That’s Entertainment: Books and Films

I never thought I would complain about the excessive heat in the UK, but I am. Partly because it’s humid and muggy, while the heat in Greece and Romania is much drier, so I sweat just by breathing. Partly because my house is not designed to cope with either heat or cold (and yes, I tried additional insulation in the loft and double-glazed windows – houses built in the 1980s in Britain are a bit rubbish).

So this is a long introduction to just say: I cannot be bothered to write a proper thoughtful review of my final #20BooksofSummer read, Teffi’s wonderful Subtly Worded. If it cools down by the end of the week, you might get a review then. Instead, I’d like to share with you some of the things that have been keeping me entertained this past fortnight or so. Books and films, what else?

In addition to #WomeninTranslation, I have also been reading some relaxing crime fiction (well, it’s relaxing for me, at any rate).

Mark Billingham’s Their Little Secrets was a read for the Virtual Crime Club run by crime author Rebecca Bradley – a solid police procedural, involving a killer duo where the woman is the manipulator rather than the man. I have read many books in the Tom Thorne series before, but annoyingly not the previous one to this – and there were a lot of references to it in this book, which whetted my appetite. Best of all, Rebecca invited Mark to answer some questions at the start of the session and we were stunned to discover that he doesn’t plot his novels at all – or even the longer-term story arcs and character development for Tom and his team. He likes to keep himself surprised, even at the risk that he sometimes finds himself painted into a corner (and has to rewrite things extensively). You can hear a recording of the session on Rebecca’s site. (But be warned there are plenty of spoilers, if you haven’t read the book yet!)

Susie Steiner’s Remain Silent is the third in the Manon Bradshaw series, and I simply can’t get enough of the lovable, very real middle-aged female detective trying to navigate police work with a not quite fairytale marriage, a toddler, a teenager, an potentially terminally ill husband. Her acerbic comments on modern life are a real delight. The story of (perfectly legal) immigrants lured by the thought of forging a good future for themselves and their families back home, and instead being exploited for grim work in unsavoury conditions is hugely topical, of course, but does occasionally feel a little telegraphed in, what with the short chapters and moving rapidly from one point of view to the next. I know the author has had serious health problems lately, and I sincerely hope she proves doctors wrong and recovers very soon and gets to write many more in the series (or whatever else she wants).

I can’t remember the last time I watched anything live on telly, but police anti-corruption investigation series Line of Duty is back on, so I am catching up with Series 1, which I never got to see. It’s like watching a prequel to something very familiar, so of course you can’t help exclaiming ‘how young they were!’ but also noticing how some of the character tics (of Superintendent Hastings, for instance) became emphasised in later series, probably as a result of audience reactions and amusement.

I’ve watched far fewer films than I expected while the boys were away – perhaps because I really cannot bear to spend any more time in the study in the evening in front of my desktop, where I sit and work all day (I cannot use Mubi or NowTV or anything like that on my work laptop). However, I did watch two Italian ones from very different periods and yet another French one, and I am continuing my love affair with women directors too.

Fellini’s 8 1/2 is a sly portrayal of midlife crisis and creative block. Marcello Mastroianni is of course a charmer and we might think Fellini sympathises with the dilemma of creative burnout, but it soon dawns on us that the film director he portrays is behaving like a real mascalzone (to quote the film). The dream harem sequence in particular really pokes fun at him. When he banishes the women over a certain age upstairs (out of his sight), they start rebelling: ‘Are we lemons to be squeezed and thrown away?’ and ‘Down with Bluebeard!’ and he has to take out the whip. Completely outrageous and over the top, but does he get his comeuppance?

Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders is set in the Tuscan countryside and there’s a strange timeless quality about it. It’s an unromantic view of subsistence agriculture, beekeeping and small-scale production of honey, seen through the eyes of a somewhat naive 12 year old (very sensitive and mature performance by the 13 year old Maria Alexandra Lungu, who I’m proud to say is of Romanian origin). Yet it also mourns the loss of a way of life as the farming community succumbs to gentrification and becomes a tourist attraction thanks to a rather ridiculous TV show. There is a surreal Fellini-like moment when the children catch a glimpse of Monica Bellucci resplendent in a silver dress and with long white locks in the middle of an Etruscan necropolis.

Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living is based on the novel about a heart transplant by Maylis de Kerangal which I loved back in 2016. In the novel, the boy whose organs are donated (after initial shock and reluctance by the parents) is 20, but in the film he is 17, the same age as my older son. Additionally, the person waiting for a heart transplant is a single mother of two sons, one of them more dutiful, the other more wayward. So, with all of this too uncomfortably close to my own biographical details, you can imagine that I pretty much cried all the way through – a new record for me! However, what was impressive was how earnest, respectful and gentle the medical staff were throughout with the patients and their families, regardless of their own personal circumstances. The moment of ‘closure’ before they take out the heart – I defy anyone not to have tears in their eyes at that scene.

Phew, so maybe not quite so escapist after all, this entertainment malarkey!

 

 

Film Watching in July

I haven’t gone quite as crazy watching films nearly every day in July, as I did in the previous few months, mainly because I find my eyes (and head and back) are really fed up of watching screens, regardless of size and position. So I prefer to collapse in bed and read in the evening. However, most of the films I’ve watched have been directed by women. And now that I look back, I notice the vast majority are French. Also, not sure if it proves anything, but quite a number of women film-makers on this list started out as actresses.

Tales of the Unexpected:

Ida Lupino: The Hitchhiker – such a minimalist, brutal noir film, it certainly puts an end to any notion that women directors are all fluffy and domestic. It is a relentless road trip to hell through a parched landscape, with no shelter, and a cast of just three men, all wonderfully expressive (and sinister) actors. A wonderful sense of menace looms over the entire film, although the ending is a little bit too neat and rushed.

Michaela Coel: I May Destroy You – tough to watch at times, but how could it not be, when it deals with the consequences of sexual assault? Nevertheless, it manages to be funny, poignant and militant as well. The main character Arabella is both endearing and infuriating, and it’s very clever that Coel doesn’t make her too likeable – but she does NOT deserve what happens to her. There are so many layers to the story as well: what does constitute rape and assault? who are our real friends and what are the boundaries of friendship? and other weighty themes such as betrayal and forgiveness, race relations, social media and trolling.  And it shows black people having fun as well as suffering, which is so rare… As for that ending… a wonderful surprise!

Coming of Age:

Celine Sciamma: Girlhood (Bande de filles)  –  I cannot believe that I’d forgotten that I’d seen this film when it first came out in France. As soon as I saw those endless concrete footbridges between the blocks of flats, it all came flooding back. This is the feminine version of La Haine, a portrait of black girls living in the banlieues and trying to make the most of their short period of bloom before life, misogynistic men and hopelessness take over. While I cannot condone their shoplifting and bullying, there are real moments of tenderness and ‘rire fou’ (crazy laughter) between the girls (all newcomers to acting at the time) and of course that unforgettable scene of dancing and lipsynching to Rihanna.

Joanna Hogg: The Souvenir – almost the polar opposite of Sciamma’s film, this shows pretentious film students and a very genteel, soft-spoken, well-heeled environment. And yet the well-meaning but naive girl at the centre of the story is as open to emotional abuse as the poor banlieue girls. And, although she has the safety net of her family, she doesn’t have that sense of solidarity and loyalty that the Sciamma girls display.

Midlife reinvention:

Claire Denis: Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur) – Juliette Binoche making stupid choices with lots of creepy men, in an attempt to ward off loneliness and the feeling of ageing, would be my capsule summary of this film. There was little joy or freedom apparent in this film – it smacked of desperation.

Mia Hansen-Love: Things to Come (L’Avenir) – Same theme, nearly: a middle-aged philosophy professor sees her world come crashing down: a husband who suddenly announces he’s having an affair and is moving out, a difficult mother who needs constant care, a cat she inherits although she has an allergy, being turned down by publishers because her books are no longer considered ‘marketable’, being considered old-fashioned by her former pupils. And yet the character played by Isabelle Huppert has the inner strength to keep going and even enjoys her freedom and reaches some form of contentment.

Men behaving badly:

Chantal Akerman: Almayer’s Folly – based on Joseph Conrad’s first novel but set in an unspecified post WW2 time period, this is the story of a white man dreaming of making a fortune in the East, yet ending up penniless in a house overgrown by vegetation, in the middle of a river. He looks down on the natives, although he has a mixed-race daughter. He refuses to admit that his daughter doesn’t fit in the white people’s world and is doomed to eternal disappointment and being wrong about everything. A slow-moving film, with very long shots throughout, bogging you down like the swampland in which he lives.

Eléonore Pourriat: I Am Not an Easy Man (Je ne suis pas un homme facile) – a rom-com with role reversals. The very macho philanderer Damien suffers a major concussion and wakes up in a parallel universe where women are the dominant sex, men have to dress to please them, are mostly in subservient roles and are discriminated against. A very clever and funny premise to demonstrate the absurdity of the expectations we have of women, but I did feel the romance overpowered the satire. I’d have liked to see more of the role reversal in the workplace, too. If you want to see the original 10 minute mini-film made by the same director (which let men experience what life is like for women), you can watch Majorité opprimée on YouTube: https://youtu.be/kpfaza-Mw4I

 

 

Rewatching #ThreeColours and Other Films

Even before the lockdown, I’d started an extensive programme of film viewing with my older son. However, he is a bit of a stickler about his planning and is proving truculent about watching films which are not on his current list of ‘must watch in 2020’, even if they are classics or might be very much to his taste. So I end up watching and rewatching quite a lot of films on my own too.

One trilogy I am very glad I rewatched was Kieslowski’s Three Colourswhich arose quite spontaneously from a Twitter exchange with @jacquiwine and @messy_tony. Quite a few others joined in and we even created a hashtag with the British spelling #threecolours.

My favourite remains Blue, with its amazing music and such a poignant description of grief. I had forgotten details such as finding a nest of mice in the Paris flat, but I had remembered the scene where Julie trails the back of her hand against the rough stone wall and wounds herself. I found Olivier rather creepy and difficult to stomach this time round and wish Julie had chosen differently at the end. White continues to be difficult for me to watch, as I remember the lawless, difficult post-Communist years and feeling like a second-hand citizen in the West all too well. This time round I found it difficult to empathise at all with the Delpy character – she seemed like such a blank (perhaps deliberately so – the nail upon which Eastern Europe hangs all of their hopes, desires, ideals), while actor Zbigniew Zamachowski’s expressive eyes made me almost ready to forgive him even as he becomes as much of an asshole as his ex-wife. With Red, I was surprised that I’d forgotten it was set in Geneva – although at the time I had no connection to Geneva at all, so the location seemed less important and I just assumed it was France. The parallel storyline of Auguste and his personalised weather forecaster seemed almost a nuisance, despite its resonance upon the judge’s story, while the ending felt rather melodramatic and forced. I found the gradual unfolding of the prickly friendship between Valentine and the judge far more interesting, with Valentine being the most sympathetic (though not necessarily the most interesting) character in the whole trilogy. She is, after all, the only one who helps the recurring character of a frail, hunch-backed elderly person trying to push a bottle into the bottle-bank.

Another rewatch, this time with the boys, was the first series of The Wire (I watched it in fits and starts when it first came out, since I never had Sky or other paid for channels, so it felt quite fresh to me as well). The sense of hopelessness felt much more palpable to me now (or is it because I am older) and my favourite character remains Kima, although I might have annoyed my kids by exclaiming nearly every time I saw Dominic West or Idris Elba ‘Look how young they were back then!’

I have also resubscribed to Mubi and have enjoyed quite a few films there over the past month. The most noteworthy were Bong Joon-Ho’s stunning and moving Mother; Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love which is visually one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen (and a real tear-jerker); Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, viscerally disturbing but very powerful, charismatic acting from the two main characters; and a 1950s gem from Japan Our Town, featuring a larger than life main character struggling with the modernisation of Japan after the war. Lest you think I’ve turned completely Asian, I was also impressed with Melville’s Army of Shadows about the French Resistance, where the violence is buried only slightly deeper below the surface than in the Korean films. The historical facts add more depth and gravitas to the noirish direction we’re used to from his gangster films. Lourdes by Jessica Hausner was full of tiny satirical details about miracle healings at the pilgrimage site of Lourdes and yet ultimately made you question your lack of faith, and the Polish film Idadirected by Pawel Pawlikowski, has a young would-be nun discovering her family’s Jewish origin and their fate during the war.

 

Films and Books

Despite having a houseful of children for most of this past week, I have been able to partake in some cultural events as well, both inside and outside the house.

Pain and Glory – Almodovar’s latest film shows the master has mellowed in middle age. The story of a lonely middle-aged film director struggling with lost creativity and ill health is not new, but Antonio Banderas turns in a beautifully nuanced, subtle performance. The flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood are rich in colour and emotion, but what stayed with me most is how we select and package our memories to attempt a coherent narration of our lives… and yet the truth is always more complex than that.

Marriage Story – Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are believably flawed yet appealing as a couple struggling through divorce. It was a little too close to the battlegrounds I am currently experiencing myself, so I’m afraid I embarrassed myself with tears. Filmed in a minimalist way, with close-ups of the actors’ faces engaged in monologues or dialogues, this had the feeling of an indie, mumblecore type of film. There was one particular scene I found all too familiar: where the attempt at having a conversation away from the lawyers descends into a screaming match, with all of the long-hidden resentments and accusations bursting out like an overflowing dam.

Lara – ice-cold in Berlin*. Another carefully observed film, full of significant details, but one where nearly all emotion has been drained. Lara is a domineering mother whose dreams of becoming a concert pianist were dashed in her youth and now feels proud yet nervous about her pianist son’s major concert, which takes place on her 60th birthday. We never see the drama of what led to the estrangement between mother and son, but there are hints of bad behaviour and nervous breakdown. Emotions are very tightly held in check for the most part, yet there are unexpectedly candid (if frosty) conversations between Lara and the people she encounters on her birthday.

*As a child, I firmly believed that ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ was a film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz

Since I had a few hours to kill between the two films at the London Film Festival on Friday, I meandered down Charing Cross Road, mourned the loss of so many second-hand bookshops (when I first came to London, I remember it used to take my hours to go down that road, there were so many bookshops, now turned into cafes or clothes shops – boo!). Nevertheless, I did stop at the few remaining bookshops, at Foyles, then at Second Shelf (again!) and at Waterstones Piccadilly and emerged with the pile below.

7 books for £30 total, of which only one was a new one and cost £10.99

However, I’d also been busy ordering some books online, especially while sitting around waiting for the Nobel Prize for Literature to be announced. I ordered a couple of Russians, especially since I thought Ludmila Ulitskaya might be a contender…

And two Orenda books arrived on cue for my #Orentober reading. I’ve already devoured Little Siberia, which is less slapstick than Tuomainen’s last two books (I absolutely loved the black comedy, don’t get me wrong!) but not quite as bleak as his earlier books. I think it would be fair to say that the set-up is ridiculous and richly comic: a suicidal racing car driver has a meteorite drop into his passenger seat. A pastor with experience of fighting in Afghanistan is guarding the local museum where nearly everyone wants to steal the precious piece of rock. He gets plenty of opportunity to question his own faith and choices in life, as well as being exposed to the venality and self-serving excuses of others.

Last but not least, I’ve also watched some TV. Helen Mirren is commanding yet deliciously vulnerable as Catherine the Great (and, although she is almost certainly too old for the part, I cannot help but rejoice that an older woman is shown as both powerful and intransigent, yet also having sexual fun on our screens). And, of course, I’m excited to see the new series of Engrenages (Spiral), the first in a long while without Anne Landois as show runner.

Five Things to Bring Joy – 20 Aug

Here are just five of the lovely things that have happened over the past week or two, which help me put up with the not so lovely things. (Yes, there were plenty of those!)

  1. Meeting (in person!) fellow book blogger Jacqui, who blogs at JacquiWine’s Journal. She was every bit as lovely as I’d expected from reading her blog, and she is also much more of a film and wine expert than I am, so we had a lovely chat about all of these Very Important Topics!

2. Watching the cult film Brother (Brat) at the BFI. It is set in St Petersburg in the mid 1990s, directed by Alexei Balabanov and starring the charismatic young actor Sergei Bodrov (who tragically died just five years later). Bodrov plays a young man just returned from military service. Although he claims to have been mainly confined to a desk job, he proves a little too handy with customising weapons and bullets, so there are hints he has seen some action in the Chechen War. When he joins his older brother in St Petersburg and becomes embroiled in gang warfare, as well as a love affair, he turns into something of a poster boy for the post-Soviet generation. Unsure what to think or believe after the collapse of all values and certainties, he has no moral compass, no real friends or community around him; he is simultaneously innocent and cynical. Above all, I felt it was a really good portrayal of the Wild East period in both Russian and East European history (although my Russian friend claims she does not remember it being quite so chaotic, but she is younger than me, so may have been more sheltered from the harshness of reality at the time). You cannot imagine what it’s like when one form of society collapses before there is any time to build a new one, when capitalism rages in its most primitive and untamed form, and corruption and crime are as rampant as inflation and poverty. Brother reminded me of those dark days.

3. British Library exhibition about writing, from the origins to the future, including some items that have never been displayed before and others of real emotional significance, such as Alexander Fleming’s lab notebooks, Scott’s last entry in the diary in Antarctica and Mozart’s own cataloguing of his works. Also a wonderfully stroppy telegram from John Osborne to one of his critics! Open until 27th August.

4. More box sets! I can only watch 1-2 episodes a night, rather than binging all in one day, but it is nice to be able to follow a whole series over the course of a week or so. I’ve made the most of my alone time. After Patrick Melrose, I watched another literary adaptation: My Brilliant Friend, which was frightening in its almost casual depiction of everyday violence and misogyny. I was in equal measure saddened and infuriated by FosseVerdon, especially when you realise how parents obsessed with their art and with each other can become neglectful of their own child.

5. Reunited with two lovely, tanned boys and catching up on their holiday pictures and impressions. Now we’re just waiting to hear about the GCSE results… And get them to cook, tidy up, vacuum and do other household tasks more regularly (standards started slipping because of above-mentioned GCSEs).

5 Things to Laugh About 5th August

Here’s my occasional self-booster post, to remind me that life can be fun as well as educational.

  1. Catching up on box sets. I never have the time or patience to watch a full series, but I did the impossible these past couple of weeks and watched a few. Chernobyl with the boys: we were all fascinated, if somewhat shaken. Great attention to detail to give you the flavour of living in Soviet Russia in the mid 1980s, but no, people did not address each other as comrade the whole time, except in very official circumstances or in political meetings. The Patrick Melrose series (by myself, I hasten to add), which made me reconsider reading the novels (I’d read the third one but without the context of the others, I was not enthralled), although there’s only so much I can take of a destructive personality. Just started watching Fosse/Verdon as well on BBC2, which promises to be rather heartbreaking though glamorous.
LOS ANGELES – JUNE 5: The Garry Moore Show, a CBS television comedy variety show. Pictured are guests, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Episode originally broadcast June 5, 1962. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Ok, so my choice of subject matter is not the most cheerful, but it’s just nice to be able to follow a story arc from end to end without interruptions.

2. Going to the theatre, of course. My other great passion, beside reading, is seeing words come to live on the stage, as in the production of Europe at the Donmar Warehouse. This is a really moving play about displacement, refugees and the rise of intolerance and Fortress Europe by David Greig. Written in 1994 and clearly inspired by the war in former Yugoslavia, it is once more extremely topical. Two moments in particular had me in tears: 1) when the refugee father says his daughter blames him for not leaving earlier, but ‘you can’t just leave the country to the wolves’; 2) the feeling of suffocation in this small town without any jobs, without any trains, without a future, and the desperate desire to feel part of Europe. I’ve experienced both of those feelings, and still occasionally feel a traitor for leaving my country when it needed me most… until I remember that it decided it didn’t need me. Despite the tears, it was a riveting performance and I’m really glad I saw it. A powerful start for the new artistic director at the Donmar.

Production picture, photo credit Marc Brenner.

On a more cheery note, I also attended an off-stage performance, in an industrial estate beside woodland, with the really fun immersive experience of The Tempest.

3. Hosting a writing retreat at my house

The founder of our writing group severely said to me, as she entered the house and I was showing everyone where the coffee, tea, food was: ‘I hope you are not going to use your duties as a host to excuse your lack of writing.’ Touché! But I didn’t, and managed to edit all of the poems that I’d received feedback on, as well as select (and slightly edit) a new batch to send. Also, it was lovely catching up with what other people were working on. Last but not least, I was most impressed with one of our members, who had rescued and fostered a kitten this weekend. Someone had dumped the sweet little thing out of a car near his workplace, he caught her, looked after her and managed to find an adopted mother for her all within less than 72 hours. Bravo!

4. Older son. While he is on holiday in Greece, we’ve been chatting nearly every day. He’s taken a ton of books with him, has even done some homework (in preparation for the start of his Maths A Level course). I’ve tried to talk to the younger son too, you mustn’t think I neglect him, but he is usually playing computer games and doesn’t want to be disturbed. But what made me really proud of the older son is that he called me last night indignantly and told me that his brother hadn’t brushed his teeth in four days. Normally, I don’t like tattle-tales, but the next bit of his rant amused and reassured me (at least about him, not about his brother): ‘When you’re young, you do things because your parents tell you to, but at this age, it’s high time you realised yourself how important it is for you to be doing certain things. That it’s for your own good, not to shut up Mama’s nagging, that you do it.’

5. Japanese neighbour. A former neighbour, whom I had befriended back in 2009-2011 during my interlude in the UK between our two stays in France, rang my doorbell unexpectedly yesterday. She had returned to Japan with her family while I was away in France but was over for a short visit, revisiting some of her favourite English places, and wanted to see what had happened to her neighbours. It was so nice to see her again and to tell her about our plans to visit Japan in two year’s time! I hate losing touch with people and am always grateful when I can meet up with them again.

TV Series Old and New

Aiden Turner, from Falmouth's The Packet.
Aiden Turner, from Falmouth’s The Packet.

I was one of those who watched the first episode of the new adaptation of ‘Poldark’ on the BBC last Sunday with bated breath. Ready to reserve judgement and not wallow too much in the nostalgia of the original series. While I can think of more painful things to do than to watch Aidan Turner smouldering prettily against a backdrop of Cornish places of outstanding natural beauty, I do wonder why it is necessary to reinvent the wheel each time instead of just doing reruns of old series?

Original series of Poldark. From poldark.activeboard.com
Original series of Poldark. From poldark.activeboard.com

Why can we not see ‘Poldark’, ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ (another one that was remade in recent years) or ‘The Onedin Line’ as they were? I didn’t grow up in England, so I didn’t see these series when they were first aired, but caught them later on in the 1980s. I would come back from school, have a snack and rush through my homework so that I could settle down to watch one of these series (or an old black and white film – I know most of the Hollywood productions of the 1930s and 1940s) in what seemed to be an endless series of reruns on Austrian TV.

onedinlinetvradiotimes
Cover of the Radio Times.

My point is not that I should have been playing outdoors (I did my share of that, too), nor that my TV viewing was not monitored by my parents, but that these were quality films. They fostered my love of storytelling, drama, setting and beautiful costumes. I used to painstakingly draw some of the most glamorous dresses and dream about wearing them some day (although in real life I was a tomboy). I used to discuss character development and plot with my friends. They were the soap operas of our days, but there was a much neater story arc and not quite so much ‘shocked face’ acting.

From IMGKids.
From IMGKids.

At the risk of sounding like an old codger, daytime TV nowadays seems to be all about inane game shows, Come Dine With Me or depressing and bitchy reality TV. I know these things are cheap solutions to 24 hour programming, but surely reruns of old series are cheap too? My children are bored of CBeebies or CBBC, but there doesn’t seem to be much else on offer to capture their imagination. They equate ‘black and white’ with antiquated and boring, but I’m not sure that everyone needs fast, furious new adaptations to appreciate the classics. Could we at least have the choice?

P.S. And yes, that scar on Ross Poldark’s face in the new version? It does look like mascara running… The make-up of make-up artists is letting them down on this occasion…