This is an exchange with Australian film critic and academic Adrian Martin on the matter of distribution entrepreneurship and cultural diplomacy, one of the areas explored in the book.
Dina Iordanova: ‘Like most other major territories,’ writes Sandy George in Screen International, ‘Australia has a clutch of festivals dedicated to spotlighting cinema from a single territory, of which the French, Italian and Spanish film festivals are the biggest’ (‘Spreading the Foreign Word’, 29 May 2009: 34). In the case of Australia, however, this seems to be an interesting case where cultural diplomacy and film distribution related to overseas cinema work together. According to George, the touring French Film Festival is organised by Alliance Francaise and the French Embassy, yet one-third of the thirty or so films that it showcases do have an existing local distributor attached, thus the event can be regarded as a specific distribution set-up. Distributors have been taking ‘a slice of all festivals receipts’ since 2006, she notes, and have recognised that festivals showings assists them in reaching out to wider audiences than the normal art house circuit. Jean-Jacques Garnier, the French Embassy’s cultural attaché, dubs as an artistic director for the festival (George 2009). Apparently, there are also a German, an Italian, and a Spanish film festival, all of which seem to tour the same range of cities (Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane), thus covering the territory with an array of nationally-themed film festivals, all quite highly placed within the ‘vertical mosaic’ of festivals here. I was struck to discover the advanced level of coordination of these festivals. It is only here that we so regularly see national film festivals that are listed as ‘touring’; they always seem to go to the same set of cities, and they all seem to have a web-site that is set up in a uniform way (e.g. Spanish Film Festival; Italian FF, Greek FF). So I wonder if there is any special cultural policy context in which this is taking shape with such uniformity? Admittedly, we have got some varieties of this in the UK (e.g. French Film Festival and Italian Film Festival, run by the same group, that go to a selection of cities) but ‘touring’ here usually involves a combination of mixed cities, whoever has come on board, really, rather than a showcase systematically covering the big cultural centres, whereas in the Australian case it always seems to be a cluster of the same cities. Would you like to comment about this observation?
Adrian Martin: Yes, the situation of the touring national film festivals is peculiar to Australia, and for a very specific reason. It all has to do with a distribution/exhibition company called Palace, which has been running since at least the 1980s and is still essentially a ‘family business’ run primarily by husband (Antonio Zeccola), wife, and their grown-up kids at various levels of the organisation. Palace is among the few surviving ‘independent’ distributor-exhibitors of the twenty-first century scene in Australia, partly through savvy business sense and also through their various deals with the major commercial distributors. Palace has managed to extend into several states of Australia. Hence the spread of state-venues you have noted. Palace has always had a strong connection to (mainly European and ‘old school’) art cinema. Their exhibition venues are known to the public as ‘boutique’ or ‘arthouse’ cinemas, and the actual programming mixes typical arthouse fare (Haneke, French comedies, Jarmusch, etc.) with films from the majors like Tarantino and suchlike.
So, Palace has always been involved — as a matter of Italo-Australian national pride, partly! — in certain high-profile festival-events that are very successful for them: especially Italian and French. This goes back (in my recollection) at least to the 1990s. Palace have a technique that works well for them: when they programme these festivals (by sending their own reps to Italy and by having contacts with the likes of Unifrance), to avoid problems with booking and availabilty of prints over the entire haul of the national tour around Palace cinemas, they actually buy the rights to about a dozen of these films. So they have one or two 35 mm prints that screen really only for the duration of the event (and afterwards can be made available for Australian cinematheque and other special screenings). A year or so later all the films are released on Australian DVD (‘bare bones’ style, subtitled in English but with no extras) in a ‘box set’ called something like ‘Italian Film Festival 2008’. Palace also have a relation to a music-publishing company, so there are also CDs that help to promote these events, e.g. ‘Soundtrack to the French Film Festival’, which is usually just a lot of current pop tunes with little relation to the films! But the CD sells well with the ‘world music’ crowd in Australia.
Now we come to the next part of this process, which has been occurring in recent years. Palace does its own festivals, but it also ‘hosts’ others, responding to advances from small cultural groups in the Australian, Spanish, German and other communities: a Spanish group named ‘Filmoteca’ (a monthly film society), for instance, or the Goethe-Institut. Palace becomes a partner in programming these events, sourcing prints and doing promotions and sets up the national touring, which is the big drawcard for these small groups. Palace has a say in how the event unfolds. If it has just bought, for example, The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, Germany, 2008) or some other new high-profile title, it will propose that it is the showcase Opening Night presentation in the German Film Festival, and Palace will bring down the actors and/or director for promotional purposes.
To sum up, this whole phenomenon is not at all a ‘cultural policy’ initiative of governments (although some of the small ethnic-interest cultural groups I have mentioned may receive various government subsidies – but nothing like what it takes to do a national film tour). It is purely an ‘enlightened business initiative’ by a company that itself started as a small, independent business and has held on to some of its cultural goals to showcase international art cinema — even if still in fairly mainstream terms.
There is barely another city that offers as much as Paris; there is no better city for cinephiles (but only for those who can reconcile with the French language that is, naturally, prevailing). And the Pariscope, the little booklet of listings, is the key to it. It is published on Wednesdays and it would cost you 40 cents to buy from any newspaper kiosk; it is also available from supermarkets and other stores.
The listings of cinema-related information run over about 60 pages, thus taking up about a quarter of the total 240 pages of the weekly Pariscope. The film section opens up with some 200-words highlights on new theatrical and DVD releases, followed by an alphabetical listing of all films playing during the week in Paris: It runs over three pages and includes about 250 titles. Then there are short revues of the dozen or so films that get released every week. This is followed by an exhaustive alphabetical listing of all these films with the respective capsule-reviews, and by special sections on Reprises (including various screenings of films of a range of earlier periods), Festivals (a section that features at least several events every week), the programme of the several cinematheques (the one in Bercy and of several more, located in the peripheries), and of screenings at various museums, cultural centres like Beaubourg and various other locations. The second major film section lists theatre schedules across all 20 arrondissements as well as across the suburbs, a complex task as many of the theatres change their programme once every two days and feature an array of special late night screenings, screenings for children, screenings of silents with musical accompaniment, and so on. With time you learn to know which cinemas feature the most interesting special events, and every week one can attend screenings where the filmmakers are present (e.g. Amos Gitai, Robert Guedigian) or where some famous critic runs a regular cine club or a series of presentations. It is not a knowledge that comes overnight, as there are at least thirty cinemas in Paris that can be described as specialized art house, and each one of them features original programming that is worth following closely.
The middle spread of Le Pariscope, p. 120-121, is for the average movie-goer: It is occupied by a table that includes the ratings of the most popular new films as rated by a selection of a dozen of French critics (not critics from art-house film magazines like Positif or Cahiers du cinema but those attached to newspapers or magazines such as Telerama; V. Gaucher and V. Gaillard are listed as Pariscope’s own critics), who assess about 20 films by assigning up to three stars. The spread also includes a listing of box office hits (throughout the particular period which I observed it was the French blockbuster Welcome to the Sticks that kept on top of the 20 listed titles, with more than three million tickets sold). At the bottom of the page there is another chart showing the current week’s hits at the box office.
I am mostly interested in its cinema listings, even though before you get to them you would browse through the theatrical and musical ones, followed by extensive listings of galleries and museum exhibits. There are also listings of restaurants, various other leisure pursuits, tours, promenades, receptions, gallery openings, and night life, and ending with the indispensable for such guides picture-accompanied ads of various escorts and related services. For cinephiles is interesting to browse through the theatre section in particular, as many French film actors regularly make theatrical appearances, and it is quite an ordinary thing to see actors of the caliber of Claude Brasseur, Jeanne Moureau or Isabelle Hupert life on the stage.
It is noteworthy that Le Pariscope does not have much on-line presence; a search for it takes you to some not particularly user-friendly web-site called Premiere, a heavily commercial one that is nothing like the lovely small booklet I am talking about. Both are owned and run by the same publishing empire, Hachette Filipacchi Medias. Media mogul, surrealist and jazz sponsor, and publisher Daniel Filipacchi (pictured here in 1958) is behind it all.
I do not know much of the history of Le Pariscope, and not much of the people who publish it today. From the editorial information at the end, it appears it is not even produced in central Paris but in the outer suburb of Nanterre. About 20 people are listed as working on it, with Virginie Gaucher responsible for cinema. No e-mail contacts are made available; everything is clearly channeled via phone or fax, yet the interesting thing is that they seem to take not only domestic but international subscriptions as well. Le Pariscope must be a profitable publication: at least I always parted with my 40 cents with pleasure, regarding it as money well spent, and indeed it would be a worthy thing to subscribe to, even if for the sake of dreaming for the variety of cinema that one can find in Paris while reading it.
I first heard the name of René Vautier from Erwan Moalic, the powerhouse behind the remarkable film festival in Douarnenez, a true community-based festival dedicated to working class audiences and featuring films on ethnic and other minorities (in existence since the 1970s). I was asking Erwan if he could please identify what was the ideological influence that had informed the establishment of the Douarnenez event, and he named Vautier, whom he described as a hugely important but little known and widely-suppressed Breton filmmaker. The description proved correct, as when I asked around about Vautier at a later point (talking mostly to colleagues in anthropology and French based in the UK and the US), almost no one knew of him (I gather, I did not ask the right people): I was left with the impression that the filmmaker is not as widely known as he apparently should be. Eventually I was nicely surprised to come across a lengthy article on him in the Financial Times (of all places), in which author Tobias Grey described him as ‘the most censored of all French filmmakers’. Luckily, there is the Internet where one can find more on him, from the good French-language Wikpedia article to various write ups on his classic anti-colonialist film Afrique’50 and on his best-known film, the documentary-style feature Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès (1972).
It is this film, To be Twenty in the Aures, that prompted me to write on Vautier today, as I finally got round to watching the French language DVD I had purchased in France a few months ago. It is a memorable and certainly extremely brave feature, which can be taken for documentary at moments, especially when featuring extreme scenes such as the rape of a local woman or the torture of detainees (scenes that surpass in intensity similar scenes from such anti-war classics as Brian de Palma’s Casualties of War or recent Iraqi-war themed films like Nick Broomfield’s The Battle for Haditha). A platoon of hesitant French soldiers are fighting the colonial war, being fed daily doses of indoctrination from the radio dispatches and from their own lieutenant Perrin (a remarkable young Philippe Léotard), yet the things that happen on the ground and the local relationships they forge make them more and more disillusioned about the supposedly patriotic mission they are serving. The only French film to be included in the Cannes selection in 1972, the film received the FIPRESCI prize. Aesthetically it is a pre-cursor of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1993); at moments I also thought that certain scenes in it may have influenced Bill Douglas’ Comrades (1986) — both films featuring European men who are essentially displaced by being transplanted to a Southern environment. The film is released by Doriane Films, a distributor that carries the work of filmmakers like Peter Watkins and Ousmane Sembene. I see that in the Amazon.fr site, from where it is available for sale, this rare DVD ranks at around 30,000 level of popularity. Sad.
The DVD features various extras, most importantly a 55 minute-long extraction of his earlier work on colonialism in Algeria, called Peuple en marche which presents the anti-colonial stance of the director particularly persuasively and features what I suppose is an extremely rare footage (as Vautier is, reportedly, the only French filmmaker who has filmed the war in Algeria from the point of view of the colonized). The 23 minute documentary called Vautier The Indomitable which chronicles the life of the director, was particularly important to see, especially as it features the sequence of systematic suppression of his work over the years (filming, prison terms, filming again, hunger strike, filming, censorship, and so on) in a light-hearted manner, evidently this being the way in which Vautier prefers to present himself. Born in Bretagne in 1928, he has remained at the periphery of French militant filmmaking. It is sad to see he is so little known, provided that what I saw of his work appears to be so enormously important: after all, he filmed in Algeria at the very same time when Frantz Fanon was writing his seminal The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Yet spending time in Paris earlier this year, I did not come across any mentions of Vautier nor across events that would feature his work (whereas, in conjunction with the commemorations of 1968, there were plenty of discussions of other similarly-motivated groups, such as the Medvedkine collective and others).
Unlike Le Barbizon, on which I wrote last week, Le Balzac is one of the Pairsian cinemas that is truly thriving, and apparently it has been in this great shape for a number of years now. My visit here happened on a chilly Sunday morning, 25 May 2008, when I crossed the wide sidewalks of Champs Elysees, two blocks down from the l’Arc de Triomphe where, turning into this quiet side street, I attended the matinee screening of Ted Wilde’s The Kid Brother (1927), a classical burlesque with Harold Lloyd, which came with live piano accompaniment by young and highly proficient Japanese female pianist, Eri Koazki. Precisely as I had heard would be likely, the theatre owner and chief programmer, Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky was already up, present in the foyer to welcome viewers and chat to members of the audience that he evidently knew from previous visits. The whole ambiance — the deep red carpets, the comfortable seats, the clean curves of the room, the glimmer from the modern art-deco light fixtures — created a special atmosphere of cozy sumptuousness. The guests who had brought their children (or grandchildren) to see the film were dressed in a way that would make me categorize them as inhabitants of 1st or 16th arrondissements, or as what the popular imagination would probably describe as ‘true Parisians’. Even thought the cinema was just steps off the beaten tourist track with the MacDonalds and other fast food restaurants that litter the vicinity, there was nothing of the commercial atmosphere that reigns over most of otherwise beautiful Champs Elysees. It was a space truly dedicated to the Seventh art.
Le Balzac, which has been owned by the Schpoliansky family throughout its existence, first opened in 1935 with a screening of King Vidor’s film The Wedding Night, starring Gray Cooper. Soon the venue became an established site for pre-war Hollywood films screened in original English-language version (foreign-language films are still traditionally dubbed in France). In a patriotic move after WWII, it re-focused its programming mostly on French cinema, and hosted, over the years, the a great variety of galas and events take place here; its web-site features photographs of memorable visitors, from Bourvil and Brigitte Bardot to Fanny Ardant and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, or from the opening of the decadent La piscine (1969), with stars Alain Delon and Romy Schneider in attendance. The cinema’s architecture is a modern art deco style, with soft curvy lines and a rounded main screening room; a naval theme is present in the foyer and the main hall. Two smaller screening rooms were added in 1975, which allowed for a more diversified programming, for the inclusion of a diverse selection of international cinema, and for a longer run of the various titles (many cinemas in Paris still change the programming every two or three days). Further renovations took place in 1993, introducing new lights, seats, carpet, wall coverings in leather in the corridors — all still impeccably maintained and giving the secure feeling of high quality and relaxing luxury, a feature that is not present in cinema halls as often.
Every week there at least two events take place: special screenings with live music or guests. Partnered with two nearby theatres, L’Athenee and Rond-Point, Le Balzac often turns into a theatre and concert venue as well. In most cases, the music comes as musicians provide accompaniment to screenings of older films, featuring the likes of Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Another initiative are the music-accompanied screenings of short films, usually presented by Benoît Basirico, founder of the film music web-site cinezik.fr. A forthcoming matinee with musical accompaniment will feature a screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s depression-era melodrama An Inn in Tokyo (1935), yet another event organised under the leadership of Jean-François Zygel, a long-standing collaborator. There is a lot more going on here given the limitations of space: photographic exhibitions in the foyer next to the bar which also features DVDs for sale, screenings of shorts and special seances for the members of the cinema’s club, screenings for children on the weekends. Le Balzac also has a remarkable web-site, packed with information on current films and events, a Blog, an e-mail newsletter, and a database of past screenings which allows to search through historical information on what played here in the past.
Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky, pictured distributing publicity leaflets on the street in front of the cinema, has spent most of his adult life around the cinema. Born toward the end of WWII, in 1944, he first worked for the mainstream chain UGC in the 1960s, and took his first forays into programming in 1968 at specialised University cinemas in Rouen, Lille et Grenoble. He also worked as an assisant director for René Clément and for Luis Bunuel (on his Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972). His life became intricately connected to Le Balzac after his father’s death, in 1973, when he took over the family business started by his grandfather nearly 40 years earlier. And he has been at it for more than 35 years now. His first ambitious project was to add two smaller screening spaces alongside the main 400-place hall, thus turning the cinema into a small multiplex more suited for the modern age. After completing all these extensive renovation and moderinsation works, his attention since 1986 has mostly been on developing and maintaining a top scale programme of screenings and events, on cultivating a dedicated audience, and on bulding bridges between cinema and other forms of artistic expression like music or photography.
Since the 1980s, the cinemas around Champs-Elysées have been closing one after another, usually for reasons of rising rental costs in the area where rents are now affordable only for the likes of Louis Vuitton (flagship store on the avenue pictured here). Writing on the Blog in 2007, Schpoliansky laments the recent closure of UGC Champs-Elysées (In the 1990s I saw here Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, screening here long before the works of Studio Ghibli had become known in the English speaking world). He writes:
” J’en suis bien triste. Et pas seulement parce que c’est mon grand-père qui a ouvert ce cinéma en 1939 (le Triomphe est resté dans ma famille jusqu’en 1971). Je suis triste parce qu’un cinéma qui ferme, c’est toujours une mauvaise (et irréversible) nouvelle, en particulier sur les Champs-Elysées où il devient si difficile de vendre autre chose que des chaussures de sport et des hamburgers. Certes, il reste encore 36 écrans sur l’avenue, ce qui continue d’assurer au public une certaine variété dans les films programmés et confère malgré tout au quartier une place de choix dans la vie cinématographique parisienne. Les choses cependant ne vont pas dans le bon sens et il est temps de tirer la sonnette d’alarme pour que cesse l’hémorragie !’
It is indeed troublesome to hear that the number of screens in the vicinity of this lively part of Paris is down about 50%, to 36. (But I recently read that the number of cinemas for the whole of Romania nowadays is down to 38, an issue I will address in another post.) The most troublesome, however, is this overwhelming feeling that one looks at a disappearing world, that one encounters people who belong to a kind that will soon no longer be around. The web-site of the cinema, for example, describes Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky as one of the last surviving independent theatre owners on the right bank, a man who proves on a daily basis that it is possible to keep the curiosity of viewers alive and well. I admit to be troubled by this tone of lament and passing, as would like to hope that the survival of cinematic art is not a matter of a bunch of dedicated mavericks that feel they are likely to be extinct soon. I hope to see this defeatist attitude to be proven wrong by history. But who knows, really?
1 rue Balzac
01 45 61 10 60
Metro: Georges V
This is one of the Parisian cinemas on which I want to write, but it is not one where I have seen a film as it is closed and represents a sad picture at the moment. I came across the bricked-up facade of the Barbizon, as shown on the picture, in April 2008 while passing by. My Parisian apartment was located nearby, next to the beautifully maintained garden Moulin de la Pointe near the Maison Blanche metro station. Le Barbizon was just a block or two off L’Avenue d’Italie, on Tolbiac, and next door to an intriguing bookshop which featured predominantly leftist literature (in this particular year mostly dedicated to commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Mai 1968), called Librairie Jonas. Just down Tolbiac, one hits the Asian area, with some of the best Vietnamese places to eat in Paris within steps, full of people waiting on the sidewalk to get a table and start sampling the savory beef soup with mint, sprouts, and fish sauce. A few blocs down Tolbiac are the University dorms, and the highrise area of Les Olympiades, populated mostly by East Asians.
In a city that as well maintained as Paris where you would almost never come across architectural blunders or neglected areas (at least not within the peripherique), it was certainly strange to witness the existence of an eyesore like Le Barbizon, an off-putting impression that came along with the intriguing feeling that this bricked-up facade hides some stories to tell. The place looked more like the abandoned inner city film theaters I have seen at various places in America, bearing disturbing signs of neglect that did not sit well in its surroundings, with the nearby stations for the trendy Velib (the rental city bikes that were recently introduced) and coquettish boulangeries. So I got curious enough to want to learn more about the place. Later in May and June there were various posters around the site, announcing events that all sounded militant in nature (I could not get to any of these); all were being held in the vicinity but none seemed to be scheduled in the cinema hall itself, the space of Le Barbizon seemed to be completely off limits and the brick wall that locked the front facade off was evidently not easy to get beyond.
My subsequent research allowed me to learn that the cinema had first opened doors in 1911, in mid-May of that year under the title « Le Cinématographe des familles» and was re-named to Le Barbizon in the 1950s (after the name of the artistic community based in the namesake village near the Fontainebleau forest). It had functioned continuously until 1983, featuring about 550 places and becoming the longest uninterrupted working cinema hall in Paris. It was a single auditorium with a balcony and a lobby. Renovated in the 70s, it mostly specialized on running karate and kung fu movies and other Hong Kong imports, particularly welcomed by the population in the Chinese district. In the early 1980s, however, it was apparently neglected and the venue closed around 1982 or 1983. Reportedly, the owner left for Hong Kong and was reluctant to be contacted; numerous attempts to reopen the place failed because of this uncertain absentee situation. Two decades later, the cinema was neither demolished nor reopened.
In 2002, a local cultural organization that seems to have come into existence mostly in order to revive Le Barbizon, “Les Amis de Tolbiac”, claimed the space and begun staging a program of activities driven by ideas of spontaneous civic participation, creativity and citizenship. Clearly, the intention had been to turn Le Barbizon into a site for encounters between alternative and independent artists, often featuring international or minority cultures and points of view, with the aim to regenerate the cultural life of the neighborhood. Aiming to encourage experimental and independent cinema events, ‘Les Amis de Tolbiac’ organised events featuring Bolivian cinema, experimental films (C215), and other screenings of this type, aiming to reflect the diversity of contemporary French society, a fact of life that is clearly felt in the area surrounding the cinema’s location.
This is the poster that I saw on that day in April 2008 displayed on the window of Libraire Jonas. It shows the police guarding the newly built wall at the Barbizon, a worrisome photograph that alerted me about the story linked to this absurd wall.
The French cinephile web-site Silver Screens laments the loss of cinemas across the 13th arrondissement and gives background to the Barbizon as a former celebrated site of multiculturalism. One of the oldest cinema halls in Paris, the future is more than uncertain. To keep the sense of urgency alive, a festival of eco cinema, called Cinecolo, took place in the vicinity in the Fall of 2007; it recently had its second edition in October 2008.
Le Barbizon is not the only cinema in Paris that has closed doors (even though I cannot think of any other one that would sport a brick wall built in front of it). There are several Parisian organisations engaged with protesting the closure of other theatres, most notably and noisily the Grand Ecran Italie, also in the 13th not far from the Barbizon, see their postings at Let’s Save The Grand Screen. Le Barbizon is also featured on the site which highlights some of themost cherished cinema theaters in Paris. To contact the organisation that is behind the efforts to re-openLe Barbizon, write to email@example.com. Best of all, go and check the place out.
141 Rue de Tolbiac
Paris 75013 France
M: Tolbiac, Maison Blanche, Les Olympiades
The documentary Nous avons bu la même eau/We Drunk the Same Water premiered in Paris in May 2008, and had several weeks of continuous run in two early evening slots in Espace Saint-Michel, one of many tiny but well attended art house cinemas (cinema d’art et essay) in the area between the Sorbonne and the Seine. I saw it on one of the fist nights, alongside members of the Armenian community in Paris; the screening was introduced by director Serge Avédikian, a French-Armenian actor and theatre personality (see his web-site), who had also organised discussion with some historians after the screening (I could not attend it).
The director has first taken the opportunity to visit Soloz, the place from where his Armenian ancestors originate, in 1987, while attending a theatre festival in Istanbul. The film features footage of this first visit. The town, located on the south side of Marmara sea about 170 km south of Istanbul, is now populated by ethnic Turks whose families settled there in the 1920s as part of the large-scale ‘population exchanges’ of the period after they have been displaced from their habitual areas of residence near Thessaloniki in today’s Greece. Avedikian’s Armenian grandfather, Avédis, and his family, lived in Soloz early in the 20th century until the time when, threatened by famine, destitution and destruction, they were driven away from the territory of modern-day Turkey. In yet another installment of the effort to bring hushed histories from the region to the limelight, we see the director uncovering traces of ancient Armenian presence: it does not take long to find tombstones that are now used as steps; the foundations of the old church are still in place.
Most part of the film evolves around the director’s second visit to Soloz in 2006. Some of the people he had met during the first visit who still live here; both him and they have aged, a realisation that makes them feel closer to each other. Like before, some of them treat him with suspicion, while others welcome him with open hearts and minds. More people are willing to talk and show him the remnants of Armenian presence that are scattered all over the place. A man uses one of the Armenian stones to press his olives at home. Others take him to a nearby field where more relics are unearthed below the grass. In exchange, he shows them old pale pictures of his family who once lived here.
The most interesting aspect of the film is Avedikian’s interaction with the local men. Rather than generalising, he makes an effort to be fair in revealing the variety of individual reactions he is getting from different people: while the town’s mayor treats him with suspicion on both visits, the local doctor is truly supportive; while some close their doors to him, others welcome him to their homes; while some refuse to talk others are willing to engage in lengthy conversations about the rights and wrongs of history.
Things, however, take a turn for the worse when Avédikian decides to quiz the locals on their knowledge on the Armenian genocide. As one is usually the case in these regions (where adverse facts of history are relegated to oblivion and whre controversy-causing claims are hushed away and not made known to local people as a matter of principle), most of the interviewees react by saying that this is the first time they hear of such a thing; if it happened, they say, it was probably the responsibility of singular individuals and those responsible were probably punished (only in one case the discussion goes in more detail with references to concrete names and historical personalities). The locals clearly distance themselves from the allegations and make an important point to Avedikian: you see, we are not different from yourself; your family has been driven away and has ended up in France, and, likewise, our families have been uprooted from where they used to live and have resettles, ending up here. Both your and our people have all suffered in the course of these forced migrations; and indeed, we drunk the same water. But one cannot hold us responsible for what happened to the people who lived here before, our ancestors came to these places only after the previous inhabitants were no longer here; they never even met face to face.
It is in this part of the film where Avedikian gets to walk the tightrope of a tricky proposition that will ultimately prove untenable. It is one thing to unravel the traces left of one’s ancestors, and the director is really successful at this, winning over the locals and making them re-live the past with him. As the men from Soloz are themselves descendants of displaced ancestors, they are capable to understand and willing to identify with his quest. But when he starts pushing it further, it is clearly not working (and there is no chance that it would work). It is not them who are responsible for what happened to the Armenians who lived here; it may be a relief for Avedikian to be able to share his historical grievances, but where such move comes along with an expectation that contemporary Turks would volunteer to share into this guilt it is a dead end street.
It is the same all over the Balkans, a region that is full of grievances of this type that almost each ethnic group makes against others in relation to one period or another: in order to reconcile and overcome the wounds of the past people often are expected to take a stance against their own, a move that is not easy to make and that most of them are not really ready for just yet.
The dynamic forces of global economy brought new diversity to the urban margins of Europe. It is a process that has been analyzed by anthropologists (Hannerz 1996) and sociologists (Sassen 1998), and has been represented in films since the mid-1990s, cinematic texts that show the interactions of marginalized ethnic personages and members of the disenfranchised classes at the periphery of the global metropolis. The best-known film that explores thus type of interactions is Mathieu Kassovitz’s suburban classic tale of mixed-race delinquency La Haine/Hate (France, 1995) ‘a text that underlines both the mobility of culture (Black, Jew, and Moroccan) yet is placed within a terrifyingly violent, segregated and ‘immobile’ location’ (Dasgupta, 2002), thus underscoring what Morley has termed ‘incarceration in the banlieues’ (2000: 159). A powerful continuation of this type of film is the multiple award-winning L’Esquive (2003) of Abdellatif Kechiche (pictured), released in English with the decisively off-putting title Games of Love and Chance.
Many more films, however, belong to the category of the ‘multicultural urban margin,’ created by the dynamic forces of global economy, with settings ranging from New York to Perth in Australia to Vancouver in Canada. I have argued, in a forthcoming piece, that the critical mass of these films is sufficient to allow us talk of a new European film genre.*
Films of this kind have often been set in the multicultural neighborhoods of large American cities, like New York. Tony Gerber’s Side Streets (1998), for example, is one of these multicultural urban periphery texts, set on the background of Manhattan’s skyline but taking place in an ethnic enclave not monopolised by one particular group but rather housing a mixture of immigrants, all featured here speaking their respective languages, eating their respective foodstuffs, and observing their respective traditions. The protagonists include the Puerto Ricans Ramon and Marisol cooking mondongo (tripe stew), a young Romanian woman, and an ageing Bollywood actor and his extended Indian family. Another good example of the ‘genre’ is Goran Paskaljevic’s Tudja Amerika/Someone Else’s America (France/UK/Germany/Greece 1995). Also set in the multiethnic enclaves of New York, the films tells a story of a Montenegrin immigrant who marries a Chinese-American girl in a wedding celebration during which they all dance flamenco under the accompaniment of a Basque friend.
Things look pretty much the same in films set in the French capital. In Fureur/Rage (France, Karim Dridi, 2003), a love and passion story set in the Parisian Chinatown, a Spaniard falls in love with a Chinese girl. Another recent Paris-set production (One Dollar Curry, Vijay Singh, 2004) focused on a Sikh protagonist interacting with a street-wise Jamaican and with Russian prostitutes. ‘I wanted to show a part of the city that has never been shown before,’ the director said in an interview. ‘It may have the Eiffel Tower in the background but the touristy face of Paris is far away from the daily life of the protagonists who are more engulfed in the political context of Jean Marie Le Pen’ (to Gentleman, 2003: 12).
Within European cinema this urban marginal diversity is reflected into a specific range of films featuring diverse groups of young first generation immigrants (see Spagnioletti 2000). These films are often set in cities still struggling to come to terms with their newly found multiculturalism, like Vienna (as in Barbara Albert’s Austrian Nordrand/ Northern Skirts, 1999) or Altona in Germany (as in Fatih Akin’s German Kurz und schmerzlos/Short Sharp Shock, 1998). Erik Poppe’s Norwegian production Schpaa (1998) featured the interactions between marginalized immigrants from Yugoslavia and Pakistan in the drug dealing underground of Oslo; the Copenhagen settings of Nicolas Winding Refn Danish films Pusher (1996) and Pusher 2 (2004) are equally multicultural. Dino Tsintsadse’s German-made Lost Killers (2000) shows the provincial city of Mannheim as home of a diverse group of illegal immigrants all involved in the black underground economies: Croat Branko is a drug dealer, Georgian Merab is a hitman, Haitian Carlos wants to reach Australia by getting involved in organ trafficking, and the Vietnamese Lan walks the streets. Constantine Giannaris’ Apo tin akri tis polis/From the Edge of the City (Greece, 1998) revealed the multicultural ghetto side of Athens. Similar representations of urban life abound in French cinema: Marseille, for example, is depicted as a typical multiculturally marginal metropolis not only in the films of Robert Guedigian but also in a number of ‘beur’ films such as Bye-Bye (Karim Dridi, 1995, France/Switzerland/Belgium), Loin/Far Away (2001, André Téchiné), and in Père/Father (Algeria, Naguel M. Belouad, 2004).
Urban centres located elsewhere are not very different, either. In the Wellington-set Broken English (New Zealand, Gregor Nicholas 1996) a young Croatian immigrant falls in love with a native Maori man while secretly marrying an illegal Chinese man to help him immigrate, a set-up seen in a range of other films from Australia or New Zealand. It expands as far as Japan: The protagonist of Miike Takashi’s Tokyo-set Hyôryuu-gai/ City of Lost Souls (Japan, 2000) is a diasporic Japanese-Brazilian who has returned to Japan from his native Rio de Janeiro. His current girlfriend is a Chinese immigrant while his former one is Portuguese. The action evolves in neighbourhoods dominated by mixed ethnicities: A Russian human trafficker keeps an office in an area populated by an international crowd of fair-haired prostitutes working the streets in Tokyo. Besides Japanese and Cantonese, Mandarin and English, a substantial portion of the dialogue is delivered in Portuguese and Russian.
Many of the protagonists in the films of the multicultural urban margin are new migrants flocking in from various distant parts of the former Soviet Empire; they cross paths and forge alliances with other migrants whose itineraries to Europe have originated somewhere in the Third World. Having found themselves together in the global city, these dispossessed newcomers encounter older migrants who have been there for decades and who know their ways, yet are still equally marginal and dispossessed. Most of the exchanges do not gravitate toward a cathartic breakthrough, but evolve as a monotonous sideline. But the very encounter help the protagonists of either group to come to terms with their own social exclusion. Rather than ending up in bitter disillusionment, these newly forged alliances allow them to interrelate and bond in comforting and mutually empowering ways.
Dasgupta, Sudeep, University of Amsterdam, Personal correspondence, March 2002.
Gentleman, Amelia, ‘Bollywood on the Seine.’ The Guardian, November 7, 2003, Friday Review, p. 12/13.
Hannerz, Ulf. Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places, London: Routledge, 1996.
Morley, David, Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity, London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Sassen, Saskia. Globalization and its Discontents: Essays on the New Mobility of People and Money, 1998.
Spagnoletti, Giovanni (ed.) Il cinema Europeo del metissage. Peasro: XXXVI Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema, 2000.
* See Iordanova, Dina. ‘Migration and Cinematic Process in Post-Cold War Europe,’ in Berghahn, Daniela and Claudia Sternberg (eds.) Migrant Cinema in Europe, London: Wallflower Press, 2009.
Z, a 1969 Algerian-French production by director Costa-Gavras, is almost universally recognized as ‘the’ classical political thriller. My decision to talk about this film in the context of our current investigation on Balkan film and history may come across as a somewhat contentious choice. However, I believe that the film is particularly suitable to discuss here. For two reasons. First, the film Z has been seen more widely than many of the Balkan films I could talks about instead (that reflect on similar matters) and is still widely used as a classical text in the teaching and discourse on political cinema. Secondly, precisely because the film so successfully transfers the place of action from Thessaloniki to an unnamed North African country, it allows me to make some more general points on issues of violence and totalitarianism, which are endemic to the Balkans. I am choosing this film also because it presents violence and political corruption that is directed against the left forces and thus allows me to making an important point: it Is not only the communists who engaged in gross human rights violations and political terror across the Balkans after WWII, this type of behavior was characteristic for various other political parties across the board.
Z is a Greek film in many respects. Based on a 1966 novel by Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos and is adapted for the screen by Greek émigré director Constantin Costa-Gavras. It stars Greek actress Irene Papas and features a memorable musical score by famous Greek composer and leftist activist, Mikis Theodorakis.
Most of all, the story of Z (the novel and the film) relates to real events — the assassination of Greek leftist pacifist leader Grigoris Lambrakis in May 1963 in Thessaloniki and the subsequent scrupulous investigation. Lambrakis died as a result of the attack he sustained from two right-wing vandals who run him over with a delivery truck in the aftermath of a large political rally. His death led to civil unrest and triggered an inquiry by the prosecution, which gradually exposed a system of corrupt police and army officials who had maintained close ties with paramilitary extremists, thus confirming the perception that the government itself had been behind the assassination.
I still remember the visceral reaction that the description of the brutal violence and rude verbal abuse to which Lambrakis’ was subjected triggered in me when I read Vassilikos’ novel many years ago (this was also the first time when I realized that being called ‘Bulgarian’ could mean an offense). What remained prevalent in my memories of the novel was the gut-wrenching description of merciless thuggish violence, one that I have since come to think about as being endemically prevalent in the region’s political history. (The accounts of brutality and extreme cruelty in the assassination of the popular leftist agrarian party leader Aleksandar Stamboliyski in Bulgaria in 1923 are yet another such well-known episode of vicious show-down encouraged by right-wingers in power.)
Even if Z, the film, takes place in an unnamed country, is no secret today that it is all about Greece. But back then, in 1969, with the right-wing military junta in power, it had been an act of political bravery to make it (it was, no wonder, banned in Greece), and to identify precisely which is the incident that it depicts. At the very opening of Z, the viewers are told that “any resemblance to real people and events is purely intentional.” In response to criticism claiming that the film commercialized and simplified the Lambrakis affair, Costa-Gavras is said to have reacted: “That’s the way it is in Greece. Black and White. No nuances.” And indeed, it is probably this head-on manner of tackling the brutality and viciousness of Balkan politics, with all its ugly methods of silencing people, its intolerance, and its media and police complicity, that makes Z such a universally important text in the history of political cinema.
Not only is the likeness identified as ‘intentional’ or ‘deliberate’, but one can easily come across references that identify other historical personages besides Lambrakis. The prototype of Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character, the conscious prosecutor Christos Sartzetakis was eventually arrested by the junta, imprisoned, and tortured, according to the Greek culture web-site Plaka. Later on, in 1982 he was appointed to the Greek Supreme Court in 1982 and a few years later proposed by PASOK for the presidency of Greece, a capacity in which he served in the period 1985-1990. Another protagonist, known as ‘the Tiger’ who was instrumental in exposing the assassination, had become a folk legend in Greece. Someone posting on the imdb from Greece insists that the assassination of Lambrakis did, in fact, leave deep traces on Greece’s political life (and not, as the film suggests, did not shatter the prevailing cynical brutishness). It triggered the resignation of the then prime minister Karamanlis and led to a short-lived opposition triumph in 1963-1965, which was later followed by the junta coming to power in 1967 (Vassilikos’s novel was already published by the time, but composer Mikis Theodorakis, who had been a follower of Lambrakis, had to go into internment just about the time he composed the musical score for the film). So, the user (gletzes) claims, something did change in Greece in reality, whereas the film shows a complete stagnation in an overtly pessimistic tone. But then, as the junta was in power at the time of the film’s making, it was probably ‘proper to make the film bleaker than the true events’ the writer concludes.
The novel had been written and published in Greece, but, provided the military coup of 1967 made it impossible to make a Lambrakis-themed film at home, as the original intention might have been. However, it is precisely the circumstances that imposed the need for a transnational reworking of the theme that supplied the film’s universal importance. The novel, even if translated in many languages, remains a Greek-interest one. The film became a classic of its genre, contributing a general commentary that would apply to many more countries and contexts. Adapted for the screen with the assistance of Spanish republican exile Jorge Semprún, who brought in his own perspective on treacherous overt and covert political violence aimed at his fellow-leftists in Spain, it was taken as a post-factum commentary on aspects of the civil war. Financed and shot in newly emancipated Algeria made it easy to discover links with issues of the state-sponsored political violence directed against independence fighters from the colonies. Released at the time of extensive political oppression in the countries of Central Eastern Europe, it was assumed to comment the political situation in the Soviet camp.
Keeping in mind all these complex circumstances, it is important to point out that Z qualifies as a classical example not only of political but also of exilic cinema (Naficy). Even though it is financed by French and Algerian sources and shot on location in Algeria, Z is a work driven by concerns that characterize the discourse of exile where the link with one’s country of origin and the longing for reconnection is very strong yet a return is ruled out. And indeed, it is the exilic position of several of the key figures involved in the making of the film that is most important in the case of Z. The film’s director had left Greece consciously at a very young age in search of opportunities he would never have at home due to the political convictions of his father. Writer Vassilikos, composer Theodorakis and actress Papas, along with outspoken Greek actress Melina Mercouri and her husband-director Jules Dassin, were all adversaries of the junta in Greece, where their work was banned over certain periods.
Born in 1933 in a Greek leftist family that was affected by the anti-communist status quo in the aftermath of WWII, Costa-Gavras emigrated to France at 18 and never looked back; he thinks of himself as French director and has fully enjoyed the freedom of speech granted under the French constitution. While Z is his first foray into political filmmaking, later on he developed a profile as one of the most committed political cineastes working transnationally, having made films about various aspects of political oppression, having condemned both right and left-wing extremists, and having based his work almost always on real events. His L’Aveu (The Confession, 1970) was released in the aftermath of Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion and exposes the staged communist trials in the Czech republic. His Uruguay-set État de siège (State of Siege, 1972) and Chile-set Missing (1982) put state- and internationally-sponsored political abductions, torture, and assassinations under relentless scrutiny. Costa-Gavras’ filmmaking career seems driven by what I see as an ultimately exilic resolve to exposing those who resort to subverting the justice system and use covert violence as a means of curbing on a democratic dialogue and a free public sphere.
Making the film in Algeria has come more or less by accident, as the director has testified in his 2003 interview with Ian Christie. From the onset the intention has been to focus openly on the Lambrakis incident, to denounce the junta and expose the political reality of Greece. Such a project, however, proves nearly impossible to fund. The idea to consider filming in newly emancipated Algeria comes at a point when the project is nearly shelved; Raoul Coutard, Godard’s committed leftist cinematographer and a veteran of the French war in Indo-China, is brought on board. Early on into the shoot, parallels between the political reality in Greece of 1963 and the recent history of newly emancipated Algeria begin coming across loud and clear. Gradually realizing the universal importance of the theme, Costa-Gavras soon knows he is making
‘a movie about that system where the country’s democracy stops or is completely controlled by… lets start from the palace, and then the army, and then even some parts of the justice is part of that system. And then everything is possible. And what’s also extraordinary in that story, because everything is true, there’s no fiction in there, except very little things here and there.’
In the same interview, the director testifies that Z was made completely independently from Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, as the film had been banned in France at the time and he had not had the chance to see it.
The film shows the assassination of the unnamed protagonist (played by Yves Montand), the subsequent media frenzy to which the wife of the victim (Papas) responds with withdrawal, and then the investigation by the principled magistrate (Jean-Louis Tringtignant) and the corrupt moves toward a cover up of his findings. Edwin Jahiel’s Usenet review identifies a range of overt references which confirm that the unnamed country is ‘patently and transparently Greece’: police uniforms, the portraits of the Greek King and Queen on the wall (‘with faces hidden by the reflection of lights on the glass frames’), and earlier on the sign ‘Hellas’, as well as a typewriter with Greek characters. And, in case it has not become clear, the closing statement takes all remaining doubt away: it lists an array of things currently banned by the junta in (from long hair on men, strikes and labor unions, through Chekhov and Trotsky, to Eugène Ionesco and Harold Pinter). The very title of the film, Z, for ‘Zee’ (‘he lives’), a Greek slogan, is meant to be a reference to the plea to keep alive the memory of those lost in the struggle.
Here is a compilation of important moments from the film, which, on the background of Theodorakis’ memorable muscial score, gives a good idea of the dynamic camera-and-editing work that make Z’s depiction of violence so visceral; there are also sequences that show the effective silencing of the victim’s wife (Irene Papas barely utters a few words throughout the film). The last minute and a half of the clip have an appendix featuring documentary photographs and footage related to the real-life assassination of Lambrakis.
Even if very different in style, political thuggery in the vein of Robert Rossen’s classic All the King’s Men (1949), is also in the focus of Z’s attention. Most other films that treat similar themes, except Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battaglia di Algeri (Battle of Algiers, 1966) and Haskel Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), seem to have been made later, especially those exposing complex political conspiracies, like Joseph Losey’s The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (1990), and Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2006). The influence of Costa-Gavras’ approach is evident across all these texts who have also acquired the status of classics.
Z has been referenced on numerous occasions in relation to the crackdown on leftists by various Latin American dictators throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. Thus, starting from the remote corner of the Balkans where the original incident of ugly political violence had taken place, Z became a film of the importance that, like The Battle of Algiers, transcends the concrete and could be seen in direct relation to Latin American works such as Patricio Guzmán’s La Batalla de Chile (Battle of Chile, 1975-1979) or Héctor Olivera’s No habrá más penas ni olvido (Funny Dirty Little War, Argentina, 1983), but also as a film that is in dialogue with Algerian-themed films, from René Vautier’s Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès (Being Twenty in the Aures, 1972) to Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005). An imdb user remarks:
‘I have read and even heard from people I know, that to watch “Z” was a kind of cathartic relief for them. I am talking about people who lived under fascist dictatorships like the Argentinian junta, or Chile under Pinochet fist, or Spain under Franco’s regime.’
One of the earliest reactions to the film is found in Roger Ebert’s review dated December 1969. He is probably the first critics who links Z to The Battle of Algiers by remarking that Z ‘is no more about Greece than The Battle of Algiers was about Algeria.’ To Ebert, both films have universal importance far beyond the concrete political assassination (even if the actual Lambrakis murder, having occurred just six years earlier, is still very fresh on people’s minds). In a tone that is not so typical for his later reviews, he calls it ‘a film of our time’ that shows ‘how even moral victories are corrupted’ by the rehabilitation of villains and the criminalization of those who struggle for justice, and makes parallel to American references such as the My Lai massacre and the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Even though Z is proclaimed to be an ant-American film (at the time of the US release, the Greek junta enjoys the US support), in a daring move marked by the spirit of ‘68 it become the first film to be nominated by the Academy not only in the relatively obscure foreign language category, but also for the ‘best motion picture’ award. It wins the best foreign film prize and the one for editing, as well as a standing ovation at its Academy screening. (The most The Battle of Algiers had received was an Oscar nomination in the foreign language category.) LH Williams from Houston talks of the way the film’s distribution was curbed in the U.S. and of a condemnation originating from J. Edgar Hoover himself.
In spite the massive number of awards and the overwhelming evidence of the film’s importance, Z remains an unaccessible film. It had an American DVD release by Fox/Lorber (Wellspring) in 2002, which triggered a round of reviews, and there seems to have been a release from the Criterion collection (e.g. see reference in Jahiel’s revew). Strangely enough, however, acquiring a copy of the film today seems to be a challenging task. Second-hand VHS copies and DVDs sell for substantial amounts; an imdb user from Bolivia was boasting he got it for a dollar, while another one was setting his asking price at $500. The only piece (uncredited) piece of information on the imdb related to the film’s business sets the US video rentals revenues for Z at more than $7 million. A profitable film to be withdrawn from distribution, one wonders why companies would miss out on these revenues.
Z preceded the breakout period of new Greek filmmaking in 1971, which marked the arrival of directors such as Theo Angelopoulos and Pantelis Voulgaris. It is difficult to assess to what extent these directors, who were to address the controversial and difficult ordeal of post-WWII Greek political history, relate to Costa-Gavras and his Z, a film that they are certainly familiar with. When one reads the work of Greek critics, one is left with the feeling that Costa-Gavras’s style of flmmaking is considered as foreign here. A Greek political ‘noir’ from 1983, Ypodeia diadromi (Underground Passage, dir. Apostolos Doxiadis) which is clearly under the Costa-Gavras influence, has had a lukewarm reception in Greece, triggering ironical remarks from critics (see Zikos, for example). Films like Angelopoulos’ Oi Kynigoi (The Hunters, 1977) and Voulgaris’ Happy Day (1976) and Petrina hronia (Stone Years, 1985) address episodes related roughly to this same period and also expose a widespread political corruption and are considered as much more relevant to the country’s identiy discourse (see Dan Georgakas’ essay on Stone Years in Cinema of the Balkans). Yet, even if those Greek-made features have been embraced more closely by the Greeks than Z, in this line of filmmaking Z is a Balkan/Greek film as much as these other ones, all showing that the brutality of the approach is not inherent to the cause but it is intrinsic to moments where lesser political culture is allowed to dominate.
The main achievement of Zlies precisely in the fact that it raises out of the Greek context and ends up making general statements on political lawlessness and abuse. What may have been an accidental reaction of adjusting to the restrictive circumstances of exilic filmmaking supplies the main strength of the film which acquires intercultural qualities and allows for people from different cultures ro empathize with the story and see it as commentary on their own lives and struggles.
Many of the well-known French film actors seem to regularly appear on stage as well. Spending time in Paris gave me opportunity to go and see such cinematic legends like Jeanne Moreau (in a reading of Quartett by Heiner Muller at Theatre de la Madeleine) and Isabelle Hupert (in Le Dieu du Carnage by Yasmina Reza at Theatre Antoine) live on stage. Moreau is now 80, and Hupert – 55, and they both look amazing, fully defiant of advancing age. Amazing.
For me, though, the biggest attraction was watching Sami Frey read on stage, along Moreau. The man is 71 years old now, but, like his ageless partner, seemed no older than fifty. His good looks now come with a certain degree of subdued reticence, as if he wants to suppress references to his artistic persona of eccentric Latin Lover (whom he has played many times over the years).
The earliest I remember Frey is in the lovely threesome dance in the bar sequence in Godard’s Bande à part/Band of Outsiders(1964), alongside Anna Karina and Claude Brasseur. Apparently, he started his career back in 1956; one of his early appearances has been in Agnes Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7/Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962). His main claim to fame from the period, however, is the highly publicized affair with Brigitte Bardot. Later in life Frey was partner of actress Delphine Seyrig.
Even if a small role, his outrageous appearance as El Macho in Dusan Makavejev’s subversive Sweet Movie is a key cinematic moment for me. True to his brandmark approach to using extreme stereotypes, for this film Makavejev turns Frey into the perfect embodiment of the Latin Lover from the popular imagination: he dresses him in a black-and-gold matador’s costume topped by a large cape under which El Macho can shelter women during lovemaking, and he makes him wear thick mascara and eye shadows in glittering gold. Then he plants him up on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower and has him sing a high pitched Spanish song of fate and history, surrounded by an adoring crowd of female fans. Miss Monde (Carole Laure) who is passing by, is so powerfully attracted to El Macho that she literally jumps on the man. Their love embrace turns out so awesomely crushing that eventually the copulating pair have to be taken to hospital to be medically separated from each other. Unforgettable.
The revival of the 1970s and the popularity of shows that bring back the music of ABBA is clearly a trend that still has got some steam. After seriously tarnishing his reputation with in the English speaking world with a series of appearances in all sorts of Hollywood rubbish, Gérard Depardieu, another man who was young in the 1970s, makes a nostalgic comeback in The Singer.
If analyzed critically, the film would not withstand much scrutiny. But it is one that belongs to the guilty pleasures kind, and this is all that matters, really. It has the full potential to become a cult classic among the sizable group of those whose cultural consumption got a boost by ABBA’s revival.
Depardieu’s rugged charm is juxtaposed to the attractive French newcomer beauty, Cécile De France, who mostly poses than plays a female protagonist that is preposterously underdeveloped and unconvincing. But who cares. The film is really enjoyable to watch, part because of the erotic dynamics between the lumpy Depardieu and the stylish sex appeal of De France, and part because of the numerous ‘oldies’ that are performed and sang in the film, at various dance halls, discos and restaurants in the Clermont-Ferrand area.
In a bonus interview on the DVD, director (and writer) Xavier Giannoli explains that he has always been attracted to the music of the 1970s. As a child of French-Italians, Giannoli had the chance to have French-Italian singer Christophe (who makes a cameo appearance in the film) as neighbor. This gave Giannoli quite a bit of exposure to the closed world of popular music. Indeed, in the film Depardieu (as singer Alain Moreau) is seen rehearsing his repertoire of ‘oldies’ on the background of a neon sign of Christophe’s name (alluding to the Christophe’s well-known passion for the American popular culture of neon-lit diners and Cadillacs).
The film was part of the Cannes competiton in 2006 and got lots of critical acclaim, mostly for Depardieu’s comeback performance, and lots of media coverage, mostly for the unmatched Parisian chic of the actress who was one of the best-dressed women at the festival. Here is the French trailer, featuring some of the 70-ies oldies that constitute a lot of the film’s charm.
The Singer has not been released in the US, not even on DVD. Amazon.com lists it as only available in French. However, there is an English-subtitled version published in the UK and available from the British amazon site at amazon.co.uk.