International rescue

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As a long-established tennis widower, I feel very fortunate to have a Curzon cinema in a workable radius, especially during Wimbledon fortnight. This week, I took advantage of clement weather and a free afternoon/evening to forge my own European foreign-language double-bill. (In fact, one of them was a bit like a tennis match between two champions.) Both films I saw are, as it happens, available on Curzon Home Cinema, which means if you don’t live in a decent radius of a Curzon, or other arthouse chain, you can stream them for a tenner for 48 hours: A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove), from Sweden, and The Midwife (Sage Femme), from France/Belgium.

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I actually saw them in reverse order, and I’m glad that I did, as I preferred Ove. The Midwife, directed by Martin Provost, whose previous work I’m not au fait with, is notable for its pairing of two celebrated French actresses, the regal 60s icon Catherine Deneuve, now 73, and Catherine Frot, a decade or so younger and less well known to me, but showered with awards in her prolific career. Their uneasy reunion – Deneuve was the lover of Frot’s father, a champion swimmer, who committed suicide when she dumped him – is the engine that drives the film, with the elder, boozy floozy bringing the tight-arsed, dedicated midwife out of her celibate shell – ironically, she’s the one with the teenage son, but he’s never home. The relationship between the two women is tragi-comic as Deneuve has only looked her onetime stepdaughter up because she’s got a brain tumour and has no actual family.

There’s no doubting the fun Deneuve is having, playing a feckless, dishonest, gambling goodtime girl, but Fort’s is the more interesting character, if rather one-note. (We see her successfully and lovingly delivering gooey baby after gooey baby, as if her job is an act of sainthood.) I have a lot of time for contemporary French films, because I’m shallow enough to aspire to the lifestyle, and enjoy seeing grown-ups sit down at a bar for a single glass of red wine or a chalice of beer and a fag (or, in Deneuve’s case at one point, a lovely looking omelette and fries). I quite enjoyed Frot’s allotment neighbour and love interest, played by Olivier Gourmet, but after Deneuve’s operation on the tumour, The Midwife becomes a little idealised and gooey.

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A Man Called Ove, from Swedish director Hannes Holm and adapted from a popular novel by Fredrik Backman, also hinges on a suicide, albeit an unsuccessful one. Rolf Lassgard, usually seen with a fine mane of hair (he’s best known as Wallander), plays the bald widower of the title, initially presented as a grumpy, interfering busybody and self-styled caretaker of a pleasant neighbourhood estate. He locks up bicycles that are improperly parked, shouts at a woman with a Chihuahua, rages at a new neighbour backing a trailer up a path not designated for motor vehicles, refuses to accept that a single bunch of flowers costs more than one in a two-for-one offer, and so on. But Ove is not just angry, he is sad. We see him talking to his beloved wife Sonja’s grave (“I miss you”), while replacing the flowers, and he assures her that he will join her soon. (After 43 years at the same company, he has recently been let go, another act of cruelty by a world that seems to have left him to rot.)

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It has a certain, deadpan, Amèlie-like storybook quality, especially in the flashbacks, through which we learn of Ove’s life. You may find some of it a little twee, and that the more prosaically daft details – such as Ove’s feud with a neighbour based exclusively in their opposing choice of car make – Ove worships the Saab, his nemesis Rune drives a Volvo, and heinously replaces it with a BMW – undercut the grave seriousness of both Ove’s suicidal tendencies, and the tragedy in his backstory, but I rather liked the incongruity. When – no spoilers – a tragic event happens in one of Ove’s early flashbacks to childhood and encroaching young-adulthood, it’s almost played by Holm in the same off-the-cuff style, and for me it makes the mortality all the more portentous.

There’s a Hollywood remake in here waiting to happen. Re-stage it in Omaha, or Cleveland, or Westchester, stick a curmudgeonly Bryan Cranston in a bald wig in the main role (the Sight & Sound reviewer suggests Jack Nicholson, but he’s way too old; Ove is only supposed to be 59), and there’s a diversity-friendly sidekick waiting to balance it all up. Ove is initially irritated by his new neighbours – Swedish husband, Iranian wife Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), two adorable kids – but it’s clear that Parveneh will be his salvation, with her no-nonsense attitude and refusal to play Ove’s game of one man against the world. He will learn to love the kids, and get over himself, and it will be Parveneh – terrible driver, scatty householder – who teaches him. The foregone conclusion has surprises along the way, though. This is a story that rewards. (People tell me they loved the novel.)

I’ve thought a lot about Ove since seeing it, and him. The Midwife, less so.

I have seen a lot of foreign-language films I loved in the first six months of 2017: Elle, The Salesman, Graduation, The Handmaiden, Neruda, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, Toni Erdmann, El Pastor, The Other Side of Hope, Frantz, Heal the Living … But also, some exceptional films in the English language, both UK-made and American: Prevenge, Manchester by the Sea, Christine, Moonlight, The Lost City of Z, Free Fire, Baby Driver, A Quiet Passion, Lady Macbeth, The Levelling … I also liked Personal Shopper, a French film largely in English, and starring an American, and two of the most celebrated, and decorated, films from Hollywood: Moonlight and La La Land. All are welcome in my tent.

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It doesn’t matter, but I think my Top 10 have been (in a fairly casual order):

  1. The Levelling | Hope Dickson Leach (UK)
  2. El Pastor | Jonathan Cenzual Burley (Spain)
  3. A Quiet Passion | Terence Davies (UK)
  4. The Lost City of Z | James Grey (US)
  5. Neruda | Pablo Larraìn (Chile/Argentina/France/Spain)
  6. Graduation | Cristian Mungiu (Romania)
  7. Baby Driver | Edgar Wright (UK)
  8. Heal the Living | Katell Quillévéré (France/US/Belgium)
  9. David Lynch: The Art Life | Rick Barnes, Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm (US)
  10. The Handmaiden | Park Chan-wook (South Korea)

Another week of tennis to go. Love all.

Caution: steps

Thanks to Mark Cousins’ electrifying 15-part Story Of Film on More4, its sister channel Film4 is showing pivotal films from his “redrawn map” of cinema history – albeit for my money not enough of them. (One a week? Each of the three chapters of Story Of Film so far have made me want to watch about a dozen films!) It’s only when a supposedly intelligent, offbeat movie channel shows Battleship Potemkin [pictured] or Orphans On The Storm or Ordet or La Regle du Jeu that you realise how very rare it is that you see films that are this old or exotic.

It shouldn’t be a “treat” to see silent movies, or foreign-language movies on TV – not in a multi-channel, narrowcast world – but even on Film4, it is. If you look at its schedules, most of what the channel shows is in English, and in colour, for a start. Yes, you get “old” films, but very rarely something you haven’t seen before. I know, I know, it’s a commercial channel – they run ads in breaks during films, which is a necessary evil, I guess, but annoying – but since it’s the only free digital-terrestrial film channel, it has a lot of responsibility to deliver. I just wish that more corners of the cinema-loving populace were catered for by the film channels, and the non-film channels. Mark Cousins told me when I interviewed him that people who hadn’t seen a 1960s Japanese documentary or an 80s film from Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé no longer had the excuse of not being catered for by TV, as such films are “a click away on the internet.” This is true enough – Cissé’s films are on YouTube, in full and in pretty high definition, including his most celebrated, Yeelen, from 1987 (although beware, it starts with the death of a chicken which some viewers may find disturbing) – but what about those without broadband? Or those who don’t like watching entire feature films on a computer screen (which includes me)?

When I was growing up, in a three-channel world, we saw silent movies on TV, and I actually made no distinction between colour and black-and-white films, old or new, partly because we didn’t even have a colour telly when I was very young. I suspect youngsters today, spoiled as they are, would turn their noses up at a film if they felt it was old, or if it wasn’t in colour. (Some of them will assume that all films are in 3D if we’re not careful.) I watched anything that was on. I realise now how lucky I was.

It’s easy to see why modern channels might play it safe. They’re after an audience. An audience wants new. An audience wants big. An audience wants famous. An audience doesn’t want surprises. I love the way Mark Cousins expresses surprise on our behalf as he uncovers unexpected new twists in the history of cinema (“a surprise indeed”). He delights in them. As should we.

Remember when Film4, or FilmFour as I think it was branded at the time, used to have specialist offshoots: FilmFour Extreme and FilmFour World? They didn’t last long. Unless you’re happy watching films online, or have the bottomless funds to buy the abundant DVDs that are now handsomely available, exploring cinema backwards, or outwards from the English-speaking world, is not made easy. (There’s a nice, 24-hour oldies channel called MGM HD on Sky, but you have to pay extra for the movies package to access it.) When I was a bit more flush and presented Back Row every week on Radio 4 in the early noughties, I invested in a lot of foreign-language DVDs and these form a vital chunk of my existing library. But that kind of profligacy is hard to justify in a recession, especially this really shit one. (I tried hooking my laptop up to my HD TV by the way, before you suggest it, but I have a monthly limit on my wi-fi that gets eaten up by downloads, so it’s not practical, really.)

The Curzon cinema chain do an On Demand service, whereby the very arthouse movies they show at their London cinemas are available to download for £8 for brand new ones, and £4 for back catalogue, including my favourite foreign film of last year, Of Gods And Men, for instance (discounts with membership, too). It’s a fantastic service if you have the facility to run your computer through your telly, or are planning on watching a film on your own, on the laptop. There are loads of more obscure foreign titles in the tank here.

Which brings me back to Battleship Potemkin. Cousins’ section on Soviet silent cinema was enlightening in chapter three, and if you saw it, you will have been as desperate as I was to see Potemkin again, in full. And thanks to Film4, we could. Despite interruption by ads, it was amazing how easy it was to get into the 1925 silent groove. The music was stirring, too. There’s no excuse for broadcasters not showing old, foreign films like this. Stick them on in the middle of the night! We’ll record them! It’s fine! They surely can’t cost as much to buy in.

In related news, I had my annual email from BBC4’s World Cinema Awards this week. Now in its eighth year, it’s an admirable initiative from a channel that will hopefully still be able to continue to invest in foreign and arthouse movies after its budget has been mauled. They basically poll critics and assorted academics and festival directors to come up with a shortlist of six films each year from the available pool of around 200, and a jury selects the winner. It’s broadcast this year on November 20. Once again, when they send round the full list to pick from, it’s always a) amazing how many foreign movies find a release in the UK, and b) how many I haven’t seen, and that’s after a concerted effort to see as many as possible, and under a scheme of affirmative action. I won’t tell you which two I voted for, although if you’ve followed my blog, you might be able to guess. (Their Wikipedia entry has all the previous winners, if you’re interested. Jonathan Ross has previously hosted the awards, but I guess it won’t be him this year. Who will it be?)

The Story of Film is all up there on 4OD if you haven’t caught it yet. You have to love Mark Cousins’ voice – and indeed, if you don’t, it may be a barrier (I find it soothing) – but the content is king.

Sighs. I feel as if I bang the gong a lot for foreign movies. I make no apology for it. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Hollywood movie; and I love it when this country shows the world how it’s done (saw the trailer for Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights last night, and Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur is coming soon: I cannot wait!); but you miss so much if you steer clear of subtitles. Or films with no talking in at all, like the one about the battleship. Back me up on this.

Foreign affairs

Two trips to the Curzon to catch up on: The Skin I Live In and Sarah’s Key, or La piel que habito and Elle s’appelait Sarah, as they’re known in their native tongues. We’ll start with Sarah’s Key, as I saw that last weekend: a French adaptation of a bestselling French novel, by French journalist and author Tatiana de Rosnay (although she, like the story, has moved around a lot: born in Paris, schooled in Boston and Norwich, then back to Paris – and she writes books in French and English). It stars that other supremely natural straddler of French and English, Kristin Scott Thomas, whose presence in a film of either nationality is entirely indicative of quality. Born in Cornwall, she moved to France aged 19, where she still lives, and is the perfect choice to play Julia, an American journalist living in France who becomes obsessed with tracking down the Jewish girl, Sarah, who once lived in the old Parisian apartment her husband has bought – in fact, she lived in it until a fateful day in 1942 when her family were rounded up by the French police, along with 13,000 other Jews, and shipped off to a rural transit camp and then Auschwitz. Because Julia believes that her in-laws were now complicit in the atrocity, she need to achieve closure by finding Sarah, whom she is convinced survived.

So, yes, it’s another holocaust drama, half of which takes place in the past but harrowingly recreates not just the transportation and the transit camp itself, but the horror, confusion and degradation of the so-called “Vél’ d’Hiv roundup”, whereby thousands of Jews were herded into the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor cycling track which became holding pen without adequate sanitation, ventilation or any other kind of facility, and little food, and where many took their own lives.

Mélusine Mayance plays the 10-year-old Sarah, a child of incredible courage and will, who persuades her little brother to lock himself inside a secret cupboard back at the house and leaves him there; she is thus wracked with guilt as the days and weeks pass by, and is determined to escape the French transit camp at Beaune-la-Rolande in order to fetch him. Mayance is like a young Saoirse Ronan and plays the part well.

Sarah’s fictional story would have made a film on its own – especially as the Vél’ d’Hiv roundup is as far as I know little known outside France – but by intercutting with the modern day and Julia’s quest – which itself has repercussions on her own home life as it engulfs her and causes friction with her husband’s famuly – Sarah’s Key moves beyond being just another Holocaust drama. (That phrase was not meant to sound as glib as it did – I think you know what I mean.)

As Julia moves around, the dialogue shifts from French to English to French, and I must admit I preferred the sections that were in French, as it always feels weird when characters speak in English in a French film – also, I didn’t much like the American or English characters, such as Julia’s co-workers at the magazine she writes for. That said, it’s a satisfying whole, quite clearly structured after the novel I’m guessing, and Aidan Quinn, an American actor you don’t see enough of, brings gravitas and ease to a key protagonist in the final act.

Talking of which, there is a reveal in a climactic scene that may have worked on the page, but feels clunky and unrealistic in vision, unforgivably breaking the spell of the drama. But on the whole the film is well played – especially by veteran Niels Arestrup who was so good in Un Prophète and dominates the screen when he turns up in the final act – and the Holocaust sections strike a workable balance between horror and melodrama, and are well judged by director and co-writer Gilles Paquet-Brenner. (The tone is somewhere between Sophie’s Choice, The Pianist and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.)

The Skin I Live In is Pedro Almodóvar’s 18th film, and proves once again, as if it needed proving, that there is no filmmaker like him. I’ve been a fan since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in 1990 (after which, I went back to Women on The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and have been pretty much alongside ever since), although the more I see of his work, the more I think I understand him. He’s all about his mother, of course, and about strong, dominant, independent women in general. Male characters in his world are often weak, or susceptible, or just plain bad. The women are where it’s at. In The Skin I Live In, the main protagonist is a man, a frankly bonkers plastic surgeon played by Antonio Banderas, who we’ve not seen in an Almodóvar since Tie Me Up!, so that’s headline news. In that, he was a lunatic who’d not escaped but been released from the asylum. Here, his character is regarded as sane by those around him, while his daughter (Blanca Suárez) is in psychiatric care, and is released at a key moment in the story. Pedro loves to have people going in and out of institutions, and to ask questions about the definitions of sane and sick.

Without giving anything away that isn’t hinted at in the trailer or revealed early on, Banderas is keeping a young woman captive at his private Toledo clinic, Vera (Elena Anaya, previously cast in a small role in Talk To Her). We discover why, and how this situation arose very gradually, much of the backstory told in lengthy, overlapping flashbacks. So it and Sarah’s Key have that in common, albeit not much else, especially in terms of style

This is melodrama, pure and simple. It very deliberately recalls classic Hollywood thrillers of the 50s and 60s, especially those of Alfred Hitchcock, and its mad scientist angle is straight out of 1930s horror and beyond. It’s brightly coloured, as ever, with the pale, sanitised nature of the surgeon’s house a perfect blank canvas for all manner of symbolic splashes of colour – and highly charged works of art full of nude flesh and a mixture of rhapsody and assault. Almodóvar has called it a horror movie “without shocks or screams” which is a fair enough approximation. It’s certainly disturbing, and probes beneath the skin of many taboo issues, including rape, and sado-masochism, and human experimentation. But it’s only a 15 certificate, and it’s not too explicit. Almodóvar manages to mine these seams without resorting to exploitation. (You may, or may not, remember my reaction to Von Trier’s Antichrist, which I applauded for its mood, themes and intelligence, but questioned the need for its explicit violence. There are no such worries here; even the surgical scenes are moderately done. Almodóvar is confident enough to tell his horrific tale – or that of the source novella, on which it’s only loosely based – without rubbing our noses in it. It’s creepy and uneasy enough without.)

Anaya is as beautiful and supple and ethereally pure as her character demands her to be. You can’t fake yoga skills, and she’s got ’em. But even though, in many ways, Vera is being exploited and manipulated, we are invited to root for her, and to feel her strength. She is not a victim in the classic sense. The Skin I Live In is a mystery as much as it is a horror movie. A mystery that is satisfactorily and patiently explained, with a twist that is not played for Shyamalan gasps, and in fact unfolds at a similar pace to what’s gone before, with further mini-twists off the back of it. This is skilful writing, but then again, our man Pedro is one of the living greats of modern cinema.

Oh, and it’s all in Spanish. Hooray!