Recently, I reviewed the French-set Une saison en France (A Season in France, 2017) directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, but his earlier works were made in his native country of Chad, which he left in the early-1980s. As becomes clear in these films, his is a country torn apart by Civil War — more or less constant, but flaring up regularly, since the country’s independence in 1960 — and a result of colonial-era divisions between Arab Muslims in the north, and Christians in the south.
Denis 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.
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).
My sense of this neorealist classic is that as I get older so the film will get better, but it’s one of those portraits of old age as a sad time of abandonment, especially in the context of a country coming out of a divisive wartime experience. However, the skill of De Sica is in making what seems like a pretty depressing watch into something a little more observational, capturing a sort of poetry of the everyday, as Umberto trudges around Rome in search of a little money to pay his rent, or looking out for his dog Flike. His own suicidal ideation is handled with sensitivity, and those occasions when he’s pulled back from something tragic by the slender bonds of love that remain make it the more powerful as a film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Vittorio De Sica; Writer Cesare Zavattini; Cinematographer G. R. Aldo; Starring Carlo Battisti; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 March 2018.
Another one of those classics that always crops up on lists (I’ve been watching a few of them recently, not least on the Criterion Collection) but it succeeds on the basis of Victor Sjöström’s performance as the old professor close to death. He’s looking back on his life, often watching scenes from 50-60 years earlier, and seeing — as we are — what a difficult man he’s been and how he needs to open up. There’s heavy-handed use of the various women he meets (and has known) to drive the point home, which works if you accept this is very much told not just about him, but from his point of view.
Criterion Extras: There’s a commentary track by Stephen Prince, who covers many of the themes, although I am not such a huge fan of his style, though he appears on plenty of Criterion’s Bergman releases. There’s also an introduction by Bergman, which I gather is an outtake from one of the many documentaries about his life and work.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 January 2017.
I liked Paul Weitz’s last film, Admission (2013), more than many people, perhaps because of its university setting (that’s where my day job is), but also because of its likeable protagonists. Yet I’d never have guessed the same person (responsible, lest we forget, for American Pie as well), might turn in something like Grandma. It’s just so unfussy and unpretentious, plus (surely unusual in the kind of political culture of the modern USA), it takes for its premise the unquestioned assumption that women have the right to want an abortion and be able to get one. It’s not as if the teenage character of Sage (an excellent Julia Garner, whose performance moves from teenage petulance to more sympathetic as the film progesses) is let off the hook for her decisions, just that it avoids the quirk (and moral compromise) of Juno. Still, whatever the excellent qualities of the script (and they should not be diminished, as a good script is the basis for all good films), it’s anchored by a fantastic performance from Lily Tomlin as Elle, an ageing lesbian academic and poet, who is irascible and cranky without ever being loveable exactly, but yet surely has the audience’s strongest sympathy in her response to the news from her granddaughter. It moves towards what you might expect is a group-hug heartwarming family moment, but never quite delivers on one’s worst fears in this regard. It’s a quiet champion of a film, and best of all, clocks in at under 80 minutes.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Paul Weitz | Cinematographer Tobias Datum | Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden | Length 79 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 31 December 2015
This is a simple film too, straightforward in its emotional appeal to the audience by telling a gentle story of an ageing family maid, Ah Tao, and her increasingly close relationship with the family’s unmarried son Roger (Andy Lau) as she gets ever older and more precarious. It does a good job of toning down the more saccharine sentimentality that could have taken hold, favouring instead slow-moving compositions over wordiness or plinky-plonky muzak. At first Roger keeps Ah Tao distant, eating the food she cooks him without much ceremony, but after she has a stroke and must retire from her work, he finds himself taking greater care of her. In some ways, the story goes where one might expect, but it’s a pleasant, undemanding watch all the same.
Director Ann Hui | Writers Susan Chan and Roger Lee | Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai | Starring Deanie Ip, Andy Lau | Length 118 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 20 December 2015
I’ve seen a couple of Scottish documentaries this year dealing with the late stages of terminal illness (the other was Seven Songs for a Long Life) and both have confounded my expectations in different ways. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not facing that finality yet myself, but I expected both to be difficult and depressing in ways that neither is. The more remarkable of the two, perhaps, is this one by Scottish multi-media artist Karen Guthrie, whose mother suffered a stroke which left her immobile. Documenting this altered new reality, interspliced with footage showing her mother before the stroke, seems to be the direction things are going until it becomes evident that this isn’t really a film about Guthrie’s mother at all, but about the apparently well-meaning and kindly father who lingers in the corner of most of the shots, making gruffly sardonic comments while doing sudoku puzzles, his head bowed almost permanently either through age or (perhaps?) some form of guilt. For all that Guthrie tries, her father remains a frustrating enigma as a character, but his life and his fractious relationship with his wife come to take centre stage as family secrets are unveiled. This method of drip-feeding revelations to the audience is not uncommon to the family documentary (Stéphanie Argerich did something similar in a film released here earlier this year), but when the audience cannot know the life being told, it has a greater effect. Therefore, I shan’t spoil anything, except to say that it leads the viewer down unexpected roads, with Guthrie’s ever-present voiceover helping to contextualise her own uncertain responses to her father’s life decisions.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Karen Guthrie | Cinematographers Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope | Length 91 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 12 November 2015
Re-watching Akerman’s œuvre over the last few years with the help of film collective À Nos Amours has been instructive in tracing some of the repeated themes and motifs of her work. A lot of those can be found again in this final film of hers, which returns once more to her mother Natalia as subject, a presence who has haunted so many of Chantal’s films, even as she hasn’t often appeared. Compared to some of her more recent work, there’s a warmth and playfulness to the conversations between Akerman mère and fille which make it positively comical for stretches of its running time. And yet this is a film about loss and death, both that of Natalia (who died at the end of 2014) and, inevitably, sadly, Chantal herself. That sense of finality is played out in the metaphor that opens and closes the film, of a strong wind buffeting the fragile signs of life in a barren landscape (presumably Israel), which finally dies out. But it’s equally brought to mind by the spectral resonances here of all her film work. There are long lateral tracking shots taken from a car of this dusty environment (recalling D’est), shots taken through net curtains (Là-bas), and plenty of long, often empty, fixed shots through doorways (Hôtel Monterey). The domestic space in which most of the film takes place, Natalia’s Brussels flat, recalls too Chantal’s most famous early works, particularly Jeanne Dielman (1975), and her earliest, 1968’s short film Saute ma ville. The kitchen of that first film — in the Akerman family home when Chantal was aged 18 — still oddly resembles the one where Natalia sits and eats her breakfast here even though it’s a different home, while of course Jeanne Dielman’s methodical household tidying is clearly based on Natalia. For all that it’s freighted with this latent emotional baggage, it’s only ever captivating to watch these images (at least, such was my experience), both those shot in the family home (home no longer, as the title testifies) and on a laptop from Chantal’s travels — an implicit critique surely of all those recent narratives that try to lay the blame at technology’s door for some social failing of human connection. But death remains painful and powerful and the final stretches are difficult to watch, as Akerman’s mercurial 50 years of filmmaking cuts to black.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: A Nos Amours Chantal Akerman Retrospective
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chantal Akerman | Length 115 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Friday 30 October 2015
It’s very easy for critics to be sniffy about the oeuvre of Nancy Meyers: gentle, sometimes sentimental, romantic comedies about people later in life dealing with messy relationships and families. But I don’t know, I think her films have more going on than her detractors might allow. After all, it takes some skill to make actors like Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin into blandly appealing, even likeable leads when so much of their screen personae are based around being acerbic, dominating alpha males — to such an extent in fact, that star Meryl Streep (as divorcee Jane) almost gets the film stolen from her by this duo of her ex-husband Jake (Baldwin) and new flame, architect Adam (Martin). Sure it’s all very comfortable (and white) middle-class suburbia, people living in just-so houses doing delightful things like baking and architecture, but that’s these characters’ lives and it’s all put across expertly by Meyers and her actors. Within this world of existing jobs and familial obligations, the central relationship entanglement in which Jane finds herself almost doesn’t register, but it’s handled sensibly, in a mature way that most comedies can’t manage (especially those flirting with slapstick, as this does at times). It’s a pity that Lake Bell, a woman with plenty of comic talents both in front of and behind the camera, has such a thankless role as Jake’s vain new wife Agness, but that aside this is a likeable, warm-hearted film that works well when one is laying up ill on a sofa.
Director/Writer Nancy Meyers | Cinematographer John Toll | Starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, Lake Bell | Length 120 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Thursday 29 October 2015
I would stop short of calling this documentary set in a Scottish hospice a ‘feel good film about dying’ but that’s what it amounts to, after a fashion. The patients are all diagnosed with terminal illnesses (though some rare cases do recover), so the hospice is dedicated to providing palliative care. There’s probably no good way to get through this, so the film’s focus on music as one way is quite fruitful. Throughout we see the patients involved in singing and performing, across a range of musical styles, whether on stage or to themselves (and the camera, obviously). There’s an easy bond between patients and staff, and a general sense of people trying to get through the bleakness of their situations, using music and self-deprecating humour, something that seems to come easily to the hardy Scottish people who take centre stage. Ultimately, Seven Songs for a Long Life is not nearly as sentimentally manipulative as one might expect, but simply well observed and keenly felt.
FILM REVIEW || Director Amy Hardie | Cinematographers Amy Hardie and Julian Schwanitz | Length 83 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Tuesday 20 October 2015