Periods, Pregnancy and the Soul of Time: Saint Frances and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood

When the Academy rejected an advertising spot for Frida Mom’s postpartum products during this year’s Oscars ceremony, it felt like a double blow. Just a year on from the Best Short win by Period. End Of Sentence, not only was the Academy accused of snubbing female directors, but now it appeared to censor the depiction of female stories in wider culture too. Frida’s chief executive officer, Chelsea Hirschhorn, told the New York Times the Academy had suggested dropping the realistic advert of a mother struggling to use a peri bottle to clean herself after urinating, for a “kinder, more gentle portrayal of postpartum.” 

But filmmakers like Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan are not dissuaded by squeamish attitudes towards the female body. Their feature film debut, Saint Frances, depicts the bloody, messy reality of female life, from menstruation and period sex to abortion. Bridget (O’Sullivan) is a single, thirty-something babysitter living in a rented apartment. “I’m not an impressive person,” she confesses. Her life has no direction and time is running out, something that’s underlined by the film’s elliptical storytelling; we only see Bridget when she’s bleeding.

Bridget Saint Frances Kelly O'Sullivan
Kelly O’Sullivan in Saint Frances

“The time span of a woman’s life is about thirty years,” writes author Sheila Heti in her semi-fictitious novel, Motherhood, “Apparently, during these thirty years – fourteen to forty-four – everything must be done. She must find a man, make babies, start and accelerate her career… Thirty years is not enough time to live a whole life!” Like Saint Frances, Heti’s novel progresses to the rhythms of the female body – with chapters titled ‘bleeding’, ‘ovulating’ and ‘PMS’ – in a such a way that the female body seems to become time itself. “I think ‘the soul of time’ is a pretty accurate way of describing PMS,” she writes, “It’s not just a metaphor. It IS the soul of time. That’s why it’s so unpleasant.”

Also in her mid thirties, Heti’s narrator is deciding whether or not to have children; a struggle characterised as ‘Jacob Wrestling the Angel’, an Old Testament story about the conflict between body and soul. For the women in Motherhood and Saint Frances, the desires of the heart and mind are at odds with their biology. Bridget is pregnant but wants an abortion: her biological clock might be ticking but the timing isn’t right. Meanwhile the body of Heti’s narrator wants her to become a mother in spite of her palpable objections. “Why is my body doing this inside me every month?” writes Heti, “How neglected and abandoned is this little animal inside me that is doing its work so diligently and so well – this tiny uterus, these mushy ovaries, these fallopian tubes and my brain. It has no idea I need nothing from it. It just keeps on working. If only I could talk to it and tell it to stop.” 

This idea is exquisitely captured in the anthropomorphic, stop motion wombs of (feminine hygiene company) Bodyform’s new #WombStories advertising campaign. The animation is contrasted with live action scenes that reveal the effect of the wombs on the women they inhabit, bringing the very contrast between body and soul into sharp focus. Women have erupted in support of the short film: the physical inconvenience of menstruation, hinted at in most conventional adverts, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Bodyform’s #WombStories short film

Heti’s narrator, for instance, is in the thrall of PMS, while Bridget’s employer, Maya (Charin Alvarez), sinks beneath the tide of postpartum depression. But how can a women figure out what to do with her life when she can no longer trust her emotions? “I began thinking about the soul of time as having something to do with cocoons,” writes Heti, “I recently learned that what happens in a cocoon is not that a caterpillar grows wings and turns into a butterfly. Rather, the caterpillar turns to mush. It disintegrates, and out of this mush a new creature grows”. But, “Why does no-one talk about the mush?” she asks, “Or about how, for any change to happen, we must for some time be nothing – be mush. That is where you are right now – in a state of mush.” 

Negotiating these transitions is made harder by societal pressures that close off avenues for honest conversation. Pressure from social media and wannabe grandparents haunt the background of Saint Frances where failure to make it as an “impressive person” provokes scorn from even her female peers. While an extreme close up of a woman’s “Unborn Lives Matter” slogan intrudes on Bridget’s point of view, the boyfriend of Heti’s narrator argues that other mothers, “want you to be in the same boat they’re in. They want you to have the same handicap they have… He called it the biggest scam of all time.”

It’s this pressure to become parents that the directionless, thirty-something couple in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young finally surrender to. But by prescribing only one way to grow up, Baumbach’s resolution seems a misstep. By contrast, the protagonists in Motherhood and Saint Frances push against society’s control of their bodies, asserting the freedom of choice.

Naomi Watts While We're Young
Naomi Watts in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young

Indeed, both Heti and O’Sullivan’s characters find solace in talking openly, negotiating the potential scorn of other mothers to find safe spaces with like-minded women. Saint Frances plays like an anthem for female friendship, communication and support while, for Heti, it’s the acceptance of equality between all women – those who choose children and those who don’t – that provides the greatest comfort. 

Today, the harm presented by a screen and advertising culture that advocates a “kinder, more gentle portrayal” of female bodies is becoming clear. Sanitised and censored depictions leave women alone with their experiences. Normal experiences are made abnormal by their very invisibility. Bodyform’s recent survey found that 21% of women feel that society wants them to keep silent about their experiences, while 44% said that doing so negatively affects their mental health. Bridget’s honesty is comforting but it’s also vicarious: an ideal that screen culture is yet to fully embrace. We need more films like Saint Frances, more books like Motherhood and more #WombStories.

Saint Frances trailer from Vertigo Releasing

Saint Frances is in cinemas from 17th July and coming soon to DVD. Motherhood is available now in paperback.

What to Read Next

The Film Version A-Z of Adaptations

What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.

The Film Version Companion Pieces

Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.

If you’re short on time, start with these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.

Join The Writer Loves Movies Community

Sign up to receive updates and exclusive content direct to your inbox

Inside the Frame: The Sense of an Ending Film Adaptation

The Sense of An Ending Film Adaptation Ritesh Batra Jim Broadbent

“I remember in no particular order:

– a shiny inner wrist;

– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;

– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;

– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by a half dozen chasing torch beams;

– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;

– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.

The last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

JULIAN BARNES, The Sense of an Ending

This opening to Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning novel seems to borrow from cinema, its memories frozen in time like pictures. These brief snapshots burst into the present day action of Ritesh Batra’s The Sense of an Ending film adaptation. But they are mere fragments of a heavy, nebulous past.

Thoughts and memory might work like visual images, but Batra’s biggest challenge in adapting Barnes’ novel is how to suggest memory’s fallibility – its blurry, faded, half truths – in a medium that presents events as they really are. Barnes’ novel is narrated by Tony, a retiree forced to re-xamine his own life story in the wake of an unexpected legacy from the mother of his difficult first love, Veronica. Over the course of 150 pages, Tony’s willingness to forget past indiscretions frequently collides with their consequences. Barnes novel is a meditation on time, memory and responsibility; a conversation between Tony and the reader. It trades in thought and ideas. So how does Ritesh Batra translate this to sound and images?

In Batra’s hands, The Sense of an Ending becomes an epistolary film. It makes perfect sense that Tony’s cerebral voiceover turns out to be a final letter to old flame Veronica (Charlotte Rampling). Indeed, the letters that fuel the novel’s plot have a constant, almost oppressive presence onscreen. The film even invents a connection between Tony (Jim Broadbent) and the postman (Nick Mohammed) – the epistolary idea working its way into our subconscious through Royal Mail imagery that populates the mise-en-scene.

Flashbacks piece together Tony’s memories of youth and its sexual frustrations. As his thoughts fire, figures from the past appear briefly in his present. Later, as Tony’s surroundings dissolve completely into those of his youth, past and present seem to merge. In this way, Batra depicts Tony stuck in time: his mind consumed with the reconstruction of memory.

Journalist Lili Loofbourow argues, in her analysis for The Week, that Batra encourages us to question Tony’s perception of the past, “by exploiting the differences between the young and old actors.”

“When Tony meets Veronica as an adult, it’s shocking to the viewer: Charlotte Rampling plays Veronica as a woman who has suffered. There is nothing of Freya Mavor’s Young Veronica, a girl whose coolness seems as flirtatious as it is laconic. But Tony sees her differently; he finds her remarkably unchanged. That shows the viewer how distorted Tony’s perceptions really are; where we see a total transformation, he sees the same girl he fell in love with”.

LILI LOOFBOUROW, The Week

In the present – and with the superiority, distance and relief that comes with being an ex-wife – Margaret (Harriet Walter) sees through Tony’s self-delusions and calls him out. Margaret makes plain what is beyond Tony’s own observation, overcoming the limitations of the novel’s unreliable narrator.

“You wanted to hear her say how wonderful you are and how you haven’t changed, how she’s thought of you all these years and looked up at the stars and wondered…

I’m sorry, it’s all a bit pathetic. Do you know what really strikes me is your total inability to see what’s right under your nose. Such as your daughter who happens to be lying next door going out of her mind. ”

MAGARET in The Sense of an Ending film adaptation

The screenplay from Nick Payne expands Tony’s relationship with his pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery), juxtaposing different life stages. A crude device perhaps, but pregnancy is a recurring theme in Barnes’ novel too. Both its suicidal young men – Robson and Adrian – are “afraid of the pram” after getting their girlfriends pregnant. There’s gentle irony in the film’s title – The Sense of an Ending – projected over a school assembly as Batra points to fate, responsibility and the all too brief nature of life itself. Tony’s desire to get out of the school’s holding pen into adulthood, to feel the passionate and tragic emotions written about in great literature, gradually gives way to a comfortable and enduring love for his own daughter and ex-wife.

“In those days we imagined ourselves as being in a holding pen waiting to be released into our lives…

When you are young, you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life and create a new reality. But as that second hand insists on speeding up and time delivers us all too quickly into middle age and then old age, that’s when you want something a little milder don’t you? You want your emotions to support your life as it has become. You want them to tell that you everything is going to be ok. And is there anything wrong with that?”

TONY, The Sense of an Ending film adaptation

The novel is concerned with this concept of time: our idea of past and future. Barnes draws parallels with our study of history – the corroboration of events through witnesses and documents. Batra weaves in a watch motif.

” We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never thought I understood it very well. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.”

JULIAN BARNES, The Sense of an Ending

“But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

JULIAN BARNES, The Sense of an Ending

Batra’s film adaptation doesn’t come close to this kind of nuance about our construction of the past. Yet it forms a neat companion to the novel, allowing us to see Tony from outside, in all his complex imperfection, and to feel the weight of his culpability for the tragic events surrounding him.

The Sense of an Ending film adaptation is available to rent and buy on blu-ray and DVD. Julian Barnes’ novel is now available in paperback. It won the Booker prize in 2011.

The Film Version A-Z of Adaptations

What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.

The Film Version Companion Pieces

Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.

If you’re short on time, start with these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.

Join The Writer Loves Movies Community

Sign up to receive updates and exclusive content direct to your inbox

Film Adaptation Interview with Sarah Thomas Storyteller

“What do you think are the most crucial ingredients for a successful film adaptation?”

“And how much allegiance do you think an adaptation owes to its source material?”

“What’s the boldest or most off the wall adaptation you’ve seen and do you think they pulled it off?”

I’ve been interviewed by the wonderful screenwriter and copywriter, Sarah Thomas. You can find all of my answers to these questions (and more) on her website Sarah Thomas Storyteller. And don’t forget to drop your answers in the comments below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Kids With Guns: Depictions of Adolescence in Monos and Piranhas

Monos and Piranhas LFF

As teenage gangs and knife crime become familiar news stories, two exciting filmmakers expose the frenetic energy and naivety of youth by putting weapons in the hands of their fresh-faced casts. From Alejandro Landes (Porfirio) comes Monos, an extraordinary and atmospheric drama about the disintegration of a team of child soldiers. Monos took home the Official Competition prize for Best Film at this year’s London Film Festival and opens in UK cinemas today. Piranhas, works in the opposite direction focussing on the rise of a child gang or ‘paranza’. Piranhas also received its UK premier at LFF where I spoke to writer-director, Claudio Giovannesi (Alì Blue Eyes, Fiore) about his depiction of adolescence in the film. In this feature I explore how Monos and Piranhas portray this complicated transition and what they might tell us about teenage life today. 

The teenagers in Monos use their semi-automatic rifles to guard an adult hostage on a remote Columbian mountainside. They are unpredictable, excitable, impulsive. Rarely visited by their military commanders, they revel in love, games and magic mushrooms, jubilantly firing their AK-47s in euphoric, hot-headed celebration. Knife-edge tension accompanies their volatility seen through the eyes of their mature hostage ‘Doctora’ (Julianne Nicholson) at the mercy of their every whim.

Monos film

Monos has been interpreted as a meditation on the use of child soldiers and an examination of cult dynamics; a power struggle in the vein of Lord Of The Flies. Beneath this lies a much simpler story about the over-confidence of youth; about foolish mistakes with lasting consequences. Recklessness with their guns sets in motion a cataclysmic series of events that the young people cannot escape.

The same kind of frenetic energy bubbles through Claudio Giovannesi’s coming of age drama about teen gangs in Naples, Piranhas. On the roof of an apartment block this group of triumphant teenagers fire their own AK-47s at satellite dishes. This gleeful target practice, aided by Youtube videos, is masked by the ecstatic sound of fireworks. Based on Roberto Saviano’s novel, Piranhas took home a Silver Bear at Berlin earlier this year.

Piranhas film

Just as Monos builds tension from the conflict between the teenagers’ youthful exuberance and the seriousness of their task, Giovannesi suggests the irony of a drug dealing ‘paranza’ who still live at home with their parents. His attraction to the project lay in the “possibility to portray a series of teenagers who are constantly in a precarious balance, somewhere in between war and game, innocence and fierceness, unawareness, the lack of thoughtfulness and tragedy,” explained Giovannesi in conversation at the London Film Festival, “I found this kind of contradiction very poetic”. The poetry is echoed in the haunting portraiture of Monos, the camera closing in on fierce yet ambiguous shots of the characters’ faces imbued with Shakespearean intensity.

The sensual photography of Monos deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. But it’s the sound design – a hallucinogenic score from Mica Levi that’s fused into the film’s sound architecture with birdsong – that most effectively reveals the teenagers’ connection with their environment.

Monos film

Landscape is vital to the depiction of adolescence in both films. The young people strut just as boldly through the narrow streets of Naples as the exposed hillsides of South America. The teenagers’ habitats not only reveal their confidence and resourcefulness, but also the edges of their comfort zones. Their experiences are intense but, ultimately, limited. For Giovannesi:

“The area in which the film is set is one of the protagonists because the whole struggle of the film, the whole conflict of the film, has to do with who has power over it. So it really is like a fairy tale with a kingdom that has to be conquered or retaken from the invaders. So of course what was very important was that the film was actually set in the areas where these stories happened and where the novel is set. And it is very important because you get a sense of the identities that the characters or the actors had in relation to the areas that they come from.”

His film is spoken entirely in Naples’ unique dialect. “In Italy when it came out in cinemas,” Giovannesi explains, “you needed to have Italian subtitles because no Italian would be able to follow the dialogue otherwise”. The way the characters move through the urban landscape evokes their chaotic, unpredictable energy. Giovannesi oscillates between a static frame crammed with the paranza and a moving camera that traces their motion. “If you think about their essence,” says Giovannesi, “it really has to do with movement and the lack of stasis or the lack of stillness.”   

Piranhas film

While Landes might suggest the impressionable nature of young minds to radical ideology, Giovannesi reveals their susceptibility to the everyday pressures of a consumerist society. His young men covet designer clothes and watches. Their jaws drop at the ostentatious homes of the local bosses. They too want to be seen; to have their own table at the best club in town. Once on top, the teenagers pour all their money into designer gear. They might be dealing drugs, shooting guns and committing murder, but their purchases reveal the wide-eyed immaturity of youth. Gifting the ageing Don Vittorio a widescreen TV and a Playstation, they entertain him with games while he’s under house arrest.

Self-appointed leader, Agostino, hankers after a t-shirt emblazoned with a set of wings. It’s rich with symbolism, suggesting both Agostino’s ‘coming of age’ and the rise of his paranza. As he explains in Saviano’s novel:

‘“It’s like taking someone else powers: it’s as if we’d captured an archangel, which is sort of like saying the boss of the angels, cut its throat, and taken its wings. It’s not the kind of thing that just happens along, it’s something we sweated for, that we fought hard for and won, and now it’s as if we were Archangel from the X-Men got it? It’s sort of like… something we achieved, got it?”’

Pop culture and social media is ever present, feeding and communicating the teenagers’ lifestyle. Don Vittorio asks why Agostino doesn’t try to become a footballer – ‘they’re rich’ – driving home the idea that the teenagers are looking for a shortcut. They are overconfident, lack experience and yet seek to fill a power vacuum left by outgoing mobsters two or three times their age. The story feels acutely relevant, symptomatic of a youth raised on X-Factor and Got Talent, conditioned to easy routes to fame. 

Piranhas film

Giovannesi explains his desire to “portray them as any other adolescents… with their whole world of social media, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, selfies”. Mobster movies inform their behaviour, shaping not only their aspirations but their very identities. Their naivety is charming, often funny, but it’s overlaid with a tragic sense that behaviour in youth defines adult futures.

Saviano, whose novel homes in on dialect and language, explores this through the teenagers’ nicknames or monikers. Don Vittorio explains that:

‘“It’s important what people call you. Your moniker is more important than your real name… If you want to command, you have to have a name that commands. It can be ugly, it can mean nothing, but it can’t be foolish.”’

The pressures faced by young people in establishing and defining their identities also runs through Monos. Indeed, Landes’ characters are known only by their nicknames: Wolf, Bigfoot, Lady, Rambo, Boom Boom, Dog, and Swede. Writing for Roger Ebert, Sheila O’Malley asks whether the sensitive Rambo’s “nom de guerre” might be “a mean-spirited tease imposed on her by the squadron”. “This is how “peer pressure” works in its most sinister state,” she explains, “If it’s hard for adults to stay their own course, then imagine how hard it is for teenagers.” 

In both films, the young people negotiate subtle forms of intimidation, identity crises and shifting morality in their attempt to claim a piece of the adult world; taking chances and seizing the opportunities placed before them. The child soldiers in Monos declare “Doctora is ours now”; a power grab that smacks of a yearning for adulthood. Relocated from the thin air of the mountains to the intense, sticky claustrophobia of the jungle, the young people begin to lose command of their landscape, tipping towards chaos: a choice that’s earned the film comparisons to Apocalypse Now. Landes’ depiction of group mentality and dynamics stings with the anxieties of adolescence; the desire to fit in; the significance placed on bonds of friendship.

Monos film

Blood and friendship lie at the centre of Saviano’s Piranhas novel too. Agostino seeks to build his paranza out of camaraderie and fellowship, the antithesis of mob families bound in blood: ‘the enemy of your enemy is your friend, aside from any issues of blood or relationships’ he thinks. By the end of the novel and Giovannesi’s film adaptation, Agostino will have learned the limitations of this thinking and experienced the pure, instinctive tug of family.

“Unlike the novel,” says Giovannesi, “what the film does is it focuses on the feelings and this huge sensitivity of the characters and that helps us see them not as criminals but as normal people that can be very close to us – our children, our brothers, our friends.” Tonally distinct, Piranhas and Monos close with shots that drive home their characters’ vulnerability and depth of feeling. For Landes, the film’s external conflict is a metaphor for the internal one beneath. “The conflict of adolescence and the actual conflict of war mirror each other,” he told Deadline.

What these films reveal is the perilous mixture of confidence and naivety that typify adolescence. By putting weapons in the hands of their young characters, Landes and Giovannesi amplify their chaotic energy; their ebullience; their impulsiveness. Crucially, the teenagers’ heedlessness and immaturity conflicts with the worldliness of the audience: will someone lose control? will there be an accident? The effect is near unbearable tension that reverberates longer and harder because it echoes a very real problem: that of youth knife crime. 

The young characters remain green and raw at the end of both films; they are not yet ‘adults’ but have instead ‘come of age’ by way of their actions. “When you make a choice of that sort,” to take up arms and enter a paranza, explains Giovannesi, “there is no way out.” The weapons in Monos and Piranhas are a dangerous and tragic extension of ordinary youth.

Read more London Film Coverage here. Don’t miss Monos in UK cinemas from Friday 25 October.

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London Film Festival: Earthquake Bird & Nocturnal #LFF2019

Nocturnal Cosmo Jarvis

More first look film reviews from this year’s BFI London Film Festival #LFF

Earthquake Bird Alicia Vikander Riley Keough Naoki Kobayashi

EARTHQUAKE BIRD

Writer-director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) adapts Susanna Jones’ lightweight crime novel about a female translator accused of murder in Japan. Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander) has lived in Tokyo for five years. She’s composed, capable and taciturn. The victim is a hopeless newcomer, a flirty, wide-eyed American blonde (Riley Keough). Their uneasy friendship, complicated by Lucy’s mysterious boyfriend Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), is the source of the film’s rising tension. It plays out in flashback from the police interrogation room.  

Westmoreland borrows this difficult structure from the novel. Yet, while Lucy’s memories feel like interruptions on the page (the desire to return to the interrogation always pressing) Westmoreland’s immersive storytelling drags us deep into the past. He neatly swerves the novel’s half-remembered, dreamy sexual encounters to provide a more grounded depiction of sexual obsession and jealousy. 

Alicia Vikander serves the material well with a performance that’s tantalisingly remote. She smoothes out Lucy’s hard edges – only occasionally is she piercing and indelicate – which opens up a chasm of ambiguity and doubt. Reserved, awkward body language reveals her vulnerability in sharp contrast with the physical ease and confidence of Keough’s Lily.

With a few structural tweaks, Westmoreland shifts the film towards a meditation on guilt and culpability. The classic ‘confession’ scene is used to land, not on who killed Lily, but on the genesis of Lucy’s current state of mind. 

As he attempts to move into more sophisticated territory, Westmoreland continues to nod to the classic crime genre. Lucy is translating a detective show; song lyrics allude to death and killing. Yet for all his thematic efforts, it is surprising that Westmoreland (who has a track record of female led projects including Still Alice and Colette) allows the novel’s emphasis on female oppression to languish in the background.           

With Earthquake Bird Westmoreland offers up a moody and superbly performed crime drama. His reimagining of this urban space is suitably atmospheric and he proves himself more than capable of building to a tension filled, climactic finale. Yet there remains a whiff of unfulfilled potential in the project which lacks the necessary substance to really take flight.     

Earthquake Bird is in selected cinemas from 8th November and on Netflix from 15th November 2019.

Nocturnal Cosmo Jarvis Lauren Coe

NOCTURNAL

This slow-burn debut reveals a striking new talent in writer-director Nathalie Biancheri. Her emotional drama, Nocturnal, traces an ambiguous relationship between a 16 year-old girl and an older man, Pete, played with intensity and sensitivity by rising star Cosmo Jarvis. 

Jarvis, who appeared in the 2016 film Lady Macbeth opposite a fierce Florence Pugh, has been compared to Matthias Schoenaerts of Rust and Bone and Bullhead. Watching Nocturnal, it’s easy to see why. His bulky, rugged physical presence masks a fragile self-image and a deep undercurrent of feeling that seeps out in practiced conversations and gentle tears.

Before long, teenage Laurie (Lauren Coe) is infatuated but Pete’s motivations remain mysterious. Biancheri’s near square aspect ratio (reminiscent of Andrea Arnold) pushes us into greater intimacy with the characters and Nocturnal quickly becomes a heady, emotionally fraught experience.     

Biancheri and co-writer Olivia Waring (Flora & Fauna) offer an interesting and original exploration of youthful indiscretions and their consequences; of love, family and intimacy. Both Laurie and Pete feel trapped in their lacklustre seaside town. In teasing out these threads Biancheri creates a compelling sense of place and a subtext that taps into modern concerns about social mobility and exclusion. 

You can find more coverage of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival here.

London Film Festival: Synchronic, Making Waves and Blackbird

This week, The Film Version is setting up at home at the BFI London Film Festival. I don’t usually focus on reviews here, but I wanted to share some of my first impressions with you. If you’ve been to #LFF, have seen the films elsewhere or are keen to see them soon, drop me a line in the comments.

SYNCHRONIC

Two paramedics treat victims of a legal high that has dangerous, supernatural effects in this gloomy, low-key horror from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (The Endless, Spring). From its first medical scene, Synchronic sets itself apart from the fast paced emergency rooms of medical dramas. There’s a lethargy to Dennis (Jamie Dornan) and Steve (Anthony Mackie) as they arrive at the home of an OD patient; a blasé reaction to a stab victim they find bleeding in the kitchen. Benson and Moorhead create a foggy, slowed-down, almost blurry impression of the scene as it unfolds. It’s an interesting style: one that reflects the film’s wider interest in time as a dimension of our existence.

Lifelong friends Dennis and Steve are both dissatisfied with their lives. Dennis has a teenage daughter he struggles to parent and a wife he no longer appreciates. Steve is still single. Late night drinking and one night stands bring him little joy. A plot twist gives Anthony Mackie something to work with here, but the self-obsessed Dennis provides a thankless role for Dornan. His persistent moaning feels unwarranted even before the film’s neat reality check.

Benson and Moorhead work hard to put modern life expectations in perspective by exploring the agonies of the past. They have ambitious and laudable aims here but the result feels thematically light, scratching the surface of something deeper. Nonetheless, the film is crammed with good ideas. The editing, for instance, is characterised by match and jump cuts that connect and divide time, disturbing our experience of reality. With its paramedics turned investigators, Synchronic reminiscent of The X-Files, a show it lovingly references. And, while the film’s science feels a little hokey, there’s enough going on here to make Synchronic solid, stylish entertainment.


MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND

Cinema is an audio-visual medium but the amount of time and effort spent talking and thinking about sound work pails in comparison to the visual. It’s this imbalance that Midge Costin and Bobette Buster seek to redress in their informative and passionate documentary, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

The film opens inside a womb with the idea that ‘we emerged into consciousness using only sound’. Sight, by comparison, is the last of our senses to develop. That sound is therefore a crucial and instinctive guide to the world around us, is quickly reinforced by Black Panther director, Ryan Coogler, and master of cinematic storytelling, Steven Spielberg.  

Making Waves is brimming with industry talent and sharp examples of the craft illustrate the role of sound in our interpretation of story. The opening to Saving Private Ryan, for instance, is used to illustrate how audio and visual can be used to tell two different stories. While the narrow frame of the image reveals a personal story, the battlefield sounds tell a larger contextual one.

From here Costin and Buster return to the silent film era, charting the development of sound work through mono and stereo to Dolby. Anchored by interviews with sound work innovators, from Ben Burtt (Star Wars) to Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), Making Waves makes an excellent case for the power of cinematic sound. Simple graphics ensure this largely hidden field becomes accessible, comparing it to an orchestra with voice, sound effects and music sections.

The film’s dependence on big name talent – from George Lucas to David Lynch and John Lasseter – means film buffs will inevitably have heard some of the film’s anecdotes before. Even so, it’s an enjoyable journey and one that opens up a male dominated industry to female voices too. Interviews with Anna Behlmer (Braveheart) are particularly enlightening about gender stereotyping in the industry. 

 By the end of Making Waves, Costin and Buster leave audiences in no doubt about the importance of sound work not only to a film’s realism, but to emotion, imagination and plot. Making Waves is a glorious celebration of an under-appreciated art.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is on general release in the UK from 1 November 2019


BLACKBIRD

Death is a journey in Roger Michell’s Blackbird. Susan Sarandon is Lily, a terminally ill mother who reunites her family for one last weekend before her death. Based on Danish film The Silent Heart (both penned by Christian Torpe) the material attracts a star studded cast. Kate Winlset plays uptight daughter, Jennifer; Mia Wasikowska takes on her erratic, butterfly sister; and Sam Neill is the supporting husband who’s already tired of being treated like a widower. As Lily’s lifelong friend, Lindsay Duncan reunites with Michell following their successful collaboration on of Le Week-End. The performances are predictably top notch.

With an eclectic filmography that includes Notting Hill, Hyde Park On Hudson and My Cousin Rachel, Michell balances the heavy subject matter with finely-tuned comedy. Weepy moments are injected with familial awkwardness and, occasionally, angry outbursts. The family dynamic is compelling and the near chamber piece feel is at times reminiscent of John Wells’ August Osage County

Of all the tantalising roles here, Wasikowska’s is arguably the most interesting: her internal struggle offers a powerful counterpoint to that of the main protagonist, Lily. Beneath the surface, the film explores the strength needed to live and to die: the resilience needed to make the most difficult life choices. This strength comes, says Blackbird, from love. But it’s here where Michell stumbles, throwing his film slightly off kilter by building to a twist we’ve seen coming all along.

Look out for more #LFF first impressions here at The Film Version this weekend.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Understanding Amores Perros

What does Amores Perros mean? And how does writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu use this debut to establish his filmmaking style and themes?

There are few filmmakers whose work I revere more that of Alejandro González Iñárritu. It was his second film, 21 Grams that first opened my eyes to cinema as an art. Prior to Oscars sensations Birdman and The Revenant, Iñárritu dealt unflinchingly with some of the most distressing aspects of humanity. From Mexican dog fighters to victims of human trafficking, his characters come from some of the most deprived communities. Sometimes battling terminal illnesses (which  Iñárritu viscerally depicts) they experience the cruelty and violence of life and death. Each of his first four films – Amores Perros (2001), 21 Grams (2004), Babel (2007) and Biutiful (2011) – elicits a very personal response from the viewer.

Now Amores Perros has returned to MUBI as part of their Cannes Takeover and, if you haven’t seen it before, I highly recommend you tune in and watch before reading what’s next.

Death Versus Survival

Amores Perros opens with a frenetic car chase. A dog is dying on the back seat while the driver desperately tries to evade those pursuing him through the busy streets of Mexico. The chase ends in a cataclysmic crash that ties together three separate stories in the past, present and the future. As we flashback to the past, the driver seduces his brothers wife. The crash is the crisis point of his story. From here, the film propels us into the present where one of the crash  victims, a model, copes with her disfigurement. In the future, a former hit-man rescues the dog from the wreckage and is set on a redemptive path.  

Car chase in Amores Perros

Amores Perros is the first film in what has become known as Iñárritu’s ‘death trilogy’ but the term is a loose one. The characters of these films are exposed, not only to the physical deaths of family, friends and animals, but the metaphorical deaths of hopes, dreams and ideals. Iñárritu has himself questioned the accuracy of the label ‘death trilogy’, the films dealing as much with dying as surviving; with the desperate struggle to live. He would go on to explore survival very literally in The Revenant – which treks through the snowy wilderness with a frontiersman left for dead after a bear attack – and metaphorically, through the attempts of a washed up actor trying to cement his artistic legacy, in Birdman.

It is interesting that Biutiful, Iñárritu’s fourth offering and, arguably, his most distressing film, sits outside of the so-called ‘death trilogy’. Like 21 Grams, it follows a dying man but tells the story in a straight line (Iñárritu was so committed to this that he actually filmed it chronologically). Biutiful also establishes a more concentrated perspective – telling not three stories but one – resulting in a more intimate atmosphere. “Biutiful is a tough film,” says Iñárritu in conversation with The Telegraph, “It doesn’t make concessions to the vulgarity of light entertainment. It’s not the kind of film that you see, every day, in the Cineplex”. And yet the film is “about life,”  he says, “It’s a hymn to life,”. Speaking to Collider in 2010, he argued that by “observing life through death, from the last point of it,” we are able to perceive that “the life has more meaning”. Death enables us to perceive life differently.

Indeed, Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel are also films about love and living, exploring family ties and passionate affairs. Iñárritu describes Amores Perros (in the film’s behind the scenes documentary) as being about “love”: the suffering that comes with love’s loss; with dependency; with the need to be desired; and with loneliness in a city of 20 million people. Even 21 Grams – which explores the interconnected stories of a dying heart patient, a grieving wife and an ex-convict tied together by (another) tragic car accident – reminds us that life goes on, not always as we might expect and often in spite of our anguish. By focussing too heavily on the films as a ‘death trilogy’, it easy to overlook their finer, humanistic elements.

The Spanish title of Amores Perros, for instance, has many meanings. The English title is offered up as ‘Love’s A Bitch’ but the title has also been described as an oxymoron that suggests both ‘that which is good and desirable in life’ and ‘that which is miserable’. While ‘perros’ directly translates to ‘dogs’ it has also been translated pejoratively as ‘an unworthy person’, ‘a hired killer’, ‘a prostitute’ and ‘an unfaithful person’, all labels that appear in the film. This ambiguity, this openness to interpretation is characteristic of Iñárritu’s work. Amores Perros, in particular, is opaque and multi-layered, raising questions about fate and love with a lightness of touch, with metaphor and gentle, visual suggestion. The closer you watch Amores Perros, the more it reveals. Let’s take a look at some of the motifs Iñárritu uses in Amores Perros and what they might mean.  

1. Dogs: Instincts & Emotions

In the first segment, a young woman, Susana (Vanessa Bauche), struggles to raise her young child in a violent relationship with her husband Ramiro (Marco Pérez). Ramiro’s brother, Octavio (Gael García Bernal), treats Susana with warmth and kindness but bad feelings towards his abusive brother twist into a desire to run away with his wife. Taken over by lust, Octavio becomes sexually aggressive towards the woman he covets and increasingly violent towards his own brother. Octavio’s battle against his own animal instincts are encapsulated in the shot below. He holds back a fighting dog – the symbol of his own aggression – reigning it in and restraining it, its teeth bared and rearing up, until he no longer can, until the count is up. It is in these fighting pits, through these savage animals, that violent male rivalries play out.

Gael Garcia in Amores Perros

The journey of Octavio’s dog, Cofi, mirrors his own. Cofi begins life as a pet but becomes a fierce, bloodthirsty animal when Octavio enters him into the fighting ring for cash. The fights are bloody and brutal, emphasised by rapid cuts and a shaky camera. The blood becomes a motif that connects the violence of aggression to that of Ramiro (against his wife), Octavio (against his brother) and the assassin. In the film’s behind the scenes documentary, actor Gael García Bernal describes Octavio’s desire as “an uncontrollable animal force that makes him do terrible things”. Both Octavio and Cofi are left seriously wounded as their third act begins.

Dog fighting in Amores Perros

Cofi is rescued from the wreckage by El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), a former assassin, grieving for the happy family life has given up. El Chivo now spends his life with dogs; walking the streets with strays. In what is arguably the film’s most devastating scene, El Chivo returns home to discover Cofi has attacked and killed all the other animals he’s rescued. El Chivo points a gun at him, but he cannot shoot. Cofi represents El Chivo himself: a killer. The complex relationships we have with our dogs come to represent those we have with ourselves. “Masters take after their dogs you know,” says El Chivo who, awakened to his crimes, embarks on a path of redemption. In the closing lines of the film, Cofi is renamed ‘Blackie’, becoming a pet once again as El Chivo steps out into a wide open expanse (the first such shot in a claustrophobic film) in search of absolution.

While the present day story – of model Valeria (Goya Toledo) and her lover Daniel (Álvaro Guerrero) – is the least integrated in terms of its plot, dogs remain a vital device in the storytelling. Like Valeria, lap-dog Richie is beautiful and pampered. When Valeria becomes housebound, returning from the hospital in a wheelchair, Richie falls into a hole in the floor and becomes trapped. Valeria believes the rats are eating him. Over the next two weeks her mental health spirals and, just like Richie, she becomes lost in the darkness. Richie will not return to his owner’s calls; Valeria has lost control of him and her own life. 

There are echoes of the ferocious dog fights in the couple’s viscous arguments as Valeria copes with the loss of her former life. But it is the sound of Richie whimpering beneath the floor that puts an end this hostility: he becomes Valeria’s hope.

2. Photographs: Parents & Brothers

El Chivo is similarly grappling with the loss of the life he could have had. He carries around an old photograph album and returns time and again to a picture of his daughter’s graduation, pasting a photo of his own face over that of her step father. At the moment of his awakening, El Chivo puts on his glasses and looks up at the photograph of his daughter perched above his bed.

El Chivo photograph Amores Perros

Iñárritu uses photographs throughout Amores Perros to communicate the importance of family which is disintegrating around the characters. El Chivo takes Octavio’s wallet from the crash and, perusing it, finds photographs of Octavio with his brother Ramiro. They are smiling. Revealed here, in the final act, the image is particularly tragic. Any return to these happy times seems impossible.    

By pulling Octavio and Ramiro into El Chivo’s story in this way, Iñárritu is able to further deepen his exploration of brotherly rivalries. Indeed, El Chivo’s first redemptive act is to bring two more feuding brothers face to face: one has paid him to kill the other. These two brothers appear in one of the film’s final images, each in their corners reaching to the centre of the room for a gun. Has El Chivo set up a reconciliation? Or will it be a fight to the death? The composition of the shot echoes the very dog fights with which Amores Perros began. 

Iñárritu revisited this theme in his next film Babel. The final instalment in the ‘death trilogy’ opens in Morocco. Two boys, Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), are left in charge of a rifle. Their father instructs them to ward off jackals while the family’s goats graze on the mountains. But the boys become distracted and start shooting at targets. The youngest aims at a coach on the road below and accidentally shoots an American tourist. These actions have repercussions for a Mexican nanny in San Diego and the daughter of a Japanese hunter in Tokyo. The brothers’ rivalry sets the tragic accident in motion. Yussef is jealous of his brother’s masculinity: his success with women and ability to shoot. The accident happens as he tries to prove himself. 

The horrified father of Yussef and Ahmed in Babel is forced to contemplate his own role in the fate of his children. Fatherhood, too, is a recurring theme in Iñárritu’s work. A daughter becomes a valuable part of her father’s legacy in Birdman; a dying father passes on his family history to his children in Buitiful. Both of these fathers are able to remain in their children’s lives in ways that El Chivo cannot.

Absent parents are a tragic reality in Amores Perros. Susana remains dependent on an abusive husband because her mother is an alcoholic and her father an absentee. Valeria, meanwhile, is estranged from her parents who disapprove of her modelling career. Iñárritu flirts with this conflict as Valeria leafs through photo albums and glossy magazines.

3. Advertising: Desire & Disposability

Valeria is the face of ‘Enchant’ perfume and her image appears plastered onto buildings across Mexico City. She is standing in a suggestive pose, teasing up her short dress to reveal long elegant legs. The image is a provocative one and it elicits lustful reactions from the film’s male characters. In its hyper-masculine environment, lust and sexual aggression work to disintegrate family: as the film’s title tells us, ‘love’s a bitch’. Desire is a corrupting force that can lead to violence. Octavio sleeps with his brother’s wife; Daniel leaves his wife and children to be with Valeria.

Enchant advert Amores Perros

The selfishness of men permeates the film’s plot: Susana labels Ramiro ‘selfish’ when he wakes the baby she has taken so long to settle; and Valeria accuses Daniel of selfishness when he refuses to take up the floor to find Richie. Yet the relationship between Valeria and Daniel – arising from an affair – outlasts our expectations of it.   

As Valeria comes to terms with the loss of her physical beauty (as it is defined by the modelling industry), the Enchant billboards remind us of love’s tests and the fragility of lust. They are also Valeria’s torment. A billboard hangs across the street from her apartment providing a cruel reminder of her former life. Eventually the billboard is taken down and replaced with a sign, ‘space available’. It’s a crushing moment. Valeria has been discarded; she is as disposable as the dead dogs in Octavio’s fighting ring. Just as the dogs were not loved by their owners, neither has Valeria’s beauty and fame brought her love from her employers or fans. It’s amongst the worst of human traits, to dispose so carelessly of what we no longer believe we need. Valeria now faces an identity crisis; one that is shared by El Chivo who describes himself as “a living ghost”.

The hollow, vacuous nature of advertising and glossy magazines is revealed in the juxtaposition of the advert and the struggles of the film’s working class characters. The remoteness of this ideal for Octavio and Susana is particularly cutting. Octavio’s bedroom is adorned with images of cars cut from magazines and adverts. When he finally obtains the car of his dreams, the montage compares his aggressive sexuality with the now relatively subdued behaviour of his brother. He has been corrupted, bewitched by desire and greed.  

Iñárritu would go on to explore the hollow state of Hollywood ambition in the Oscar winning Birdman and it’s hard to think of a director who could do this kind of self-analysing, industry-scrutinising film better. Iñárritu’s early films were short lived at the multiplexes despite reaping widespread critical acclaim. In Birdman he peels back the layers of conflict between the artistic, the worthwhile and the popular. “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit,” says Birdman in one of the many metaphorical conversations that happen inside the washed-up actor’s head. The scenes play out in an absurd, surrealist style, feeding a piercing, relevant debate about cinema’s current obsession with comic book films. It could be Iñárritu himself talking, as Edward Norton has intimated about his own lines in the film.

The success of Iñárritu’s trilogy lies in the creativity of its storytelling. All three films saw Iñárritu collaborate with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga whose screenplays share complex non-linear narrative structures, intricately connecting the disparate lives of three sets of characters. The result is a single thematic story about family, love, fate, hope and survival. “To make God laugh,” says Susana in Amores Perros, “tell him your plans”. Sadly, Babel marked the end of this relationship. In 2006, Iñárritu reportedly banned Arriaga from the film’s Cannes screening. Arriaga, a fierce advocate for the role of screenwriters had, apparently, been too vociferous about his role in 21 Grams.

Terrence Rafferty for (The New Yorker) recognised the irony in this quarrel:

In the behind the scenes documentary for the Blu-Ray release of Amores Perros, Iñárritu said “it was as if all the departments stepped back, allowing the characters’ stories to run their course, and I hope my direction won’t be noticeable”. Arriaga’s claim, that films should be perceived, not as the work of a single auteur, but auteurs, seems to be born out in Iñárritu’s filmography. The director’s first three films feel markedly different from the next. While Iñárritu has gone on to prove his dexterity with comedy Birdman and IMAX epic The Revenant, the feud is a devastating one for cinema. Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel are in a class of their own.

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