Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
Writing comes partly out of being wounded by life. Something has had to have been bruised and shaken you a little bit; otherwise, why do we ask questions? It's very rare that people who have lived perfect lives become artists because the need to create art is connected to a need to heal something that is imperfect. Ben Okri
Africa is not only a continent in exile but also a land where people emigrate to. Abderrahmane Sissako
The impetus is northern but the theft is local, done with our complicity ... I strongly oppose the idea that Africa's key characteristic is poverty. She is the victim of her riches. I would rather we talk about pauperisation than poverty. In talking of pauperisation you pinpoint the mechanisms (of poverty) ... I say that the West has created and imposed two fears on itself: terrorism and immigration. We must stop presenting the problems' causes as the solution ... Everything can be bought or sold ... pay or die. That's the West's lesson that we inflict on ourselves. Being a writer doesn't mean I don't have a certain experience at dealing with aggressive stances in an open debate or on issues that I experience from the inside ... Why should the fate of people depend on their ability to produce and sell abroad? Today we see Africans who opt for emigration, who are economic refugees, arrested, handcuffed, deported, humiliated and sent back home. Our countries are not imploding today because, on a domestic level, the women play an important role. That is why they must refuse to be imprisoned within the conventional interpretation of the situation that says they are victims of their culture, society and men. Madame Traore during the trial of the World Bank and IMF in Bamako
I want to tell you a story. It's a Jewish story. Jacob was alone in a valley. And there he met a stranger. They started to fight. They fought and wrestled through a long, long night. But as dawn broke Jacob realised he could never defeat the stranger because the stranger was an angel. Or God. Or perhaps, all along, Jacob had simply been wrestling with himself. Sally Potter from The Tango Lesson
After an unjust death, there's nothing to say. Nothing at all. As will become plain below.
From the branch of an olive tree there hung a tiny chrysalis the colour of an emerald. Tomorrow it would be a butterfly, freed from its cocoon. The tree was happy to see his chrysalis grown but secretly he wanted to keep her for a few more years. So long as she remembers me. He'd shielded her from gusts, saved her from ants. But tomorrow she would leave to confront predators and poor weather alone. That night, a fire ravaged the forest and the chrysalis never became a butterfly. At dawn, the ashes cold, the tree stood still but his heart was charred, scarred by the flames, scarred by grief. Ever since then when a bird alights on the tree, the tree tells it all about the chrysalis that never woke up. He pictures her, wings spread, flitting across a clear blue sky, drunk on nectar and freedom. The discreet witness to our love stories. The Tree and the Chrysalis by Bachir Lazhar from Monsieur Lazhar
Out of Ireland have we come, Great hatred, Little room, Maimed us at the start, I carry from my mother's womb, A fanatic heart.
WB Yeates from Remorse for Intemperate Speech
I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decades. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fiction of every kind - mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to an experience by television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer's task is to invent the reality.
In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, it seems to me, have been reversed." JG Ballard
From my favourite author Joseph Conrad:
All a man can betray is his conscience.
Being a woman is a terribly difficult task since it consists principally in dealing with men.
I can't tell if a straw ever saved a drowning man, but I know that a mere glance is enough to make despair pause. For in truth we who are creatures of impulse are creatures of despair.
They wanted facts. Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything.
Go into the arts … The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow … Do it as well as you can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
The list will change by its very definition.
L'ombre familière (1958)
Estrangement (slight spoilers)
This eerie film captures well the feeling of estrangement in the midst of life that was central to Camus's novels. A young couple's friend commits suicide. His death leads to a crisis for the couple as the husband finds it increasingly difficult to work as a painter.
The wife recalls their last meeting with their doomed friend, Alexandre, when all three visited a deserted swimming pool in the middle of a forest being cleared slowly for the building of homes. The same forest where she met her husband years before. The three of them explore the pool before walking its length like sentinels of a dying humankind. Eventually recovery comes when the husband decides to make a film with the swimming pool as his setting.
The film reflects on many existential concerns such as living and dying and their dynamic relationship to one another. Also creativity, authenticity and falsehood. The film reminded me of La Jetee as it shares a similar dispassionate despair about people and humanity.
Round Trip (2012)
An Arab road movie (spoilers)
As of today I am the first female to vote for this film on IMDb; I've not seen such a set of voting stats before. It is sad that this film's voters are only males, for the film has much to say about female sexuality and emancipation, or lack of it, in the Islamic cultures of Iran, Syria and Turkey.
Walid is a taxi driver and has moved to Damascus from his village. Souhaire is an urban, young, middle class woman who is Walid's unofficial girlfriend. She is independent and free-spirited, which Walid appreciates, but she conceals this from society though she pushes the boundaries at times.
Most of their relationship is conducted in Walid's taxi cab, which he drives to remote spots for the lovers to enjoy one another's company. But even then society, in the form of other drivers, interrupt their solitude. Souhaire decides to make a long promised visit to a female relative in Tehran and encourages Walid to join her so that they can enjoy time together away from the many constraints. It becomes obvious that Souhaire's female relative is privy to Souhaire's plans for she leaves them an empty apartment for their brief visit.
To reach Tehran from Damascus the pair travel by train to lake Van in Eastern Turkey, from where they cross by ferry to a waiting train that continues onto Tehran. The director uses the shifting landscape to mirror the interior developments in Walid and Souhaire's relationship. We leave bright, sunny Damascus with its yellowy buildings and dust and head through a desert landscape before arriving in a snowy and wintry Turkey. From then on the winter weather continues but the landscape becomes more grey and industrialised as the train heads through rural Iran towards Tehran.
During their journey Walid and Souhaire occupy separate cabins because they are unmarried. Neither is meant to to visit the other, but they do and, with the assistance of the sympathetic train guard, who is a symbol as well as a character, they unlock the connecting door between the two cabins allowing them access to one another without drawing unwanted attention. This creates some tense moments; when the couple arrive in Turkey where they are checked by a customs officer and again in Iran where the police board with a female official in tow who roots through Souhaire's luggage and handbag.
When they cross lake Van to Iran, Souhaire has to adopt a head scarf. She does not have one so Walid buys her one, it is red. The red scarf blows away on the boat, much to their amusement but its replacement, bought in Iran, is grey. This moment is pivotal and signals a change in the relationship; where it was playful, it becomes serious and weighted with unwelcome thoughts about sexual relations for unmarried women. What begins as a journey of unbridled passion becomes cool and reflective and, as the film ends, we are left uncertain that the relationship will continue.
The film has enjoyed success in Dubai and the actress who plays Souhaire has drawn special mention. It is a short film at 76 minutes but well conceived; direct in its statements but nuanced in its handling of the characters and their affair. It comes recommended.
Stunning film (some implied spoilers)
Montse has hidden away many things, including herself, inside a run down apartment living like a shrew in her nest. Her younger sister, whose name we never learn, lives with her and leads a relatively normal life under the care of Montse even though the latter is subject to rages and hallucinations. When the younger sister reaches 18 a crisis ensues in the sisters' relationship as Montse is aware that her influence over the girl is diminishing. Desperate to cling to the life she has established, the frail and violent Montse kidnaps her neighbour, Carlos, after he seeks her help following an accident. Some of the events are reminiscent of the film Misery.
A stylish film that evokes the period well, the plot and reveals are predictable but the characters and the acting more than keep the film alive and engaging. Montse is played by an actress who looks as frail as her character's mental health. The younger sister is delicate but robust and Carlos is handsome and seductive. A supporting role for Luis Tosar as Montse's father is well done and Tosar lends a name to a relatively unknown cast.
This film is the debut for the directors and it is a finely drawn psychological drama that borders on horror. Although the film is punctuated by moments of humour and beauty, the pathos of Montse's fate makes this a very poignant film. The reveal about Montse's relationship with her sister and the final scene underline how sad and heavy is the fate of both sisters.
If you have the opportunity to see this film then take it. The film was delayed in production by Spain's financial woes. I hope these woes do not prevent the film getting international distribution.
Illegal migration (spoilers)
Two days before I watched this film 35 people were found concealed inside a freight container in the UK; one had died. This is not an isolated incident nor the worst tragedy to befall illegal migrants.
The Dupes is about three Palestinian men forced to migrate, illegally, to Kuwait in order to survive. They are refugees following the establishment of Israel, living in difficult and impoverished conditions. Abou Kaiss is a middle-aged family man with two sons to support. His land and his trees from which he earned his living as a peasant have been requisitioned by Israel. After much agonising he decides to try and get to Kuwait where he has heard money can be made even though he cannot imagine money as better than trees. Assad is a young man engaged to be married without any economic future. He flees after being accused of a form of treason. Marwan is the youngest of the migrants. His eldest brother was working in Kuwait and had been sending money home to his family, but this ceased when his brother fell in love. His father, in despair, walks out on the family leaving Marwan, the next oldest child, with the burden of supporting his mother and four younger siblings.
Each man journeys to Iraq ready to cross from there into Kuwait. The price the established smugglers seek is too high for Abou Kaiss and Marwan. Assad, having been duped by the smuggler who brought him to Iraq, is suspicious of the Iraqi smugglers and reluctant to pay their price with the conditions they attach. By chance Marwan meets a fellow Palestinian called Abou Kheizaran. He agrees to take Marwan for a much lower price if the latter can find some other men to make the risk of human smuggling economically viable for Kheizaran. Marwan persuades Kaiss and Assad, whom he has met at the same hotel, to join him. Together they embark on a perilous journey by water truck under the charge and care of Kheizaran.
Kheizaran is another Palestinian exile living and working in Kuwait for a wealthy employer. We learn that Kheizaran was badly wounded fighting for Palestine and his wounds cost him his manhood; whether this means his penis or testicles is not made clear. We know only that he is impotent. He is embittered and has sold his soul to money and, as he repeats, the more he makes the more he wants. He has a religious conversation with Assad on the road and they debate if he is an angel to the 3 men or not. Assad concludes that angel or not Kheizaran is their chief.
The film is full of religious images and fatalistic philosophy. The traditional Palestinian world rubs up against the modern world dominated by war and money. In such a world men are reduced to being rats; the big rats prey on the smaller ones and so on. There is little honour or trust between men; relationship are replaced by pecuniary interest. The land is forsaken and "a man without a homeland will have no grave in the earth".
So the four men embark on the drive from Bassra into Kuwait during which Kheizaran must smuggle them through two checkpoints. The journey is undertaken in the morning when the traffic is less and the scrutiny of vehicles reduced because of the rapidly increasing temperature. Kheizaran has calculated how long it will take him to negotiate each checkpoint and the calculation is to the minute. The 3 men must hide in his water tank at each crossing and the tank, which is empty, is a furnace in the desert heat. The difference between life and death in such circumstances is seconds as the average human can survive for 3 minutes without air and up to 10 minutes with air in extreme heat.
The first crossing works according to Kheizaran's plan but even then the men are shown to be suffering horribly. At the second crossing Kheizaran is delayed by a bureaucrat interested in the spurious stories he has heard of Kheizaran's amorous adventures in Bassra. The tension during this scene is as fierce as the sun; it is almost noon and the delay costs Kheizaran a minute or two. But this extra minute or two is too long for the 3 men. Kheizaran opens the water tank as soon as it is safe to stop after the check point. I held my breath. A bead of sweat from Kheizaran's face fell onto the tank and fizzled so hot was the outer surface of the tank. From within the tank there was no sound or movement; the men were dead.
The final scene was wrenching as Kheizaran dumps their bodies on a rubbish tip and, as we see the arm of Abou Kaiss reaching upwards, distorted and grotesque, the opening lines about a man without a homeland having no grave in the earth are repeated with the most ominous effect.
The Dupes/Al-Makhdu'un reminds me of The Wages of Fear/La Salarie de la Peu in terms of its structure - a long slow build establishing characters before a nail biting climax that ends in tragedy. The two films are similar in theme too; the perils men will face in order to make money to survive. The film is a tour de force even though its slow beginning taxes the viewer. Made in 1973 it is contemporary in its concerns about the Palestinians, illegal migration by economic refugees and the risks they have to endure to make their journeys. The film is a salutary reminder that whatever the cost illegal migrants are to their host countries, the costs are sometimes much higher for them and those who never succeeded in their journey.
L'image manquante (2013)
A very special film
This is a documentary about one person's experiences under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia between 1975-1979 when the country was called Kampuchea. The trauma of the horrors visited upon survivors of this period do not make for an easy telling. The film maker opted for an unusual and novel approach; recreating the story and events using miniature figurines that he hand carved. Lots and lots of figurines with hand made sets to accompany them. The images reminded me at times of the war/hell scenes for which the Chapman brothers are famous. It is a most effective medium for drawing a person into an arena of horror.
Anyone with knowledge of trauma survivors knows that retelling a traumatic story is not always a good course for the survivor. Using the figurines to depict the worst moments witnessed by the film maker facilitates the story in a way that is more separate. The separateness allows the survivor to engage without traumatising themselves further. Bravo to the film maker for finding the means by which to bear witness. This is one of those films where the form is the most significant feature of the film.
Accompanying the stunning visuals, which includes archive footage and photographs also, is a narrator whose speech is spare and poetic. I stopped my DVD and wrote out many of the lines; so simply and beautifully did they express a thought or feeling. One of the most important underpins some of the motivation for making the film:
"To hang on you must hide within yourself a strength, a memory, an idea that no one can take from you. For if a picture can be stolen, a thought cannot."
Later he says: "There are many things that man should not see or know. Should he see them, he'd be better off dying. But should any of us see or know them then he must live to tell of them."
In a situation where everything is taken from you and you are left with but two things - an outfit of black clothing and a spoon for eating meagre amounts of food - to be able to retain something of one's self, which includes people known, places visited, experiences, memories of a physical home and possessions, becomes essential to survival with mind intact. Furthermore if one survives an atrocity then the survivors have a duty, unsought but one nonetheless, to bear witness so that the atrocity might be known, acknowledged and learnt from. The film maker did both.
At age 13 the film maker and his family became prisoners of the Khmer Rouge when they invaded the capital city. During their years of hypocritical rule, as seems to be the case for every dictatorship, the film maker lost his dad, who chose to die, his mother, his siblings and his large extended family. He was one of those chosen to bury the dead in mass graves and knows not how he endured such a life but his retelling is piquant to say the least. The Khmer Rouge regime reminded me of the Nazi concentration camps. It reminds me that the Holocaust was not a defining moment in human history for such evil has happened before and since.
The title, the missing picture, is the main theme. It is a trope for the film maker's means of bearing witness. The archive footage is mostly propaganda. It does not show the effects of the society being promoted. The film maker had no photographs of his father withered from his fatal hunger strike. He has no photos of the minuscule food portions given to the adults and children whose lives consisted of endless hard labour. He has no photographs for the mud he drank in lieu of water. So he is recreating these photographs with his figurines and puppet sets. He is showing us the photographs in the only way he can; it matters that we see what he saw and heard and felt.
One would not expect such a film to be beautiful but this is; from the images, the form, the narration, the film maker's weary and collected wisdom. I was startled by the descriptions, photographs and songs from Cambodia pre-Khmer Rouge, or perhaps I should say from Phnom Penh - its capital, because it was so westernised. It was shocking to see what the leaders of the Khmer Rouge did to the city and its people. The film maker concludes: "This missing picture I now hand over to you so that it never ceases to seek us out." Humans seem destined to visit atrocities upon one another. If we cannot avoid such a fate then at least we can attend to the witnesses of this aspect of human life.
A fascinating film
Reading the IMDb reviews I was surprised that some were so negative about the film and cynical about its agenda. One review chose to attack the USA as part of their consideration of the film yet had the reviewer watched closely they would realise there was some irony in the fact that the soybean oil cans were labelled in 17 languages to reinforce that they had been donated by Americans. The film had lots of implicit criticism.
The main criticisms of the film were reserved for British colonialism and the heritage it bequeathed, which was to be found alive and well in the economic elite of Calcutta. Most of the film showed ordinary people in varying states of poverty, working, cleaning and celebrating and/or worshipping. It offered special mention at times for the excluded, e.g. the lepers, the migrants from Bihari and Madras to name some. What this film does is include as many of the people who comprised the population of Calcutta in 1968 and it's not always a pretty sight. But the city is complex.
Some favourite moments: One, the jute situation. Under British rule part of the then city grew the plants from which jute is made and the other part contained the factories for its processing. Post-colonialism and the eastern part of the city, containing the farmed jute plants, became Bangladesh, or East Bengal as it's referred to in the film. The factories remained in India. So Calcutta's municipality divided the land formerly used for rice giving half of it to grow jute plants. The consequence for the population was not enough rice to feed the population! A great illustration of the ludicrousness created by partition and the effects it has on the poor.
Two, manual labour. It was plentiful in Calcutta at rock bottom costs and so the unions were keen to discourage technological advance as it would threaten employment. Meanwhile the people are working very hard for pittances. How would one resolve this? Well that's a hypothetical question as technology has advanced nonetheless.
Three, the clay potter in one of Calcutta's slums. A moment of genuine and serene beauty; watching the man artfully spin his potter's wheel and then so deftly remove parts of the clay he's formed into perfect cups. The cups are then stored on the roof of the hut to dry out thereby providing a decorative temporary roof. Temporality was one of the spiritual themes of the film.
Finally, another complaint in one of the reviews was that the film intruded on subjects' privacy. There were moments when a person spotted being filmed and tried to cover themselves. So there's some legitimacy to this criticism. BUT I wonder if the reviewer picked up this minor detail - and it was minor as most subjects were curious about the camera - because they did not want to see certain people in certain states. The camera in the film lingers on its subjects but it spent time looking with attention. Whether the attention was on faces and hands ravaged by leprosy, a man washing himself in public view, or guests at a bourgeois wedding eating. The camera attended to its subject.
If you have the opportunity to see the film then take it, as it's not easy to get hold of. I have it as part of the Eclipse volume 2box set of Malle's documentaries. The set includes Malle's lengthy documentary called Phantom India. The footage he used in Calcutta was to form part of Phantom India but when he saw what he filmed he realised it was so compelling that it deserved to be a film in its own right.
Hiver nomade (2012)
Shepherds in the snow
This is a beautiful documentary that follows two shepherds, Pascal and Carole, as they lead 800 sheep on a winter trek across Switzerland. The shepherds and sheep are accompanied by 4 border collie dogs, including new puppy Leon, who is the son of head dog Titus, and 3 donkeys. The documentary feels like just that; a film documenting and showing what happens naturally. Of course there are editing choices that disrupt a faithful translation of what happens onto film but the film team are silent and unobtrusive throughout the journey made by the group.
We observe the relationship dynamics between Pascal and Carole and some of these are mirrored in the interplay of dogs and sheep. The trio of donkeys are more egalitarian and when one of them, Figaro, develops abscesses on his hooves that mean he has to be replaced, the new member, Paulo, is met with a frosty reception from the other donkeys. Later there is a small but significant scene where Paulo gets into difficulties and the 2 donkeys show their concern. He has been accepted at last.
Along the way sheep are taken off for market and one such sale affords Pascal and Carole money for a Christmas meal of oysters, fois gras and chocolate roulade with wine, enjoyed around a fire in the night of winter.
The winter is mostly white and when the snow ceases we see verdant hills and fields that the group cross. Along the way there is respite for Pascal and Carole as strangers and friendly acquaintances provide refreshment, hot food and even hot showers. The film captures their sensate experience as we feel the chill air, the bitter cold around the heat of a fire whose flames burn the cheeks, the sloughing off of dirt by a hot shower and the deliciousness of hot food and drink. There are other pleasures such as cuddling Leon, he being a hot water bottle when he needs carrying, the interactions with woolly sheep and dogs licking faces and hands. These feelings are evoked by the crisp footage on the screen. The only sounds are bells, bleating sheep and the odd baying donkey. Occasionally there is traffic and one amazing scene sees the whole troupe cross a bridge above a busy road. The traffic, sights of cars and the infrequent ringing of Pascal's mobile phone feel intrusive and alien in this pastoral film.
Such an existence is undoubtedly hard but brings its own rewards as humans and animals co-exist peacefully for a short time as travelling companions in a landscape with which they are one.
Elefante blanco (2012)
A parade of white elephants
There are two dominant symbols in the film that represent its major themes: the unfinished hospital that is the white elephant of the title and the murder of priests.
An unfinished white building that was supposed to be a hospital and carried the ambitions of various Argentinian leaders to be the best hospital on the continent, has become the centre of a Buenos Aires slum. Surrounding the building are more make shift dwellings that house people and the community's chapel. On public land outside, building has begun on a project to provide new permanent homes for the slum dwellers, a community centre and, at the centre, a new church. This building is soon abandoned by the development company after its employees' wages fail to materialise. Who is responsible for paying the wages is not established amidst the bureaucracy. The community's anger when the work ceases boils over into a violent confrontation with the police that ends in fatality.
A 'white elephant' is an expression for the evident presence of something ignored or not spoken about. As a symbol it is prevalent throughout the film and is a leitmotif. Other white elephants include the wealth of the Catholic church contrasted with its parishioners; the question of why a priest, as a representative of faith, cannot marry or have sexual relations yet can preach on these matters; the summary justice visited on the slum dwellers by authorities that mirrors the criminal behaviours they are there to prevent; and, the biggest white elephant of them all, why don't the elected leaders act? Why are the slum dwellers left poor? If they can make homes from nothing then why can't homes be made for them?
The incomplete hospital represents the shifting and unsettled politics of Argentina with investment being provided and then withdrawn as the country's elected leaders changed. Thus the film can be viewed as a comment on the turbulent political sands of South America and the divide between wealthy and poor as much as on Argentina and Buenos Aires.
The other symbol of the film is Father Carlos Mugica, a real life figure who, like the character of Father Julian (Ricardo Darin), hailed from an affluent background and devoted his religious life to the poor. Mugica was assassinated for his efforts by an anticommunist political group and this serves as a reminder of the high price leaders of the poor and disenfranchised can pay when society's paymasters feel threatened.
The film opens in another South American country, Peru, where another poor community are being massacred as the authorities hunt for their priest, Father Nicolas (Jeremie Renier), who manages to elude capture. We do not learn what Fr Nicolas has done to invite such wrath but given what we see of Fr Nicolas later he was probably campaigning in an active way for his parishioners betterment, which was at odds with the authorities' wishes. During his convalescence he is visited by his colleague and confessor Father Julian who persuades him to return with him to Buenos Aires and help with the work the church are engaged in at the slum. Fr Nicolas's introduction to the reality of slum life hits him on his first night when the quiet is interrupted by gun fire and a pounding song on the soundtrack underlines how busy and noisy will be his new environment.
The film's strength is its depiction and evocation of slum life. The director, Pablo Trapero, filmed in an actual Buenos Aires slum and many of the minor players and extras were from the local population. In spite of the poverty and crime the slum is shot in a way that shows its quirky beauty, the care of the people for their environment and its vitality.
Contrasted to the pulsating slum life are the sterile and hierarchical meetings held by the church leaders with Fr Julian. One of the film's debates, explored via Fr Julian and Nicolas, is the issue of faith and its relationship, if any, with sinful behaviour. Remote and privileged, the religious leaders follow an orthodoxy that cannot adapt to the challenges faced by their priests in the slum and in this they fail their priests who are left to their own devices amidst the ensuing chaos. The actions of Fr Julian and Nicolas might be viewed as sinful but it seems equally sinful not to act, as is the decision made by the church leaders.
One major criticism of the film is that its desire to be faithful to slum life makes the film very busy and more like a series of vignettes than a story following one or two characters. Indeed the main characters become symbols themselves rather than fleshed out people. On my first viewing I was left dissatisfied with the film as a result. A second viewing helped greatly as I was no longer concerned with plot and could focus instead on the themes and how characters and events contributed to them. Overall I think the film is a good one with strong acting, superb sense of place and time and a cracking soundtrack that contrasts popular music with orchestral pieces composed by Michael Nyman that are like dirges contributing to a prevailing sadness. Throughout the film mourns, without sentimentality, the plight of the slum dwellers and the losses in their lives and of those who try to help, as well as the loss of individual aspirations and hopes.
Someone has described Trapero's films as muscular and that is a good way to view this film. It is strong and dynamic and encourages one to think about it and what is being portrayed.
Pour une femme (2013)
A paean for one's parents (slight spoilers)
This film is semi-autobiographical, based on the director's family of which we are reminded during the closing credits when pictures of the cast are replaced by black and white photographs that I assume to be the director's parents and close family.
This is a handsome period piece set mostly in the 1940's though it features some scenes in the late 80's and 1990 that coincide with the deaths of the parents. The film concerns French resident Jewish survivors of WW2 and concentration camps. We learn that Michel and Lena meet at such a camp; he was interred as both an enemy soldier and a Jew, she because she was Jewish. He saves her from certain death and as a consequence of this she agrees to marry him. In 1945 they have their first of two daughters, Tania, and Michel settles into life as a tailor in Lyons pioneering different cuts, styles and fabrics for men's suits. Michel has been helped into business by fellow Communist, Maurice, and the pair become friends as do their wives with Michel devoting his spare time to the Communist cause.
Into this idyll arrives Michel's brother, Jean, who was assumed to have perished fighting in WW2. His arrival heralds discoveries such as what became of their parents, Michel's troubled relationship with his father, the political activity of French and European Jews post-war hunting Nazis who are fleeing capture and trial and, most importantly, Lena's restlessness in her marriage to Michel.
Michel loves Lena with a devotion that he retains until death. Lena married Michel from gratitude and never quite feels the same passion although they enjoy a loving marriage. Lena and Jean are attracted to one another immediately and this attraction signifies the beginning of the end of her marriage to Michel although it will be a few more years before she leaves him.
The film is told from the perspective of Anne, the younger daughter, who we see at the start reminiscing and writing about her parents' story. The story is romantic and bittersweet and set as it is post-war amongst Jewish survivors, it has a certain epic quality, as though it stands for the truth of those times. Above all the film is very respectful and the closing lines capture the tone of the film well; these are them in English translation:
"We're given a family to begin with and create our own story where there's room or where there's light. We grow up as best we can between unspoken words, unanswered questions. And then one day we look at our parents as a man and as a woman we might have met and simply loved for what they were."
As a paean to parents the film works very well. Parents are likened to the perfume of the title 'pour une femme'; their scent lingers though their essence, when gone, remain ineffable. The perfume Michel buys Lena, a bottle of which is found by the sisters after his death, issues some of its fragrance though it is decades old, as was Michel and Lena's marriage.
Although it falls into sentimentality sometimes the film balances well the mixed feelings of the people and the times. I have reached an age where the loss of my second parent seems imminent and the film's tone and paean resonated deeply with me. The soundtrack is lovely and the ending song exquisite. Diana Kurys has produced a gentle, splendid film. Unfortunately its gentleness might lead it to be overlooked and/or undervalued.
Art House Cinema Meets Action/Gangster Genre (slight spoilers)
Salvo is an enforcer and hit-man for a local mafioso known simply as 'Boss'. Following an attempt to ambush and murder Boss, Salvo hunts down the perpetrator, a local criminal rival, and kills him. Unfortunately the perpetrator, Renato, has a sight-impaired sister, Rita, who witnesses her brother's death. Rather than kill Rita Salvo takes her hostage and hides her in a disused quarry, which is the burial site for Boss's multiple victims.
What follows is a slow and intense process by which we see Salvo, an inscrutable individual of few words, redeem himself. His redemption is accompanied by Rita regaining her sight, in a way that is not made clear and felt unsatisfactory to me. Nonetheless there was sufficient integrity in the film that I accepted this change, which feeds the theme of redemption.
The film is without incidental music/soundtrack and has lots of long shots with abstract visuals, especially where the intent is to recreate the world as Rita perceives it. This was very well done. The colour palette is mostly blue/grey/black with bursts of white. All these choices create a brooding and reflective mood. They evoke well how Salvo and Rita might feel in their situations and predicaments. There are moments of quiet humour too though these serve to underline the intense concentration of the film rather than disrupt it.
Led by Saleh Bakri the minimal cast were superb. The actress who plays Rita was most effective as a blind/sight-impaired character. The scene where Bakri as Salvo does a reconnoitre of Renato's house while simultaneously avoiding and stalking Rita was superb. Rita's slow realisation that she is not alone in the house and in danger was so well conveyed by the actress, Sara Serraiocco. This was my favourite scene closely followed by the final one, about which I will say no more.
The plot suggests one type of film but in actuality it is an independent art house product. Insular and focused on character development where mood and lighting are more prevalent than words and as significant. It is slow, detailed and demands a type of attention from the viewer not required by most action films.