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Posts Tagged ‘Women and film’

Red Joan, Britain 2018

Posted by keith1942 on May 10, 2019

This is the story of a fictional character, Joan Stanley, who in the 1940s passed secret information to the Soviet Union. However, it, and the novel from which it is adapted, are based on the life of a actual historical character, Melita Norwood. Norwood was exposed publicly in 1999 when information from an ex-Soviet agent and now-defector revealed her past activities. These two fictional versions of a real-life heroine appears to have caused some confusion. The plot synopsis on IMDB relates to the real-life Norwood and not to the character in the film.
The film version presents the story in a fairly conventional-style narrative. The film opens with the arrest of Joan (Judi Dench) by Special Branch in 1999. Then we view a series of interrogations which are intercut with flashbacks by Joan to the 1930s and 1940s. The interrogations fill out the action in 1999 where information has led to the exposure of a senior Foreign Office official as well as Joan. The flashbacks presents Joan’s personal life and then her spy activities. At Cambridge ‘Young Joan’ (Sophie Cookson) meets glamorous European emigre Sonya Galich (Teresa Srbova) and cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes). Both are communist activists. They are also ex-lovers, something only revealed late in the flashbacks. Joan becomes involved with Leo. Come the 1940s Joan is recruited to the secret ‘Tube Alloys Project’ which is actually part of the war-time nuclear research. She is personal secretary to project leader Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moor) and is privy to all of the secret papers to and from the project. Leo and Sonia both urge Joan to pass on secret information for Russia, as the war-time ally is excluded from the circulation of such research. The film hardly at all uses the correct definition of the Soviet Union. Joan resists, she is prejudiced against Russia. At a screening of The Battleship Potemkin she is clearly bored by the film .
Then the USA and Britain use the new nuclear device on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Joan is appalled and now starts to pass on secret information via Sonia to Soviet agents. Her justification is that the Soviet Union needs equal access to this new weapon. As the flashbacks develop Leo is killed, possibly by the NKVD; and Sonia flees to Europe. Joan begins an affair with Max. When the leaks become apparent Max is suspected of the espionage and arrested. Joan blackmails a fellow communist sympathiser and secret homosexual, William Mitchell (Freddie Gaminara), now based in the Foreign Office, to obtain Max’s release and new passports so the couple can emigrate to Australia. As they board the boat Joan confesses to Max that she was the spy.
In the present it appears that at some point Joan has returned to Britain, possibly after the death of her husband Max. Her son Nick (Ben Miles) is now a lawyer. He is appalled when he learn of his mother’s ‘treachery’. The film ends as Joan is arrested after the release of the story. At her front door she faces the press and declares that she did indeed pass secret information to the Russians. She justifies this by saying that equal access by the Allies and Russia prevented a nuclear war. Nick, now reconciled, joins her.
The film apparently follows the book fairly closely. The author, Jennie Rooney, studied at Cambridge University. Here she encountered the story of Melita Norwood. Her narrative is heavily fictionalised and one senses it is strongly influenced by the history and myths around the Cambridge spies. Some of the characters in the film seems thinly disguised versions of characters well-known in that history. This seems to have carried over into the film. And the politics of the latter are far removed from those of the actual Melita Norwood. Peter Bradshaw, in The Guardian, commented;
“The film gives its ‘Red Joan’ a conventionally glamorous Apostle-style career in Cambridge University that Norwood didn’t have, along with a less ideological, more-mainstream approach to cold war politics.”
I was trying to work out in what sense he was using ideological? Perhaps that there is not much political dialogue or discussion. The flashbacks focus on the romances between Joan and Leo, and then between Joan and Max. Stalin gets a mention several times, I think being labelled a ‘mass murderer’ at least twice. Leo talks about the Communist International but I do not recollect many members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. William Mitchell was member but lets it drop as he becomes involved in espionage. Hitler gets a few mentions but not Trotsky. The British imperial values are present. It is clear that the ‘Tube Alloy Project’ is about an independent nuclear weapon. In one scene Max stresses the importance of the British research and autonomy whilst the listening Atlee comments approvingly. This probably relates to the strand of values embraced by Joan; equal access for Russia.


The history of Melita Norwood is strikingly different. No Cambridge career. A member of the British Communist Party along with her husband. She actually worked as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association and the secrets she found passed through her office. A convinced communist, she apparently gained no material profit from her actions. When asked about her motives, she said:
“I did what I did, not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service.” (Wikipedia – BBC interview in 1999).
Given the conformist politics in Britain that was thought to radical for audiences. The title is certainly mainstream in that sense. It is also mainstream and conventional in its form and style. The director, Trevor Nunn, found the story in the novel. But as well as seemingly following the book closely it relies on fairly standard tropes. Judi Dench, as one would expect, is excellent as the older Joan. The rest of the cast are good and the flashbacks work as drama. Visually and aurally the film has good techniques but does not generate great emotion or involvement. The plot is obviously geared towards the development and resolution of the narrative. Max and Joan’s escape seems fatuous even given the failings of British security later. Nick’s final support of his mother lacks conviction and motivation.
It is good to see the story told on film. The period detail is pretty good so it is fascinating [as always] to revisit this important period. But it does little serve to the heroine who inspired the story. Melita may have harboured illusions about the Soviet Union that many other had already overcome. But the still lasting effects of socialist construction meant that in many ways it still pipped an advanced capitalist and colonialist state like Britain. Melita Norwood saw herself as supporting the International Working Class and its own workers’ state. By contrast ‘Red Joan’ comes across as rather liberal and lacking in developed cinematic tastes.

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Die Bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters, Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1981)

Posted by keith1942 on March 16, 2019

This was another title in the Berlinale retrospective and the audience were fortunate in that the director, Margarethe von Trotta, was there to introduce her film. She first talked about the title of the film which was variously translated and changed during its international release; (there seem to be at least six variants). The German title is a quotation from a famous poem;

Trūb ists heut, es schlummern die Gäng’ und die Gassen und fast will

Mir es scheinen, es sei, als in der bleiernen Zeit

(Gloomy it is today, sleepy are the pathways and lanes and it seems as almost, we are, in the leaden times.) (Friedrich Hölderlin) (Translation Jane Buekett).

The last three words provide the title and a metaphor for the 1950s, a crucial decade for the story and the characters; and for von Trotta herself.

Von Trotta went on to recount how in 1977 she was with fellow film-makers who were working on a portmanteau film addressing in various ways the actions and the current trial of the Red Army Faction [often called the Baader-Meinhof Gang]; Germany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst, 1978). Von Trotta was not actually filming and she had a number of long conversations with Christina Ensslin, the sister of a member of RAF Gudrun Ensslin. This inspired her to start work on a screenplay, later this film, which studied the lives and relationships of two sisters. Von Trotta also remarked that the story was influenced by the Sophocles play Antigone, where Antigone is a rebel whilst her sister Iamene is more dutiful. However, in this story, the roles change as the narrative develops.

“The younger, Marianne, has joined the ‘armed resistance’ in West Germany and disappeared into the political underground. Juliane is an editor at a feminist magazine and is judgemental of her sister’s radicalism.” (Retrospective Brochure).

But the film develops far more complexity than is suggested in these bald sentences. Marianne is another brilliant and convincing performance from von Trotta’s regular collaborator Barbara Sukowa. Juliane, an equally good performance, though a more restrained character, is played by Jutta Lampe. We also meet their partners though the male characters pale alongside these powerful women. The exception is Jan, Marianne’s son by a failed marriage.

Early in the film we get a sense of the radically different lives and relationships of the sisters. There is a brief glimpse of the ‘armed resistance’ training with Palestinian fighters in North Africa. The film moves into it most intense mode when Marianne is captured and imprisoned. Juliane visits her regularly and we witness the emotional and sometimes overcharge relationship. We also see, in flashbacks, the earlier life of the two women, including a very strict religious upbringing in the 1950s. The ‘leaden’ 1950s and its silences on German history were a frequent target of attack for the New German Cinema.

It is in the latter stages that Jan becomes an important character. It is also the stage where Juliane has to confront her sister’s death and her suspicions, (widely shared at the time with regard to the deaths of RAF members) of her secret murder by the West German State.

This is an undoubted classic of the New German Cinema. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The central performances are memorable, but the film is carefully constructed as well. There is fine cinematography from Franz Rath. This covers the modern apartment and more traditional family house which contrast with the grim and stark prison interiors. And exteriors range from a wintry wood to sun-baked Africa and then to the forbidding walls of the prisons. The settings and costumes, by Georg von Kieserite and Minka Hasse respectively, are excellent. The sound is fine and at times very atmospheric. And all of this is edited into a complex tapestry between past and present by Dagmar Hirtz. The now veteran composer Nicolas Economou, (recently working with Koreeda Hirokazu) produces an effective score, at times minimal, occasionally more forceful.

The film has been restored and was screened from a DCP. It seemed from memory a reasonable transfer and it was a pleasure to see this again in a cinema after a wait of many years.

It is one of the films directed by Margarethe von Trotta in the Independent Cinema Office retrospective programme. This is titled ‘The Personal is Political’. This is partly accurate as von Trotta, as in other films, is concerned to bring out how personal relationships feed into political issues. But it is also true that in this film, as in most of her other films, the political both determines and limits the personal. This indeed is where the film leaves us with a stark and complex scene that speaks volumes about the sisters and the future of Juliane and Jan.

The film runs 106 minutes in colour and with English sub-titles. The latter on this digital version are reasonable but in the traditional white-on-background; so occasionally, in lighter scenes, you have to focus carefully. A small challenge to what is, for me, probably the finest film made by Margarethe von Trotta. And she has turned out a number of really fine film including Rosa Luxembourg (1986, featuring Barbara Sukowa].

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Women filmmakers at the 2019 Berlinale

Posted by keith1942 on February 6, 2019

The Berlinale, Berlin’s International Film Festival, opens this coming Thursday, February 7th. The Festival is a vast terrain with a wide selection of contemporary films from all over world cinema. The key films are often landmark titles and the Festival Awards are rightly prized trophies. But the Festival also offers opportunities to visit fascinating aspects of cinema history. The Retrospectives, organised by the Deutsche Kinematic, are singular filmic events. Last year we enjoyed a return to Weimar Cinema in an impressive and rewarding programme. And the presentations, of film in both celluloid and digital formats, were also really well done. And the silent titles enjoyed live and skilful musical accompaniments.

This year the Retrospective moves forward three decades to celebrate the contributions of women film-makers to German cinema.

“The Retrospective of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival takes as its subject women film-makers between 1968 and 1999. The programme encompasses 26 narrative and documentary features from the former East and West Germany, as well as German films after re-unification in 1990. In addition, the Retrospective will show some 20 shorter films on their own, or as lead-ins to the features. What the film-makers and their protagonists have in common is an interest in exploring their own environment, and the search for their own cinematic idiom.

In West Germany, this development was embedded in the 1968 student movement, and closely linked to the new women’s movement and the New German Cinema wave. In East Germany, by contrast, all films were made within the state-controlled studio system. That studio, DEFA, gave a few women a chance to direct as early as the 1950s, however they were mainly assigned to children’s films. Towards the end of the 1960s, everyday life in the socialist country became the focus of East Germany’s women directors. “

The length of the period covered means that this is likely to be a series of snapshots. One of the best known directors, Margarethe von Trotta, has only a single title, The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981). This I though a welcome presentations, a film that I have not seen for a considerable period [though it currently has a limited release in Britain courtesy of the ICO) but which I remember finding powerful and stimulating.

Other well known film-makers are also featured.

“Helma Sanders-Brahms – Her early films engage critically with the themes of labour, migration, and the situation of women in West Germany. Under the Pavement Lies the Strand / Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand (1975, Federal Republic of Germany / Bundesrepublik Deutschland) was a central film for the German women’s movement and for the student movement, as well as for the director’s own emergence as an explicitly feminist film-maker.” (Wikipedia)

But, for me, the bulk of the titles, are unknown and promise to offer an exciting exploration of German film. There has always been a limited selection of German films circulating in Britain, but in recent years hardly any cross over the channel or the territories barriers.

There will be films from four women film-makers working in the German Democratic Republic / Deutsche Demokratische Republik. I have seen only a small proportion of the films produced in the GDR. And I cannot recollect seeing a film directed by a woman. So this will fill an unfortunate gap in my film knowledge.

And there are other titles from the FGR or contemporary Germany. From the FGR in 1984,

The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press / Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse.

Our organization will create a human being whom we can shape and manipulate according to our needs. Dorian Gray: young, rich and handsome. We will make him, seduce him and break him.

Director and writer: Ulrike Ottinge.” (Details on IMDB).

As well as the features and documentaries there are a number of short film, more also from the GDR. And there is animation work. So it promises to be great cinematic week.

Added to this are the regular Berlinale Classics. There are six titles, five of which I welcome seeing again and one, for me, completely new; Ung flukt (The Wayward Girl), dir: Edith Carlmar, Norway 1959. They are all digital restorations. Certainly the digital versions I saw last year were all of good quality. Moreover, several of these are in 4K versions, a quality rarely seen in Britain.

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Further thoughts on Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary Japan 2015

Posted by keith1942 on July 30, 2018

I discussed this film with a student group in Talking Pictures. The response was positive. And the discussion raised some further aspects of the film which I find interesting. One student, familiar with Japan and Japanese culture made a comment about the title:

Umimachi Diary (Japanese: 海街diary?, lit. “Seaside Town Diary”) is a Japanese ‘josei manga’ [comic book] by Akimi Yoshida serialized in Monthly Flowers magazine.

It seems that in the original comic book, whilst the sisters are the key characters there is more about the town itself. Kamakura is a small coastal town about fifty kilometres south west of Tokyo. In the film [and I believe the comic] the film opens with the three sisters [Sachi, aged 29, Yoshino aged 22, and Chika, aged 19) travelling to Yamagata in the north of Japan for the funeral of their father, who deserted them and their mother 15 years or more ago for another women. At the funeral they meet the fourth sister, Suzu [aged 13]. She was bought up in Sendai, not that far from Yamagata.

For the western viewer the topography is not spelt out but presumably it is quite clear to a Japanese audience. Travelling north suggests moving from the relatively warn coastal region to the north, which suffers more severe winters and is prey to much stormier conditions; it is in the north that the 2011 Tsunami wreaked havoc. The difference between the key towns in the story would appear to mirror differences among the characters. Whilst the sisters have their failings and foibles they generally adhere to a set of values around family and personal responsibilities. But characters away from Kamakura, like the father and their absent mother, seem much less faithful to these values.

The film appears to follow a set of seasons over a year. It could be longer. In the manga source Suzu is thirteen when she meets her older sisters. In the film, but the concluding summer of the story, she is given as fifteen. The film is ambiguous about time, as we move from setting to setting, defined more by the season than the calendar. The film is [more or less] bookended by funerals; at the opening that of the absent father which brings the four sisters together; at the end it is the funeral of Ms Nimoniya (Fabuki Jun), whose seaside café is an important and recurring setting in the film.

The film uses a number of recurring tropes and motifs, which fill out relationships and comment on the characters. One particular trope that struck me was people going up and down hill: steps, stairways and paths through woods or up hills. This trope occurs in most of Koreeda’s films. These walks seem to mirror the up and down rhythms of the lives of characters. There is one splendid sequence when Suzu is given a bicycle spin by a fellow students and they glide downhill under an overarching cover of cherry blossom; and cherry blossom is a motif that crops up a couple of times in characters dialogue and memories.

Memory is central to Koreeda’s family dramas, indeed to all of his films that I have seen. Memories can fill out the resonance of lives and relationships. This is represented most frequently in the film by the plum wine. At a key moment of reconciliation Sachi, who has argued painfully with her mother on a brief return visit, caries the last jar of the grandmother’s vintage plum wine as a parting gift.  Other memories are more problematic and characters are inhibited about these. An example is whitebait, which Suzu experiences as a treat of Ms Nimoniya’s café. However, she cannot admit that it is a dish that she shared with her father in times past.

Food is notable in this film. And it seems to me that it is a much more notable presence in South East Asian films, especially those from Japan. Ritual like food preparation and enjoyment provide moments when characters can group together. And the shared pleasures bring out a warmth in relationships. In some films meal times are moment of crisis, but not in Our Little Sister. Moreover, they are also associated with memories. Not only in the case of Suzu and whitebait but with Yoshino and fried mackerel.

The sisters house is the central set of the story. Old and lacking full up-to-date amenities, it represents a feel for past. It does enjoy a splendid garden, with the luxuriant plum tree near the house. Within it are the personal spaces, represented by the sisters’ rooms. But there are the shared spaces like the bathroom, seen briefly, but a site of a tussle between Yoshino and Sachi. And there are the communal spaces, notably the kitchen and the lounge which is where meals are taken.

We see Sachi at her work at a local hospital, where she is also involved with a doctor, married but whose wife’s mental problem mean she is housed in an institution. We see Yoshino working at the bank, and indeed one of the feckless young men who she dates, usually disastrously. We also see her on visits as a financial advisor, including to Ms Nominiya’s café, where the latter’s ill health is exacerbated by financial problems. And we see Chika at the sport shop, where she works with her  boyfriend. They regularly support the school football team, in which Suzu becomes a star player. And we see Suzu at school with her follow students and friends.

Late in the film, in late summer we watch an annual town firework display; held over the waters alongside the small port. There is a beautifully spectacular long shot of Suzu and her friends in a small boat watching the firework display; with its coloured reflection in the evening waters. And there is a smaller celebration with sparklers in the garden.

This is one of many sequences in the film that strike the viewer with their beauty. But they also offer occasions where we see the sisters in the wider communities of the town. In this film, whilst there are traumas and conflicts within family groups, the sense of relationships is generally positive: something not found in all of Koreeda’s dramas. The film is a pleasure to watch and to listen to. It generally moves at a slow and undramatic pace and this is part of its pleasure. And it offers a portrait of family life that stands out both in  Japanese film and World Cinema.

Posted in Japanese film, Literature on Film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Rape of Recy Taylor, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on June 22, 2018

The film recounts the rape of a young Afro-American woman and mother in 1944 in Alabama by a gang of white men and her struggle for justice. This was before the period of activism known for ‘The Civil Rights Movement’. Rape of black women, like the lynching of black people, was common in the period dominated by the racist culture called ‘Jim Crow’. Recy’s struggle for justice was supported by National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP] and by one of its field officers, Rosa Parks. Parks is famous for her role in the ‘Bus Boycotts’ in the 1950s. But this case was equally important is the development of black resistance to the racism endemic in the USA. The NAACP, committed to constitutional action, was for decades the lead organisation in the struggle for equality for Afro-Americans.

The central event in the film, an assault and rape on the 24 year-old black woman on a Sunday evening as she returned from a church service, is told through the filmed testimony of her family members and audio recordings of Recy herself. The perpetrators were six white teenagers. Though identified the local sheriff contrived to avoid any action. And Recy’s family home was terrorised and there were death threats when she pursued her claim for justice. These testimonies are intercut with contemporary footage, tending to impressionistic, of the settings, in darkness and with travelling shots that suggest a noir, even horror, feel. Alongside this are extracts from documentary film of the period and archive photographs. And as a distinctive addition clips from the ‘race cinema’ of the period and earlier.

The ‘race cinema’ operated from about 1910 to the end of the 1940s. It was a segregated cinema, in its production, distribution and exhibition, not just in the South but across the USA. Whilst it suffered from low production values due the poor economics of the business the films provided a potent experience for black audiences. The films presented black culture in its own estimation, valorised black heroes and heroines, vilified the lumpen proletarian elements in black communities and the racist white communities from which Afro-Americans had suffered. The films dramatised the brutalities and inequalities of US culture in the period, including explicit representation of rapes and lynchings and the real violent face of organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

These clips provides a dramatic tapestry into which Recy’s story is implanted. And the film uses virtuoso techniques to increase the drama. There are fine superimpositions of archival footage over the contemporary film. There are montage sequences which interweave, factual and fictionalised renderings. And there is added to this a powerful musical accompaniment of sombre orchestral music and well chosen songs from the Africo-American culture. Some of the characters in the events are now deceased and are voiced by actors. So the film is partly a drama-documentary and shares some formal aspects with the film of Ken Burns and his colleagues.

The film is directed by Nancy Buirski whose previous films include a documentary The Loving Story (2011) and a dramatised treatment Loving (2016) of an inter-racial couple prosecuted for breaking laws against ‘miscegenation’. This new feature falls somewhere in between, a documentary approach but dramatised by particular material and techniques. Buirski scripted the film and skilfully orchestrates the various components. There is excellent contribution in the cinematography by Rex Miller and the film uses drone cinematography to great effect. Also deserving praise is the film editing by Anthony Ripoli; the visual effects by Aaron Hodgins Davis; and the work of the eight crafts-people in the sound department. To this the credits add a long list of researchers who must have combed all sorts of archives and collections as well as tracking down people to be interviewed. The film respects the archive film and materials using their original aspect ratios.

Recy’s family member comment on the issues as well as recounting the events. In the latter stages of the film two contemporary voices add to this analysis: Daniel L. McGuire whose book ‘At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power’ details the whole violent culture which was inflicted on Afro-American women over decades [Published in 2011 the book’s title is taken from a 1960’s song].. And there is Afro-American historian Crystal Feimster. Their contributions place this story in the wider culture of racist violence and black resistance. In particular the film draws out the role of Rosa Parks, a NAACP field officer who took up Recy’s case and worked to develop a widespread protest that reached beyond the black communities. Rosa Parks is more famous for her role in the Montgomery ‘Bus Boycott’, The commentators emphasise how the campaign of support for Recy was an equally important in the development of resistance by black people. They also emphasise how important was the role of black women in the movement, both in the 1940s and the 1950s despite the sometime over-emphasis on iconic male leaders. This argument is convincing but I would have liked more on the struggle in the 1940s. The film refers to one other campaign by another black women who suffered rape but the film implies more.

One difference between the 1940s and 1950s was, that whilst the bus boycott led on toe increase action and results, in Recy’s case despite widespread campaigning she was not able to get a fair trail of her assailants. The first trial was a mockery and subsequently an all-white jury refused indictments. The film does note that in 2011 the Alabama State Legislature passed the following:

“BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, that we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we express our deepest sympathies and solemn regrets to Recy Taylor and her family and friends.”

Apart from the long and insulting delay the film, at this point, also includes interviews with white residents from Abbeville. They are aware of the events but are not really prepared to condemn them or offer praise for Recy’s struggle for justice. But we do see her, old and infirm, [in a residential home I think}, and she remains as resolute as she must have been in 1944. She died late in 2017. It seems unlikely that she would have seen this film’ tribute to her courage and resilience.

This films uses a complex mixture of personal film and audio testimonies, commentary and archive material. The latter includes a clip from the films of Oscar Micheaux whose work was a central component of the ‘race cinema’, segregated film production and exhibition in the USA from the 1910s to the 1940s.

This promises to be a powerful and stimulating documentary on issues that, as the news constantly reminds us, remains a central problematic in US culture. What would be good would be if we could have a follow-up of a screening of one of Oscar Micheaux’s powerful film dramas: Within Our Gates (1920) is a classic that addresses both rape and lynchings of black people.

Posted in Documentary, History on film, US films | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Girls / Flickorna, Sweden 1968

Posted by keith1942 on June 9, 2018

This title was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the ‘Radical Film Network’s’ ‘1968’ programme. This is the first time the film has been released in Britain, though it may have featured at some Festival here in the past. It seems that it aroused some controversy in Sweden on it initial release. Here in Britain the BBFC gave it a ’15’ certificate with the comment ‘sexualised nudity’, [a new one on me].

The film was directed by Mail Zetterling and also scripted by her with David Hughes who was a co-writer on several of the films in Sweden. Mai Zetterling’s initial career was in the Swedish film industry but she then had a lengthy acting career in British film. Among her memorable titles are Frieda (1947) and Only Two can Play (1962); she also worked extensively on British television. One of he late appearances was in Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (190)..

From 1960 she moved into writing and directing films, mainly in Sweden. Her films were often controversial and address issues of a particular relevance to women. In 1982 she made the English-language film Scrubbers . Like the better known Scum (1979) it deals with the experience of Borstal, but in this film for women.

The Girls takes the famous play ‘Lysistrata’ by the Greek writer Aristophanes and puts a contemporary spin on the work. Three established actresses tour a performance of the play round Sweden. Whilst we see part so the various performances much of the film focusses on the women’s responses to the themes of the play and how this relates to their own lives and their relationships with men. Their experience of the play brings out the tragic dimension of a work normally presented as a comedy. Our sense of the play is intensified by performances before regional audiences who appear not to really understand the play and frequently display boredom.

The film enjoys a talented cast: the actresses are played by Bibi Andersson as Liz Lindstrand, Harriet Andersson as Marianne and Gunnel Lindblom as Gunilla. Whilst the less sympathetic male characters include part played by Gunnar Björnstrand and Erland Josephson. These are all fine actors, known in particular for performances in films by Ingmar Bergman. They make the quite challenging film really absorbing.

The challenge lies in the somewhat unconventional form of the film. This is in many ways similar to the ‘new wave’ films appearing across Europe in the 1960s; though we do not think of a Swedish ‘new wave’. There is unconventional editing and sound. In particular a series of sequences that appear as ‘imagined’ by the characters are show with a bleached-out look produced by over-exposure and film processing: a device found in films by Ingmar Bergman and other directors in this period.

The visualisation of the film is very effective. The opening shot appears to be three lightly coloured panels, but, as the camera tracks back, we see that they are reflections in the window of the room where the three actresses are talking about the play. Zetterling and her cinematographer [Rune Ericsson, who worked on several of her films] make great use of surfaces, windows and mirrors. There is a splendid shot of Marianne in a store partly caught in a mirror with the shop assistant over and above her dominating the frame. And there are some fine travelling shots, especially in some actual locations; towns in the north of Sweden where the play travels. The film was shot in black and white and in the 1.66:1 ratio and the print has English sub-titles. The screening used a DCP but, fortunately, Scandinavian digital transfers are well done: only the sound was a little harsh.

The film editing by Wic Kjellin and the sound with Bob Allen; Kalle Boman, sound effects and Sven Fahlén, sound mixer, is extremely complex. Zetterling intercuts the actor’s routines and the performances with each other and with ‘imagined’ sequences that present the subjective feelings of the characters. These are mainly of the women but there are also a couple by the men. Along with this there are frequent passages with overlapping sound, so that we hear the lines from the play over other scenes and the internal voices of the actors over both the play and daily routines.

Some of these techniques work better than others. Whilst Zetterling’s strategies of filming , editing and use of sound provide a commentary and a series of metaphors on the lives of the actresses and the play in which they are involved, at time it feels like over-emphasis. But it is certainly stimulating and provides a distinctive take on Aristophanes and on the experience of women in this famous decade.

There are several explicit scenes but I found the BBFC comment odd. In late 1960s Sweden the film would not seem to offer anything exceptional in this area. I suspect some controversy was partly fuelled by the feminist point-of-view on art and sexuality. But the film enjoys a high reputation in Sweden being voted into a list of top films. ‘Club des Femmes’, involved in the screening, offered an interesting comment on the film by Anna Backman, a lecturer and journalist.

“It is, indeed, an unruly and disobedient work of art and it must be experienced as such. Flickorna is a film that functions as a blowtorch on lazy, priapic narratives; it lampoons the perennial expectations of women to be kind, nurturing and soft; it positions women as active, wilful, defiant and wise in the face of men who continue to act like tyrannical toddlers and make increasingly ludicrous demands.”

The actresses and their characters display of these effectively. Whist the film does not offer a full resolution to the problems encountered the film does end with an announcement of a divorce.

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My Cousin Rachel, Britain, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on June 15, 2017

Daphne Du Maurier published this novel in 1951. It offered a romantic and mysterious story with many of her familiar features. The novel is set in the C19th, but offers no particular dates. The setting is Cornwall, and the book includes descriptions of the Cornish countryside and, importantly, the coastline and the sea. There is a Gothic feel to the novel and there are traces of the influence of the Brontë sisters. The obvious reference is Du Maurier’s earlier classic, ‘Rebecca’. It shares the setting and the mystery from the past. However, instead of a young and naïve female narrator, we have a young, naïve and male narrator.

This is Philip Ashley who has been bought by up an older landowning relative Ambrose. Early on Ambrose’s death takes Philip to Florence and later leads to his meeting Ambrose’s widow Rachel.

Rather as with ‘Rebecca’ the book offers an investigation of a woman; in the earlier novel this was the dead wife of Maxim de Winter: this later novel investigates Philip’s cousin Rachel. However, the final resolution of this story holds ambiguities whereas in ‘Rebecca’ the mystery is fully explained. Just as Rebecca is aided by the intimidating Mrs Danvers Rachel is aided by the more slippery Rainaldi: [slippery perhaps because he is Italian]. Both films offer aspects of the Gothic. One genre that frequently has a Gothic feel are the ‘threatened wife’ scenarios. In these two works we have the ‘threatened husband’.

The ‘mystery’ offered by the novel is less deliberately ambiguous. However, I felt that this is not completely convincing. In ‘Rebecca’ the final conflagration of the house, with Rebecca working through the medium of Mrs Danvers, strikes down Maxim and is powerful and effective. In ‘My Cousin Rachel’ we have a death and then Philip’s anguished questioning, ‘Rachel my torment’. This ties in the narrative to the subjective narrator, often an unreliable source. Philip’s judgements are partially backed up by what he reads in the letters from Ambrose: but Ambrose was sick and could have been mentally unstable. What Philip recounts is partial and contradictory. A key element are the herbal drinks [tisanes] that Rachel makes. These may indeed be poisonous but in which case, if they did cause Philip’s illness, why does she nurse him so assiduously. Covering her tracks does not seem quite sufficient. The investigation of ‘cousin Rachel’ is carried out by Philip and in his mind the jury is still out. For the reader the problem is not just Philip’s subjective viewpoint but his failure to analyse what he has seen and heard fully. The written portrait of Rachel manages to present her as apparently quixotic which makes Philip’s uncertainty convincing. However, it is likely to be a problem when Rachel, as in a film, is literalised in a character that is both seen and heard.

The first film adaptation of the book was produced by Twentieth Century Fox in 1952. In black and white and running 98 minutes the film was helmed by Hollywood professionals: script by Nunnally Johnson who also produced and direction by Henry Koster. The filmed starred Richard Burton as Philip and Olivia de Havilland as ‘my cousin Rachel’. This was Burton’s first film in Hollywood. Du Maurier was not keen on the initial screenplay and later unimpressed with de Havilland’s characterisation. She did, though, enjoy Burton’s Philip and some sequences actually filmed in Cornwall. An important change is that the key setting of an Italianate garden is replaced by a rocky seaside cove. The cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is finely done. And the visual chiaroscuro emphasises the Gothic feel more than the novel. There is a romantic and dramatic score by Franz Waxman. The screenplay is highly compressed: 98 minutes is really insufficient for the plot and characters. The setting of the film is the 1830s: information gained from Ambrose’s tombstone visited by Philip, something he avoids in the novel. Burton has Philip’s intensity and impetuosity but lacks the naivety in relation to women. De Havilland lacks the complexity of Rachel, but this is at least partly due to the scriptwriting. The film does retain some of the ambiguity of the novel, but the relationships do not convincingly prepare for the final questions. On a happier note Don, the Labrador, survives avoiding his accidental death in the novel.

Now, in 2017, comes a new adaptation. The main production company is Fox Searchlight, who presumably retain the copyright to Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. It is a company project and writer and director Roger Mitchell was recruited to this. The film has received quite a few favourable reviews. It is in colour, with a ratio of 2.35:1 and runs ten minutes longer than the 1952 version. It has also enjoyed location filming in both England and Italy, so the film should offer settings that would meet the wishes of Du Maurier.

The production offers some unknowns and some promising possibilities. This is Mitchell’s first screenwriting credit. His previous directorial record does not offer a lot of relevance to this type of property. He did direct Hyde Park on the Hudson (2012) which I enjoyed and which has some slight parallels with this story: an older man has a relationship with a younger cousin and visitors play important parts in the plotting. Rachel Weisz is cast as ‘cousin Rachel’. This would seem to be ideal. She has starred in some rather run-of-the mill genre films but also some fine dramas: of particular relevance here is her role as Hester Collyer in  Terence Davies’ beautifully judged version of The Deep Blue Sea (2012). Sam Claflin plays Philip. Rather like the director how appropriate he will be is hard to judge. The ‘Pirates’ film and the ‘Hunger’ series’ have little in common with Du Maurier’s romantic mystery. I thought he was good in Their Finest (2017) as Tom Buckley, but that character is far removed from Phillip Ashley.

Rachel Weisz is indeed fine as ‘cousin Rachel’. She offers real attraction, changeable behaviour and a certain ambiguity about her aims and motivation. Sam Claflin is very good as Philip. He achieves the gaucheness around woman which is important, however he does not really make the character naive. The supporting cast are good. Holliday Grainger gives Louise both her desires for Philip but also a much more down-to-earth understanding. Rainaldi is a much changed character in the film but Pierfrancesco Favino carries the part well. I should add that the numerous dogs are now only two unnamed Irish Wolf Hounds. As in 1952 we are spared a canine death, but only because [typical Hollywood] they disappear from the film about half-way through: [and Philip is wilfully responsible for the death of a horse]. Rainaldi also disappears abruptly from the plot for a time, unexplained.

The film has fine cinematography by Mike Eley. It uses locations in Italy [Florence looking fine in long shot] and Cornwall to good effect. The scope image is very effective for these landscapes. The cinematography in particular effects a Gothic feel. There are scenes heavily laden with chiaroscuro and we frequently see characters through framings such as doors, windows and banisters. There is fine period design, sets and costumes by Alice Normington, Barbara Herman-Skelding and Dinah Collin respectively. The editing rhythm at the hands of  Kristina Hetherington takes the film forward in many places at a fast pace, using ellipsis after ellipsis to drive the story on.

In fact I think this is often overdone. There are several places where the actions and/or motivations are not totally clear. Thus Rainaldi leaves Philip’s house after his first visit but it is only later in dialogue that we discover where and why. And I suspect that if one does not know the book the status and contents of the different wills will remain unclear; again only a later piece of dialogue fully explains about the marriage restriction that will limit Rachel’s inheritance.

The designs certainly achieve the period setting, as do the costumes. Note though, that following the book, the specific period in the C19th is not presented. There are some exaggerated differences. One is the state of Philip’s mansion. Early on Louise helps Philip prepare the house for Rachel’s visit. it is a dishevelled and grungy mess. Only a few months later, as Philip in an usually smart attire, waits for Rachel and the Christmas presents, the room is transformed, even with new and expensive wall paper.

The film takes much of the plot at a fast pace. But it also takes the time to dwell on particular cinematic moments. One is the Christmas party for the workers and tenants on the estate. During the revelling and carousing there is slow track along the seated labourers which achieves a fine feel.

At the point of Philips 25th birthday when he comes into his inheritance we follow the consequences of his gift of jewels to Rachel. This leads to a sexual act, quite clearly implied in the novel. Here the scene ends with a defocusing as Philip and Rachel lie back on the bed followed by a dissolve. This achieves the effect set out in the book. However, a little later there is a second sexual act in the woods: this I felt was a misjudgement, though Rachel’s stony face as Philip grunts on top of her spoke volumes.

Alongside this there is a important revelation late in the film when Louise translates an Italian letter for Philip. Enlarging on the book Louise comments that

‘Enrico [Rainaldi] is more Greek than Italian …”,

that is he prefers boys! I suspect this is part of an attempt to give the book a modern sensibility regarding gender and sexuality. However, like the editing, I find this overdone.

One of the most important sequences is Philip’s serious illness late in the film. The length of this is cut from weeks to days: an example of how the film speeds up the plot. This is still very effective. At one point we have a montage of what appear to be both flashbacks and hallucinations. The scenes show the manner in which Rachel tends Philip. It also prepares the ground for the shock that Philip receives on regaining some sort of health.

One space that this new version retains from the 1952 film is the replacement of the gardens by the seashore and cliff-tops as key settings. The accident on the cliff top sets up the later fatality effectively. In fact there are far more beach sequences in this film than either in the earlier film or indeed in the original novel;. Philip’s final remorseful voice-over as he sits on the beach uses this richly mythic setting to full effect.

 

The film opens and closes, as does the book, with Philip’s voice-over. The opening offers series of brief flashbacks that provide a helpful ‘back story’ to the main narrative. The ending here, with a carriage bowling along in the countryside, is possibly a little too pat. The novel seems to suggest that life after the events will be much darker. In this film Philip, [as did Richard Burton’s Philip] asks ‘why?, ‘did she?’. This is where the novel ends. However events in the film, for example the careful nursing of Philip [who may or may not have been poisoned] suggest that motivations are relatively uncomplicated. I did find that the novel failed to completely motivate this ambiguity. A weakness which the earlier ‘Rebecca’ does not share. Of course, the film does not need to strictly follow all the ins and outs of the novel. But I felt that ‘cousin Rachel’, despite Weisz’s fine performance’, is a less ambiguous figure. And therefore Philip’s tortured musings seem not properly motivated. As I noted I think there are unintentional ambiguities in the plot, partly because the film has such pace, presumably because it comes in at under two hours. Along the way it looks and sounds good and the characters are always interesting. But just as the novel of ‘Rebecca’, remains a superior work by Du Maurier I think the Daryl Zanuck production of that novel [directed by Alfred Hitchcock] remains the best film adaptation of her pen.

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Their Finest, Britain, Sweden 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 27, 2017

This was a BBC project which enjoyed Stephen Woolley as a key producer and recruited Lone Scherfig as director. It was adapted from the novel by Lissa Evans, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, by Gabby Chiape. Stephen Woolley has written on the background to the film in Sight & Sound (May 2017) and there is also an interview with Lone Scherfig in this issue. All of them bring their particular talents to the film. This bears the hall marks of the BBC, both in the reconstruction of wartime Britain and in its particular sense of British values, from the 1940s and the C21st. Stephen Woolley appears to have spearheaded the research into the British film industry of the 1940s, which is the setting for this comedy/drama. Lone Scherfig shows the skill with actors that she demonstrated in An Education (2009) and the combination of comedy and drama that graced the earlier Italian for Beginners (2000). Gabby Chiape has previously written for television, [including ‘East Enders’] and whilst this is a big-screen film the  interactions have a familiar tone found in a certain area of television. The production values are excellent, notably some fine cinematography.

Set in 1940 the film follows the career of Catrin Cole (Gemma Atherton) when she is recruited to provide ‘women’s’ dialogue’ for feature films. She is recruited by the Ministry of Information and then placed in a commercial film company charged with producing ‘propaganda’ that offers ‘authenticity and optimism to inspire a nation’. The brief is also to feature stories about ordinary people including women. Catrin interviews two sisters whose exploit [exaggerated] provides the pitch for a drama around the Dunkirk Evacuation.

Catrin works with two experienced writers in a small office near Wardour Street. Their impresario is clearly modelled on Alexander Korda. The lead writer, Tom Buckley (Sam Caflin), is worldly wise in the ways of the industry. Their narrative becomes a ‘film within a film’, The Nancy Starling.

The cast are filled out with the members of the film production and Whitehall mandarins who are overseeing the project. There is a substantial role for Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard [‘Uncle Frank’ in the film within]. Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons both have sequences where they deliver the rhetoric of the period with aplomb. And the latter adds a ‘yank’ to the film, Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy) seconded from the RAF where he has volunteered as a fighter pilot. Carl has to be given acting lessons by ‘Uncle Frank’ but his presence means that the film will receive US distribution and is shot in Technicolor.

The pre-production sequences where the script emerges and the writers are embroiled in the departmental wartime politics work well. The productions sequences, with a film directed by a documentary filmmaker, capture the technical and conventional aspects of 1940s filming. And the ‘film within a film’ nicely parallels the developments in the actual feature.

The emphasis in the feature is on the writing aspects of film. The film production within this feature uses some settings with visual interest and also with humour. So there is a wry joke regarding ‘Uncle Frank’ and special effects: and a later one whilst shooting a scene in the studio water tank. As well as the ‘ham’ US actor there is [predictably] the rescue of a cute dog. However, there is much less attention paid to the film crafts people than to the writers. Thus the film is supposed directed by someone from the documentary film movement, but we never get any sense of this character. And this applies to the technical people such as cinematographer or sound engineer. And there is no real focus on the editing of the film.

What we do see is a visit by Catrin to a cinema where she watches [in a series of brief clips] the finished and distributed film. The audience at the screening are clearly both involved and entertained by the feature. We watch, in particular, the climax and ending of the film. By this stage we know that finally Catrin has been able to write in a sequence in which one of the sister performs a ‘heroic’ act. And we know that she has written the ending for the film after US distributors thought the original ending to ‘tame’.

This is the only part of the film that we see that has a documentary flavour. With a voice over by one of the characters, intoning the message of continued struggle and US support, there is a long shot of a couple seated on the harbour wall in a small port in Devon. [Actually shot in Pembrokeshire]. We have seen this shot earlier; it is in reality a test shot before the actual filming and is of two of the key characters in the feature itself. This precedes a final sequence where we see that Catrin has succeeded in becoming part of the established film writing team.

This ending takes on a special emotional feel because of development among the key characters in the feature’s story. Whilst the ending of a ‘film within a film’ provides a suitable war-time feel of ‘authenticity’, with ‘optimism’ in the commentary, the knowledge we have about this couple adds a real poignancy to the feature film’s ending.

The shooting of the film within a film in Technicolor is well done and enables the film to be predominantly in colour. Less happily we see extracts from 1940s films, [including the production in this feature] projected for viewers in Academy ratio and then [as clips] in reframed in the 2.35:1 ratio. I find this distracting and unnecessary; presumably the BBC was looking forward to television screenings. But I was also undecided just how well presented is the supposed 1940 film. In his article Stephen Woolley lists a number of British productions from the period that he and colleagues studied in order to gauge style and content. Most of these are familiar titles such as The Foreman Went to France (1940) or ‘Pimpernel’ Smith (1941): but there are also lesser known features such as Tomorrow We Live’(1944). This feature is placed in a period of transition from the 1930s style, frequently relying on conventional techniques and lacking authenticity, certainly in terms of working class characters, to the wartime ‘documentary influenced’ approach epitomised in a film like Love on the Dole (also 1941)..

The Technicolor films that spring to mind are those of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, later and a long way from either the feature or its film within. And there is an uneven tone, notably in the acting. Bill Nighy has been critically commended but I found his ‘Uncle Frank’ stagy for any sense of authenticity. This may be deliberate by the filmmakers,, but it left me unconvinced by the audience response in the cinema to this film within.

 

Posted in British films, Films by women, Literature on Film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Elle, France, Germany, Belgium 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2017

This film has received much critical praise. In particular Isabelle Hubert in the lead role has been uniformly lauded, winning the Best Actress Award at the Golden Globes. At the same time there has been discussion and argument regarding the film’s subject, a woman’s reaction to rape. So this is a very effective title but also one which is somewhat controversial.

The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven, a filmmaker with a reputation for shocking audiences and tending to a degree of exploitation, especially of sex and violence. The best known example would be Basic Instincts (1992). However, I think that there is some difference in content and tone between his films made in Hollywood [the majority] and films made in Europe. In particular Black Book (Netherlands, Germany, UK, Belgium, 2006) struck me as less than conventional with its study of a Jewish women who is caught between the Dutch resistance and the German occupiers during World War II. More generally Verhoeven has the ability to take genre films in unconventional and unexpected directions. His Hollywood film Total Recoil (1990) is one of the more distinctive contributions to the science fiction genre. This likely depends in part on his collaborators. Total Recall was adapted from a work by Philip K. Dick whilst Black Book was scripted by the writer of the original novel Gerard Soeteman.

Elle opens on an assault of Michéle Le Blanc (Isabelle Hubert) by a masked man in her own home. This is violent and kinetic action. The rest of the film studies her responses which include her relations with an ex-husband and son, her woman friend and partner, a lover, and two neighbours. There are two flashbacks to the initial rape, a further assault and a sequence of what is termed ‘rough sex’. There are two important strands. One if Michéle’s response to the experience. The other, which interacts, is the unmasking of the perpetrator.

The rape sequences are treated in a typical visceral fashion by Verhoeven. And we return to these several times. The violence in the film is added to by a family connection to a series of brutal killings. And both are reinforced by the video game company that Michéle runs with her friend Anna (Anne Consigny); in fact the video game aspect is part of a series of false leads that the film exploits. All of these lends credence to the argument by Ginette Vincendeau in Sight & Sound (April 2017) that the film ‘crosses the line’.

However, the character of Michelle as presented by Hubert is far more complex. We see her interactions with her friends, her management at work, and her solitude [importantly with a cat].. Her comments to other characters and the more ambiguous allusions lend weight to the argument by Erika Balsom in S&S that the film ‘explores’ rather than crosses the line.

I found myself being partially convinced by both sets of arguments. My feeling is that the film is on the borderline between a serious study and a piece of exploitation. Borderlines are a common feature of Verhoeven’s work. And indeed they are also familiar in the screen work of Isabelle Hubert.

The generis of the film is interesting. It is based on a French novel which was translated in order to provide a basis for an English-language script pitched to US majors. That failed and seeing the film one can understand why. When Hubert expressed interest the film the script then had to be translated into French. This is a intriguing comment on international film production. But it seems to me that this process, and especially the presence of Hubert, accounts for the ambiguous status of the film. One aspect of the plot which I suspect was left over from the US version of the script is the video game company. I found this the weakest aspect of the film: in the book Michéle and Anna run a team of scriptwriters. The latter is much more in keeping with the characters we see in the film.

Of course, Verhoeven has a tendency to want to ‘have his cake and eat it to’. Inflammatory material for the box office, intriguing thematic angles for critics. But I am finally more impressed than disturbed by the film. It is the best of the Verhoeven films that I have seen. And Isabelle Hubert’s performance is riveting, and that of an actor whose work over a number of decades stands out triumphantly.

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Arrival – Philosophy on Film

Posted by keith1942 on January 14, 2017

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It seems to me that there has been an increase in writing on film that addresses philosophical issues. However, the content does not always match up to the traditional sense of this concept:

“the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence”

It is even less common for films to address such issues. But this science fiction film (USA 2016) seems to do this to a greater degree than is common, certainly with mainstream films. It is a complex film and I watched it twice before I was satisfied that I have completely grasped the plot. But a second viewing also made me consider some of the existential and moral issues that it raises.

The film is adapted from a short story by a US-based writer Ted Chiang. I have not read the original: our local library has not got a copy. But I have checked out some reviews which has given me a sense of how the film differs from the story. The story, and to a degree the film, address theories regarding language, perception, what we call time, and even cause and effect. Some of these theories are matters of debate among scholars. Some are certainly complex and I did not understand some of the more intricate aspects of some theories. What seemed clear to me was that certain concepts or phrases are treated ambiguously in the film. So I have noted this by using ‘…’ as for ‘present’, ‘past’ and ‘future’, all aspects in the story whose meaning needs to be tested.

The film centres on the character of Doctor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a linguistic scholar. When Alien spaceships arrive on earth Louise is recruited to assist in establishing communications with the Aliens. She works alongside a physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Both are under the control of a Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Agent Halpern (Michael Stulbarg). Most of the action takes place at a temporary military base at the site occupied by the Alien space craft. We learn that there are eleven other such space crafts at various sites round the world. Whilst the Doctors Banks and Donnelly pursue their research there is an interchange via video links with teams in other countries also attempting to communicate with the aliens.

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The concept and visualisation of the Aliens is brilliant. They are seven-limbed and christened ‘Heptapods’. Their spoken and written [graphic] language appear incomprehensible. At the same time they appear more interested in observing than [say] threatening earth. Donnelly christens the two that he and Louise [and we] meet ‘Abbott and Costello’.

Some of the most fascinating sequences are as Louise takes a lead in working out how to communicate with the Aliens. We are told that their spoken language bears no relationship with their written language. The latter appears more like graphic/symbolic displays than writing. And the symbols shoot out from one of the limbs of the Alien and are displayed on the glass screen between the Aliens and the scientists. As Louise develops her understanding of their communication she explains that each symbol is known completely before being presented: she uses the example of writing a sentence with both hands starting on opposite sides of  page. The writer would need to know the whole communication exactly in advance, even the space between letters.

Donnelly contributes to the understanding by identifying and explaining that the Aliens do not relate to what we call time in the same way as humans. Essentially he claims that they are aware of all parts of a series in a timeline at once. This seems not to be the same aspect as involved in time travel but is a mode of perception, even existence.

Since this is a mainstream release it also has an amount of action and suspense. Both are created by tensions and suspicions between the different countries working with/against the Aliens. It falls to Louise to prevent armed conflict at the moment of crisis and climax. She does this by conducting the Commander (General Shang / Tzi Ma)in charge of the Chinese effort and using knowledge she has gained from the Heptapods, defuses the situation. It is worth noting that the representation of the Chinese does not go beyond the Shang character and this presents an autocratic and militaristic regime.

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Interwoven with the somewhat conventional sci-fi plot are a series of sequences with Louise and her daughter Hannah (four actresses of different ages). These both open and close the film and appear frequently in between. At first they seem to be flashbacks: then they seem to possibly be flash-forwards. It is apparent that they are connected in some way with Louise’s contact with the Heptapods.

Another point that develops with the film is the assumption that the use of language affects the way of thinking. In Louise’s case this means as she develops her grasp of the Alien language she also acquires their perception of time. This only falls into place for the viewer towards the end of the film. At this point it becomes apparent that in terms of human perception of time the Alien arrival occurs at the beginning of the narrative that we witness: and that the birth, upbringing and early death of Hannah occur later. The sequences in which we see/hear what seem to be Louise’s perception of Hannah’s life are examples of seeing events across a whole timeline and not as human being usually experience this: in a linear fashion.

The interaction of the two plot lines presents a different manner of regarding time. This is a familiar trope in science fiction but treated in an atypical manner. It raises issues about philosophical questions and also about the film’s plot line itself. Apparently the conflict that develops between the different states engaging with the Aliens and the resolution of this have been added to the original story. I found this not completely convincing. Even at my first viewing the manner in which Louise ‘converts’ General Shang seemed rather pat. Moreover the film implies that the way the conflict and resolution is plotted follows a design by the Aliens. Their visit to earth is motivated by the fact that in several thousand years in the future they will need assistance from earth. So this plotting supposedly produces a unified earth community that will still be round when needed. This was not only pat but given human history [with which the Aliens are presumably conversant] seriously unconvincing.

A second plot problem relates to the personal. In the alternative time sequence we learn that Louise and Ian, now married and parents of Hannah, have separated. The reason is that Louise told Ian something and he could not accept this. What she told him is that she knew when they conceived Hannah that she would die young: he thinks she made the wrong decision. However, if Louise can see across the timeline she would know what Ian’s response would be in advance.

Some reviews suggest that Louise chooses to conceive Louise despite knowing the outcome. This could be applied to Louise telling Ian. I do not find that totally convincing. In both cases one could interpret the events and choices as fated, rather like a Greek tragedy. Another aspect would be other comments in reviews to the purpose that one can know the ‘future’ but not change it. This is intriguing because it separates the treatment of time in this work from that of time travel. It appears that not even the Aliens in ‘Arrival’ time travel. But they see across time, a skill that Louise develops. This aspect raises questions about the relationship between cause and effect.

Arrival appears to have been influenced by Chris Marker’s science fiction classic La Jetée (1962). That film appears to be about time travel as the protagonists goes forward in time and then backwards in time. However, the plot is really about his life story and centrally about memory. At the conclusion the viewer realises that his experience in what seems to be the ‘past’ has characterised all his other experiences. So something similar can be seen in the presentation of Louise and Hannah’s stories. The film and story seems to be playing with philosophical concepts of time. There is Immanuel Kant’s position that this is a ‘systematic mental framework’ and also Eisenstein’s argument in relativity that different observers see events in time differently.

It is worth noting how Louise appears to view across the timeline: the film does not give any idea of how the Heptapods do this. When she has been in close proximity to the Heptapods we see insert shots, as if she has been stimulated by the Aliens. Elsewhere she works at it rather in the way that people work at recovering memories: there is no sense that she has an overview of all elements or events at once. So in one scene she ‘remembers’ a concept taught her by Ian to solve a question by Hannah. The key example is her call to General Shang on a mobile, as she talks on the phone she ‘remembers’ the conversation she will have with the General after the crisis is over. In this case what is in the ‘future’ informs her actions at an earlier point in time. This is the paradox associated with time travel and which also appears in La Jetée  and numerous other science fiction works.

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Louise’s development of the ability to see across the timeline follows from an assumption that language affects the way that humans think. The alternative position is that the way humans think affects language. The film does not follow this through. In the film Louise publishes a book on the Alien language: it is visible at the reception where she meets General Shang and the logo on the book is seen several times in the ‘future sequences’. Are other humans learning the language? Is that the object of the Alien visit so that when the need arises humans will see across the timeline in relation to the Alien situation? Why does Ian not learn the language? He does not seem to display much interest in this. Perhaps he has picked up a smattering and that is the reason that Louise feels impelled to tell him about Hannah.

The aspect of the story that the film does emphasise is gender. Science fiction remains a predominately masculine genre, even after the appearance of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien (1979): and the same problem bedevils Passengers (USA 2016) despite the presence of Jennifer Lawrence. In Arrival Louise is more or less the lone woman in a man’s world. The leading  characters in the ‘present’ are all men. The only other important character is Hannah. Even when we see other research teams round the world on the video-call I do not remember any women members. The most notable females are the presenters on the Television News Broadcasts.

Moreover the male characters in the film display the stereotypical attitudes of men: prone to expect conflict and aggression. So Louis provides an alternative in terms of rationality but also emotional stability. However, it is not clear whether the Heptapods have different genders. Ian christens them as men, but that appears to be his unthinking gesture rather than based on any evidence. The film uses tropes relating to feminine characters repeatedly. The most interesting is Louise’s hair. There is a long tradition in film regarding a woman’s hair. Tied back in some fashion is represents restraint even repression. Hanging loose it represents openness and sexuality. Markedly women frequently cut their hair after moments of trauma, so the Jodie Foster character cuts her hair after the rape in The Accused (1988).

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In Arrival’s present Louise has her hair tied back for most of the time, we see her tying it back after the ‘shower’ on returning from the Alien craft. In the ‘other time;’ sequences with Hannah it is usually hanging loose, and we also see it loose in sequences with Ian from ‘the future’ but not in the ‘present’. The most notable differentiation from this in the film is a solitary visit that Louise makes to the Alien craft. This is approaching the film’s climax, conflict seems imminent. The Alien craft is hovering above the ground and when Louise runs towards it a pod descends and takes her up into the craft. Once in her hair flies free and is at its most unrestricted in the whole film. She is enveloped in mist and floating in the air. The sequence reminded me forcibly of a scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) where the David Bowie character (Thomas Jerome Newton) has coitus with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). Whilst this film is not noticeable sexual this is a moment of real sensuousness. It is also the point that Louise realises she can understand the Alien language.

However, the aspect of Louise’s femininity that the film emphasises is as a mother. The sequences with Hannah all give expression to a strong maternal instinct. And her life after the Alien visit, whilst it involves marriage with Ian, is most concerned with her as mother. Ian really is a plot necessity, he has to impregnate Louise, but at some point in Hannah’s childhood he leaves, so we have a single mother and child.

Ted Chiang’s original story was titled ‘Story of Your Life’. It presumably refers to the life of Hannah. In the film Hannah’s story is seen through the perspective of Louise, hence ‘your life’. So this is emphatically a mother’s point of view. The film clearly makes play with supposed gender differences between men and women. It would be interesting if the written story explores this in terms of the Heptapods. The handling of concepts of language, time, perception and related scientific concepts clearly makes this ‘hard’ science fiction’. The mother/daughter story falls into the realm of melodrama. Part of the effectiveness and success of the film results from the interaction of these two generic strands. As I write I see that Arrival has done well in the BAFTA nominations, better than in the USA Award Festivals. Is that a reflection of different attitudes to science fiction among audiences?

Directed by Denis Villeneuve: Produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levinem Aaron Ryder, David Linde: Screenplay by Eric Heisserer,  Based on “Story of Your Life”  by Ted Chiang: Music by Jóhann Jóhannsson:  Cinematography Bradford Young: Edited by Joe Young. The film was produced in Montréal and Québec in Canada.

It was filmed in colour and in anamorphic widescreen. The version I saw was masked to 2.35:1.

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