Blu-ray Review: Jeune & Jolie

In recent decades the dominant image of sex work within movies has been perpetuated by 1990 rom-com Pretty Woman. Earlier more cautionary narratives (Taxi Driver, Working Girls) were superseded within the popular consciousness by an overtly sentimentalized story of an improbable romance between escort and client. With support from a mainstream studio, canny marketing, and a soundtrack album that became one of that year’s best-selling titles this sanitized and deeply problematic film enjoyed a highly profitable run at the box office, was nominated in several categories by the BAFTA, Golden Globes and at the Academy Awards Julia Roberts won an Oscar for Best Actress. In the years since its release British and American films and television have increasingly featured a myriad of fictionalised prostitution chronicles that do not reference the inherent dangers associated with this industry and present character interplay which is an all too obvious riff on the relationship between Pretty Woman‘s core protagonists, True Romance and Shameless are possibly the most instantly recognizable examples of this trend. More recently, the ITV network has broadcast an adaptation of Brooke Magnanti’s blog and confessional memoirs , The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, that was criticised by feminists for glamourising the industry and not placing sufficient emphasis on the risks routinely faced by sex workers. Perhaps due to cultural distinctness or differences in funding mechanisms, contemporary and historical European productions have been less reluctant to shy away from documenting potential endangerment to the self and family as a consequence of prostitution. From the period piece Maison Close, through to Belle de Jour and Christiane F – Wir Kinder vom Banhof Zoo the probable ramifications of a career in this industry have been explored without undue moralizing, mawkishness or melodrama. Continuing in the continent’s tradition of using fictional film to scrutinize this highly contentious issue without recourse to histrionics, François Ozon’s most recent motion picture Jeune & Jolie offers an open narrative with no firm conclusions and a requirement on the audience’s part to fill in the all-important gaps in character arcs.

A pivotal figure in the history of French cinema, Bunuel’s influence looms large throughout Jeune & Jolie in terms of performances, visual style, and casting decisions. Inevitable comparisons to his film Belle de Jour are not without justification. In this more permissive age, it is impossible to recreate the shock experienced by 1960s cinema audiences seeing Catherine Deneuve play a frustrated housewife who is only able to find excitement and fulfillment when she begins a double life as an escort in a discreet brothel. To engender an emotional response Ozon presents a teenage rite of passage as descent into hell over a twelve-month period. Bunuel’s archetype of an impassive figure upon which characters and viewers are able to project their sexual desires is recalled in a movie that features voyeurism, objectification, and gratification as constant themes. During a family holiday, seventeen-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) loses her virginity to a German tourist (Lucas Prisor). A joyless experience, she swiftly distances herself from the boy despite his having already been welcomed by her family. Returning home she embarks on a double life, student and in the afternoons as “Lea” a high-class escort entertaining clients in luxury hotels. Segmented into four seasons, each bookended by a Francois Hardy song, the film’s high culture aspirations are telegraphed by the use of a Rimbaud poem.

Through judicious use of subjective shots and mirrors the director continuously plays with theories of the male gaze in cinema. The emotive subject of teenage prostitution is treated as an intellectual exercise, no explicit statement on this issue is made by the narrative. Gaps in story information compound the feeling that the viewer is required to impose their own interpretations onto the film’s canvas.

An intriguing performance from Marine Vacth transcends any scripting problems. Her character’s motives are unknown and whilst Ozon may have intended to be deliberately obscure, the focus on consequences without the all-important knowledge of how and why Isabelle turned to prostitution dilutes the screenplay’s highly stirring arguments. During casting sessions Catherine Deneuve was considered for a key role but conscious of the possibility that parallels to Belle de Jour might become too obvious an alternative choice was made, Charlotte Ramping whose stately elegance and restrained mournful reading kick-starts the film’s shift into a totally unexpected direction.

Juene &  Jolie is available to order from Amazon.


DVD Review: Salamander – The Complete Season One

The success of BBC Four’s Saturday evening subtitled drama slot has exceeded all expectations. Healthy viewing figures have been complimented by effusive critical notices in the mainstream press. Resisting temptation to rest on its laurels, the station’s solution to the problem of how to fill a The Bridge shaped hole in its schedules is to expand its palate and introduce British viewers to series from a broader selection of countries. The future of Nordic Noir is assured, several intriguing shows are scheduled for later in the year and as viewer loyalty is seemingly guaranteed the network is confident it can offer up a selection of fresh voices without alienating the core fanbase.

Proving that BBC Four has a long-term strategy in place, news of Salamander‘s acquisition was first revealed to the press in May 2013, almost a full year before UK transmission. Hot on the heels of the première screening on the Belgian public broadcasting station Eén the BBC’s acquisition team recognised that here was a series which would sit comfortably within the newly expanded parameters of the now traditional subtitled drama slot. Anticipating, and to a certain extent initiating, changes to the zeitgeist the series arrived as crime fiction from the continent is in the ascendant. Oldcastle Books will be publishing Euro Noir, a roadmap to continental crime fiction by Barry Forshaw and Arrow Films has created a Noir sub-label dedicated to releasing the very best contemporary and archive slices of crime thriller TV series.

With over 2.3 million iPlayer requests and an average 4.0 audience share, BBC Four’s faith in Belgian conspiracy thriller Salamander has been comfortably rewarded. A ratings smash in its homeland, published figures show that the series was watched by 56% of the available audience and set new records for timeshifting.

Unashamedly pan-Atlantic in tone, the programme was deliberately written to attract the widest possible domestic audience with one eye on the export market. As a court reporter for the Antwerp Gazette series creator Ward Hulselmans became intimately familiar with criminality, its causes, and implications for the wider fabric of a community. Since 1990 he has worked exclusively in television, employing the many years spent documenting cases to good effect, ensuring no matter how implausible a plot point may initially appear to be it is thoroughly grounded in currently existing trends of lawless behaviour.

Secrets powerful enough to bring down an entire country are at risk of being exposed after a gang breaks into a bank vault and targets sixty-six safes containing documents belonging to the great and the good. Instantly recognizing the significance of what the robbery represents, the bank’s owner, Raymond Jonkhere (Mike Verdrengh) wants to keep knowledge of the theft a closely guarded secret. Protecting the institution’s reputation and the nation’s ruling elite is paramount.

Acting on a tip-off from an informer, implacable and individualistic detective Paul Geradi (Filip Peeters) inadvertently stumbles onto a case that his own department wants to shut down. Bloody-minded in his approach to work, obstacles thrown at him are met with equal and opposing force. As the owners of safety deposit boxes begin to vanish, commit suicide, or unexpectedly resign from senior positions Gerardi realizes that he may be the only person able to investigate who staged the heist, and why only sixty-six boxes were opened.

As the case progresses it becomes apparent that the upper echelons of society are tainted the stench of corruption. A secret organisation with its roots in the resistance movement is acting as a shadow government, maneuvering ministers into key posts, facilitating business deals, and protecting members of the royal family. Gerardi’s dogged determination to uncover the truth behind ‘Salamander’ sets him on a collision course with his colleagues and has tragic personal consequences…

Masculinity is placed centre stage, in stark contrast to Nordic series which have placed great emphasis on the sanctity of femininity. With his super-strong hair gel, immaculate beard and crease free Levis, Gerardi is simultaneously a European Jack Bauer and accidental hero archetype. Thrust into a world of murky dealings, ambiguous figures, and betrayal he refuses to walk away even when it would be in his best interests to do so and therein lies the secret of his Achilles heel. Obsession about work may quite literally prove to be a fatal flaw…

High concept, thoroughly modern and yet reassuringly familiar Salamander is an energetic show which mines current fears about the banking sector and a lack of transparency in governance alongside anxieties that have been part and parcel of the modern (or post-modern) Belgian condition since the end of World War II, most notably how to reconcile collaborationist activity within the national consciousness, institutional abuse, and possible erosion of national sovereignty.

Generic tropes are employed in a knowing fashion. A conspiracy thriller filtered through the prism of Hitchockian themes with the narrative structure of a Saturday morning cliffhanger serial, Salamander deliberately takes a leisurely pace at first before igniting and then hurtles towards the conclusion at breakneck speed, hitting the viewer with a barrage of stunning set pieces and plot reveals.

Salamander: The Complete Season One is available to order from Amazon.

Book Review: The Killing III by David Hewson

In an era before VHS, DVD, and timeshift technology became available novelizations enabled fans to enjoy once again a version of their favourite films or TV series at a time that suited them. Freed from the tyranny of a broadcast landscape only offering three channels, literary adaptation offered portability and control, readers could recreate instances of celluloid and video magic within their imagination at a time or in a place of their choosing. Invariably issued as mass market paperbacks, novelizations were stocked in large numbers by long gone high street chains. Frequently written within tight deadlines, sometimes whilst the film was still in production, and invariably based on early drafts of the screenplay, they occasionally offered up an alternative version due to the inclusion of scenes cut during the rehearsal process or discarded in the editing room.

Once a solid bedrock of the publishing industry, this literary subgenre was abandoned due to perceived redundancy. Considered to be an irrelevance when technology now enabled customers to purchase a copy of a film within months of its theatrical release it was replaced by the tie-in novel and few would have predicted a reversal of fortunes but then something unexpected happened, high profile authors were commissioned to write new novelizations. Issued in hardback and given a healthy promotional push, these fresh titles have received praise from the critical community and shifted sufficient units to convince the publishers that novelizations might have a healthy future within the crowded modern marketplace. A once derided literary form has been rehabilitated by Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of his screenplay for the TV series Neverwhere, Gareth Roberts completion of the abandoned Douglas Adams Doctor Who story Shada, and David Hewson’s translation of The Killing‘s first two seasons into a pair of novels indistinguishable, in terms of quality, from his original fiction.

Formerly a journalist, Hewson became a full-time fiction writer in 2005. Best known for a series of nine novels set in and around Rome featuring the detective Nic Costa, Hewson was approached by his publisher (Pan Macmillan) to adapt The Killing into a book because of his proven ability to write strong female characters and convincing immersive word pictures of foreign locations. Written with the benefit of hindsight, Hewson visited the set of the concluding series whilst researching the first novel and has interwoven elements throughout his adaptations to make them function as a self-contained literary trilogy. For the third, but not final, novel in the series the author has once again rejected the traditional novelization approach of offering a straightforward transcript and gifts readers an alternative version tailored to the strengths of a different medium.

At Nordicana 2014, Hewson gave a fascinating lecture in which he detailed at great length alterations made, stylistic conventions, industrial pressures, Lund’s psychological profile, antagonist’s role, the purpose of specific visual motifs within the TV version and how to communicate their meaning in prose. Citing the Hare Psychopathy Checklist to bolster his argument, he was unshakeable in his belief that in clinical terms Sarah Lund is a psychopath.

A newcomer to the world of Sarah Lund, et al., due to his never having seen the series prior to being tasked with adapting the screenplays, as translated copies of the shooting scripts were not available the initial research strategy involved multiple viewings of the DVD boxsets to identify individual narrative strands, character arcs and isolating plot inconsistencies which would be fixed during the writing process. An enthusiastic advocate of Scrivener, Hewson has written an e-book detailing how it can aid a writer, the package was used to map out primary, secondary, and tertiary storylines, trace the evolution of thematic material and facilitate successful foreshadowing and pay-offs.

Whilst preparing to write the first novel time was spent in Copenhagen becoming acquainted with the city’s nooks and crannies, soaking in the gloomy atmosphere of less salubrious districts, and inspecting the series’ production facilities. Conversations with the creator, Søren Sveistrup revealed insight into Lund’s emotional make-up, the series’ raison d’etre, and confirmed that Hewson was to have a free hand in translating the material into a different medium.

Adhering to the overall story structure familiar to viewers whilst employing literary sleight of hand to shuffle around scenes, create new subplots, and streamline the narrative, The Killing III delivers a composite interpretation that should please devotees of Hewson’s other novels and fans of the originating source material. Those coming to the book expecting the only added texture to be glimpses into character’s thoughts will be pleasantly surprised with the great care given to creating believable motivations and backstories for all core characters. Cementing the air of closure present throughout the text are references to the first volume. Subsidiary figures we encountered in the première installment are mentioned in passing, Hewson’s master-stroke of replacing the political figure with Troels Hartmann creates instant tension and adds multiple layers of meaning to the investigation due to the press and Lund’s recurring doubts about his innocence based on his slippery behaviour during the probe into Nanna Birk Larsen’s murder.

A well-written crime thriller filled with rewards for hardcore enthusiasts and an entirely new ending that places a definite full stop on Lund’s story. Sarah’s career may be over but we will discover how her career in law enforcement began with a prequel novel currently being written by David Hewson.

The Killing III is published by Pan.