Tabu: intro by Prof Sally Faulkner – 14th April, 2015 8.45pm

Our next Screen Talks is a special event as part of the Association of Hispanists Conference, hosted at the University of Exeter, April 14th-15th 2015.

Professor Sally Faulkner, one of the conference organisers, researches Hispanic cinema, and she will intro TABU (Miguel Gomes, 2012) on Tuesday April 14th 8.45 pm at Exeter Picturehouse.  Book tickets here.

Sally has written an article about this film, which can be accessed here:


The Lunchbox: intro by Dr Florian Stadtler, Mon 9th March 6.15pm

Our next Screen Talks event will be on Monday 9th March, 6.15pm at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Florian Stadtler, Lecturer in Global Literatures and Cultures, Dept of English and Film Studies at the University of Exeter) will introduce The Lunchbox (Ritesh Batra, 2013). 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). Florian has written a guest-blog post for us on the film: The_Lunchbox_poster What happens when a lunchbox delivery from a housewife’s kitchen in the suburbs of Mumbai/Bombay into the bustling business district of the city goes wrong? This is the premise of Ritesh Batra’s evocative 2013 film, The Lunchbox. This unusual mis-delivery leads to the unexpected connection of Saajan (Irrfan Khan, known to many in his roles in Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi), a reclusive and bad-tempered office worker close to retirement, and Ila (Nimrat Kaur), an unhappily married suburban housewife. Both are pleasantly surprised. Ila sees her food appreciated by this stranger, putting into sharp relief the indifference of her husband. Saajan, still in mourning for the death of his wife, too, discovers a new perspective on life, which is facilitated by the exchange of notes delivered in the lunchbox. The premise for the film is an unlikely one. As a 2010 Harvard Business School Study led by Stefan Thomke revealed, the error rate in a lunchbox delivery going wrong is one in six million. But the film imagines this ‘what if’ moment.


THE LUNCHBOX_1.jpglunchbox 2

The film is marked by tender performances, particularly by Khan and Kaur, but the film also distinguishes itself through a documentary sensibility that evokes the intermediary role fulfilled by the dabbawallahs, the men who provide the daily lunchbox delivery service. They bridge the space of the domestic urban with the public open-plan office in the heart of the city. These cross-flows that traverse the private space of the home and the public spaces of the city and the office workspace reveal the intensity of the city with great sensitivity and attention to detail. The dabbawallah’s position in-between is underscored by an observing, detached camera eye. They remain almost a voiceless presence, except for the end, when Saajan listens in on their singing on the train, and for a brief exchange between Ila and her dabbawallah. The LunchboxThe Lunchbox - main image Indeed, this depiction of the dabbawallahs is not accidental. Ritesh Batra began researching the lunchbox delivery service in Mumbai in view of making a documentary in 2010. He developed the script for this fictional story concurrently. In the event the documentary did not get made. Yet their service is key to the unfolding of the story. The dabbawallah’s work and their presence in the film is marked by a deliberate switch from narrative driven fiction film-making into documentary to offer a close-up on Mumbai’s everyday middle-class city life, characterised by suburban train journeys and office work. Mumbai – one of the largest cities in South Asia and the financial capital of India – is almost a character in her own right in the narrative and the film manages to give a sense of the city, particularly through its depictions of crowds and the individual’s navigation of spaces.

While the lunchbox delivery service is a crucial plot point around which the narrative revolves, the film is centred on its three main protagonists who are all faced with a crisis in their life. Ila seeks solace in her cooking to change her life; Saajan dreads his imminent retirement and plans to move to Bhutan and the orphaned Shaikh seeks guidance from Saajan to find his place with his new wife as a new arrival in the city. This is a film of ideas. Unfolding its narrative slowly, Batra seeks to think through the different possibilities, life choices and regrets that the three main characters have to confront and relies on the imaginative truth incorporated by the actors in their performances.

It is marked by a local specificity, reminiscent of the novels of Orhan Parmuk’s Istanbul, and the film, at moments, almost seems like a poetic and literary love song to Mumbai. Batra has cited both Parmuk and Czech novelist, Milan Kundera as important influences on his work. But Batra’s script and filmic sensibility also owes much to the literary sensibility of Latin America, particularly, Argentinian writers, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. The narrative is character- as well as story-driven and dramatizes the conflicts between tradition and modernity, individuality and family that arise in new configurations and opportunities created by living in the city.

Linguistically, the films navigates the axis of Hindi and English, which remains true to the educated, professional middle-class milieu the film describes. The film at times almost achieves poetic qualities, through the way in which the camera frames the domestic homes and workspaces. The axis on which this is developed is the position of Ila whom we see for the majority of the film inside her kitchen and the home, virtually imprisoned. This position is only enhanced by her relationship with the anonymous ‘Aunty’, who lives above her, whom we only encounter as a disembodied voice. The emerging relationship between Ila and Saajan flourishes through their shared feeling of entrapment. Saajan is imprisoned by his past; Ila, by her marriage. Ila, though perhaps a victim of her circumstances, is a strong character and the epistolary relationship between the two works because of their shared experience of loneliness at different stages in their life. What we witness, then, is two people sifting through the baggage of their lives who are brought together by the impromptu exchange of notes triggered by the miracle of the mis-delivered lunchbox that connects these two people. Shaikh partakes in their story and his own life is one of reinvention and survival, against the odds, and of making the best of the opportunities offered to him. His resilience is characterised by his ability to change and evolve, much like the city of Bombay has over the centuries. The film is knitted together by the strong connective bind that are the dabbawallahs and their extraordinary delivery system, a system that is organic to the city, that works by an intricate code of numbers, letters and colours so that the lunchbox arrives at the right place, at the right time.

The Lunchbox and its national and international success reflect the burgeoning scene of independent filmmaking in India, which has experienced a resurgence in recent years. It is a wide-ranging co-production that includes financial backing from Bollywood production houses as well as international backers from France and Germany. It involved DAR Motion Pictures, Rohfilm, Cine Mosaic Productions, ASAP Films, Sikhya Entertainment, ARTE France Cinéma, National Film Development Corporation (India), Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg and was distributed in India through Bollywood film producer and director Karan Johar’s production company Dharma and the Disney-owned UTV. It launched in Britain at the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival in 2013 and enjoyed a UK-wide release in Spring 2014.

Dr Florian Stadtler researches Indian Popular Cinema/Bollywood, South Asian writing in English, particularly the work of Salman Rushdie, and British Asian Literature and History. He has published in these areas.  Find out more about Florian’s research here.

The Elephant Man: Victorian Monstrosities – Celluloid Gothic – intro by Dr Corinna Wagner, Mon 26th Jan

Our next Screen Talks event will be on Monday 26th January, 6.00pm at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Corinna Wagner, Senior Lecturer in C18th Literature, Visual Culture and Medical Humanities, Dept of English and Film Studies at the University of Exeter) will introduce The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980).

This event is the first of three ‘Celluloid Gothic’ special events, and ties in with the Art & Soul: Victorians and the Gothic Exhibition at Exeter’s RAMM,

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).

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

The Elephant Man: Victorian Monstrosities

There is so much to say about this brilliant film: about the methods and choices of the director David Lynch, about the music, about the uses of the Victorian past, and about how Lynch built his narrative on the memoirs of the Victorian surgeon Dr. Frederick Treves, who wrote the medical account of the tragic life of the ‘The Elephant Man,’ Joseph Merrick.

But we can talk about those things (and more) next week at the Screening. For now, I want to focus on some particular issues surrounding medicine, ‘monstrosity’ (to use a 19th century term), and spectacle.

The Normal and the Pathological

‘The showman — speaking as if to a dog — called out harshly: ‘Stand up!’ The thing arose slowly and let the blanket that covered its head and back fall to the ground. There stood revealed the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen. In the course of my profession I had come upon lamentable deformities of the face due to injury or disease, as well as mutilations and contortions of the body depending upon like causes; but at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed. He was naked to the waist, his feet were bare, he wore a pair of threadbare trousers that had once belonged to some fat gentleman’s suit.’

This is Treves first encounter with Merrick, as recorded in his 1923 memoirs. Merrick was exhibited in a Victorian freak show. Treves’s language is shocking to us: we expect more objectivity, professional distance, and perhaps care and understanding from our medical practitioners. Yet Treves’s straightforward account underscores our discomfort, our horror at the sight of bodies that don’t fit definitions of normal. Perhaps this seems obvious, but our visceral repulsion to ‘abject’ bodies calls attention to the way we have historically divided the world into categories of normal and abnormal/pathological.  Medical science, as Paul Youngquist points out, has built ‘the proper body’ and those who fall outside this category are destined never to experience the privileges that come with being ‘normal.’

Atavism, Degeneration and the Monstrous

Victorian society was anxious about the idea that human society could degenerate, rather than progress. What better genre to express these fears than the gothic?  Fears about the tentative nature of civilization and progress produced in gothic literature what Kelly Hurley describes as “new models of the human as abhuman, as bodily ambiguated or otherwise discontinuous in identity” (5). These abhumans or ambiguous, often monstrous characters include Robert Louis Stevenson’s primal Mr. Hyde, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Mr. Jennings and his tormenting monkey-spirit, and H. G. Wells’ human-animal mutants in The Island of Doctor Moreau. We could also include in this list the urban poor who populated Victorian London’s East End, who were often represented as atavistic, animalistic creatures. These figures are all types of animal-human hybrids; they are abject, uncanny beings who we may fear or we may have sympathy for, but who always prompt us to consider the traits that make us human and the qualities that make us civilized. Invariably, they also remind us of how fragile our ordered world is. Among these figures, the Elephant Man looms large: yes, he was Joseph Merrick, a real life individual, but he has also became a character.

elephant 1

Tracing a Tradition

The Elephant Man could be ranked too, among those visually different individuals that defied the ordinary, the normal, the typical. One of the reasons these individuals cause anxiety is because they trouble the categories and distinctions that give us such comfort and security.

According to many observers, historically this became much more the case in the Victorian era. Previously, ‘monsters’ were figures of wonder, but in an enlightened age, they became figures of deviance and dysfunction. The direction of historical change in the ways we see the anomalous body, as Rosemary Garland-Thomson puts it, ‘can be characterized simply as a movement from a narrative of the marvellous to a narrative of the deviant.’ ‘As modernity develops in Western culture,’ she argues, ‘what was once sought after as revelation becomes pursued as entertainment; what aroused awe now inspires horror; what was taken as portent shifts to a site of progress. In brief, wonder becomes error’ (3). Thus, you get the Victorian Freak show.

elephant 2elephant 3

 How do Freaks operate in Culture—then and now?

Rosemary Garland-Thomson also describes ‘freaks’ or the ‘monsters’ as ‘magnets,’ because we attach whatever events or questions we have at any given historical moment to them.

So, where are we now? And where were we in 1980, when David Lynch made this film? What anxieties are betrayed in this version of Merrick’s life? What events stimulated Lynch’s interpretation? In what way has he approached and represented bodily monstrosity? How has he represented the ‘normal’? Is this an overly sentimentalized portrait of Merrick?

And how are we representing ‘monstrosity’ now? In recent years there was a Channel 4 documentary called I am the Elephant Man, about a 31-year-old Chinese man Huang Chuncai. This ‘BodyShock’ special also outperformed BBC2’s Clowns, an examination of the lives of four children’s entertainers, which drew an audience of 1.3 million and a 6% share at the same time. However, I am the Elephant Man wasn’t the biggest performing BodyShock of this year, losing to the portrait of the world’s fattest woman, called Half-Ton Mum, which picked up 4.8 million viewers and an 18% share in January.

 Works Cited:

Rosemary Garland-Thomson. Freakery: Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: NYUP, 1996.

Kelly Hurley. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Find de Siecle. Cambridge: CUP, 1997.

Treves, Frederick. The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences. London: Cassel, 1923.

Paul Youngquist. Monstrosities: Bodies and British Romanticism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003.

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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

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.