While Bastards’ Road lacks a formal dazzle, it’s footage seems to contain the marrow of America. Jonathan Hancock walks 5,800 miles around the United States as a way of coping with his feelings after the experiences of his deployment in Ramadi. His unit the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines, are equally challenged by their experiences overseas. Jonathan ventures on foot, from one Marine’s home, to another. Across state lines, and through challenging weather conditions. There is footage of him singing Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ before recounting a story of meeting a family of skunks, as well as him looking directly into his phone camera explaining how he happened on a handgun and doesn’t want to touch it since he’s essentially a transient.
The footage consists largely of standard shots, a man walking down a road, an interview subject sitting in their home recounting a story, and lot’s of cellphone footage wherein Jonathan is recording a sort of diary shot vertically. There’s also a collection of landscape shots that could be directly lifted off the Discovery Channel or History Channel. I often thought the footage reminded me of American Pickers. The beauty of the film is it’s story, and like the men it’s about it’s not particularly sleek or new. It’s sturdy, reliable, and enough to complete the job. Watching Jonathan cry with Caleb Power’s family over his pickup truck, or watching him try to spend time with one of his friends’ young daughters is equally affecting.
Bastards’ Road Trailer
Bastards’ Road comes out on May 11th and will be available to rent or purchase on most major platforms.
Jim Wilson: Michael, thanks for doing this with me again. How have you been doing?
Michael Clawson: Thanks for having me back for another Collokino! I’m doing well, spending much of summer here in Seattle as I usually do… inside, watching movies, and wishing my apartment had air conditioning (that’s an aspect of theater-going that I’m missing more than ever). How are things with you?
Jim: Great, thanks. Enjoying another hot and dry Colorado summer, and watching more movies than should probably be allowed.
With the third edition of Collokino, I’m breaking my own loose rules and having you on to talk about a film that I chose, when it’s the guest who’s supposed to choose (so maybe I’ll put you in the host seat a little). Ever since watching it the first time back in March, I’ve been longing to write or talk about Céline Sciamma’s absolutely incredible film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but I’ve failed over and over again to put together a review that satisfies me. I notice that most reviews for it never get close to doing it justice, as if there’s something about the review format that neglects it, or can’t contain it. That’s why I thought it would be a good idea, or at least a pleasant challenge, to give it a look in a more casual, conversational format instead. Would you be so kind, fine sir, to give a brief synopsis of the film and your first impressions? This is your second watch of Portrait, is that right? Streaming, or have you picked up the disc?
Michael: Even if it is against Collokino guidelines, you didn’t have to twist my arm to get me on board for talking about this one. I saw Portrait towards the end of last year, really enjoyed it, and watched it again recently on Hulu. On both occasions, I was enraptured by Sciamma’s craft, the romance, and the relationship between artist and muse that the film explores. With that, a synopsis:
A gorgeous romantic drama set in 18th century France, the film begins in a classroom, where Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is teaching a small group of young women to paint. Mid-lesson, she stops. She’s noticed a painting she did some time ago sitting in the back of the room, apparently pulled out by a curious student. Composed mostly of dark greys and blues, it’s of a lone woman in a moonlit field, the base of her dress aflame. The sight of it floods Marianne with memories that form the remainder of the film. In flashback, Marianne arrives on the rocky shores of Brittany, where she’s been commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who’s returned home from a convent after her sister’s death. Héloïse is to be married to a Milanese suitor she’s never met, and in defiance of this unwanted future being thrust upon her, she has refused to pose for other portraitists. Marianne thus begins the portrait in secret, pretending she’s been hired simply as a companion to Héloïse, but stealing glances at her for later reference on their regular, often silent but charged walks along the shoreline. As the painting comes to life, so too does an attraction between Héloïse and Marianne, and who’s gazing at who evolves.
How would you characterize the development of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship, in terms of either their desire for each other or their statuses as artist and muse? If that question points you in a direction you don’t want to go yet, maybe start by sharing what you responded to, or found compelling, in a more general sense.
Jim: And that’s exactly why I asked you to set it up, lol. You do that really well.
Sure, I’d love to talk about the development of the relationship between Héloïse and Marianne. Adèle Haenel, in an interview included on the Criterion BD (it’s a beautiful thing) talks about three stages in the evolution of the characters, which tracks with the stages in the evolution of their relationship. In the first, she describes the bodies as angular, the faces as masks, with no warmth between them. In the second phase, which she calls intermediary, cracks appear in the masks, there’s a little intimacy, and some warmth is starting to peek through. In the third phase, which she calls the hottest, the bodies are loose, voices are spontaneous, and emotions are strong. I would simplify that, and describe the three phases in the development of the relationship between Héloïse and Marianne as illusion-liberty-love. Marianne performs an illusion, which Héloïse at least senses, which keeps her closed and distant. When illusion is replaced with honesty, the film reaches its apex, right around the one-hour mark, with the liberating middle section, followed by the romantic final section. I’d love to cover all three of those phases, but would first emphasize a crucial point between the first and second phases, when the veil is first lifted from Marianne’s deceit.
Héloïse is looking at Marianne’s first painting of her, the one she does on the sly. It really is terrible, how Héloïse is depicted as an adult-sized little girl, all of her angles rounded off, which is a criminal thing to do to the visage of Adèle Haenel, whose angularity and larger-than-lifeness is what makes her so beautiful. When Marianne explains that the portrait is stylized to conform to certain conventions, Héloïse furrows her generous brow and asks “You mean there’s no life, no presence?” Marianne explains, “Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth.” And there the conceptual bomb is dropped. Héloïse snaps back “Not everything is fleeting. Some feelings are deep.”
What Marianne is doing is advocating for an aesthetics of essence, the idea that all people can be reduced to some basic kernel of humanity, which can be captured in graphic representations of people. Without getting into the philosophical weeds of it, suffice it to say that it’s an idea which everything about the film then roundly rejects. Marianne has it exactly wrong. It’s the fleeting moments that tell the deepest truths, as the film, and she, learns to illustrate. What’s distinctive to any human subject, including deep feelings, is what makes that individual person utterly unique. The worldly Marianne, an unusually empowered woman for her time, is being schooled by the provincial Héloïse. Héloïse may be of aristocratic birth, but she’s a rough stone compared to Marianne’s polished rock. Héloïse commands the aesthetic core of Portrait. There’s a purity of heart with her, as cold and jagged as it may be, that has the power to reconfigure Marianne’s deeply rooted ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable.
So that’s a start to talking about the development of Héloïse’s and Marianne’s relationship. As to your question about artist and muse, I think again to what Haenel said on that very point, that there is no muse, that once the work of the painting truly commences, following the scene described above, it is an entirely collaborative effort. Héloïse and Marianne work together, side by side, to create the portrait, which is one of the film’s loudest political messages, about how autonomous women are naturally collaborative.
Michael: Oof, yeah, the first painting is not a satisfying one. Héloïse appears docile, doll-like, and the look of contentment on her face contradicts the intensity and anger we’ve seen behind the real Héloïse’s eyes up to that point. We’ve watched Marianne steal look after look at Héloïse, only for her to disregard the severity she’s witnessed in Héloïse, and instead appeal to what convention tells her a husband expects to see. “I put it the way it is”, Héloïse says earlier in reference to how she describes her impending marriage to a stranger. The first painting doesn’t depict Héloïse as she is, so it’s really no surprise when she looks at it and asks “Is that me?”
I like the word “illusion” to describe the initial phase of the relationship, because I think it speaks not only to Marianne’s deception and the wall it puts up between them, but also because it applies to what frustrates Héloïse about how other portraitists, and Marianne at first, render her with their art. The illusion is dismantled as their attraction to each other grows, because desiring someone compels you to really look at them. The more they know and understand each other, the better and more truthful the art they create together. I love both Merlant and Haenel, but I’m particularly knocked out by how Haenel embodies Héloïse’s softening over time.
Prior to them opening up to each other, I think Marianne, in an unconscious way at least, mistakenly conceives of herself and Héloïse as artist and muse, since that’s a relationship that implies a one-way gaze, and Marianne doesn’t realize Héloïse is looking back at her. Once Marianne realizes she too is being looked at, the idea of them as artist and muse falls away.
Want to tell me more about the three phases you’ve identified: illusion, liberty, and love?
Jim: Actually, that’s a good point, that in the first stage, Marianne is having some kind of an artistic epiphany, though she has no clue yet what it means, or how to express it. That’s what Héloïse’s contribution ultimately teaches her. But yes, at that early point, Marianne is seduced by the impression of Héloïse as her muse, though that is, like so much in the first phase, an illusion.
I love the middle, liberating segment of the relationship, and the film, because it is the freest space, and because it brings to the center Sophie, the housemaid. Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) isn’t given nearly enough attention by fans and critics. Without her, the film would fail. Her unwanted pregnancy leads Portrait to its most touching and funny moments. The three of them cooking, playing cards, reading and discussing Ovid, attempting various folk methods of abortion, attending a festival, and finally completing the abortion, are the truly most beautiful and lasting moments of the film, acute episodes of freedom and self-discovery.
After the abortion, while Sophie is still weak and recovering, Héloïse has the idea of commemorating the tableau of the abortion, which we’ve just witnessed, into a painting, and assembles Sophie, Marianne, and the props to make it happen, thereby recording an event always erased or avoided from much of documented history. Recall that during the actual abortion, Marianne looks away, cringing, until Héloïse insists “look!” Héloïse is profoundly moved by everything she experiences, though her cynical and embittered perspective tempers her passions. Liberated by those same experiences, she begins to express herself, to assume what agency she can, with the inspiration Marianne and Sophie award her (Héloïse’s muses). Héloïse’s anger fuels so much of her own awakening, which in turn inspires and instructs Marianne (Marianne’s muse). It’s my vote for the film’s most poignant moment, the triumph of sisterhood, as it were, under such difficult circumstances.
I feel like I’ve dominated too much of the subject space here, Michael. Tell me about what matters to you about Portrait; specifically, generally, what is this film for you?
Michael: I’m with you, Portrait was one of the most discussed movies of 2019 (rightly so), but Sophie and the abortion sub-plot seem to have more often than not gone unremarked on, so I’m glad you bring it up. I love Bajrami’s impassiveness, and how despite Sophie being a particularly vulnerable character, Sciamma resists the temptation to turn her into an object of our pity.
All ideas aside, though I’ll turn back to those shortly, the movie wouldn’t matter anywhere as much to me as it does were it not for its ravishing form. I love the rugged coastal setting and the pronounced sound of the crashing waves, the contrasting crimson red and emerald green dresses, the POV shots of Marianne’s canvas as she’s painting. One of my favorite details is how Sciamma brings her camera around corners: there’s the shot where the camera drifts down the stairs and turns to show us Héloïse for the first time, though she’s cloaked and facing away, and there’s a smooth curve the camera follows around a rock wall on the beach when Marianne follows Héloïse into an alcove for their first kiss. Claire Mathon’s cinematography is a huge factor in the film’s success for me.
Another aspect I love but that has already been discussed to no end is the absence of men from nearly the whole movie. It’s great! Cinema has given us more than enough stories about gay couples confronted in obvious ways by intolerant men. Portrait implicitly recognizes the transgression in Héloïse and Marianne falling for each other, but instead of exploiting intolerance for cheap pathos, Sciamma confines it to the background, and instead foregrounds female solidarity, art, and love. It’s very refreshing.
One thing I haven’t seen talked about as much is how the film touches on the relationship between art and memory. It is, after all, framed as a relationship remembered from Marianne’s perspective. I was struck by the dialogue that comes towards the end, when Marianne sketches a small drawing of Héloïse to keep for herself, and then sketches herself in Héloïse’s book. “You can reproduce that image to infinity,” Héloïse says. “After a while, you’ll see her when you think of me.” Altogether, I hear the movie saying that if visual memories can fade and be replaced by the images we create, the pursuit of truth rather than adherence to established artistic norms is only that much more essential.
I’d be curious to hear your take on how the Orpheus and Eurydice myth fits into the narrative, but take us any direction you’d like from here.
Jim: Full agreement on all those points. On the subject of art and memory, Sciamma said it herself, “Art consoles us from lost love.” As you point out, the film is Marianne’s memory of the time spent with Héloïse, a memory sparked by the painting her student uncovers at the beginning, which you describe, a memory that relieves her of her initial sadness. The keepsake paintings Marianne makes for each, the painting of Héloïse that Marianne sees in the gallery, all serve to soften the grief of their lost love. And maybe most powerful of all instances of art consoling the memory of lost love, is the long take of Marianne watching Héloïse react to the Vivaldi number in the end, a piece Marianne introduced her to during their time together. It’s a really stunning bit of performance from Haenel, as she passes through several emotional states, ultimately smiling through her tears at the memory of that magical time in Brittany with Marianne. It gets to me just thinking about it. I think it’s arguably the most important emotional take-away from the film, the imperative of art as a means to capture the permanence of love in the hearts of those who struggle to find comfort when it’s lost. Knowing that Sciamma and Haenel themselves experienced something similar together only makes it all the more compelling a point.
In an interview with Céline Sciamma included on the Criterion disc, she speaks at length about the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Evidently, she included it in the script at the very end of the writing process, because she wanted something for the three women to talk about during that crucial liberating middle section. Since it’s a myth often discussed in feminist circles, as it may suggest the lethality of the male gaze, she went with it, and ultimately found that it fit perfectly with the other themes of the film, especially the centrality of looking, which is something I’d like to come back to. As Sciamma further explains, it serves also as something that can be discussed, debated and theorized about endlessly, with any perspective as valid as any other. Does Orpheus make the poet’s choice, or the lover’s choice, is it maybe Eurydice who commands him to turn around, is it about a loss of faith, is it inevitable, is it a way to share a final farewell? All of the options create a conceptual tension that is very useful to the texture of the film. Personally, I recognize it as a practical device that works in all of those ways, though I’m less taken by its importance to the real gravity of Portrait, which for me remains thoroughly grounded in the evolution of love through art, and the dynamics of the gaze, of looking and seeing.
I like your observations about the cinematography, which reminded me of another point Sciamma makes about why she chose to shot the film digitally – to provide the high-resolution richness that practically explodes off the screen. What other visual elements of the film did you enjoy, whether costumes, hair, the plain interior settings, or Sciamma’s really unique approach to period details?
Michael: As you talk about it, I feel the self-discipline I’ve practiced in waiting to make my next Criterion purchase is slowing breaking down…
I’m kind of relieved to hear you say that the inclusion of the myth isn’t of huge importance to you. It’s detail that’s ripe for discussion, which I like and have mulled over plenty, but I’m in the same boat. Other aspects of the film, most of which we’re already talking about, have more resonance for me.
The digital look is really interesting. I don’t think I would describe this movie as a particularly transportive period piece, but I don’t mean that pejoratively. Where other filmmakers might apply aesthetics that would either heighten our sense of the story as a memory or as one from over two centuries ago, maybe with the use of ellipses or a grainier look, the digital images have a real immediacy to them because of their clarity. Combine that with how pristine the wardrobes are and the stylishness of the relatively minimal production design, there’s just a feeling of the “now” in the film’s construction. Which I think really works for a film whose themes are as relevant as ever. Social and artistic convention of 18th century France informs what literally transpires, but I don’t think it’s a movie that’s strictly about the period it’s set in. The ideas about art and forbidden love transcend the time period.
If I may share one thing I didn’t care for: I could have done without the shots of Héloïse in her wedding dress, luminous in the castle’s dark halls. For me, they’re just a little on the nose in visualizing how the inevitability of Héloïse’s future keeps sneaking up and tormenting Marianne. Hopefully I didn’t just destroy my chances of being invited back for another Collokino.
That last shot really is stunning. It’s as if Héloïse relives the whole relationship in that short span of time, experiencing that rising wave of desire all over again. She’s so overwhelmed she’s nearly gasping for air. Both Merlant and Haenel really nail the breathing these women do when they’re around each other. The rise and fall of their chests always speaks to the charge between them.
Care to expand on the notion of “looking” that you brought up?
Jim: Surrender to the Criterion Temptation, dude. Trust me, the Criterion BD of this, the whole presentation, is more than worth it.
The apparitions of Héloïse in the halls in her wedding dress are just another expression of the Orpheus-Eurydice tale, though it’s not Hades who steals Héloïse from Marianne, but a Milanese nobleman (the difference being <cymbal crash>). We’ve agreed it is not the film’s strongest suit, so your good standing in the Collokino rolls remains unblemished. For now.
To get to the stuff about looking, I’ll start with Sciamma’s mise-en-scene. During my last watch, I became fully aware of how much the film is built on a method of composition that Sciamma is deliberately crafting in every frame. I don’t think of Sciamma as a formalist, per se, but here she is literally and formally composing this film as a tableau, or a series of tableaux, in both the English language sense of a graphic arrangement, interlaced with the French meaning of, among other things, a portrait, or a painting. It is, of course, a film about an artist and the portrait she paints, a technique that Sciamma is mimicking in cinematic form. She assembles a fastidious arrangement of graphic signs and applies them to characters testing their own limits of self-determination, through signals, subterfuge, and sincerity.
Neither realism nor naturalism, nor any other method of representation, describes this. Realism is reserved more for the period details, where the stark minimalism of the physical spaces, the clothes, and the food, make convincing historical, and geographical sense. As for character representation, it mimics the montage quality of memory; the characters are usually still, or walking slowly (after one initial mad dash). Mostly what they do is look at each other, and talk to each other in straightforward declarative sentences, and ask basic questions they, and the viewer, want answered frankly. It’s almost like a series of still shots, gorgeous, sensual shots of hair and faces and eyes and hands and paintings, of sea, air, earth and fire, but static at first, sans any reaction. It’s an overwhelmingly powerful cycling of images and atmospheres that hangs more heavily over the film the more you watch it. It’s a visual film about looking, regarding, seeing, not talking, even less moving, just watching, observing. It’s something both Marianne and Héloïse say to each other often throughout the film, “regardez” or “regarde moi”. Look at me.
You said it yourself: “desiring someone compels you to really look at them”. In the critical middle section there’s another portraiture sitting, during which Marianne describes to Héloïse some of her telling gestures, clearly pleased, if not a little smug, with her powers of insight. In turn, Héloïse commands Marianne to come to her side and asks her what Marianne thinks Héloïse sees when Marianne is studying her. Marianne’s smugness evaporates. The scrutiny of looking is not one way, not restricted to a single perspective, but is dynamic, recurrent, and complementary. The subjects of their gazes – one another – change with this scrutiny, becoming fuller, more complete, and more worthy of love. By looking, they recreate each other and themselves, and draw each other more thoroughly into being. The triptych exchange of glances during one of their earliest walks, when Marianne and Héloïse steal glimpses of one another, is a breathtakingly remarkable encapsulation of the looking theme, and one of the coolest shots I’ve ever seen in any film. It’s such a critical and central theme, to me, that “regarde moi” could easily be the film’s subtitle. Portrait is all about examining its characters as they regard each other, and create art and love from what they see.
Though I could happily go on talking about this amazing film forever, I suspect we should start wrapping it up. Anything more you want to add, Michael?
Michael: I think those points are great ones to end on, they get at the heart of what I really like about this film. You mentioned that you think many reviews have failed to do this film justice. I’d never be so bold as to say, “We’ve done it!”, but I think we’ve covered a lot of ground using this format. And since it was a great pick, I think you’ve retained the right to break Collokino rules again in the future and choose films for discussion.
Jim: Well, I don’t know if we’ve done anything, but I do feel a little unburdened. This will forever be a special film for me, and one I’m always eager to talk about.
I do want to take the opportunity to promote the films of Céline Sciamma and Adèle Haenel. If you’re a fan of Portrait, do not miss Sciamma’s other three features, Water Lilies, Tomboy, and Girlhood. She is, I think, one of the most gifted directors working today. She’s a remarkably sharp storyteller with the heart of a philosopher. As for Haenel, there’s a pretty rich range of cool films she’s been in, starting with the just-mentioned Water Lilies, Sciamma’s debut feature, with a then-amateur Haenel, a coming-of-age masterstroke you won’t soon forget. Her performance in Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance earns her my eternal respect. Look out for her, too, in a great German film, alongside Lars Eidinger, called The Flowers of Yesterday. I’m also particular about In the Name of My Daughter, if only because she plays opposite Catherine Deneuve, to whom Haenel is uncannily similar in temperament, and because I love that cross-generational thing.
That’s all. Thanks for doing this, Michael. It was a blast.
Michael: I’ll second your promotion of Girlhood and House of Tolerance, and add the others you mention to my own watchlist. Thanks Jim!
Portrait of a Lady on Fire Trailer
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers and to stream on Hulu.
Limbo is the first film I have seen in theaters in over a year, and the euphoric rush I felt as I walked in and inhaled the smell of popcorn would carry over as I watched the film—though perhaps “euphoric” isn’t quite the word. Limbo follows Syrian refugee Omar (Amir El-Masry), stuck on an isolated Scottish island while his asylum request is processed, familial contact relegated to limited calls in a frigid phone booth (remember those?). It doesn’t quite sound uplifting, and indeed the film gets very dark, but with its deadpan humor and superb performances, Limbo remains full of charm and heart.
The film takes its time to get going, cinematographer Nick Cooke letting us sit in still wide shots that showcase the harsh landscape, the island’s population mere specks against the wild backdrop. At times, Limbo goes a little too slowly through its purgatory, but looks so desolately gorgeous that you don’t mind all that much. The lingering shots, only occasionally interrupted by a pan or tilt, add a hefty dose of charm or humor when needed, or force us to remain is discomfort or despair in the film’s darker moments.
While the island on which he has been stranded is isolated, Omar himself lives with three roommates: the upbeat Farhad (Vikash Bhai), stealer of chickens and lover of Freddie Mercury, and apparent brothers Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah), the former with dreams of becoming a soccer star for Chelsea and the latter with a more realistic take on life. The title of the film proves apt as we watch Omar trudge around this inhospitable island. He goes to cultural awareness classes taught by Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard), who display a lack of awareness themselves, teaching the refugees the past tense by saying phrases like, “I used to ride my elephant to work” or “I used to have a home before coalition forces blew it up.” (As an example of their own, one of the other refugees offers up, “I used to be happy until I came here.”)
Omar, almost always clad in a bright blue jacket, holds on desperately to the one piece of his old life he has left: his grandfather’s oud, a guitar-like instrument he carries around in a case everywhere he goes. Yet he finds himself unable to play, despite his father’s constant refrain—“A musician who does not play his instrument is dead”—ringing in his ears. Omar himself seems drained of life, dragging his untouched oud, mournfully staring at the ignorant locals who ask him not to “blow up shite or rape anyone” before offering him a ride to town.
Writer and director Ben Sharrock carefully balances melancholy with charm here, playing off Omar’s stoicism against roommate Farhad’s relentless cheer as well as the absurdity and ignorance of the locals. El-Masry delivers a performance that is by equal measures funny and heartbreaking even as Omar’s face remains passive for much of the film; the moment when Omar finally begins to react is all the more effective when contrasted with his earlier stoicism. Bhai’s Farhad provides a joyful foil, and while Wasef and Abedi share less screentime than their other roommates, Orebiyi and Ansah more than make up for it with a pair of wrenching performances.
Limbo seems like an impossible film, especially when many refugee stories today are treated by Hollywood with a somberness and self-seriousness better befitting a funeral than something involving living, breathing people. Yet Sharrock easily breathes a new life to this story, bolstered by El-Masry and his co-stars (yes, I have repeatedly mentioned how good El-Masry is; yes, he is that good), finding a deeper empathy in Limbo by focusing on the small scale and the irrefutably human, refusing to give us the standard shlock and making a film all the better for it.
Asad Farooqui’s smart and deftly funny short Congratulations (originally called Mabrook, an Arabic word meaning largely the same thing) opens with Amir, played by Farooqui himself, filming a self-tape for a movie, hoping to land the lauded role of… Terrorist Number Two. Amir is a struggling actor, trying to make it in a world where Muslim performers are delegated to suicide bombers and hijackers; on top of this, Amir still lives at home with his badgering but well-meaning parents (Rajiv Vora and Rabinder Campbell) who like to keep interrupting his audition tapes.
The family is getting ready for Eid, the celebratory breaking of the Ramadan fast, and are joined by Amir’s uncle Abbas (Navin Gurnaney) and his family, including nephew Dr. Jameel (Manahar Kumar), who respectfully looks down upon Amir’s soon-to-be MFA, and Jameel’s fiancée (and cousin), Maaria (Nasim).
Farooqui milks the awkward family dynamics for all their worth, creating an instantly familiar feeling for anyone who has ever had any sort of family gathering. Here, the lines in the sand are drawn not between generations, as often happens, but between geographic locations: Abbas and Jameel, who have both lived in Pakistan, versus Amir, who has not. Abbas and Jameel both praise former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif and insult Hindus, and Amir’s criticisms fall on deaf ears, his comments weightless because he has not lived in Pakistan himself. (Farooqui milks humor out of these conflicts, too, not only through the script but through the shot setups and staging, so we squirm along with Amir and his father as Jameel and Abbas judge us from above.)
Farooqui is careful never to let any of his characters drift into caricature, unlike whoever wrote Terrorist Number Two: Jameel and Abbas are not the hyperconservative, misogynistic monsters that many Western movies would have us believe. Their flaws come out in smaller ways—a comment here, a snide glance there. They are the family members whom you encounter every Thanksgiving with outdated and problematic beliefs, not cartoonish cronies. Nor is Amir hyper-Westernized; he prays with his family in traditional clothing, embracing his faith while simultaneously advocating more liberal ideas.
Therein lies Congratulations’ biggest success: it juxtaposes the players in Amir’s real life—educated, civil (by and large)—and Amir himself with those he has been delegated to play in the movies—unnamed, fanatical. And, as Congratulations shows, the former proves far more interesting and watchable than the latter. We watch Amir interact with his family, watch conflicts and personalities that mirror everyone else’s, and then see the MFA hopeful trudge back upstairs to resignedly refilm his audition for Terrorist Number Two, a role that strips him of all the humanity we have just witnessed.
Lieke Bezemer’s short ECHO breaks down film to its bare parts—moving images and sound. The images: the snow in Hokkaido, Japan. The sound: Bezemer’s voiceover, grappling with her sexual assault. The two seem somewhat disconnected at first; aside from a reference to “bleak landscapes,” it appears the image is simply there for us to gaze upon. As the film progresses, and Bezemer’s narration becomes more and more frantic, the two collide: the images become wilder, cutting with reckless abandon, and the sound of crows matching a flurry of wings on screen, all serving to illustrate the inner chaotic trauma that resulted from this assault. It’s a powerful move—we only see snow, waves, birds, but we understand Bezemer’s psyche better than if we had seen anything straightforward and “realistic.” In only six minutes, the film manages to convey what others cannot in two hours.
Which came first, the visual ideas or the script? They seem so connected, like you can’t have one without the other, and I was wondering you arrived at the combination of these exact words and these exact images.
Well thanks, that is a great compliment! Actually, the script came at the very final stage. For most of the process, I didn’t even think I was going to be writing one! Where the visuals are a more universal representation of trauma, the script is deeply personal. ECHO is based on my own experiences and before I started making this film I couldn’t talk about my traumas. Understanding, let alone communicating, what you’re experiencing feels impossible – which is actually scientifically acknowledged by brain scans. The rational brain half ‘shuts down’ when triggered by trauma, disconnecting emotions from language. But as I like to say, I ‘hacked’ the system. I wasn’t able to find the words to describe what I was going through, but I found visuals. Combined with stories of Japanese mythology, all of the research on trauma I did and the actual shooting of ECHO created a world tangible enough to then be put into words again: the voice-over where I speak about my sexual abuse. Maybe not a conventional workflow, but I couldn’t have found my voice any other way.
What specifically drew you to Hokkaido? Had you been there before?
I had been to Japan twice and developed a slight addiction to it. I hadn’t been to Hokkaido though, but I knew I wanted to shoot a film in Japan at some point. Japan and I had some unfinished business. The country and its mysteries lingered in my mind during the very first phase of researching for the film. However, I didn’t want the location to dictate the story: the story itself should be the priority. So I let Japan go for a while. The decision to use Hokkaido as the shooting location happened at the exact same time as deciding on nature to carry the narrative. Early on in the process, I decided that I wasn’t going to use people to tell this story of trauma. I was looking for a more abstract, poetic and interpretive narrative. Using nature made more sense to me, given my specialization in nature films. However, I wasn’t quite sure yet. When I randomly found a photo of Hokkaido by Jefflin Ling on Instagram—I was convinced completely. The photo, consisting of a few trees in a minimalistic and eerie snow landscape, touched me more than any piece of art on trauma that I had come across. I couldn’t explain why just yet, but this was the embodiment of trauma for me. This is what it felt like. Later on I discovered that the landscapes perfectly symbolized the dissociation I experienced with my PTSD, where you go into a state of numbness by pushing everything away: emotions, memories, passions, friends—anything that makes you feel at all. All that makes you feel alive. A very common survival mechanism where, on the outside, I started to stare into the distance for hours on end. On the inside, I was burying everything that could remind me of my traumas under a thick blanket of snow, and my mind just went completely blank. This was our starting point for ECHO.
How much footage did you get from Hokkaido? How did you go about cutting down said footage?
We shot a lot of footage for a film that’s just under seven minutes long, probably around eleven hours of raw footage. Cutting down came natural to me and my editor Erik van der Bijl: if a shot didn’t serve a specific purpose, it had to go. We rather wanted to use one long shot than three shorter ones. Rather too little than too much. Instead of going through all of the footage and lining up everything with potential, we created folders with the different types of shots, and searched for a shot when we needed it. With the whole edit being so associative, we made a bunch of different versions before we landed on a flow that we liked.
Once you had the footage, did you change the script at all?
Well, yeah. I made the very first draft of the script. 🙂
How did you decide which clips went with which words? Did you have a clear idea before starting the editing process, or did you discover what fit along the way?
We knew the film had to go from dissociation (numbing) to an anxiety attack (intense fear), and we knew the importance and meanings of the elements like the crows and the abandoned home. After a few versions of the edit I started writing the voice-over with the three phases of that edit: numbing—increasing tension—anxiety attack. Four actually, if you count the returning to numbing at the very end. From this, we discovered that the edit needed a different build up. These phases were a gradual shift rather than an inner battle. So we came up with two setbacks in the second phase, and I rewrote the script. From that script we made a new edit. From that edit we minimalized the script. From that script we made the final edit. Finally, we changed one or two last words in the script. Then we might’ve changed one last shot in the final edit, but who’s counting?
Do you have any films or filmmakers that inspired you with this film? (I felt—and I might be making this up!—some Alain Resnais vibes.)
I understand what you mean, but honestly, not really haha! I actually get my inspiration from various sources and disciplines. Film isn’t necessarily the first source I turn to when making a film. It’s often a mix of things. For ECHO in particular, as I couldn’t find a live-action film on trauma that I could really relate to. All the more reason to make one myself. Obviously, my work is deeply influenced by the all of the nature films I studied over the years. With other documentary genres, Dutch director Marina Meijer inspired me in many ways. She often works with small crews, sometimes even doing the cinematography herself. She taught me how to choose a fitting ‘micro cosmos’ to tell a story, how every shot in the film should serve that story, and to not rush the process: take the time to do your story justice. So in short: the story is top priority, and every decision should serve this. Her comment on how a language barrier creates the opportunity to tell the story even more visual resonated with ECHO. Not only with filming in Japan, but also with being unable to find the words to speak about trauma. Another film that inspired me while making Echo was the animation film My Father’s Room on domestic abuse, by Nari Jang. A narrative fueled by images rather than a script. The metaphorical approach enabled by the animation process is without limits and inspired me adapt this way of thinking too. In both ECHO and My Father’s Room, there is little to no use of color, and negative space is just as important as filled space. There is strength in simplicity, modesty even. But what impressed me most is that it gave me, the audience, the unique opportunity to enter the mind of this specific abused girl—which from then on was the goal for ECHO too.
I’ve always found that, ironically, the “unreality” of art often arrives at the truth of something more so than real life. What makes art—and specifically film—so effective when addressing traumas, despite being “unreal”?
I completely agree! It also depends on what your definition of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ is. Is reality what we all share together, the ‘truth’? Or does everyone have their own reality, more like someone’s perspective or experiences? Not everything that’s real is visible. There is a whole dimension to reality that isn’t tangible. Experiences aren’t tangible, but that doesn’t make them unreal. Art—and specifically film—are powerful tools for providing the audience with a new perspective. Film can show you the invisible: the emotions, thoughts, philosophies, memories, pain, etc. And say, you do describe ‘reality’ as the ‘truth’; where a tree is just a tree, and a rape is just forced penetration. There is no depth in that. It doesn’t do the complexity of the situation justice. Showing the reality of trauma is exactly that: just traumatic. Showing the reality of rape is too hard to look at and it doesn’t even serve the message. There is no layering in that narrative. There is no fluidity in time. There is no opportunity for interpretation. There is no healing, only struggle. No hope, only pain. The ‘unreal’ can be all of these things morphed into one: ‘reality’ layered with all of these invisible dimensions—creating a more full, complete story than ‘reality’ alone ever could. Another beauty of the ‘unreal’, is that it makes people want to watch a film with their guards down; because it’s not real anyways, right? But the story is, at its core, very real. And when the guards are down—souls are touched.
What was your favorite movie of 2020 (or of 2021 so far)? In all honesty, I’ve been so busy with ECHO during 2020 that I haven’t watched that many movies..! But on my ‘to watch-list’ are Rewind, House of Hummingbird, Coded Bias, To the Ends of the Earth, Nomadland, First Cow and Gunda.
Often staring into a screen or mirror as they billow out more vapor there is an unsatisfied anger intertwined with a yearning at the heart of primary subjects in this Danish Documentary. Dark Blossom begins with quick cuts of skulls, and people in black running between vibrant flowers up to a dead and decomposing fox covered by a common plastic bucket piled with bricks. Not more than a few minutes later we see Jay, one of our main subjects, request to listen to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” while getting a stick and poke tattoo, notably it’s his first tattoo. The music fades as he answers a phone call from his Mom and deceives her as to what he’s up to.
The assembled footage in Dark Blossom primarily shows the activities and social situations that our three subjects navigate through. Their predilections and aversions. With a constant focus toward the asymmetry of their outcast-like experience and temporary intimacy as a group. Elucidated by voice over, stark images, and their general behavior. The discomfort in their own skin is physically apparent in how often we see them applying makeup, modifying their bodies, and dying their hair. All while they continue to grow.
Repetition. Josephine, Jay, and Nightmare(Mareridt) repeat physical actions, sentences, and emotions. A smaller repetitive moment occurs midway through the film where after a long day lugging around outfits and caked in makeup they’re brought the wrong soda at a restaurant. Which ensues a debate about whether to complain, Jay is experiencing fatigue and eventually the argument peters out. This scene is later followed by a quieter scene in Jutlund where Coke is being surreptitiously drunk in the far corner of the table. It’s a small creative choice but in the context of the film it’s a moment that lingers and speaks volumes about the dispersion of these friends. Dark Blossom narrowly shows the broadness of a small group of young adults disaffected with life in their small town and the status quo.
Hope takes it time to unfold. We are introduced to its protagonists, a French man and a British woman stopping at an American diner. We don’t know what they’re doing here, only that something seems off. The darkness is interrupted by the neon lights of the diner, and the quiet by a fussing child. Slowly, over the course of the film, we begin to understand the sense of melancholia that smothers the main couple, and why the woman begins to cry when she looks at the toddler sitting across the aisle from her; when it clicks, it hits like a gut punch. The performances from Jane Dowden and Yann Gael are superb, and the accompanying music beautiful—while the closing montage may lay the cheese on a bit too thick, everything that came before it remains powerfully affecting and gorgeously shot.
When did you first get the idea for this film? How long did the process from idea to post-production take?
The idea of the story originated from the diner. I would pass it as a kid when we went on road trips as a family, it had this isolated Americana feel that made me always want to stop and get a burger, we never did. I never thought too much of it back then but as I got older and drove the road myself I often thought about my short memories of it as a child. Now a director I always thought it would be a great place to shoot something. I wondered who went there and where they were going. This was the beginning of the story. When it came to writing the film we had a lot of crazy ideas that just felt too elaborate, I was constantly trying to simplify. It was then I started to consider my own personal fears as a father and how we could create a very human story surrounding the issue of parental fear. From there it just formed a life of its own.
Were there any major script changes from conception to end?
No not really. We had the script down pretty quickly and pretty much stuck to it all the way through. The one thing I did tinker with is the moment where Jane (Her) gets ups and moves seats. This is something that actually came about in the casting sessions. I felt that moving her mid-scene, although subtle, heightened the intensity of the moment.
The film follows a French man and British woman in an American diner. Did you always plan to have an international cast? What do you think that brings to the story?
We did, yes. It was important for me to disorient the audience as to where they were in the world. I wanted it to feel like this could be anywhere, a universal believability.
The film did such a good job of teasing out the reason for the couple’s journey—how do you make sure not to give the realization away in the early parts of the film while still maintaining emotional truth?
As important as the climatic realisation is for the audience I always knew it wouldn’t be appreciated unless you felt something for the characters. So the intention was to not focus on a reveal of any sort but to focus on the human disposition of the characters, their relationship and nuanced body language. Tapping into what they would be feeling and how the environment around them would be affecting them. This I believe helped to focus on the right moments. I think on second viewing you start to see the signs much earlier as to what’s going on which is all a result of the above.
I thought the film was beautifully shot. How does your background in photography influence your directing? What does one medium offer that the other can’t, and vice versa?
I think photography taught me discipline and efficiency, especially given that I only know how to work a film camera. You have to be economical with what you’re doing, make each moment count. I was a director before I was a photographer but what I would say is, I never truly understood directing until I became a photographer, more specifically I’d say photography helped me to understand my and feel confident in my tastes and decision making.
You were the editor as well; what was that process like? Did you leave anything on the cutting room floor?
I wasn’t supposed to cut this film. I had an editor that I’d been working with for some years who was supposed to come in and cut with me in the room. However, Covid hit and this made things really difficult. We shot at the beginning of March 2020 and the rushes came back from the lab pretty much just as Covid was starting to really affect things. I thought it was all going to pass by the summer and was happy to take a break but that wasn’t to be. Realising the situation we were in and how I didn’t want to do a remote edit I decided the right thing to do would be to cut it myself.
The music by Kyle Preston was gorgeous—how much input did you have on the music? What was that collaboration like?
So it’s funny, the music was actually found on a licensing website. It’s actually two of Kyle’s songs from an album he had online that I played around with, looping, cutting and fusing until we had one continuous piece of music. Once I had something I was pleased with we reached out to Kyle to see if was up for doing something bespoke but he watched it and really enjoyed what we’d done and suggested some things but fundamentally we kept it to what we had.
“I wasn’t particularly thinking about the likes of Carrie or The Exorcist during writing or shooting, but I can see in hindsight how people have drawn those parallels. Maybe I did it subconsciously without realising.”
Jim Wilson: So, I’m kicking off my film conversation blog by discussing with my friend Michael Clawson Mia Hansen-Løve’s 2011 love story Goodbye First Love. It tells the story of Camille (Lola Créton), a 15-year-old girl in Paris, who is deeply in love with the slightly older Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). Camille describes herself from the beginning as a “melancholic”, and it’s clear that she seems as motivated to wallow in the dark waters of her own fears as much as she’s inclined to bask in the sunshine of her affections for Sullivan. Sullivan’s planned trip to South America with friends is fueling Camille’s despondent tone, but there also seems to be something deep and immovable about her forlorn behavior. When Sullivan leaves, Camille falls into a deep malaise, and Hansen-Løve’s direction mimics the dull routines of her life, displaying a repeating loop of daily activities, the focal point of which is a bank of mailboxes in her family’s apartment building, where Camille returns again and again, anticipating another letter from far-away Sullivan.
Michael, I know you’re a big fan of Hansen-Løve and have seen more of her titles than I have, though I think we share a mutual appreciation for her 2016 film with Isabelle Huppert called Things to Come. I love her attention to apparently random details, by which she makes clear the emphasis she places on the intermediate moments of everyday life. I was particularly taken, at the very beginning of the film, with the great care she gives to filming Sullivan as he takes off his gloves, gathers some coins and purchases a pack of cigarettes from a cute little wall-mounted vending machine, but then the flower he buys next from a street vendor is only hinted at. What elements of Hansen-Løve’s style stand out for you in this film?
Michael Clawson: It’s true, I have a real fondness for Hansen-Løve, and I think Goodbye First Love is my favorite of hers. It’s been several years since I first saw the film, and one element that had escaped my memory is the brisk, elliptical editing scheme, and how Hansen-Løve uses it to repeatedly skirt melodrama and instead, as you say, emphasize the everyday. In that same vein, the structure is such that key moments in Camille and Sullivan’s relationship occur off-screen: we meet Camille and Sullivan after she’s already fallen completely head over heels for Sullivan, and also after he’s already decided to leave her for South America. Considering how utterly devastated Camille is about Sullivan’s leaving, we can only imagine how upset she was when he actually broke the news to her. I like how Hansen-Løve is more interested in the suggestiveness of “in-between” moments, rather than the most dramatic ones. Even what we do see of Camille, as overwhelmed by heartbreak as she is, is played with some understatement, rather than as a series of really emotional highs and lows.
You also mention Hansen-Løve’s attention to detail. I was most struck by that aspect of her style when Camille and Sullivan take a trip to her family villa in the countryside, just before Sullivan leaves. I love how gracefully Hansen-Løve evokes the feel of the surrounding area and the landscape. The warmth of the sunshine, the wind in the trees – all the sensory details that Camille will forever associate with this indelible relationship come through Hansen-Løve’s elegant compositions.
How did the movie play for you this time around? What struck you as interesting, or affecting?
Jim Wilson: Oh, I really loved it this time around. This was one of those films I watched early on in my submergence into French cinema, when I still didn’t have the proper understanding, or really contextualization, to fully appreciate it. Watching it now, it’s pure poetry.
I love your point about everything that happens before the story even begins, and what kind of emotional upheaval has already happened. That’s great story-telling, what’s left to your, the viewer’s, imagination.
Like I said, I really keyed into Camille’s naturally melancholic nature, just as she knows it to be, and how that naturally frames all of her experiences in life. I can relate to Camille, because I’ve always been like that myself, always looking for some dark cloud to go cower under. The really moving import of this movie is how she comes to live with those parts of herself that are always at war, at least for the time being.
Camille becomes an architect over the, what is it, seven, eight-year course of the story? Or an architectural student, anyway. In a scene from one of her architecture classes, a fellow student reads a quote about the need for houses, and some obscure dilemma between art and architecture. “People seek to maintain their comfort,” she says, “They hate whatever wrenches them from their certitudes, whatever bothers them. This is why they love their houses, and hate art.” I don’t think this is meant as an indictment of Camille as a philistine, but it does a beautiful job of anchoring Camille in a powerful personal connection with her chosen profession. Architecture is a sheltering permanence that, when done well, provides comfort. But it may also filter out difference, and instances of spontaneity. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I love how Camille doesn’t have to become some revised, updated version of herself to move forward. She doesn’t really change at all. She’s just more capable of managing the emotional landscape that’s always challenged her. I think of Adele in Blue is the Warmest Color, honestly, an intensely intimate romantic who, like Camille, kind of learns how to outgrow her own obsession, though it will always be there. There will never be a time in Camille’s life when the appearance of Sullivan won’t stir up deep emotions.
Talk on that a little, and then tell me what you think is going on with Camille and Lorenz, her Norwegian teacher/lover, a relationship that develops as Camille pursues her career as an architect. I think she respects and admires him, but not sure if she really loves him, at least not in the way she loves Sullivan. Is that the point, to illustrate how Camille compartmentalizes love, or powerful emotions, or have I taken the wrong fork?
Michael Clawson: Camille becomes more securely herself – that’s a great way to put what happens. She doesn’t try to put the past behind her or reinvent herself to overcome the heartache, but instead comes to accept the permanence of the memories she has with Sullivan, and the longing that might always be stirred up when she’s reminded of him. It’s not a movie about falling in love or being in love, but the lasting impression that really falling for someone for the first time leaves on us. I like the comparison between Adele and Camille, and their shared romanticism. In the scene just before the one you described, Camille’s professor looks over the architectural model she’s built, a mock college campus, and knocks it for being impractical. The same idealism that makes her think students wouldn’t mind an absurdly long walk between their dorm and their cafeteria is the same idealism that probably had her thinking she and Sullivan would be together forever. It’s adolescent naivete, but Hansen-Løve in no way holds it against her.
I agree that Camille isn’t deeply taken with Lorenz. I get the sense that similar to how concentrating on architecture helps to divert her attention away from her melancholia, a relationship with Lorenz feels like a step forward away from the relationship she still misses. Her affection for him is genuine – he’s much more than just a distraction – but the relationship is important mostly insofar as she’s learning that she could be happy with someone else. Lorenz may or not be the guy for her. I’m guessing he’s not.
I’m not quite sure how the timeline lines up with actual events, or if it does at all, but in light of the film supposedly being autobiographical, I think Lorenz might be a stand-in for Olivier Assayas, who Hansen-Løve was married to for a period of time. The age gap between Camille and Lorenz certainly fits.
Other thoughts? Other aspects you found appealing, or not so much? Also, your familiarity with French cinema runs deeper than mine. You mentioned Blue is the Warmest Color – any other films or filmmakers that come to mind as relevant points of comparison?
Jim Wilson: I’ll address that last bit first, then move on. To be honest, Michael, a great deal of French cinema reminds me of Goodbye First Love. The better question is what French cinema doesn’t resemble GFL? And I say that with boundless affection for French cinema.
In the end, the film’s motif, the straw hat Sullivan gives to Camille early on, floats down a lovely summer river, a gentle farewell. They’ve tried one last time to recover their affections, but it’s as hopeless as it’s ever been. I see the film like a memoir, probably a thickly-veiled tale of Hansen-Løve herself, and, as you point out, her relationship with Assayas. Camille’s intensely personal excursion is clearly more than a screenwriter’s invention. It feels very real.
My leading questions aside, what makes this a five-star film for you? What do you most love about it?
Michael Clawson: I don’t rate it five stars because I think it’s a “perfect” film by any means, but what I love about it overpowers aspects that aren’t worth as much. It’s partly a confluence of aesthetic choices that I love, from the score, which is nostalgic but not overly sentimental, and which seems to gently push the story forward, to the simple, understated beauty of Hansen-Løve’s eye for things. Beyond those more superficial pleasures, I simply would be hard-pressed to find a coming-of-age film that I think better captures the wistful feelings that follow from your first real break up, and how difficult navigating heartbreak can be when you’re young. And not only that, but Hansen-Løve does it without romanticizing Sullivan and Camille’s relationship, or succumbing to cliches. I think Créton does a phenomenal job of bringing specificity to Camille – every one of her tears feels so real and true – while remaining just indecipherable enough that we have room for speculation as to what she’s feeling, and can fold our own experiences into hers. And the ending, which you already mentioned, I find absolutely exquisite.
Jim Wilson: Yeah, I thought some of the music was really interesting, not stuff that’s trying to evoke a particular emotion or communicate any overall tone, but accompanies Camille and Sullivan, like a companion.
I did want to bring up one other thing about architecture as it fits with Camille. During a scene where Lorenz is lecturing the class, he brings up memory as an important thing that architecture ideally needs to incorporate into a structure. I like to think that really sank in with Camille, and it’s through architecture that she finds a means by which to locate and cope with her memories of Sullivan.
I can’t agree with you more about Lola Créton’s performance; she’s so effortlessly natural. You of course know of her performance in Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air, and I’ll further point out another role of hers in Claire Denis’s Bastards. It’s a smaller role, but she plays a girl who is deeply traumatized, and she’s so convincing as someone with a lot of buried horrors, without speaking much at all.
Is there anything more you want to add before we wrap up this first Collokino colloquy?
Michael Clawson: I haven’t seen Bastards, but you saying that Créton doesn’t speak much in that role makes me think again of the scene where Camille’s professor critiques her model. I don’t think Camille says even a word in response to him! We just watch her subtly react to what he says – she lightly shrugs, smiles a bit, etc. I love watching all those little gestures.
Thanks for hosting the discussion, Jim! I love this film, and, as always, really enjoyed talking through it with you.
Jim Wilson: My pleasure, Michael. We’ll do it again soon.
Goodbye First Love Trailer
Goodbye First Love is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers.