A Film For September: La Ciénaga

If I was asked to sum this film up in a sentence it would be that this is the kind of film where the loo seat is always left up.

In the opening scene of La Ciénaga (The Swamp) a group of adults are drinking around the swimming pool of their summer house, the camera swoops in and around them focusing on separate body parts as if it’s another character. Mecha (Graciela Borges) collects some glasses but falls drunkenly. None of the adults come to help or even seem to realise what’s happened, it’s the children watching through a window that pull the glass out of her chest and take her to the hospital.

Mecha’s friend, possibly her cousin, Tali (Mercedes Morán) comes to stay with her own children. There’s now quite a crowd in the stifling heat. Ages range from middle age to young adult to teenager and child. The house is shabbily decadent; the maids are Collas, Indians and accused of stealing; the pool is always filthy; there’s a festering quality to the sunbathing on rusty metal chairs. In the sticky, uncomfortable heat no one wears many clothes and they all sprawl around in each others beds doing nothing for a lot of the time.

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Norwegian Wood

Now 37, Toru Watanabe arrives in Germany on business and as the plane touches down an orchestral version of the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ plays from the speakers. As always he’s reminded of his beautiful, fragile friend Naoko and their time together in Tokyo 18 years earlier, when in the late 60’s he was a student, Norwegian Wood was her favourite song and they were both coming to terms with the death of their best friend, Kizuki.

This is an intimate book, a tight cast of characters surround Toru, as he negotiates the confusion of moving on with his life and the deep sorrow that he feels. Naoko is beautiful but emotionally fragile and spends much of the novel in a mountainside psychiatric hospital, where she becomes close friends with her room mate Reiko a talented musician. Nagasawa is a student friend who, despite having a long term girlfriend, has a habit of trailing bars for one night stands, a habit that starts to include Toru and then there’s Midori, Naoko’s complete opposite. She’s a free spirit, impetuous and alive to adventure and could be his future.

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The Lost Daughter

Leda is a middle-aged divorcee who loves her work as an English teacher at the university in Florence. Her grown up daughters are with their father in Canada and she decides to take a holiday on the coast in Southern Italy. She finds an apartment to rent and everyday sets off with her towel and swimming things and works under an umbrella at the beach. Her routine is just as she’d hoped.

But also on the beach are a Neapolitan family who Leda becomes increasingly involved with. What starts as friendship between Leda and the young mother though, begins to unravel the reasons why Leda is not with her daughters and husband and the summer starts to take a menacing and at times, threatening turn.

That Leda feels liberated to be away from her daughters is the starting point for a ‘frank novel of maternal ambivalence’ (The New Yorker), and I liked the way Ferrante talks openly about motherhood. For me Leda’s conflicting feelings over being a mother with a career were the most interesting parts of the book. Her behaviour towards the Neapolitan family and especially Nina and her young daughter Elena I found bizarre and while the feeling of threat was very real and uncomfortable to read I didn’t really have any sympathy for any one. I wouldn’t like to meet any of them on holiday.

Jules et Jim

First published in 1953, this is a title that to me has gained almost mythical status, partly because of the iconic film by François Truffaut, released in 1962 and partly for me, because of it’s absolutely joyous cover photograph taken by Raymond Cauchetier and yet it’s taken me until now to read, and I still haven’t seen the film

Henri-Pierre Roché was in his mid-seventies when he wrote Jules et Jim, his semi-autobiographical novel. He is Jim, ‘Djim not Zheem’ and Jules is his best friend in real life Franz Hessel (Proust’s first translator into German).

In Paris, at the start of the twentieth century the two live a carefree bohemian life. Writing and translating, they travel as the mood takes them sharing everything and everyone without jealousy.

They decide to go to Greece and find a statue of a goddess with an archaic smile, ‘her smile was a floating presence, powerful, youthful, thirsty for kisses and perhaps for blood.’ They don’t talk about her until one day they ask each other what they would do if they ever met such a smile? ‘Follow it.’ Then they see Kate, she has the smile of the statue, and the three are bound together.

‘A perfect hymn to love and perhaps to life.‘ Francois Truffaut

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A Film For May: The Woman Who Ran

Written and directed by Hong Sang-soo, this 2020 film from South Korea follows Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) as she visits two old friends and then meets another by accident in a local arts centre. She’s been married for five years and now that her husband has gone away on a business trip she finds herself alone for the first time. It’s an incredibly simple premise that is played out in three separate sections.

In the first one Gam-hee meets an old friend who is now divorced and enjoying her single life, in the second her friend is a more urbane, dance producer who has a crush on an architect living in the flat above but is being pestered by a man she had a one night stand with. The third person she meets while out to watch a film and is now married to a man that Gam-hee once dated. In each situation the conversation is so natural we could be in the room with them, as their chat wanders from clothes to men to moral questions it’s full of the hesitations and evasions of normal speech.

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A Film For March: I Am Cuba

Made in 1964 this collaboration between the Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov, the writer Enrique Pineda Barnet and the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, I Am Cuba is set during the last days of Batista’s government and the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Told through four allegorical vignettes, this is clearly propaganda for Castro but with Raquel Revuetta as the voice of Cuba there is a dreamlike almost hallucinogenic feel to the film as the camera swoops and dives from buildings to sugar fields that makes it as absorbing as it is beautiful.

Opening with tranquil images of fertile land and palm trees we move to the city for the first story about Maria (Luz Maria Collazo), a young women making ends meet by working as a prostitute in one of the many bars. The American businessman who buys her company asks to see where she lives and after the glamour of the casino he finds himself lost and disoriented among the slums of Havana as he tries to make his way back to his hotel.

from Life Magazine 1954
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A Film For February: The Double Life Of Véronique

Written and directed by Krzystztof Kieslowski, this enigmatic mystery drama from 1991 is the story of two young women, Weronika in Poland and Véronique in France. Born on the same day, they look identical and share the same musical talent. Unaware of eachother’s existence they sense a spectral companion and believe they share an emotional bond with someone they don’t know but suspect is there.

The first part is based in Poland and we follow Weronika in Kraków and witness her beautiful singing. One day as she’s walking home she sees a group of girls, her own age getting onto a bus. One of them is taking photographs of everything she sees, randomly through the window. Weronika sees Véronique and we know that Véronique has her doppelganger on film. The first part finishes with the collapse and sudden death of Weronika during a musical recital and the story moves to Véronique in Paris. She feels an intense sense of loss and abruptly gives up singing, she doesn’t know why, just that she must, and she begins teaching music to young children.

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A Film For January: After Life

Every Monday a group of recently deceased people are checked in at a small mid-century nondescript building where a group of councillors meet them and explain why they are there. They will be there for a week and must choose one single memory that they can take with them into the after life.

Over the next few days they meet and chat with their assigned councillor to identify and describe their memory before the memories are staged, filmed and screened. Their souls are then free to move on taking with them their chosen moment of happiness to be with them for all eternity.

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A Film For December: When a Women Ascends the Stairs

What an interesting, and thoroughly good, film this was to end the year. Written by Ryuzo Kikushima and directed by Mikio Naruse in 1960, it tells the story of Keiko, a young widow who works as a hostess in a bar in the Ginza district of Tokyo. It’s a contemplative and delicate study of a women facing the financial challenges posed by her family whilst maintaining her dignity.

`Her melodic, sombre voice-over guides us through the streets as everyday she walks up the stairs to the club with a heavy heart and the need for something to change. She could open her own bar, she could marry or easiest of all become the mistress of one of her wealthy customers. Or she could work in an office.

Bars in the daytime are like women without make up

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A Film For November: Fear Eats The Soul

On a rainy night in Munich in 1974 a lonely 60 something widow walks into a bar enticed by the sounds of Arabic music. Emmi orders a coke and Ali a 40 something Moroccan ‘guest worker’ asks her to dance. Their friendship deepens and they decide to marry. The reaction that their relationship provokes and in turn, the effect that society has on their life together is told in this tale of intolerance and prejudice.

Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) offend everybody just by being together. Spurned by everyone including her children, the subject of gossip and name calling, Emmi’s isolation builds until she finds herself adopting the same xenophobic attitudes as her friends and neighbours to feel included.

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