Parky At the Pictures (12/3/2021)
[Reviews of My Donkey, My Lover & I; Eye of the Storm; and Iorram (Night Song)]
We are to stuck in Lockdown 3 for a few more weeks yet. This means that cinemas across the UK will stay still closed and all releases will be online until those drafting roadmaps decide otherwise. In addition to the offerings on Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation. Good luck, and stay safe!
MY DONKEY, MY LOVER & I.
As anyone of a certain age will tell you, the two best adverts of the 1970s were produced for Heinz. The first was a charming animation voiced by Willy Rushton about a young crocodile who hides in a cupboard with the light off because he's ashamed of his fondness for expensive baked beans. In the second, Robin Bailey cooks at a campfire while discussing the new creaminess of his favourite soups with a thistle-loving donkey named Sid, who was voiced by the inimitable Johnny Morris.
Of course, film fans will tell you that the mention of donkeys should conjure up memories of Ralph Smart's Never Take No For an Answer, Albert Lamorisse's Bim (both 1951), Tengiz Abuladze and Rezo Chkheidze's Magdana's Donkey (1955), Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), Jacques Demy's Donkey Skin (1970), Emir Kusturica's Life Is a Miracle (2004) and Richard Heap's The Runaways (2018), not to mention the wise ass voiced by Eddie Murphy in the Shrek series (2001-10). But a new title now has to be added to the list, Caroline Vignal's My Donkey, My Lover & I, which was part of the official selection for the locked-down 73rd Cannes Film Festival.
Fortysomething teacher Antoinette Lapouge (Laure Calamy) is having an affair Vladimir Loubier (Benjamin Lavernhe), the father of one of the eight year-olds in her Year 5 class. She is so excited by the prospect of spending a week with her lover in Paris that she has her form sing Véronique Sanson's `Amoureuse' to a bemused group of parents on the last day of term. However, he breaks the bad news that he is going hiking in the Cévennes with wife Eléonore (Olivia Côte) and daughter, Alice (Louise Vidal).
Quickly overcoming her disappointment, Antoinette books a last-minute berth on a trek following the route of Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879). However, she is the only member of the party to have ordered a donkey and, with the exception of the kindly Claire (Marie Rivière), the others judge her six ways from Sunday when she reveals over the introductory supper that she is only making the expedition to spring a surprise on the married lover who has no idea what she has in mind. Indeed, Bernard (François Caron) and Elizabeth (Ludivine de Chastenet) disapprove so much that they suggest she goes home and spares everyone the embarrassment.
The next day, hostel bosses Annie (Lucia Sanchez) and Jacques (Maxence Tual) provide the unsuitably dressed Antoinette with her saddlebags and camping gear and introduce her to Patrick, the Irish donkey with a mind of his own. Never having been even remotely close to such a creature before, she has no idea how to make him walk forwards and she resorts to swearing when tugging and pushing produce no results. As soon as she stops for a comfort break, however, Patrick shifts into gear to tuck into the picnic she has laid out on a blanket and she chides him while they shuffle along.
She is annoyed when she is joined by Michel (Marc Fraize), who asks if she has heard from her beau and keeps shouting at Patrick to make him trot on. He lacks the social skills to realise that she resents his interference and he only departs after she makes it abundantly clear she wants to be alone. Everyone is about to finish dinner when she reaches the hostel and Antoinette is so exhausted and touched by the sight of hosts Idriss (Denis Mpunga) and Eva (Dorothée Tavernier) dancing to Lou Bega's `Mambo No.5' while clearing the tables that she breaks down sobbing. They have heard her story and tell her about Stevenson, Fanny Osbourne and Modestine the donkey in seeking to dissuade her from returning to Paris.
Next morning, Antoinette is ready to continue and seems to be making steady progress. But, high in the hills, Patrick digs in his hooves and she hits him with her crop. Feeling guilty, she apologises and discovers that he is quite content to amble along if she talks to him. She tells him about her talent for picking the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time and gives him a recaps of her romantic misadventures to date. However, they have fallen behind schedule and darkness falls with them still stranded in the woods.
When she wakes next morning, Antoinette is surrounded by an owl, a fox, a faun and a rabbit and she feels like she has tumbled into a fairytale. In fact, fate has brought her full circle to Idris and Eva's gite and Antoinette is dozing in the dormitory when she hears Vladimir's voice outside. He is horrified to see her, but maintains a poker face as Eléonore and Alice comment on the chances of bumping into a teacher in the middle of nowhere. However, Patrick makes his feelings known with a loud braying that only stops when Vladimir leaves the field where Alice's mount, Lapin, is also grazing.
Much to Vladimir's dismay, Eléonore invites Antoinette to join them on the next stage. But he is amused by the way she chats to other guests over supper and, when she sneaks out in the night because he is sleeping in the bunk above her, he joins her in the field for naked sex with Patrick looking on. Idriss admits to being entertained by the shenanigans and wishes Antoinette well when he sees her off. But the trek proves calamitous, as not only does Eléonore inform her that her husband has a high sex drive and has lots of women on the go, but she also gets dragged along when she tries to get away from the Loubiers and Patrick trots so quickly downhill that she loses her balance.
Unable to walk, Antoinette rides into the nearby town on Patrick's back. Her reputation has gone before her and everyone seems to know about the woman who hit the trail for love. A group of bikers adopt her at the hostel and Patrick carries her to a supper bar, where she gets smoochy with a gentle giant named Shériff (Jean-Pierre Martins). She declines his offer to travel on with them and is saying her goodbyes to Patrick in the adjoining field when a vet (Ludivine Bluche) rides up on horseback and persuades her to carry on to the end because she senses her chemistry with Patrick, whom she has known since his mother died in delivering him.
Having rested her ankle, Antoinette completes her journey and flops down on to the bed in her hotel. She makes a drawing of Patrick in the guest book and is distressed to discover that he has already set out on the return trip with a new hiker. Rushing up the path, she calls the donkey's name and he responds with a bellowing bray. Chasing after the creature, Romain (Matthieu Sampeur) is so touched by the sight of Antoinette hugging Patrick's muzzle that he invites her to spend the day with them and they disappear into the hazy early morning sunlight to the sound of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson singing `My Rifle, My Pony and Me' from Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo (1959).
Without doubt, the stars of this enjoyable excursion are Pedro, Jazou and Kiki the donkeys. But the Cévennes landscape comes and close second, thanks to Simon Beaufils's painterly photography. Annette Dutertre's editing is also perfectly paced and is beautifully complemented by the clippity-clopping of Matei Bratescot's gently playful score. Nobody puts a foot wrong among the supporting cast, either, as they greet Antoinette with a mixture of curiosity and encouragement as news of her escapade precedes her.
Which brings us to Laure Calamy. Although she has co-starred in such features as Thomas Bidegain's Les Cowboys (2015), Justine Triet's In Bed With Victoria (2016) and Léa Mysius's Ava (2017), she is likely to be best known in this country as assistant Noémie Leclerc in Marc Fitoussi and Cédric Klapisch's cult Netflix comedy, Call My Agent! (2015-20). However, she will forever be remembered as Antoinette Lapouge, whether she is dressed to the nines and freaking out a playground full of parents, over-sharing on the first night with her new travelling companions, resisting the attentions of mansplaining losers or trying to laugh off Eléonore's accusations of adultery.
But, while Calamy endures her share of humiliations during her rite of passage, it's her bond with Jazou and Pedro that most delights, with the latter doing the stuntwork and the former exuding asinine charisma in the close-ups. Bravo Caroline Vignal for bringing them together and for telling her tale with a wit and allure that matches her strong visual sense, appreciation of human nature and grasp of comic pathos.
The cast and crew will know later today (12 March) how many of the eight César nominations they have converted. But, with Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevalier likely to cancel each other out for Filippo Meneghetti's Two of Us, Calamy's chances of winning Best Actress will depend upon whether the voters wish to reward Camélia Jordana for making the transition from pop star to actress in Emmanuel Mouret's Love Affair(s) or whether Virginie Efira is overdue for Albert Dupontel's Bye Bye Morons after missing out for the aforementioned In Bed With Victoria and Catherine Corsini's An Impossible Love (2018).
EYE OF THE STORM.
Documentarian Anthony Baxter will forever be associated with taking on Donald J. Trump in You've Been Trumped (2011) and You've Been Trumped Too (2016). However, the Montrose-based film-maker has also proved himself to be a notable cine-activist with A Dangerous Game (2014) and Flint (2020). Now, he changes tack with Eye of the Storm, a profile of the late Scottish artist James Morrison, who would never have met Baxter had they not shared an opposition to a certain golf course in Aberdeenshire.
Baxter spent two years with Morrison, during which time he was painting less as his eyesight deteriorated. However, Guy Peploe and Christina Jansen from the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh remained keen to exhibit his work and the latter examines his switch from oils like `Angus Landscape' (1965) to such watercolours as `Green Valley' (1972), while also noting the detail in such larger canvases as `Winter Balgove' (1986) and `Montrose Basin At Low Tide' (1990). Jansen also points out the complexities of his branchwork in `Trees At Friockheim' (1986). But Morrison specialised in capturing light in the dramatic Angus skies and Baxter elides between several unlabelled images that he contrasts with magic hour images of his own.
As we see views of the wild coastline and `Storm Over the Grampians' (2015). Morrison explains that he doesn't include people because he wishes to show the independence of the landscape from human society. Even at the start of his career, when the son of a Clyde ship's fitter painted the tenements of Glasgow in pictures like `Rottenrow: The Midgies' (1955), he was more interested in the character of the architecture than the residents of the blackened buildings. Despite preserving long-demolished neighbourhoods, he claims to have avoided making socio-political points in the likes of `Kelvinhaugh Street' (1960) and `Belhaven Terrace' (1975)and amusingly remembers how a picture of the sloping properties of Athole Gardens had almost got him into an argument in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, when a burly man took exception to his draughtsmanship.
A believer in painting outdoors, Morrison became intrigued by the coastline around the fishing village of Catterline after visiting it on his honeymoon in 1960. He enthuses about the area over `East Coast Fishing Boat' (1962) and `Fishing Nets, Catterline' (1967) and recalls with gratitude being accepted by both the locals and other artists like Joan Eardley, whom he would profile after her death at the age of 42 in a BBC programme. However, as his wife, Dorothy, had secured a teaching post in Montrose, Morrison was forced to relocate in 1965 and devote three days a week to his own classes at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee.
He spent 22 happy years here, as art historian son John Morrison recalls, while also noting that his father liked to make his own glazes. Pottering in his studio (which has the words `Wet Paint' on the door glass), Morrison shows off the brushes he bought from the Sennellier Art Shop in Paris and one of Catriona Black's delightful animations shows him acquiring them with his halting French. Since his sight began to fade, he has been content to work indoors and he allows Baxter to film him creating a cloudscape, while explaining his brush strokes.
As we see `Low Winter Sun' (2005), `Ann's Tree, Loch Tuath' (2011) and `Winter in Angus' (2015), Montrose writer Denis Rice describes how it became impossible to view familiar landscapes in the same light after seeing them in one of Morrison's canvases. He empathises with the pain of losing his sight, as Morrison shows how he channelled his grief following Dorothy's death into `A Lady Remembered' (2006). While showing Baxter around his home, he also points out a painting of Crown Terrace in Glasgow, which the organiser of an exhibition at the Glasgow Art Club asked him to alter by including a cyclist in the foreground to cheer it up because the show was going to be opened by the Lord Provost.
Morrison concedes that he has indulged in flights of fancy and once designed his own planets. He also experimented with triptychs and shows off a couple on his own wall. Son John places him in the historical context of Claude Lorrain (`The Ford', 1636 and `Sunrise', 1647), as well as Dutch landscapers like Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch (The Shipping Canal at Rijswick', 1868) and such Barbizon Schoolers as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (`Forest of Fontainebleu, 1830), Charles-François Daubiigny (`Landscape With Cattle By a Stream, 1872) and Jean-François Millet (Pasture Near Cherbourg, 1872). He also compares works like `Rolling Landscape Angus' (1973) with Horatio McCullough's `Loch Lomond' (1861) and `Glencoe' (1864).
During a two-winter spell in Paris, Morrison refocused on buildings in works like `Le Pavillon de Marson' (1992), which he is pleased bears similarities to such Édouard Manet pieces as `La Rue Monsier' (1878). Around this time, he also undertook the first of four expeditions to Greenland and Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, canvases from which are being exhibited in the McManus Art Gallery & Museum in Dundee.
While researching for her digital animations, Black stumbled across the story of the seventysomething pilot nicknamed `the Arctic Fox' and Morrison regales us with the story of a flight to Otto Fjord on Ellesmere Island, where he produced `Bergs Otto Ford' (1992). He also remembers an encounter with a notorious polar bear and how the members of the team had to hold hands in a line across the snow to dissuade the creature from approaching. Humbled by the beauty of what he had seen, Morrison is proud to have held the only exhibition opening in the Arctic Circle.
Chatting with Rice, Morrison admits to being an atheist who doesn't mind people being transcended by his work. He finds a serene connection with the land in places like St Cyrus in Aberdeenshire, where he painted `Raised Beach, St Cyrus' (1971). But he is no longer permitted to work outdoors and keeps trying new lenses in a bid to stay at his easel for as long as he can. As his 25th exhibition approaches, he is determined to produce something new and admits to being so self-critical that he often abandons items that are not up to his exacting standards. He puts in an appearance with his daughter, Judith, to the delight of the guests and lingers by such pictures as `Large Berg II' (1994), `Redford' (2008) and `Dark Landscape' (2019).
Closing captions reveal that he died eight months later on 31 August 2020 at the age of 88. As he walks on the Montrose links remembering his friend, Rice ponders the prospect that he will now know the answer to their debate about the existence of God and pauses to note that, on this particular day, He has given them a James Morrison sky. It's a beautiful way to end an affectionate and fascinating portrait of a highly talented and deeply spiritual man - whether he would accept the compliment or not.
Strikingly abetted by Catriona Black, Baxter captures both the majesty of the Scottish and Arctic landscapes and Morrison's inspired records of them. He also conveys the temperament of a man who could see the world he loved being slowly eroded by the follies of post-industrial consumer society and his sadness is reflected in the gradual loss of the sight that enabled him to see the truth. In truth, Baxter overdoes Graham Black's drone photography, but his own rich images counterpoint Morrison's sublime perspectives. Considering the artist's fondness for hinged works, this would form a fine triptych along with An Artist's Eyes (2018), Jack Bond's account of Chris Moon's expedition to Andalucia, Charlie Paul's record of Peter Howson at work in Prophecy (2019).
IORRAM (NIGHT SONG).
Alastair Cole makes a little bit of history with Iorram (Night Song), as this is the first cinema documentary to have been made entirely in Scottish Gaelic. The product of two years' research, it makes extensive use of the 30,000 audio clips held at the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, which were gathered by a team of pioneering ethnographers during the same postwar period that Alan Lomax was making his epochal field recordings in Appalachia. In addition to songs, superstitions and stories, the Scottish team were also keen to capture the language of the far-flung Hebridean communities and Cole retraces their steps in alighting upon Vatersay, Barra, South Uist, Harris and Lewis.
Over footage of small boats putting out to sea on placid waters, we hear the first voices from the past. One marvels about the wonders of a machine that can record and playback speech, while another lays out the year in terms of the seasonal catch and the endless round of chores that need to be done on their crofts and boats in order to feed themselves and their livestock. A man sings an old shanty about the trusty boat he bought from some Swedes, while another describes life afloat with the grumpy and demanding lobster fisherman Coinneach Aonghais, who preferred to use sails and oars rather than his temperamental motor and who refused to allow his crew to whistle.
Each contributor testifies to the harshness of existence, but no one complains. They accept that hard work was the price for living on the islands and that compensations came in other forms. Among them were stories like the one about the fisherman whose chat with a singing thrush prompted him to down the half bottle of whisky in his jacket and turn back for home before he'd dropped his nets. Such were the superstitions about the trade, however, it's a wonder anyone set out at all. Mondays were considered unlucky, while catches would be poor if a fisherman ate an egg, saw a rabbit or met a woman on his way to the boat.
We learn why the residents of Mingulay decamped to Vatersay in 1912 and, as we watch modern trawlermen paying out their nets, we hear an old man enthusing about Barra herring being the best in the world. He explains how crews followed the whales and gannets to find the plumpest fish, which were caught in special nets and exported to America. However, the bigger breed has since disappeared and they have to be content with the smaller fish they catch in the sea and the nearby lochs. Another fellow describes how he came to write a song about the strangers from Scalpay, who tried to convince him that the future lay in echosound readings.
Over shots of navigational aids, we hear a man reveal that the owner of a craft wasn't automatically its skipper, as the crew would elect the most experienced and reliable sailor to ensure they would get their catch home safely. Another recalls the custom on Loch Hourn of boats helping out with bumper hauls and how one time a skipper forgot to take the name of a craft that had come to his assistance and he only had his nets returned when a counterpart remembered that one of his crew had worn a Balmoral cap.
As women work in a modern packing plant, we hear from predecessors who had ventured as far south as Yarmouth and Lowestoft before the Great War and struggled to make themselves understood, while trying to buy soap or telling their landladies what they liked to eat. They sing a jaunty song about having the pick of the menfolk on a night out, but they shiver when recalling the biting cold in England. But the segment contains laments that chime in with the sombre tales of those lost at sea, including those supposedly hauled away by the fairy hosts. But the saddest account details how Alasdair Mac an t-Sassanaich from Stornaway was forced to abandon his brother Dòmhnall's boat in the swell around Port of Ness because his own crew would have drowned trying to save him.
As an elderly woman sings of how weeping won't bring any lost souls back, we see modern fisherman sorting the contents of their creels. Following a morality tale about the time Iain Beag tried to cheat a shopkeeper, we hear a woman recalling the time a relative saw a mermaid at sea. Over shots of ruined dwellings, we also learn about the loathing of the bailiffs who evicted people from their homes and forced them to build their own shielings to survive. During the Highland Clearances, the Stewart bailiff of the MacLeod of Harris drove people off Pabbay, Ensay and Killegray because they wanted the land for themselves. But the speaker knows this was an act of Protestant intolerance against the Catholic tenants.
A lament is sung about a woman who is so in debt that she can't afford Sunday best shoes and we see shots of the lifeboat and coastguard stations, as a man recalls the great storm of 1934 when `The Bonnie Lass' was presumed lost. The teller reveals that the people of Tolsta were used to tragedies. But this incident had a happy ending, as the boat had somehow survived the tempest and made it safely back to port, However, a woman warns against setting out on 3 May, as this is the cursed birth date of St Job, and she tells of how four men from Pabbay were lost on that day. Another man recounts how a crew had pulled in for the night after being spooked by a light twinkling in the stern. Despite leaving the vessel in safe harbour, it had filled with water and a young girl had drowned while playing nearby. As her body was pulled out with a lantern, it was presumed that this was the light the fishermen had seen all those years before.
Following an anecdote about the travails of exploited seaweed cutters, we hear a woman remembering the night she had so covered a neighbour's window with the green algae that she overslept by several hours because she still thought it was dark. Such levity gives way to the poignant story of a young boy who drowned shortly after encountering a mermaid who had refused to budge from the deck of a fishing boat until the youth had thrown a herring into the sea.
Over shots of workers on a break, we hear a woman reminiscing about putting on her Saturday finery and dancing with a Barra man who was so drunk that she had to put bicarbonate of soda in his tea to sober him up. Next comes a recollection from a man who had applied to work at the lighthouse at Haisgeir prior to the Great War and returned to discover that he was now two years too old for the post. Keen to help, the man interviewing hinted that he could bend the rules if he was married, but the speaker decided it probably wasn't worth rushing out to find a wife solely to land a job.
Following a lively courting shanty, we hear stories about a crew being offered bottles of whisky and brandy by what they had feared were pirates and about a father who dealt with a whale that had pursued the boat after he had criticised his sons for not putting far enough out to sea. Another tale tells of a crew who vanished from their boat and fetched up in the West Indies, where had been sold into servitude. A woman from the islands had recognised the handsomest fellow and he had agreed to marry her if she helped him escape. But he failed to return home and she remarried, presuming him lost at sea. However, he had merely been delayed and had chosen not to embarrass her when he returned to find she had moved on.
We hark back to Viking times for the story of a raiding party that was lured on to the rocks of what became known as the Headland of the Dead by an abducted native of Haisgeir. Coming forward, another tale tells of a father and son sailing to fish off Skye when the boy saw a strange creature paddling along in a crab shell. His father prevented him from prodding it with an oar, which is just as well as it turned out to be their host at Ròthag, who had used magic to shrink himself so that he could steal the goodness from the cattle. As we see a drone shot of seals waddling along the tideline, an ill omen comes in the form of the shell-encrusted horse that a young girl sees when she is left alone on a beach to cut seaweed. But there's a happier outcome to the account of the Mingulay men who sailed to Pabbay for alcohol for a wedding, as they managed to hide the bottles in their nets and leave them on the seabed to avoid having them confiscated by excisemen.
Then, there's the charming story of the fisherman who lost his pipe while setting creels and he found it the next day in the claw of a lobster, who looked so dignified that it was spared. Another tall tale follows, as a lost boat from North Dell was found at the end of a plummet line, with its crew drinking in a pub in New Zealand having passed through the centre of the Earth. But there's a Brigadoon feel to the story of the old blind man who fetched up on Barra and could tell where a fish had been caught by feeling its scales. As he kept telling crews they had been working in the wrong place, one skipper insisted on taking him with them and they eventually found a spot teeming with fish. The veteran asked if they could see land and invited them to sup at the house at the top of a hill. An old woman greeted them and didn't seem surprised that her husband had been gone for so long. He warned the fishermen to watch out for their boat in the swell and they had no sooner got aboard than the island disappeared. According to the legend Rocabarra can only be found again by the Ruaraidh of the Three Ruaraidhs.
As a maiden sings to the boatman she has set her cap on, we see black-and-white photographs of the islanders who may well be among those listed in the closing credits. But nothing is dated and the style of dress means that these pictures could have been taken at any time in the decades preceding the Edinburgh interviews. It's nice to see some archive imagery and more might have been used during the course of the film. However, the need to focus so squarely on the subtitles means that any historical material might have proved distracting. although Alastair Cole might also have been keen to keep away from anything that might have drawn comparison with Robert Flaherty's notoriously stage-managed documentary, Man of Aran (1934).
The digital shots of working fisherman suggest this could form a contentious double bill with Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier's Of Fish and Foe (2018), which chronicles the showdown between a group of Sea Shepherd activists and the salmon-fishing Pullar family from Angus. Although the boats and the equipment with which they are fitted might have changed, the basics of the lifestyle remain, hence the extensive onboard footage, Yet, we never witness any storms at sea and this sense of placidity makes the decision to include an image of a large eel being brutally hacked in half feel all the more regrettable, especially when it is juxtaposed with such glorious underwater shots of gliding jellyfish, hunting gannets and fish milling around a sunken wreck.
Folk musician Aidan O'Rourke's catchily traditional Scottish score reinforces the rhythms established between the leisurely raconteuring and editor Colin Monie's assured son et lumièring of Cole's authentic workplace imagery. All that's missing is an insight into what the men and women on the boats and in the factories think about the future of their industry and the Union in a post-Brexit Hebridean reality that is a world away from the one described by their forebears.