Criterion Sunday 534: L’Enfance-nue (aka Naked Childhood, 1968)

This film was Maurice Pialat’s debut feature, made when he was already well into his 40s, though it’s a film about childhood. And while it’s set in the contemporary France Pialat was working in, during the late-1960s, it feels like a slightly provincial world, a little bit stuck in time. Like its famous precursor by Truffaut ten years earlier that (more or less) kicked off the Nouvelle Vague, The 400 Blows, this is about a difficult young kid — François (Michel Terrazon) — who doesn’t seem to have a place in the world. Unlike that earlier film, young François’s dislocation is literalised by having him passed around foster families. He’s not always angry, and there are moments of warmth and even familial affection of sorts, but one of the strengths of the film is not making it all about the kid, who almost seems to be in the background a lot of the time, making his outsider status part of the film’s formal strategy, which builds up in little snatched moments, almost a collage of scenes that build towards a life. There’s something confident here that you imagine might derive from Pialat coming to filmmaking relatively late in life, and there’s a tenderness too at times.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Maurice Pialat; Writers Arlette Langmann and Pialat; Cinematographer Claude Beausoleil; Starring Michel Terrazon, Marie-Louise Thierry, René Thierry; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 12 May 2022.

Criterion Sunday 527: La Graine et le mulet (The Secret of the Grain aka Couscous, 2007)

Made before director Abdellatif Kechiche fully leaned into being a lecherous old man director, this — like his more famous 2013 film Blue Is the Warmest Colour (even if that gets a little overwhelmed by some lengthy interludes) — has a heart that is based in a small immigrant community, on the lives of people who don’t have very much and struggle to get what they can in life. It follows Slimane (Habib Boufares) whose work on the docks is coming to an end and who needs to find something else. His life and his large family are all introduced via lengthy scenes where we get to spend time with each of them, and it’s a fine way to introduce a complicated and messy family. Eventually it all leads to a big explosion of melodrama, but Kechiche handles even that with a fine sense of balance, even if everything seems to be left hanging unresolved at the end. But perhaps the film is better for that, and we can perhaps choose to imagine a healing for the fractious double-family created by Slimane, with on the one hand the many children he had with his ex-wife (the lauded chef of the couscous and mullet dish to which the original French title refers) and on the other his younger partner and her daughter (newcomer Hafsia Herzi), ostracised by the other half of the family. The film largely keeps all these characters and broiling events under control as Slimane moves slowly towards opening his own restaurant showcasing the titular meal/grain and gets some fine performances from its local and presumably largely non-actor cast.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Abdellatif Kechicheعبد اللطيف كشيش; Writers Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix غالية لاكروا; Cinematographer Lubomir Bakchev Любомир Бакчев; Starring Habib Boufares
حبيب بوفارس, Hafsia Herzi حفصية حرزي, Bouraouïa Marzouk بوراوية مرزوق; Length 154 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 17 April 2022.

Criterion Sunday 505: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

I guess the Tokyo Story comparisons are obvious — it clearly is an inspiration on that film (Ozu loved his American melodramas, as is clear enough from film posters that show up in his early films) — although stylistically it’s rather different of course, but it hits just as hard in many ways. There’s a lightly comedic way it has of setting up its characters and their situations, and then when the families get to fussing and arguing, it could be straight out of 50s Sirk or 70s Fassbinder in the bitter undercurrents, the glances shared between the elderly mother’s son and daughter-in-law, the wearied sighs and desperate attempts to shift the burden of care amongst one another. But actually it’s the kindness that strangers and even sometimes family show one another that makes it most difficult to take, because nobody here is trying to be horrible or difficult, and the way the elderly couple at the film’s centre are forced apart is almost inevitable once it begins. They do get one last chance to revisit their youth and their love, but by the time the train trip beckons, there’s an overwhelming sorrow that puts it firmly among even the Criterion releases that precede it (films like Germany Year Zero and Hunger). Somehow even the sentimentality and humour makes it even more bleakly relatable, because tomorrow is always coming, and at an ever faster pace.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Leo McCarey; Writer Viña Delmar (based on the play by Helen Leary and Noah Leary, itself based on the novel The Years Are So Long by Josephine Lawrence); Cinematographer William C. Mellor; Starring Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 6 February 2022.

Global Cinema 33: Central African Republic – All Are Human (2017)

I was hoping to watch a feature from the Central African Republic, but try as I might to track something down online there really has been very little filmmaking in the country. Even this short film I’m featuring today isn’t made by native Central Africans, but it does at least deal with the country and its issues — presumably the ones which have ensured its filmmaking base has never really grown.


Central African flagCentral African Republic (République Centrafricaine)
population 4,666,000 | capital Bangui (623k) | largest cities Bangui, Bimbo (124k), Berbérati (77k), Carnot (45k), Bambari (41k) | area 622,984 km2 | religion Christianity (90%, mostly Protestant), Islam (9%) | official language French (français), Sango | major ethnicity Gbaya (33%), Banda (27%), Mandja (13%) | currency Central African CFA franc (FCFA) [XAF] | internet .cf

A landlocked country fitted in between Chad, the Sudans, the Congos and Cameroon, mostly made up of savannahs between the Sahel in the north and an equatorial forest in the south. The origin of its name is fairly self-evident, but in French colonial times, when the present borders were set, it was called Ubangi-Shari (after the two chief rivers of the country). Settlement in the territory currently encompassed by the country, however, stretches back thousands of years to the Neolithic period, and megaliths near Bouar (in the west of the country) indicate habitation dating to the mid-4th millennium BCE. However, despite the country’s poverty (lowest per capita GDP) and development (second lowest after Niger), it is rich in mineral deposits and land. Colonialist interest began with slave trading in the 16th century, and in the 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’, France seized the area in 1894. Concessions were granted to those stripping the land of its assets, and the brutality of this exploitation led to a reduction to the population by almost half in the 50 years following. The Kongo-Wara rebellion (or ‘war of the hoe handle’) attempted one of the continent’s largest interwar insurrections in 1928, but this was eventually suppressed. Independence leader Barthélemy Boganda was elected to the French National Assembly in 1946 but became disheartened and returned to found MESAN in 1950, which swept territorial elections and as first PM, Boganda declared independence in 1958. His cousin David Dacko took over after Boganda died in a plane crash, and became the first President when France granted full independence on 13 August 1960 (a date still celebrated). Col. Jean-Bédel Bokassa seized power in 1965 and named himself Emperor Bokassa I; France supported Dacko to overthrow him in 1979, but another coup took place in 1981 by Gen. André Kolingba. Struggles have pulled power back and forth in the succeeding years between his supporters and those of Ange-Félix Patassé and subsequent coups have led to a period of civil wars and unrest since 2004. The current President since 2016 is Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

Although there have been films made in the CAR, the country’s poverty and ongoing civil unrest ensure that there hasn’t been much made, and what does exist is largely documentary or short productions. The first film made there appears to have been a French ethnographic short film from 1945, and the first feature-length drama wasn’t until 2003 with La Silence de la forêt (which sadly I haven’t been able to track down).


Zo Kwe Zo (All Are Human, 2017)

The Central African Republic has a French colonial past but it hardly has a tradition of filmmaking like other former French colonies. Partly I imagine this may be down to the legacy of civil wars and violence that is inscribed in the country, and that’s what this short film by some American filmmakers is dealing with and trying to open up a dialogue about. A wave of unrest against the government in 2013 saw a variety of (Muslim) rebel groups coalescing as the Seleka seizing the capital, opposed by Christian militias, the “anti-balaka”. This short film attempts to give the impressions of a few of those players on either side and the trauma they’re dealing with. It’s hardly perfect: there’s not enough time to really eke out the themes, so it ends up seeming fairly simplistic at a narrative level, with a rather rushed denouement between the anti-balaka militiaman and a doctor who has suffered a loss. However, the technical qualities are excellent, with some beautiful cinematography and sound editing. It’s just a pity the script doesn’t quite match it.

CREDITS
Directors/Writers Andrew Ellis and Lindsay Branham; Cinematographer Ellis; Starring Bachir So, Josette Melodie Agouh; Length 21 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube streaming), Wellington, Friday 14 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 503: Lola Montès (1955)

This is one of those grand European follies (like Les Amants du Pont-Neuf in more recent times, perhaps) which burned up money in its production and then failed spectacularly at the box office, but it’s the last film by the great director Max Ophüls and if it’s a failure, it’s a spectacular and beautiful one, immaculately staged and choreographed. Of course, as a film, it’s not a failure at all, but perhaps it just didn’t suit the tastes of the mid-1950s audience. It’s set a hundred years earlier, around the time of the revolutions of 1848, and tells a story of a courtesan and (apparently fairly indifferent) dancer known primarily for her liaisons with rich and powerful men, such is the way of that era’s stardom. Martine Carol in the title role is a glamorous presence but, when seen from the vantage point of her later years performing in a circus, a curiously voiceless one, as the ringmaster Peter Ustinov puts most of her words into her mouth. I don’t think that’s a failure of acting, though: if she feels underwhelming, it’s because her life has pushed her to this, and the flashbacks in which her story is told find her with more agency and a more vibrant presence. But acting aside this is a film peculiarly constructed in the staging and shooting, as beautifully framed widescreen images are composed, and the emotional movement of the story is as evident from the camerawork as from the screenplay or acting. Undoubtedly a film to lose oneself in on the big screen, it’s one of cinema’s great films by one of the medium’s finest directors.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel La Vie extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cécil Saint-Laurent); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Will Quadflieg, Oskar Werner; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 30 July 2000 (as well as earlier on laserdisc at the university, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022).

찬실이는 복도 많지 Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (Lucky Chan-sil, 2019)

I’m fairly sure that if I watched this little Korean indie film again I’d like it even more. It has a relaxed vibe that may owe a little to Hong Sang-soo, but is mostly down to the film’s director/writer, one of Hong’s former producers, whose directionless character of the title starts to find a little bit of it as the film goes on.


This is hardly even the first South Korean film directed by a woman that I’ve seen about someone who’s already lived a bit of their life (I hesitate to say middle-aged, but sort of on that cusp of it) who feels directionless and unmotivated and unfulfilled. I’m thinking of Microhabitat, though it has a quite different vibe, but also the fact that the central character is a film worker makes me think of Korea’s great indie auteur Hong Sang-soo (again, his works have a quite different feeling, though it turns out that this film’s director did indeed produce many of his films for a period). In any case, Chan-sil finds herself out of a job as a film producer and unwilling to keep on trying to do it, wracked with depression, renting a room off a cranky older woman (“Oscar­™ winner” Youn Yuh-jung), working as a cleaner for a young actress, and generally feeling down. She even gets visited by the ghost of Leslie Cheung (obviously not really him, and with plenty of self-deprecating dialogue at his own lack of resemblance thereto). It’s amiable, if understandably a little meandering (given Chan-sil’s malaise), but I liked it.

Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (2019) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kim Cho-hee 김초희; Cinematographer Ji Sang-bin 지상빈; Starring Kang Mal-geum 강말금, Youn Yuh-jung 윤여정, Yoon Seung-ah 윤승아; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Wednesday 20 October 2021.

你好,李焕英 Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)

Earlier on this year, I took a punt on a random Chinese film which now has turned out to be the second-highest grossing film of the year (probably because China was one of the most unaffected film markets given everything that happened in 2021). It’s also pretty good fun and sweet, so I can recommend it, not that it likely says anything too controversial about the country’s recent past.


So apparently this is (currently) the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, which is pretty cool, and it’s a shame that more Western audiences won’t see it, if the audience at the screening I saw is anything to go by, but then I guess it doesn’t fit the model that most distributors go by when it comes to the kinds of Asian films that get seen widely in the West. Sure, this doesn’t offer any deep messages about alienation or bitterly-observed insights into Communist China, but it is deeply likeable. Its director (Jia Ling) is also the lead star (as Jia Xiaoling), and while she doesn’t exactly pass for a teenager, she almost makes up for it with her dimpled smile and direct, engaging energy, and the story is apparently drawn from her own life.

It starts in 2001, as an accident threatens the life of Jia Xiaoling’s mother (Li Huanying, who is named in the Chinese title and played by Zhang Xiaofei), and it catapults Xiaoling back twenty years to just before she was born, in 1981. This is where much of the film takes place and, despite the rather harrowing set-up, the tone remains pretty light and comedic throughout. There were some jokes that clearly landed with a Chinese-speaking audience, but plenty too that was genuinely funny, and the central emotional core of the film landed pretty effortlessly, as the film switches gears into slightly sentimental weepie territory. Still, the sentiments which come through feel pretty earned, and the whole thing is put together with a slick craft that makes even the hokiest elements seem integral — and crucially, they are all acted with good humour and earnest feeling that doesn’t feel forced. Look, I’ve seen some pretty bad generational family dramedies, and this one stays sweet through to the end.

Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)CREDITS
Director Jia Ling 贾玲; Writers Jia, Sun Jibin 孙集斌, Wang Yu 王宇, Bu Yu 卜钰 and Liu Honglu 刘宏禄; Cinematographers Liu Yin 刘寅 and Sun Ming 孙明; Starring Jia Ling 贾玲, Shen Teng 沈腾, Zhang Xiaofei 张小斐, Chen He 陈赫; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 26 March 2021.

Petite maman (2021)

Another of my favourites of the year, I went to see this twice (the running time helped). The second viewing prompted a long discussion about when exactly it’s set, as it doesn’t appear to be the modern day but the markers of the time period are fairly oblique. The presence of a Walkman suggests to me maybe the early-90s at the latest, but I’m really not sure. Anyway, it’s a U-rated film about children that is still suffused with melancholy.


I’d just finished watching a 10-hour film when I went to see this, so was particularly appreciative of the virtues of concision. This film feels exactly as long as it needs to be. It tells a story that’s about grief and loss, sadness and familial disconnection, but from the point of a view of a child, and formally it sort of matches its narrative structure to that of a child’s game. with all the inventiveness and non sequiturs you might expect, as young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) finds a very similar looking and similarly aged playmate called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) in the forest near her recently-deceased grandmother’s home, with whom she starts to form a friendship. Sciamma has done films about childhood before (the excellent Tomboy) and I particularly appreciate her clear distinction between the two lead actors (sisters in real life, I can only assume from their names) marking them out with different clothes and a hairband for Marion. The film’s conceit becomes clear as it goes on, and yet it still preserves that mystery about really knowing someone else, even the connection one has with one’s own mother.

Petite maman (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Céline Sciamma; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 26 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Monday 20 December 2021.

Global Cinema 31: Canada – Kuessipan (2019)

Having restarted this ‘Global Cinema’ thread, we’re straight into one of the largest countries in the world (by area at least), and also one of the most notable internationally in terms of film production. Some of that comes from shared resources with the USA to its south, but I think Canadian films have a very specific feeling to them, something a little bit dark and oddball. In recent years there have been more films dealing directly with issues related to First Nations and indigenous peoples, which makes for a positive change to their filmic landscape.


Flag - CanadaCanada
population 38,436,000 | capital Ottawa (1.3m) | largest cities Toronto (5.9m), Montréal (4.1m), Vancouver (2.5m), Calgary (1.4m), Ottawa | area 9,984,670 km2 | religion Christianity (67%), none (24%), Islam (3%) | official language English, French (français) | major ethnicity European (73%), Asian (18%), indigenous (5%) | currency Canadian dollar ($) [CAD] | internet .ca

Canada is the second-largest country in the world by total area, stretching from Atlantic to Pacific in North America. It has the longest bi-national land border (with the USA), stretching almost 9000 miles. Its name is now generally accepted to come from the St. Lawrence Iruquoian word kanata, meaning “settlement”, used by the native population when directing French explorer Jacques Cartier to a nearby village, and then used by him to refer to the whole area. Human habitation from Siberia began around 14,000 years ago, and the indigenous peoples remaining in Canada are First Nations, Inuit and Métis (mixed descent people considered separately from the First Nations). European colonisation wiped out indigenous populations, which declined by up to 80% (largely due to disease, but also conflict). Nevertheless the earliest contact was likely peaceful and began with the Norse, and then in 1497 the Italian seafarer John Cabot. However a number of wars were fought between indigenous and French populations in the 17th century into the 18th, eventually leaving Britain as rulers after the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Quebec was granted a degree of autonomy and the use of the French language and the Catholic faith, in order to stave off the independence movement. The initial four provinces (of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) were extended west by a series of acquisitions, and the building of railroads opened up the expanse of the country, but also the clearing of First Nations peoples into reserves. Independence came in 1931, though the country remained closely linked to the UK. National identity grew after World War II, with the Maple Leaf flag adopted in 1965 and official bilingualism in 1969. There are two houses of Parliament, the lower one (the House of Commons) and the upper (the Senate, modelled on the UK’s House of Lords).

Filmmaking in Canada stretches back to the start of cinema itself, indeed to films shot by the Lumière brothers themselves in 1896 at Niagara Falls. Nevertheless, despite this a lot of film production before WW2 was largely documentaries and propaganda, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that federal efforts to foster a feature film industry began in earnest. There were a few notable filmmakers dating back to this period (including experimental auteur Michael Snow), but it wasn’t until the 70s that Canadian cinema came to more prominence, some of which was due to notable horror films such as from Bob Clark and David Cronenberg. There’s a darker sensibility, too, to works by Claude Jutra and Denys Arcand, amongst others, that only extended in future decades. A new wave of sorts emerged in the 1980s with filmmakers like Patricia Rozema and Atom Egoyan, the latter of whom had the first Grand Prix at Cannes in 1997 with The Sweet Hereafter. A large number of US productions have also continued to use Canadian locations for their filming, blurring some of the distinctions between the two markets (and Toronto’s film festival is a major platform for a lot of Hollywood content), but it’s fair to say that in recent years there has been no shortage of Canadian film talent making waves internationally.


Kuessipan (2019)

One of the best things about watching films from around the world is being immersed in stories about people and cultures you’re not familiar with. This is a Canadian film, but this tells a Québec story, and specifically one set amongst First Nations people, the Innu, in the north-east of the province. The story is rather a timeless one, so in that sense there’s nothing new: two young women, one of whom finds herself pregnant too young and somewhat stuck in this little reservation outside Sept-Iles, and the other who has dreams of making it out, going to study in the big city (Québec City), maybe even getting a boyfriend who’s not Innu. These kinds of dreams all play out, with some familiar stakes, but it’s a story told from within the community, by actors and a writer who come from there and know the area well (although the director is not Innu). The emotional moments therefore land particularly strongly, and what initially is confusing and new (to me, as a viewer) starts to feel like a heartfelt portrait of a community.

Kuessipan (2019) posterCREDITS
Director Myriam Verreault; Writers Verreault and Naomi Fontaine (based on Fontaine’s novel); Cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni; Starring Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine, Yamie Grégoire, Étienne Galloy; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Monday 15 March 2021.

A Castle for Christmas (2021)

It’s that time of the year, the time of the year for the extremely bad (but hopefully still fun to watch) seasonal films on just about every channel you care to look on, and as usual Netflix has stepped up to the plate with a bunch of releases. I had hoped to bring you that seasonal treat Spencer for this special day, but inexplicably that hasn’t been released here in NZ yet, so you’ll have to make do with this very bad — but nevertheless compulsively watchable (if only for the car crash of Elwes’s Scottish accent) — film.


The director Mary Lambert is best known for directing horror movies (most famously 1989’s Pet Sematary), and I’d really like to put the knife in and say this is in the same genre, but honestly there is stuff I liked here. It is formulaic in the extreme, and don’t even get me started on Cary Elwes’s Scottish accent (okay maybe do, because it is very bad, just constantly, almost every scene perceptibly worse than the last one), and there are many holes in the plot. The script, in short, is messy. There’s a slightly evil couple who show up at one point in the middle of the film, and you go, “Ah… her ex! Or some nefarious English buyers for the castle. The stakes have just been raised!” but it swerves and you never see them again. The stakes therefore never get raised, and remain firmly at the level of the relationship between Brooke Shields’ American romance writer and Elwes as a Scottish duke fallen on hard times (or hard-ish, well maybe not hard at all really in the grand scheme of things, but hard by the standards of Christmas-themed romance movies). It really is a mess, and the music is mostly pretty bad and makes it seem like it really wanted to be an Irish-set movie (though most of the actors are English, so maybe they should have just sticked to there, as England has castles too). But, for all that, it retains a sort of kitschy charm.

A Castle for Christmas (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Mary Lambert; Writers Ally Carter and Kim Beyer-Johnson; Cinematographer Michael Coulter; Starring Brooke Shields, Cary Elwes, Lee Ross, Andi Osho; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 12 December 2021.