Military Wives

Film (described as a comedy drama) written by Roseanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, directed by Peter Cattaneo (2019) 112 minutes

The scene is clearly set at the start: the soldiers (men and one woman) depart for active service leaving the wives and children at home. The streets are empty, the wine bottles are out.

Military Wives is a true story of those left behind at a British military base who decide to form a choir to take their minds off the worry about their loved ones away in Afganistan (and yes, they do acknowledge the controversy over the war). The film does not show, or even imply, any heroics. Neither is there any romanticism. It’s not even corny. It’s about the women and how they manage their situations. And it’s about grief.

There are two, clear portrayals of the effects of bereavement: one death (a young son killed in action) has already taken place before the film starts; and the other happens mid way through. Both are poignant and realistically depicted by Kristin Scott Thomas and Amy James-Kelly respectively. In a manageable and sincere way, the film presents this tricky subject sympathetically.

Various types of grief are embodied in the film. There is the stoical stage where you get on with things, trying to stay calm, put on a brave face; and there’s the weeping one, the impossibility of doing anything else other than having it all pour out. In a subtle way, we are also shown some of the displacement activities which any grieving person might find themselves involved in: volunteering for another stint in the field; over-working; caring for others; or impulsive buying of unwanted things, which sit in their packets in the airing cupboard.

Then there’s how to cope – by being alone with it (either isolated or simply private), and also by being supported through sharing with those who know it first-hand, or who are empathetic. Group singing is useful both as self expression (remember that phrase, ‘sing your heart out’?), and also as relief. Communal carolling does not activate the logical-thinking left brain, rather it is the right side which lights up, the part also associated with intuition, imagination and creativity.

What has not been understood until recently is that singing in groups triggers the communal release of serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and even synchronises our heart beats.

From ‘The Neuroscience of Singing’

Part of the difficulty that we have with grief in our society is that we don’t always know how to deal with others suffering from it. In this film, there are a couple of men who clam up in the face of sadness. This type of behaviour is common, human even. Dr Rachel Clarke says, ‘None of us… In modern British culture, are taught how to confront grief and loss.’ And while that is not strictly true because some of us are it is the case for many.

Not talking about it tends to leave people who have been bereaved feeling as if they are the only ones not coping, or as if there’s something wrong with them, whereas, of course, it is really caused by our desperate need not to ‘make things worse’ or ‘put our foot in it’. Seeing this inability to communicate acted out so effectively on the big screen allows us to take a step back and realise how much space we can put between ourselves and those we care about, if we are not brave enough to ask them how they are and listen, open heartedly, to their reply.

Grief usually contains the full range of emotions at one stage or another, and there is a tense scene, towards the end of Military Wives, where it is clear how anger can make you say things you wish you hadn’t, but end up (sometimes) being cathartic. The manner in which bereavement is shown through these characters lives is well thought through, honest, and never soppy

Music is, of course, highly emotive, bringing back memories and connecting with one’s feelings in situations where words can sometimes fail. Most of the songs in the film are upbeat, encompass appropriate messages and will be familiar: You’ve Got a Friend or With or Without You, and, although they mention Angels several times, there are none from the top funeral songs list. However, beware the Ave Maria – that was the point at which my floodgates truly opened!

There are several other themes, including a battle between the two main female characters, ably played by Sharon Horgan (Lisa) and Scott Thomas (Kate). Scott Thomas is funnier than I’ve ever seen her before, and although she softens during the pic, she still manages to sing and sort-of-dance in the final choir performance with her shoulders raised and elbows stiff, remaining impressively uptight to the last.

So, it is not unremittingly sad, indeed there are a lot of laughs, but Military Wives does not shy away from death and grief. If you need a good cry, and sometimes, let’s face it, it’s necessary to let off the pressure cooker caused by the suffering around us and clear out the tubes, then this will do the job.

Singing is good for you – 11 ways it’s good for your health

3 Days in Quiberon

Emily Atef/ Germany Austria France/ 2018/ 115 mins

@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Mon 18 Feb 2019. German/French with subtitles.

Actress Romy Schneider is at the core of the emotionally disturbing 3 Days In Quiberon, the 2018 film from writer-director Emily Atef which won seven Lola’s at the German Film Awards last year. The versatile Marie Bäumer plays Schneider who was born in Vienna, Austria in 1940 into a stage family, and who made her name before she was 20 years old in the Sissi Trilogy in which she played the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. In this, her most famous role, Schneider epitomises the innocent and regal bearing of the subject.

This containment and control are evident in the tense modern film, as are the opposing emotions and behaviour of desperation, hysteria, and recklessness. The harrowing interview which the profoundly disturbed Schneider gave to the magazine Stern, on which the film is based (shortly before her son tragically died and during what we know was the final year of her own life) is the main section. Taking place at a spa where she repaired to reputedly recover from the excesses of alcohol and drugs, Schneider’s family have announced that they do not support the addict version of her which Atef depicts. The French-Iranian director is said to have admitted to fictionalizing parts of the interview in making the film, and the connections she draws are very clear: a drunken Schneider cries that her life has fallen apart, that the balance between her work and her children is wrong, and that she does not know how to solve it. Plied with champagne by the journalist, she ‘reveals’ a side to herself which she apparently hadn’t previously, although he then purports to be affected by her plight and it is unclear how blunt the final piece actually is. We are not sure if we can trust her judgment by this time – we have seen how changeable and malleable she is, and how she often makes decisions which are not in her own interest or that of her children. Are we to believe that she is now in control?

The film is in black and white with brooding skies and sharply contrasting angles and lines. To match the constantly switching moods, Atef utilises very short scenes – snippets of interchange or single shot outcomes. Just as the focus is on the characters and their reactions to Schneider, so 50% of the frames are realistic close-ups showing their humanity; wrinkles, under-eye shadows and all. When the camera retreats showing wild Breton seascapes and wide sweeps of the angular hotel we are shocked by the bleak outlook and impersonality of the surroundings.

Here is the helplessness, the hopelessness of the human condition. I didn’t feel charmed by Schneider, I didn’t feel her charisma. Personally I felt a sadness and confusion. I saw her addiction, a woman with mental health problems who needs help – struggling to help herself, the people around her are awe struck by her and using her to their own ends.

It isn’t all depressing; there are a few humorous episodes around the plain food to which she is restricted, and a lively early scene in a local cafe where she is full of wine-induced conviviality and fun, albeit OTT with strangers. However, the viewer is left with a heavy heart and much sadness after witnessing such a lot of media, and self-abuse. A sense of foreboding lingers.

Kusama – Infinity

Documentary film, Kusama – Infinity about the artist Yayoi Kusama directed by Heather Lenz. The “top-selling, living, female artist.”

Kusama – Infinity is a fascinating film about the life and work of contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama born in 1929. Directed by Heather Lenz, it follows the traditional format of such documentaries with a host of famous ‘talking heads’ such as gallery directors from the Tate, colleagues including Carolee Schneemann, and Kusama herself. It charts her origins and upbringing in Matsumoto, Japan and primarily her dedication and determination which went mostly unnoticed before her consequent move to the US.

The development of her work is examined and contextualised: connections are sought between real life events and landscape, her internal psychology (she underwent Freudian analysis when she was younger and is currently living in a psychiatric hospital); and the thematic strands of her work. Beginning with the ‘net’ pieces inspired by seeing the pattern of fishing nets spread out on the surface of the Pacific Ocean from the aeroplane, the movie goes on to describe and show her love of dots and discs, chairs covered with white protruberances, the famous kaleidoscopic ‘infinity mirrors’ rooms, and ends with the current complicated collages and larger-than-life sculptures reminiscent of Joan Miro.

Kusama 5

She was at the forefront of artistic / political activism having lived through the Vietnam War (“I thought it was wrong, why send this beautiful [human] body to war”); the more conservative Nixon era when there was very little support for contemporary art, never mind female artists on the cutting edge; the space age (seeing the world as a series of very small spots from high up); the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (“I made my art to try and change people’s minds”), and free love (she presided over the first homosexual weddings). To all of these she took a stance, responding with art, poignant and plaintive poetry, and costume.

There is a great deal of often compelling historical footage, particularly of her wonderful ‘happenings’. In ‘Narcissus Garden’ she hawked mirror balls for 2$ outside the Italian Pavillion of the Venice Biennale in protest. When the police tried to move her on, she stripped off her kimono revealing a red bodysuit and posed among the balls – never one to miss out on a photo opportunity.

kusama 6

Thoughts on the Mausoleum of Modern Art at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in NYC was an especially delightful episode. “What’s modern here, I don’t see it” she said!

We are shown the letters between Kusama and Georgia O’Keefe from whom she asks advice early on; we see her in a non-sexual relationship with the famous artist Joseph Cornell (27 years her senior) who called her his princess; and hear how Frank Stella was the first to buy her artwork for $75 (it subsequently sold for and enormous $750,000). 

 

Like Louise Bourgeois who used her insomnia as inspiration, the two women also share the use of eyes, stitched work, and blood-red imagery, albeit this latter speaks of classic female subject matter. A contemporary of Niki de Saint Phalle, she has also worked on a monumental scale with bright blocks of colours and complex design including dots and eyes. In turn, she has clearly influenced contemporary female artists such as Anna Ray and Joana Vasconcelos. There are also tastes of indigenous Australian art and traditional Mexican patterns to be found. Pat Oldenburgh is quoted as saying that Claes (her husband) got the idea of soft sewing from her, and this and other blatant plagiarism caused Kusama to fall into depression.

kusama 8

 

She constantly struggles with her mental health and the film addresses the possible origins of this – some “trauma in a field of flowers”; being sent by her mother to spy on her father’s sexual liaisons; being forced to sew parachutes in a military factory; and having her art torn from under her, all as a very young girl. There are lots of stills showing her with manic and tortured expressions, shots covering her multiple suicide attempts, and in her own words: “I covered myself in polka dots until I disappeared”.

There is not much to criticise in the film: she is described as touting her work “aggressively” in New York, such terms being used repeatedly about her intense resolution to get her work seen. It was sometimes difficult to know who was speaking at any one time, but it is questionable whether the language used to convey her behaviour would have been used for a male artist.

 

Kusama on the left, Michaelle Possum Nungurrayi, ‘Womens Ceremony’, an example of indigenous Australian art on the right.

Nowadays she is feted, and the feature opens and closes with her sporting a magenta bob and matching spotted dress, painstakingly painting massive and complex, undrafted art work (up to 33’ / over 10 metres) in primary colours full of symbols and, of course, dots.

Further reading:

Current exhibition: Kusama at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Entangled Threads exhibition review