We are often plunged into a world of teenage girls hanging out in shopping malls in American movies, but in Celine Sciamma’s GIRLHOOD, we are on the outskirts of Paris, where rival black gangs congregate and assert their supremacy. Seen through the eyes and experience of Marieme (the excellent Karidja Toure), who is falling behind at school, looking after her two younger sisters, and coping with a bullying brother, it feels inevitable that she’ll be drawn into a gang of fun, but bitchy girls, who carry knives, fight and thieve. Beautiful yet insecure, her peers stride around, asserting themselves, living purely for the now, and loyal only to each other. When her gang leader is defeated in a fight, Marieme is confident, almost cocky and ready to take over the role. But when it comes to matters of the heart, and an ill-advised crush on a friend of her possessive brother, she’s plunged into worse trouble as she enters a shady criminal world. Despite the girls’ difficult existences and the feeling that their fates are inescapable, this is a film brimming with energy, character and emotion buoyed up by youthful optimism, and driven by Toure’s superb central performance.
Based on a Doris Lessing story, MY FRIEND VICTORIA is a touching drama directed by Jean Paul Civeyrac and springing into life through the actors – both newcomers – at its heart, Gulagi Malanda as Victoria and Nadia Moussa as Fanny, her friend and our reliable narrator. Class, race, identity, love, jealousy, sibling rivalry and belonging are the ingredients jostling for attention, and though this could be set in Lessing’s old West Hampstead postcode, it’s successfully transplanted to modern-day Paris.
Sophie Fillieres’ IF YOU DON’T I WILL is a droll, quirky, offbeat comedy with two seasoned actors, Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric at the top of their game. It’s all in their sideways looks and timing, as she faces her post-cancer, midlife crisis by going on a forest ramble, then deciding to stay there and go native. He eventually follows, but there’s a feeling that he may have left this – and much else in their relationship – too late…
The main characters go properly feral in Cedric Kahn’s WILD LIFE when their parents fight over custody of their three boys, with two of them going on the run with their father. The police are a constant presence, always on their trail, never quite catching up with them. Literally going back to nature, living in forests, fields, farms and a commune, all is well with the fleeing trio until the boys are properly grown up, seduced by civilisation and starting to challenge the values of their dad, fiercely played by Mathieu Kassovitz. Wide-eyed and innocent, the boys’ world view is infectious, and this entire narrative is based on a true story widely covered in the French press in 2008, that inspired books from both parents, and now raises all sorts of questions about a clash of ancient and modern lifestyles.
Back in 2011 we championed Dreleiben as one of the main achievements in the entire festival, a trilogy of self-contained, but interlinked thrillers, each with a different director, with Christian Petzold helming the first. And now Petzold has made PHOENIX, set in Berlin just after World War II, and one of the official contenders for Best Film. Nelly (the always excellent Nina Hoss) is a woman whose face was destroyed and rebuilt, and she’s now forced to fight her demons and confront the truths in her past. Her one real friend wants to take her to make a fresh start in Palestine; but Nelly feels driven to discover whether her husband, Johnny, gave her up to the Nazis. He doesn’t recognise her, and she keeps her real identity hidden, but he begins to believe that they can dress her, style her hair, make her look like his late wife, even get her to walk in her shoes… which feels like the plot of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. She refuses to believe that he could have betrayed her… but Petzold cleverly shows every stage of her growing realisation, as Johnny pursues his plan, in order to get his hands on Nelly’s money.
Covering the same wartime and post-war period, GERMANY PALE MOTHER is a neglected classic written and directed by Helma Sanders-Brahms, and based on her own mother, Lene’s experience. First show at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival, it received mixed reviews, especially from the German critics. A shorter version was released, but over the years the film’s reputation was enhanced, and now it’s back to its original full length. We see the war from a woman’s point of view, as her husband enlists and is sent away to the front. Narrated by the character of Lene’s daughter (ie, Helma), this is brutal, simple, direct and gives us the largely untold story of those left at home in the midst and terrible aftermath of war.
Also showing that war pictures don’t have to be gung-ho, DAMN THE WAR is a splendidly restored 100-year-old anti-war picture in which the futility of conflict is shown through friend pitted against friend, and a romance doomed by a revelation from the past.
Go to page 4 for Denmark, Greece and more…