Robust

The title Robust refers to the character of its female lead as much as her physicality. Deborah Lukumuena plays Aissa, a security guard assigned to look after a famous movie star whose regular handler is on leave. The famous movie star in question is Gérard Depardieu, who plays (*checks notes*) George.

Barely a pseudonym, George is a cantankerous, aging, out of shape actor, who frequently bails on his films and rehearsals and other commitments. A BoJack Horseman of comfort eating, he rattles around in his massive home, pretty much devoid of human contact. The sole occasion where he meets someone not trying to hound him about work, it’s when gets a visitation weekend with his kid, and actually lightens up for once. He nightly takes panic attacks, which he is convinced are cardiac incidents, and phones his doctor in the middle of the night, probably just to hear a human voice.

Throwing his fragility into contrast is Aissa. She shows up, 50 years his junior, self-assured, competent, organised, and self-possessed. A wrestling champ, she is excelling as an athlete at the same time as taking pride in her work, eager to overcome the sexism in the industry to get high-profile security assignments to politicians and government officials. Where he is flighty, she is steady. Where he is mercurial, she is constant. Where he is irritable, she is patient.

Despite the age difference, she is more like a parent to him, organising his life, running his lines with him, and chiding him into behaving responsibily. And despite their differences as people, they begin to enjoy one another’s company. Gérard – I mean George – who can’t stand anyone’s company for very long without slipping out the patio doors and running away, asks her to stay longer, and makes up excuses why he needs her. She too finds that she likes this bear-like manchild, admiring the passion in his changeable moods rather than put off by them. His vulnerability and loneliness elicits from her kindness without pity, a sincere willingness to share time and herself with someone missing real connection.

The dynamic of aging white guy/young black woman in his employment is one I’ve found to be problematic in other films, but here I think it works. The power dynamic feels like it has a lot more symmetry. George needs Aissa far more than Aissa needs George, and she could easily simply ask for reassignment if she had enough of his shit. Plus, she is arguably far more the focus of the movie, showing her relationships with her family, her fuckbuddy, her supportive best friend, and her dedication to her wrestling training. Aissa has a full life.

This is not a film of obvious character arcs and dramatic declarations. It is about the subtler and more realistic interplays people have in one another’s lives. Moments of connection that anchor and comfort, whose changes might not be wholly apparent immediately.

What George gets from Aissa is pretty obvious. She stays over the night his wee boy is there, blowing off her fuckbuddy to do so, and it is the one night we see George sleep peacefully throughout. What Aissa gets from George is maybe a bit less obvious. In some ways, just their contrast solidifies her belief in herself.

The film’s dramatic climax for me is when Aissa is out on a date with her man, and George interrupts her on her night off to ask to come and pick up his spare keys from her. This is total bullshit, and he deliberately locks his keys in the house so he has an excuse to see her. He crashes her date, and sits down at their restaurant table to interrogate her man. He demands to know if he loves her, repeatedly driving for an answer after being told politely, and then less politely, to fuck off. “You don’t love her!” he accuses him. Aissa’s patience finally snaps, and she says, “I know he doesn’t love me! I just don’t want to hear it.” It’s a shitty thing to do, and a selfish thing to do, and a self-destructive thing to do in this valued friendship, but despite all that, it is also undeniably an insistence on Aissa as deserving of love. It is George’s way of demanding she be treated in a manner she is worthy of.

This is not a film about one magical summer where all a character’s flaws and defects are reversed. And for Deborah, you’d think she’d have the harder job with Aissa’s character, who starts and ends the film as the pretty self-assured person she is. But watching this film which plays up subtler kinds of changes, Deborah’ s performance is actually the strongest. You’d think it would have nowhere to go, but you just sense such a depth to the character, and percolation of ideas, whose effects will display is long, smooth waves, rather than the careening spikes of Gérard’s character.

Robust puts its two big-bodied leads front and centre, and allows their talent to carry the film. A two-handed character study, with as much dry humour as subtly played drama.

Z

A beautifully satirical political drama focusing on the assassination of a pacifist politician. With the tone of something like Doctor Strangelove, it unfortunately remains strikingly relevant today.

The film starts with the armed forces of the state sitting around talking about how to get rid of the corrupting influence of this increasingly popular politician who stands for peace and nuclear disarmament. Obviously they are not monsters, and this is a democracy, so they will graciously permit him to speak at his rally. They will just obviously ensure that he gets to experience the consequences of his actions.

What I like about this is it is not overly characaturish, while still dealing with universally recognisable tropes in the theatre of political oppression. Meaning this is no Punch and Judy show between evil baddies and noble goodies, where one lamps the other. Instead, everyone in this acts in their own interest, and are simply lined up like dominoes by the regime and allowed to fall in the way expected.

The polis don’t just blow Z’s head off like in some tinpot dictatorship, no! This is a civilised democracy after all, and the opposition must be seen to have the same chance as anyone. But if this guy loves peace so much, let’s see how much he likes it when the polis practice pacifism when the fash show up.

The trouble comes when a local magistrate doesn’t seem to understand how this works. At first in fact, he seems irked that the polis haven’t done a good enough job at covering their tracks, that he’s going to be caught out with such obvious, unignorable facts contradicting the police’s official version of events.

Added to this is a local reporter who took a chance on covering the rally rather than the swanky Bolshoi ballet event that night, and thus was one of the few on the scene for the assassination. He now feels he has an exclusive, and digs around to daily find a new angle to keep himself on the front page. Again, he is not billed as some angel of the fourth estate. He’s frequently unethical and wholly self-serving. It just so happens that on this occasion, it lines up with uncovering the truth.

Between the pair of them, they uncover an embarrassment of evidence showing police collusion and potentially instigation of the assassination, but the journey there is hilarious with subtle wit and acerbic truths.

Deeply recognisable even today. The obvious implication of, “Don’t you know how this all works?” only shows up how ludicrous it would be to the audience were they to actually bring those responsible to justice.

It’s a more than 50-year-old film, but it showed to a sold-out audience tonight that laughed uproariously at how identifiable it all was.

Good Mother

Nora is a middle-aged granny on an estate, staying in her small flat with her 20-something weans, and wee granweans. She works two jobs to keep a roof over their heads, getting up at the crack of dawn to take buses to the airport, then as a home help looking after an elderly neighbour who is more like a friend. Nora is well-respected by everyone she meets, whether it’s her co-workers at the job, or the drug-dealers on the estate, or the family of her elderly neighbour.

Contrasted to this is Nora’s daughter, Sabah, who she doesn’t get on with. Sabah has a 4-year-old daughter, and is frustrated with her inability to provide for her financially. Unemployed, over the course of the film she tries to train as a dominatrix, but finds it difficult to hold on to even that. Where Nora is forbearing, Sabah is full of complaints. Where Nora takes any job, even two, Sabah reviles the low-paid jobs, relying either on sex work or benefits. Where Nora meets with respect from everyone, Sabah is treated like dirt by everyone, including her mother.

It really hurt me to see Nora’s interaction with Sabah. Nora has one son in the jail, another lying sleeping in his bed while she cleans and cooks after working two jobs. To them she is nothing but a font of patience and praise. When her daughter leaves the granwean alone in the next room while she takes a shower, Nora talks to her like a piece of shit, reduces her to tears, and effectively tells her she’s a bad mother who puts her kid’s life at risk.

When Nora’s son needs money to pay his lawyer, she pawns all her jewellery down to her wedding ring. When Sabah comes home and hands over nearly half the amount due from her earnings, Nora’s first word is, “Is this money haram?” No “Thanks”. No “Cheers hen, that’s guid of you.” No, only suspicion and insinuation she’s done something wrong.

Sabah’s not likeable like Nora, because she’s not a martyr like Nora, but my heart just broke for her. Where’s her support? Jesus, they’re both single mums, how about a bit of solidarity?

Good Mother asks what is a good mum? Does it have to be about living as a paragon of work and sacrifice? Or is Sabah prioritisation of finding a way to provide for her daughter financially enough?

This film is carried on the excellent performances of the cast, every one of which are great, but especially those within the central family unit. I wondered if they all hung out between shoots, because they really felt like a family. Talking over one another, slagging each other off. The family dinners are just full of warmth and chatter, and the 4-year-old gives such a natural performance, you think she must have felt very comfortable and at home.

Good Mother is about the pillars who hold up society and the family. They are nameless and invisible and go largely unsung, but their contribution is most treasured by those they touch.

A Tale of Love and Desire

There is a stereotype that the British view the French as over-sexed. So far in the French Film Festival I’m realising that is not a stereotype. The Comparative Literature lecturer in this hands out the course text of poetry and tells the class to really “savour the eroticism”. You do that in Glasgow, the whole class would cut up laughing and make a dick-sucking gesture behind your back the entire year.

A Tale of Love and Desire follows two lovers Ahmed and Farah, as they negotiate the complexities of sex and relationships in today’s France. Farah is a Tunisian student who’s come to study in Paris, and is eager to see all this new world can offer, and cut loose and enjoy the uni experience. Nervous virgin Ahmed is here to make sure it’s a real bummer.

Ahmed is from a working class neighbourhood and feels like a fish out of water at the Sorbonne. He barely speaks, can hardly look anyone in the eye, and struggles to relax or make friends. Then he spies Farah.

To Farah, Ahmed is French. She came to France for the French experience, you know, smooth talking, poetry whispering, wine-quaffing, romantic shaggers. Ahmed is none of that. He’s awkward, inarticulate, emotionally crippled, sexually repressed, and painfully shy to the point of paranoia. He acts like Tunisia is some back of beyond, but Farah is freer, more sexually experienced, more confident and happier in her own skin.

Ahmed’s parents are Algerian, but he doesn’t speak Arabic or even know much about that part of his heritage. Class is a much more defining part of his identity in relation to folk at uni. He doesn’t even seem to consider himself particularly religious, but he is heavily invested in the sense of propriety he was raised with. Which is a happy coincidence if you’re an anxious virgin.

To Farah, Ahmed seems more conservative and parochial than the middle-class Tunisian culture she grew up in back home. She finds him blowing hot and cold very frustrating, as you would, and feels judged and shamed whenever she reaches out for him. In all honesty, Ahmed manages to have all the hallmarks of a fuckboy without the fuck.

But I’m being a little harsh. Ahmed is 18. All his mates are other guys, who in typical toxic masculinity fashion, talk up a good game about women, then can barely interact with them. They swing between desire for sexual accessibility and controlling, shaming, and repressing women who are. You know, the usual patriarchy standards.

It doesn’t exactly equip you to deal with first love, or your first time, or living in a very sexually-charged French culture. This is one of those love stories where the only obstacle two lovers have is themselves.

While I still think Ahmed acts like a twat in this, I do get his fear of sex in a world where it has become so much of commodity, a chit in social standing, a matter for the public record. It’s not even about sex not being about love, it’s about sex not even being about sex. It’s about ego, and using the body of another for validation, and as a status symbol. Even if sex were just about sex, it would still retain respect, intimacy, privacy, and eroticism. But we all know of that dead-eyed fucking, that fucking where it’s like you’re trying to stab yourself. In a world where people are used as objects, sex is reduced to a transaction of social currency, and ceases to be, in a word, sexy.

Ahmed loves Farah but doesn’t know how to tell her what he wants. When he wants to touch her, he pulls away if she responds. If she initiates, he shuts down. When she offers to go slow, it comes to a grinding halt. And Ahmed is as frustrated as anybody at his own inability to respond correctly, or illicit the response he wants, or to know in the least bit what the fuck he’s doing.

In a hypersexualised culture, to negotiate love and desire remains as enigmatic as the world of the centuries-old poets they read.

Playground

Playground is a film about a brother and sister surviving primary school. The opening scene is of Nora’s first day, being reassured by her big brother Abel, and torn away from her father.

I just watched this and was like, yup, that’s what it’s like. The synopsis of this film will say it’s about bullying, but it’s not, it’s about the way the world is, the way people are. I remember talking to some lassies at uni about primary school stuff, and getting annoyed when they gasped, “Were you bullied?” No, that’s just life.

If anything, Nora is in a far nicer school than I remember it being. All the teachers are sympathetic and patient, and genuinely concerned by her silences. I watched the movie thinking, Where’s this school? Where the teachers have the time deal with every playground fight, and get to the bottom of exactly what’s behind it? Where they have the patience to sit and comfort children until they’re ready to talk, and give a fuck?

The teachers I think are paragons so as to be a non-issue, and keep all the focus on the world of children, or the world of people as it’s also known. Again, and I think I’ve said this before in another review, I hate how we treat children and their problems as though they’re separate and different from the world we live in. We talk about bullying and use it almost solely in the context of school, but all it is is assholes. People are arseholes, and when you are legally obliged to show up to the same institution every day with the same arseholes, it makes you miserable. How do you adjudicate for that? How do you administer that?

We talk about children’s bullying because their issues look small to us, their interactions seem trivial. But once they are out the peri dish of school and into the wider world, the same dynamics take hold, the same struggles and the same miseries, and they get writ large as huge social problems. Nora and Abel’s problem is that social groups have a pecking order, and it’s dangerous to be at the bottom of that order. That’s it.

My other great annoyance is when adults act like all problems are solvable when the people experiencing them are children. They’re not. If bullying was a petty children’s issue that was resolved by telling a teacher, it wouldn’t exist, it would have been resolved. If we knew how to fix this problem, it wouldn’t be a problem in every classroom, in every school, generation after generation.

Nora and Abel are on their own to try and find a way to exist in this world, safely and happily. And if they don’t, it’ll be decades before they’re free of this system. You can only hope, with what lies ahead of them, that they have each other.

A Radiant Girl

This is a wonderful and warm film about Irene, a 16-year-old girl, bursting with life, who is practicing for her audition to get into drama college. A Radiant Girl follows her as she annoys her brother, has her first crush, shares her secrets with her grandma, and embarks on the journey into the bright world of adulthood.

When you first see Irene, you can tell that the clothes are old-fashioned but your mind doesn’t immediately place the time. They don’t lean into being a period drama, showing it more as a family story with Irene at the heart. The buildings and settings all seem familiar, and nothing strikes you as the alien past.

So you are in quite a bit, having watched her run her lines with her friends, bam up her brother, and talk with her grandma about boys, when you hear her dad say, “Bring me the ID cards, they need updated with a new stamp”, and you realise it’s the 1940s and they’re Jews. Oh.

A Radiant Girl is about the life of a girl, not the death. It is a very warm and joyful story on one hand, but also a respectful attempt to show and celebrate the life of someone who might otherwise only be known for what was done to them.

Irene is a force of nature, fearless, energetic, full of love and life. She is playful, cheeky, and has youth’s intensity. She winds up her brother but is fiercely loyal and loving to him at the same time. She can always cheer up her worry-wart father. And she and her grandmother share the same rebellious spirit, keeping each other alive with gossip and excitement.

The other, the antisemitism, comes in so stealthily and suddenly, and in such weird and bureaucratic ways. And while it is shit, to Irene it has nothing to do with her, or her world, or her plans. It is not a new thing for Jews to face discrimination, be made to jump through legal loopholes. A stamp on a card, and eventually a badge on a jacket, is an irksome but not unprecedented event. Antisemitism has existed in societies for centuries, and though it ebbs and flows, people survive. What we know is to come seems impossible from where Irene stands.

A Radiant Girl is a wonderful film which asks us to celebrate the life of one girl, to share her joys, her hopes, her dreams. To laugh with her and her family, to sigh with her first love’s kiss, and to rejoice in her achievements with her friends and schoolmates. And not let the darkness eclipse her story, but let her take centrestage in her life. A magnificent film.

Summer Light

This is such a Sunday afternoon movie. Lying on your granny’s carpet listening to her tell you what everyone on screen died of.

Summer Light reminds me of nothing so much as an episode of Frasier. There’s everyone chasing each other, a ludicrous and precarious party, and disaster always looming. While ostensibly a romantic drama, it has enough helpings of comic relief that it’s not far off.

It is about Michele, a beautiful and innocent young woman who comes to meet her lover in a hillside bed and breakfast in Provence. There she learns lessons in love that will leave her older and more cautious.

Obvious cad, and full-on no-righty, Patrice catches sight of her, and marks her for his next conquest. His last one is Cricri, who runs the hotel, but he has since grown bored with her.

Cricri is half mad with jealousy, knowing full well that Patrice no longer cares for her, and has his eye on the younger woman, but he gaslights her and manipulates her until she is unsure where to focus her rage. She alone knows what Patrice is capable of though. She covered for him when he murdered his wife, believing him to have done it for love of her. She also nursed him when he was mentally unwell after the death. Now he is back on his feet, he is done with her.

Patrice’s seduction doesn’t go as planned though. Michele is devoted to her lover Roland, who she seems to have met during a creative manic streak, and is now getting to know on his way down, into despair and alcoholism. Working in the theatre and being three sheets to the wind, Roland is ostentatiously melodramatic, playing the tortured artist. But sincerely he begs Michele to leave him, knowing he will pull her down in his spiral of self-destruction too.

The other innocent in this is Julien. He works on the nearby dam, and only comes across this shower of upper-class shambles by stopping by the hotel on his way to work one night, and accidentally walking into Michele’s room. In the darkness, she kisses him passionately, believing him to be Roland. From the first kiss, Julien falls in love with her.

The film follows Michele as Patrice draws her ever closer in a web of falsehood and ill-intent. He encourages Roland’s drinking, leaving Michele despondent and disillusioned with love. All the while Cricri tries to warn Michele and regain Patrice’s affection, a dual purpose which leaves her with no credibility. And what will Patrice do when finds the lowly Julien is a rival?

All this culminates on the night of the masquerade ball at Patrice’s mansion. Will Michele be seduced by his machinations? Will the fair Julien win her love? Will she bring herself to leave the drunken Roland? And what will happen when Cricri makes clear just what Patrice is capable of to get what he wants?

France

Overlong and tedious film. It focuses on France de Meurs, a tv personality who starts taking crying jags. France is a rich, privileged, white woman who has everything, but is still somehow sad. It’s the Anna Karenina conundrum. And I give zero fucks.

There is barely the wisp of a plot to this. Whole scenes effectively repeat themselves in different settings. There are, hm, maybe 4 or 5 hundred shots of France just staring silently directly into the camera while tears roll down her cheeks. The camerawork is so lazy, there’s nothing to even keep your attention visually. There will be the same three types of shots just used over and over again. And towards the end, when we get something which might be considered a dramatic incident, it is so OTT that people in the cinema were actually laughing. It was like a cartoon. I actually wanted to take a red pen to this film and scrawl over it, “What is the point of this shot? What does it give the audience that they don’t already have?”

There is no character development. It’s hard to even describe France as a character. She doesn’t do anything but cry and have an apartment that looks like if Liberace ran a museum.

One good thing I will say about it is the costume design was on point. I feel like the costume department had a clearer idea of who this character was than the writer, director, or the audience.

An absolute waste of time.

The Divide

Set almost entirely within an A&E on a night of Yellow Vest protests, The Divide follows the collision of a number of characters as tensions run high. Reminiscent of something like Clash, the political situation in France is boiled down to this one place.

There are four main characters, a lesbian couple on the verge of breaking up, a Yellow Vest protestor, and a nurse who is at her wit’s end trying to meet the needs that are far outstripping the hospital’s ability to provide. There are only a few establishing scenes before entering the A&E, introducing Raphaelle and Julie.

Julie is leaving her wife, and you understand why after 5 minutes of sharing the screen with her. She’s narcissistic, relentless, and thoroughly obnoxious. She goes down on her elbow in the street, after following and continuing to argue with Julie after she’s been clear and explicit about wanting to drop the subject because her decision’s been made. She then tries to leverage her injury to make Julie stay with her, if only for the evening at the hospital.

The other short scenes before we enter the A&E are of Yann, a truck driver, sick of insecure employment, shit wages, and being unable to support himself, who has come to protest in a march down the Champs-Elysee towards the presidential palace. Yann is passionate, pissed off, and hopelessly naïve about what to expect. He’s actually enjoying himself and having a laugh, he offers the riot cops a smoke and asks them to join the protest, since it’s their shit wages and pensions too. He seems genuinely surprised when they respond with tear gas and grenades.

So you have an A&E full of the usual night’s falls and scrapes, the Yellow Vests pouring in injured, and the hospital understaffed and struggling to hold it together. The hospital staff themselves have been out on strike, with signs on the walls saying, “Overworked staff = patient safety”. Yann tells them they should be out protesting with him, they ask who would be here to treat folk like him if they did that.

At first the film is somewhat buoyant, even funny at times. Yann tries to rally support for the protests from people in the waiting room who are just exhausted, hungry, and sore. Raf throws a fit like a toddler every time Julie leaves her side. Together they end up bickering, and are generally the kind of nightmare patients hospital staff dread.

But as the night wears on, tensions ramp up. It’s obvious the nurses don’t have enough staff to cope, people are waiting for hours to be seen by a doctor, and it’s only a matter of time before something gets missed. And then the police show up and make everything worse. Classic.

The Divide shows the effects of the public sector cuts, while simultaneously showing the violence of the repression of those trying to oppose them. It puts a face on the long waits, the exhausted staff, and traces the impacts that get hidden among the stats – not catching a problem in time, leaving vulnerable patients alone for hours on end, having problems escalate when they could be avoided altogether with timely and effective first treatment.

The Divide in the film stands for many things, for Raf and Julie’s breakup, for their separation from their son who is also demonstrating in these matches, for the haves and have-nots in France. Whether it is class, politics, love or power, The Divide shows a deeply fractured society that is struggling to unite even behind the basic fight to survive.

If you like this…

Lingui, The Sacred Bonds

Lingui, meaning The Sacred Bonds, is a film about a woman seeking an abortion for her daughter in Chad where it is illegal.

A real feminist film about throwing off what’s been handed down from on high as the misogynistic status quo, and prioritising women’s wellbeing and relationships. Amina is a devout Muslim, going to mosque for every prayer, dressing modestly, and working hard turning old tyres into baskets. One day she finds out her only daughter, Maria, is pregnant.

Amina is herself a single mother, having been deeply in love with, but abandoned by, Maria’s father. Castigated and thrown out on her own by her family, to Amina her daughter is her only family, and her world.

So when she discovers her daughter is pregnant at 15, it’s like a nightmare come true, watching history repeat itself. At first she reacts like she’s been shown all her life, beating her daughter and scolding her for the shame she’s brought upon them. When Maria says she wants an abortion, Amina tells her it is forbidden in Islam.

But when it looks like she might lose her daughter for good, Amina realises what’s really important. She puts everything she has into getting her daughter an abortion. Her top priority is safety, but there is a cost. So scrambling for money becomes a night-and-day endeavour, taking her to places she never thought she’d go.

And in some ways, it changes her. Sometimes the worst happening is liberating. She finally stops putting all her strength and energy into winning at a game that is rigged against her from the start. When you finally let go off trying to live up to patriarchy’s impossible standards, it makes you realise how exhausted you’ve been this whole time.

Amina starts smoking, and doesn’t bother covering her hair, or showing up to mosque. She still prays, you can see her, but she prays with her heart looking out towards God. In some ways, it’s a sincerer form of religiosity than she had before.

Maria sees how much her mother is doing, to ensure she can get safe healthcare and return to school to study. Their relationship improves greatly, because they see their love for each other clearly. Amina is not trying to beat Maria down like she was, she is taking her daughter’s hand and liberating themselves together.

A wonderful story of a mother-daughter relationship, and about the power of women supporting each other.