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The light of humanity: Harold and his sister Louisa outwit Nazis at the door

A rarely told tale of the Occupation of Jersey during the Second World War reveals the kindness and cost of real-life heroism among ordinary islanders

A NEED AND A TIME TO BE AFRAID

THE EVENING OF Christmas Day, 1943, in a small village outside Saint Helier, and a family are having a sing-song around the hearth. Such is his sense of belonging and happiness within this warm gathering that sheltered Russian P.O.W ‘Bill’ (Julian Kostov) offers up a carol in his native tongue. And has not got further than a few lines before there is a harsh knocking on the front door. Silence falls sharply as Jenny Seagrove’s doughty widow, Louisa Gould opens up, only to be faced with German officers who demand to know what is going on. And then Louisa’s younger brother and teacher Harold (a low-key Ronan Keating still finding his acting feet) joins her at the entrance and promptly bursts into Russian song. ‘I’ll sing ‘O, Tannenbaum’ if you like,’ he tells the Germans, who exit, stage left. Everyone can breathe again.

Louisa who has lost both husband and one of her sons takes Fyodor – whom she names Bill, under her wing as if he were her own. Her compassion represents the international network of maternal hope that one’s own child in a similar situation would be looked after by another mother. (Imagine the power and change that would occur were all mothers to think like that at wartime!) But such becomes their friendship that she niaively has Bill work in plain sight in her grocery shop that happens to be the community hub, takes him on bike rides and to church, and visits the capital with him where Germans soldiers openly walk the streets. Meanwhile, her friend Arthur (John Hannah) is steaming open envelopes addressed to the Nazis’s island HQ at the local sorting office which he recognises as having been written by his own neighbours. He warns Louisa to be very careful.

Sunday Teatime Tale of Decency And Heroism

Based on the script by Jenny Lecoat, Louisa Gould’s great-niece, this wartime tale of Christian decency and ordinary heroism is clearly a story that needed to be told. As with other recent biographical films such as Sully: Miracle On The Hudson and Lion (both 2016), end-credit images add moving strength to the tale. We learn that Keating’s character, Harold Le Druillenec’s was the only British citizen to survive the Bergen-Belsen death camp, providing trial evidence. And in 2010, Louisa Gould, who was killed in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in 1945 was named as a British Hero of the Holocaust.

The trouble is that Another Mother’s Son is a script that feels that it has been padded out to fill the feature-appropriate 103 mins length. That’s not to say that it is not informative about the hardships endured: Louisa being unable to fulfill people’s grocery rations; the pressure of a small island community to live under and with the Nazis; and the despair of learning that Churchill had decided to send forces to France before liberating the Channel Islands. But director, Christopher Menual is primarily a tv series director – and it shows. The production values are that of a Sunday teatime drama – and for those of us who have never forgotten the excellent Anglia Television drama, Dame of Sark (1976) starring Celia Johnson and set under the same circumstances, then, Another Mother’s Son sadly offers no comparison.

Brave Generous Actions Speak Louder Than Wprds

The Christmas scene in the midst of Another Mother’s Son adds both metaphorical colour to the film (few decorations are visible in such hard times) and especially the coming together, openness and welcome that is should be central to the festival. And as also exemplified among the Polish POW officers in Katyn (2007), here too we are reminded that carol-singing is unifying, heartwarming, and can take us out of circumstances and remind us not only of Christmas but of home too – even for a scarred Russian young man who has lost faith in any God.

Louisa’s own belief is expressed in actions rather than words. She is brave to open her home to Fyodor, risking everything. Yet her hardiness of spirit that enables that good act is also seen as often harsh in her dealings with those with whom she disagrees. She speaks her mind and is fearless in telling a German Kommandant to his face that it is ‘none of his business whether or not her surname happens to be Jewish. This is an honest portrayal of a middle-aged Christian whose faults are wrapped up in Grace: she does the ‘right thing’ in spite of herself. (She has to be convinced to house the escaped POW.) And Jenny Seagrove’s is a gritty, unfussy performance that all but carries the entire film.


The cost of human courage: Harold, Louisa and sister, Ivy are arrested

It is what happens to this family who harboured him, that effectively answers Bill’s anger at the suffering inherent to war and God’s apparent silence and absence. Their kindness, self-sacrifice and bravery during a time of undoubted terror is like that of Andrew Garfield’s field medic in Hackshaw Ridge (2016). In times of war, there are people who will make a stand for humanity. And that is what matters.

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All she wants for Christmas: Michele’s self-control appears on a knife-edge after a violent break-in

Few reviewers have mentioned it, but that Paul Verhoeven’s acclaimed sex-thriller is set in fairylight-lit December brings added dimension to the suspenseful tale.

NOTHING IS SACRED IN ELLE’S COLD-HEART WORLD

OF COURSE the huge Christmas tree in the offices of a zeitgeisty Parisian video game company is a striking Bazooka Joe pink. It screams contrived unconventionality. Yet the young people, mostly men, who work there, for all their presumed youth-cultural superiority to middle-aged female boss, Michele Leblanc (a glacial Isabelle Huppert) are clearly still a cut below her. Of the latest sexually violent animation that is their stock in trade, she demands that the orgasmic moans of a woman being raped by a tentacled monster be made suitably ecstatic.

Later that same day, her coarse lover, played by Christian Berkel (the husband of her friend and company co-founder, Anne Consigny’s Anna), will enter Michele’s small office demanding sex, and after drawing the blinds she will push him away and hold a wastepaper basket ready for him to pleasure himself instead. She apparently handles whatever life throws at her as a matter of fact. And the incidents of this particular working day are made all the more disturbing to us, the viewers, since they come immediately after divorcee Ms Leblanc’s violent rape the previous evening in her mansion by a masked intruder – at the very top of the film. After which, she cleared up with a dustpan and brush, took a bath, and then phoned for a takeway rather than the police, and took a hammer to bed – and, for now tells no one. Nothing phases her, and what’s more, she chooses how she then responds.

Foreign World Where The Loving Ain’t Easy

Director Paul Verhoeven has made a striking career out of controversy with movies such as Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995), and Starship Troopers (1997), and, for many, his latest does not disappoint on that score. For all the acclaim both film and actress have received in the wake of the release of Elle (and some reviews have focused so much on the mesmerising Huppert that you cannot help suspect that the critic didn’t quite know just what to make of what they were watching), it is not an easy ‘read’ on many levels.

Based on Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel, ‘Oh’, Verhoeven originally hoped to cast Nicole Kidman in an American version. Kidman, who had co-starred alongside then-husband, Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s darkly erotic Christmas-set Eyes Wide Shut (1999) would likely have done a fine job, but it was felt a US setting would not do the story justice. Or the film be received in the same way than if it was distanced by its foreign, French setting. (As it happens, Eyes Wide Shut and Elle would make a daring seasonal double-bill at a cinema brave enough to screen it.)

A Woman After Her Own Heart?

Michele’s determination to live beyond the status of victim, to take revenge on her rapist, appears at face-value to present an empowering, feminist vision. (Additionally, such is the presentation of practically every man in the movie as incompetent and not up to her fiery independence, including her ex-husband, Richard – Charles Berling – and dim son, Jonas Bloquet’s Vincent, that it feels like we are watching a strong candidate for the flipside of the Bechdel test[1].) She stocks up on weopanry, and takes shooting lessons, but in a plot full of unexpected twists and turns – David Birke’s script contradicts Chekhov’s famous Law [2] – Ms Leblanc doesn’t actually use the armoury she accumulated in Act One. Instead, she embarks on a cat and mouse game with her assailant. as dangerous to either as the one-sided battle between Michele’s wonderfully stoic pet cat and an unfortunate garden bird. (The cat is as deserving of an acting award as the seagull in last year’s The Shallows.)

Yet piece-by-piece, an image emerges of Michele’s murderous family background which sheds a completely different light on who she is today. Back when she was ten, her religious fanatic father slaughtered all the neighbours’ children in her suburban street, and no one has ever forgotten the disturbing image of the blank-stared murderer’s daughter apparently inveigled into the crime. Michele, then, is forever trapped in time by a photograph and defined by an atrocity committed decades earlier. She, thus, remains a victim of her childhood. No wonder, then, her reactions and reasonings appear warped. Nothing else can be any worse than then. Emotionally laced-up and scathing of her dysfunctional, over-Botoxed mother who pays for a much younger male ‘companion’, there is something of the daughter in Toni Erddmann (2016) about Michelle. (Like that German film, Elle is not without its humour,) But all these women, including Michelle’s mother are trying to escape their father/husband in their own way.

A Distanced Seasonal Ritual

In the midst of her Christmastime assaults, Michelle perversely hosts a Christmas Eve dinner and invites neighbours, family, and friends. Here, as her Catholic mother and neighbours watch Midnight Mass from Rome on the television, she is reminded of the ritual of excommunication from the Church though it is not clear as to whether she is talking about her mass murdering father, or, indeed, herself. Michele appears indifferent to belief, earlier bemused by her neighbour’s large Nativity figures positioned in her front garden as a reminder of the beginning and centre of the festival, and now, the same woman’s suggestion of Grace before people begin eating. (Au contraire, Michele will earlier admit to Anna, ‘Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all. Believe me.’ She is her father’s daughter.)

In Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise is accompanied by a Christmas tree in almost every scene. As he wanders ever closer towards psychological and moral danger, the flickering lights and colours of the trees appear to anchor him and offer guidance, protection and hope beyond the New York night. In the offices and streets of the Paris of Elle, the rows of white lights are neatly strung, the trees a stylishly uniform and artificial hue. They are present but seem merely to offer a decorative presence in secular France.


Cats who walk by themselves: Michele Leblanc’s interior world is inscrutable, even to us

Even among the Christian guests at Michele’s dinner party,there appears a distance between their faith and life. They do not attend church at the second most holiest time (after Easter) of the annual calendar. Nevertheless, in a secular and very dark world, they attempt to keep the flame alive: the neighbour will admit to Michele that she is given strength by her faith. And the ‘sins of the fathers’ appear to be a closed book for the niaive Vincent. His view of the Pope may well be of a holy man who walks inches above the ground, but it is his brave act that saves his mother which breaks the family ‘spell’. And it is he, like the previously free-spirited William in LoveTrue who is latterly grown up and loving enough to move the Leblanc story forward by accepting another man’s child as his own. Chillingly however, as regards Michele Leblanc, we cannot tell if she has shifted one iota.

1. http://bechdeltest.com
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov%27s_gun

Elle can be seen at selected cinemas.

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