Patrice Chereau is Napoleon, out to conquer Egypt. Michel Piccoli is Cafarelli, one of Napoleon’s generals and a man of science. Cafarelli falls in love with Ali (Mohsen Mohieddin) AND his brother, Egyptian patriots who learn to love him but — Ali at least — not that way. It’s an anti-colonial, very queer film, not afraid of placing poetry in the midst of impressive spectacle. The first of Chahine’s France-Egyptian co-productions involving Humbert Balsan. It got bad reviews from both the French and the Egyptian press upon first release and has since become a classic, the only one of Chahine’s films we’ve been able to find released on blu-ray (and as a ‘Heritage’ film in France). The podcast touches on all of these subjects and, when scenes are discussed, clips are provided:
The version shown on Kuwaiti television with English sub-titles discussed by Richard at the beginning of the podcast:
and what follows are clips from scenes discussed in the podcast:
a: the beauty of the film itself and the uses of Egyptian landmarks.
b) the wonderful scene with Patrice Chereau as Napoleon dancing
c) the uses of poetry. A film that is not afraid to deploy it narratively nor nor create it visually.
d: Anti-colonial struggles
A lesson in love: power dynamics, desire, sex, affection. Chahine dramatises it with many colours and in various dimensions.
Martin Stollery is the author of a monograph on Youssef Chahine’s The Emigrant (see below), the most sustained analysis of any one Youssef Chahine film I’ve been able to find in English. The film is available to see on Netflix and seems more pertinent and resonant than ever. In the podcast above Martin and I discuss the film itself; how it allegorises; the meaning and uses of water in Chahine’s films; the famous court case that is part of the context of the film’s release; and the tension between the film’s relationship to Biblical epics as well as Youssef Chahine’s more personal style of filmmaking. An illuminating discussion of texts, contexts and modes of analysis that ends with a renewed appreciation of Chahine’s achievements as a director.
In conversation, Martin mentioned that his work on Chahine was sparked by a series of Arab films programmed by Channel Four in the late 80s/ early 90s. I asked Sheldon Hall to check up on this for me, and he generously provided a pdf of all the films screened from 88-91, which you Chahine-films-1988-91. Sheldon notes that ‘For the record, the Arab ‘season’ seems to have been only three films: ALYAM ALYAM, CAIRO CENTRAL STATION (sic) and REED DOLLS. CCS was repeated in the Cinema of Three Continents series on 05/08/1990. ALEXANDRIA ENCORE was shown in the same series on 17/11/1991. The TVT review is by David Quinlan, the RT one by Derek Winnert. First showing of CCS was 08/02/1988′.
The Youssef Chahine Podcast has never been so lucky before: you can now see the film on Netflix, listen to the discussion above, and then follow up the author’s discussion by reading the book on the film.
The French legal scholar Nathalie Bernard-Maugiron has published a nice piece on the trial: Bernard-Maugiron N. “Legal Pluralism and the Closure of the Legal Field: the al-Muhajir Case”. In B. Dupret, M. Berger et L. al-Zwaini (eds.), Legal Pluralism in the Arab World, Kluwer Law International, La Haye-Londres-Boston, 1999, 173-189.
Below is the shot mentioned by Martin in the podcast from Cairo as Told by Chahine – about fourteen minutes into the film – ‘quotidian spirituality and the sensuality of cinema combined in an inclusive, utopian image of what Chahine wants Egyptian culture to be’.
This is the longest trailer Martin’s been able to find for the Marianne Khoury film:
I include the gif I made to advertise this podcast
….as well as the trailer, merely because I had fun making them and they do give a flavour of the film:
A teen musical à la Tennesse Williams with Shakespearean overtones and a blood wedding that would put both García Lorca and Game of Thrones to shame. Richard Layne and I discuss all of this in the context of both Chahine’s career, it was his first film after the Trilogy of Defeat (The Land,The Choice,The Sparrow) –and the political context of the time, with the Civil War in Lebanon, one that was to last fifteen years, starting in 1975, the year before this Algerian-Lebanese-Egyptian co-production was produced.
The film is structured around the Old Testament Story, with a Cain and Abel structuring device also accompanied by a Romeo and Juliet story, in this case, and in keeping with the film’s Marxist analysis, a love made impossible by a class divide. It also borrows from the André Gide short story of the same name which explores the impossibility of having one law that fits all.
The film is a very hybrid generically, but it IS a musical. In The Arab National Project in Yousssef Chahine’s Cinema, Malek Khouri writes,
The first musical number takes place at school where the two young dreamers Rafida and Ibrahim express their friendship and love for each other. The second song accompanies Ali’s release from prison and introduces us to his character through flashbacks of his lost time in prison and his consequent disillusionment with his political dreams and hopes. The third follows the fight between Ibrahim and his father Tulba, as Ibrahim and his father Tulb, Ibrahim and Tafida join other youths in proclaiming ‘The streets are ours,’ reflecting the solidarity and determination of youth in the fight for social change and freedom. The final song is inItially heard when Ibrahim is bit by a scorpion, and is heard once again as a mantra towards the end of the film as the bloody chaos explodes at the Madbouli household’ (p. 108)
The music is glorious, as you can see below in the footage of Sadat’s funeral, that leads to a full-blown musical number, with dancing.
The film’s first musical number is this lovely one about the ending of school.
This is continued by a song that refers both to Egypt after Nasser but also to the love story between our two young protagonists.
A song that. is reprised in the incredible finale for the film, which is as lurid and violent as anything in Titus Andronicus:
…and as always, Chahine puts his hopes in youth and the future:
I made this trailer for the podcast that gives a flavour of the film as a whole:
Two mouths hungrily kiss. The camera pulls back to reveal it’s two young men, Rui (Nuno Gil) and Pedro (João Carreira). They’ve just celebrate their fist anniversary and exchanged rings: they’re madly in love. Their favourite film is Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961) and their song is ‘Moon River’:
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way
Two drifters, off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see
But it’s not to be. As Pedro leaves to go home, his car crashes and he’s thrown through the windshield. The scene where Rui finds him made me purr. It’s a complete Sirkian moment but with a swooney romanticism Sirk himself was incapable of: Rui cradles Pedro, now a corpse, in his arms. The rings they’ve exchanged glisten in the darkness. At the very moment Rui embraces Pedro, it begins to pour with rain, a totally expressive rendering, just like the beginning of Written on the Wind (1956); and the citation is not accidental: A poster of Sirk’s Tarnished Angels is prominently pictured in Rui’s bedroom.
The other protagonist of Two Drifters is Odete. We’re introduced to her roller-skating through a supermarket looking very much like Shelley Duvall in an early Altman movie. The song playing is Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’. When she gets home Odete, tells her boyfriend she wants to have a baby. He just wants to fuck. She lashes back at him. They part, and she’ll spend the rest of the movie, like Rui, engulfed in grief, seeing the other side of Clouds:
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
Rui and Odete will meet at the Pedro’s funeral. She will first try to pretend she’s carrying Pedro’s baby, then begin to shape herself into Pedro himself. Rui and Odete will end up together. But not as you think. And with Pedro looking on.
I’m an admirer of Rodrigues’ O Fantasma, which I think a great masterpiece. Two Drifters is almost as good: a very beautiful dramatisation of love, loss, grief and mourning — very moving, very queer. It makes me sad that so many of us spend so much time spouting our disappointment in Marvel or Tarantino instead of devoting more time to the depth and beauty of films like this one. I shall be seeing it again.
A film that begins as a slacker sex farce and develops into a poetic dramatisation of changing desires. Bruno (Manuel Vignau) regrets dumping his girlfriend (Mercedes Quinteros) and wants to win her back. She’s now got a new boyfriend, Pablo (Lucas Ferraro) and whilst continuing to shag Bruno on the side claims no desire to get back together with him. Bruno hears from one of Pablo’s friends that he’s known to have expressed an interest in men and decides to seduce him in order to break up their relationship and win back his girlfriend. You can guess how it will end.
One of the pleasures of watching foreign films is to learn about other cultures. Here the bodies, faces, flats, utensils; the ways of being; the spaces people inhabit and the norms of the culture in which the protagonists dance their game of seduction; all seem strange and appealing to me.
The film depicts an interesting tension. The protagonists watch TV, have sleepovers, talk about treasured childhood toys, they get to know one another and in doing so discover feelings for each other they didn’t know they had in them. Dramatically, the physical dimension of desire in the film is always blocked, sometimes literally as when half-way through the film, Bruno and Pablo are sleeping together, Pablo goes to cuddle up with Bruno in the night, and Bruno’s arm rises up like a shot to block him. The film seems to take place in a world of feeling — confusing, unexpected, troubling — where homosexual desire is seen as burgeoning but with no release. Characters are confused by their own feelings, uncertain of the feelings and motives of the other, scared to express for real what has heretofore only been expressed as a joke. It’s very beautifully done.
The formal aspects of the film tell a different story. one that is in productive tension with what we are shown. The camera lingers on these young men’s faces, finding beauty in a glance, a gesture, a way of speaking. The camera is often fixed so that we first see characters from their crotches or bums before they sit down so we can get a big close-up their faces. The camera is often placed low so that we get particularly sexualised views of the characters bodies. And yet it’s only a look at. The faces and bodies themselves are not fetishised by make-up, lighting or lenses. It’s almost as if the rapt attenuation of desire inherent in this particular way of filming sexualises the relationship in a way the protagonists restrain themselves from until the end.
In attitude, if not in looks, Bruno is like John Malkovich’s Viscomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, a better looking but equally charming sexual mercenary who ends up hoisted on his own petard. However, the filming of it reminded me of Ozu or Takeshi Kitano. Scenes often begin on empty spaces, anticipatory of the people that will soon inhabit them; and scenes often end on empty spaces; characters have lived a moment; and the irresoluteness of it lingers and overhangs the scene.
The characters speak of feeling; the use of the camera speaks of sex; the editing of that deeply felt but as yet unresolved. The combination spoke to me of a sexual awakening with all the urgency, hesitation, confusion, humour and embarrassment one remembers from life.
. And I can see why to an extent: there’s a shared theme of sexual awakening here, and with a much more complex rendering of the spectrum of sexuality than in most movies (and one that Call Me By Your Name still hasn’t been given credit for). But the styles are very different.
Plan B is slower, more meditative, with leisurely editing, sparse shots composition, terrible music, and many shots where the audience is only half informed and where what the characters are reading or even saying to each other remains unheard by us. It’s a film with mystery, beauty and feeling; all achieved with the simplicity one has to be very skilled in order to achieve. I look forward to seeing the rest of Berger’s oeuvre.