In the Beginning: interplay of social realism and individual psychologies results in a film of self-renewal and fulfillment

Xavier Giannoli, “À l’Origine” / “In the Beginning” (2009)

It’s rather too long by 30 minutes and a couple of sub-plots, one involving Gérard Depardieu sleepwalking through his part, go nowhere but otherwise this tale of a con-man who takes on a scam job bigger than he can chew and ends up bringing new life to a depressed rural town and possibly himself is an enjoyable excursion into social realism and the possibility of reinvention in one’s own life. Small-time con-man Philippe (François Cluzet) makes a living ripping off construction companies by usurping identities and selling equipment, going from one town to the next … until he comes to a municipality plagued by mass unemployment and a bleak future as a result of a highway construction project that has stalled because a colony of rare scarab beetles lives in the area where the highway was supposed to go through. Adopting the role of project manager, and egged on by an eager mayor (Emmanuelle Devos), Philippe restarts the project, hires local people as labour and local firms to supply materials for the construction, even though he has very little idea as to what project managers on such jobs actually do. He befriends local girl Monika (pop singer Soko) and her drug dealer boyfriend Nicolas (Vincent Rottiers) who find jobs on the project which for the first time in their lives promise a better future for them in the town. Philippe himself finds a new lease on life as the entire town is energised by the project and the passion and enthusiasm the townspeople have in the construction work infect him as well. The possibility of settling down in the town with the mayor, as opposed to furtively running from one place to the next, beckons. Unfortunately Philippe’s con-man partner makes an appearance and the law through the town bank manager starts to catch up with Philippe.

The tension in the film generated by Philippe’s conscience as the con-man starts to stress over the lies he tells the townspeople and how soon something will happen that will reveal the truth about him and the project to the mayor and everyone else, holds the plot together. In this, Cluzet does a great job with quite minimal acting, his face alone conveying the increasing guilt and shame he feels at having duped everyone. Initially planning to cream off the profits generated by the construction work, Philippe ends up spending all the money he hides on making sure the work gets done on schedule, even buying up new office equipment when the factory office gets trashed by night burglars. The rest of the cast basically revolves around Cluzet with Rottiers as the delinquent who is redeemed by working on the project the stand-out of the supporting actors.

The thin plot is padded out with various themes playing out in quite complex ways: there are contemporary economic issues about the outsourcing of work that led to the town becoming depressed, the bureaucracy that stalled construction work, and the need for the town to find a new identity and common purpose that unites everyone and stops them from descending into poverty and crime. There is the sense that the town is isolated from the rest of France and needs a catalyst from outside that can set its people on their own path of self-help and collective renewal. Certainly officialdom has been of no help so far. Philippe finds self-fulfillment in work that generates jobs, prosperity, happiness and new-found purpose for a whole town. Yet the knowledge that his scam will be revealed and Philippe himself experiencing anxiety, health problems and coming close to wrecking not only his own life but other people’s lives as well is ever present.

It’s the intersection of the social realist themes (economic depression in rural regions, the need for useful work that creates jobs, prosperity and self-fulfillment) and the individual psychologies of characters like Philippe and Nicolas, both small-time criminals who find new identities and self-renewal in the most unlikely way, that gives this film its unique style as a tragicomedy combining elements of heist and redemption films.

Marguerite: a rich film of how loyalty, control and hypocrisy intersect with innocence and free spirit

Xavier Giannoli, “Marguerite” (2015)

The inspiration for this film may have been the American socialite and amateur opera soprano Florence Foster Jenkins who was notorious for her bad singing but the subtext of “Marguerite” is very rich in what it says about the politics and social values of the period in which it is set, the various hypocrisies of the people who rely on the film’s central figure of Marguerite and how they manipulate her and end up destroying her, and above all the plight of women dependent on their husbands, no matter what their social status may be.

The film starts off as comedy and ends up as tragedy. It essentially pivots around rich socialite and arts patron Baroness Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot) whose husband Georges (André Marcon) had married her for her money so he could run a successful business (and keep a mistress on the side). Neglected by Georges, Marguerite retreats into a world of opera music and singing, imagining herself a great opera singer, to gain her husband’s affections, because this is all she knows and all she can do. She is encouraged in her pursuit by loyal butler Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) who takes photographs of her as various characters in her favourite operas and who may secretly be in love with her – except that his is a love that can never be requited because of the class and race divide between them. (One can appreciate the irony of someone from a socially inferior class and ethnic group controlling the fate of somebody else who is supposed to be superior in class and biology to him.) She gives recitals at her rich socialite friends’ regular music clubs and everyone who attends loathes her singing but claps politely anyway: she is after all the patron of the club.

One day two anarchists Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and Kyril (Aubert Fenoy) attend a recital, at which upcoming opera singer Hazel Klein (whom Marguerite has supported financially) also sings, and Kyril writes a review that damns Marguerite with faint praise. Before long, Marguerite is mixed up with Lucien and Kyril’s bohemian set and is manipulated into performing as part of a dadaist cabaret act. Nevertheless she presses on with her singing and performing and Lucien finds her a singing teacher in the form of operatic has-been Pezzini (Michel Fau) who, along with his friends, also starts sponging off Marguerite. This sets in train a series of events that eventually leads to Marguerite’s tragic downfall, during which Georges resolves to end his affair with Marguerite’s business entrepreneur friend Françoise (whom Marguerite admires for her independence and courage in striking out on her own) and be faithful to his wife; and Madelbos finally tires of maintaining the pretence and decides to marry one of Pezzini’s friends and be his own independent man.

Set at the end of World War I and at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, the film contrasts the world that Marguerite aspires to joining, and which is on its last legs, with the world of jazz, bohemian and avant-garde art, and freaky fringe characters such as a bearded lady whom Madelbos eventually wants to marry, frequented by Lucien and which he invites Marguerite to join. The irony here is that while Marguerite can never hope to join the exacting and perhaps exhausted world of opera – Pezzini, for all his talent, is down on his luck and his future prospects are very grim, hence he has no choice but to become Marguerite’s singing teacher just to survive – a world beckons in which one can be an off-key singer and be accepted. The world that Marguerite desires to join is a world of artifice but the world of jazz, at least in the early 1920s anyway, celebrates the joy of life and living, spontaneity, freedom and individuality: this could have been a world that accepts the aspiring diva on her terms.

On one level the film can be viewed as a love story: Marguerite sings because she wants love and connection with a distant husband who manipulated her for her money, her social status and her connections to the people he needs to impress; there’s another unrequited love story of the butler Madelbos who may or may not love Marguerite but finds through his manipulation of her fantasy an artistic outlet for himself. Marguerite’s plight, contrasted with Georges’ lover Françoise (Astrid Whettnall) who is a successful businesswoman and Hazel Klein (Christa Théret) who becomes a successful singer in both opera and more contemporary / avant-garde music, might say something about the position of women at certain levels of society who are barred from developing their talents and abilities properly and who end up retreating into fantasy.

(At this point it should be said that there is a moment in the film where indeed Marguerite is actually able to sing but it is cruelly cut off by the Cosmic Joker who then sends the singer into hospital, from which point her life starts to go downhill.)

The film being a French film, eventually this fantasy attracts the attention of rationalism in the form of medicine, which then proceeds to destroy the fantasy – and with it, Marguerite’s purpose for living and her individuality. All the people who are charmed by Marguerite’s guilelessness and innocence, her bravery and risk-taking attitude, and above all her free and generous spirit, cannot or will not help her. So on another level, it’s a film about control and the ways in which people use pretence and falsehood to prop up a deluded individual, because of what they see in her that is genuine and authentic, and how eventually another form of control – this time, state control – cuts away that pretence and destroys the individual.

The acting is superb with everyone playing his or her part well, and in particular Catherine Frot as the eponymous Marguerite gives the performance of her life, playing the doomed songstress as a wide-eyed naif who is also surprisingly intelligent and aware of the talk behind her back. Marguerite’s bravery in undertaking punishing singing lessons from Pezzini so that she can perform professionally is jaw-dropping and inspirational. Mpunga also deserves credit for playing the butler who supports and indulges his mistress in her fantasy and uses her to advance his own interests.

It seems that everyone who appears in this film or who works on it has been inspired to give of his/her very best, and I would put that down to a highly sympathetic script (written by director Giannoli) that explores themes of loyalty, truth, manipulation and the role of hypocrisy and pretence in society, and how these intersect in a narrative that turns out to be rich and devastating. We end up grieving for Marguerite not only as an individual built up and destroyed by the system, but also for the loss of the authenticity, innocence and free spiritedness that she embodies for the people who come to love her.

I can’t help but think that the British screen version of Florence Foster Jenkins’ career with Meryl Streep as the deluded singer will be very second-rate compared to this film.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: mocking the middle classes for their hypocrisy, sense of entitlement and shallow values

Luis Buñuel, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie / Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie” (1972)

This comedy-of-manners film about six people who constantly make arrangements to have dinner together but never really succeed in doing so thanks to random coincidences, misunderstandings and their own faults and misdeeds is a vehicle for director Buñuel to mock the French middle class for its hypocrisies, empty rituals and shallow values in which style and surface sheen triumph over seedy and sterile substance. The narrative relies on a repeating social ritual – three couples from the upper middle class trying to meet for dinner several times and failing every time in different ways – so that the film becomes no more than a series of absurdist Pythonesque comedy sketches. Initially the film is bright and straightforward as the dinner guests meet but as the movie continues, it becomes increasingly darker, unsettling, paranoiac, and ends up being trapped in banality and trivia, reflecting the sordid nature of its main characters and the society they move in.

The ensemble cast (Stéphane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Frankeur, Bulle Ogier, Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig) acquits itself speedily and efficiently if blandly; they represent particular aspects of the French bourgeoisie that Buñuel found especially irksome or ripe for satire. Audran and Cassel’s married couple snub a man dressed as a working-class gardener and turn him away, but when he returns dressed in his bishop’s garb, they fawn and grovel before him. Seyrig and Frankeur may look like the perfect married couple but Seyrig’s character is secretly having an affair with Rey’s ambassador of the Republic of Miranda. The ambassador is highly regarded in French polite society but on the side he is running a cocaine ring with Frankeur and Cassel’s characters, and he deals with a would-be student Marxist rebel assassin by arranging for her to be kidnapped and “disappeared”. We learn much more about the kind of corrupt Third World hell-hole that the Republic of Miranda is in someone’s nightmare in which a cocktail party given by an army colonel goes disastrously wrong.

Buñuel can’t resist taking pot-shots at the Roman Catholic Church by including a sub-plot (which might not sit easily with viewers) in which a kindly priest hears a confession from a dying man. The aged man confesses that, decades ago, he murdered a couple and left their child an orphan. The priest then reveals to the man that he was that orphan. Nevertheless he forgives the man his sins on the authority of God and Christ Jesus … then calmly walks over to where a loaded rifle is resting against a wall. While this sub-plot is an amusing comment on the hypocrisy of the RCC and shows that the priest is human after all, it adds very little to the overall narrative.

There are other gags in the film that have no bearing on the narrative other than to poke fun at authority generally and authority figures in particular. Two soldiers talk about their childhood or their dream of death, and two police officers chat about how their superior tortured a student prisoner and ended up assassinated. Frequently the gags take the form of dreams and dreams within dreams, to the extent that the second half of the film all but groans with them and the thin line between fantasy and reality disappears. From this point on, the film becomes very repetitive and turns on trivia and banality, for good reason: the dreams that the dinner guests and various others have reveal their fears and neuroses, their selfishness and lack of care and consideration for others, and ultimately their thuggishness, all hidden under a veneer of discretion and politeness.

There are many highlights in the film but probably the best ones are the cocktail party scene during which the ambassador tries in vain to fend off uncomfortable questions about his country’s corruption, high crime rate and harbouring of Nazi war criminals, and an earlier scene in which a bunch of soldiers talk about smoking marijuana and our drug-running dinner guests then express disgust at the prevalence of marijuana use in the army. The scene in which the dinner guests sit down at a table, only to be exposed to an opera audience who boo at them, is a surreal high point that suggests these characters cannot withstand open scrutiny and crumple up easily if their crimes and peccadilloes were to be exposed publicly.

The film’s technical qualities are highly commended; the presentation is bright and realist, hiding the fact that this is an absurdist film in which dreams seem more real than reality. The soundtrack is important too, with background white noise coming to the fore at critical moments when characters are talking to one another. Randomness as a long-running motif plays a significant role in advancing the narrative and its repetitions.

At the end of the film, the dinner guests are still wandering about in their quest for the perfect dinner party and it’s at this point that one questions whether, for all their wealth, power and influence over elites, that they can get out of jail with impunity, these unhappy people have much free will when their desires are constantly frustrated due to their own indulgent flaws and stupidity, their obsession with a false social propriety, and things happening out of the blue as a consequence of past decisions they made or of their thoughtlessness and belief that they are special and deserving of aristocratic privilege. One almost feels pity for these people who seem to be permanently trapped in an invisible hell of their own making. The ambassador’s dream about himself and his friends being mown down by a bunch of terrorists and someone else’s earlier dream about the six being imprisoned for drug-running offences suggest that there are forces gradually and relentlessly closing in on the dinner guests and their world, and that they will get their comeuppance. Only then might they discover freedom.

The Phantom of Liberty: a snapshot of modern life where social conventions and hypocrisy limit personal freedom and responsibility

Luis Buñuel, “The Phantom of Liberty / Le Fantôme de la Liberté” (1974)

This film might be seen as a snapshot in the life of modern France as it appeared to  Luis Buñuel, with all its bourgeois hypocrisies and contradictions. “The Phantom of Liberty” is a string of loosely linked episodes and sight-gags that celebrate chance and randomness while mocking social institutions, conventional behaviours and etiquette, and taboos such as necrophilia, sadomasochism, incest and paedophilia. For this film, Bunuel assembled an ensemble cast in which no one actor stands out – though I did recognise Michel Lonsdale from an old James Bond movie of years past – and everyone plays his or her part perfectly with completely straight faces.

The film’s loose narrative wends its way smoothly from one tableau to the next. A stranger offers photographs to two young girls in a public playground and the kiddies promptly hand them over to their parents who are shocked at the pictures – which turn out to be scenes of famous architecture around the world. The children’s father then visits his doctor about strange dreams he’s had and offers a letter given him in one dream as proof. The doctor’s nurse excuses herself to drive into the countryside to visit a sick father; on the way she stops at an inn where some Carmelite monks offer prayers for the elderly man and then hang around in her room playing cards, drinking alcohol and smoking excessively as though they were Mafia gangsters. Next day the nurse gives a lift to a police academy lecturer who later has to deal with a class of unruly gendarmes behaving like bored high school students. The lecturer drones on about the relativity of laws and customs, and recounts the time he went to a dinner party where all the guests sat on toilets around the dinner table and hungry people retire to private rooms to eat meals. Later on in the film, a sniper kills various people around Paris, is arrested and tried for murder, and sentenced to death; he leaves the courtroom by himself and signs autographs for eager women. A couple report the disappearance of their daughter to the police and the police treat the couple’s statements seriously – all while the child is in plain sight of everyone at the police station.

The film forces people to think very deeply about how much influence social conventions and expectations, coincidence and chance have on our minds and behaviour, and thus how they and their interactions limit our ability to think and act freely, and in some situations to act morally (even though our minds might rebel at having to act immorally). Particular scenes show how the things we take for granted can be bizarre if they are reversed, as in the scene where the dinner guests sit on the toilets while talking crap at the table yet have to eat in private. A very humorous and quite creepy scene in which a police commissioner is caught desecrating his family burial vault to find an apparently revenant sister and brought before another man in his job, and the two of them then discussing and carrying out an attack on political activists noisily campaigning against democracy, has the power to chill. This scene suggests that the functions of a job (in this case, that of a police commissioner), its status within a hierarchy and the attendant reputation and traditions reduce complex individuals to mere cogs in a machine. All the comedy sketches, no matter how far-fetched they are, are plausible in some way: the police can be just as disorderly and unruly as the crooks they apprehend (largely because police and crooks are members of the same society after all, and were it not for some chance occurrence, a police officer could have ended up on the wrong side of the law) and the sketch with the girl trying to convince her parents and the police that she has not disappeared may tell us something profound about how children are often ignored by adults. Social taboos like incest and young men falling in love with elderly women may be played for laughs yet at the same time force people to question the nature of these taboos, why they exist and how they are perpetuated.

The movie moves at a fast pace and the characters are drawn in such a way that they clearly represent social or occupational stereotypes. The cinematography is beautifully done in a way that makes the various sub-plots look like moving tableaux. The direction is deft and flows very smoothly: this is important for a film where there’s no clear traditional story-telling narrative and chance incidents linking two sub-plots must not look contrived.

The Battle of Algiers: excellent and powerful film dramatisation of the Algerian drive for independence

Gillo Pontecorvo, “The Battle of Algiers / La Bataille d’Alger / La Battaglia di Algeri” (1965)

Filmed 50 years ago, this Italian film drama of the Algerian independence struggle against France in the late 1950s remains as relevant today in the post-9/11 world as it did for audiences living during the decline and end of the colonial era when Britain and France gave up their empires in Africa and Asia. The film, influenced by the Italian neo-realism pioneered by Roberto Rossellini and other directors in the 1950s, combines crisp, matter-of-fact drama, imaginative and brilliantly shot cinematography, excellent acting, a highly evocative music soundtrack and a plot left deliberately sketchy to emphasise the film’s messages, of which the most important is that a people’s desire for liberation and independence will always succeed in spite of the repression it is subjected to.

The bulk of the film follows a young man, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), from his early life as street thief who becomes radicalised as a freedom fighter when as a prisoner he witnesses the guillotining execution of a political prisoner. After being released, he applies to join the National Liberation Front (hereafter referred to as the FLN, its abbreviation in French) and is given a test by FLN leader Jaffar. The test confirms Ali’s commitment and from then on he is part of a clandestine network of cells in which each member knows only three others: the person who recruited him and the two people he is required to recruit.

The film does not dwell much on Ali’s advancement to the topmost level but instead follows various resistance fighters who kill police officers as part of a general protest against the forces of law and order who are the front-line of the colonial society that treats the Algerian people as serfs and denies them access to their own lands and resources. The film clearly shows the segregated nature of the city of Algiers: Europeans live in one part which revels in wealth and leisure while the majority Arabs and Berbers are forced to live in crowded labyrinthine conditions in old buildings with primitive infrastructure and transport. The French drive cars while the Arabs and Berbers must still use animals for transport. The murders of the police officers lead to greater repression and the police themselves resort to bombing a section of the Muslim quarter. People die and from then on, the FLN uses terrorism, encapsulated in a section of the film where three Muslim women doll themselves up in Western clothes and carry bombs into cafes and an Air France office, to protest the continuing brutality. Violence from one side begets violence from the other until Paris sends in Colonel Matthieu (Jean Martin) to impose martial law on the suffering Algerians. Determined to wipe out the FLN, Matthieu resorts to arresting and torturing people to gather information about the FLN, and systematically hunts down its members until he and Ali La Pointe finally confront each other in a chilling and cold-blooded climax.

The contrast between the Algerians’ poverty and the colonialists’ lavish lifestyle is highlighted by the cinematography which captures the paranoia and terror the Algerians feel as French rule becomes ever more violent and intrusive. The music, composed jointly by Pontecorvo himself and renowned composer Ennio Morricone, also captures the terror and drama of the film. Scenes of torture are filmed in a sensitive manner that demonstrates the victim’s suffering without dwelling too much on the violence and gore.

While Pontecorvo is sympathetic towards the Algerians, the film shows both oppressors and oppressed as humans with all their flaws and good qualities. Ali, Jaffar and the other leaders of the FLN stubbornly hold out to the very end and Matthieu, for all his admiration of them, is steely in his determination to eradicate them. Surprisingly, Matthieu has the clearest understanding of the conflict between France and Algeria: the French are hell-bent on keeping Algeria as their colony and denying the Arabs and Berbers a share in the colony’s wealth. As long as this situation lasts, there will always be conflict and suppression. One would think that, having fought in the Resistance against Nazi Germany during the Second World War, Matthieu might sympathise with the Algerians’ desire for liberty; yet he puts his loyalty to France ahead of any feelings he may have for the Algerian cause or the admiration he has for individuals like Ben M’hidi, one of the FLN leaders, for his moral stance. As the only actor in a cast of non-actors, Martin makes his colonel stand out as a man who suppresses his humanity and compassion for evil disguised as unquestioning loyalty to the State.

One aspect of the film that is not too clear is the role of the media in changing public opinion in France to favour and support Algerian independence which eventually pressured Paris to grant Algeria its freedom in 1962. Apart from that, the film shows how the colonial authorities use propaganda to try to break the spirit of the Algerians. After destroying the FLN, the authorities obviously believe they have broken the back of the independence movement; unfortunately the film does not go on to say (and this is a major weakness of “The Battle …” and the structure of its plot) what the authorities did next, that might have resulted in a resurgence in the Algerians’ cry for  freedom and independence. One assumes that the French colonial authorities did not do much to give Algerians a greater say in their governance and control of their land and resources, but continued to harass them with police state brutality and petty bureaucratic regulations, and that the French living in Algeria continued to live in blithe ignorance of the tensions simmering even more among the people they treated as their servants.

The film’s complexity in its themes and technical values has stood the test of time, even if the actual visuals look dated. It has been used as a manual by both terrorist groups and governments alike, not always in the way that Pontecorvo and his cast would approve. Violence and brutality always beget more violence and brutality, and both bully and victim end up more traumatised and psychopathic in their natures. The film still has power to move contemporary audiences into sympathising with ordinary people’s desire to control their own lives and resources, and not to live as slaves.

Tess: flat characters and subdued approach in adapting novel to screen ensure a slow-moving trudge

Roman Polanski, “Tess” (1979)

Closely based on the original Thomas Hardy novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, which serves as an indictment of Christian religious hypocrisy, male oppression of women and the British class system, Roman Polanski’s “Tess” is a slow-moving, subdued film, as diffident and almost colourless as its heroine, played by a teenage Nastassja Kinski. Kinski’s awkwardness and lack of experience in a lead role show very strongly here. Fortunately she is surrounded by capable actors like Leigh Lawson (who plays Alec) and Peter Firth (playing Angel Clare), along with a large cast playing characters representing most layers of late 19th-century rural British society and memorable landscapes that change with the seasons and mirror the fortunes of the young Tess from the time her father is told by his local parson that his Durbeyfield family is descended from noble ancestors and that the Durbeyfields may have wealthy relatives who have recently moved into the local community.

With that news,  Tess is compelled by her parents to seek out these rich cousins and she soon meets Alec. Alec’s family has actually bought the d’Urberville name and family crest but Tess’s innocence does not immediately pick this up. Alec becomes infatuated with Tess and  manipulates her into a situation where he is able to seduce (or rape) her. Tess becomes Alec’s mistress for a time but is unable to live with the snide talk of the servants and workers behind her back and she returns home to her family. She gives birth to Alec’s child who survives only a short time. After the baby’s death, Tess finds employment with a dairy farm. She meets Angel Clare, the educated son of a pious preacher, who falls in love with her and persuades her to marry him. After their wedding, Angel confesses his past to Tess and she forgives him; when she confesses her past, he is astounded that the pure unsullied woman of nature he had idealised has turned out to be human after all. His heart grows cold towards Tess and soon he leaves for Brazil to embark on a missionary venture, effectively abandoning his wife. Destitute, Tess returns to her family and discovers her parents are not well. Her father dies and the Durbeyfields are evicted from the family home. Alec, having found out about Tess’s baby and marriage to Angel, and hearing that she has been abandoned by him, offers succour. Tess rejects him at first but is forced by circumstances to accept his help – on the condition that she becomes his mistress again.

Eventually of course, Angel returns from Brazil, his missionary venture having failed and he having suffered greatly as well. He seeks out Tess to beg forgiveness of her but his arrival puts her in a dilemma. How she resolves her dilemma seals her fate and from then on, an untimely death awaits her.

In the novel, Tess is a spirited and passionate young woman but in Polanski’s film, Kinski’s Tess seems drained of all character: that may be an unfortunate consequence of miscasting and Kinski’s lack of experience in a lead role. Tess’s actions become rather inexplicable as a result and audiences who do not know the book may find her violence a jarring surprise. A significant theme of Hardy’s novel – Tess as a woman being the child of nature, the innocent girl who is destroyed by human society through religion, sexual oppression and industrialisation – falls by the wayside. Polanski’s film does not play up the subtle differences between Angel Clare and his parents enough to highlight Clare’s superficiality and hypocrisy: Clare is intended as an example of an enlightened and liberal thinker who is not so tolerant and liberal when he learns of Tess’s past history, while his parents, who initially appear to be interested only in hobnobbing with the rich, are actually quite forgiving of others’ foibles. For all the time he spends on screen, Firth’s Clare behaves in ways that are rather puzzling. The only really consistent character is Alec who, beneath the wealth he flaunts and his shaky morality, actually cares for Tess’s well-being.

Significantly, Alec is associated with the arrival of industrialisation that was to transform rural agriculture and the lives of peasants dramatically, and not always for the better. Industry removes humans from nature: the milk produced by the dairy farm where Tess works must be adulterated with water because townsfolk are unable to stomach it. Alec lives and moves in a world where nature is shaped to obey humans utterly and he expects Tess, the woman of nature, to acknowledge him as her master as well. Thus, the symbolism of Tess’s murder of Alec (spoiler alert) is tremendous: nature asserts its power over humans, humans react to that power by crushing it and taming it. Tess’s action cannot go unpunished by society (else the chaos that the society fears is unleashed) and that punishment is death.

While the cinematography is beautiful and immerses the viewer in the life of late 1880s rural Britain, and the changing seasons and their moods, it cannot save the film from being something of a trudge through the plight of a young woman trapped by her circumstances, the double standards of the society in which she lives and her own innocence and impulsive behaviour. The flat characters and Polanski’s subdued and technical approach in adapting Hardy’s novel to the screen are the problem.

Mr Turner: a microcosm of 19th-century British society through the life of J M W Turner

Mike Leigh, “Mr Turner” (2014)

I confess I always have the time of day for the under-rated British actor Timothy Spall who always had the talent to be a leading man but was always relegated to minor character roles or playing second fiddle, due perhaps to his basset-hound looks. At last in “Mr Turner”, Spall gets to play the leading man, the famous early 19th-century landscape painter and water-colourist J M W Turner who was turning out Impressionist paintings of the sea and early abstract art before either became recognised and accepted genres. The film covers about three decades of Turner’s life just before his father William died leading up to Turner’s last breath in which he utters “The sun is God”. Turner the character might have been talking about himself as there is hardly a shot in which he does not appear and the camera follows him zealously as he travels from his home in London to Margate and then Chelsea, and various parts of the English countryside including Dover and the New Forest, searching for artistic inspiration and suitable subjects to paint, and dallying with two mistresses and the maid who faithfully serves him.

There is no definitive plot as we would understand it: the film makes its audience voyeurs into Turner’s life (mostly fictionalised but based on what is known of his personal life) as he goes about his business, public and private, and the narrative arises from a collage of snapshots tracing Turner’s life from the mid-1820s to 1851 when he died. The film marks the passing of time by making references to the significant technological, social and historical events of the day: the steam train’s appearance marks the 1830s, Queen Victoria appears in one scene and Turner mentions the Crystal Palace, opened in 1851, in a late scene. All major actors in the film give riveting and often quite emotional portrayals but in a minimalist way. The women in Turner’s life occupy major roles here: there is his maid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), suffering from psoriasis and probably more besides, but always there for him, however badly he treats her, and secretly in love with him; and there is Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), the twice-widowed landlady who becomes Turner’s second mistress. There is another mistress Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) who had two daughters by Turner. A running theme throughout the film is the way Turner treats his women: he lies to them all and dies without their ever being told that they are rivals.

As well as the acting, the cinematography is outstanding with many shots set up to resemble paintings with formal compositional elements. Turner the character is posed in scenes that later become the basis of the paintings that made him famous. The film emphasises Turner’s interest in light and the way in which light governs the mood of a painting which in turn can influence the way people look at the painting. Turner is seen taking an interest in the scientific developments of his day, even going so far as to invite a Scottish woman scientist into his home, and in his old age venturing into a shop to have his photograph taken just so he can see the challenge the daguerrotype – the forerunner of the camera – poses to his profession. One sees here in a subtle way how changes in technology signify the passage of time in this film that otherwise seems to flow without reference to it.

In spite of no obvious plot and the film’s length, “Mr Turner” does not bore: Leigh’s preoccupation with the minutiae of life in the early 19th century and the characters’ conversations, conducted in the idiom of the time, keep viewers occupied – well, maybe not all viewers but this viewer certainly was occupied. There are references to artistic competition and one-upmanship between Turner and another artist, John Constable (James Fleet); Turner’s friendship with Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), a fellow artist of brusque manner who was always in debt and who committed suicide in 1846; and Turner’s acquaintance with the pretentious art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).

The film does not completely capture or even try to explain the complexity of Turner or why he acts the way he does, nor does it examine why how he became interested in light and how to capture the fleeting moment in a scene that made his paintings distinctive and at times abstract. The desultory nature of the film in which some moments of Turner’s life are highlighted and others ignored mirror Turner’s own interest in catching a particular moment in the day when the sun shone on a landscape in a particular way. Something of the way in which an artist can be held in public esteem, only to fall into public mockery, can be seen in the film’s later treatment of Turner in which as an eccentric old man, he sees people turning away from him, making fun of him in music hall revues and his paintings valued at a paltry 100,000 pounds by an American businessman.

The film does rise and fall with what viewers can gain out of watching the film. Some viewers will be bored by an aimless parade of diorama scenes and will wonder what the whole point of the film is, having no obvious story to tell and saying nothing profound about Turner’s motivations or character. The film shows a microcosm of the world in which Turner lived, how his relations with his women reflected something of the hierarchical social order of Britain, how his career rose and fell with public approval of his work and how eventually the world left him – as it does other artists, scientists and other significant contributors to human culture and society – behind. In that alone, the film has actually said something quite profound.

Timbuktu: a fragmentary set of parallel tales whose overall message is unclear

Abderrahmane Sissako, “Timbuktu” (2014)

Set in northern Mali some time after the downfall of Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime in late 2011, “Timbuktu” is a set of parallel tales of people’s lives in a rural village claimed by Islamic jihadist fighters. The director Sissako initially had wanted to make documentary films and much of “Timbuktu” has a very naturalistic setting and looks very much like a documentary. The film’s narrative is presented as a snapshot of what could be happening in any village located in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa where nomads, fisherfolk and farmers live, trade and discuss France’s fortunes in the FIFA World Cup with or without Zineddine Zidane.

The central figures in the film are a Tuareg herdsman, Kidane, and a surly Bambara-speaking fisherman, Amadou. Much of the film’s tragedy centres around these two men and their families. Early on we are introduced to Kidane’s wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their only child and daughter Toya who is almost a teenager. The couple have (sort of) adopted a boy, Issan, who herds Kidane’s cows together with the rest of their community’s cows. One day one of these cows, GPS, splashes too far into the river and is tangled up in Amadou’s nets. Amadou, fed up with the cows constantly blundering near his nets day after day, spears the cow dead. On hearing of the cow’s death, Kidane confronts Amadou and in spite of Satima’s advice to go unarmed and just talk to him calmly, gets into an argument with the fisherman. The two men end up fighting and, well, what do you know, Amadou is accidentally shot. Kidane flees in horror, leaving Amadou to die in agony. The jihadists in the village discover Amadou’s body, carry out their investigations and Kidane is subjected to narrowly interpreted Shari’a justice.

The rest of the film hangs off the story of Kidane: we discover that he and his family moved away from the village because two jihadists, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) and his driver Omar, were visiting Satima every day despite her being a married woman: a little too often then, for Satima and Kidane’s comfort. The friendship between Abdelkrim and Omar is played for laughs – Omar is trying to teach Abdelkrim to drive and knows about his smoking habit which, being haram, Abdelkrim is trying to hide from him – but also shows up the basic social inequality between them: Abdelkrim is an outsider, considerably older than Omar and supposedly more religious, yet Omar seems more knowledgeable about the ways of the world and how it works, and is constantly winning their games of one-upmanship.

There are other stories of the villagers: an eccentric lady dresses up in her finery and walks the streets to the amazement of the village children; four friends in their 20s meet surreptitiously in the evenings to play music and sing but are caught by the jihadists doing so and lashed publicly; and the village imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) defends the village’s customs and traditions against the narrow Wahhabi interpretation of the Qu’ran and Islam brought by the jihadists. More insidiously the jihadists force the villagers to give up playing soccer, execute a couple for committing adultery and compel local village beauty Safia to marry a man of their choice against her family and the village imam’s objections.

Although the film can be very absorbing and the child actors playing Toya and Issan are very appealing, the fragmented nature of the stories playing in parallel tells audiences very little about why the jihadists are able to march in unopposed by government authorities and take over the running of the village. An early scene in which the jihadists take someone hostage and which promises an interesting little story remains isolated from the rest of the film, its narrative and its development neglected. One imagines that Abdelkrim might scheme to get rid of Kidane and try to marry Satima himself and arrange Toya’s early marriage to boot but the potential conflict between the jihadi and the herders remains unexplored. The relationship between Amadou and his wife or family never gets off the ground and viewers have to assume the mean-spirited fisherman is related to a woman who while selling fish refuses to don gloves when ordered to do so by the jihadis. The way in which a narrow interpretation of Islam is able to corrode local custom and tradition is shown to good effect and also points up a number of contradictions that ground contemporary Wahhabi jihadism: it relies on modern technology and foreign money to survive and implant itself in a village that hitherto has tolerated and welcomed people speaking different languages and coming from different cultures and traditions.

The fatalism expressed by Kidane on learning of his fate for having killed Amadou is noble and in its own way defiant but is ultimately inadequate to defend Satima and Toya against the attentions of the jihadists. On the other hand, several jihadists act as if they joined their cause purely for selfish reasons and their ignorance of Islamic tradition and etiquette shows up in an early scene when they blunder into the village mosque in their shoes with their weapons hanging off them. If a person had to choose between learning Islam off Kidane or from the jihadists, I know which one of the men I’d recommend.

The desert landscape is a significant actor in the film as well: though it doesn’t figure in the parallel stories, it’s always present in the sand, the dust storms and the people’s dependence on water.

The fragmented nature of the film’s narratives and the minimal presentation in which dialogue is sparse and characters convey more feeling through subtle movements and changes in facial expression will be a puzzle to most viewers outside Mali and Mauritania (where the film was shot) wondering exactly what message/s “Timbuktu” is intended to communicate. While the film obviously riffs off on issues such as modernity-versus-tradition, old-versus-young, the battle of the sexes and the oppression of women by the narrow Wahhabi Islamic tradition brought by the jihadis, viewers are left to wonder what they’re supposed to think of the snapshot-like portrayal of a generic sub-Saharan village being invaded by malign forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the West. It is no surprise to learn that one of the jihadi fighters in the film has come all the way from Libya where since Colonel Ghaddafi’s overthrow, the land continues to lurch from one disaster to the next, politcal chaos reigns, people sink deeper into poverty and youngsters try to find meaning and purpose by joining jihadi fighters in Syria; and all of this activity receiving unspoken approval from NATO.

Frantic: a cool and not at all frantic lightweight homage to Hitchcock

Roman Polanski, “Frantic” (1988)

For a film proclaiming itself “Frantic”, this suspense thriller is surprisingly cool, calm and collected as it follows its hapless protagonist doctor with an air of bemusement. This is definitely not one of Polanski’s better films: the plot, stretched out over two hours, is very lightweight and its characters are more representative of various stereotypes than real people. The film works as both homage to Alfred Hitchcock and a comic expression of a theme dear to Polanski’s heart: the outsider, displaced for some reason in a society that treats him/her with indifference and sometimes hostility, having to navigate his/her way through that society and come to grips with it in order to solve a problem.

Dr Walker (Harrison Ford) and his wife (Betty Buckley) have just arrived in Paris to attend a conference. While settling in their hotel room, trying to cope with jet lag, the couple find they have the wrong suitcase. They make some calls to the lobby and the airport and then Walker decides to take a shower. While he cleans himself, the missus answers a call at the door and disappears. Initially Walker thinks his wife has popped out for a while but as the time passes by, he realises something is amiss. His realisation soon turns into alarm and he reports her missing to the police and then the US consulate but the authorities treat his plight with blank-faced unhelpfulness. Walker takes matters into his own hands and searches for his wife despite not knowing how to speak French and brushing up against the local people’s assumptions about Americans being stupid and crude. With the help of a young woman Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner), whose case was swapped accidentally at the airport with his wife’s case, Walker discovers he and his wife have stumbled into an amoral underworld of spies trading dangerous secrets for money and using innocent and ultimately disposable people. Not only is his wife’s life in danger but Walker finds that he and Michelle are also targets for intimidation and violence.

Several familiar Hitchcockian ploys and devices are at play here: McGuffin elements are plentiful and Dr Walker represents a fairly typical if very middle class everyday man thrust suddenly and unexpectedly into a world (indeed, two worlds) unfamiliar to him. He first has to navigate the world of nightclubbing, easy drugs, prostitution and lax morality to find the first clues that lead him to Michelle and then tread warily through another even more secret corrupt and violent world of espionage. Unfortunately this scenario is treated rather unevenly and superficially, and viewers get no sense of Walker ever having to question the perhaps narrow and conservative morality he was brought up with and takes for granted. There is also no sense of Michelle being forced to question the values and morality of her world; she remains essentially a feral child throughout the film.

A major problem with this film is the one-dimensional characters who are more symbolic than real. Ford does what he can with his role as middle-aged and respectable white Anglo-American tourist of somewhat limited horizons thrust into scenarios both embarrassing and helpful to him. In order to find his wife, he must rely on a young woman of dubious reputation and mix with her social scene. This pairing of unlikely opposites is worked for comic effect in some scenes in which Walker and Michelle come across his medical colleagues who think the two are having an affair. As the film proceeds from Walker’s point of view, we are not treated to scenes where Michelle’s friends think she’s got a rich sugar daddy and try to press her to get money off Walker. Now that would have been amusing to see! Michelle initially presents as a stereotypically defiant goth girl who fell in with a wrong crowd as a teenager and survives by her wits and taking on quite dubious jobs like being a drug mule; she sort of has a heart of gold beneath the cynicism. Her streetwise instincts however become her undoing. Ultimately there’s no sense at all that Walker and Michelle have changed much as a result of meeting each other and having to work together to get what they want. All other characters are essentially props that help the action along and flesh out the scenery.

Polanski’s mischievous sense of humour is evident in scenes that involve a small statue, a replica of a much larger one familiar to New Yorkers, carrying the detonation codes for a nuclear bomb and Walker’s attempt to negotiate with some American diplomats. However the humour is not much comfort in a film that seems very hollow and which Polanski could have done better had it carried more fire about the duplicity and corruption of the world of espionage, and how it endangers the lives of innocent people who are accidentally caught up in it.

 

The Ghost Writer: a straightforward story that deals fleetingly with the nature of US-UK relations

Roman Polanski, “The Ghost Writer” (2009)

Circumstances surrounding this film were peculiar enough in themselves: in travelling to the Zurich Film Festival as a special guest for the film’s opening, Polanski was arrested by Swiss authorities and held in house detention pending possible extradition to the US for evading jail time back in 1977 over unlawful sexual intercourse with an underage teenage girl. (I have reviewed a documentary on this case by Maria Zenovich, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” elsewhere on this blog.) Polanski’s awareness of the corrupt conduct of the judge presiding over his case surely informs “Ghost Writer” with a substance the novel on which it’s based may not have. Both the film and book are based on recent events involving former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997 – 2007) which included his decision to join US President George W Bush in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ostensibly to punish and remove that country’s president Saddam Hussein for continuing to possess chemical weapons.

Directed with Polanski’s usual aplomb, “The Ghost Writer” is driven almost entirely by its story and characters. It moves quickly and smoothly – maybe just a bit too smoothly – to its climax. Moments do exist where the action might seem a bit forced but the logic of the narrative and some thinking on the audience’s part assure their relevance. A mediocre writer (Ewan McGregor) is commissioned by a book publisher to ghost-write an autobiography for former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), reviled by the public the world over as a lapdog of the US and for taking his country into a disastrous invasion and war that cost hundreds of British soldiers’ lives and thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of other people’s lives. The ghost-writer, never named, discovers that a previous ghost-writer who worked on the autobiography recently died in very strange circumstances and that he has to pick up where this writer left off. He (our hero, that is) discovers various anomalies in Lang’s past history while researching and as he follows the trail of irregularities, he realises that his predecessor must have been murdered and that Lang, wanted by the International Court of Crimes for war crimes, must have been an intelligence asset for the US and the CIA which points to an important question: who recruited Lang and who was his handler?

The plot turns out to be straightforward and astute viewers will be able to finger the culprit long before McGregor’s writer does. It’s the actors who hold the audience spellbound throughout the film. McGregor plays a not-too-bright writer who initially is uncommitted in most aspects of his life: he broke up with his girlfriend years ago and drifts along; and if he had any misgivings about working for a war criminal, they were on semi-permanent vacation when he took on the job. However his basic decent nature and his curiosity drive him on, eventually his sense of justice is aroused, and he determines to uncover the truth. In short, in true Hitchcockian tradtion, the ghost-writer is an ordinary person like you and me thrust suddenly into an unreal world where good and evil can’t be distinguished from one another and he must choose one side or the other. The stakes are high and everything rides on making the right decision. As the ghost-writer delves deeper into the mystery behind Lang’s recruitment, dark forces begin to move against him. McGregor is surrounded by good actors who relish the opportunity to play ambiguous characters: Olivia Williams is good if a little histrionic as Lang’s estranged and dissatisfied wife and Tom Wilkinson is suitably creepy as the CIA recruitment officer. Brosnan injects a little Ronald Reagan into his portrayal of the Blair-like Lang and though he does not have a lot of screen time, this role might actually be seen in the years to come as one of his best if not the best in a career that’s mostly been full of Hollywood fluff.

With Polanski at the helm, the film employs plenty of black humour and viewers will notice deliberate parallels with Hitchcock plot elements: there’s a car chase, there are McGuffin characters and elements not important in themselves but which set the ghost-writer on his path and point the way, and there is a blonde woman who may or may not be on the side of angels. The music soundtrack carries a wry, somewhat amused attitude as if distant gods on Olympus are watching the little insects scurrying below them with interest and are placing bets on the likely outcome. Throughout the film there is a sense of paranoia and suffocation in the world that McGregor’s character has entered, and it’s also very insular: the man who assassinates Lang turns out to be a former soldier who appears at least twice earlier in the film protesting the loss of his son in one of Lang’s wars.

Due to the film’s emphasis on characters focused solely on their own self-interest and the small world which they inhabit, “The Ghost Writer” cannot deal with any larger issues arising from those it and its source novel touch. There is never any mention of the suffering of the Iraqi people or of the reasons the US, the UK and other nations combined to invade Iraq. The “special relationship” that exists between the UK and the US is never mentioned, let alone examined or criticised. Only McGregor’s character grows in moral stature and viewers are likely to warm to him as a future hero. Unfortunately this being a Polanski film, Polanski has a Chinatown-type ending waiting for the ghost-writer: that’s not very Hitchcockian!