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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (30/6/2023)

(Reviews of The Super 8 Years; Mother and Son; To Nowhere; Hello, Bookstore; and My Extinction)


THE SUPER 8 YEARS.


Anyone pining for the late, great Agnès Varda or Jonas Mekas can find solace in the voiceover written and spoken by 82 year-old novelist Annie Ernaux for her son David Ernaux-Briot's assemblage actuality, The Super 8 Years. Reflecting on the home movies recorded by husband Philippe on a Bell & Howell Super 8mm camera, this is not merely an account of a family's drift towards dissolution, but it's also a record of shifting social attitudes in France between 1972-81.


Relocating from Bordeaux, Philippe and Annie initially found Annecy a little touristy. However, along with sons Éric (seven) and David (three), they settled into the pace of life. She taught, while he worked at city hall, acquiring the camera in preference to a colour television or a dishwasher. We see Annie coming home with the boys and the scene seems harmless enough. But she detects a kind of violence in the way they were made to pose and accept moments being torn from their lives for unspecified preservation.


Philippe assumed the role of chief chronicler, which Annie was happy to cede, as she feared damaging the expensive equipment. But, as we see her lounging on the bed with a book and shooting the lens expressions of begrudged tolerance, she admits that such divisions of labour were typical in the household. Her widowed mother, Blanche Duchesne, lived with them and she was happy to take care of the boys while Annie secretly pursued her ambition to write. She explains that the happy family seen on Christmas Day 1972 (which was also Éric's eighth birthday) hid the reality that she was shaping into her first novel, in which both her mother and husband were transparently fictionalised.


Keen to travel, but not lie on beaches, the Ernaux clan flew to Chile for Easter and saw Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova handing out school uniforms. Excited by the regime of Salvador Allende, Annie took an excursion to a giant copper mine in the Atacarma Desert and was thrilled to meet the president and hear his plans to transform the country during a trip to La Moneda in Santiago. At Valparaiso, she reminded herself of the promise she had made at 20 to write in order to avenge her people.


As the Allende dream was snatched away, Annie spent time with her sister-in-law, Dominique, and her female companion in the Ardèche. Making her nostalgic for an era she had never known, these rustic escapes gave the children the chance to learn about livestock and experience a quotidian pace from a bygone age. But the images are now tinged with sadness, as a nuclear plant would be built nearby and the unspoilt landscape has now fallen prey to global warning, a concept that even socialists like herself had ignored in the 70s.


Annie also feels guilty about the three-week stay in Morocco, which was repressively ruled by King Hassan II. Seeing the films again, she recalls the luxury of the hotel, the segregated beaches, the haggling with tour guides, and the amount of time David spent learning new songs in the crèche. She also remembers hoping that the completed manuscript in her desk would emancipate her, although she wasn't sure how and from what.


The same thoughts tantalised during a festival in Annecy celebrating its twinning with Bayreuth. By 1974, however, Cleaned Out would be on shelves and Annie's life would never quite be the same again. This also had much to do with moving into a cramped ring-road apartment after losing the big house when Philippe resigned his job. But she admits in retrospect that publishing a book didn't quite change things in ways she had hoped or believed it would.


With her in-laws now in the Ardèche, Annie leaves the boys in their enthusiastic care to visit Albania with Philippe. Pictures could only be taken with the express permission of the interpreter, while access to the beach was limited to restrict interaction with locals. Under constant surveillance by the Sigurimi, she had felt uncomfortably decadent and notes with irony that the monuments erected by Enver Hoxha have not lasted as long as those dating back to Antiquity. However, she also recognises that the intimation of a better life that tourists like herself had conveyed has prompted a wave of migrants to leave Albania, which is now one of the Mediterranean's leading holiday destination.


Back home, the couple bought a share in an apartment at an Alpine ski resort and Annie regards footage of the boys on the slopes gives her a degree of pride. However, indoor images seem to reinforce the status roles that Philippe had imposed upon them and her resentment at being dubbed `Fish Mama' after a Boby Lapointe song is readily evident. She sees puzzlement in her expressions, as the duty to enjoy herself when she didn't ski made her question why she was even there.


Over footage of the boys playing with cut hay in a sunlit field, Annie reveals that the family wound up in the Parisian satellite town of Cergy-Pontoise. She comments on Philippe's habit of filming items around the house and wonders if it was betrayed an insecurity that was rooted in his Jesuit schooling and his father's peripatetic existence. However, she also regrets not hiding her growing detachment from her husband from her mother, who had decided to return to Yvetot in Normandy.


Spending the summer of 1976 proved more therapeutic, as Annie banished memories of working as an au pair in Finchley in 1960. Amused at finding herself in a hotel amidst the sex shops of Soho, she had taken the boys on the Thames and the Serpentine rather than frog-marching them around museums. The following year, the family moved to a large 1950s house overlooking Cergy and Annie notes how different it looked in Philippe's movies than in Éric Rohmer's Boyfriends and Girlfriends, which was made in 1987. However, she also realises that there were no more shots of birthdays or Christmases, as the boys were growing up and she and Philippe were growing apart.


In the autumn of 1978, she accompanied him to Corsica for a conference in Ajaccio. Often left alone, she worked on A Frozen Woman, which questioned why someone who had been raised to believe that men and women are equal had accepted the role of homemaker. The manuscript had been sent to her editor by the time the clan hit Spain in 1980, in spite of the ETA threats to tourists. With the boys demanding heavy metal music in the car, they had journeyed to Pamplona to sample sights eulogised by Ernest Hemingway. However, the road trip through historic cities became increasingly fractious and Annie remains ominously silent during footage of the hideous cruelty of a bullfight.


Although they travelled en famille to Portugal in 1981, relations between Annie and Philippe had deteriorated to the extent that there were no happy memories for the camera to capture. Nevertheless, she took the chance to join him on a four-day work trip to Moscow. She recalls the frustration of being restricted to official tours and wondered how it felt to be part of a country that made no effort to hide the self-conscious Communist myth.


This would crumble into history's dust by the decade's end. By the Enaux marriage didn't run to another summer. Philippe took the camera and left Annie with the projector, the archive, the screen, and the boys, as if making clear that he was embarking upon a new existence that didn't need to be cluttered with remembrances of the past. However, the faff of setting things up meant that the films went unseen until Éric and David's children expressed an interest in their grandparents. All bar Annie had died, along with the France they had known. So, she felt compelled to provide a commentary to mention the changing administrations in the Elysées Palace and how she had also evolved over the decade as a woman, a mother, and an artist.


Three of Annie Ernaux's books have been adapted for the screen, in the form of Patrick Mario Bernard and Pierre Trividic's The Other One (2008), Danielle Arbid's Simple Passion (2020), and Audrey Diwan's Happening (2021). This is her first direct encounter with cinema, however, and there's a gnawing irony in the fact that it comes courtesy of images taken by a man whose name she only ever mentions in full.


In fact, Philippe was an accomplished cameraman, with a keen sense of composition and the ability to hold focus while panning and zooming. Moreover, he had an enviable eye for `what you will never see twice'. The fact that he so rarely allows the lens to be turned on him, however, says much about the power dynamics within the marriage that would eventually drive the couple apart and leave Annie Ernaux with an indelible sense of pique.


Assuming considerable foreknowledge of recent French history, as well as her own life and works, Ernaux offers acidic insights into the mess made by men in public affairs during the 1970s, while also commenting on the regimes visited on her travels. However, she spares Philippe (who succumbed to smokers' cancer) from overt criticism in preferring to judge her own situation by the general attitudes towards women during the period. Consistently juxtaposing memory with hindsight, Ernaux finds clues about her lost life both in what the imagery contains and in what it slowly starts to lack.


Very much the work of a woman on the frontline of time, the commentary represents the art of remembering at its most poignant and pugnacious. The awed critic, therefore, should echo in conclusion Ernaux's citation for the 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature, which commended `the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory'.


MOTHER AND SON.


Having won the Caméra d'or at Cannes for her debut, Jeune Femme (2017), Léonor Serraille presents another portrait of a woman striving to belong in her sophomore feature, Mother and Son. Inspired by the recollections of her partner of 18 years, who came to France from sub-Saharan Africa as a small boy, this three-part insight into the migrant experience takes its structural cues from Jane Campion's exceptional adaptation of Janet Frame's An Angel At My Table (1990).


In 1989, Rose Koffi (Annabelle Lengronne) leaves her home in Abidjan with her son, Jean (Sidy Foudana) and Ernest (Milan Doucansi), who are five and ten. Relatives Eugénie (Audrey Kouakou) and Félicien (Étienne Minoungou) offer her a room in their banlieue apartment and introduce her to their friends at a welcome party. Jules César (Jean-Christophe Folly) takes a shine to her and the boys, but Rose resents being match-made and hooks up instead with Malick (Majd Mastoura), a Tunisian with family in Marseilles, whom she had spotted from the window of the hotel where she works as a chambermaid.


Eugénie disapproves of the liaison and isn't sorry when he leaves. But the tension remains, with Eugénie accusing Rose of acting like a princess (which feels apt when she attends a staff function at the hotel owner's château and wakes with seemingly no memory of the previous night's orgy). Her boys want to know when their brothers will join them, but she urges them to be patient and to work hard at school and never let anyone see them crying. They seem to be settling well, but an affair with another guest, Thierry (Thibaut Evrard) results in the family moving to Rouen.


Eight years pass and Jean (Stéphane Bak) is left to look after Ernest (Kenzo Sambin) while Rose continues to work in Paris. He does well at school and ensures his brother studies hard. Jean has also started dating Camille (Angelina Woreth) and is worried that they will drift apart if they go to different colleges. As Rose is usually exhausted when she gets home, Jean holds his tongue about his frustration with her lifestyle and has little time for Thierry. Indeed, he gets into a fight when they bump into him at the café he has chosen to break the news to Rose that his wife is pregnant.


Jean is supposed to attend a party at Camille's house and puts on a suit. However, he slinks away to a nightclub and daubs war paint on his face. Dancing in a space filled with plants to make it feel like a jungle, he picks up a woman in her late twenties (Manon Clavel) and brings her back to the apartment. But he tries to force himself on her and she freaks when Ernest pokes his head around the door. Shortly afterwards, Rose announces she is going to marry Jules and Jean storms out in disgust.


He doesn't come to the wedding and Ernest is dismayed to hear Jules describing Jean as a delinquent who needs a stint in the army. This sorry scene contrasts with the summer house party organised by Anna (Laetitia Dosch), the mother of a classmate and Ernest wishes Rose was more like her. Having had his first kiss, Ernest gets home to find that Jean has returned to Ivory Coast and he is so angry with Rose for claiming that he had become a bad influence that he rushes out.


A decade later, Ernest (Ahmed Sylla) is a philosophy teacher, but he's still subjected to being stopped and searched by racist Parisian cops. Rose comes to visit him and informs him that she's breaking up with Jules. She's pleased he is teaching and asks if he'd join her on a trip back to Africa. He declines, as he's got too much on. But he's moved when she gives him a letter from Jean asking for a loan to buy a taxi. Tears flow, as he contemplates how little distance they seem to have travelled after struggling for so long.


Leaving much in the margins, this is a boldly ambitious drama that seeks to explore the impact on two young boys of their mother's decision to separate them from their siblings and start afresh in a foreign land. Initially trustingly dependent upon an increasingly absent parent, the brothers aren't always convinced by the trappings of the better life she has promised them. But Annabelle Lengronne ensures that Rose's flaws cannot be held against her, as it's clear that she has suffered back in Abidjan and is entitled to seize any happiness she can find in trying to give her boys the best chance to make something of themselves.


Left to babysit his brother, the 19 year-old Jean wouldn't necessarily agree. But, despite a fine performance by Stéphane Bak, the central segment is the least cohesive of the triptych, as Serraille makes rather laboured use of African rhythms and classical strains to counterpoint Jean's dichotomy. It also doesn't help that the shifts in perspective deflect attention away from the other family members, so it's never exactly clear whose story is being told and the extent to which it is being shaped by off-screen forces. Moreover, such is Lengronne's excellence in the opening chapter as the mercurial Rose that her absence is keenly felt in the ensuing sections, which require the audience to get to know new faces as Jean and Ernest striving to live up to maternal expectation.


Serraille never quite finds a way to smooth over these transitions, even though, as always, Hélène Louvart's camerawork captures character as effectively as it does the landscape. Similarly, Marion Burger's production design and Isabelle Pannetier's costumes deftly convey the gradual Gallicisation that drives a wedge between mother and sons, as she goes her own way while continuing to feel pangs for a homeland from which they have become emotionally detached.


Not that they become particularly invested in La Patrie, however, with the TV news snippets used to contextualise events seeming to have little bearing on their everyday existence. Although this says much about the sense of limbo that Jean and Ernest are left alone to endure, Serraille deprives them of a sense of shifting identity by ensuring they comply with Rose's order to keep their feelings bottled up. Consequently, we never really get to know them and we almost fail to recognise her when she makes her worn-down reappearance.


TO NOWHERE.


Made three years ago and garlanded on the indie festival circuit, writer-director Sian Astor-Lewis's debut feature, To Nowhere, has much in common with Jane Gull's Love Without Walls. Seeking to do something different with the venerable tradition of British social realism, each film focusses on the travails of young people seeking to find their niche. However, this earnest insight into teenage angst similarly suffers from trying to pack too many pressing themes and distressing incidents into a slender storyline.


Finn (Josefine Glæsel) is sleeping on the bedroom floor of her best friend, Tulip (Lilit Lesser). Getting up early, Finn wees on the toothbrush belonging to Tulip's Uncle Stanley (Orlando Seale), who divides his day between playing loud music, a dance class, and browsing in a sex shop.


Although Finn and Tulip are supposed to be in school, but they bunk off to see the latter's grandmother (Jane Wood), who has dementia. When she calls the short-haired Finn a handsome fellow, the friends exchange knowing glances before making a dash to guzzle booze from the sideboard before Nan returns from making tea.


Finn is reluctant to go on the riverbank in case their shoes get dirty and they are embarrassed when a metal detector man passes as she needs hurriedly to insert a tampon. They wind up at a playground, where Tulip marvels at Finn's energy on a swing until she gets hit in the mouth while playing throw and catch with the seat.


They wander into a pub, where Stanley tries to strike up a conversation with acoustic singer, Charlie (Sam Larner). Smuggling a glass of beer into a toilet stall, the pair are disturbed by a drunken woman (Lacey Bond), who taunts them for being `dykes' and mocks Finn's appearance. She's furious and slaps Tulip, who wanders into the bar, where Stanley suggests they get a place together because her father (Michael Warburton) has been impossible to live with since he was widowed.


Sitting outside with Charlie, Finn cadges a cigarette, but refuses the offer of a light. Tulip, however, cups his hands when Charlie sparks his lighter and Finn discomfits him by mentioning their fake ID. As he had kissed Tulip the night before, he gets twitchy that she might be underage and tries to reassure others in the beer garden that nothing untoward had happened. Tulip asks Finn why they always try to embarrass her, but she stalks off.


Finn suggests calling Ellen (Danu Smith), who meets them with a carrier bag full of beer. Tulip leaves them to it and watches a couple snogging against a metal security door beside the railway line before getting back to find Finn bawling at Ellen, as she beats a hasty retreat. When she asks what happened, Finn admits she has no idea.


Buying a cheap bottle of red wine, Finn reveals that they struck their mother before running away. The twosome saunter home to see if they can find any money in Stanley's room. While rummaging, they find some animal masks and put them on and tussle on the bed. Finn digs into a bag and finds the bondage masks that Stanley had bought in the sex shop and they put them on.


Pushing Tulip down on the bed, Finn kisses her passionately and starts to undress her, ordering her to call herself Rose. Just as they become aroused, however, they hear Stanley and try to hide under the bed. He rumbles them and is annoyed to find them wearing the masks, which he claims he acquired for a DJing gig. Composing himself, he offers to let them hang on to them for a couple of days, as he ushers them into the corridor. Tulip is ashamed, but Finn remains moodily silent.


Back in Tulip's room, however, they collapse into giggles on the floor. When Finn stands up, however, Tulip asks if she's wet herself and gets slapped across the face. Hurt, she asks what's wrong and gauges from Finn's evasive responses that she had once been molested by her uncle. Insisting that it doesn't bother them, Finn puts the mask back on and they make out on the bed. While Tulip sleeps, however, Finn packs a bag and leaves into the night.


Cesare Zavattini, the spiritual father of neo-realism, once claimed that the perfect film would depict a day in the life of someone to whom nothing happens. Ostensibly, Sian Astor-Lewis takes a leaf out of his book with this Thursday odyssey, as Tulip and Finn don't get up to much as they mooch around South-West London in search of the next drink. But each stop reveals something more about the couple, as well as their individual problems and the nature of their relationship.


It's not always easy to decipher what Dane Josefine Glæsel is saying, but this reinforces Finn's unknowable unpredictability, as they try to fathom their feelings for Tulip and the depth of the traumas that makes them so volatile. With her Pre-Raphaelite tresses, Lilit Lesser makes Tulip more naively romantic. But she's not immune from pain and the trust she places in Finn is as touching as it ultimately proves misguided.


Orlando Seale is creepily effective as Uncle Stanley, although the detours Astor-Lewis takes to follow him in the early stages feel more contrived than Finn and Tulip's more spontaneous wanderings. Giving Jane Wood's nan dementia also feels gratuitously Loachian, as does the bathroom encounter with the pub lush. However, the bulk of the action feels like it takes place in a real milieu, with Mads Junker's camerawork capturing the dour abrasiveness of the situation in which the pair find themselves, through no fault of their own.


HELLO, BOOKSTORE.


Bookshops have provided the backdrop for a number of popular films, including David Hugh Jones's 84 Charing Cross Road (1987),

Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail (1998), Roger Michell's Notting Hill (1999), and Isabel Coixet's The Bookshop (2017). There have also been a couple of intriguing documentaries and D.W. Young's The Booksellers and Rachel Mason's Circus of Books (both 2019) are now joined by A.B. Zax's Hello, Bookstore, a beguiling delight that explores the impact on one independent bookseller of the Covid-19 pandemic.


The Bookstore has been part of life on Housatonic Street in Lenox, Massachusetts for five decades. In 1976, it was taken over by 30 year-old Matthew Tannenbaum, who remains its sole proprietor several thousand purchases later. He's first seen in fish-eye monochrome isolation, as he fields doorstep and telephone enquiries during lockdown in 2020. Turning people away feels like a betrayal and we can see why when Zax flashes back a year to show the shop in bustling colour and reveal Tannenbaum in his element, as he recommends books to browsers and reminds customers of the in-house Get Lit wine bar's motto: `You can't drink all day unless you start in the morning.'


Selling both used and new tomes, Tannenbaum is the kind of bibliophile who believes there's a book for everything. Recommendations often come with anecdotes and he readily tells Zax about discovering the Beats when he was in the navy. He recalls being widowed and taking on the sole responsibility for his daughters, Shawnee and Sophie, who were only seven and three. The former is now pregnant and the prospect of becoming a grandfather excites him.


Children read in chairs dotted around the store, as Tannenbaum answers questions about plotlines and quotes from books that have left indelible impressions. His passion is for writing and sharing secret discoveries with others. But this is harder to do when Coronavirus keeps people beyond the door and he has to place books on a stool on the pavement to ensure mandated distances. Transactions are conducted by credit card, with numbers being shouted through the glass.


Tannenbaum is glad to maintain his service, but business slow to the point that he is selling in a week what he used to shift in a day. As a result, he has to suspend his account with Simon & Schuster because he owes them so much money. At one point he asks (a question that could be asked by many a freelance film critic), `Who would spend all the hours that I spend for the little pay that I get?' Needing to keep up stock levels during a cash-flow crisis proves a trial and he knows he risks losing customers by having to turn them away. He cheers himself up by reading passages from beloved tomes and trying to organise Zoom talks with local authors.


He shows an assistant around the storeroom and points out titles of interest that he felt compelling to pick up but has never put out for sale. With another kerbside customer, he reminisces about how a fascination with Anaïs Nin led to his 70s stint at the Gotham Book Mart, which had been opened during the Jazz Age by Frances Steloff. She didn't read much, but made this a literary focal point and Tannenbaum recalls Martha Graham being a regular. His mind also wanders back to delivering a manuscript to the Scrivener publishing house and walking up stairs that had been used by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, although he surmises that Edith Wharton would have sent her chauffeur.


From the till, Tannenbaum leans forward to enjoy the smile of a man who has found the book he was looking for. This is where he weaves his magic, telling one customer about the shop's founder, David Silverstein and his connections to Alice Brock and Arlo Guthrie. A toy train runs along a track in the Christmas window, as Tannenbaum takes a woman on a tour of the shelves that results in her leaving with two carrier bags. Another learns how his Polish father had rowed across the St Lawrence to join his parents in New York after being denied access to the United States.


So many yarns and each one is told with unassuming eloquence, as Tannenbaum praises the authors who have shaped his mind. Shawnee adores the fact her father has time for everyone and remembers coming from school to watch him interact with customers. But he would be the first to admit to being a mediocre businessman and he realises during the pandemic the extent of his debt. His daughter suggests a GoFundMe campaign and he reads aloud the accompanying appeal in which he stresses the need to sustain a community resource.


Following a local TV spot, Tannenbaum is interviewed by a journalist from The Boston Globe and relates his history with the store. He recalls selling Arthur Rimbaud's poetry to Patti Smith and opening Get Lit in tribute to Czech wine writer Jan Wiener, who had flown with the RAF during the Second World War after fleeing Occupied Europe. Within two days, the appeal doubled its $60,000 goal and Tannenbaum jokes that he feels like George Bailey in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). When a woman at the door thanks him for being so unstintingly kind and cheerful, he remembers his three year-old telling his father that he was going to go outside and make friends by smiling at people - and he's been doing it ever since, with his grandson being the latest beneficiary of his geniality.


Filmed in the Direct Cinema style pioneered by the Maysle brothers, D.A. Pennebaker, and Frederick Wiseman, this is a winning tribute to a man who has managed to spend the bulk of his life being surrounded by the things he loves and occasionally being interrupted by people giving him money. Remaining affable in the face of potential Covid ruin, Tannenbaum is a worthy subject of what is, to paraphrase Philip Roth, a gift of a film, a perfect film lacking nothing.


Co-editor Mark Franks and composer Jeffrey Lubin help Dax convey the rhythm of Bookstore life and the ambience of a space that feels welcomingly cavernous and embracingly intimate. Indeed, Dax never leaves it in largely employing an unobtrusively static camera that allows events to unfurl around Tannenbaum in centre stage. This means that some scenes develop like a thoughtfully read poem, while other montages feel like a thumb flick through the pages of a picture book.


It's an adroit approach that also leaves room for Tannenbaum to read with evangelising elegance from Wendell Berry's Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer, Willa Cather's My Ántonia, Billy Collins's `On Turning Ten', Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, John Crowley's Little Big: or The Fairies' Parliament, Gustave Flaubert's November, Robert Frost's `Good Hours', Donald Hall's String Too Short to Be Saved; Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm, Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie, Philip Rotth's The Human Stain, Maurice Sendak's Higgelty Piggelty Pop! or There Must Be More to Life, and Edna St Vincent Millay's `Souvenir', `Travel', and `My Heart Being Hungry'.


The only sad irony is that the film will eventually be available on disc from Amazon.


MY EXTINCTION.


In addition to such fictional features as Song of Songs (2005), The Infidel (2010), and Female Human Animal (2018), Josh Appignanesi has also produced a couple of confessional documentaries, The New Man (2016) and Husband (2022). Exploring his relationship with academic wife Devorah Baum, this self-deprecating duo proved quirkily compelling and Appignanesi turns the camera on himself again in My Extinction, as he strives to understand climate change and what can be done about it.


Learning during the edit of a car commercial that the feature on which he has toiled for five years has lost its funding, Josh Appignanesi sees Greta Thunberg on the television and becomes obsessed with global warming. Suddenly with time on his hands, he starts attending protest gatherings in London and confides during a march to comedian David Schneider that he feels the need to act so that his children have a future.


This amuses wife Devorah Baum, as she deadpanly declares that the kids are usually her domain. But she concedes that she could be doing more for eco causes and commends Appignanesi for overcoming his aversion to group activities in order to get involved. He is moved by the discussion of mass starvation at one meeting and becomes concerned about how to raise such issues with his children without frightening them.


Appignanesi consults Australian psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose and teases anti-natalist activist Danny Shine about his own three children. He then takes the family to the London Climate Strike, where he meets Jessica Townsend, the co-founder of Writers Rebel, who raises the issue of willingness to be arrested. As he needs to be able to travel to the United States for work, Appignanesi is reluctant. But, as Extinction Rebellion's October Rebellion looms, he feels conflicted, as he knows that nothing will change unless drastic measures are taken.


Judging by a hodge-podge montage, he has a nice time on Westminster Bridge before the police impose themselves. He hooks up with novelists Liz Jensen, James Miller, and A.L. Kennedy at a Writers Rebel event on Trafalgar Square, which is addressed by actor Simon McBurney, poet Daljit Nagra, psychotherapist Susie Orbach, author Ali Smith, and historian Simon Schama. When it starts to hammer down, they retreat under cover for more impassioned words by anthropologist David Graeber and author Salena Gooden.


Shots show Appignanesi at the heart of the periphery, as he listens to speeches and chats with fellow protesters. He feels part of the crowd, but has his credentials tested when he's offered an Esso commercial and Baum scolds him for even contemplating taking money from such a blatant greenwashing exercise. Over a stiff-limbed game of tennis at the local park, journalist Peter Pomerantsev makes the case for turning down the offer plainer still during a discussion of climate denial.


Baum congratulates her husband on channelling his rage into a positive campaign. She also encourages him to enjoy the teaching assignment he has taken on because his agent hasn't called since he nixed Esso. However, the wind is taken out of his sails by Covid-19 and we see a clip of the witty home movie he makes with the kids to show Londoners experiencing pandemic panic. He also ventures out to see Shine megaphoning about population to a deserted Trafalgar Square and Zooms with Jensen and Townsend about the next Writers Rebel initiative.


He finds himself co-ordinating a protest outside 55 Tufton Street, which is branded `the portal to darkness' because it houses so many right-leaning think tanks associated with Brexit and climate denial. Appignanesi does a quick online search and discovers the links between these bodies, fossil fuel companies, and prominent members of Boris Johnson's cabinet. Networking, he lines up some speakers and warns attendees of the potential risk of arrest. Feeling stressed, he asks Baum to cheer him up and she opines that the jokey, dishevelled persona he projects is possibly undermining his activism because people aren't appreciating how seriously he is taking the WR/XR cause.


Despite initial police curiosity, the September 2020 occupation goes well, with author Donnachadh McCarthy, XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook, actor Mark Rylance, writer George Monbiat, Green MP Caroline Lucas, activist Esther Stanford-Xosei, author Zadie Smith, and actor Juliet Stevenson. Baum and Appignanesi also speak, with the latter goofily describing how he recycled himself from a film-maker into an activist. As darkness falls, however, the police move in and arrests are made.


Closing shots show Appignanesi with his children in the snow and continuing to play his part in the WR campaign. In the shadow of Big Ben, someone called Alfie urges people to join local groups and do their bit. One hopes this actuality also works its oracle, as its heart is firmly in the right place.


Occasionally, it feels like a bunch of well-connected members of the bourgeois chatterati taking time out of their busy schedules to be seen showing willing. But, being conscious of the risk of his activism coming across as `therapy for white entitled guys who feel like persona non grata', Appignanesi makes the valid point that knowing the facts and doing nothing to express despair and outrage is becoming increasingly inexcusable.


There's danger that this will only be seen by the converted (or to paraphrase Pomerantsev, the nutters who know the science and do bugger all about it). But if it changes the odd mind, broadens the discussion, and demonstrates that doing nothing is no longer an option, then this intimate snapshot of everyday engagement with the most crucial issue of our times will have fulfilled its remit.


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