“Les Déferlantes”, or “The Breakers”: all at sea

Also know in English translation as “The Breakers”, this is my review of  “Les Déferlantes” by Claudie Gallay

This is a slow-burning tale, partly the gradual revelation of a guilty secret, partly a psychological study of how members of a remote and close-knit community deal with grief and loss.

Haunted by memories of her dead partner, the narrator, whose name we never learn apart from the nickname of “La Ténébreuse” (translated as Blue!), makes the questionable decision to take a two year sabbatical (is such a luxury available in France?) from her job as biology lecturer in Avignon in order to monitor birdlife on the rocky Normandy coast of La Hague, west of Cherbourg. She finds herself tolerated but inevitably an outsider, observing the life of an isolated, inward-looking community in which almost everyone seems to be damaged in some way, sad or a little mad.

So we are introduced to her housemates, the blowsily beautiful waitress Morgane, inseparable from her pet rat, filled with Walter Mitty dreams of escape and her brother, the driven artist Raphaël, who bars the door when at work on the tortured figures of his sculptures. Then there are Morgane’s infatuated admirers, the autistic Max, obsessed with words, and the dapper Monsieur Anselme with his pet tortoises all named Chélone after the young women who refused to attend the marriage of Jupiter and Juno, another hint at the possible incest between Morgane and Raphaël. The deranged elderly Nan haunts the shore, apparently driven insane by memories of seeing her family drowned when their boat capsizes.

Perhaps the most “normal” figure is the overworked manageress of the local inn, who has to care for her senile mother. Why are the two women so estranged from Lili’s father Theo, the former lighthouse keeper, with whom the narrator forms a bond because of their common love of the birds?

Into this odd world comes Lambert, who left the village four decades earlier following the tragic loss at sea during a storm of his parents and infant brother Paul. Convinced that this was not an accident, he is intent on worming out the truth.

La Hague home territory of the celebrated writer Prévert, whom the author seems to honour through imitation in her deceptively simple yet poetic style. She employs this very effectively to create a strong sense of place: the changing colours, light and moods of the sea merging with the wide sky; the nesting birds wheeling round the rocky cliffs, and the continuous hypnotic presence of the “déferlantes”, the breaking waves.

Individuals are closely observed – one feels that the author has become a little obsessed with them, the characters in a soap opera she has conceived with a potentially endless flow of small scenes of their everyday life, punctuated with local legends. So, for instance, a chapter focus at random on the hare-lipped, fancifully named child La Cigogne playing with a present of a packet of crayons, drawing along a wall a line which is described in minute detail, like the thread of a spider’s web. The scene then moves abruptly to the heart-shaped leaves of the plant no one can name which secretes a thin layer of poison, so that the decaying bodies of unsuspecting flies, bees and butterflies pile up to nourish the soil in which they grow. This is a slightly weird novel which will engross some readers and bore others to death if it does not repel them first.

Although, at over five hundred pages, this seems at least a third too long, and I think it would have had more dramatic power if more ruthlessly edited, it is a distinctive, original and memorable novel which combines a potentially gripping mystery with skilfully captured observation of nature and human behaviour and some beautiful passages.

“Land of Mine” – more than a mere tale of thud and blunder.

This is my review of “Land of Mine”.

In the aftermath of World War 2, the Danes thought it just punishment for prisoners of war to be deployed defusing the thousands of mines buried in the coastal sand dunes by Germans to ward off any Allied invasion.

Initially, the embittered army Sergeant Rasmussen charged with supervising the POWs takes a sadistic pleasure in subjecting them to his capricious brutality. There is poignancy in the fact that the POWs are teenagers, virtually children drafted in at the end of the war to boost German numbers. These are clearly scapegoats: barely understanding what they have been fighting for, they can in no way be held responsible for the sins of the Third Reich.

Based on a true story, which suggests that it could have made a gripping documentary, the film is distinctive in creating an at times unbearable sense of tension, despite and in fact probably increased by the slow pace and agonising detail as we watch, time after time, the painstaking process of loosening and removing a large screw in the middle of the flat cylinder of the crude yet lethal object that is a mine. It is hard to imagine that this could explode at any moment with a shocking suddenness, and easy to see how, performing the same monotonous activity for hours on end, a young boy could lose concentration for a moment, his hand might shake, he might fail to hear a warning, with fatal consequences. Some people will find this film unwatchable, and I felt voyeuristic at times watching it and wondering who was about to be blown to smithereens.

It seemed to me that personal dramas (a twin who can no longer bear to live after his brother has been blown up, the crisis when a little girl who lives oddly close to the minefield strays onto it with her doll) had been inserted to “pad the film out” and create a framework for the tension that is at the heart of this, but these may have been based on research.

My only criticism of a visually striking and well-acted drama, is that I found it hard to distinguish the boys from each other at the outset, and understand some of the relationships between them which would have helped me to engage with them more fully.

Although we should not need to watch such films to sense the horror of war, “Land of Mine” made me aware of a piece of Danish history I had not appreciated, and of a moral dilemma in the aftermath of war which I had not considered. Perhaps more effort should have been made to identify leading Nazi prisoners to make reparations by defusing these mines.

“The Return of the Soldier”: The truth’s the truth

This is my review of   “The Return of the Soldier”   by Rebecca West.

First published in 1918, this novella is narrated by Jenny whose cousin and childhood playmate Chris is fighting in the trenches of WW1. Even if fully aware of the sexual nature of her love for him, she accepts that it will never be returned as she spends her days living in the family home with Chris’s beautiful but apparently shallow and materialistic wife Kitty. This may also be an assessment distorted by unconscious jealousy. Kitty has spent a fortune refurbishing the house and garden along tasteful modern lines, perhaps at least in part as a distraction from her husband’s absence and the recent tragic death of their three-year-old son.

The two women are appalled to learn not only that Chris has been invalided out of active service with amnesia, but that he remembers nothing of the last fifteen years of his adult life, including his marriage, being fixated instead on a youthful love affair with Margaret Allington, of whose existence both Kitty and Jenny are totally unaware. When Margaret proves to be a frumpy married women, with no dress sense and “horrible” hands seamed and reddened with housework, the two products of a genteel, snobbish Edwardian world imagine that it will not be difficult to wean Chris away from her. The more perceptive and empathic Jenny soon realises that it may have been Margaret’s inner, mental qualities which so attracted Chris.

Beneath the ensuing envy and resentment lies the essential dilemma. Is it better to humour Chris, and let him live happily in a false situation, free from adult responsibility, or must a way be found to “cure him”, which means bringing him to face the truth, with all which that entails.

The celebrated feminist novelist and journalist Rebecca West was neither deluding herself, nor being unduly immodest, in describing this her first novel, written in her early twenties as “rather good”. Well-written and skilfully constructed, down to the ambiguous title, it has a strong sense of place and unflinching dissection of human nature, particularly of women. A C21 reader may find it dated, and feel uneasy about the snobbery which may at times be unconscious on the author’s part, although her family knew financial hardship so she understood what it was like to be poor.

However, it is gives an interesting insight with an authentic ring as to how people thought a hundred years ago, and the different social constraints of the day imposed on them. Some of the descriptions of the area round Monkey Island near Bray on the Thames are very vivid and evocative of an area before it was engulfed by urban sprawl, and the pollution from mass car ownership and Heathrow Airport.

This is the kind of book one reads quickly to see what happens, then again more slowly to appreciate the quality of the descriptions, and the deeper layers of the story, such as the author’s anger over the futile damage caused by war and the complacency of those who expect others to fight it.

“The Wife” – Behind every great man…..

This is my review of  “The Wife”    starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Price

When Joe Castleman receives the early morning call to confirm his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, his supportive wife Joan seems as delighted as he is. It is soon apparent that he is something of a monster: vain, selfish, inconsiderate and unable to resist the flattering admiration of attractive younger women. Yet, such is her admiration for his talent, Joan seems prepared to tolerate all his shortcomings and devote herself to meeting his needs, even when her loyalties are strained by Joe’s conspicuous of interest in their son David’s efforts as a writer. Could it be that Joe would feel threatened if his son’s talents in the same field were recognised?

When Joe’s aptly named would-be biographer Nathaniel Bone comes searching for cracks in the great man’s perfect marriage, even daring to suggest that perhaps it is not so idyllic, given that Joan long ago sacrificed her own writing ambitions, despite being considered very promising, she sends him packing, adamant that she is fulfilled in her role. Nathaniel is astute in his sense that Joan’s self-effacing dedication is over-intense, and he is doggedly persistent in getting at the truth to feed his own ruthless ambition as a writer.

In a series of flashbacks, which sometimes seem too fragmented, we see the early stages of Joan and Joe’s relationship, as the film gradually works up to the climax in which the truth is revealed. In this well-acted film, which provides a presumably accurate portrayal of the rather grandiose annual ceremony in a wintry Stockholm, I was caught up in the plot and it was not until afterwards that I began to question its plausibility. Overall, this is a poignant study of marital relationships formed a generation ago, of self-delusion and the price of ambition.

Emmanuel Macron – un jeune homme si parfait

This is my review of Emmanuel Macron: un jeune homme si parfait by Anna Fulda.

A biography of Emmanuel Macron seems a little premature, unless it is set in the context of how he managed to overturn the political apple-cart by founding a new party, En Marche! and leading it to victory with an absolute majority in the National Assembly, in little more than a year.

Anne Fulda’s at times gushing journalese froths anecdote and subjective comment with a sprinkle of gossip into a short biography, the solid content of which could be contained in a colour supplement feature. This is a work with no index, and sources limited to foot notes which generally amount to “Entretien avec l’auteur” plus date of interview. The chapters themed according to family relationships, education, Macron’s much-discussed charm, his courting of useful contacts, etcetera, provide a somewhat fragmented, disjointed account of events, with frequent repetition, suggesting a hasty production of the book without much editing, perhaps with the aim of hitting the bookshops before competitors.

Anne Fulda devotes most space to providing explanations for Macron’s remarkable confidence and self-belief. As a child, he clearly had an unusual level of maturity which made him responsive to adults keen to foster his evident intelligence. It was not just a case of father teaching him Greek and philosophy at home, in a house filled with books, for Macron was very close to his formidable grandmother, who set great store by learning, perhaps because of her own uneducated parents. Not only was she an exacting teacher, setting him high standards from an early age, but she clearly adored him to the extent of sidelining his own mother, believing he had “special talents”.

The pattern of seeking the company of admiring older people who could advance his progress continued, first in Macron’s liaison with Brigitte Trogneux, the drama teacher twenty-four years his senior who became his constant companion and eventually his wife, and later with his intense but often brief dealings with a succession of “movers and shakers” – philosophers, bankers and financiers, media people, even image makers like Mimi Marchand, “la Mata Hari des paparazzi” with her photo agency “Bestimage” to promote news of “des beautiful people” – thus is the French language betrayed. This incongruous mixture would of course enable Macron to achieve the goal of becoming president, which he appears to have considered as a realistic aim from an early age.

The author is less effective at dealing with “the tough stuff”: she mentions Macron’s employment by the philosopher Ricœur, but makes no serious attempts to analyse either the main aspects of his mentor’s political thought, or the extent to which Macron has been influenced by this or sought to put it into practice. Similarly, there is an irritating tendency to lapse into name-dropping indigestible lists of the influential people with whom Macron has “networked”. These are leavened with distracting asides and snippets of gossip. Not being French, in order to make sense of all this, I felt the need to look some of them up on line, to gain basic information which should have been included in the book.
I was struck by the discordant shift from what seemed like fulsome, largely unquestioning adulation in earlier chapters, to quite a cynical portrayal of an arch-manipulator who “seduces” people for what he can get out of them. He tells audiences that he loves them, but in fact he is loving himself through them. Like a rock star or a tele-evangelist, he explicitly “speaks of love” in political rallies, because he is tapping “the emotional, irrational aspect which people need”.
The author describes at the end how his expression has changed from what she calls a kind of false, puerile candour into a harder, steely gaze revealing an unexpected determination, sometimes lit from within by “une lueur d’exaltation”. She dubs him a political “ovni” (UFO), “un étrange héros des temps modernes” who has consistently shown an obsession with not being “boxed in”. He has made himself into a “communication tool” which seems to be in perpetual evolution: apart from a consistent determination to get what he wants, in continually changing his identity from would-be actor/writer, to philosopher to banker to minister to President, he appears “toujours en quête, par insatisfaction ou crainte d’être enchaîné, de ne plus pouvoir vivre la vie qu’il a rêvée”. Is this an accurate assessment of what lies beneath the carefully constructed façade? Does it mean that, assuming he is re-elected, Macron may be not be “in for the long haul” as president because he will switch his mighty ambition to something else?

Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski

This is my review of  Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski

In an impoverished rural Poland in the aftermath of World War Two which left the country under Communist control, talented pianist  and composer Wiktor tours the countryside with producer Irena to collect authentic folk music sung by ragged, toothless men playing crude string instruments.  This is to be arranged for performance  by troops of beautiful  blonde girls in pristine traditional dress as part of a patriotic drive to raise morale and a sense of common identity. When a Party boss insists on inclusion of songs in praise of Stalin, Wiktor has to bite his tongue. “I was dubious about this music-stuff, but there’s something in it”,  their philistine wheeler-dealer manager Kaczmarek concedes at one point, as the troupe’s popularity grows, and invitations to perform extend to trips abroad.

Wiktor is soon drawn to Zula, a pretty blonde teenager, confident, versatile singer and dancer,  whom it is hard to believe is “on probation” for knifing her father. According to her, this was to put an end to his sexual abuse. The couple’s passionate physical relationship is clouded  by Zula’s casual admission that she is informing on Wiktor at the behest of Kaczmarek, who has a hold on her because of her past.  When the troupe visits Berlin, and the professionally  unfulfilled and frustrated Wiktor makes a plan to defect to the West, will Zula follow him?

There follows a protracted drama in which the two main characters seem unable to live without each other, yet fail  to co-exist in harmony together.  I struggled to grasp exactly why this is the case, or what we are supposed to make of their relationship. They are not necessarily incompatible just because Wiktor comes from an educated, “bourgeois” background, whereas  the more working class Zula succeeds artistically through “gut feeling”, and may feel lost away from the familiar restrictions of Poland in the  freedom of Parisian café culture where the soulful Juliet Greco-style songs which she is well able to perform solo may seem more unsettling than the safe, controlled, traditional  group folk-singing to which she is more accustomed.

Zula appears capricious and unstable, perhaps understandably because of her troubled past. Although he is perhaps too self-absorbed to appreciate her needs, Wiktor’s  patience and forgiveness seem tried beyond belief, until he too seems to suffer a mental breakdown, maybe a kind of “mid-life crisis” by which point I did not care too much what happened to the pair as the film reaches an ambiguous conclusion.

Pavel Pawlikowski dedicated this work to his parents, who apparently had a stormy relationship, but it is unclear to what extent they serve as models for this drama. The choice of black-and-white film adds to its striking visual impact providing a vivid evocation of life in 1940s Poland and 1950s Paris: the recurring face of a Madonna painted on the wall of a ruined church, the nose smashed in some bombardment; the uninhibited vitality of a drunken Zula, jiving to “Rock around the Clock” in a Parisian jazz café, a world away from the precision of her Polish group folk dances.

I understand why this film has attracted such plaudits, but for me there was an emotional vacuum at its core, in the “cold war” between the lovers.


Apostasy: blood ties

This is my review of the film Apostasy.

Written and directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s witness brought up in what can only be described as a cult following his mother’s conversion, this film has a chilling authenticity, although I am unable to judge the extent to which it may present a distorted picture. Single mother Ivanna devotes her life to keeping her daughters Luisa and Alex “on the straight and narrow” and spreading the word to the wider community. I think there is a hint at one point that her husband has gone away after falling short as a Witness.

Earnest and thoughtful, if somewhat immature for her eighteen years, Alex feels guilt and shame that her acute anaemia required her to have a blood transfusion at birth. Believing that blood contains the human soul and therefore cannot be contaminated by that of another person, she tries to muster the courage, having technically reached adulthood, to reject a transfusion in the future should it be become a matter of life and death. By contrast, the more out-going and questioning Luisa has a boyfriend from outside the Jehovah Witness community, with tragic consequences.

“Apostasy” is likely to resonate strongly with lapsed Jehovah’s Witnesses, but even an atheist can become engaged and outraged by the heavy-handed paternalism of the Elders, with the reframing of ideas and twisting of arguments to justify their beliefs and explain away predictions which fail to come to pass, like the end of the world in a particular year. Most shocking is the crude system of social control : the “disfellowship” and “shunning” of those who refuse to conform, the bullying and lack of compassion for those judged in need of meetings to guide them back into the fold.

A gripping experience, this film leaves one feeling a little depressed, but more understanding of those who have found it impossible to “walk away” from the social pressure to continue to belong to a group, and their inability to break away from what looks to the external observer like conditioning, even brainwashing,. One may feel anger at Ivanna’s stubborn intransigence as she encourages Alex to turn the pages of a mawkish book featuring children who have died for their faith by refusing treatment. At the same time, there are occasional twinges of pity for Ivanna when she reveals the pain of having to suppress the innate maternal instinct to preserve one child’s life at any cost, or to forgive the boundary-breaking and mistakes of adolescence.

Some may criticise the film for painting such a joyless picture of a life centred on the unlovely Kingdom Hall next to what looks like a stark ring road. I was surprised by the incongruous visits to a nail bar which supplied a rare bit of colour, and how did Luisa afford to run her car?

It is interesting, although annoying for Daniel Kokotajlo, that this film came out about the same time as Ian McEwan’s “The Children Act” on a similar theme, although the two complement each other in their different approaches, and I think that “Apostasy” is more focused, realistic and ultimately moving.