Cool Fascination: The Spy Who Caught a Cold

The charming thing about short films is that they allow the filmmaker to put forth an idea that would not yield enough plot for a feature. The title of this short piece is a take-off on the film, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). However, beyond the wordplay, there is no similarity between the films. The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) is a light-hearted—one might say almost frivolous—British piece. It was written by Lucy Ellmann and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe and was produced by Channel 4 (not to be confused with BBC4, see comment below). The premise is that a single mother (Lesley Nightingale) has decided to spend a few days at a nudist beach along with her daughter, Clozzy (Isabella Nightingale Marsh). Being a 10-year-old girl, Clozzy pretends to be embarrassed by her mother’s interest in this excursion. But her actions throughout speak of a secret fascination. Instead of participating with the others, she prefers to study the goings on with amusement.

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann - The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (1)

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann – The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (1)

Early in the film, Clozzy gets into the spirit of things and has a moment of joyful abandon, doing cartwheels along the water’s edge.

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann - The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (2)

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann – The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (2)

Her mood is quickly deflated when she observes her mother being friendly with a man.

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann - The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (3)

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann – The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (3)

This is the only time Clozzy is seen naked in the film. She and her mother dine out to find the man, a fishmonger, entertaining everyone with his accordion. Mother decides to get his attention and does a kind of seductive dance, again to the dismay of Clozzy. The couple leave together. Cozzy had teased her mother about spending time with a fishmonger—that his clothes probably reek of fish. But when no one is looking, she stops to smell the coat he was wearing

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann - The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (4)

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann – The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (4)

At this point, the girl wears an interesting shirt spangled with stars which serves as a reminder of the symbolic connection between women and nature. The next day Clozzy has a cold, but not being life-threatening, mum decides to leave her to recuperate and rejoins the others in their activities.

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann - The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (5)

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann – The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (5)

Clozzy sneaks off to continue her spying, sneezing along the way.

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann - The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (6)

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann – The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (6)

When she returns, she finds her mother and the fishmonger making love. She watches quietly.

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann - The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (7)

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann – The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (7)

After mum leaves, Clozzy investigates further. She enters the tent where the man is sleeping and waves her hand over his body as though she were stroking him. Then as she leans over to kiss him, mum walks in.

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann - The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (8)

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann – The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (8)

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann - The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (9)

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann – The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (9)

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann - The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (10)

Philippa Lowthorpe and Lucy Ellmann – The Spy Who Caught a Cold (1995) (10)

After the trip and in a predictably duplicitous manner, Clozzy is heard telling her friends what a silly waste of time it had all been.

This film is currently viewable on YouTube. [I have been informed from a reader that the YouTube link is no longer active.  I could not find another copy online.  Essentially the full story is given here, but for those who wish to see the film, please contact me personally and you will be given a link to download it instead.  Thank you, -Ron]

The Way to a Man’s Heart: Du Sel sur la Peau

The problem with tracking down obscure films is that they are often neglected. In this case, those who run the company (Belga Films) that owns the rights to Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (Belgian-French, Salt on the Skin), know nothing about it. If a master of the film does exist in a vault somewhere, it will probably stay there deteriorating. Even the director, Jean-Marie Degèsves, cannot be appealed to because he died in 1999. In 1986, the movie was released in VHS (with hard-coded French subtitles) and that is the only version available. A reader in France graciously summarized the plot since there are no English subtitles available.

The story revolves around three characters. Julien (Richard Bohringer) is a well-to-do bachelor with a number of expensive hobbies like photography and collecting and building model trains, helicopters and boats. His mother seems to have the run of the house—cooking and doing the laundry for him—and eager for him to settle down and have a family. Charlotte (Catherine Frot) and her 9-year-old daughter Juliette (Anne Clignet) break down near his house. Being free-spirited individuals, they decide to cool off in Julien’s above ground pool.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (1)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (1)

He is irritated by this and confronts them. But despite this, he invites them in to dry off and make arrangements to repair their vehicle.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (2)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (2)

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (3)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (3)

Juliette has a refreshing childlike frankness and Julien seems quite charmed by her. So even though it has been an imposition, he decides to lend them 3000 Belgian francs to pay the repair bill. That night he gets a call from Charlotte telling him that Juliette is upset because she left her teddy bear in the car and could he retrieve it for her. Finding the bear, he looks at the ratty old thing with disdain and tosses it into the trash. The next day, he purchases a brand new one and goes to give it to her. At first she is upset with him because that bear had sentimental value but she forgives him.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (4)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (4)

Juliette invites him inside and he learns that she is often left alone in the house when her mother works. She takes him to her room to reveal a cache of stuffed animals.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (5)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (5)

Charlotte works at a hospital that gives long-term care to the elderly and is dating the doctor. One of her co-workers, Mireille,‭ ‬has been posing nude to make extra money on the side. Julien belongs to a photo club for which Mireille has posed and the members admire the photos. The club wants to plan an exhibition and probably at Julien’s prompting, they decide to go with the theme ‭”childhood”.

‭One night, ‬Juliette is left at her grandparents and we see that stuffed animals are regularly given as presents.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (6)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (6)

‭Mother and daughter find ‬Julien in his garden playing with one of his remote control helicopters. He shows Juliette his other models and gives her a ship as a gift. She also learns that he has a photography studio. He asks if he may take photos of Juliette, perhaps as compensation for the outstanding debt. The girl is very excited by the idea and they go into his studio to do the shoot.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (7)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (7)

He promises to send copies. Since they had been planning a trip to the beach, he is given the address of the hotel where they would be staying. Instead of mailing the photos, he checks into the hotel himself. Next we see him taking surreptitious shots of Juliette at the beach with some of her friends.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (8)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (8)

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (9)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (9)

Noticing that there is no postage on the envelope, Charlotte realizes that Julien has checked in and the pair go to the room to thank him for the photos.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (10)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (10)

Charlotte and Juliette are taking a bath together,‭ ‬but they can’t get the tap to turn off.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (11)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (11)

The girl is told to ask the reception desk for help but, instead, Juliette runs naked down to Julien’s room to get his help.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (12)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (12)

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (13)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (13)

Later at the hotel bar, Charlotte is unhappy because the doctor she was seeing did not show up as planned. She complains about how men only do things when they want something, not really respecting women for who they are. They only like women when they are in photos. This was meant to imply that Julien’s motives are far from noble.

When Julien returns home, he find his mother worried about where he has been and had invited one of his old friends by for a visit. Though Julien finds her plain and dull, his mother insists they are a perfect astrological match. To get his mother off his back, he tells her rather facetiously that there is already a new girl in his life and she is 9‭ ‬years old!

Julien has bought ice cream for Juliette‭ ‬and, to better display her books and other treasures, some shelves which he installs in her bedroom. It is not clear when Julien revealed the beach shots, but he must have at this point because one of them can be seen posted on the wall.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (14)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (14)

Charlotte’s doctor friend tries to make amends for his oversight, but she snubs him. Returning home, she confronts Julien about why he is lavishing so much attention on Juliette, assuming it is some kind of statement about her poor parenting. Julien simply evades the issue telling her it is his way of paying for the pictures—perhaps referring to the ones he took secretly.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (15)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (15)

Charlotte’s estranged husband—and Juliette’s father—suddenly shows up in Brussels to visit and tries to convince them to live in Nice with him. While her parents are talking, Juliette sneaks off to pay a call on Julien. On her way, she explains to a bemused woman on the bus that she is visiting her boyfriend. Upon her arrival, she finds him playing with his helicopter.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (16)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (16)

He is startled when she creeps up on him and tickles him and he crashes his helicopter in the pool. Impulsively, he slaps her and she cries that “N‬obody loves me‭!” She ‬jumps into the pool to retrieve his model and he jumps in after her.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (17)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (17)

Julien then brings her into the house to dry her off. His mother arrives just as Juliette emerges with a towel wrapped around her. She starts to think that maybe her son really is having an affair with a 9-year-old. When Juliette explains that he had only been taking pictures of her, the mother storms out telling him he should have his head examined.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (18)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (18)

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (19)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (19)

Juliette calls her mother to come pick her up in the evening. The two spend time together and horse around the house until bedtime.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (20)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (20)

Julien prepares the guest room for her but she wants to sleep with him. He explains that such things are not done. She explains that this is how it is done in the movies and that they must first make love. She pushes him onto the bed and kisses him on the forehead before jumping up to go to bed. At this time he presents her with a large brown teddy bear.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (21)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (21)

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (22)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (22)

Charlotte is confused and upset by the latest developments. When she comes to pick up Juliette, she tries to talk with Julien about it, but he doesn’t really want to. It is 2 a.m. and Juliette is fast asleep. Charlotte agrees to stay the night and Julien sleeps on the sofa. By the time he wakes up in the morning, the two of them are gone. They arrive later in the morning to have breakfast with him. It is clear that Julien and Charlotte are really starting to bond.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (23)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (23)

That day at work, one of Juliette’s photos drops out of a folder.‭ To cover up, he tells h‬is coworkers that it is his daughter. They tease him a bit about having secret affairs and he adds that he is a single father. Returning home, he finds Juliette,‭ ‬Charlotte and his mother together at the door. His mother looks very pleased and says she knows everything now. She adds that the astrological signs are quite auspicious.

Jean-Marie Degèsves - Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (24)

Jean-Marie Degèsves – Du Sel sur la Peau (1984) (24)

Certainly this is no blockbuster; the plot is confused and the whole point seems to be to show how a little girl’s charm can open doors and give us hope for a happy ending. The Juliette character—apart from serving as a sort of anima figure—was an important catalyst, able to say and do things the rules of polite adult society would not allow.

Return of the Goddess: Le Tout Nouveau Testament

* * * Spoiler Alert * * *

It is a relief to know that imaginative cinema is still being produced. This review has been delayed again and again because I wanted it to make a great presentation. But when all is said and done, this film speaks for itself.

Le Tout Nouveau Testament (The Brand New Testament, 2015) takes a comical and disarmingly irreverent look at the effects that a male deity, namely God, has had on humanity. For those paying close attention, this film is a statement for the need to transform Western society into one that embraces a more feminine concept of deity.

Much has been said about the Son of God—referred to as J.C. in this film—but not the Daughter, who serves as the narrator. Her name is Ea (Pili Groyne) and has suffered under the tyranny of her father’s house for 10 years.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (1)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (1)

She tells us that God lives in Brussels and that he is an asshole—lavishing abuse on his wife, “Goddess”, and Ea. He doesn’t seem to respect her space and just barges in on her whenever he pleases.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (2)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (2)

The family lives in a house with no entrance or exit. Goddess dares not speak out of turn and does nothing but embroidery and collect baseball cards (totaling 18). Even though J.C. has not returned home since his execution on Earth, Goddess sets a place for him at the dinner table—at God’s right hand, of course.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (3)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (3)

Everyone in the family has supernatural powers except for God and Ea annoys her father with a little telekinesis at the table. God controls his creation through a computer terminal from his office, forbidding entry by anyone else. Being an impotent figure, he takes delight in causing the beings made in his own image to suffer. He creates a set of rules that seem to conform to Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. The “laws” appear throughout the film as running gags, for example: when a person gets in the tub, the phone will ring; the other line is always faster; a dropped piece of toast always falls buttered side down; a piece of pottery will break only after it has just been cleaned.

Ea sneaks into her father’s office to see what he has been up to. She is horrified to see how cruel he is to human beings.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (4)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (4)

When she confronts him about this, he realizes she has been in his office and he beats her. She vows revenge and escape and consults her brother about what to do. Unbeknownst to the others, there is a figurine of J.C. that can come to life so Ea can converse with him.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (5)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (5)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (6)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (6)

He explains that the idea for the 12 Apostles was father’s simply because he liked hockey. It turned out to be a real mess and so perhaps it would be better to add 6 more to make it 18, Goddess’ favorite number. J.C. tells her how she can escape to Earth, but before she departs, she sneaks into the office again and instructs the computer to give human beings knowledge of the exact time they are going to die and then lock her father out of the system so he can’t change it back. The premise is that God’s only power over people is through their ignorance. If they know too much, they may take matters into their own hands and live the lives they want. And thus Ea has her exodus, tunneling her way to Earth.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (7)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (7)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (8)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (8)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (9)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (9)

Another one of the problems J.C. and Ea wanted to avoid was the way people tend to misrepresent the message thus causing endless disputes. Ea decides this new testament will not mention her at all, but document the wisdom of the 6 apostles she chooses. Ea never learned to write, so the first person she runs into, a dyslexic bum called Victor, is recruited as her scribe.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (10)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (10)

There are a few amusing scenes showing how this knowledge has wracked havoc on people’s lives. For example, there is the daredevil Kevin, who broadcasts the craziest stunts that manage miraculously not to kill him since he is supposed to live another 62 years. Other scenes show the resentment of children dying before their parents, one spouse before the other or caregivers before their bedridden charges.

Ea’s first disciple is Aurélie, a beautiful woman who never seems to connect with any of the men around her. When she was 7, she had a freak accident in a subway and lost her left arm. She now wears a prosthesis made of silicone. As she tells her story, Ea collects her tears in a vial and explains that she does this in part because she is unable to cry herself. She also informs each of them that they have a special music associated with them and she is able to hear it. Aurélie’s is a piece by Händel and, parenthetically, the musical score throughout the film is quite stunning.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (11)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (11)

The second is Jean-Claude, an adventurer in his youth who has since squandered his time climbing the corporate ladder. Upon learning his death date, he quit his job and became lured into one last adventure northward by a flock of birds. His music is by Rameau. He is the only one who does not stay with the group but wanders off right away after telling his story.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (12)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (12)

By this time, God realizes what Ea has done and, not being competent enough to solve the computer problem, decides to follow her to Earth to get her to fix what she did. His emergence out of a wet and soapy washing machine is very suggestive of a birth scene. Forgetting that he has no powers, he has a miserable time. People beat him up and in his cranky arrogance, he continues making things worse for himself.

The third apostle is Marc who considers himself a sex maniac. His most vivid erotic memory took place when he was 9. He was digging at a beach and this amazing German girl appeared in a turquoise bikini. He never forgot the look she gave him, a combination of interest and disgust. His music is from Purcell and when he learned his death date, he decided to take all his money and spend it all by the time he died. However, he miscalculated and ran out a bit early. Ea tells him he has a beautiful voice and he decides to earn some money by doing voice overs for adult films. Next to him playing the female role is that same German girl, all grown up and they are reunited.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (13)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (13)

In the deities’ home is the famous da Vinci painting The Last Supper and Goddess begins to notice new figures appearing every time Ea recruits someone new.

The next disciple is François whose calling was to be an assassin. He has killed countless insects and a number of small pets belonging to his cousin. He is married with a son but there is no love there. When he learns his death date, he decides to buy a rifle and start shooting at people. The rationale is that if he misses, it was not their time, if not, he was simply doing God’s will. François’ music is Schubert’s Death and the Maiden—what else?—and Ea comments that this music goes well with the Händel. She does a little matchmaking and tells him to shoot the next girl that comes along.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (14)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (14)

It turns out to be Aurélie, who is hit in her fake arm and does not even notice that anything has happened. Fascinated by this miracle, François follows her and finds himself falling in love. She eventually accepts him and gets him to give up his murderous ways.

Martine is a woman with a romantic disposition who has been married to a well-to-do man who seems unmoved by her short life expectancy. He leaves on a business trip, letting her deal with this crisis on her own. When she tells her story to Ea, she is told that her music is circus music. They visit the circus and come upon a gorilla in a cage. Martine and the beast form a mysterious emotional connection and she pays for “his” release, allowing him to live in her house.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (15)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (15)

When God finally tracks down Ea, he demands that she set things right, but she is not intimidated by him anymore. She and Victor escape by walking on the water to cross a canal. Her father is dismayed to learn that he cannot do the same. He is rescued from drowning, but because he has no papers, he is housed with Uzbeki refugees and eventually deported.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (16)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (16)

The last apostle is a boy named Willy (Romain Gelin). His mother, sensing that he was a sickly boy, gave him injections which severely damaged his liver. By the time Ea meets him, he has only one week left. Out of guilt, his parents tell him they will let him do whatever he wants and he decides he wants to be a girl—perhaps an homage to Ma Vie en Rose. Willy’s music is La Mer by Charles Trenet.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (17)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (17)

This meeting is a personal revelation for Ea and she explains to Willy how her father made everything miserable for people and that she wants to fix it. The youngsters have a kind of whirlwind romance, sharing fine meals together, dancing etc. Given the few days left to Willy, they decide to treat each day as though it were a month—calling the days of the week January, February, March, etc.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (18)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (18)

Willy decides he wants to spend his last day at the seaside and is joined by the other characters who show their support by waiting with him.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (19)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (19)

Meanwhile, with the absence of her husband, Goddess begins to get control over the house again, cleaning and fixing up the place. Going into her husband’s office to vacuum, she unplugs the computer so that when it is plugged in again, the system reboots. She begins to make changes to Earth to suit her taste and Willy is saved from death that day. Ea, observing the various and sudden changes, realizes they are her mother’s doing and looks up in gratitude.

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig - Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (20)

Jaco Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig – Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) (20)

This whole business of adding apostles is symbolic of the main theme of the film: that a corrupt male-dominated world will change or should change into a happier and compassionate female one.

 

Flashbacks within Flashbacks: Körkarlen

Körkarlen (1921) is a Swedish silent film which has gone by the names The Phantom Carriage, The Phantom Chariot, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! and The Stroke of Midnight. Pip came across this when reviewing a series of silent films and brought it to my attention. The film is based on a novel of the same name written by Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf in 1912. The reason I am mentioning this film here is that it has a scene of an older man bathing a little girl and it got us to wondering if this is the oldest extant appearance of a nude little girl in cinema. It would be fascinating to learn if any of our readers can come up with any older examples.

Victor Sjöström and Selma Lagerlöf - Körkarlen (1921)

Victor Sjöström and Selma Lagerlöf – Körkarlen (1921)

The story itself makes use of an intriguing Swedish folk tale that states that the last sinner to die before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve is doomed to drive the Phantom Carriage the following year, collecting all of the souls of the dead. One of the protagonists turns out to be that man and reviews the selfish life he led and its impact on others. Besides being an award-winning film, the movie distinguishes itself as a key work in the history of Swedish cinema. It was notable for its special effects, which were advanced for the time, and a narrative structure that made use of flashbacks within flashbacks. It was also a major influence on filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. You can view it online here.

When Innocence Has No Voice: Munted

A film like this makes me think that there is no such thing as fiction. To make a compelling story, to get the audience to really care about the characters, it is more effective when it is taken from one’s real experiences. Munted (2011) is a remarkable short film produced by Welby Ings and based on an incident that occurred in 1961 in King Country on the North Island, New Zealand. The filmmaker recalls that a man was badly beaten and hounded out of the district without being able to comprehend what he had been accused of. He decided to tell this story showing how innocence can be brutalized whenever sanctioned rumor is pitted against a truth that can’t defend itself.

The word munted is slang meaning both damaged or worthless and drunk. The word obviously applies ironically to the main character but also to most of the other characters, though in a different sense.

The film is narrated by a 10-year-old girl called Katrina (Ella Edward) who lives with her Aunt Kath. This adds a layer of reality as the story is told by a child with its naivete and misconceptions about the adult world.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (1)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (1)

She introduces us to Don (Phil Peleton), an artist who lives in a building near Katrina. He draws sketch after sketch of flowers—a symbol of female innocence and played to great effect in the opening of the film—and sometimes sketches Katrina as well. The two have an emotional attachment and Katrina tells Don she wants to be an artist. The drawings shown in the film’s opening were actually drawn by Ings himself.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (2)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (2)

We get a sense of Don’s backstory from a combination of exposition and narration throughout the film. Apparently, while drunk, he got into an auto accident, killing his wife. He was subsequently unable to save his daughters from drowning because of his own fear of the water. In his art, water is always portrayed as darkness and associated with death. As a result of the crash, he suffered some kind of mental debilitation with both physical and psychological components.

Katrina comments that Don’s drawings are all covered in writing which seems to spoil the images, but it is clearly meant to reflect the artist’s mental state. The integration of text into an artwork is personally significant to the filmmaker who did not learn to read and write until he was fifteen. Therefore, Ings’ childhood memories of written text is as a kind of textural art suggesting labyrinthine forms. The film itself is also covered in text seemingly serving the superfluous function of English subtitles.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (3)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (3)

One day, Katrina’s biological mother, Brooke, appears with a new beau and is intent on taking the girl back. Aunt Kath resists this idea. She was unable to have children herself and her sister seemed incapable of taking care of a child so the arrangement worked out well for a while. It is clear from Brooke’s behavior that her desire to get Katrina is motivated by a selfish desire to restore her respectability as a mother. The two women look for Katrina by going to Don’s place. There, Brooke finds a folder with photographs of little girls.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (4)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (4)

Brooke begins applying pressure by making incessant phone calls to her sister. Finally, she does some digging, perhaps into the newspaper archives, and finds misleading clues to Don’s past. The impression is that Don is a pedophile who murdered two girls. Brooke makes the case that this proves that Don is a dangerous influence.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (5)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (5)

The situation is exacerbated one day when Katrina swims too far out and gets caught in an undertow.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (6)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (6)

In a startling act of heroism, Don overcomes his fear and manages to save the girl. However, when the others arrive on the scene they interpret it as an attempt by Don to harm her.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (7)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (7)

Brooke finally appeals to the egos of her beau and some of the local ruffians suggesting that they should really do something about Don. While in his tub—another drowning reference—the men come by, beat him, murder him and then set his place on fire. The dual purpose of fire here, destroying both the art and the man is an intentional reference to the famous quote: “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” (“Where one burns books, one will also finally burn people.”) (Heinrich Heine, Almansor, 1820/21). This outcome is a vivid statement about the nature of the moral panic surrounding pedophilia and sexual abuse.

Throughout the murder scene, the song Farther Along is sung.

Farther Along

Tempted and tried, we’re oft made to wonder
Why it should be thus all day long
While there are others living about us
Never molested though in the wrong

When death has come and taken our loved ones
It leaves our home so lonely and drear
Then do we wonder why others prosper
Living so wicked year after year

Farther along we’ll know all about it
Farther along we’ll understand why
Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine
We’ll understand it all, by and by

Faithful ’til death, said our loving Master
A few more days to labor and wait
Toils of the road will then seem as nothing
As we sweep through the beautiful gates

Farther along we’ll know all about it
Farther along we’ll understand why
Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine
We’ll understand it all, by and by

After the funeral, Katrina packs and shares her concluding thoughts:

Things can happen like that, if you’re alone and don’t have any friends to look after you. You’ve got to be really careful. You’ve got to fit in. That’s just the way it is.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (8)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (8)

Welby Ings is an associate professor of graphic design at Auckland University of Technology, a storyteller and makes short films in his spare time. He is fascinated by how people think and has concluded that the act of creativity is really a form of “disobedient thinking”. He is a captivating public speaker and shares important lessons taken from his own upbringing. Munted won the 2012 Leeds International Film Festival Award in the short film category and was an official selection for several other festivals as well. His first film Boy (2005) was shortlisted for an Academy Award in 2006.

Six Weeks of Boyhood

“Six weeks of boyhood, six weeks of bliss,” is the parting sentiment in the short film No Bikini directed by Claudia Morgado Escanilla and based on a short story of the same name by Ivan Coyote. A reader made a comment about this film in a recent post so I decided it was time to do a quick review of this piece. The premise of the story is that a 7-year-old tomboy named Robin (Matreya Fedor), finding her bikini top too constricting, decides to pretend to be a boy and go topless in swim class.

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote - No Bikini (2007) (1)

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote – No Bikini (2007) (1)

We are introduced to the instructor, who has a driving personality and is prominently displaying a swim medal throughout the film. As she inspects her new students, there is some tension as we wonder if Robin will pull off this ruse. Instead of being outed, she is sharply advised to “straighten up”.

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote - No Bikini (2007) (2)

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote – No Bikini (2007) (2)

Apart from the usual trials and tribulations of swim class, Robin has a male rival, also hoping to win top honors in the class.

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote - No Bikini (2007) (3)

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote – No Bikini (2007) (3)

The conclusion is amusing as the mother reads the report stating how Robin—now proudly wearing the medal—should enroll in the advanced class with superlatives loaded with the conspicuous pronoun “he”.

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote - No Bikini (2007) (4)

Claudia Morgado Escanilla and Ivan Coyote – No Bikini (2007) (4)

To further accentuate the innocence of the girl, we are reminded that she did not actually lie to anyone. Everyone just made an assumption and she allowed them to believe it—also having the good fortune of an ambiguous name. The choice of casting Fedor is interesting. She is 7 years old instead of six as in Coyote’s story. I imagine the director had to find someone who would not be self-conscious about acting without a top and could not find a suitable six-year-old. As a result, the illusion of a gender neutral character is not particularly convincing.

Ivan E. Coyote was born and raised in Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. He is an award-winning author of eight collections of short stories, a novel, three CDs, four short films and is a renowned performer. Coyote’s first love is live storytelling and he is an audience favorite at music, poetry, spoken word and writer’s festivals around the world. Coyote began performing in 1992 and in 1996 co-founded Taste This, a four person performance troupe that combined live music, storytelling and performance poetry to create a genre-busting collaboration. Taste This toured North America extensively and in 1998 published Boys Like Her, considered a substantive contribution in the dialogue about gender identity and sexuality. Coyote is fascinated by the intersection of storytelling and music and works with a number of well-established Canadian musicians. He is interested in collaborations where the text and the score are equal players, not just storytelling with musical accompaniment. In 2001, he landed a gig teaching short fiction at Capilano University in North Vancouver and discovered that he loves teaching creative writing. It was while teaching seniors that Coyote recognized their true calling; he strongly believes in listening to the stories of our elders and encouraging them to write about their lives. He continues to tour extensively throughout North America and Europe, telling stories not only to festival audiences, but to high school students, social justice activists, adult literacy students and senior citizens. Coyote believes in the transformative power of storytelling, and that collecting and remembering oral history not only preserves a vital part of our humanity, but that a good story can help inspire us to invent a better future.

A Gaze, a Glimpse from a Girl on Horseback

A gaze on horseback

Yann Arthus-Bertrand – Human (2015) (1)

Close-up (1)

Yann Arthus-Bertrand – Human (2015) (closeup)

Where a trailer would want to be an introduction or characterization or an appetizer to the movie, can a film still from a movie or trailer be a characterization of the movie? And, secondly, can it stand on itself as a picture, without having watched the movie? Or even can one recognize it was from a movie? Did you realize, at first glance that the picture above was from a movie? And furthermore, can a picture taken from a movie stand on its own merit and characterize the movie? Can a “snapshot” produced by one of the several video players become a kind of artistic photography?

Yann Arthus Bertrand - Human (2015)

Yann Arthus-Bertrand – Human (2015) (2)

The two stills come from the documentary Human (2015) by the French photographer, reporter, film director and environmentalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand. In 1991 Bertrand founded the Altitude Agency, the first press agency specializing in aerial photography. The film is composed repeatedly of aerial footage interspersed with first person stories told directly into the camera, and close-ups of other people during the telling of the story, giving the impression that they were listening. So this is a movie about humankind, with landscape scenes recorded at high speed to produce the effect of slowed down live action. That is the story and rhythm of a long and rather slow movie about humankind—its pains and joys: love, children, work, dreams and expectations, disappointments, death, the day to day mysteries of life. And about how we use the Earth, but also about—as in a line of poetry by Emily Brontë—“How beautiful the Earth is still”.

Maybe the slower landscape shot and aerial scene suddenly brought to my eyes a girl, gazing for a glimpse and then riding away. I saw her for the first time in the trailer. Maybe it was the briefness of the scene that made her gaze especially startling. I recommend both the trailer and, of course, the whole documentary (188 minutes long). And I wish to recommend these chosen film stills; first the gaze at first glance and, second, a logical end of the short scene. These pictures are not characteristic of the film in the sense that the film is not only about this girl. I do not even know her name, but she can stand for the title of the film. And I would like to add, she herself can stand for a kind of freedom—not merely a child riding her or his first bike, but on a horseback on the plains of her homeland. In this context, this behavior is probably quite usual for children, even girls. Nevertheless, in this brief passing by, there is a glimpse of freedom and a gaze of mutual understanding held in the eye of the everlasting beholder.

Returning to the questions asked in the beginning, it is by chance whether one first sees the full movie, a trailer or just a single image. In my case, it was the trailer with the sudden appearance of the girl on horseback and that gaze. In that instant it became a film still in my memory, long before the use of technology allowed me to express it. From now on, I can choose to look at every film still as a picture and every picture as a film still from a movie. However, it is the eye that judges the picture’s quality and decides whether it represents the tone of the movie. This way of watching is helpful when writing about movies where the focus is on a specific girl or girls—or about the “girl” archetype—here derived as a kind of subtopic, not from a typical coming-of-age movie, but from a beautiful movie about humankind in general.

Yann Arthus Bertrand - Human Official Poster (2015)

Yann Arthus-Bertrand – Human Official Poster (2015)

Human by Yann Arthus-Bertrand: Official Trailer on YouTube

Human (Extended version, Vol. 3) on YouTube

The Art of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

I don’t post much on Pigtails anymore, but in light of the fact that we lost author Harper Lee yesterday, I felt compelled to make a post on To Kill a Mockingbird, which has inspired not only the wonderful 1962 film but many artists who’ve interpreted the work visually. Here are some of the best I have encountered.

First, let’s look at just a few of the many lovely book cover designs that have been created over the years since the book’s initial publication. Some of these are actually in use; others are just practice designs done by assorted artists.

Aky-Aky - To Kill a Mockingbird (cover)

Aky-Aky – To Kill a Mockingbird (cover)

Tumblr: Aky-Aky

Kristiina Seppä - To Kill a Mockingbird (cover design)

Kristiina Seppä – To Kill a Mockingbird (cover design)

Kristiina Seppä (official site)

Sarah J. Coleman (Inkymole) - To Kill a Mockingbird (cover)

Sarah J. Coleman (Inkymole) – To Kill a Mockingbird (cover)

Inkymole (official site)

Hugh D’Andrade - To Kill a Mockingbird (front)

Hugh D’Andrade – To Kill a Mockingbird (front)

Hugh D’Andrade - To Kill a Mockingbird (back)

Hugh D’Andrade – To Kill a Mockingbird (back)

Hugh Illustration (official site)

TaraGraphic - To Kill a Mockingbird (cover design)

TaraGraphic – To Kill a Mockingbird (cover design)

DeviantArt: TaraGraphic

And here is an assortment of illustrations inspired by the book and/or the movie:

T.S. Rogers (Teaessare) - To Kill a Mockingbird

T.S. Rogers (Teaessare) – To Kill a Mockingbird

DeviantArt: Teaessare

Jeremy Osborne - Scout Finch on the Porch Swing

Jeremy Osborne – Scout Finch on the Porch Swing

Etsy: Jeremy Osborne

Kelley McMorris - To Kill a Mockingbird

Kelley McMorris – To Kill a Mockingbird

Kelley McMorris Illustration (official site)

Knighthead - Mockingbird

Knighthead – Mockingbird

DeviantArt: Knighthead

And now, some art and photography related to the film, which of course starred Mary Badham as Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch, the book’s narrator. Badham was nine when she was cast as Scout, and though it was her first acting gig, she proved to be a natural, earning an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress at age ten, the youngest person ever to get such a nomination up until that point and for a decade after (she would eventually be supplanted by Tatum O’Neal, who actually won Best Supporting Actress in 1973 for her role in Paper Moon; O’Neal remains the youngest person ever to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, or anything else).

Although not the prettiest child, there is something undeniably charming and compelling about little Mary Badham that renders her absolutely disarming and lovable. Unfortunately, she didn’t do much else as a child actress: a couple of TV guest spots, one on Dr. Kildare playing a victim of child abuse at the hands of her mother, and one in The Twilight Zone episode “The Bewitchin’ Pool” playing a pretty obvious Scout Finch analogue named Sport Sharewood, who escapes (along with her brother) from her bickering, negligent parents into a magical world by means of the titular pool. “The Bewitchin’ Pool” is also notable for being the very last episode of the original Twilight Zone series. After a couple of teen roles in the 1966 films This Property Is Condemned and Let’s Kill Uncle, Badham retired from acting for nearly forty years, only coming out of retirement at the urging of Cameron Watson, who would settle for no one else to play the part of Mrs. Nutbush in his film Our Very Own.

Photographer Unknown - Mary Badham, Harper Lee

Photographer Unknown – Mary Badham, Harper Lee

I particularly love the pensive pose Badham affects in the image on the right.

Photographer Unknown - Mary Badham (publicity stills)

Photographer Unknown – Mary Badham (publicity stills)

You can really see her freckles in this next shot.

Photographer Unknown - Mary Badham (publicity still) (1)

Photographer Unknown – Mary Badham (publicity still) (1)

Badham with her charm on full display.

Photographer Unknown - Mary Badham (publicity still) (2)

Photographer Unknown – Mary Badham (publicity still) (2)

You can just tell that Badham was eating up all of the attention and fame she received as a result of being in the film. It must’ve been like a dream come true for this rather plain girl from Alabama. Interestingly, her brother John Badham, thirteen years her senior, would later become a director famous for such films as Saturday Night Fever, WarGames and Short Circuit, among others.

Photographer Unknown - Mary Badham, Gregory Peck

Photographer Unknown – Mary Badham, Gregory Peck

Leo Fuchs - Mary Badham (1962)

Leo Fuchs – Mary Badham (1962)

Badham obviously had an easygoing and affectionate relationship with the film’s director Robert Mulligan. In later years she would recount a story about on-set shenanigans involving Mulligan, who was apparently a chain smoker and rarely to be seen without a cigarette. It seems that Phillip Alford, who played Scout’s brother Jem, used to secretly dip the tips of Mulligan’s smokes in water so that they wouldn’t light. When Mulligan finally caught on, he set up Alford, Badham and the other main child actor in the film, John Megna (Dill) by arranging for them to be at particular spot where they met with a bucket full of water. These days that’s something that would make it into the DVD/Blu-Ray extras.

Photographer Unknown - Mary Badham, Robert Mulligan on the set of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1)

Photographer Unknown – Mary Badham, Robert Mulligan on the set of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (1)

Photographer Unknown - Mary Badham, Robert Mulligan on the set of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (2)

Photographer Unknown – Mary Badham, Robert Mulligan on the set of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (2)

Here are some posters for the film:

Artist Unknown - To Kill a Mockingbird (film poster) (1)

Artist Unknown – To Kill a Mockingbird (film poster) (1)

Artist Unknown - To Kill a Mockingbird (film poster) (2)

Artist Unknown – To Kill a Mockingbird (film poster) (2)

Artist Unknown - To Kill a Mockingbird (film poster) (3)

Artist Unknown – To Kill a Mockingbird (film poster) (3)

A couple of French posters for the film:

Artist Unknown - Du silence et des ombres (film poster) (1)

Artist Unknown – Du silence et des ombres (film poster) (1)

Artist Unknown - Du silence et des ombres (film poster) (2)

Artist Unknown – Du silence et des ombres (film poster) (2)

A poster for a play production of To Kill a Mockingbird:

Artist Unknown - Phoenix Theater Presents 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (poster)

Artist Unknown – Phoenix Theater Presents ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (poster)

And finally, a few stills from the film itself:

Robert Mulligan - To Kill a Mockingbird (film still) (1)

Robert Mulligan – To Kill a Mockingbird (film still) (1)

Robert Mulligan - To Kill a Mockingbird (film still) (2)

Robert Mulligan – To Kill a Mockingbird (film still) (2)

Robert Mulligan - To Kill a Mockingbird (film still) (3)

Robert Mulligan – To Kill a Mockingbird (film still) (3)

Robert Mulligan - To Kill a Mockingbird (film still) (4)

Robert Mulligan – To Kill a Mockingbird (film still) (4)

Robert Mulligan - To Kill a Mockingbird (film still) (5)

Robert Mulligan – To Kill a Mockingbird (film still) (5)

Robert Mulligan - To Kill a Mockingbird (film still) (6)

Robert Mulligan – To Kill a Mockingbird (film still) (6)

Love Is Expensive: Lamb

* * * Spoiler Alert * * *

There has been some buzz about a film released last year called Lamb (2015). There were two films that year with that title, so this is not the one about the Ethiopian boy! This film covers the challenging subject of the relationship between an 11-year-old girl and a 47-year-old man. Watching it for the first time is suspenseful, because one does not know what to expect. After all, can American cinema tell this kind of story convincingly without resorting to cliché?

The film is based on a novel of the same name by Bonnie Nadzam. This seems a very personal project for Ross Partridge who wrote the screenplay and played the lead, David Lamb. In the beginning, he is staying at a motel having been kicked out of the house by his wife. He is caring for his father who is chair-bound and dies early on in the story. We also learn that he has been having an affair with a woman named Linny, who seems to be crazy about him despite his many faults. His biggest fault is that he is a chronic liar and uses the lies to avoid facing the pain of the real world. Meanwhile, the girl Tommie (Oona Laurence) is shown altering her clothes, making herself more revealing to fit in with her friends.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (1)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (1)

Having just buried his father, David is sitting and smoking at a cemetery across the street from where Tommie and her friends are. On a dare, she comes up to him to ask for a cigarette. He gives her one but, in one of his many paternal impulses, makes her take a puff right there.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (2)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (2)

She coughs from the smoke—symbolic of her virginity—and confesses that her friends put her up to it. He tells her his name is Gary, his first lie. He warns her how dangerous it is to approach a strange man like this alone. He hastily persuades her to pretend he is abducting her to teach her friends a lesson and make them worry what they might have done to her. He puts her in his blazer and drives off.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (3)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (3)

This throws her off, but she plays along. He tells her that, “Even though I’m not a bad guy, I could have been.” He takes her home, but does not meet her parents. Her mother and her boyfriend work long hours and do nothing but sit in front of the television when they are at home, barely acknowledging Tommie’s existence.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (4)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (4)

David is told to take some time off work until things settle down. He returns to the cemetery and finds Tommie there. She explains that her friends didn’t even care that she was gone. Suddenly, David is the only person in her life paying any attention to her. To apologize for his abrupt prank, he offers to take her to lunch. They enjoy each other’s company and, in an awkward moment, Tommie asks if David would like her email. For a moment, David is taken aback and warns her that their spending time together will look strange to other people. Nonetheless, it seems a friendship is budding between these two lonely people.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (5)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (5)

Tommie is shown shaving her legs, indicating she treats this as a serious grown-up relationship.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (6)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (6)

David explains that he was planning a trip to his father’s cabin and that Tommie is welcome to join him. There are many clues that this girl has an unhappy life with no meaningful friendships and he gets the idea of giving her a whirlwind trip of beautiful memories she can look back on—staying in a rustic cabin with mountains, streams and horses. She closes her eyes and tries to imagine it.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (7)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (7)

He wants to assures her that they are partners in this adventure and that she take some time to consider if she really wants to go with him. Any time she wants to quit, he promises to turn around or put her on a plane home. The trip starts out pleasant enough. There is a scene with Tommie sucking on one of those candy rings. When it is in her mouth, it looks like a baby’s pacifier, but on her hand, it is a ring suggestive of a committed relationship.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (8)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (8)

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (9)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (9)

Throughout the trip, David reminds Tommie of the terms of their partnership. She seems to understand the need for a certain amount of deceit to maintain appearances and calls herself Emily when around strangers. Although they share a motel room, David stays outside when she is cleaning up and dressing, going out of his way to show her that he respects her privacy.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (10)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (10)

As the trip progresses, Tommie gets a little homesick; she is getting further and further from home, and yet she does not want to go back. A woman notices her and asks if she can help. David hastily interrupts, telling her that his “daughter” is just car sick.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (11)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (11)

On occasion, David’s parental impulses kick in and the contract between them is broken followed with retorts that he is treating her like a child. The first incident happens when he offers her coffee and she jostles his arm, spilling scalding liquid on her. In a panic, he rushes her to the bathroom so she can wash and cool off in the shower. She screams pitifully for him to leave her alone, but he persists until she hands him her soiled shirt to be cleaned; all the while the shower curtain is placed carefully between them.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (12)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (12)

Finally, they arrive and Tommie has the bunk room for all to herself along with a few gifts that are waiting for her.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (13)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (13)

While playing in the stream, an old man comes up to them. This time David pretends to be the girl’s uncle and “Emily” just needs some time away after her mother’s untimely death.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (14)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (14)

There is another scene of bonding when they dance together before their next run-in with the old man.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (15)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (15)

David asks Tommie to go to the shack—where the refrigerator is—to get him a beer and says she may have a sip. Right when she takes a sip, the old man walks in. Suddenly, David has to cover for this and rushes her away, scolding her in a phony parental rage. The old man seems to accept the explanation.

Tommie complains that she still has not seen any horses. To satisfy her request, the two of them sneak over to a neighbor’s property. Tommie is delighted even though the horses are a bit scraggly.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (16)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (16)

For the most part, David does his best to make the stay as pleasurable as possible. But tension is brought to a head when Linny makes a surprise visit to console him; they used to go to the cabin together and so she knows the way. As the car pulls up, Tommie is whisked away to hide and told that staying hidden will be her greatest challenge so far. David does not seem to be putting any pressure on Linny to leave and after one day, Tommie observes them making love. This sight makes her nauseous and she runs into the field to be sick.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (17)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (17)

She finally decides to force the issue and appears in the room where the two of them are sleeping, startling the woman. David has to rush to explain things—this is the first time Tommie learns his real name. Linny is upset despite his explanation and drives off.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (18)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (18)

Although Tommie’s feelings about David are clear, his feeling for her are not. He seems to be driven by guilt over his own brother’s disappearance at age 12 and that the boy never got to experience the beauty of life. Along the border fence, he pounds in a commemorative post telling Tommie that this is meant to symbolize his special love for her and that she should remember it as her post. He tells her that he is going to will the cabin to her so that when he is gone, she can go there and make it her own—remembering this special week together.

David reminds Tommie that once the week has passed, he will return her home and she will pretend that she simply ran away. She does not want to go back. After her shower one night, she finds David very distraught at the idea that Tommie might one day look back at their time together with contempt. She assures him that that would never happen.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (19)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (19)

Finally, they arrive in town and, despite their agreement, Tommie does not want to leave. Upset, she explains that maybe they can make people understand their love. David tells her, “Love like ours is expensive.” In order to protect it, they must pay the price of not seeing each other. He made a few vague reference to the possibility of future meetings—that she would know he was there by some secret signal.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (20)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (20)

They embrace one last time and Tommie gets out of the car. As he pulls away, she calls for him to wait and begins running after him as he drives away.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (21)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (21)

David may not have misused Tommie in the conventional sense, but he did use her to exorcise his own demons about his poor brother’s abrupt life. He only saw Tommie as a kind of messenger of the dead and, through her, tried to create the kind of beautiful experience his brother deserved. In the mean time, he allowed a girl to fall deeply in love with him—an illusion that must someday end. Are we to believe he really intended to will the cabin to her? Was his declaration of love mere words or just another lie? David really did have reason to fear that Tommie would one day hate him, because in allowing her the fantasy of love, he also created the inevitable reality of heartbreak.

I admit my interpretation may be incorrect because the motivations of the characters are not completely clear. David has an almost compulsive propensity for well-intentioned deceit—in maintaining appearances and in protecting others and himself. I have decided to read the novel to get a better feel for things and perhaps learn what so compelled Partridge to produce this film.

[160213] After reading the novel (Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam), I wanted to add some supplementary comments.

Unfortunately, very few ambiguities were cleared up and the author seemed to want it that way. The author also made a point of naming names, describing the brand names of stores and products in the story, making us keenly aware of corporate dominance in society. Nadzam may have been making a political statement about how corporate culture impoverishes us while the wilds of nature ennoble and strengthen us.

Over all, Lamb seems to be conflicted about his attraction to Tommie and his sense of propriety and paternal impulses kick in and confound things. His low self-esteem seems to foul things up and cannot really understand why the women in his life are attracted to him—his wife Cathy, girlfriend Linnie and Tommie. He is always weaving these tales about how they will one day meet the men they really deserve and leave him.

Many times the author uses ambiguity to create tension in the story. One of the more abrupt and amusing examples is when Tommie is talking about her grandmother—who never even wore pants—and used to make her grilled cheese sandwiches. Lamb said someday the two of them would do that. The timing of their statements is startling at first, but we are supposed to understand that he was really talking about them making grilled cheese sandwiches together and the comment about the pants really meant that granny was old-fashioned and always wore dresses.

In the film, a point is made about giving Tommie her space and she has the bunk room all to herself—not so in the novel. Lamb sleeps on the bottom bunk and later, when Tommie has a fever, they sleep together under layers of blankets together.

In the novel, the age difference is even greater. Lamb is 54, but that detail was simply changed to match the age of Ross Partridge who played the lead.

In the film, Linnie just shows up at the cabin one day. That event also happened in the novel, but it is more clear that he made a point of inviting her, telling her he would fly her out. In part, it showed he did not understand the nature of his feelings for Tommie and may be projecting them onto Linnie. He thought he knew Linnie and that she would never have taken him up on it.

Another point of tension was whether things were make-believe or real in their conversations. Lamb got nervous when he learned that Tommie regarded the trip as “running away”, as though she never expected to return.

The incident with the coffee was much more intimate than in the film. The motivation to get Tommie into the shower was to cool off the burns from the scalding hot coffee and only incidentally to clean her top. In the novel, it was cold coffee—a cup Tommie hadn’t finished—and his concern was that she not sleep in wet clothes and sheets. The night before, Tommie slept in her clothes but this night, Lamb realized he should have bought her some pajamas. Since it was not proper for a lady to sleep in her clothes, he waited outside, counting down, instructing her to clean up, strip to her underwear, fold her clothes neatly behind the chair and get under the covers. When the coffee spilled, he picked her almost naked body out of bed to take her to the bathtub and, in a panic, shut off the lights to assure her that he could not see anything. But she protested that he could feel her. She was uncooperative and sobbing the whole time so he had to wash her himself in the dark, applying soap all over her body and then rinsing her off. In the fuss, she gave him a black eye and there was some bleeding when she bumped her chin in the tub. Only later did he admit to having seen her naked that night.

There was some confusion as to why the old man (Foster) would have been found lurking around and appearing suddenly in the shack. It turns out he and his brother-in-law had built it so he had some sense of ownership of the place and it was a workshop—a somewhat public building. This created a tension that Tommie and Lamb were being observed and every morning Lamb would look for signs that Foster had been there during the night. There were none but the smallest thing would spark his paranoia.

Another change in the film was the way Linnie’s visit ended. In the film, Tommie forces the issue by just presenting herself in plain sight of Linnie. Not accepting Lamb’s explanation, she drives off in a huff. In the novel, Tommie is accidentally discovered by Foster’s son who came over to borrow the snow plow. Both Linnie and Tommie are stunned by the turn of events and stay quiet while Lamb convinces the younger Foster that everything is just fine. He then explains the girl’s presence to Linnie and that he is about to take the girl home to her mother before returning to Chicago himself. She seems to accept this and all depart the same day. The entire trip took 20 days rather than 7–9 it was supposed to be.

A lot is still unresolved. Was Lamb ever suicidal? Or was he a calculating deceiver? Would they ever see each other again? My impression from the film is that he wanted to make a clean break, but in the novel, it seems he did really have feelings for the girl, even if he could not quite admit it to himself. Given his sense of propriety, he wanted to wait until she was older but by that time, she would be a different person.

The Devil You Know: The Sugarbowl

Pip wanted to do a piece comparing two short films illustrating different ways children cope with abuse. The first is De Suikerpot (The Sugarbowl, 1997), written and directed by Hilde van Mieghem and the other, a Russian film, will be covered in a future post.

Watching this film, it is clear that van Mieghem (b. 1958) knows her subject matter personally. The film is a blend of a true-to-life account interlaced with artful symbolism resulting in a grim little jewel.

In the beginning of the film, we find little Kristien (Aline Cornelissen) humming while making the morning coffee. One of our first clues to the dynamic about to play out is when she decides whether or not to take a sugar cube for herself and decides, “No, because I am a good girl.” Besides the recurring motif of the good girl, we begin to understand the sugar as symbolic of the girl’s tactic in keeping peace in the household.

The first sign of apprehension is that we hear the dog, Woelfie, in the background barking. Kristien goes out to tell him to stop or he’ll wake up mommy. She goes into the refrigerator to find a leftover steak to shut him up.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (1)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (1)

In the casting process, over 300 girls were auditioned with ten finalists for the director to meet personally. Cornelissen was the first and seemed to understand what van Mieghem wanted exactly. We see our first glimpse of this little actress’ skill when she first enters the bedroom. We can see that there is some kind of tension as she does not have the kind of cheerful expression one would expect.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (2)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (2)

First, we see she has a loving and playful relationship with her father (Dirk Roofthooft) as they horse around a bit before mommy (played by van Mieghem herself) wakes up. The moment she wakes up, she has an accusatory tone. The two go into the kitchen to see that Kristien has made the coffee and there is a moment of joy.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (3)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (3)

She has also made a drawing of “Queen Mommy”. The family have a peculiar custom of calling each other by royal titles: King Daddy, Queen Mommy, Princess, Lady, Your Majesty, etc. However, mommy’s level of control is that of an omniscient. She tells Kristien that she has a pair of special glasses so she can see what she is up to at all times.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (4)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (4)

Suddenly, there is a cut to the boiling kettle and inexplicably mommy explodes, hitting Kristien. Van Mieghem used her own sister as a body double so that the little actress would not be receiving any blows, even make-believe. This time, daddy manages to intervene, sending Kristien to her room.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (5)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (5)

This is a surprising detail since often a man in this kind of relationship is a rather helpless figure. Mommy cries that she cannot take any more of this miserable rat of a child and that Kristien must go. Next, the film cuts to her arrival at a parochial boarding school.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (6)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (6)

It is explained that she will sleep there and Kristien protests that she wants to stay at mommy’s house.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (7)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (7)

This may seem strange since this would be an opportunity for her to escape her abuser, but these relationships are more complex than most people realize. Young children unconsciously assume that all families are pretty much the same until they get older and observe the differences. To Kristien, all women probably have this violent side and men are kind, sometimes playing the knight in shining armor. With mommy at least, there is the idea that she will be loved so long as she can manage to be good—an ethos reinforced by a parallel religious doctrine. And Kristien has a better hope of manipulating someone she is familiar with, not so with the Sisters at the school. When mommy goes in to work out the arrangements, Kristien runs away.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (8)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (8)

Mommy is frantic and disconsolate while looking for her little girl. Kristien comes upon a kind woman (Els Dottermans) and is given a ride home.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (9)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (9)

The woman offers to walk Kristien to the door and is told that mommy will be mad that she was with a stranger and will hit her. Assuring her that she would keep that from happening, Kristien panics and punches the woman in the belly, telling her she cannot always be there to protect her, and runs off.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (10)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (10)

Van Mieghem admits she is a control freak and as such, she stuck strictly to the storyboards, perhaps missing opportunities to make improvements. For example, she did not notice that Dottermans was actually pregnant and could have made much more of it in the story. If this had been more clear in the film, the punch would have made a potent symbol, a way of telling the fetus of the harsh world it will face. In her full-length films to follow, van Mieghem has learned to take advantage of such serendipitous opportunities during shooting.

Kristien does not walk into the house right away but hides until daddy comes home. Then she enters and mommy is overjoyed, lavishing her with affection and promising her special treats.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (11)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (11)

Mommy promises not to send Kristien away any more and daddy goes out to get the promised treats. She begs daddy not to go and he tries to reassure her that he will only be a short while. Meanwhile, mommy has a brainstorm; she will heat up that leftover steak in the refrigerator. I believe this scenario is meant to convey the idea that no matter how much you try to control a situation, the smallest detail will always foil your efforts. Kristien, realizing the danger, tries to cover up the fact that she gave it to Woelfie and tries to surreptitiously dispose of the remains, but she is caught. And the violence begins all over again with daddy unavailable to protect her.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (12)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (12)

In the end credits, Kristien is singing the same song we heard in the beginning, but this time we can hear the lyrics:

There’s a fire deep down in me
And that fire is you
I can’t live an hour without you
‘Cause I love you so

In a video interview, van Mieghem says this story is absolutely autobiographical. But an alert viewer will not need to be told this, given the expert execution of this story. She was abused like this and wanted to tell the story in a way that would make an impact on the audience. In her youth, she was a consummate actress, but was too young to pursue her dreams as a director. At 33, she finally attended the LUCA School of Arts in Sint-Lucas to learn this craft. Shot in five days, De Suikerpot was her debut and her only short film, but also the one with the greatest social impact. Her next film, De Kus (The Kiss, 2004), featured her own daughter, Marie Vinck. At first, she wanted complete control of the production process, but the demands of full-length films are formidable, so she has contented herself with just directing.

I would like to thank Dimitri for translating the video interview of Hilde van Mieghem presented by Filmfestival Oostende.