Reflections on Distant Voices, Still Lives

It’s almost 48 hours since I saw Terence Davies’s Distant Voices Still Lives, and I’m still not over it. All year I’ve been feeling that films, even the best of those I’ve seen, just aren’t touching me any more. Then this comes and whacks me in the guts and shows me I can still be devastated, in a good way, by a watching a film. Davies’s ‘autobiographical’ film that’s nearly 30 years old is a masterpiece, and I don’t intend to attempt a review. For that you might go to a superb one that says so much https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1989/08/license-to-feel/ . So here instead are some reflections on it.

For a start it was personally very visceral for me, a child in the 50s, because so much was familiar: the songs, the furnishings, (there was a mirror that broke my heart), the business of listening to the football results and marking them on the pools, the drunk relations at the weddings ( I remembered the spiritous smell of alcohol rising from unfamiliar uncles, and aunts laughing too loud in their shiny C&A dresses), the Christmas decorations, the ever-working, pinafored mothers.

But it’s so much more than just nostalgia. I’ve rarely seen such powerful, poetic beauty on screen. The camera has a strange way of moving, that fills you with fear, and awe, or occasionally utter melancholy joy, such as the view from inside a room of a bright window where a flowered net curtain flaps and dances, while unseen women’s voices talk of loving the long light nights, and how the nights are beginning to draw in. Or the slow movement along a street of windows revealing half-glimpsed rooms modestly decked for Christmas, each a little box of delights. It pans across faces in the many scenes set in a pub celebrating deaths, marriages or births, where the potent ‘cheap music’ of the 50s and early 60s in untrained, confident working class voices holds as much or more grave, powerful force as the classical and liturgical music sometimes laid over other scenes. Romantic, beautiful, silly songs of impossible love, a love which the women long for but which we know they are disappointed in, as with marriage, romantic love drops away into  loss of freedom, abuse or hard grind or just boredom.

The beaten woman gets up and carries on, she’s still beautiful, can still sing the old songs and be happy. The man who was a lovely dancer beats you and your children. The glass you rub and rub at, dangerously suspended halfway out of your window, will never come clean. The bombastically sentimental music and story of a romantic film makes the sisters cry, even though their own lives are sadder. Christmas ends in violence. Life is precarious. Two men fall like angels through glass, it’s beautiful, and catastrophic. The nights are always drawing in. Everything ends in death, eventually. But life, and people, still have moments of transcendent beauty and joy.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, September 5 2018

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Cold War

Directed by Pawel Pawlikovski

‘The next Pawlikovski’ has now reached that status of eager anticipation once afforded to, say, Scorsese or PT Anderson or Malick among his admirers, of whom I count myself one. Ever since his under-appreciated The Last Resort, (still, along with the sublime Dead Man’s Shoes featuring Paddy Considine at his blistering best) – I’ve waited in eager anticipation for what’s coming next. And Cold War in so many aspects – and I’ll come to that later – all that we had hoped after Ida two years ago. If you thought that was as sublimely beautiful as it gets in contemporary black and white film, you’ve got a treat coming in the glory of Lukasz Zal’s cinematography, whether it’s in the aching, still beauty of landscapes, bleak streets and faces or the jagged jumping chiaroscuro that accompanies the thrill of music. And music plays a strong role here, representing a mood, a stage in a relationship, or the long decay of the ideals that begin for musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) after the war in a newly communist Poland with the eager journey around the villages to salvage examples of the old music of the countryside and forge a folk troupe to perform them – a preservation of the old Poland to help its spirit survive through the grimness of the newly imposed regime. Music-wise, Wiktor’s first setback creeps in when the authorities force him to incorporate Russian-based music and turn the concerts into a kind of song and dance show. The first blow of many that will fall upon Wiktor and by extension on his native land as it becomes increasingly oppressed and twisted.

Parallel with this we see developing Wiktor’s romantic life. One of the singers acquired for his troupe along the way is vivacious blonde Zula, bringing with her a criminal reputation of attacking (and murdering?) her father. The two form a relationship (though we see little of this, as later we do not witness many of the big events of their lives), and when a performance in Berlin offers the opportunity to escape, Wiktor asks her to go with him to the West and his dream of a life in the almost mythic Paris, where he will become a jazz musician. For the rest of the film their love remains a source of pain more than pleasure as they continually meet and part again, he never happy without her, even though being together often brings even more pain, she enigmatic, with another only half-known life, strangely unsatisfied with him yet blindingly jealous too.

Alongside the Cold War in which their country is involved is a kind of cold war between the two of them, a love that rarely brings warmth, compulsive though it is. And here’s my qualification: I didn’t really care about these two people, nor truly believe in their relationship. It’s not an amour fou, too joyless for that. And maybe there’s just a teeny bit too much of the irrational woman leading on the sobersides, sensitive chap. There seems very little chemistry between the actors, though they are totally credible in themselves – the only time I felt for Zula was the stunning Rock Around the Clock sequence, when she throws herself – literally – into an exhilarating dance of freedom which peters out into a drunken collapse (a comment on the west’s hedonism if ever there was).

The story of this ravaging, destructive, inescapable relationship is told in episodes over 15 years (it’s a pity the characters don’t seem to age – but maybe that’s representing the unchangeability of their love), told against a stunning soundtrack, by Marcin Masecki, ranging from folk music to jazz, blues, and rock, which itself tells the story of the passing years and the aspects of their love. Despite that it’s a cold watch, if like me you don’t ever really buy the central relationship. And therefore the final scene, consummately shot, which I knew in my head to be tragic, scarcely felt so.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, September 2018

The Guardians

Directed by Xavier Beauvois

Set in France during the First World War, The Guardians, or rather Les Guardiennes – female, as the French title shows – are the ones left behind in all wars, the make-do-and-menders, the ones who keep the home fires burning for whatever is coming after the war, the worriers and the mourners. Natalie Baye is splendid as the matriarch farmer Hortense, who runs the family farm with the help of a band of women and her elderly husband, while the young men, her sons and son-in-law, are away at the front. It’s hard, heavy work, to a background of constant anxiety, but the women do find a pleasure in the physicality of working together, in a way not always celebrated in female lives on film, and there’s a relief to be found in the rhythms of sowing, harvesting and work in the dairy. A similar feel to the calm laid over a community by mundane and repetitive working together in Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men.

The group is made stronger when Hortense hires a maid from the local orphanage, Francine (newcomer Iris Bry), who proves to be a sweet-natured, hard-working and modest girl. She also catches the eye of the younger son Georges when home on leave, and a loving relationship develops. But she will always be a hired hand, and in a plotline that cannot but put British viewers in mind of Hardy’s Wessex, events follow with that same tragic inevitability, with coincidental meetings, misunderstandings, petty motives, and ruined maids.

The men are peripheral figures, ghosts of their earlier selves drifting back on leave with haunted eyes, uncomfortable in their stiff battle-stained uniforms, no longer at home here. When one, the schoolmaster, revisiting his old school finds his class, wide-eyed, celebrating his bravery, he’s unable to answer their simple, chauvinistic adoration. The lane away from the farm down which they leave for the front becomes an autumnal walk towards death. The stunning cinematography of Caroline Champetier catches the melancholy and elegiac quality of the lives, its colour often as if muted by a sepia wash, a kind of elegy not just for the war dead but for the way of life.

Bereavement comes, as we know it will. And so does change, signalled by the arrival of American troops with their confident and casual ways billeted on the farm, spelling some personal disaster but also eventual peace, and the mechanisation that the war is utilising to such deadly effect is also beginning to make its mark on farming methods, something embraced by Hortense in her practical way. Grief and sorrow are powerfully portrayed, but the lives broken by war and its fallout will, somehow, go on.

seen at LFF, 2017

Leave No Trace

Directed by Debra Granik

It’s the green that stays with you after this film, the comforting green of the forests which are such a contrast to the monotone, barren badlands of Granik’s previous film Winter’s Bone (made, amazingly, 8 years ago). So from the beginning there’s always a sense of promise of new growth beneath the melancholy of this father/daughter relationship.

Will (Ben Foster) and his young-teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live camping out wild in the forests of North Western America, under the radar of officialdom. From the beginning we’re ill at ease about their situation – Is Will a survivalist? A member of a religious cult? An eco-warrior? On the run? – but we can also see that in many ways, though hard, it’s a good life, the relationship between the two is close, unfraught and undamaging, at one with nature, and whatever else Will’s life choice has done, it’s produced a caring, well-balanced and strong individual in Tom.

But even the deep woods are not so far from civilisation, and it’s not long before they are spotted and taken under the wing of society. A kindly and well-meaning wing, but one which Will cannot bear, as it emerges that he is a widowed veteran suffering from some kind of post traumatic stress, and is unable to settle among other people.

Tom, on the other hand, responds happily to life among others, and it’s a wrench when she’s persuaded to escape back to the uncomfortable and basic woodland life Will craves. You find that you’ve invested so much in the relationship between this pair that you want to shake this father, who really can’t help himself, into sense. It’s another thoughtful and rounded portrayal from Foster, and newcomer McKenzie is marvellously alive and sympathetic, as she grows into maturity and stands on the edge of a new more fulfilling life.

But it’s inevitable their previous closed-off life together can’t last. This close, loving and in so many ways beneficial relationship is at the same time inadequate and doomed. Yet the kindness of strangers, both sympathetic misfits and professionals trying to make the best of things, as well as the benevolence of the forests, offers a way out that leaves you with a feeling of the goodness of the world, despite everything, and a positive, safe feeling for the future. It’s spring, at the beginning of a life, rather than the winter that must be survived by the un-parented girl Ree in Winter’s Bone. As in that film, folk music plays its part, harking back to a simpler world, yet for once it’s a pleasure to come out of a film feeling maybe the world isn’t so bad a place, even now, despite the sadness and inevitable separations that break in on most human lives. We can look after each other.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, July 2018

Wanda

Directed by Barbara Loden

Despite winning the International Critics’ Prize at Venice in 1970, Wanda, independently and cheaply made on 16mm, bombed in the States and survived through pure chance, when in 2010 it was discovered at a West Coast film laboratory which was clearing out old stock before closing down. Restored at the UCLA TV and film archive, it was screened at various festivals around the world (I was lucky enough to see it at the 2011 London Film Festival). Now acclaimed by many both as an early feminist masterpiece and, in the circumstances of its making and subsequent history, an object lesson in the woeful position of women film-makers in Hollywood, it’s now receiving a re-release in the US.

Barbara Loden was an intriguing figure in mid-20th century Hollywood. As a young woman she worked as a magazine model, before getting small acting roles on stage and then in films, where she was ‘discovered’ by the method director Elia Kazan (whom she later married), who gave her the part of Warren Beatty’s sister in Splendour in the Grass.

Her experience was not dissimilar to Marilyn Monroe’s, whom she played in 1964 in Arthur Miller’s All That Fall. Acting to some acclaim, more on stage than screen, she was turned down for the part of Bonny in Bonny and Clyde, and in 1970 directed this, her only film, and one of the few directed by women during that period. It’s a film that hardly fits into any ‘type’ of the time, grittily realistic, character-led, bathetic, slow burning and unsensational, and giving us a central female figure who is passive and inarticulate yet somehow heroic. Wanda, played by Loden herself, is a rootless, depressed working class woman who begins by offending the American pie sensibilities by granting her ex- husband custody of her two children for their own good. Her shiftless journeyings around a fly-blown, scruffy American landscape and ends in her half-heartedly hitching up with a desperate loser obsessed with robbing a bank.

There may have been women as abused and bereft of self-esteem as Wanda in films, but rarely so lacking in self-awareness, so undramatically ground down that they scarcely care what happens to them, so innocent. It couldn’t be more remote from the romance and self regard of Bonny and Clyde, the stylish antithesis of this film. Loden paints the landscape as undramatic and hopeless as her characters. Wanda’s slow walk across the pit spoil-heaps of Pennsylvania as she leaves home looks far more European than any US film ever looked, then or now.

Despite the acclaim at Venice, Loden never got to direct another film. How far this was because Kazan her husband belittled her role in the making of it is anyone’s guess, an ironically Wanda-like situation but very much of its time, and she died of cancer ten years later.

 

Offside

Directed by Jafar Panahi

For anyone experiencing the cold turkey brought about by football’s momentary absence from our screens, it’s worth seeking out a film that, despite not showing a single kick of the ball, this is one of the best films about the experience of watching football that you’ll see. And so much more. Iranian director Panahi uses women’s exclusion from football as a metaphor for their wider repression of women in his society and its effects. But though that sounds grimly serious, don’t expect a depressing or dour film. Deeply serious it is, but despite all that not only is it very funny, but a terrific sense of sheer joy and optimism flood the final scenes. Long takes, non-professional actors and documentary-feel filming in real situations give it a Ken Loach style immediacy, but it’s also full of the beautifully composed shots we expect of Iranian cinema.

In Iran women are not allowed into football matches, ostensibly because they would be offended by the language, and would have to sit alongside men who aren’t family members. However, some women try their luck at getting in. It’s the day of the World Cup 2006 decider between Iran and Bahrain, and an elderly man is being driven along the city streets (a favourite Iranian cinema device), desperately seeking his daughter, whom he fears has made off to the football stadium.

Buses full of loud excited fans stream past, and in one sits a girl dressed, not very convincingly, as a boy. It’s her first time going to a match, she’s very nervous, and bottles out at the stadium entrance when faced with a pat-down search. She’s taken off to a pen just outside the concourse where she, along with five other young women, is guarded by a comical group of reluctant young soldiers, their leader just seeing out his time in the military while pining for his home back in the country. They’re a mixed bunch of women, fearful, streetwise, resigned, playful, and one, to the amazement of the soldiers, is actually a footballer herself.

The characters are subtly developed as they protest at the rules excluding them, and prevail upon one of their guards to commentate on the game which he can see a confined view of through a narrow gap in the wall (an echo of the traditional Islamic woman’s view of the world from purdah). It’s both funny and terribly sad. A young generation having to go through the motions of rules that they know there is no rationale for. It’s not just a football match that’s being withheld, but the possibility of self-expression and freewill.

The absurdity climaxes in a bravura comic scene as a young, not too bright soldier solemnly conducts one of the prisoners, absurdly made to wear a huge poster of a player’s face as a disguise, to the Gents’ (there is, naturally, no Ladies’) and struggles to keep bursting-bladdered men out while she’s in there. But the absolute magic comes in the final sequence as the army van takes the girls to the police station through a teeming, rejoicing Tehran (shot on the actual night of victory), guards and prisoners united at last in anxiety for the result then in heady celebration.

It’s one of those rare times when football really does, against all the odds, seem to show possibilities for true liberation, and the feeling of optimism is overwhelming. Dangerous stuff – in Iran the film was banned.

Transilvania International Film Festival – Part 4: Romanian Shorts; One Step behind the Seraphim; The Secret of Happiness; The Guilty

The 341 minutes of Romanian Short films in competition this year were as ever a rewarding watch, the usual mixed bunch, but with one clear winner. THE CHRISTMAS GIFT (Cadoul de Craciun) by Bogdan Mureşanu was a near-perfect, genuinely funny yet deeply affecting tale very reminiscent in mood of the best of the ‘Romanian New Wave’ of several years ago. It’s the evening of 20 December 1989, a date that will be very meaningful to Romanian audiences as the day before the fall of Nicolae Ceauşescu, and a father and his little son are returning home to their flat with their Christmas tree. The family are hunkering down for an austere but pleasant run up to Christmas, until the boy reveals what he’s put on the Christmas wish-list he just posted off. And it’s not exactly Ceauşescu-friendly. Panic. The strength of the film – as well as the lovely humanistic feel of ordinary life it gives – is the tension between our knowledge of what tomorrow will bring, and the father’s genuine terror at what might happen to him. His imaginings may now seem absurd, and we can laugh, but such absurdity was a fact of life in 1989. The film ends, as it began, with a Christmas tree, but this one celebrating more than just Christmas. This is a director with tremendous promise.

Among other excellent films was SUNDAY (Dorian Boguța), set in a care home run by frazzled workers where a few moments of tenderness are a catalyst for passion of a very different kind. The fine actress Ioana Flora appears in both this and the previous film. It received a special mention from the judges, along with MICHELANGELO, a sometimes comical but always delicate look at a parent’s coming to grips with telling their child about death (and thereby dealing with their own feelings about it), the directorial debut from actor Anghel Damian. And another actor making a similar debut with aplomb is Maria Popistaşu, whose SEAGULL also takes a sideways look at dealing with death as a daughter (played by the director) and her ageing father cope with an injured bird which has crashed in their garden. Meanwhile brooding tension was finely captured both by Andrei Crețulescu in PARABELLUM, with an ex-husband revisiting his former wife in her new home, that despite first appearances is never going to end well, and in Radu Potcoava’s increasingly menacing MISS SUEÑO where naïve Roxana awaits a trip to start a new life in Spain in the flat of the charming couple who have arranged it for her. And EVERYTHING IS FAR AWAY is a moving, superbly concentrated 15 minutes of a surprise birthday visit from a mother (Mirela Gorea) from the Danube Delta to her son in Bucharest, taking her disabled son along with her, that succeeds in expressing more of social anxieties, small kindnesses and the hurt of motherly love than a full length film might strive to do.

Two more Romanian films on my last full day: ONE STEP BEHIND THE SERAPHIM (Un pas in urma serafimilor) by Daniel Sandu is an engrossing coming of age story set in an orthodox seminary, where we see the young and idealistic Gabriel (Stefan Iancu) dealing with his own emergence into adulthood and coming up against the corruption of the real world. Sandu knows of what he speaks – he spent years in a seminary himself. Charismatic head of the seminary Father Ivan is the wonderful Vlad Ivanov, with that uncanny knack of his of turning on a sixpence from charm to icy malice. Ivan is expert at winning confidence, which he uses for his own ends, encouraging the young men to ‘snitch’ on one another, delighting in his power games. That schoolboy word covers real moral outrage, and it’s not hard to see the seminary as a metaphor for the society both specifically of the time, and in general. Gabriel is also discovering sex, and ditching his glasses and ruffling up his hair he’s soon down the local bar and into his surprisingly forward girlfriend’s bed. In contrast is the simple life of a village priest whom Gabriel visits in a vacation placement, a glance at a pure and holy life, but is this what he really wants for himself? Although the film gets a bit bogged down with too much of the same in the middle sections and, to the hard-bitten cineaste at least, the Zero de Conduite-borrowed pillow fight as symbol of innocence doesn’t quite work, it’s an entertaining film impressively acted. It’s message is less revolutionary than many such ‘school’ films – If springs to mind. Once purged, the school will continue, many of the boys, including, probably, Gabriel, will go on to become priests. It has a less radical message – that life is complicated, perhaps, that right does sometimes come out on top, and that there is hope and a future for the church if it moves with the times and is true to its own messages.

THE SECRET OF HAPPINESS (Secretul fericirii) by Vlad Zamfirescu, with its single scene setting, real-time action and   three-hander cast, may look like a screen version of a play, reminiscent of Polanski’s Carnage. But this is not to belittle it, and quite the opposite is true, a successful stage version having been devised soon after the film. It is very much an actors’ film, the three performances always under the spotlight, feelings and motives constantly evolving. But the increasingly claustrophobic feel of the affluent flat where Tom (director Zamfirescu) and Ana his wife (Irina Felcescu) have invited old friend David (Theo Marton) for dinner owes much to the camera’s framing of their conventional-seeming smart lives. And as the banter that begins jokily with the host’s rather flakey suggestion they might try swapping wives moves inexorably on to reveal the ugliness underneath their perfect lives, the camera homes in to linger pitilessly on faces that begin to drop their friendly smiles as truths emerge. Although the set-up takes a little too long to get going, the downhill slide to a nightmare finale is gripping.

My last morning in Cluj gave me chance to pick up on the film that won the Audience Prize. Gustav Möller’s THE GUILTY (Den skyldige) comes already garlanded with Audience Prizes from Sundance and Amsterdam, and you can see why. Jakob Cedergren is on camera throughout as Asger, a policeman who has for some at first unknown reason been demoted from normal duties for a while to the unloved job of answering emergency calls, and it’s on him that the entire film is centred, stuck on a police station switchboard dealing with an increasingly fraught apparent hostage situation. Like Tom Hardy in Locke, Cedergren’s performance is a masterclass in minimalist expression of emotion, as the camera scarcely moves from his face. As in the classy Danish TV thrillers we’ve all become addicted to in the UK, nothing is a simple as it seems, and the personal life and emotional state of the protagonist seeps subtly in. The sell-out audience in Cluj’s biggest cinema on a late Sunday morning were enthralled and utterly silent throughout.

So another TIFF ends. And I haven’t even mentioned the special Bergman retrospective to mark his centenary, showing seven of his key films, as well as Bergman Island, a documentary made in 2004 at his home where he talks candidly about his life, his work, his regrets, his fears… I also missed my chance to see any of the films of Fanny Ardant, this year’s Lifetime Achievement Winner, looking as youthful and vibrant and unconventional as she ever did. There’s always too much to get round to seeing in Cluj, and one inevitably comes away regretting what has been missed, what didn’t fit in your schedule. But it’s hard to find a dud among the delicious fare on offer, and this year that’s probably been more true than ever. Even the less satisfactory films at Cluj are almost always worth a look, and it’s still great to see a festival that’s as much for the public as for the professionals, many of whom can get to see what they want at another festival if it passes them by at this one. For residents of Romania, non-mainstream and foreign cinema is harder to come by, and the local residents and students pile into the cinemas, even at 10 in the morning, and there are many sell-outs. Then for the guest there are the other distractions- a stroll in the shady park or up to the Botanical Gardens, the market with its aroma of lavender and dill, the architectural delights of Cluj’s varied streets, the sweaty climb up to the Citadel for its views over the mixed roof-scape of the city… And oh the food… a lemonade along the Bulevard, a leisurely Cabbage a la Cluj at the Varzarie, the Goulash party, hastily grabbed street food between screenings, the cherries and the strawberries, the local cheeses and meats (including the one that is practically all fat, reminiscent of north country pork butchers offerings beloved of my grandma from my childhood), the unpretentious ciorbas at the Agape cafeteria surrounded by students and office workers on their lunch break, Doamna T’s restful and civilised retro tearooms. And the people – renewing acquaintances and making new ones at buffet lunches and parties, and falling into conversations with total strangers with no connection to TIFF who give you an insight into life in Romania. Festival’s the word!

PART ONE

PART TWO

PART THREE