Pain and Glory: a self-referential film of an artist entering a winter of discontent

Pedro Almodovar, “Pain and Glory” (2019)

A film investigating how creation can be inspired by personal memories and suffering, “Pain and Glory” is a fiction biographical drama, whereby director Almodovar, seemingly on the verge of his twilight years as a director and artist, might be seen as taking stock of his career and the themes that have informed his body of work. In comparison with past work, “Pain and Glory” appears as quite a sombre film though there is still plenty of colour and visual artistic style, and the acting is very restrained.

At the beginning of “Pain and Glory”, famous writer and film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) has been living hermet-like in his Madrid mansion for several years, his depression and various physical health problems preventing him from doing the work he has long loved to do. During this time he has been caring for his aged mother Jacinta (Julieta Serrano) in her final years. Her death, and a film retrospective dedicated to his past work, featuring his break-out film that also gave actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) his best-known role, prompt Mallo to contact Crespo despite the two not having spoken to each other for 32 years after a bad fall-out during that film’s production. The meeting with Crespo introduces Mallo to heroin, to which the film director becomes addicted after smoking the drug helps to relieve his chronic pains and puts him in a reverie during which past childhood memories return to him. Thereafter, throughout the film, Mallo smokes heroin to rediscover aspects of his childhood of 50 years ago, during which he and his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) move into a grotto that his impoverished father has been able to find in a village and which Jacinta spruces up with the help of local youth Eduardo (Cesar Vicente) who, in exchange for lessons from Salvador in learning to read and write, paints and tiles the walls.

During a later visit to Mallo’s tastefully decorated house, Crespo finds a script “Addiction” that Mallo put aside some years ago and wants to perform it on stage. “Addiction” happens to be about a past lover who had been addicted to heroin and suffered greatly for it. Mallo initially refuses but some time afterwards – and especially after a disastrous Q&A session at the film retrospective during which Mallo and Crespo fight – he relents and Crespo performs the work. By sheer coincidence, a former flame of Mallo’s, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the subject of “Addiction” no less, is visiting Madrid from Buenos Aires, has seen a flyer for the performance, and sees the show. Crespo puts Federico in contact with Mallo and the two meet again, perhaps for the last time. Federico tells Mallo that he got off the heroin, married an Argentine girl, had a family with her and is running a successful restaurant business with his two sons.

After meeting Federico, Mallo resolves to give up the heroin and sort out his medical issues. While waiting for surgery, he and his assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas) visit an art gallery and discover a picture of himself as a child hanging in the gallery. He buys the picture and reads a message on the back of the canvas – written by none other than Eduardo, all those 50 years ago. This remarkable coincidence helps him to resolve to take up film-making once again.

Banderas puts in a remarkable virtuoso performance as Mallo in all his suffering and his petty, self-obsessed behaviour, and the rest of the cast does good work. The flashbacks to Mallo’s past are well done, though an element of mischievous surprise comes at the very end which puts those flashbacks in another light and explains why Jacinta’s eyes seem to change colour as she ages! Apart from the performances and the arresting visual style of the film (which of course indicates good cinematography among other things), there really isn’t much in the film’s narrative that would elevate it to the status of a great film: viewers are no better informed at the end of the film than at the beginning what made Mallo a great film director or his break-out film with Crespo the remarkable work that it was. How Crespo faded out as an actor is not explored; indeed the character disappears from “Pain and Glory” around the halfway point of the film. The episode with Federico is brief and after that character leaves, the film’s narrative marches on to another topic with no more reference to Crespo, Federico and whatever they inspire Mallo to do next.

One gets the impression that “Pain and Glory” is no more than an ordinary and banal story about an artist having a creative mid-life crisis and making a huge fuss out of it. As one character, Dr Galindo (Pedro Casablanc) says, “there are people worse off than you [Mallo]” and that could be advice someone already gave to Almodovar.

Farming: fictional biographical drama ignores its wider social context

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, “Farming” (2018)

“Farming” is a fictional biographical drama based on actor / director Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s childhood growing up in Britain as a foster child parked with a working-class white family by his Nigerian parents in the 1960s / 70s. The practice in which Nigerian parents fostered out their children with white families in Britain grew out of traditional practices in parts of sub-Saharan Africa in which families sent their children to other families in other communities, often to pay off debts or to fulfill family or clan obligations, which would bring up those children as if they were their own or educate them in skills and knowledge that the birth families hoped would give the children social or other advantages when they became adults. Nigerian families in the mid-20th century, living in a country newly independent from British colonial status, neither saw nor anticipated the consequences that might come when they fostered their children with white families in Britain. In the case of Enitan (played by Zephan Hanson Amissah and then Damson Idris), the boy is fostered out by parents Femi and Tolu (director Akinnuoye-Agbaje himself and Genevieve Nnaji respectively) to a white couple Ingrid and Jack Carpenter (Kate Beckinsale and Lee Ross) living in Tilbury, a post-industrial working-class district in London. The Carpenters end up fostering Enitan’s two younger sisters and several other Nigerian children to get social security money, but this means the couple cannot give Enitan the love and sense of stability and belonging he needs. As the other fostered children are girls, they behave perfectly but Enitan is a dreamy boy given to playing with imaginary friends, living in a community where being a boy and being artistic and dreamy do not mix.

As he grows up, Enitan experiences a continual loss of identity and culture shocks due to constant racist bullying at school and subtle bullying at home, combined with his birth parents’ sudden appearance from nowhere to take him back home to Nigeria where he is beaten by a teacher for speaking only English at school and subjected to cultural practices he does not understand and which would be considered severe physical abuse in Western societies. His embarrassed parents dump him back with Ingrid and Jack and so the racism and bullying start again and escalate into his adolescent years. At the age of 16 years Enitan is suspended from school and through a series of harrowing incidents ends up joining a racist skinhead gang known as the Tilbury Skins, led by Levi (John Dalgleish). By this time Enitan has truly embraced his self-hatred and hatred of anyone and everyone who is not white.

While Idris, Beckinsale and Dalgleish give excellent performances – Dalgleish just about chews up every scene in which he is in, and only a python really threatens to steal his scenes from him – the film’s plot itself is something of a let-down. Enitan’s adventures with the skinheads are a dreary string of violent incidents in which the Tilbury Skins torment anyone and everyone who they don’t like the look of, including other skinheads. In this part of the film, one stereotype after another regarding the skinheads and their culture is paraded; why Enitan continues to stay with these people in spite of the continual dumping he experiences is hard to understand. Levi and the other guys in the gang surely see something in Enitan that they respect and admire, otherwise they would not allow him to tag along for fear of being attacked by other racist skinhead gangs. One paradox present at this point in the film is that when the skinheads visit their favourite pubs, also patronised by other skinheads, the music playing in the background is usually reggae, dub or ska – all music originating among Jamaican black people!

Eventually Enitan is rescued from skinhead culture by Ingrid and a saintly school-teacher (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) but the scenes in which Enitan is deprogrammed, learns that people do care for him and comes to accept himself as he is, and makes his peace with Ingrid and Jack, race by very quickly. The unfortunate result is that Enitan’s re-entry into society as a normal person seems very superficial and just as stereotyped as his acceptance into the Tilbury Skins. For that matter, the film’s portrayal of skinheads and skinhead culture as racist, degraded and brutish is just as one-dimensional: the reality is that during the 1970s / 80s, skinheads embraced all political, social and cultural points of view (thus explaining their liking for Jamaican immigrant and Jamaican British culture and music) and the stereotype of skinheads as white supremacist neo-Nazi thugs is a creation of British mainstream media at the time catering to middle class dislike and distrust of working-class people.

By concentrating on one character’s loss of and search for his identity and a community he can call his own, “Farming” ignores other related issues. Ingrid herself is a Gypsy and the discrimination and violence that Gypsies have traditionally suffered in Britain (and still do) are hinted at very faintly in the film. How and why Levi and his fellow skins are outsiders in the Tilbury community – they are shown living in a rubbish dump – is not explained in the film. Most disturbing of all, the film shows working-class people in the worst possible light as racist, ignorant and violent, and ignores the political, economic and social changes in post-Thatcherite Britain that have marginalised and impoverished working-class people, to be mocked by the middle classes, in the process turning the working class into the nightmare the middle classes fear so much.

Dogs: a metaphor for the psychological and other effects of global war and violence

Mohammad Babakoohi, Jakob Bednarz, Benjamin Berrebi, Diego Cristofano, Théo Noble, Karlo Pavicic-Ravlic, Marthinus van Rooyen, “Dogs” (2019)

One of the longer films in the Gobelins 2019 graduation students’ batch of animated shorts eagerly awaited by the French animation school’s fans around the world, “Dogs” is a metaphor for the chaos and psychological effects of war and brutal violence on humans. The action takes place during World War II, about the period of the Warsaw Uprising. A Polish resistance fighter with a rifle (but no taste for killing) escapes a burning city and travels through open countryside in search of a new home. He sees a huge tree with a generous canopy in the middle of an endless meadow and walks towards it but is attacked by a huge savage dog chained to the tree. The man manages to climb into its branches but is stuck while the canine sentry patrols the area around the tree. Day passes into night and while the man is dozing, another dog sneaks into the area and is promptly set upon by the guard dog. During the fight between the two animals, the man is able to sneak down the tree and retrieve his rifle. The guard dog, having killed the other dog, menaces the man who must now decide whether to defend himself by killing the guard dog or be killed …

The beauty of the rural scenes and the cloudy skies, looking rather like oil paintings, belie the chaotic and violent conditions of the world in which this animation is set. The large tree in particular is portrayed as gorgeous and lush, and the guardian dog is vicious, even cannibalistic. Generally the live characters are drawn a bit more crudely than the background scenery but this may be deliberate: war may have dragged living things back to the edge of savagery, though so far it has spared some scenes of natural forest and grasslands. The scenes of burning cities at the beginning and the ending of the film suggest an unending cycle of war, brutality and violence as each new generation entering the world is dragged into this cycle.

The symbolism of the characters can be rather dense and multi-layered. Wooden as it is, the tree is a significant character perhaps representing a bridge between the hellish landscapes of the world and a better world where violence and war are unknown. The savage dog chained to the tree and apparently guarding it may be doing so on behalf of divine masters, so as to prevent ordinary human beings from climbing it and reaching out to the heavens. Significantly the man’s destination turns out to be a burning city – is it the burning city he left at the beginning or is it another city? – to which the entry is a gate over which a three-headed dog (in Greek mythology, this would be Cerberus guarding the entry to the kingdom of the dead) stands as if in triumph. Would the city have been on fire if the tree had not been on fire because of what happens between the man and the guardian dog? Does the city represent the Hell of war, of chaos, of mass prison / concentration camps, and of genocides?

For a film of its length, “Dogs” makes quite deep demands of its audience to ponder how war and brutality ultimately brutalise living beings such as the man and the guardian dog, and whether the man ultimately accepts his destiny to be a killer of humans (at the cost of losing his humanity) if only to defend and save himself.

Souffle-court: a study of an authoritarian father-son relationship through bike racing

Pierre-Marie Adnet, Jean-Luc Dessertaine, Guillaume Pochez, Tristan Poulain, Vincent Rouziere, Alessandro Vergonnier, “Souffle-court” (2018)

In this 5-minute short film, a young teenage supercross rider Tom is being trained by his father for an upcoming major competition at which recruiters for what I presume is the national training club in the sport will be attending. The film portrays the authoritarian ways in which Tom’s father controls his son, risking the boy’s safety and life at times, to fulfill his own need for recognition and success, his own career in biking having been unsuccessful. Up to now always compliant, never daring to rebel, Tom starts to have doubts about his dad’s obsessively single-minded focus on his riding and gradually comes to realise there is a whole world outside supercross racing where he can be free and just himself. Viewers sense that crunch-time is rapidly coming, when Tom must make a decision that perhaps could affect the rest of his life …

Compared to some other Gobelins shorts that were also released in 2018 by graduating students, the animation is not quite as good though the backgrounds are well done and quite detailed. The characters are drawn in a minimalist way that makes them look flat but which allows their faces to show subtle emotions: indeed I would say this portrayal is the film’s strongest point. Plenty of close-ups are taken of Tom and his father to show how trapped Tom feels in his relationship with his father. The father behaves like a bastard throughout the film but becomes a broken man at the film’s climax and viewers can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for him when he discovers that his dream has coming crashing down a second time.

While the story is quite simple with an open-ended conclusion, it is nevertheless quite emotionally intense in its own minimalist way.

Les lèvres gercées: a tiny kitchen sink drama reveals a dysfunctional family

Fabien Corre, Kelsi Phung, “Les lèvres gercées” (2018)

In just five minutes, within the setting of a small kitchen and with just two characters – a mother and her son who is wrestling with gender dysphoria – a family crisis plays out through dialogue demonstrating inattention and lack of communication. The boy wants to tell Maman that he is transgender but Maman, shown throughout the film with her facial features cropped so that we never see what she really looks like until the very last shot, is too concerned with other things – like his truancy problem, the fights he has with classmates and finally his suspension from school – to listen to him.

The style of animation, looking as if someone was pressing down hard with an ink brush, is very detailed and shows characters and objects in close-up with lots of lines. We are treated to some interesting points of view: at one point, we have a bird’s-eye view of cereal being poured down the kitchen sink, being sucked into the drain. At other points in the film, soup starts to boil over in the saucepan and washing whirls around in the front-loader. The boy’s anguish and pain over what he is and what he feels himself to be are so clear that viewers can’t help but feel for him. The mother is often portrayed quite harshly with lines that emphasise her anger and narrow-minded stance.

As with other recent Gobelins graduates’ films, the voice acting and the script, entirely reliant on dialogue, are effective in establishing an intimate and private home scene in which a child faces an inner conflict that he needs parental help with, but which is not forthcoming. It’s only when he appears to be considering suicide that the mother finally begins to understand the depth of the boy’s despair. At this point, the film is done.

Viewers will want to know what happens next but this is an appropriate point to end the film. More is known about this particular family’s dysfunctional nature by the little that is revealed and what is deliberately left out, which may be a lot or not much at all. This animation is an excellent example of the “show, don’t tell” principle of telling a story and how dialogue is used to push that story along and embellish it.

Parfum Fraise: a short and terse film on the impossibility of escaping violence

Alix Arrault, Martin Hermane, Samuel Klughertz, Jules Rigolle, “Parfum Fraise” (2017)

You can renounce a lifetime of crime and violence, and try to live a quiet life away from trouble, but eventually your past creeps up on you, you lash out unthinkingly, and you end up having to live with long-lasting consequences of your impulsive actions. Moreover your descendants have to live with the consequences too. This is the premise of this surprisingly powerful little film noir “Parfum Fraise”. Former yakuza hit-man Makoto tries to turn over a new leaf after losing his wife in a gangland shoot-out, devoting his attention to bringing up their young son. Kazuki loves his superhero toy and the movie featuring it in action, and strawberry ice-creams. A visit to an ice-cream vendor late at night in a secluded neighbourhood (what?!) leads to an unexpected encounter with two strange men who appear to be menacing Kazuki by drawing out two suspicious objects from inside their jackets …

Habit overtakes Makoto and before you know it, the ice-cream vendor is calling the police straight away and Kazuki comes to realise that his father is not all that he seems. Father and son seem destined to be separated forever as the police siren in the distance increases in volume. As is often the case with Gobelins shorts, the film has an open ending and viewers are left to muse on what might happen to Kazuki.

The animation is well done, with three-dimensional urban backgrounds and lots of contrasts between electric light and city shadows, and the voice-acting establishes Makoto and Kazuki as having a close though sometimes fraught relationship. Kazuki learns there are some limits he cannot cross though he does not yet understand why (until the confrontation with the men). The plot is terse and moves quickly, with the result that the film seems longer (it features two distinct time periods with Kazuki as a baby and then as a kindergarten-age child) than its six minutes’ run.

The city is a major character in this film: during the day, it seems pleasant and fun enough; at night, it is brooding and not a little sinister. Its character mirrors Makoto’s character and the realisation that things are not always what they seem to be on the surface is the start of Kazuki’s growing-up and loss of childhood innocence.

The Farewell: thin plot, poor characterisation should have farewelled this film

Lulu Wang, “The Farewell” (2019)

As a character study of an individual torn between her parents’ Chinese culture and the Western culture she has grown up in, yet not fitting into either culture all that well, “The Farewell” just passes muster though not as well as it could have done given its running time of 100 minutes. Apart from this, which gives actor / musician Awkwafina an opportunity to prove her acting ability as that individual Billi, the film is very thin and uninteresting in its plot and most of its characterisation, with lots of irrelevant filler scenes, poor cinematography and humour that relies on so many cultural stereotypes that, had it been made by a non-Asian director, would have damned “The Farewell” as racist.

“The Farewell” is set during a crisis period in main character Billi’s life as an aspiring 30-year-old writer: unable to pay her rent, needing money and receiving news that her application for a Guggenheim Fellowship grant has been rejected, Billi has to move back in with her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). The parents receive news from family in Changchun that Haiyan’s mother (Zhao Shuzhen), called Nai Nai / Grandma, has been diagnosed by hospital doctors as having terminal lung cancer and with only a few months left to live. Through an elaborate series of deceptions which involve manipulating the hospital test results, Nai Nai’s relatives have avoided telling her the bad news and instead have assured her that the “benign shadows” on her scans are nothing to worry about. The relatives have also arranged for Haiyan’s brother and his family, living in Japan, to come to Changchun and bring their son Haohao and his fiancee Aiko to marry in China: this subterfuge enables the entire extended family to see Nai Nai one last time before she dies. Fearing that Billi – who has always been close to Nai Nai – won’t be able to keep the grandmother’s illness secret, Haiyan and Jian fly to Changchun and leave Billi back home in New York. Furious, Billi flies out to Changchun herself not long after the parents leave.

The rest of the film follows Billi in her clashes with the relatives and even the hospital staff over their constant lying to Nai Nai about the real nature of her condition. During one fight, Billi’s uncle tells her that the lie is necessary to enable a dying person’s family to bear the emotional burden of the disease diagnosis, and that this is an example of the collectivist values of Chinese society that differentiates it from Western society with its emphasis on the individual: a rather pat and superficial explanation that at least tones down some of the conflict. In amongst the fighting, the melodrama and close-ups of family members in tears or biting back their anger, the film lingers over scenes of the family visiting a cemetery and paying its respects to dead relatives, and over Haohao and Aiko’s wedding celebrations. These scenes are mined rather excessively for slapstick kitsch humour that add very little to the film’s plot. The only time the film has any spirit at all is during scenes featuring Nai Nai: Zhao plays the spritely and mischievous nanna with such depth, feeling and humour that anyone with a heart would feel compelled also to lie to her about her illness, whether Chinese or not.

At the end of the film, viewers are left clueless about the family’s history and what Billi has learned from this final trip to see Nai Nai before returning to the US. (The end credits suggest that the woman on whom Nai Nai is based was still alive six years after her cancer diagnosis.) Whatever legacy Nai Nai leaves with Billi is also unclear. Even the city in which Billi’s relatives live remains unidentified until about halfway through the film; though Billi and her relatives from Japan stay in Changchun for about a week, they don’t appear to go sightseeing much and an opportunity for viewers to vicariously experience the sights of Changchun is lost.

Yours truly believes that a potentially good film about connection between generations separated by time, culture, language and distance, and the existential plight of individuals who are of two cultures yet can fit into neither comfortably, is buried beneath a very superficial film milking cultural differences and traditions for cheap laughs. Were it not for Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen and the rapport these two actors have, “The Farewell” deserves to be farewelled rather than welcomed by movie critics.

The Land Beyond the Sunset: a very moving and thoughtful film on achieving happiness and peace

Harold M Shaw, “The Land Beyond the Sunset” (1912)

Made in 1912 – the same year in which the Titanic set sail for its fateful meeting with the Iceberg – this short, seemingly simple live-action film is still a very moving and thoughtful drama. Young Joe is a poor newsboy who lives in a city slum neighbourhood with his alcoholic and abusive grandmother. One day he gets the opportunity to join a picnic for underprivileged children organised by middle-class women working for a charity, the Fresh Air Fund. The picnic organisers take Joe and other poor children to the countryside near the sea where they play and make friends, and eat nutritious picnic food. One of the organisers then proceeds to tell the children a fairy-tale about a boy being harassed by a witch. Some fairies rescue the boy and put him in a boat. The boy and the fairies then sail away to a fantasy place known only as the Land Beyond the Sunset. Thrilled and inspired by the story, Joe contrives to stay behind when the adults take the children back to the city and their slum communities; he goes wandering along the beach and spies an empty boat resting on the shore. An idea comes into his head at this point and he makes a choice that will undoubtedly affect the rest of his life forever …

For its age, the film still looks astonishingly clear, with none of the blur and the markings one might expect on old films. Title cards are few but viewers can follow the narrative easily: the story is straightforward but also relies on viewers’ imaginations to piece together the different scenes into the intended narrative. The end scenes are breathtaking and instill awed feelings at the natural world; however much humans may dominate and control Nature, the scale of Nature itself, especially of the seas and oceans, is still far beyond human understanding and domination. The boy can be seen to be partaking of the bounty of Nature by seizing an opportunity and opening himself up to all possibilities; yet the scenes can be interpreted differently and more negatively, by suggesting that the boy is deluded and does not realise he is going into an early death. After all, in some countries’ mythologies, the land beyond where the sun sets is often the land of the dead.

The very open-ended vagueness of the film’s climax and ending may astound and horrify viewers, but it also plays a large part in the film’s thoughtful and melancholy character. A boy from a dreary, unfulfilling and oppressive background is given a choice between two very different worlds and the decision he makes is momentous. How brave or foolhardy would we be, if we too came from a background of poverty and abuse, and we also were faced with the same choice? The heart-breaking story is told without sentiment, and this ensures the film’s continuing attraction for viewers more than 100 years later.

The film was originally made to promote the Fresh Air Fund, a charity founded to help underprivileged city children and improve their health by taking them on short breaks to the country so they could breathe fresh air and enjoy sunshine. The charity may have long gone but the film survives and has taken a life of its own.

Claire Darling: slow film about memory, heritage and past pain leading to a big bang

Julie Bertuccelli, “Claire Darling / La derniere folie de Claire Darling” (2018)

On the first day of summer in a small village somewhere in France, an elderly woman, Claire (Catherine Deneuve) – heir to a mining fortune – wakes up and is convinced that this day is the last day of her life. She arranges for local men to cart all her furniture and possessions into the front courtyard – including all the objects, dolls, knick-knacks and objets d’art she has collected over the years – where they are to be sold in a giant garage sale to the entire village community. Everyone rocks up to gawp at the objects on sale and the amazingly low prices offered. A local woman Martine (Laure Calamy) who happens to be an old school-friend of Claire’s daughter Marie, contacts the daughter and informs her of what her mother is doing. Marie (Chiara Mastroianni) immediately races over to try to stop the garage sale from going ahead but not before several major objects and prized pieces of furniture have gone.

This premise serves as an opportunity to explore dementia in elderly people, the effect of ageing on people’s memories and how memory serves to establish and maintain people’s identities and relationships with others past and present. The garage sale and the various objects that it emphasises – most of all, an elaborate elephant clock and a reproduction of Monet’s “Water Lilies” painting – hint at various past episodes in Claire Darling’s life (in which a younger Claire is played by Alice Taglioni), in particular how her son and husband died before their time and the lies that led to the rift between Claire and her daughter. Not a few sub-plots arise – in particular a sub-plot that hints at Claire and the local village priest becoming attracted to each other, and one that hints at Marie renewing a friendship (and finding romance) with local gendarme Amir (Samir Guesmi) – of which even fewer come to resolution or completion. The objects being sold themselves hold memories and guard secrets – most of all, the secret of where Claire’s lost ring has gone – and the garage sale itself becomes symbolic not only of Claire’s possible dementia but of her own life since the unhappy break-up of her family decades ago.

An alternate view of the garage sale might be that, since Claire is convinced that her life is to end that day, the sale of the objects is her way of preparing to die by divesting herself of all that has burdened her, psychologically and physically, throughout life. Although we never find out why Claire has always needed to collect ornaments, books, artwork and furniture, or why she hides precious dolls and toys in a garden niche, we can surmise that this hoarding gives her the security that she needed throughout her life but has never had. Over the years though, the security has become a burden that eventually compels her to live as a recluse surrounded by all her hoarding.

The film unfolds slowly with flashbacks to the past deliberately mixed into the present to demonstrate how past memories continually intrude into and influence present-day events. As a result, while the immersion into the French countryside can be very appealing (if rather deliberate and kitsch – there are few signs of poverty and no Gilets Jaunes protesting against President Emmanuel Macron’s austerity politics slowly killing French society), the action is drawn out and most characters do little more than run around in circles. An opportunity to present French village life as it might have been in the past and contrast it with the present – with the soulless efficiency of the city encroaching on and destroying what individuality and quirkiness remain – is missed.

The film’s climax, when it comes, when Claire expects her premonition to be fulfilled, arrives unexpectedly and suddenly, with most of the recluse’s secrets and issues still not fully resolved with Marie – or the rest of the village community for that matter. The Big Bang ending is surreal, akin to the famous conclusion of Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult film “Zabriskie Point”, in which everything flows back into the river of life. Far from preparing for death, Claire was preparing to live again.

The Heiresses: a slow-burning character study of self-transformation

Marcelo Martinessi, “The Heiresses / Las Herederas” (2018)

A slow-burning, low-key character study that, among other things, examines loss and self-transformation and interrogates social hierarchy and the relations within it, “The Heiresses” is a rare creature: its main characters are a middle-aged lesbian couple who have lived together for 30 years in one woman’s old family home, sheltered by wealth and privilege, in Asuncion, in Paraguay. Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun) are busy selling off old heirlooms belonging to both their families to raise money to pay off Chiquita’s debts and to survive. However the money the two raise isn’t enough to stop Chiquita from going to jail for fraud, which she cheerfully accepts. Initially the shy Chela is hugely embarrassed by their situation and withdraws into their prison-like house. Gradually though she is drawn out of that shell, and her own psychological shell, by neighbour Pituca, a rich elderly woman who needs Chela to drive her to weekly bridge games with her girlfriends – even though Chela hasn’t driven the ageing Bentley for yonks. Pituca and her pals start using Chela as their own private Uber taxi driver and before long, Chela is also driving for a younger woman, Angy (Ana Ivanova), and her mother who needs to go to Itaugua each week for medical appointments. Through her driving and through Angy, to whom she becomes attracted due to the younger woman’s zest for life and sensuality, Chela rediscovers an independence and a hope for freedom she long ago had given up.

Brun’s performance as Chela is the film’s major asset: though she does not speak much and is an essentially passive character, the changes and increased confidence she experiences as a chauffeur become obvious from one day to the next. The film is a textbook example of the maxim “Show, don’t tell”: Chela gradually improves her appearance and adopts a more sprightly posture and a happier face. Her transformation occasionally hits some obstacles and challenges – the most challenging being when Chiquita returns home and decides to sell off the Bentley – but in her own unassuming way Chela eventually finds a solution and manages to thwart those who would stand in the way. Where Chela does not speak, her eyes, the expression on her face, her posture and her body language do all the talking. Incredibly, “The Heiresses” marks Brun’s debut as a film actor, all her previous work having been done on stage. The rest of the cast puts up a strong showing, in particular Ivanova as the flirtatious, sensual potential lover Angy and Maria Martins as the talkative Pituca.

The film portrays Paraguayan society as one where wealth, class and race coincide quite strongly: white Europeans make up the wealthy class while people of mixed ancestry make up the poor. Chela and Chiquita hire a new maid who speaks little Spanish and who is clearly beneath them socially yet becomes something of a mother figure to Chela when Chela is at her most despondent. Part of Chela’s transformation from a lonely isolated figure to a fully aware human being involves having to communicate with and ask for help from someone from a different class who does not look European. The transformation occurs in parallel with the gradual loss of furniture and other family possessions; Chela does not seem too bothered about giving up furniture and heirlooms that must surely hold many memories and much family history.

Where Chela goes next after Chiquita’s return, the film does not say but her absence at the end of the film speaks more powerfully than an entire cast of thousands could say and shout. It is this kind of direction and filming, using a scene, a prop or the absence of something to express its opposite, that mark Martinessi a director to watch in the future. Chela’s transformation may be taken as a symbol of Paraguay’s gradual transformation from a political and cultural backwater in the middle of South America, with the divided and hierarchical society one might expect to find, to a modern nation where old socioeconomic categories have broken down to allow all citizens to fulfill their potential as human beings.