Two Days, One Night: intro by Dr Jamie Steele, Mon 1st Dec 6.00pm

Our next Screen Talks event will be on Monday 1st December, 6.00pm at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Jamie Steele, Lecturer in  European Cinema, Dept of English and Film Studies at the University of Exeter) will introduce Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, 2014).

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Jamie has written a guest-blog post for us on the film:


In 2005, the Dardenne brothers became part of a select group of only seven filmmakers to have won the Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or on more than one occasion. They have received the prestigious award on two occasions – the first for Rosetta in 1999 and the second for L’enfant/ The Child. The Dardenne brothers were the first – and to date the only – Belgian filmmakers to win the top prize at Cannes. However, their first Palm d’Or success was seen as controversial. The 1999 Cannes film festival was described as the worst festival ever after two films that were produced on low budgets with non-professional actors – Rosetta by the Dardenne brothers and L’humanité/ Humanity (Dumont, 1999) – dominated the awards. The Dardenne brothers have since become the most internationally recognized Belgian filmmakers – Chantal Akerman and Jaco von Dormael aside. In 2007 – to mark the 60th anniversary of the Cannes film festival – the Dardenne brothers were invited to contribute to the omnibus film Chacun son Cinéma/ To Each his own cinema (2007). The Cannes film festival has certainly provided a platform for the francophone Belgian filmmakers to develop an international reputation amongst cinephile audiences.


The Dardenne brothers have formed a substantial part of my research interests – and their films were very much an entry point for me in terms of discovering films produced in the francophone Belgian region of Wallonia. I vividly remember my first viewing of Rosetta in 2001 – a film that showed a young woman who desperately fights for employment as she treks between a caravan park and the grey and bleak streets of Seraing’s town centre. After the film’s release, the Belgian parliament voted in a law – widely known as the ‘Rosetta Plan’ – that was designed to combat social exclusion and to improve youth employment rights in the most deprived and depressed Belgian towns.


Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne were born in small towns (Engis and Awirs) in the Liege province, and grew up in the town of Seraing. The brothers also went and studied at higher education level in Louvain – Jean-Pierre studied art dramatique at IAD (Institut des arts dramatiques) and Luc completed a degree in Philosophy at UCL (Université catholique de Louvain). Whilst on a placement working for the French playwright Armand Gatti from the IAD, Jean-Pierre began to work and experiment with video. With his brother Luc, the Dardennes founded their own production company, Derives, to produce their six video documentaries, one short film, and two feature films between 1978 and 1992.

The town of Seraing has been ever present in their films from the video documentaries of the 1970s through to Deux jours, une nuit (2014) – with the exception of Le silence de Lorna (set in the neighbouring city, Liège). Seraing is a small industrial town, situated within the province of Liège, which was formerly dominated by factories, mines, and the industrial traffic that travelled along the river (La Meuse). The early video documentaries broadly dealt with the workers’ memories of collective struggles and protests against the closing down of the factories in Seraing – in particular the closure of the Cockerill plant – and the subsequent loss of employment in the area. Social issues have been subsequently foregrounded in the Dardenne brothers’ second phase of filmmaking (post-1996) – particularly themes of marginalization, social exclusion, social fracture, sentiments of abandonment, and a loss of a ‘regional’ working class identity.

Articles and reviews produced by The Guardian, Cahiers du Cinéma, and Positif on Deux Jours, Une Nuit all draw comparisons with the aforementioned Rosetta. There are particular similarities – certainly the theme of (un-)employment and the focus on a central female protagonist who is fighting for her job. However, Luc Dardenne notes a key difference between the two characters through his analysis of Rosetta, by stating that she is ‘a good little soldier of capitalism’ (L. Dardenne, in Stevens, 2014). Rosetta is implicated in a struggle for employment and a sense of belonging in – what the Dardenne brothers call in their journal – ‘the fortress of society’. She understands the notion of high levels of competition between young people in the region for jobs in a neoliberal economy. The society has become increasingly atomized and fragmented – once Rosetta loses her job, she is immediately replaced. The individual is isolated and s/he is fighting against her/ his peers for limited opportunities. As the Dardenne brothers note in their journal, Rosetta is ‘un soldat en guerre’ [a soldier in action]. She is clearly willing to fight and compete, whereas Marion Cotillard’s character of Sandra – in Deux Jours, Une Nuit – has a more sombre and uncertain attitude towards competition. For Sandra, her mission is to foster a sense of understanding and support from her colleagues. She is attempting to re-create a sense of collective and solidarity amongst the workers – in support of her and one another.

two days one night

It is also important to acknowledge that these two films are produced fifteen years apart, and the socio-political context has changed. In the late 1990s, Rosetta is discussed – in academic scholarship – as part of so-called French New Realism. The comparison of their films at this time to French New Realism is particularly apposite, given that there are similarities in the social-political issues that are explored on screen and the film style that the Dardenne brothers use. In an interview in Sight and Sound (Stevens, 2014), the two filmmakers cite influences from real events that took place in France in the 1990s in which workers were asked to vote to keep their bonuses. That said, the filmmakers widely note that the idea resurfaced after 2008 and the economic crisis in the USA and Europe. In essence, we are witnessing a film that is dealing with a social crisis in a contemporary context of economic crisis with high levels of unemployment in a micro-geographical area – that of Seraing.

In his journal, Luc Dardenne sets out the filmmakers’ own style after the critical failure of their second feature film Je pense à vous/ You’re always on my mind (1992). This proves to be a significant turning point in the filmmakers’ career. The film style begins with La promesse/ The Promise (1996) and persists through to this year’s film, Deux Jours, Une Nuit (2014). In this period, the filmmakers have released a film every three years – Rosetta (1999), Le fils/ The Son (2002), L’enfant/ The Child (2005), Le silence de Lorna/ Lorna’s Silence (2008), Le gamin au vélo/ The Kid with a Bike (2011). The Dardenne brothers’ film style includes the use of handheld camera, filming ‘close-up’, the camera following the movements of the body, the use of non-professional or unknown actors, no use of non-diegetic music, and the films are produced on a low budget.

We can tease out some of the continuities in their film style in Deux Jours, Une Nuit – particularly in terms of the camerawork and editing. For example, the Dardenne brothers’ handheld camera focuses on the corporeal movements of the central protagonists, tracing their paths through Seraing. Deux Jours, Une Nuit is characterized by the use of long takes and repetitions of movement and dialogue. We can begin to think about the film as constructed – in part – of a series of long takes that follow Sandra in real time as she asks her colleagues for a sense of understanding and solidarity. The long takes encourage the spectator to observe the interaction between Sandra and her colleagues in each exchange. Each long take draws attention to the subtle nuances of the body’s movement in the space. At the same time, the camera is not static, but instead moves in a corporeal manner and is in perpetual motion. The mechanism moves behind the body on screen – at times – as if there are strings attached between the camera and the central protagonist.


There are, however, deviations from this style – particularly in Le gamin au vélo – in which the Dardenne brothers use non-diegetic music and cast the well-known Namurois actress Cécile de France. We once again see a deviation from this imposed restriction on their films with the decision to cast the even better known and internationally recognised French star Marion Cotillard as Sandra. The Dardenne brothers met the French star when they were producers on the French film De rouille et d’os/ Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, 2012) in which Cotillard plays Stéphanie – a killer whale trainer who loses her legs after a horrible accident. The filmmakers considered many roles for the French star – including casting her as a doctor working in Seraing’s suburbs – before writing the role of Sandra, a young worker in a solar panel factory who was on leave from her job due to depression.

Each film’s budget has also increased alongside the Dardenne brothers’ reputation over the past two decades. Luc Dardenne’s ‘low budget’ idea is certainly the case for their first feature film post-1996, as La promesse cost only 1.6 million Euros (the equivalent in Belgian francs at the time). Deux Jours, Une Nuit has the largest budget for the Dardenne brothers to date at 6.9 million Euros. The filmmakers once made the ludic remark that a filmmaker could not produce a film in Belgium without pooling finance together in the form of co-productions. These filmmakers have created all of their films post-1996 through agreements with France – and Deux Jours, Une Nuit is no exception. The breakdown of co-production finance is balanced between Belgium (46%) and France (44%) in this film to such an extent that the categorization of the film’s ‘nationality’ has been reported differently across several publications. In particular, Cahiers du Cinéma classify the film as ‘France, 2014’ and Positif as ‘Belgium, 2014’. That said, academic scholarship on the Dardenne brothers has previously considered the work of the Dardenne brothers in the context of French cinema – particularly if we think about the filmmakers’ inclusion in O’Shaughnessy’s (2007) The New face of Political Cinema: Commitment in French Film since 1995 and Austin’s (2008) Contemporary French Cinema.

Deux Jours, Une Nuit wonderfully captures the plight of a young woman, worker, and mother who is caught in a precarious situation. With the limited time frame of only one weekend, she is encouraged to “resist” – the verb Luc Dardenne uses to open his journal – by persuading her colleagues to give up their hard-earned bonus.

Deux Jours, Une Nuit was released in cinemas in May 2014 in Belgium and France and in August 2014 in the UK.

Works Cited:

Austin, G. (2008) Contemporary French Cinema: an introduction, 2nd edition, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Dardenne, L. (2008) Au dos de nos images, Paris: Editions du Seuil

Delorme, S. (2014) ‘La pitié dangereuse’, Cahiers du Cinéma, June. pp. 44-45

O’Shaughnessy, M. (2007) The New Face of Political Cinema: Commitment in French Film since 1995, New York: Berghahn Books

Nuttens, J-D (2014) ‘L’affaire humaine’, Positif (639), May. pp. 8-15

Stevens, I. (2014) ‘Woman on the verge’, Sight and Sound, September. pp. 65-67

Dr Jamie Steele lectures in Film Studies at the University of Exeter.  His current research interests include the regional and the transnational in Belgian Cinema.

In the Fog: intro by Dr Muireann Maguire Mon 17th Nov, 6.00pm

Our next Screen Talks event will be on Monday 17th November, 6.00pm at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Muireann Maguire, Lecturer in  Russian, Dept of Modern Languages at the University of Exeter) will introduce In the Fog (Sergey Loznitsa, 2012).

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Muireann has written a guest-blog post for us on the film:


‘On a cold, slushy day in the autumn of the second year of the war, the Partisan scout Burov was riding to Mostishche station so as to shoot a traitor – a peasant from those parts with the surname Sushchenya’. Thus begins the Belorussian writer Vasil Bykov’s novella In The Fog (1989), adapted in 2012 as a film of the same name by the director Sergei Loznitsa. Loznitsa’s version follows Bykov’s story with scrupulous accuracy almost to the very end. The setting is Belorussia (modern Belarus) in 1942; the Wehrmacht have pushed as far as the Volga in the East and Leningrad in the North; all of Western Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic states are under German occupation. The Germans have effortlessly assimilated existing Soviet administration and infrastructure, installing German garrisons in major towns and enforcing martial law. With the Red Army fighting a desperate rearguard action far to the east, the only local resistance is coordinated by small bands of partisans surviving in the forest. If a man betrays his comrades to the Germans, the partisans ensure that he is shot. Simple logic, apparently. And yet, in Loznitsa’s elegant and surprisingly sensuous adaptation, this story becomes anything but simple.


Sergei Loznitsa belongs to a generation of directors born in the former Soviet Union (including Fyodor Bondarchuk, Aleksei Popogrebsky and Andrei Zvyaginstsev) whose work engages directly with the increasingly nationally relevant – and politically fraught – field of Soviet history. As cultural memory has moved to the forefront of ideological debate, it suffers increasing state manipulation.  Putin’s government has tightened controls over the teaching of history in schools (by commissioning a new national textbook that will omit, among other things, the facts about Stalin’s collusion with Hitler in 1939, and about liberal opposition to Putin’s regime since 2000) and on how records of Soviet-era repression are kept (a disregard for historians demonstrated by the 2013 police raid on the Moscow office of the human rights charity Memorial). In this context of centralized obfuscation and explicit state dishonesty, directors like Loznitsa and Popogrebsky have developed a new aesthetic that aims, as the film scholar Vladimir Padunov suggests, to expose untruth by showing rather than by telling. Both directors choose individual or local situations that metonymically represent larger themes of transformation or suffering; the narratives typically rely on close-ups, extended takes, and out-of-sequence flashbacks rather than dialogue or action; and they favour forms such as the road movie (Loznitsa’s My Joy (2010); Zvyagintsev’s The Return (2003)), the coming-of-age drama (Popogrebsky’s How I Ended This Summer (2010)), and especially for Loznitsa, the documentary. Almost all his films are documentaries, and even those which venture outside this genre – such as In The Fog and My Joy – display documentary skills, particularly their combination of fine visual detail with historical accuracy. In an interview for Russian Cinema [in Russian], Loznitsa stated that his main aim as a director is to ‘show the absurdity of what is happening’ in the world, on-screen.

Loznitsa’s path to directing was unconventional. Born in Belarus in 1964, he later moved to Kiev, where he studied engineering and mathematics; he then researched artificial intelligence at Russia’s Institute of Cybernetics while working part-time as a Japanese-Russian translator. In 1991 he enrolled at the VGIK, the Russian State Institute of Cinematography, to train as a director. While Loznitsa’s very first film, the 1996 documentary Today We Are Going To Build A House, won prizes abroad, it was the 2005 Blockade that secured his international reputation.  Blockade, which describes the 900-day siege of Leningrad during the Second World War, was Loznitsa’s first venture into the subgenre that Padunov calls the ‘compilation film’. Blockade consists of newsreel footage, sometimes including original voiceovers, re-edited and combined into a sequence which conveys both the stringency of life during the siege, and the often ludicrous and futile character of contemporary propaganda. Loznitsa has continued to elaborate his own versions of both compilation and more conventional documentary films: his latest, Maidan (2014), uses footage from a fixed camera overlooking Kiev’s Independence Square to depict crowd action and public speeches during Ukraine’s anti-government protests in late 2013 and early 2014. Loznitsa emphasizes the importance of studying the past: ‘History which has not been understood, or fully comprehended, or reflected upon, continues to live with us and within us, presenting itself over and over […]’, he concluded that same Russian Cinema interview. As Jeremy Hicks argues persuasively in his review of Loznitsa’s 2008 documentary Revue, the director also intends to provoke speculation about the constructed nature of any documentary by ‘lay[ing] bare the process of representation’ and performance. In The Fog incorporates and arguably transcends this speculation.

The film opens with the execution of three local railway workers by German troops in a scene that compellingly subverts audience expectations of revelation: we never see the victims directly. Instead, we watch the expressions on the faces of locals as the camera pans impassively over a crowd scene; we hear the indictment read aloud as soldiers sit idly by; and as the camera settles on a heap of human remains, we hear the gallows doing their work. This grim scene presages the wealth of unexpectedly sensuous detail – the colour of individual leaves, the detail on an embroidered nightdress, the texture of snow or fog – which fills in the film’s otherwise claustrophobic focus on its three main characters’ wanderings. (This deliberately circumscribed diegesis helps to distance Loznitsa’s film from the other major Russian feature film set in Belorussia during the war, Elem Klimov’s 1985 Come and See, with its greater narrative complexity and more numerous cast). As a consequence of these executions, two partisans – Burov and his shifty sidekick, Voitik – track down Sushchenya, a railway worker who was mysteriously spared by the Germans when his comrades were killed. Both partisans and, indeed, all the villagers, with the possible exception of Sushchenya’s wife, assume that Sushchenya betrayed his comrades by implicating them in sabotage. With only one explanation, there can only be one outcome. Sushchenya, accepting his fate after only a mild protest of innocence, allows the partisans to take him deep into the forest, where he digs his own grave. At the last moment, Burov is wounded in a police ambush; Voitik flees, but Sushchenya returns to carry his old friend and would-be executioner to safety. As Voitik, Burov and Sushchenya struggle through the thick, emblematically Russian forest, there is no guarantee that innocence will be heard or, if heard, believed. As Sushchenya says plaintively, he used to be well-regarded in his community. Why did everyone turn against him? His question transcends the context of the war or Sushchenya’s own troubles, to interrogate the construction of identity and the frailty of trust.

Voitik’s and Burov’s identities are also questioned in a sequence of flashbacks: as Denise Youngblood points out in her review, both are accidental patriots, forced to join the partisans by chance rather than conviction. Who is responsible for this tragic narrative of confusion and deception? It would be easy to blame the Germans, whose strategy of implicating Sushchenya by default is analogous to their wider policy of imposing a mutually inimical binary of collaboration and resistance on the nations they conquer: this is what Peter Bradshaw’s review insightfully calls ‘a secret and exquisitely cruel perquisite of victory: sadistically imposing self-hate on the defeated ones, renewing the triumph by perpetuating the conquered people’s division and dismay’.  But the film’s title suggests a clue that the ultimate source of confusion may be even more abstruse than Wehrmacht policy. Bykov’s novella ends with a glimpse of a partisan column creeping through the forest, unwittingly bypassing the remains of Sushchenya’s party; Loznitsa’s film replaces this scene with a long take of sinuously billowing, dove-grey, all-concealing fog. The sound track, rather than the camera, tells the end of the story. Loznitsa’s use of fog as narrative punctuation has a major precedent in Russian literature: the Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 story The Nose, which twice interrupts its own narrative at particularly incredible points by gleefully manifesting an impenetrable cloud. As Gogol’s narrator claims, ‘But here the story is completely hidden by fog, and what happened afterwards is most definitively not known. […] After that… but here once again the entire story is covered in fog, and what happened then is certainly unknown’. Both Gogol’s and Loznitsa’s fogs revealed more than they concealed. Gogol’s metafictional mist laid bare the cliché of the omniscient narrator, drawing attention to the artificiality and arbitrariness of plot construction; Loznitsa’s all-too-real fog exposes the vulnerability of identity to misconstructions by others, and the tragic failure of speech in a world of signs.

Dr Muireann Maguire lectures in Russian at the University of Exeter; current research interests include nineteenth-century Russian literature, and twenty-first-century film adaptations of Russian science fiction.

Autumn 2014: New Season of Screen Talks begins Mon 3rd Nov

Screen Talks is back with a great new season of films for Autumn 2014 at Exeter Picturehouse.  Between now and Christmas we have some fantastic and thought provoking films, chosen by experts in Film, Literature, Modern Languages and Culture, to share and discuss.  Each screening includes a brief introduction to the film and time for informal discussion afterwards in the Picturehouse bar.

Picturehouse are offering a year’s FREE membership for Freshers, and great deals on student membership too.  Click here to find out more

Our first film will be the classic Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara,1964) which will be introduced by Dr Felicity Gee (English & Film Studies), an expert in Japanese cinema and culture.  Check back here soon for Felicity’s guest blog post on the film.



‘A Cinema of Truth’: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Our next Screen Talks will be on Monday 16th December, 6.30pm at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Will Higbee, an expert in French cinema in the Dept of Modern Languages at the University of Exeter, will introduce Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013).  Will has written a guest blog post for us on the film:

As some of you will know, the Screen Talks partnership between Exeter University and the Exeter Picturehouse is organized around a series of themes. Our next film, Blue is the Warmest Colour (French title: La Histoire d’Adèle, chapitres 1 & 2) comes under the heading of ‘Hidden Classics of European Cinema’. The film was released in France earlier this year: a little soon then to objectively be declaring this a ‘classic’, even if it was awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Festival. Similarly, given the amount of press coverage generated by the various ‘controversies’ associated with the film (of which more later), as well as more than 700 000 spectators in France to date, it would be hard for us to describe this film as ‘hidden’ in terms of being unknown or waiting to be discovered. Nevertheless, I’m delighted to have been asked to introduce Blue is… as part of the Exeter Screen Talks series; firstly because Kechiche’s films have been an important part of my teaching and research for a number of years now but also because I’m intrigued to find out what Exeter audiences will make of this latest offering from one of France’s most important contemporary directors, as he extends the range and focus of his work.

Abdellatif Kechiche was born in Tunisia and arrived in France at the age of six. He grew up on a working-class estate on the outskirts of Nice, not far from the city’s famous Victorine studios. During his youth, he indulged a passion for cinema through regular trips to the Nice cinémathèque, where he first discovered many of the great French actors – Michel Simon, Jules Berry, Harry Baur, Arletty – and later European directors such as De Sica, Pasoloini, Pialat and Sautet. After studying acting at the Conservatoire de Nice, he embarked on a career in the theatre that led to a limited number of film roles. The most notable of these saw him star as an attractive, streetwise Algerian immigrant finding his way in Paris in Le Thé à la menthe (Bahloul, 1984). The film was significant not only because it gave the young Kechiche his first major screen role but also because it was the first of a cluster of films released in France during the mid-1980s that focused on the experiences of the North African immigrant community and their French born descendants in France that became known as ‘Beur cinema’. Though the film was generally well received, Kechiche was unable to build on the initial success of Le Thé à la menthe. Reacting against what he saw as the lack of meaningful roles for French actors of North African origin in French film and TV, beyond stereotypical portrayals as immigrants, delinquents or criminals, Kechiche began to develop his own screenplays in the 1990s. Though encountering the usual problems facing first time filmmakers in attracting funding, in the space of a decade, through a series of four films starting with La Faute à Voltaire (2001), to L’Esquive (2005), La Graine et le mulet (2007) and Vénus noire (2010), which garnered birth critical and commercial success Kechiche moved from a relative unknown theatre and screen actor with aspirations to direct, to one of the most critically acclaimed filmmakers working in France today.

Kechiche’s standing in contemporary French cinema, made his fifth feature Blue is… one of the most eagerly anticipated films in official competition at Cannes in 2013. This sense of anticipation was heightened by the film’s subject matter: a coming of age narrative, inspired by a cult graphic novel by French artist Julie Morah, about a young woman exploring her sexuality, which includes extended and explicit scenes of lesbian sex.

Despite the film’s potentially controversial subject matter, and a demanding running length of three hours, Blue is… received rapturous attention from festival critics and audiences at Cannes and was awarded the Palme d’Or from a jury headed by Stephen Spielberg (the award was given collectively to Kechiche, and the lead actors Exarchopoulos and Seydoux). Respected scholar and critic Ruby B. Rich – widely credited for coining the term ‘New Queer Cinema’ to describe an emerging wave of independent films in the early 1990s focusing on gay, lesbian and transgender protagonists – claimed enthusiastically that Blue is… : ‘carries the female coming of age film into historic new territory.’

Blue is… focuses on the intense relationship between Adèle (played with extraordinary, instinctive force and intelligence by the, until then, little-known Adèle Exarchopoulos) a 17 year-old who is about to leave school and Emma, a confident art student and aspiring painter (played by one of the rising female stars of French cinema, Léa Seydoux). The film follows the development of their relationship and its continuing affect on Adèle’s life even years after the breakup as she builds a career for herself as a primary schoolteacher. As the film’s original French title suggests, Blue is… charts two defining periods in the life of the young Adèle, both of which are framed around her intense and transformative relationship with Emma. It is about her discovering and exploring her sexuality, to be sure, but it is also about her coming to terms with the possibilities and joy as well as limitations and disappointments that life offers her. These experiences are considered not only through her relationship with Emma but also in terms of her intellectual and professional development, as well as through the lens of class, due to her position as the child of working-class parents from a suburb of Lille (North East France) who becomes involved with the more self-assured Emma, the daughter of middle-class parents. (The differences between the two women’s backgrounds are reflected in the film through two very different meals in which Adèle and Emma bring their partner home to meet the respective parents).

Despite the much broader scope of the film, much of the critical discussion of this film has centred on the extended and explicit lesbian sex scenes (one lasting about ten minutes) that appear in the film. Clearly these scenes are an integral part of the film’s narrative as a means of expressing the transformative passion that Adèle’s relationship with Emma sparks in her. However, they form a clear minority of screen time in a film running for very nearly three hours. Arguably, the most memorable scenes in the film are actually those that occur outside of Emma’s candle-lit bedroom – such as the furious verbal and physical attack on Adèle by her classmates as the quiz her about her relationship with Emma, or the visceral intensity of the break-up scene between Emma and Adèle. Much of this intensity is achieved by Kechiche’s consistent, and at times almost overwhelming, use of the extreme close-up on his central actors. Interestingly, too, Kechiche employs the close-up (typically employed to emphasize the desirability of the star) to expose the flaws, insecurities and vulnerability of Adèle as well as her beauty.

In many ways, the film’s queer narrative and focus on white, French female protagonists, represented a departure of sorts for the Kechiche. His first three films had focused in different ways on the North African immigrant community in France, while his fourth (less well-received) feature, Vénus noire, recounted events from the final five years in the life of Sara Baartman, a Khoekhoe tribeswomen from the Cape Colony, who was transported as a servant from South Africa to Europe in 1810 and exhibited as the original “Venus Hottentot,” an object of curiosity, fear and prohibited (sexual) desire, first sold to a bourgeois consumer culture of the exotic in the freak shows in London and then to the libertine salons of nineteenth-century Paris. In truth, the move in Blue is… away from narratives with a focus on immigrant communities, questions of immigration and integration (as well as in the case of Vénus noire, a focus on European fascination with race and the body that would underpin the ideology driving European colonial expansion in the 18th and 19th century), shouldn’t matter. As Kechiche himself intimated in various interviews, his films should be judged primarily by his artistic sensibilities and worldview as a filmmaker rather than ghettoized by his ethnic origins. However, the fact that he is a high-profile French director who originates from one of France’s largest and most visible post-colonial minorities means that, whether we like it or not, there is a burden of representation related to his films – and that the question of the place accorded to immigrant minorities in his films will receive greater scrutiny than in the work of other French filmmakers. What is also noticeable is that Kechiche is one of the very few directors of North African origin working in France today who has been able or made a conscious decision to move away from making films that focus specifically on North African immigrant protagonists or themes of immigration and integration.

And yet, for all this talk of breaking new ground, on closer inspection Blue is… actually demonstrates considerable continuity with Kechiche’s earlier films. Certainly the predominance of blue (from Emma’s hair an denim, to the walls of Adèle’s bedroom, the postbox outside of the family home and the vibrant sea that surrounds Adèle towards the end of the film) reflects a deliberately stylized use of colour not seen in Kechiche’s previous work. However, other elements of form and style (most notably the use of extreme-close ups) have been a noticeable authorial signature in Kechiche’s work since his second feature film, L’Esquive. Similarly, the emphasis on food and mealtimes as moments of celebration, performance but also social critique, reflecting a preoccupation with the cultural politics of class and taste, as well as references to canonical works of French literature (especially Marivaux) have appeared in all of Kechiche’s previous films. Nor is the focus on female subjectivity necessarily anything new for this director. La Graine et le mulet was praised by French critics upon its release in 2007 for foregrounding of a range of strong and independent female protagonists of North African origin: protagonists that were conspicuous by their absence in most Maghrebi-French and North African émigré filmmaking of the 1980s and 1990s. Finally, the focus on the social milieu of the school and the world of the adolescent found in Blue is… had also been explored previously by Kechiche in L’Esquive.

The near universal acclaim that Blue is the Warmest Colour received at the Cannes festival was not, however, replicated upon the film’s general release in France. Kechiche became embroiled in a very public row following a series of articles written by Le Monde’s culture editor, Aureliano Tonet in which Tonet suggested that certain members of the crew working on the shoot found the director’s intense approach to his art and unconventional working practices as bordering on ‘moral harassment’. More damaging, though, was the fallout between the director and his two lead actors, with Seydoux and Excharchopolus commented in interviews that the shoot was a “horrible” experience, painting Kechiche as an overbearing, aggressive and unsympathetic director, with both actors openly declaring that she would never work with the director again. Excharchopolus has since softened her stance, while tensions still run high between Seydoux and Kechiche. In a recent and lengthy opinion piece published for a respected news website in France, which some commenters viewed as verging on paranoia, Kechiche suggested that Seydoux’s behavior was part of a wider campaign against him by certain influential members of the French film industry, even alluding to the possibility of legal action for what he saw as Seydoux’s attempt along with others to sabotage the film at the box-office.

Alongside this protracted and increasingly bitter public spat between Kechiche and Seydoux, more recent reviews of Blue is… have questioned the director’s portrayal of the sex scenes as being shot from a male perspective that somehow evokes a heterosexual fantasy of gay love. In her review for Sight and Sound that coincided with the film’s UK release, Sophie Mayer argued that: “As with many fantasies of lesbianism, the film centres on the erotic success and affective failures of relations between women”. For her part, Julie Maroh (author of the graphic novel that inspired the film) blogged that while she and Kechiche shared a desire to explore ‘how a romantic encounter happens, how a love stories builds and collapses and what remains of that love’, she found the sex scenes unconvincing (wondering if any lesbians were ever present on set to advise the actors). She described her experience of viewing these scenes from Blue is… in the following way:

“The heteronormative laughed because they don’t understand it and find the scene ridiculous. The gay and queer people laughed because they [the straight director and actors] don’t understand it…And among the only people we didn’t hear giggling were the potential guys too busy feasting their eyes on an incarnation of their fantasies on screen.”

Though not responding directly to Maroh’s remarks, Kechiche had the following to say in an interview with Sight and Sound to a question from Jonathan Romney about the director being out of his depth depicting a lesbian relationship:

“…it’s like saying a man has no right to depict a woman or a woman’s emotion because his view would be flawed…It’s really dangerous to enclose homosexuality in a category of special, distinct beings – that’s where racism starts…”

Whatever position you wish to take on these more controversial elements of the film’s production and reception – and this is something hopefully that we can debate in the post-film discussion at the Picturehouse bar after the film’s screening on the 16th – there is no denying that Kechiche has produced a film of considerable power and intensity, matched by the performance of Excharchopoulous as Adèle that speaks to Kechiche’s desire to create ‘a cinema of truth rather than a cinema of reality.’

Dr Will Higbee researches and publishes widely in French and diasporic cinemas, his book

Eroticising Amputation: Thoughts on Rust and Bone (2012)

Our next Screen Talks will be on Monday 2nd December, 6.30pm at Exeter Picturehouse. Ryan Sweet, a Phd researcher in the Dept of English at the University of Exeter, will introduce Jacques Audiard’s De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone; 2012).

Rust and Bone Poster

Jacques Audiard’s De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone; 2012) is a film that deals with a number of complex and emotive themes, including the father-son relationship, the struggles of working-class life, the dubious policies of middle management in retail firms, domestic abuse, single parenthood, the animal-human relationship, and, to an extent, the question of whether we should keep powerful and intelligent animals, like orcas, in captivity—many of which we can anticipate based on the trailer alone. Above all, though, as I will suggest in my screen talk, Audiard’s romantic drama is acutely concerned with the practical, emotional, and psychological effects of limb loss and disablement— themselves extremely sensitive topics.

As a researcher working on fictional representations of artificial body parts, I initially suggested giving a screen talk on Paul Verhoeven’s iconic 1987 motion picture, Robocop, a film that’s portrayal of prosthetics is significantly different than that which we see in Rust and Bone. As scholars working on disability in film have noted, Murphy, the hero of Verhoeven’s sci-fi action film, is an archetypal example of a particular type of disabled character that we often see deployed in Hollywood film—the “Techno Marvel”. Like the on-screen portrayals of other characters of this type, the display of Murphy’s hyper-sophisticated prosthetics takes precedence over the effects and implications of his disablement. While Robocop is explicitly evoked in Audiard’s film in a light-hearted exchange between the lead characters—Ali, a boxer, and Stephanie, a former ocra trainer—disablement and artificial-limb use are displayed in a much more realistic light in the latter. Unlike the majority of films that use disability as a significant motif, here we see the day-to-day struggles of limb loss and prosthesis use unreservedly displayed—in a couple of instances we even see how difficult and undignifying going to the toilet can be without the use of real or artificial legs. Though we commonly see disability used in film as a visual sign for a character’s deplorable character, or as a motif that enables a physically or mentally impaired protagonist to appear more heroic for achieving success in the face of adversity, in Rust and Bone we see one woman’s surprising and somewhat unusual response to the psychological, emotional, and physical torment occasioned by double-limb amputation.

A particularly unusual and yet extremely interesting aspect of Rust and Bone is the way in which it eroticises the amputee. As I will suggest in my introduction, this eroticisation can be read to engage with but also to reject a recent cultural interest in the sexual appeal of prosthetics—you may remember from a few years ago the internet rumour that Lady Gaga had opted for amputation “for fashion purposes”! As you will see in this film, prostheses are quickly discarded when sex is on the cards. By drawing the attention of the audience to the film’s use of lighting, shot selection, and close-ups to focalise legs—severed and whole—in the movie, I will raise a number of questions regarding Audiard’s decision to sexualise the amputee. How does the film deal with the loss of sexual self, which often accompanies limb loss? How does one regain libido after experiencing amputation? Are prostheses are turn-on, or should they be hidden from potential sexual partners?

As I will also identify, the film raises some intriguing questions about the role of people with disabilities within the film industry. How can we justify Audiard’s decision to cast an able-bodied actress as double amputee in this film? How, if at all, would this film differ if a disabled actress played Stephanie?

Ryan Sweet is a fully funded PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant based in the Department of English at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on the representations of artificial body parts in literature from 1830 to 1914.

Dickens, Commodities and Objects: Thoughts on Oliver Twist

Our next Screen Talks will be on Monday 18th November, 6.30pm at Exeter Picturehouse. Hannah Lewis-Bill a Phd researcher in the Dept of English at the University of Exeter) will introduce Oliver Twist, the 1948 adaptation by David Lean.  Hannah researches Dickens and the representation of China in his novels through commodities such as tea and silk

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Hannah has written a guest-blog post for us on the film:

The opening of David Lean’s 1948 black and white version of Oliver Twist is bleak, powerful and dramatic: the ragged branches, the fractured shots of the pregnant woman’s face as she struggles to her final destination and the lashing rain are certainly atmospheric and yet are so very different from Dickens’s own opening. Dickens’s novel opens with the workhouse with a soon-to-be expiring mother and Oliver’s entry into the world and workhouse.

Oliver Twist tie-in novelisation, 1948, from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum Collection

The story of Oliver Twist is a familiar one and Lean’s interpretation is for the most part faithful. Oliver is born in the workhouse and sent to be looked after by the parish authorities from where he is then sent on to various apprenticeships. He then runs, quite literally, into the Artful Dodger who introduces him to Fagin (Alec Guinness) who, spotting Oliver’s potential, sets about trying to turn him into a successful pickpocket. The plan to enact Oliver’s premature expiration from this world is then also gradually undertaken. I could say more but for risk of spoiling the parts for those less familiar and to maintain the suspense for our viewing at the Exeter Picture House on Monday 18th November I will stop there! It is, though, worth considering what has been left out and why and that is one of the points I will reflect on during my talk on Monday; is there something to be said for cinematic exclusions and do these exclusions add another dimension?

It is sometimes difficult I think to separate the parts of the novel familiar to us because we know them from Dickens from those scenes that are so familiar because we know them from the screen. Indeed does it matter? In my opinion it does. In order for a novelist to continue to resonate culturally and socially it is often helpful for their work to be adapted in new ways to reach new audiences be this through the screen, stage or reimagined through adapted versions of the story. In many ways this version of Dickens’s novel, reconceptualised in this way, heightens an awareness of the cultural concerns in Dickens’s time and also at the time of Lean’s production. Anti-Semitism cannot in this adaptation be ignored. Fagin is arguably the best known character from Oliver Twist and Dickens’s representation of this character is undoubtedly anti-Semitic and so too I would argue is Lean’s. Whilst Dickens never directly states that Fagin is Jewish, his stereotypic depiction leaves us in little doubt of his cultural heritage. Indeed later in Dickens’s literary career upon conversing with some Jewish friends they explained the damage his representation of Jews had done and he was horrified. It was this which led him to create a sympathetic and thoughtfully composed Jewish character in Our Mutual Friend in an attempt to undo some of the damage. The fact that Lean, seemingly determinedly, negatively and stereotypically depicts Fagin is therefore even more problematic. Taking influence from the images created by Cruikshank’s (the man who illustrated Oliver Twist for Dickens) Lean purposefully heightened certain features such as his nose to create a stereotyped Jewish aesthetic. Produced, as this film was, during the Second World War, and the atrocities enacted on the Jewish population in particular, seems a very questionable decision. It did cost Lean as it meant that the film was not released in the US until 1951 and, when it was released, 7 minutes of the film including the questionable representation of Fagin were omitted. The moment we first see Fagin played by Alec Guinness is an uncomfortable moment and an important one for that very reason.

George Cruikshanks, ‘Oliver introduced to the respectable Old Gentleman’, (1838)

Speaking personally for a moment, my own research considers Dickens, China and tea and the way in which commodities function in shaping a cultural consciousness of the world beyond Britain. Whilst a reading of the novel would certainly produce readings of China what is interesting about a reading of the film is the significant role objects play. From the necklace that features so prominently at the start of the film on Oliver’s mother’s neck, the coffins, the signage, the handkerchiefs, wallets, and the jewellery that Fagin collects there is always a cornucopia of objects that support the hidden or more subtle contexts of the cinematic plot.  To an extent the money that is hoarded and exchanged is another object that is significant to the running of the den and London more broadly and, it can be suggested, Oliver becomes the ultimate object of everyone’s desires. This is something that might again be discussed in greater detail when we come together to talk after the film on Monday: what is the effect of these hidden layers to the plot and what can they add to our viewing of the film? For now though I hope to have presented a new twist on both Dickens’s and Lean’s Oliver Twist and left you feeling as though, like Oliver you would like more!

Hannah has written about Dickens and commodities.  She has an essay entitled “From ‘The Great Exhibition to the Little One’ to ‘China with a Flaw in It’: China, Commodities and Conflict in Household Words“ in Mackenzie, H. & B. Winyard (eds), Charles Dickens and the Mid-Victorian Press, 1850-1870 (Buckingham: University of Buckingham Press, 2013).

Read more about Hannah’s research here, and follow her on Twitter: @hlewisbill

Response to Plein Soleil from Jamie Bernthal

Jamie Bernthal is a PhD student in the Dept of English at the University of Exeter, he is researching queer theory and the detective fiction of Agatha Christie and he is currently organising the UK’s first academic conference devoted to Agatha Christie to be held at Exeter in April 2014.

After attending our Screen Talks event on Plein Soleil on Monday 4th November Jamie has written a guest blog post for us, reflecting on his responses to the film:


First of all, I must confess: I’ve never read The Talented Mr Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s novel on which Plein Soleil is based, and I haven’t seen any other dramatisation. I am, however, familiar with Highsmith’s prose, although the only other adaptation I’ve seen is Strangers on a Train. When I saw the book advertised in a Waterstones’ Cosy Crime display I felt personally affronted: cosy, indeed! Highsmith mastered the unsettling psychological thriller. And I certainly knew the clichés about Tom Ripley: a suave, sexually ambiguous serial-killer who never gets caught; the ultimate anti-hero. I came to see René Clément’s Plein Soleil because it is a famous film that I ought to have seen. It’s not what I was expecting.

The film is over half a century old, and as such relies on dialogue, direction, and acting for creation of suspense.  This evening, I’m going to see Gravity in 3D – the trailer had my heart racing and that’s nothing to do with Sandra Bullock’s lines; it’s the fact that she’s miles above the Earth and floating through space. Well, nothing like that in Plein Soleil. Not even so much as a fist fight. It’s more sophisticated, more personal.

I’ve always resisted Highsmith films because her skill as a writer lies in getting you inside an amoral or unconventional mind. You can’t do that with dialogue alone – or with flat, visual images, can you? Surely it’s about that slightly off-the-pivot angle from which protagonists view the world? The way they clutch at words – at moments in the conversation – and twist them and turn them, asking questions before we get back to dialogue and realise that none of what we’ve read was visible to anyone else.

Well, I was wrong! We don’t stay inside the mind of Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) – of course not – that would be impossible. But we go along with it. And that is more intoxicating, more unsettling. You know he’s going to kill his friend, Phillipe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) eventually – partly because he is Mr Ripley, and partly because of the very strange jokes he and Greenleaf make, again and again as their boat sails further and further out to sea, about how convenient a murder would be.

About half-way through, Ripley prepares to receive a police officer who is going to inform him of another friend’s death. Ripley has just killed this friend (footstep, footstep, footstep, as he raised the weapon…). He has been impersonating Greenleaf in order to get hold of money, and is still wearing Greenleaf’s shirt. Painstakingly covering small traces of his deception, he forgets the clothes. At this point, my fiancé turned to me and said: ‘Is it bad that I want him to get away with it?’

That’s the thing, isn’t it? The film is full of sunshine and the vibrancy of night shadows; it draws you in. The cast is beautiful. Delon has this kind of magnetic beauty that makes you want to watch him and learn all about him, and the same kind of youth as James Dean. That everything he said was a little off-kilter, a little wide of the narrow mark of social niceties, made his character and his world the more entrancing.

In fact, a young couple had an argument on the way out of the cinema. The man was trying to justify to his girlfriend why he hadn’t noticed what the women were wearing. ‘I was engrossed in Tom Ripley – he was so beautiful.’ That’s everything you want from a serial killer. Nothing so vulgar as Dexter. You don’t know Ripley; that’s the point.

The end of the film – where everything culminates – really summarised to me Plein Soleil’s hypnotic allure. When, in the final few minutes, Greenleaf’s body appears out of nowhere, somebody near me in the auditorium gasped! It didn’t seem any more ridiculous or implausible or anticlimactic than the rest of the film. When the police called Tom Ripley over and he contentedly walked towards them, suspecting nothing amiss, it worked. Then: Fin. That was it. A man who’d wriggled out of every incrimination wasn’t even given the chance to get out of this one.

Of course, the book ends differently: the talented Mr Ripley is the most infamous unpunished serial killer after Jack the Ripper. While Highsmith admired Plein Soleil, she described its conclusion as a ‘terrible concession to so-called public morality.’ Endings in films were often changed, as we know, to avoid censorship and public outrage, but the ending of this one, though excellently pulled off, undermined the slickly twisted morality of the preceding two hours.

The dramatic irony running through the film, so integral to its conclusion, is something Dr Sam North pointed out in his lively, engaging introduction to the evening. As one of Sam’s MA students in 2011, I loved his lecture style. His talk reminded me how much I missed it. By giving us moments to pay special attention to – ‘watch out for the earring, and think about when it will reappear’ – Sam added extra layers of suspense, dramatic irony, and expectation. I found myself anticipating the detail that would get me anticipating further details.

Adapting Plein Soleil: thoughts on transitions from page to screen

Our next Screen Talks will be on Monday 4th November at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Sam North (Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, Dept of English) at the University of Exeter) will introduce Plein Soleil (Rene Clement, 1960), the renowned French adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley (1955).

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Dr Sam North has written a guest blog-post for us on the film and questions of adaptation:

From the outset Plein Soleil is impressive for its vigour and energy, and its sexuality: the truly amazing handsomeness of Alain Delon, playing Tom Ripley, is immediately given a sinister slant just as pointed as his cheekbones when he finds the girl’s earring in his hand. We learn of Tom’s mission to bring home the wayward, rich Philip Greenleaf to the bosom of his family; and what interests me, from a technical point of view, is the entrenched, permanent engagement of dramatic irony which secures and deepens our involvement in the story from the moment that Tom Ripley sticks the knife into Philip Greenleaf.

It’s a stylish film: from the title sequence we are plunged into a fast, optimistic world, although not an innocent one; and the speed with which lengths of celluloid can be cut together and made to work for a seasoned cinema-going audience is part of its charm. Its deftness, its light touch – the feeling that one needs to run with this film to keep up – has the charm of Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle, which kicked off the French New Wave and went on to influence a diverse range of directors from QuentinTarantino to Wes Anderson.

My own experience in the world of adaptation – I sold novels to the film industry in the UK and in America for a number of years – has given me an understanding of what a film needs to find in a novel. Sometimes it is only an idea, or a character, and at other times, as is the case with this film, it is a fully-fledged dramatic structure – but it is always like feeding time at the zoo: a film is merciless in its chewing up of a book to get out of the text what the film’s creators believe will make the film successful, and that can be a painful and (if a book falls into the wrong hands) clumsy process. As a writer I have adapted The Wind In The Willows for the iPad ( and it was an intensely rewarding piece of work; it felt like it was a sort of ‘loving’ of the text, taking a step beyond reading it, and I am proud of the result. The medium into which one is adapting determines many of the creative decisions, but, as is so often the case with writing fiction and poetry, it is the restriction itself that produces the invention.

Come along and enjoy Plein Soleil. It is enough merely to gaze at a youthful Alain Delon.

Sam writes novels and screenplays, and lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Exeter.  Read more about Sam’s work here.

Response to A Dangerous Method from Fred Cooper

Fred Cooper is a PhD student at the University of Exeter researching the importance of the intersection between work and family life in post-1945 psychiatry and psychology. After attending our Screen Talks event on A Dangerous Method on Monday 21st October Fred has written a guest blog post for us, reflecting on his responses to the film:


On my way to see A Dangerous Method, I was fascinated to see what the film would be like – Freud, Jung, and the early days of psychoanalysis are not easy topics for mainstream cinema. I should probably be recording a generalised, impressionistic reaction, but as I know nothing whatsoever about film criticism I can warn you in advance that this is not what you’re getting.

What I intend to do, rather, is to think a bit about the part of the film which came as the biggest surprise – the character of Sabina Spielrein – and move forward to consider the dynamics of what I found to be one of the film’s most interesting motifs: the juxtaposition between patient and analyst.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never heard of Spielrein and, on first watching the trailer, assumed with a mystifyingly large dollop of arrogance – and a now-shattered association of Keira Knightley with vapid supporting roles – that I hadn’t heard of her because she wasn’t historically important. Certainly big-budget films aren’t above amplifying or manufacturing a sexual dynamic to inject an extra level of excitement (sex sells, as Freud probably understood). Jana’s opening remarks immediately disabused me of this idea, something confirmed throughout the film. Spielrein emerges not merely as a significant part of Carl Jung’s life but as a catalyst for his relationship with Sigmund Freud and, later, as an original psychoanalytic thinker. If anything, the film could have put greater emphasis on Spielrein’s intellectual contribution. An audience with no existing knowledge of psychoanalysis might have struggled to identify her characterisation of sexual and destructive forces as prefiguring a fairly substantial element of the Freudian canon. Freud acknowledged this debt, albeit ambiguously, in a single footnote in Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

“A considerable part of this speculation has been anticipated in a work which is full of valuable matter and ideas but is unfortunately not entirely clear to me: (Sabina Spielrein: ‘Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens’, Jahrbuch für Psychoanalyse, IV, 1912).”

Alongside her foray into formal academia, however, I want to consider the influence that Spielrein exercised from a position usually synonymous with passivity – the patient. This is a recurring device, present most overtly in the scenes between Jung and Otto Gross. Although Gross is ostensibly the patient, Jung has no influence at all on his behaviour, whilst Gross drives events with Spielrein forward with his admonition to ‘never repress anything’. When Jung describes Gross as seductive, he couples Gross’s unbridled sexuality with his telling Jung exactly what he wants to hear. Gross, however, is able to transcend the patient role by his qualification as an analyst – part of the criteria for which is submission to analysis oneself. The ability amongst practitioners to analyse and be analysed implies a form of intimacy and commonality – the most significant breakdown in Freud and Jung’s relationship occurs when Freud refuses to let Jung interpret his dreams. Freud, having read Jung’s dream as indicative of hostility towards himself, refuses to engage in a reciprocal acquiescence to Jung’s expertise.

Whilst both Jung and Freud and Jung and Gross inhabit dual roles in their association with each other, however, Spielrein as patient and Spielrein as analyst are temporally distinct entities. Spielrein during her patient phase clearly wields an abnormal amount of power on Jung as a man – he sleeps with her, confides in her, spanks her and claims to love her – but her affect on him as an analyst, on the development of his clinical knowledge, is not fully explored. Scientific understanding is being constructed and confirmed at Jung’s desk – with Jung himself as a receptacle of contemporary prejudices, anxieties, and theories about the mind – but also in the discourse between himself and Spielrein. Much like “Anna O”, Josef Breuer’s patient (and a prominent feminist), a fellow “hysteric” whose treatment has been argued to form the foundation stone of psychoanalysis, she was translating her visceral experience of illness into language comprehensible by the practitioner.

In many ways, this is understood to be the most authentic aspect of medicine. The doctor is in possession of a written expertise that draws on a long tradition and accumulation of knowledge and which is often mystifying to the patient. However, the patient also has an intrinsic physical and mental expertise that the doctor can only partially understand, and which he or she enters into their lexicon in adumbrated form. The clinical encounter is usually preoccupied with reconciling one to the other. In psychiatry, this has often been at the expense of the patient’s claims to truth.

What A Dangerous Method does is to encourage us to move beyond easy assumptions regarding agency, authorship and power in medicine. Spielrein is, admittedly, a remarkable example. An articulate, wilful and insightful woman being treated – and then writing – at the cutting-edge of psychoanalytic experimentation, her impact and influence are relatively straightforward to trace. Her story reminds us, however, that the accumulation of medical knowledge has always involved a dialogue, however limited. Medicine has usually been at its worst when the experience of the patient has been subsumed in the determinism of inflexible diagnoses, reductive disease models and off-the-peg treatment. It has also usually been at its best when the dialogue was democratic.


Sex, Science and the Talking Cure: thoughts on A Dangerous Method

On the 21st of October Dr Jana Funke of the University of Exeter (Department of English and Member of the Centre for Medical History) will introduce David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011), starring Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender. Part of the ‘Sickness on Screen’ strand of SCREEN TALKS, the film looks at how the intense relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud gave birth to psychoanalysis.

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).


In this guest blog post Dr Jana Funke discusses the film and the important insights that it offers into the development of a scientific understanding of sex at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In A Dangerous Method, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) explains to his erstwhile follower and later adversary Carl Gustav Jung (Michael Fassbender) that people will still reject psychoanalysis in the twenty-first century. In a way, Freud was right, as we love to make fun of psychoanalysis: not all of us want to have sex with our mothers and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. However, we also live in a world in which talking is believed to cure and allowing people to express themselves is generally seen as conducive to health and wellbeing. Talking about sexual experiences and desires, in particular, is something many of us love to do, be it with our friends, in therapy sessions or on television. In this sense, we are very much invested in the so-called ‘talking cure’, which is the dangerous method referred to in the title of David Cronenberg’s film.[1]

Freud did not single-handedly invent the talking cure and A Dangerous Method reminds us of this fact. The film is about the relationship between Jung and the first patient he subjected to this experimental treatment, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). As you will know from seeing the trailer, Spielrein suffered from a range of debilitating tics and fits when she was admitted to Jung’s care at the Burghölzli clinic near Zürich in Switzerland in 1904. In the film, it is only after speaking about and satisfying her masochistic desires (both with the help of Jung) that her so-called ‘hysterical’ symptoms begin to disappear. In my talk before the screening, I will speak a bit about hysteria in relation to gendered ideas about illness and sexuality, and try to explain why people like Freud and Jung thought the talking cure might work. 

I will also consider the film from a different angle. A Dangerous Method is not just a biopic about Jung and Spielrein’s relationship; it is a film about the history of psychoanalysis and sexual science more generally and this is where it speaks most directly to my own research interests. The emergence of psychoanalysis is part of a broader shift in Western understandings of sexuality as a result of which sexual desire came to be seen as something that should be studied and treated scientifically. This process begins in the nineteenth century and I am fascinated with the question of what it meant to think and write ‘scientifically’ about sexuality at that time. A Dangerous Method offers important insights here. In a way, Jung used Spielrein to gain access to Freud and to contribute to the emerging discipline of psychoanalysis. The film depicts brilliantly Freud and Jung’s changing relationship as they struggle to define the scope and aims of psychoanalysis. Whereas Jung, for instance, was interested in mysticism and keen to push the limits of acceptable scientific knowledge, Freud insisted that psychoanalysis had to be based on rigorous scientific principles. Freud’s authority and reputation were shaky – the film reminds us repeatedly that his Jewishness and lack of financial security, for instance, did not work in his favour – and yet it was he who ultimately succeeded in securing his name as the pioneer of psychoanalysis. A Dangerous Method sheds light on the more conflicted history of psychoanalysis and reminds us of some lesser-known contributors, including the radical Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell) and Spielrein herself. It also raises bigger questions that still matter very much today and that I would love to discuss after the film. For instance, what is at stake in understanding sexuality scientifically? What are the aims of therapy? And who gets to decide?


Jana Funke is Advanced Research Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Exeter. Her research interests include the history of sexuality and literature and culture in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries.  Read more about Jana’s research here

[1] The film is based on the play The Talking Cure (2002) by Christopher Hampton, which was inspired by John Kerr’s non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein (1993).