A nun bribes some children to guide her to a doctor who she insists cannot be Russian or Polish. They ask for money but she has none so she gives them her rosary. They take her to the French Red Cross, find Dr. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) and ask for help. Dr. Beaulieu is a working-class communist but the Red Cross is only there to help their wounded and mop up their operation before moving to the French section of occupied Berlin. It is not within the remit of the French Red Cross to help locals, indeed it would be a danger to do so amidst Polish and Soviet forces, and thus she refuses. As she wakes up the next morning, she looks outside her window and finds that the nun is still there, knees on the snow, praying to God for help.
Moved by such faith and also probably made aware of need and desperation, the good doctor decides to help. When she arrives at the convent, she finds a nun in the process of giving birth. The child’s in breech, the nun refuses to be touched, but the good doctor nonetheless manages a caesarean and mother and child are saved. Despite the nuns’ resistance, the good doctor insists on returning to provide aftercare and soon discovers that seven of the sisters are pregnant and all due to give birth almost at the same time. It seems that they were all brutally raped, young and old, first by receding German forces, then by invading German ones. There’s also an attempted gang rape of the good doctor by Soviet Forces whilst returning from the convent to the Red Cross at dawn – a narrow escape.
Thus is set into a motion a film about the brutality of men and the strength of women, about a sisterhood that exceeds the narrow range of convent walls, about mothering and children, about faith and goodness that needs no faith to exist. The Innocents is a female-centred film, feminist too. It’s largely shot in close-up and mostly within convent walls and snowy landscapes. It at times feels slow but it is the type of slowness that embeds itself in one’s mind, makes one linger on images, ponder themes, think through what the film presents and how it presents it long after the film is over. It’s a film worth watching.
A Québécois action film? I had to see it! It turns out that there’s been a lot of action films made in Quebec since I last had a look in. As Brendan Kelly points out in The Montreal Gazette, this one’s a sequel to the very successful Nitro (2007) by the same director; a Fast and Furious knockoff about a man returning to his criminal past in order to get the heart transplant his wife so urgently needs. The sequel begins with the hero, Max (Guillaume Lemay-Thivièrge), in jail due to what happened in the original; with his now teenage son Théo (Antoine Desrochers) involved in a criminal gang as a hacker, and Max’s attempt to reconnect with and protect Théo, who blames his father for his mother’s death and wants nothing to do with him.
Nitro Rush is not so much a genre movie as a ‘genres’ movie, bringing together jailbreak film, heist film, chase film, and encasing it all within a father/son melodrama punctuated by lots of cleverly done action. It’s not quite good but I enjoyed seeing it very much. I loved seeing the city I grew up in as a space for action instead of merely the place where people in Québécois movies examine their troubled psyches; I liked seeing well-loved actors such as Micheline Lanctôt (as ‘La femme en noir’, the government operative who makes a deal with Max) and Antoine Olivier-Pilon (so alive and emotionally transparent as the protagonist of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy) get a chance to do their stuff and do it so well. I liked seeing what types of action can be achieved on a low budget (an extensive range, with the heroine, Daphne — Madelaine Péloquin — doing quite a lot of it); and I found it genuinely thrilling. I also liked seeing the dreams and aspirations of a culture revealed to us in these low budget-genre movies by choice of penthouse décor, costuming, ideal body-types, the gadgetry associated with particular types and and social-sexual-familial relations,
I find these genre films often more revealing ideologically than those auteurist ones through which an individual conscientiousness tries to find expression. Genre films from smaller national cinemas don’t just aim please the populace, they’re also a necessary training ground through which the filmmakers can get experience, try out things, take chances; play with action, time and desire. Nitro Rush is the product of a ‘national’ cinema in dialogue with its culture in a way that auteur films are so often not. It really is not very good. But I enjoyed it very much and it was worth my while.
Whilst waiting for a screening of Miklós Jancó’s The Round-up (Hungary, 1966) at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, I wondered onto an exhibition of photographs by Gabor Szilasi, a Hungarian photographer who emigrated to Montreal from Budapest after the popular uprising of ’56 and made a specialism of shooting Québécois filmmakers, often on set, always in context. The one on which my eye most lingered is the above, entitled, ‘Chambre de Louis-Philippe Yergea’ taken in Rollet, Témiscamingue, on July 1979.
At first glance I though, ‘this is what a gay man’s bedroom looked like in rural Quebec before the age of the internet’. I imagined Monsieur Yergea making annual trips to Montreal, buying the little porn then available and hanging it up on the walls and ceiling of his bedroom as object of veneration, worship, desire; fetish objects, wank material, make-do objets d’art; a bricolage of Yergea’s longings and desires. I can’t imagine anyone, rural or urban, having a bedroom like that now, with images proliferating in the internet and in the rest of our culture as they do.
A closer look reveals that it’s not only naked men on the walls; there are naked women also; we see a picture of the Virgin Mary, to the right of a naked man, above what might be Shirley Temple; below the naked man and to the left of Shirley Temple, is a glam shot of a couple, elegantly dressed, the woman bearing a striking resemblance to Faye Dunaway (an even closer look reveals that the couple is Johnny Halliday and Sylvie Vartan, French icons of the era). On the corner, above lots of spread-eagled young men is a holy portrait of Joseph and Child. The sacred and profane mingled together, mixed up with traces of pop-cultural icons; all surrounding the bed; a place for sex, dreaming, contemplation, rest and unrest, oblivion and wakefulness. What thoughts did those images and their placement give rise to? Why were they so meaningful that they necessitated nightly viewings instead of, say, being taken out from under the bed for easy arousal. Why the necessity of display, of having one’s mind fed by those images, nightly. Also, did anybody ever accompany Monsieur Yergea into that bedroom? Was it a private place, or was it occasionally open to others? Did he share the house with anybody; and if so, what did they make of the longings on display?
Simon Greenacre pointed out to me the similarity of Yergea’s room to Joe Orton’s: both are wall to wall cut-outs, imagery used as wallpaper, and both are in a bedroom (see Joe Orton’s below). One can feel the desire and inspiration both sets of images sought to evoke. But their differences are also very considerable. One is on the high-cultural side — roman statues, royal portraits, Van Gogh self-portraits. Some of Yeager’s are also icons of veneration and emulation but most of them are more low-rent and available: desirable men and women, offering themselves up to the camera, and presumably to Yergea’s gaze. The images of those anonymous bodies, coupled with the highly specific faces of the saints, brings out the play of the sacred and the profane, there to be worshipped but also as spur to defilement, a kind of ecstasy before death, or at least the ‘little death’ that is so concretised in Yergea’s bedroom.
Joe Orton’s bedroom
Mostly, the photograph (and indeed those of Joe Orton’s bedroom) once more underlined to me how powerful images of all kinds once where. I remember once entering a church in Seville, one which had previously been a mosque and before that a synagogue; going in from the grinding sun into the coolness of the church, and as one went into the darkness, the eye was entirely focused on an icon of the virgin, the only source of light descending as if from the heavens to illuminate it. The light brought out all the sparkles in the dress that costumed the icon so as to give it a glow, like an inner fire. It was like a mise-en-scène of religion and of desire, one that in this context, affected all senses, the smell of incense, the feeling of coolness, the removal of sound. I wondered then what it must have been like to grow up in medieval times and grow up with this being one of the few images one had access to seeing. The awe and wonder it must have inspired, the richness, the beauty, the desire, the sex, the heavenliness of it all. I felt we had lost that now that images of every kind are available everywhere. But it was still there for Louis Phillippe Yergea in his bedroom in 1976, if with the sexual element already clearly a dominant.
A cinephile’s dream movie. The sparse lettering of the opening credits begin, that 30s version of jazz standards start on the soundtrack, and one’s spirits lift. One knows one’s in safe hands. One knows one’s in a Woody Allen world. Café Society glows with a kind of nostalgia for how romance should be, how it used to be in classic movies. The great Vittorio Storaro bathes all the early scenes in a soft yellow light, as if this world is seen through a piece of amber. The palette will turn bluer, if never dark, as the film unfolds and the protagonists discover the glamorous lives they once dreamed of and now enjoy have come at a price.
Café Society is a film buff’s movie: we get to see the houses of Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy’s. All major movie stars are mentioned as within the radar and reach of agent Phil Stern (Steve Carrell). We get to see Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy and William Powell in Riffraff and Barbara Stanwyck in Red-Headed Woman. Characters tell anecdotes of how proper Irene Dunne is and of Robert Montgomery’s palazzo in Venice. Romance blossoms in Malibu frolicks. The air is thick with Ginger Rogers being unsatisfied and searching for new representation.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, Phil Stern’s nephew, sent by his mother (Jeannie Berlin) to Hollywood so that he could get a job and benefit from some nepotism. He is Woody Allen’s best ever alter-ego (and it seems that for several decades now every young star who could possibly pass for Jewish (Jason Biggs) and even those who can’t (Hugh Grant) has now had a go) Everything Eisenberg does does is interesting, and the self-criticism that comes across more as an assertive condence in Allen is more gentle and believable coming from Eisenberg. He and Kristen Stewart are a dream couple, both glamorous and gauche. She wears jewellery like she doesn’t care for it, as if Louise Beavers or one of those big saucy black maids of 30s movies plonked it on her head whilst lazily dropping cigarette ash into the soup. The setting, the music, the family, even the tone, recall Radio Days (though the family is not as sharply delineated here as there).
The film is structured as two triangles centred on Kristen Stewart (Vonnie). She’s Phil’s secretary and is having an affair with him when he asks her to show his nephew around Hollywood. Phil’s always promising to divorce his wife and marry her but they’ve been married for twenty-five years, they’re Jewish, and it looks like it’s never going to happen. As Vonnie shows Bobby around, they fall in love and Bobby proposes; and that’s what spurs Phil to tie the knot with Vonnie. The theme of the film is that timing is everything, and how when it comes to love these lovely people, who really are meant for each other, their romance is simply mis-timed. They’re out of step even though they’re longing to dance together.
The film gets its title from the group of aristocrats, celebrities, politicians and gangsters who are precursors to the jet set of the 60s and who met up in glamorous upscale bars in Manhattan. This is where Phil goes, backed by his gangster brother ,to make a success of himself, find another Veronica to be happily married to and start a family. And yet….If Phil-Vonnie-Bobby form one triangle, when the setting turns to New York, Bobby-Vonnie-Veronica becomes another.
Café Society asks you to keep in mind the differences between the two Veronicas, the differences between New York and Hollywood, London and New York, that it is all driven by a kind of gangsterism and that it is all imagined through a 30s lens (there’s even a Catholic conversion scene in jail that is a nod to Angels with Dirty Faces). It tells is story through a differentiation of knowledges, who knows what, when, though here played for suspense and farce rather than melodrama and tears. Though tears, or at least a welling of them, overhang the last part of the movie without fully being expressed.
The song list, all from the great American Songbook and most (all except those from the nightclub scenes) heard in their original versions by the likes of Count Basie and Benny Goodman tells the story (and what a songlist!): Jeepers Creepers, My Romance, The Lady is a Tramp, Zing, Went the Strings of My Love, Out of Nowhere, This Can’t be Love. It’s glorious, as is the end, which seems adult, realistic and romantic at the same, achieving the same rueful tone, a wise loving in an acknowledgment of what cannot be, that echoes so many of the songs. Do you have to be conversant with 30s and 40s culture to appreciate it fully? Maybe, but if so, get cracking. I loved it.