Suffragette (2015) – Britain’s Radical Soul

It is often said that Britain’s revolution happened too early to make much of a difference. Rather than waiting for the emergence of liberalism (like France and America) or socialism (like Russia and China), Britain deposed an absolute monarch and handed the country to a bourgeois tyrant who opposed universal suffrage on the grounds that it posed a threat to private property. Though somewhat more democratic today than under Cromwell, British political progress has always been constrained by the understanding that radical politics are somehow profoundly un-British. Sure… people take to the streets from time to time but ask the wrong question or allow injustice to anger you for even a second and that very human emotional response will be used against you like a cudgel, or indeed a truncheon.

The British establishment has never been squeamish about using violence to subdue domestic radicals, but it does recognise that some groups are harder to put down than others. Race and religion are still used as a justification for violent repression (as they were in Ireland and in the aftermath of 9/11) but when the radicals start looking a little bit too white and middle-class, the tactics generally shift to smears and mockery. Central to this undertaking has been the re-invention of the British radical as stock comic character.

 

 

The vision of British radicals as comically inept hypocrites informed the 1970s sitcom Citizen Smith. Written by the same man who created Only Fools and Horses, Citizen Smith’s Walter ‘Wolfie’ Smith uses Marxist posturing to conceal the fact that he is little more than an oafish petty criminal content to sponge off of his girlfriend’s family.

 

 

A similar set of ideas is evident in Disney’s Mary Poppins, in which the Character of Mrs. Banks returns home from a Suffragette rally singing about being a soldier. The scene is played for laughs and the implication is that Mrs. Banks is not only an inattentive mother who can’t be bothered to raise her own children but also an upper middle-class hypocrite who plays the radical before returning home to an army of maids, cooks, and nannies paid for by a wealthy husband.

It bothers me that Mrs. Banks is one of the most enduring depictions of a Suffragette in popular culture.

It bothers me that the fight for women’s suffrage was ever deemed a subject worthy of mockery.

It bothers me that Britain’s radical tendencies have been systematically scorned and buried by self-serving cultural elites.

It bothers me that the history of Britain has been re-written but I am delighted that some films are beginning to challenge the idea that Britain lacks a radical spark. Poised somewhere between the transcendentalism of Steve McQueen’s Hunger and the humanism of Chris Morris’ Four Lions, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette is an exploration of what it would take to turn a normal working-class mum into a revolutionary. Suffragette is a film marked by the stirring of Britain’s radical soul.

 

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Catch Me Daddy (2014) — #NotYourChumChum

I have long suspected that there is a great book to be written about the spread of existentialism throughout European film and literature. Born of middle-class alienation from 19th Century spirituality, existentialism was a requiem for lost faith and a roar of disgust at the less-than-flattering lighting conditions left by the departure of the divine light. God is Dead, O God… This Sucks.

As time passed, the post-religiosity of existentialism was shuffled into the background as the movement came to focus upon the psychological hardships of a life without meaning. Existentialism’s obsession with the grim futility of everyday life caught the imagination of people returning from war and so Raskolnikov trying to make sense of his own actions in Crime and Punishment and Meursault refusing to defend himself at trial in The Stranger came to seem like beautiful expressions of what it meant to be human.

Having long enjoyed a close relationship with mainstream literature, existentialism spread to film and when critics from the Cahiers du Cinema transitioned from seeing existential themes in the work of others to replicating those themes in their own work, they went straight to feelings of anger and despair at a world that refused to abide by human expectations.

Cruelty and nihilism are everywhere in the films of the French New Wave and when art house cinema began to become its own thing, the canon was formed of films like Au Hazard Balthazar, Mouchette and Le Beau Serge… films in which women suffer while men brood.

Looking back at the post-War years, I cannot help but wonder whether existentialism’s appeal might not have had something to do with either its flight from responsibility or its lack of psychological precision. Think about it… existentialism is a philosophy that takes in the cruelty, pointlessness and arbitrariness of life and proscribes only directionless and unresolvable angst. Do not examine your role in making the world a worse place or consider why you feel the way you do, just shrug your shoulders and light up another cigarette as your actions count for nothing in a world that was born plain bad. Existentialism is a philosophy designed by emotionally stunted men and its popular success owes a lot to the fact that an entire generation of men came home from World War II and pointedly refused to deal with the trauma of what they had seen and done. Existentialism legitimises the refusal to deal with your own shit and that dead-eyed passivity was decanted into countless noir thrillers and stories in which lovely young women are destroyed by the world while men stand around looking glum.

Very much a part of the European art house tradition, Daniel Wolfe’s debut film Catch Me Daddy is a beautifully shot and relentlessly nihilistic film in which yet another young woman is destroyed by the cruelty of the world. Filled with dead-eyed tough guys muttering into mobile phones whilst staring into the middle-distance, it trots through every post-existential cliché in the European art house canon before arriving at a climax that shows just enough self-awareness to highlight the thoughtlessness of the preceding 90 minutes.

 

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Love is All (2014) – Misty Windows

Art isn’t so much a window on the world as the condensation that forms on said window whenever we stand too close. As creative beings we inhale ideology and exhale art… metabolising the myths, assumptions and taboos comprising our cultures and turning them into a mist that hangs somewhere between us and the world. Neither entirely of the world, nor entirely of us… Art is made up of elements from both domains meaning that any attempt to construct the history of an art-form will necessarily tell us a little about our history and a little about the history of the world.

Kim Longinotto” is not the first name that comes to mind when you think of historical analysis as most of her films appear to have been assembled with nothing more abstract than a hand-held camera and the truth. Whether exploring the social pressures perpetuating the practice of female circumcision in The Day I Will Never Forget (2002) or following social workers as they try to help women leave the sex trade in Dreamcatcher (2015), Longinotto is a filmmaker who has earned an international reputation for absolute documentary realism… which is precisely what makes Love is All such an exciting project.

Commissioned by the British Film Institute and originally broadcast as part of the BBC’s Storyville documentary strand, Love is All is an experimental documentary that takes a load of cinematic archive materials, combines them with a specially-written soundtrack, and tells a story about the evolution of love and courtship over the course of the 20th Century.

 

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REVIEW — The Connection (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Cedric Jimenez’s The Connection (a.k.a. La French), a stylish crime thriller that could be described as the French side of The French Connection.

Setting aside the fact that this is a really well-made cat-and-mouse thriller set in an impeccably realised and beautifully shot vision of 1970s Marseilles, there are two really interesting things going on in this film that elevate it above your standard crime drama and into the intellectual stratosphere occupied by the likes of David Simon’s The Wire and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet.

 

First, the film is grounded in the character study of a local magistrate who is lured into an ineffectual War on Drugs by a combination of excitement and fame. Cleverly, the film portrays the magistrate’s early ‘successes’ as fantastic nights out in which everyone drinks champagne and gets laid. This is then related back to the fact that the magistrate in question (Jean Dujardin’s Pierre Michel) has a gambling problem, thereby raising the possibility that his commitment to the job might have less to do with results and more to do with addiction:

The film suggests that Michel’s pursuit of Zampa and the insane risks he takes as part of that pursuit are just an expression of his addictive personality: Where once Michel risked everything on a turn of the card, now he risks everything by playing hunches and violating civil rights. What is the War on Drugs if not an institutionalised addiction to headlines and excitement? Maybe the reason we continue to treat addicts like criminals is that you don’t build careers in law enforcement and politics by tending to the sick.

What I really liked about this film is that while it may start off as yet another right-wing law-enforcement fantasy about a rogue magistrate trying to take down a gang by cracking balls and bending laws, the film gradually segues into a brutal critique of the assumptions underpinning this very myth. Do car-chases and fist-fights actually keep the streets clean or do they merely serve as a distraction from the intractability of major social problems and the combination of corruption and neglect that feeds them?

Second, while the film is a fictionalised account of the real-world French Connection that supplied the American drugs trade with most of its illegal heroin throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the writer and director use these fictional elements as a springboard for naming names and pointing fingers at a French establishment that allowed organised crime to flourish in the hope that it would keep French ports free from communist elements:

Jimenez’s desire to confront France’s recent political past is reminiscent of Matthieu Kassovitz’s thoroughly excellent Rebellion, a film about how Jacques Chirac allowed police to massacre protesters in an effort to win over hard-right voters in a tightly-run election. Both films are powerful, necessary and a reminder that no comparable tradition exists in British film.

When British films critique British governments, it’s usually as part of a broader social realist tradition that shows the consequences of government action rather than the combination of incompetence and indifference that informed those decisions in the first place. I also wonder whether British film’s reluctance to go after the British establishment might not be a function of the fact that many British films are made with American audiences in mind using money handed out by British institutions.

I also wonder whether British directors might not see these types of stories as more televisual than cinematic based upon the fact that Britain used to have a tradition of producing one-off dramas and plays that criticised both British society and its government.The problem is that while British TV used to have a tradition of producing politicised plays and one-off dramas, the amount of drama on British TV has now declined to the point where there’s really not much room for unpopular opinions. Of course, the excellent Red Riding trilogy was produced for TV but that came out in 2009 and I struggle to think of anything even remotely like it that has appeared since.

Greek Pete (2009) — British Rituals of Displacement and Avoidance

Andrew Haigh’s debut film Greek Pete is neither particularly novel nor particular striking. Set in the world of London’s gay escort scene, the film is a scripted drama inspired by the lives of its non-professional actors and shot in a pseudo-documentary style. In other words, it’s a hybrid piece similar to Jersey Shore and The Only Way is Essex albeit with somewhat less theatricality and spray-on tan.

Having watched Greek Pete, I almost decided not to write about it but it occurs to me that while the film’s themes and characters are never quite as interesting as they needed to be, the film actually reveals quite a lot about Haigh’s interests, methods, and the quintessentially British way in which he approaches drama. This makes Greek Pete almost a textbook example of an immature work that is only of historical interest given the quality of the work that would follow it.

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45 Years (2015) — Forever Tainted

Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is about as good a film as Britain has managed to produce fifteen years into the twenty-first century. Set in a London of run-down flats and bleak nights out, it follows a pair of men as they talk their way from a one night stand to the brink of something more meaningful. A powerful response to the growing factionalism of the online world, Weekend’s characters have radically different attitudes towards society and sexuality and yet they still manage to sense something of value in each other. Despite being a very talky film, Weekend is all about those moments of silence in which emotional energies shift and life is made anew. Haigh’s ability to capture what happens in the intimate spaces surrounding conversation is what made Weekend great and what has made 45 Years one of the great unexpected cinematic successes of the summer (despite being released on VOD at the same time and being largely ignored by multiplexes).

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Exhibition (2013) – Little Boxes

Joanna Hogg is one of the most exciting film directors working in Britain today. A graduate of the National Film and Television School, Hogg spent the 1990s working in British television on series such as Casualty, London’s Burning and an Eastenders spin-off exploring the wartime exploits of a young Dot Cotton. While a decade behind the cameras of soap operas and disposable dramas does not usually herald the arrival of a major directing talent, it is worth remembering that British soap operas have a long history of social realism meaning that every year Hogg spent on Casualty and London’s Burning was a year in which she got better at observing people and the worlds they inhabit.

Hogg’s eye for social rituals and group dynamics was evident even in her debut feature Unrelated. The film revolves around a woman who joins her friends on holiday as an excuse to spend some time away from her partner. Upon arriving in Italy, the woman finds herself in a house that is already split down the middle along generational lines and decides to hang out with her friends’ hedonistic teenaged children rather than the people she came to visit. This yields a splendid holiday until a failed attempt at seduction sends the woman scurrying back to the grown-up side of the house and the grown-up life she left in Britain. While Unrelated is a recognisably British film about recognisably British characters who behave in a recognisably British way, the film’s treatment of its subject matter evokes European rather than British cinema. Aside from a southern climate and an interest in middle-aged sexuality that recalls works like Ozon’s Swimming Pool, Unrelated is defined by its emotional ambiguities and a fondness for long dialogue-free scenes and palate-cleansing landscape photography that are common in European cinema but almost entirely absent from British film.

Much like Unrelated, Hogg’s Archipelago is best understood as an attempt to explore the products of British social realism using the language of French art house drama. However, where Hogg’s first film seemed to go out of its way to retain such European topoi as sun-drenched holiday homes and illicit affairs, her second film is far more recognisably British thanks to its focus on wind-blasted landscapes and awkward family holidays. Shot on the isles of Scilly off the South-West coast of Cornwall, Archipelago features a pair of grown-up children who decide to go on holiday with their mother. The family’s unhappiness is manifest right from the start as disagreements escalate into arguments with a speed that suggests the presence of unaddressed problems. However, despite numerous elephants in the room, the family never sit down to discuss their feelings… they simply evade and deflect them by choosing to blow up over ridiculous things such as choice of bathroom and whether or not a piece of food has been properly cooked. Elegantly reserved when it comes to its characters’ actual inner lives, Archipelago is a magnificent study of the British middle-classes and how taboos surrounding direct confrontation and talking about one’s feelings have encouraged people to become emotionally self-contained. The film suggests that while this system of self-containment may be completely unreliable, it is supported by a cultural tolerance of passive-aggressive venting and the kind of extreme emotional projection that would probably be regarded as psychotic in a more emotionally-expansive culture. Like Unrelated, Archipelago explores these ideas in a quintessentially European manner by forcing the audience to observe only to then pull back and provide them with evocative imagery that will encourage them to draw their own conclusions about the things they have just been shown. This willingness to use European cinematic techniques to explore British emotional landscapes not only made for an incredibly fresh cinematic experience, it also served as a timely reminder of how staid, unadventurous and lacking in diversity European art house film can be.

Archipelago is not only a perfect fusion of British social realism and European cinematic vocabulary but also the completion of an experimental journey that began with Unrelated. This posed an interesting question: if Archipelago was everything that Unrelated wanted to be, where would their director go next?

Joanna Hogg’s third film Exhibition is also her most ambitious. Like its predecessors, the film uses a European cinematic vocabulary to explore the emotional dynamics of British middle-class life. However, whereas Unrelated and Archipelago both revolved around relatable characters who were really quite easy to understand, Exhibition concerns itself with a couple whose inner lives are so bizarre and complex that they can only be expressed artistically.

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