, they are quickly shut down by the stern men who sit in judgement), it just quietly goes about documenting the manifest absurdities of the process, meanwhile hinting at details of the couple’s life together and the reasons for her actions.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Ronit Elkabetz רונית אלקבץ and Shlomi Elkabetz שלומי אלקבץ; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Ronit Elkabetz רונית אלקבץ, Simon Abkarian Սիմոն Աբգարեան; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 3 January 2016.

Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001)

Films About FilmmakingFor this first review in my themed month, I’ve chosen a documentary, the most straightforward way to deal with the art of filmmaking. Needless to say this one by Portuguese director Pedro Costa is hardly straightforward and instead presents an elegiac look at a vanishing art, filled as much with darkness as light in its depiction of two avant-garde filmmakers at work.


The majority of my reviews on this blog are of mainstream releases, and I can’t really pretend that the reviews for films I get around to seeing on the arid and obscure nether reaches of auteurist ephemera ever really garner much in the way of readership. Yet growing up in New Zealand there were few destinations to see decent films, so my tastes soon got shaped by the programming at the annual film festival and by my local video shop (Aro Street), and then of course I studied film at university. So I still get a thrill watching stuff that in our digital download age remains properly hard to come by, made by filmmakers with little regard for the norms of narrative cinema or apparent interest in the capricious tastes of audiences. The filmmaking team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are figures from a past generation of cineastes that spring most easily to mind in this respect, just as Pedro Costa can be numbered among a more updated, modern strand of the same kind of cinematic mentality (though their methods are quite different). So this documentary made by the latter about the former, for an excellent French TV series called Cinéastes de notre temps (therefore not entirely obscure), was already fascinating to me, and seeing it in a cinema with the director present and a full audience reminds me that the cinema exemplified by Straub/Huillet and Costa need not to be quite so abstracted and rarefied a pleasure. Its appeal need not even be restricted to those with an interest in either of these auteurs, for the film which results is about filmmaking as a craft — primarily via a focus on film editing — and about finding that passion for something you love, even as it all feels a little bit elegiac.

As mentioned above, the primary location for the film is an editing suite, where Straub and Huillet are working on their 1999 film Sicilia! (which I didn’t see until after I’d watched this documentary). Huillet sits at the editing booth, while Straub offers his opinions to her as they (and we the audience) look at the film’s scenes, replaying small moments over and over again and noting the tiniest of details of gesture, eye movement, extraneous detail, even sound (for such are the concerns of the editor). Straub also paces around, holding forth about various subjects related to their own work practice and to film history, addressing his comments to an unseen and unheard interlocutor (not always Huillet, and never directly to Costa, but perhaps just to himself, such is his manic energy). As such, much of the film takes place in the perilous darkness, lit only sporadically by the editor’s lamp (which flicks on only when the footage is not playing on screen), or the light from the outside corridor when Straub pops out — which happens frequently, incessantly — while Huillet is cutting the film.

If this insight into their methods has its own fascination, what’s striking is how out of time it seems, even for 1998 when they were making their film, as Huillet physically marks and cuts the lengths of film that she runs through spools, watching the footage on a small monitor accompanied by the loud mechanical whirr of the machinery. But it also has a sort of purity given the very spare images that they have filmed — all the ones we see are a series of dialogues between two people, echoing perhaps the dynamic in this very documentary — and makes the viewer think even more about the choices they make as editors about where exactly to transition between one shot and the next. It also occasions some comparison with Costa’s own methods, who unlike Straub and Huillet is not restricted to a strip of film with its image and soundtrack combined — indeed, the older filmmakers spend a lot of time contemplating where to cut based on extraneous noises that crop up, such as a car door slamming in the background, which would seem bizarre to a modern editor for whom the soundtrack is quite separate from the image. And so Costa has some of the cranky monologues being delivered by Huillet matched with the footage they’re looking at — or maybe not looking at, given that we only hear their voices much of the time (and it would appear, from what I’ve subsequently read, that in fact Straub’s comments are being addressed to unseen students) — meaning that the final film is every bit as much a construction as the one Straub and Huillet are working on.

If as a film this makes it sound particularly slow and difficult to watch, then it is at least leavened by humour, as the two older filmmakers (a married couple) bicker incessantly and amusingly at each other’s contributions. Or rather, it is Huillet who is more often heard grumpily telling off Straub for his meandering monologues and for some of his interventions to the editing discussion. However, the rhythms of the film are certainly slower than most, as the faces of the filmmakers only dimly stand out from the gloom of their editing room, accompanied periodically by the deliberately-paced drama of their film. But for those with the patience, what results is a beautiful work. In some senses, it’s a film about love in one’s declining years (Huillet died five years after this film was released), whether that be love between two people or a love for one’s métier, in this case filmmaking. It’s an elegy for what’s been lost — the craft of Huillet on her archaic apparatus, or the strangely spectral images seemingly from another era as projected on the editing machine — and for its power to still affect us. But it’s the single-minded focus on the craft of making a film that shines through most of all, as Straub and Huillet argue over the exact frame where a gesture or an emotion begins in their actors, or Straub angrily sounds off about filmmakers who have lost his respect (Woody Allen and John Cassavetes are mentioned).

It’s a curious documentary then, but a beautiful one, that captures something of the essence of cinema itself through its blend of an inky dark canvas punctured by flashes of light, manipulated film footage, and the absolute focus of its filmmakers. It may not make you appreciate Straub and Huillet’s films any more, but it makes you respect their earnest devotion to their art.

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? film posterCREDITS
Director Pedro Costa; Cinematographers Costa and Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 9 January 2014.