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.

The Invisible Woman (2013)

It’s that time of year when the cinemas screen a lot of serious films by serious directors looking for awards recognition, so I’ve seen quite a few of them, and may be suffering from fatigue. I think this sophomore effort by renowned English actor Ralph Fiennes is far from being dull, but it trades in a soft, underplayed sensitivity that perhaps isn’t really in vogue right now. It tells the late-19th century story of a famous author, Charles Dickens, and his affair with a younger woman, actor Nelly Ternan, but in a way that really de-emphasises the sex and salaciousness. One might uncharitably say it’s replaced that with some lovely, detailed period costumes and other such details, but there’s still plenty of emotional heft.

What in fact we get is a film very much focused on this once ‘invisible woman’, played by a radiant Felicity Jones, and such is her centrality to the film that maybe it’s Charles Dickens’s real wife Catherine who should be labelled as such. The story takes Nelly’s later marriage to a respectable middle-class educator in Margate, Kent — and her exchanges with a local curate — as a framing story for her youthful dalliance with Dickens. The romance between the two is developed very slowly and without any showiness on either’s part. There’s nary a hint of any bodice-ripping or heavy-breathing lust, but instead a romance founded at first on artistic and intellectual appreciation.

One wonders, indeed, if our director perhaps sees some points of contact with the character he plays, a man as famous in his time as any modern screen celebrity. There are some conversations devoted to his relationship with his public, and how that dominates his life. But this isn’t really a story about Dickens, as about Nelly. It’s her face the camera lingers on (especially when Fiennes isn’t also on screen), often in extreme close-ups.

One recurring visual motif in the film is the faces of Fiennes and Jones in the windows of a train, their shadowy reflection superimposed over the passing English landscape. It suggests a sort of liminality that encapsulates some of the doomed nature of their characters’ love; eventually we find out that this train journey took place at a very delicate point in their relationship. That the romance never really resolves itself positively is largely a reflection of how it was subject to the mores of the times (as well, perhaps, as how very circumstantial most of the surviving evidence for it is). Nelly finds herself adhering to these societal standards, and is repulsed by the freer, unmarried relationship of Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) with his partner Caroline. So the story begins with her difficulty reconciling these pressures, at a point when she is enjoying the kind of marriage which she had been conditioned to covet and which she could never have had with Dickens.

There’s something about the way the story focuses on this inner turmoil within Nelly, and set against her society, that make it a bit difficult to really hold onto. This emotional evanescence is well-handled by the actors, though, and it’s never less than a sumptuously-mounted period piece. It treads delicately through its hidebound Victorian setting, against which all the characters — Dickens, his mistress, his wife, his children, his audience and his friends — come into conflict. Some do manage to prevail, but its the cost of that which the film is interested in above all.

The Invisible Woman film posterCREDITS
Director Ralph Fiennes; Writer Abi Morgan (based on The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin); Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 11 February 2014.

Cherchez Hortense (Looking for Hortense, 2012)

I’ve seen this film, directed by former Cahiers du cinéma film critic Pascal Bonitzer, described in a few places as a “comedy”, but I find it difficult to rationalise it as such. There are comedic moments, and lead actor Jean-Pierre Bacri has a sort of rumpled comic charm to him, but the story seems to take place in a quite different register. Themes of relationship trouble and divorce, single-parenting, artistic creation, depression, repressed bisexuality, the legal system, the abuse of power and immigration play in and out across its many scenes, few of which betray an essentially comic worldview.

There is, as is suggested by the themes listed above, an interesting film in here — there’s probably a few interesting films — but it’s difficult to get a sense of what exactly the finished work is trying to do. It takes most of the film before you start to understand what the central drama is, let alone what the title is alluding to. Of course, the more I think about it, the more I think this narrative diffusion was very much intended — the title does begin “Looking for…” after all and the character of Hortense is so minor as to be a MacGuffin — but the experience of watching it unfold is perplexing.

In part this is because it’s a shame not to see more of Kristin Scott Thomas. This is the third film I’ve seen her in this year at the cinema (after Dans la maison and Only God Forgives), and her acting is as watchable as ever. She plays Iva, a theatre director married to the protagonist Damien (Bacri), who lives in a gorgeous centrally-located Parisian apartment with him and their bespectacled and all-too-earnest son Noé (he disapproves of his mother’s smoking). Iva has a sort of brittle and febrile quality, which the chain smoking perhaps assuages, though her unhappiness is plain from the relatively little time she spends at home, and in the end finds herself in a relationship with an actor in the play she’s rehearsing. In any case, she gives the film an energy that it elsewhere lacks.

Bacri is fine as Damien, though he doesn’t entirely convince as an expert in Chinese civilisation (which he teaches to business people in a rather brutalist classroom), or as the primary caregiver to their son. As mentioned above, he has an unshaven haunt about his rumpled face that perhaps befits a man working through some serious relationship ennui — both with his unfaithful wife, but also his dismissive father, a very senior civil servant — but it propels him towards a younger attractive woman called Aurore (Isabelle Carré). He bumps into her several times in the first half of the film — too many times for it to be simply chance. Indeed, she takes a larger role as the film progresses, and her story touches on the treatment of immigrants (she is from Serbia and works as a dishwasher in a restaurant) and offers Damien the attractive possibility of redemption from his ennui, though for a man who looks as he does, I’d be surprised if that were really possible.

In any case, for a film with so many threads, it wraps them all up rather neatly. The narrative may be trying at times, but what happens is all acted with the professional sheen of an older-fashioned film with some provocations but little that is truly challenging. It remains a likeable endeavour, but as viewers, in a sense we are left still looking for something, and I’m not sure finding out who Hortense is really satisfies.

CREDITS
Director Pascal Bonitzer; Writers Agnès de Sacy and Bonitzer; Cinematographer Romain Winding; Starring Jean-Pierre Bacri, Kristin Scott Thomas, Isabelle Carré; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Saturday 17 August 2013.

รับคำท้าจากพระเจ้า Only God Forgives (2013)

A note on the title: The title card of the film is in Thai, subtitled into English. None of the online sources give me a transliteration of this title, but if I were following the rather pedantic rules I’ve been using on this blog, I would give the title in Thai.


There are undeniably words and ideas that, if you read (or indeed write) a lot of film/literary criticism, you find yourself coming across more often than one might expect in the real world. It often comes down to finding an apt adjective to try and grasp a sense of a film’s style or mood, and if any ever film was reliant on style and mood then it’s this one. And the chief adjective that comes into my addled brain is “oneiric”.

I think it’s worth leading with that because when I start getting into a plot summary it will sound all so very banal, that I must stress that when it’s playing out it owes far more of a debt to European art cinema (and you can see from all the co-production credits that it quite literally has plenty of that) not to mention the more dream-like passages of David Lynch. But I like the word ‘oneiric’ because of its Ancient Greek derivation, and if there’s any story that has inspired Only God Forgives, it must surely be that of Oedipus; plenty of what happens in the film only really makes sense if you’re attuned to the mythic archetypes that Refn is fixated upon.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The protagonist of the piece is the laconic Julian (Ryan Gosling), the owner of a Muay Thai (kickboxing) gym, whose twisted brother gets himself killed. Their mother (a steely and platinum blonde Kristin Scott Thomas) demands vengeance, and things start getting messy, particularly when police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and his samurai-like blade gets involved. But if Gosling and Scott Thomas ethnocentrically head the credits list, it is in fact Pansringarm who carries the film, his implacable middle-aged detective, moving slowly and with great deliberation, functioning as the sort of avenging angel for these errant Westerners.

Other reviewers have done much better at unpicking some of the implications of cultural tourism in having a Danish director and US stars in the Thai setting (and I would point you to this piece on The Hooded Utilitarian I found while trying to Google the film’s correct Thai title). In short, though, these are interlopers in a culture they don’t fully understand and Refn isn’t interested in the usual narrative structures — famous (white) lead actor gets one over on the violently foolish locals. There’s quite a different story happening here, and it’s one with no clear winners.

If the film steers clear of the standard revenge film clichés, it comes a lot closer to being a risible arthouse exercise in style over substance — at times it’s like a pure channelling of the violent physicality and alienation of, say, Gaspar Noé (who is thanked in the credits). Certainly, Cliff Martinez’s droning score only seems to heighten the disconnect between the ravishing imagery and any emotional affect. Still, as you’ll see by the rating I’ve given the film, I don’t think it quite succumbs to the weight of all that portentous imagery, if only by the very vigour with which it is embraced. Almost every shot is saturated in neon reds and blues, as Julian drifts impassively through a seedy underworld of brothels, fight clubs and karaoke bars, presided over by the ever-watchful eyes of various monsters (the huge iconic demon on the wall at the boxing club, or the martial statue that haunts Julian’s dreams/waking life). Several of the conversations between the protagonist and his mother (not to mention a particularly grisly scene near the end) exist mostly in order to deepen the play of signifiers that Refn is so invested in: phallocentrism, castration complexes, the interplays between sex, birth and death — stuff that easily drifts into the pretentious.

What I’ve been trying to get across here, however inadequately, is that I would quite understand if other viewers were to find an arid, pretentious vision of revenge and parental attachment issues. I think the film can easily be taken that way, from its violent imagery, its hyperstylised colours and its almost narcoleptic forward momentum. And yet, if it perches on the edge of this very fine line, I prefer to think that it succeeds, compellingly pushing at the boundaries of morality in showing an impassive man who appears to have resigned responsibility for his life being confronted by an embodiment of divine judgement, retribution and maybe even forgiveness, though of all the divine qualities, that one is the most tenuous here.

Only God Forgives film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nicolas Winding Refn; Cinematographer Larry Smith; Starring Ryan Gosling, Vithaya Pansringarm, Kristin Scott Thomas; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 2 August 2013.

Richard III (1995)

As this film is based on an over-400-year-old play (itself based on even older history), the events and characters of which are pretty much embedded into Western cultural history, I trust that the usual rules of ‘spoilers’ don’t really apply in the same way. However, if you remain concerned about this, then I shall sum up my review more pithily: track down this movie and watch it. It’s worth it, even if you think you don’t like Shakespeare.


FILM REVIEW || Director Richard Loncraine | Writers William Shakespeare, Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine (based on the play by Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Peter Biziou | Starring Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr. | Length 104 minutes | Seen at Paramount, Wellington, February 1997 (also at home on DVD, Tuesday 7 May 2013) || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© United Artists

I first saw this film on the big screen a few years after it was released, which is to say, 16 years ago now. My memory is generally terrible, and there are films I’ve seen that I have forgotten to such an extent that I’ve rewatched them and not even realised that I’d seen them already in my life. So it should say something that I still very clearly recalled the opening sequence of this adaptation of the Shakespeare play when I sat down to rewatch it recently at home.

Continue reading “Richard III (1995)”

Dans la maison (In the House, 2012)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW: French Film Week || Director/Writer François Ozon (based on the play The Boy in the Last Row by Juan Mayorga) | Cinematographer Jérôme Alméras | Starring Fabrice Luchini, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ernst Umhauer | Length 105 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Tuesday 2 April 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Mars Distribution

François Ozon has always been a safe middle-class director of safe middle-class fantasies, which is the opening for an excoriating review whereby I dismiss all his work out of hand as being unworthy of your time, this film no less than any other. Or at least that’s one version of this review, an exceedingly unkind and somewhat unfair one at that. Certainly, it wasn’t a million miles from my impression of the first film of his I saw, Sitcom (1998), which busied itself with a then-fashionable media satire using as its milieu a middle-class French suburban family. I do think Ozon, and Dans la maison, has more to offer though, while still retaining some of his familiar themes.

Continue reading “Dans la maison (In the House, 2012)”