Un divan à New York (A Couch in New York, 1996)

Chantal Akerman is a filmmaker very much from Belgium and linked with that country, but this Franco-German-Belgian co-production isn’t even set in any of those places, which certainly makes it unusual. European films about America and its people are rarely particularly successful, I don’t think, and this romcom (not a genre most associated with Akerman, though she often veered quite close to it) is surely very odd. It’s on Mubi right now, and worth having a look at.


I’m not honestly sure what exactly I can say about Chantal Akerman’s romcom, given just how far it is outside her usual style and themes (though I suppose Tomorrow We Move had a story of comedic edge to it, even if it was about mothers and daughters, which you somewhat more expect with Akerman). It’s set mostly in New York City, with a bit in Paris, as William Hurt and Juliette Binoche’s characters swap apartments, and he is exposed to a rather bijou but artfully squalid Parisian flat (complete with overly passionate boyfriends stomping in and smacking him around), while she gets a plush, grand apartment in a block with a concierge, where his patients (for he is a psychoanalyst) just wander in and demand therapy. This, primarily, is where I suppose the comedy happens, in these encounters where it turns out Binoche’s character is ‘curing’ everyone, leading him to return and seek therapy from her himself. It’s all a little bit arch, and stretches credulity, but such is the generic framework of the romcom. It doesn’t really work, quite, at least not in the usual ways, but Binoche remains a delightful screen presence as ever.

A Couch in New York film posterCREDITS
Director Chantal Akerman; Writers Akerman and Jean-Louis Benoît; Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann; Starring Juliette Binoche, William Hurt; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 17 January 2019.

Global Cinema 16: Belarus – Enemies (2007)

It’s not a huge film-producing nation, though eventually in the Criterion Sunday series we will see its greatest film, Come and See. However, I’ve selected another film covering the same period, the rather bleak experience of Belarus during World War II, called Enemies. It’s directed by a woman and available on Amazon Prime.


Belarusian flagRepublic of Belarus (Беларусь)
population 9,408,000 | capital Minsk (Мінск) (2m) | largest cities Minsk, Homyel (537k), Mahilyow (383k), Vitsyebsk (378k), Hrodna (374k) | area 207,595 km2 | religion no official statistics (Eastern Orthodox Christianity) | official language Belarusian (беларуская мова), Russian (русский язык) | major ethnicity Belarusian (84%), Russian (8%) | currency Belarusian ruble (Br) [BYN] | internet .by

Formerly known as Belorussia (or Byelorussia), this landlocked country lies between Russia, Lithuania and Latvia to the north and the Ukraine to the south, with Poland to its west. The name is related to the Russian for “White Rus”, and may have any number of derivations, perhaps due to the clothing worn, or for ethno-religious reasons. People could be found in the area dating back to around 5000 BCE, with settlement by Baltic tribes from the 3rd century CE, and later Slavic tribes. It became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in around the 13th century. There was a certain amount of Polonisation following a union with Poland, but the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great acquired the area of Belarus, until occupation by the Germans in World War I. This latter didn’t last long and it declared itself a People’s Republic in 1918. It eventually came back under Soviet rule, before falling briefly to the Germans again in 1941, bearing the brunt of that conflict, as well as most of the fallout from Chernobyl in 1986. The country declared sovereignty in July 1990, and achieved independence on 25 August 1991. Subsequent presidential elections have brought the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko to power, with recent protests to his rule after a disputed election that brought him a sixth term in office. The government also has a Prime Minister appointed by the lower house of the government.

Although cinema in Belarus formally stretches back to 1924, most production has been in Russian and only sporadic production. Probably the most famous film with a Belarusian connection which, like the one below, deals with its wartime experiences is Come and See (1985).


Враги Vragi (Enemies, 2007)

It feels to me as if there are no shortage of films from former Soviet republics dealing with World War II, though I can’t be too critical since it’s a pretty key part of British self-identity in the movies too. Here it’s Belarus dealing with the Nazi occupation, specifically a small village where there’s an uneasy detente between the villagers and the occupying troops, who are to be fair a rather sad sight when lined up near the start. The way that they deal with one another — some of the Germans learning a bit of Russian and hanging out with the women, the villagers spitting insults when they’re not in earshot — all comes to a head when the young son of one of the women is captured trying to sabotage them. We never see what he’s done (and only hear his voice as the narrator) — and I imagine partly that’s budgetary, but it also centres the drama on this small group of people in a little poor muddy village. There’s some nice fluid camerawork that I think sets up the drama nicely, and even if it doesn’t feel like a mould-breaking war film, it’s still got a concise focus to it.

Enemies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mariya Mozhar Мария Можар; Cinematographer Aleksander Smirnov Александр Смирнов; Starring Yuliya Aug Юлия Ауг, Axel Schrick, Gennadiy Garbuk Геннадий Гарбук; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 14 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 346: La Collectionneuse (1967)

At first blush this feels like a very typical leeringly sexist film, as our title character Haydée (Politoff) is introduced in a bikini walking in the surf, reduced to shots of her body, not speaking. It is instead the two men, the suave Adrien (Patrick Bauchau) and the bookish repressed Daniel (Pommereulle), who get to talk. The former is heard at great length as the narrator, presenting his opinions, flirting then arguing with Haydée, and reflecting on his own growth as a person — the film is set during a period he spends away from his girlfriend, at a friend’s mansion in the south of France. But the crux of the film seems in fact to be the way that Adrien has his own view of Haydée and lets it run riot in his mind; he acclaims himself for not falling for her, and constantly implies that she is trying to lure him, but all we actually see is him initiating contact, being obsessed, stroking her creepily. Her interior thoughts are never heard, but she has to be pliable and friendly because of guys like Adrien who expect women to put out, and who think the moral strength is all in their own (as it turns out, non-existent) resistance. So the film focuses on these typically wordy self-obsessed French cinema men and takes them apart, albeit slowly and subtly, because it allows them the rope to hang themselves with (or at least, so it seems to me). Perhaps Haydée isn’t fully developed as a character after all (it is still a French film of the 60s), but in part because she’s just a projection of Adrien’s desires, and that’s what the film is focusing on.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • On the second disc, as an extra to the film above, is Une étudiante d’aujourd’hui (A Modern Coed, 1966). This is an odd little film, a documentary which just watches a number of young women and marvels at their increased visibility within the academic system. It’s a little condescending, it feels at times, but seems to come from a place of interest.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Éric Rohmer; Writers Patrick Bauchau, Haydée Politoff, Daniel Pommereulle and Alain Jouffroy; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Patrick Bauchau, Haydée Politoff, Daniel Pommereulle, Alain Jouffroy; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 9 August 2020.

Global Cinema 15: Barbados – A Caribbean Dream (2017)

There haven’t exactly been a huge number of Barbadian films, and it’s that country’s musical creators who have achieved rather more notable international success. So it’s a little unfair that I’m focusing on a film which I didn’t love, but it has enough in it to make it worthwhile watching, and it’s certainly one of the very few that have had a cinematic release.


Barbadian flagBarbados
population 287,000 | capital Bridgetown (110k) | largest cities Bridgetown, Speightstown (3.6k), Oistins (2.3k), Holetown (1.6k), Bathsheba (1.5k) | area 439 km2 | religion Christianity (76%), none (21%) | official language English (but Bajan Creole is also recognised) | major ethnicity Afro-Barbadian (91%), White Barbadian (4%) | currency Barbadian Dollar ($) [BBD] | internet .bb

A Caribbean island nation located in the Lesser Antilles. The name comes from the Portuguese or Spanish (l)os barbudos (meaning “bearded ones”), colloquially called “Bim”, but before Columbian times it was called Ichirouganaim. The earliest settlements are dated to c1600 BCE, with more permanent ones by Amerindians (arriving from South America) from the 4th century CE, the Arawaks at first and then the Kalinago from the 13th century. Europeans arrived by the early-16th century and largely ignored the island until the English arrived in 1625. A lot of these arrivals were indentured labourers or transported convicts, including many from Ireland. Sugar became a major crop from the mid-17th century and a number of slave rebellions took place. Reforms took place in the 20th century, leading to internal self-government in 1961 and independence on 30 November 1966. The British monarch was retained as head of state, with an elected Prime Minister.

Although there are some cinemas in Barbados, there is little to no local feature film production, as far as I can tell.


A Caribbean Dream (2017)

There’s little enough reason for me to be mean about this film, given it’s unlikely to reach a wide audience. As a Barbados-set and filmed version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s every bit as fantastical and silly as its source, and while the acting can be of variable quality, it’s more than made up for by the enthusiasm of its cast and their gameness to play with various configurations of racial and gender identity with relative ease and fluidity. There’s a sense you get that it could have been tightened up in the editing, but I’m glad it exists.

[NB The film’s date is sometimes given as 2016, but I’m not clear if it did first screen in that year.]

A Caribbean Dream film posterCREDITS
Director Shakirah Bourne; Writers Bourne and Melissa Simmonds (based on the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Robin Whenary; Starring Aden Gillett, Sonia Williams, Adrian Greene, Susannah Harker, Lorna Gayle; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Rio, London, Sunday 12 November 2017.

Babyteeth (2019)

I’ve still only seen five films in a cinema since lockdown rules were relaxed, because I am still very careful about how much I’m stepping into cinemas (and there’s still a relative paucity of new content available, quite aside from the fact that the institutions I most often frequent, like the BFI Southbank and the ICA are not yet reopened). However, this Australian film tempted me back into a cinema, because it looked like one of the highlights of the London Film Festival last year. It clearly doesn’t work for everyone, presumably to do with its themes and the way it presents them, or perhaps the age differential in the central relationship (her age is somewhat skirted around), but I really liked it.


There’s basically an entire sub-genre of films about terminally-ill teenagers, and it’s probably also fair to say that they don’t always get the best reception. It’s a strange category because it’s hard-wired to be a weepie, but it’s too often made into this romantic thing given the demographic involved. Of course, the 20-or-so-year-old Eliza Scanlen has recent form for playing dying children, but she plays them well so it’s no surprise she’s excellent as Milla here. However, I think the real focus, because it’s where the greatest pain lies, is in the parents and as far as casting goes, you don’t get much better in Australian cinema than Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn. The film itself has a rather arch structure, little chapter headings popping up on screen, and an at times whimsical and stylised presentation. Still, for all that it’s pulled down some fairly mixed reviews, I find myself liking this film quite a lot. The choices that the filmmakers take are pretty bold — although I think the romantic story between Milla and the older Moses (Toby Wallace, playing a 23-year-old to her teenager) required a little bit more thought about the way that age gap would play, although certainly it is acknowledged within the film — and so I think they pay off, but ultimately this is an actors’ film and they excel.

Babyteeth film posterCREDITS
Director Shannon Murphy; Writer Rita Kalnejais (based on her play); Cinematographer Andrew Commis; Starring Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Sunday 16 August 2020.

بابيشة Papicha (2019)

A fiction feature debut film for its Algerian French director, and a fine one at that, is Papicha, whose title is taken from an Algerian French phrase used about a young woman, and its star Lyna Khoudri is clearly destined for great things (I believe she already has a role in the latest Wes Anderson film The French Dispatch, though who knows when that’s going to get a release). This is a fine film, though it rather takes aim at Islamic fundamentalism in a fairly direct way.


There are a number of recent French co-productions that deal with religious intolerance in traditionally patriarchal societies; I think of the Turkish-French film Mustang as perhaps the most notable example, and perhaps closest to this one. In each case, the filmmaking is strong and the performances the director gets from her (in this case) French-Algerian cast, constantly switching between Arabic and French in their scenes, are really believable. The setting is the Algerian Civil War of the late-1990s, and a creeping Islamic fundamentalism that expresses itself particularly (as these things seem to do) in restricting the liberties afforded to women. And so we have aspiring fashion student Nedjma (the riveting Lyna Khoudri), who really wants to put on a fashion show and really doesn’t want to put on the hijab, negotiating the way these social standards seem to be evolving at a breakneck pace around her and her friends, all of whom are students at the university at a time when learning itself is under threat. I do wonder a little at a French-funded film dealing with hijab as such a central issue, given that country’s own views on the practice, but the drama as presented here is galvanising and, very swiftly, rather traumatic in the way that it unfolds. Nedjma has no desire to leave Algeria, but at the same time the conflicts taking place at this period (which were already apparently winding down by the late-1990s) put her and her friends’ lives in danger just for the freedoms that they take for granted. Like Mustang it harnesses a lot of the same female ensemble energy, though the camera here often stays far closer in to its protagonists, who move about in a blur at times. It’s a fine film, and one that suggests promise for her feature directing career, and especially for its standout star.

Papicha film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mounia Meddour مونيا مدور; Cinematographer Léo Lefèvre; Starring Lyna Khoudri لينا خودري, Shirine Boutella شرين بوتيلا, Amira Hilda Douaouda, Marwan Zeghbib مروان زغبيب; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 8 August 2020.

Proxima (2019)

This was my first big screen experience for a film since seeing Portrait of a Lady on Fire for the second time, 147 days earlier, and it’s another French film directed by a woman, the title literally translating as “Next”. It’s very different in its setting though, being about a woman training to become an astronaut, but there feels like something similar to it, in its scope perhaps or the feeling with which it is imbued.


Like a lot of the best films about space travel, this is really about the human relationships on the ground, to the extent that it never actually goes into space (that would presumably have put it in a different category for the producers trying to scrounge a budget). Still, it’s got Eva Green and she’s giving a fantastic and controlled performance as the leading lady, so it has all the special effects you could possibly want. She plays Sarah, a French astronaut training for her first flight in Germany and then Kazakhstan (nimbly switching languages from line to line, whether German to her husband played by Lars Eidinger, French, English and then Russian), but trying to deal with her daughter (Zélie Boulant-Lemesne) at the same time. You could say that films about male astronauts don’t deal with the family quite so much, but that’s presumably why Matt Dillon is cast as Mike, a sort of lunkish, sexist guy, a very all-American type familiar from the genre, who has rather set ideas about women (though he has his sensitivity at times, too, so it’s not a one-note performance). For the most part I really liked the way the film handled its central themes, but the one moment that lost me a bit was well, no spoilers… but let’s just say that someone breaking quarantine maybe doesn’t go down quite as well in mid-2020 as when this film was made.

Proxima film posterCREDITS
Director Alice Winocour; Writers Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron; Cinematographer Georges Lechaptois; Starring Eva Green, Zélie Boulant-Lemesne, Matt Dillon, Lars Eidinger, Sandra Hüller; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 8 August 2020.

Perfect 10 (2019)

I mention Make Up in this review, which was released the same week in the UK, both debut directing efforts, both dramas set in small communities about young women, but they have very different tones. For the second in my week of films I’ve seen at the cinema for the first time since lockdown started in March, I’m sticking with British dramas.


I think there’s a lot that’s really commendable about this debut film, and it feels of a piece with other recent debuts like Make Up and Dirty God, or, say, the work of Clio Barnard, in being drawn from a less rosy side of English suburban life — even if the feeling of all these films can be quite divergent. This one plays around the edge of some quite harsh subject matter — a life lived without a stable family situation (our protagonist’s half-brother that she never knew she had just shows up one day; her dad works in a local shop and is rarely home; her mother is absent, presumed dead) — and flirtations with petty crime, without (thankfully) ever really delving into anything that can’t be turned around. The title references the protagonist’s budding gymnastics practice, and this seems to be the only place she gets any human contact (she appears to have no friends at all), so the fact that her peers are so brutally condescending towards her (perhaps because they feel themselves to be a class above) makes her emotional pitch unstable. The filmmaker isn’t interested in making a precociously literate or chatty protagonist, so Frankie Box does a fantastic job as a first-time actor in conveying her moods with very little in the way of dialogue. There’s a lot that’s really very interesting going on here, and it feels like a strong basis for further work from this first-time director and actor.

Perfect 10 film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eva Riley; Cinematographer Steven Cameron Ferguson; Starring Frankie Box, Alfie Deegan, Sharlene Whyte, William Ash; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 14 August 2020.

Summerland (2020)

I’ve now seen five films in an actual cinema, which isn’t going to threaten the amount I’ve been watching at home, but it makes a nice change after the past six months. However slightly uncomfortable it may be returning to the cinema (and I think we all have to make our own decisions about such things, regardless of what the official guidance may allow — for my part, I leave my mask on at all times, unlike most people it seems), it was difficult for me not to take up this opportunity. Therefore this week’s theme is going to be the films I’ve now seen at the cinema since they were allowed to reopen.


Director Jessica Swale has made her name in the theatre, and I can see that her talents haven’t quite been matched to film form here. A lot of the way that the themes and characters are developed, while not inherently unsatisfying, just seem overdetermined. Combining the (1940s) past and (1970s) present is done elegantly enough — albeit every time I see Gugu I wish for more of her — but the points in the script where the revelations land just feel so thudding, as we come to understand that the curmudgeonly Alice (Gemma Arterton) has her heart warmed by the love of a child (Lucas Bond), and then later on as multiple different strands are brought together. I probably wouldn’t have minded so much if the setting weren’t so overly familiar from other British period films (include ones starring Arterton), and if the score hadn’t swelled at the expected appropriate moments. For all the ways that the casting and themes tried to expand the range of references for ‘World War II romantic drama’ the drama as a whole didn’t work, and things devolved rather too far into unsubtle melodrama. Still, there are things I like about it, whether the cinematography (by Laurie Rose) or the fine performances, and indeed some of the character details, particularly the early characterisation of Alice, are amusing and I still always enjoy seeing Gemma Arterton on screen.

Summerland film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jessica Swale; Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Sunday 9 August 2020.

Global Cinema 14: Bangladesh – The Clay Bird (2002)

Though the island locations of The Bahamas have been seen in any number of 60s and 70s James Bond films, in Jaws: The Revenge and Splash, amongst many others, there isn’t much of an indigenous film industry to speak of. A local director who has made something of a name for himself, particular of the LGBT festival circuit, is Kareem Mortimer, whose 2009 film Children of God is my chosen film to represent The Bahamas. It represents a noble attempt to confront LGBT struggles and prejudices on the islands.


Bangladeshi flagPeople’s Republic of Bangladesh (বাংলাদেশ)
population 161,376,700 | capital Dhaka (ঢাকা) (8.9m) | largest cities Dhaka, Chittagong (2.6m), Khulna (665k), Sylhet (526k), Mymensingh (477k) | area 148,460 km2 | religion Islam (90.5%), Hinduism (8.5%) | official language Bengali (বাংলা) | major ethnicity Bengalis (98%) | currency Taka (৳) [BDT] | internet .bd

A country in South Asia, the eighth most populous in the world and one of the most ethnically homogeneous (the modern borders were set along ethnic and language lines). Geographically, it is dominated by the Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta, but has hills to the east. The name is believed to come from Vanga, an ancient kingdom on the delta, and the term Bangla started to be used around the 9th century CE. Bangladesh forms the eastern part of the Bengal region, with habitation dating back 20,000 years, and major urban settlements by the mid-first millennium BCE. It was ruled by a number of ancient Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms (like the Gupta Empire, the Pala Empire, the Harikela Kingdom and others), and repelled Alexander the Great when he tried to conquer the region. The Bengali language developed around the 8th century CE, and the Islamic conquest began in the 13th century. The Bengali Sultanate was formed in 1352, becoming a major trading nation, and taken over by the Mughals in the 17th century. The East India Company arrived in the mid-18th century with Robert Clive. Following partition in 1947, it was unified with Pakistan as East Bengal (later East Pakistan). The Bangladesh Liberation War led to independence in 1971, which was secured upon victory in the war on 16 December 1971. It has had its turbulent periods since, but is currently an elected democracy in which the ceremonial post of President invites the leader of the largest party to become Prime Minister.

The cinema industry (sometimes called Dhallywood) dates back to the silent era, though filmmaking began right at the outset of the 20th century. The 1950s saw a great expansion with a film development corporation that has continued its work post-independence, though there was a decline in quality and quantity in the 2000s, with a small resurgence since, although Bangladeshi mainstream movies don’t tend to make much of a mark in the West.


মাটির ময়না Matir Moina (The Clay Bird, 2002)

I don’t know but it seems to me if your filmmaking leans on a tradition of humanist concern for displaced and persecuted communities, there are worse models. This one deals with a family in a village during the late-1960s, a period leading up to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan. The father (Jayanta Chattopadhyay) strictly follows Islamic traditions, he has a wife (Rokeya Prachy) and kids who are trying to get an education, and in the background are the stirrings of change. It keeps its focus on the family and has some lovely cinematography and fine acting from its non-professional cast.

The Clay Bird film posterCREDITS
Director Tareque Masud তারেক মাসুদ; Writers Tareque Masud and Catherine Masud ক্যাথরিন মাসুদ; Cinematographer Sudhir Palsane সুধীর পাল্‌সানে; Starring Nurul Islam Bablu নুরুল ইসলাম বাবলু, Jayanta Chattopadhyay জয়ন্ত চট্টোপাধ্যায়, Rokeya Prachy রোকেয়া প্রাচী; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 22 March 2017.