Criterion Sunday 296: Le notti bianche (aka White Nights, 1957)

Is this how people used to meet, just chatting up beautiful weeping girls standing on canal bridges? Perhaps it’s a lost art, though Marcello Mastroianni, for all his film star looks, does have to spend the first third of the film apologising for his forward approach. Once it gets going, it’s a three-way story of a woman torn between two men, one (Jean Marais) who has left her and promised to return, and another (Mastroianni) who is right there, hungry for attention and for love. It’s all shot with great monochrome beauty on what looks like sound stage sets, though Visconti isn’t shy of showing the poverty coexisting with his beautiful leads, as they sneak away for trysts under bridges being used as shelters by homeless people. There’s a sense here about the disjunction between the romantic ideals so gorgeously expressed in some of the cinematography and the big, melodramatic emotions played out at times between the two, and the bitter truth of reality, and of how people live. There’s a lot to admire in this film, of course, but probably best of all is Mastroianni’s brief fit of dancing to a Bill Haley song in a gaudy young person’s nightclub bar. That alone would make the film worthwhile, but there’s a lot else going on besides.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Visconti; Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Maria Schell, Jean Marais; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 February 2020.

एक लड़की को देखा तो ऐसा लगा Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019)

It’s only fair in my week of romance and wedding-themed films to have one that actually seems fairly positive about the whole thing. Plus, given today marks the release on Portrait of a Lady on Fire in the UK, I can tie this film in somewhat to that in the sense that it’s a lesbian romance.


A big, boldly-coloured and glamorous mainstream film about two women in love, still rather a taboo subject in this traditional country it would seem, which approaches its topic via the roundabout route of suggesting first an interfaith relationship. It’s set in India’s northern state of Punjab, and presents its Hindu heroine Sweety (Sonam Kapoor) as apparently being smitten with Muslim film director/writer Sahil (Rajkummar Rao), much to the disappointment of her fiery brother Babloo and father Balbir (Sonam’s real life father Anil Kapoor). By the time the latter two men come round to Sahil, the film has made it clear that actually she’s really into a woman she met at a wedding (Regina Cassandra), so everyone’s in an awkward situation, which the film resolves with a musical-within-the-film. It manages to guide this emotional movement rather sensitively, only gradually laying out the real situation, and ensuring that when everything goes down with her family, she at least has the newly-welcome Sahil on her side. There’s some sweet detail around the edges which reminds us of the story’s source (a PG Wodehouse novel) and the British class structure of that original text: the family’s servants have scenes in which they’re seen taking bets on what’s going to happen; while businessman Balbir’s real love is cooking, though he’s been banned from the kitchen by his mother, who is clear that this is an undignified pursuit (indeed, when Sahil comes by to secretly pass a message to Sweety, he makes the classic comedy mistake of confusing Balbir for a servant). Of course, given it’s a Bollywood film, there’s some dancing at the wedding, but this isn’t quite as musical as some other films, preferring to retain its focus on the emotional core of the film, and comes in at a slim two hours running time.

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga film posterCREDITS
Director Shelly Chopra Dhar शैली चोपड़ा धार; Writers Gazal Dhaliwal ਗਜ਼ਲ ਧਾਲੀਵਾਲ and Dhar (based on the novel A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse); Cinematographer Himman Dhamija; Starring Sonam Kapoor सोनम कपूर, Anil Kapoor अनिल कपूर, Rajkummar Rao राजकुमार राव, Regina Cassandra ரெஜினா கசாண்ட்ரா; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 22 August 2019.

On the Town (1949)

Moving back through time is perhaps the best way to get a film that features some rather more successful romancing. After all, in my week nominally dedicated to love and marriage, most of my examples have been fairly undemonstrative of either of those. This 1949 musical features three sailors on furlough in the big city, so obviously there have to be some dames — though of course the structure means that they’ll all part by the end of the film.


There is, undeniably, a delight to so much of this musical. It sees Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and one other guy who’s not really very well known (Jules Munshin) alight for 24 hours in New York City. We’re supposed to believe that none of them have ever visited before, and truly they do play up to their naivete which may strain credulity given they’re in the Navy, but sort of fits with the jovial tone of the whole film. The three of them happen across three far more worldly women, who following the comic reversals of the film are the ones whose minds are only on one thing, and it’s not sightseeing — indeed, Sinatra being the nerdy stats-obsessed one becomes one of the better running jokes. Not all the tunes are particularly memorable — although Hildy (Betty Garrett) is probably the most distinctive character, the woman cab driver who’s desperate to bed Sinatra’s character, their duet together is fairly dull — but there are plenty that do make a splash, and Ann Miller’s anthropology student Claire winking broadly at the camera for the double entendres is a real highlight (as is her dress). The costume game, in general, is on top form, with colour coordinated outfits to offset the blandness of the sailor uniforms.

This screening was introduced by Kelly’s widow, who trailed that they had difficulty getting it made into a musical because the studio head apparently feared the threat of a diverse cast given its metropolitan setting and the sequences which are filmed on location, which as an introduction was a bit of a misdirect because this film hardly celebrates diversity. Aside from the fact that the only women of colour are seen in nightclub choruses who swiftly depart stage left each time they’re seen, there’s also (to modern eyes perhaps) a woefully tone-deaf appropriation of cultural difference in the anthropology museum number. Whereas the sequence introducing Vera-Ellen’s Ivy suggests the impossibility of cultural expectations of femininity, the anthropology museum sequence is just using native dress to make cheap jokes that you feel the ensemble should really be above. And the macho bullying of the unfortunate Lucy is only passingly redeemed by Gabe’s civility to her by the end of the evening.

Still, on the whole this is a lively and entertaining musical with all the style you’d expect of a big Technicolor Hollywood production.

On the Town film posterCREDITS
Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; Writers Adolph Green and Betty Comden (based on the stage musical by Green, Comden and Leonard Bernstein, itself based on the ballet Fancy Free by Jerome Robbins); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 26 October 2019.

Queen & Slim (2019)

Obviously this film is addressing a lot of issues, to varying degrees of success depending on your viewpoint, but at least one thing it’s asking is whether it’s possible to make a romance involving two people who don’t actually really seem to like each other at all (at least, initially). It’s also a lovers on the run story where it’s the forces pursuing them that are from the wrong side of the tracks, because our central characters are largely upstanding people who’ve been forced into a corner. It’s not an obvious continuation of my week’s romance theme, but it’s an interesting film.


I first became aware of this film via the responses of the film critics I follow on Twitter, a lot of whom are Black American women and it’s fair to say the reception was largely critical. This hasn’t been the response across the board of course (it has an 82% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, whatever that ultimately means), and it hasn’t even been the unanimous response from Black (or Black women) critics — and that’s as it should be, though it does make me wary of claiming to understand or critique the film, no matter that its two lead actor are British. Clearly it’s deploying a long and complex cultural history of Black American lives that I, as a white British man, couldn’t hope to fully grasp, but I somewhat expected better from Lena Waithe’s script. It’s based on a story by James Frey, whose name should presumably cause at least a few alarm bells to ring (given his own literary history), but I don’t know the background to the script. I can say it uses two largely unlikeable characters (albeit for different reasons, though Daniel Kaluuya’s Slim is clearly the more approachable at the start of the film) and has them go on a Journey — by which I mean, it’s a road movie, but it’s also a capitalised-J Journey.

As befits the director of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, it is a gorgeous evocation of a largely unseen America, as the two journey towards the American South, with dreams of getting to Cuba and (they hope) freedom. It’s visually ravishing, and it very much captures a feeling of youth on the run, so when the script imposes certain more fixed ideas it becomes doubly disappointing. There’s a sex scene by Queen’s mother’s grave intercut with a #BlackLivesMatter-type protest in which a kid they’ve just encountered kills a (Black) cop, which is particularly odd (upsetting yes, but also misjudged) given the jarring editing, the meaning (or lack thereof) of the action, and also the fact that this protest seems to be happening hundreds of miles away from where the original incident occurred. Other events happen for equally obscure reasons — more it seems to develop a mood than strictly narratively motivated at times. It’s a rather nasty character, Queen’s uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), who feels like the most fully rounded depiction, though his story is deeply layered with misogyny, which I can accept is supposed to be part of the film’s intention of excavating systemic racism and generational trauma, but doesn’t quite land.

Still, I am removed from this location and culture, so I found a lot to like in the way the film looks and moves, and hope for something even stronger from both director and writer in future. In the meantime, here are some links by writers with more understanding than I have:
* B!tch Media (by Jourdain Searles);
* Just Add Color (by Monique Jones);
* National Review (by Armond White); and
* a positive review in The Undefeated (by Soraya McDonald).

Queen & Slim film posterCREDITS
Director Melina Matsoukas; Writer Lena Waithe and James Frey; Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Monday 10 February 2020.

Nights and Weekends (2008)

Greta Gerwig came out of the 2000s (and the so-called “Mumblecore” era) as something of an ‘It’ girl, at least for a moment, and parlayed that into both mainstream acting success and now as a director with her two most recent films, Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019). However, she did have a co-directing credit on one of her collaborations with Joe Swanberg in that initial period, and there’s a lot that’s fascinating about the collaboration, even if it hardly takes my weddings and romance-themed week on the blog in very much happier directions.


Joe Swanberg has made a huge number of films, many of which (like Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), also starring Gerwig, or 2011’s Art History with Josephine Decker) have a sort of improvised, raw feel to them — perhaps the result of the budgets or the shooting style, but it’s a kind of style I feel an affinity towards, because it seems to be coming from a different direction from most mainstream cinema. Still, he’s in the business of telling stories, and it’s key here that his co-star Greta Gerwig is credited as co-director and co-writer, because this feels as much about her (probably more so, honestly) than it does about his character. Both bare themselves literally (hardly unusual for Swanberg, who often delves into on-screen sexuality, whether as director or as performer), but there’s something intense about the way Gerwig presents on screen that helps you move through her emotions, far more than Swanberg, who as an actor doesn’t seem quite as upfront. That said, they both have some great scenes together that are always just held that moment (or minute, or eternity) longer than you expect, meaning they move beyond the usual relationship moments to present something more ambiguous and messy and complex. I don’t love it all, but there’s a core of something that I like very much.

Nights and Weekends film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig; Cinematographers Matthias Grunsky and Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Le Cinema Club streaming), London, Tuesday 18 February 2020.

Phantom Thread (2017)

Although the two principal characters do get married in this film, and there are certainly wedding dresses involved (for the lead character is a fashion designer), this isn’t really about marriage. It’s a relationship drama, though, and a rather twisted one at that, a three-way pull between Reynolds (Day-Lewis), his sister played by Lesley Manville, and a young woman who comes between them and tugs on Reynolds’ affections.


I was all ready to dismiss this film as yet another reworking of the eternal tropes of controlling older men and pliable younger women, an exercise in the manipulation of power dynamics via class, wealth, and the tedious tropes of masculine genius. After all, you can’t watch an awards contender, let alone a Paul Thomas Anderson film, without it being trailed in advance by untold reams of critical dissection that help you along to an opinion on a film you’ve not yet seen.

However, I think what I specifically like about it is the way that it moves from being one thing at the start — an idea of a handsomely mounted prestige costume drama (literally so: it’s about someone who makes clothes) — to something quite different by the end. To a certain extent this reflects the way the power dynamics shift, so that what starts as being about a controlling mercurial ‘genius’-like figure and the psychic toll you imagine he’ll inflict on this young ingenue-like woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), to the way Alma starts to find power within their relationship and the way he starts to willingly submit to it, becomes really the heart of the piece.

There’s certainly something of Hitchcock to this story, as it seems to be about a man shaping a woman’s identity to his own needs (a hint of Vertigo), yet I think there’s a lot more care taken with the construction than that. For a start, Alma is really the key character here, the one who drives the film in ways that Day-Lewis’s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock does not, for he is just a man. It’s quite fascinating the way she subsumes Reynolds’ gaze and turns his controlling behaviour back on him, to a certain extent. I won’t go into details, but I think the power dynamic (while clearly unequal) is very interestingly handled, and Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ sister Cyril/mother surrogate is a key to unpicking it. Everything, ultimately, seems to be bound up in that central metaphor of stitching and impermanence.

This isn’t all that’s going on, though. Every filmmaker at some point in their career (if they have one) will make a film about their own creativity, and this feels like that, with Reynolds being the director stand-in. He is, after all, very much just one person within an industry, and this industry relies on the labour of women, in particular. The scenes of the women arriving at the start, of his workers standing around in their smocks just quietly getting on with the work, and then when Reynolds falls ill near the end, the way they work all night on his (their) project are among the more magical sequences in the film, a sort of emotional backbone to his own fragility as an ‘artist’.

Along with its careful symbolism, Phantom Thread has the feel of classic in terms of the way it’s shot (by Anderson himself as far as I can tell, and what a lushly grainy look it has, especially on 35mm), and the period 50s fashions on display. It’s artfully studied, and that suits the story I think. Things resolve with a certain element of perversity, of wilful helplessness, articulated not least in the focus on eating. I’d not been a fan up until Inherent Vice, but I do believe Paul T. has entered the imperial phase of his filmmaking.

Phantom Thread film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho (35mm), London, Monday 5 February 2018 (and most recently on 70mm at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Sunday 5 January 2020).

Wuthering Heights (2011)

A number of recent British heritage productions have attempted in their various ways to try to break away from some of the clichés of the genre, most notably the recent Lady Macbeth (2016). A lot of this has been in terms of casting (and certainly there’s a certain element of colour-blindness here), but the director also pushes the visual expectations of the genre with this adaptation of a well-loved and well-known novel.


Andrea Arnold certainly has an assured visual style. This film is shot in an Academy ratio (watch out that your TV doesn’t try to stretch it into widescreen) and frequently shoots through cracks and veils to further reduce the image size. When the camera does go outside there are some frankly beautiful shots, and some pretty taut editing too. It’s just that the script doesn’t always match this visual sense. There’s a lot of play with class and (newly for this adaptation) race, but most of it is enunciated at a formal level rather than in the dialogue, though that’s probably right for the period. There’s also an over-reliance on handheld camera; in many ways this feels like a period film for those who don’t tend to like them. Still, whatever else I might say, I do like it. The style is strong enough — and the performances too — to carry it.

Wuthering Heights film posterCREDITS
Director Andrea Arnold; Writers Arnold and Olivia Hetreed (based on the novel by Emily Brontë); Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Shannon Beer, Solomon Glave; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 3 August 2016.

Viceroy’s House (2017)

Not all the prestige heritage productions of the British film industry are about rich white aristocrats, but too many of them do tend to be, even the ones directed by British-Asian directors like Gurinder Chadha. I imagine it will take a long time to truly decolonise this most stalwart of the British filmic genres, but perhaps there may be little steps in that direction. This is hardly flag-waving patriotism, mind, but it still feels a little bit misty-eyed, though I broadly liked it.


I’ve seen plenty of commentaries calling this film to task for its representation of the partition of India, specifically the way that Pakistan and its leader Jinnah seem like the ‘bad guys’ and the aristocratic Mountbattens (here played by Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson) are the well-meaning yet unwitting deliverers of imperial judgment. I can’t really disagree with these criticisms, though however much the film may go out of its way to make the Mountbattens (especially Lady M) likeable and empathetic towards the Indian people, I can’t ever really get onside with imperialists, so really it’s the story of the younger lovers within the Viceroy’s household which is most affecting. It also leads to a poignant, tearful, melodramatic and sentimental climax, which can be a failing of many a big sumptuous historical epic (and this one is nothing if not sumptuous). It’s not a million miles from A United Kingdom in this respect. It has honour I think (and it clearly has personal meaning to director Gurinder Chadha, as the end credits make clear), but it’s not without its weaknesses.

Viceroy's House film posterCREDITS
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and Chadha; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi हुमा क़ुरैशी, Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Om Puri ਓਮ ਪੁਰੀ; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 4 March 2017.

Two Recent Films by Amma Asante: A United Kingdom (2016) and Where Hands Touch (2018)

The end of this week sees the release of another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, at the prospect of which I am distinctly underwhelmed, but it gives me an opportunity to round up some reviews I’ve done of British costume dramas and period films, which continues to make up perhaps the bulk of British filmmaking (or so, at least, it sometimes seems). I’m starting with Amma Asante, a veteran of the genre with Belle (2013). I’m covering her last two films here, and while I don’t think them both entirely successful (some have been far harsher online about the most recent), I think they still come from an earnest place of wanting to tell more stories about the past than we usually see on screen (certainly in the British costume drama). I think that much is worth celebrating.

Continue reading “Two Recent Films by Amma Asante: A United Kingdom (2016) and Where Hands Touch (2018)”

Atlantique (Atlantics, 2019)

One of the strongest and strangest debut films this year was by French-Senegalese director Mati Diop, the niece of filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. Over the past decade she’s made a number of beguiling short films (a personal favourite is Snow Canon) and her latest has had distribution from Netflix, which means a smattering of cinema screenings and a permanent home online. I would love to rewatch this and think it would reward such an effort greatly, not least due to the wonderful cinematography from Claire Mathon, who also shot another of the year’s most beautiful films (and another of my favourites), Portrait of a Lady on Fire.


This is a beautiful, strange, but poetic film about migration — whether the kind we’re familiar with from the news, or the transmigration of the soul (what the ancient Greeks called μετεμψύχωσις metempsychosis), because both of these feature in the film. Indeed, they are in some sense intertwined in enigmatic ways that the film never explains or simplifies, it’s just present in the text which seems to effortlessly find a mythical quality to its storytelling, helped by the beautiful visuals and the specific performance styles which are elicited from the actors. It’s set in Senegal, as Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young middle-class woman, secretly meets with a young construction worker, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), though her family want her to marry Omar, a wealthy socialite who flatters her with gifts of rose gold iPhones as if they’re nothing. The problem is that Souleiman and his compatriots, being exploited by wealthy bosses over their pay, leaves to seek a better life in Europe, leaving Ada behind to deal with the fallout. The plot is largely incidental to the atmosphere created in this seaside city where the crashing waves along the shore become a constant refrain to the movement of her life, as a young cop starts sniffing around, certain that things aren’t what they seem. It reads as a genre piece, but it plays out as something far more mysterious, sensual, beautiful and intoxicating. Ten years ago director Mati Diop made a short film of the same name which had men sit around a beachside campfire speaking about their hopes from migration, and now finally she has this feature film which is so much more. I can see myself rewatching this, because it tells a specific story of people living their lives in Dakar, but it tells another story too, a stronger and more pressing one, in which those who exploit others to their deaths are still called upon to pay the ferryman.

Atlantics film posterCREDITS
Director Mati Diop; Writers Diop and Olivier Demangel; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Mame Bineta Sane, Ibrahima Traoré; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Saturday 30 November 2019.