Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Revealing Mr Maugham

Until recently very I had never heard of SWiM cinema and was not entirely sure what constituted an “ARTumentary” film as opposed to a more conventional documentary. The difference though, is in the subject, with this global platform showcasing many artumentaries on a variety of topics ranging from literature and cinema through to photography and international art events.
SWiM’s first release: ‘Revealing Mr Maugham’, by Michael House, tracks the life of W. Somerset Maugham, the well-known and well-loved playwright and author of an extensive list of novels and short stories. Self-confessed to have “no imagination” he took a lot of inspiration from personal experiences leading to novels such as; The Razor’s Edge; Rain; The Painted Veil and Of Human Bondage.
Although his writing is discussed throughout, the film has a more personal focus using his bibliography as a stencil through which excerpts of his personal life are woven in the form of photographs, interviews and original footage of Maugham himself. His first published story, “Liza of Lambeth” was based on his early beginnings as a doctor in the impoverished London district, and after its publication released him from his medical duties in a bid to make it as a professional writer. This inevitably successful mission achieved him his desired “fame and money” when he got his first break as a playwright when four of his plays were shown on the West End in his first year.
Despite moving in such theatrical circles and engaging in intense love affairs with other men, Maugham kept his sexuality private as homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. And it wasn’t until he volunteered for the Red Cross in WWI as a medical officer that he found what he realised he’d been looking for in the young, attractive American, Gerald Haxton. It was with Haxton that he would eventually settle in the south of France and travel the world, sequestering inspiration for many of his stories.
One of his most autobiographical and sexually explicit novels, Mrs. Craddock, based on a deeply unhappy marriage, was taken from his own experience as one half of a highly successful yet despondent couple. His marriage to Syrie, a well-respected interior designer known for her fight against the clutter of Victorian design and advocacy of the “white room”, lasted a decade during which they had one daughter, Liza. She went on to marry and have children and it’s through interviews with Maugham’s grandchildren that these darker elements of his story are told. Personally, I think these interviews are the most poignant and enlightening of the film with such a living situation reflecting that of many homosexual people today. It was due to Maugham’s fortune that he was able to leave such circumstances and relocate with Haxton, under the guise of his secretary, but even nowadays many are not so lucky.
However, the ending is not one of fairytale romances and it is not a beacon of hope. It is a dark cautionary tale for older men with younger lovers. After a 30-year companionship Haxton died, leaving Maugham depleted and without his literary sparkle.  In an attempt to fill the void he invited Alan Searle, a previous part-time lover and secretary of Maugham, to reside with him in his French villa. Searle willingly agreed and throughout the rest of Maugham’s life proceeded to turn the now senile old man against his friends and family in an effort to secure the entire fortune for himself, in this he was ultimately victorious. Maugham died at the age of 91, miserable and shunned by the society that had previously held him in such high esteem. 
Although less than 90 minutes long, the film manages to span the globe with adventurous tales from Parisian beginnings, to German love affairs and espionage covering the breadth of Europe. There is too much for me to accurately and justly portray here but it is clear why the film was such a success.  ‘Revealing Mr Maugham’, along with future releases from SWiM cinema, is definitely worth watching, visit for more details.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

House of Tolerance

This French language film by Bertrand Bonello, is set in a Parisian brothel, a ‘house of tolerance’, at the turn of the 20th century. Trailers would have you believe it’s a beautiful portrayal of the inner workings of such a house, but from the outset it is clear that this is not going to be the case. Although visually stunning, the more the film goes on the more the facade is lifted to reveal a darker truth of constant fear of pregnancy, syphilis or violence masked behind the corsets, perfume and endless grooming.
The film begins in the late 1800s depicting a single fateful night where Madeleine is re-telling a dream to one of her regulars, in which he presented her with an emerald with which to pay her debts and buy her freedom. The lingering hope she had felt after the dream results in her allowing him to tie her up and be caressed by his knife, what follows is gently threatening until the blade enters her mouth and is used to slash her a smile from ear to ear. This haunting scene is flashed intermittently between scenes of the relaxed champagne-filled atmosphere of the party downstairs. Time then moves on to when the once highly sought after Madeleine has become the cook, cleaner and general carer of the remaining beauties, while her injury and clients have rebranded her “the woman who laughs”. Meanwhile the landlord is demanding an increase in the rent of the premises and the madam, a voluptuous and previous worker of the floor herself, is pushed to find ways to either appeal to his better nature or make up the difference. The former is tried and fails resulting in her harsher treatment of the girls and demand an increase in the amount of clients they can attend to in one evening. At the same time a young girl writes to her in order to secure a position at the prestigious maison de tolerance, entering with no debt the 15-year old takes great risk in starting such a career. Her youth and novelty make her a welcome addition among the usual clients, especially those slightly weary with their regular ladies and although welcomed into the bosom of the family they have created for themselves, she is not quite what she appears.

Times get even harder when one girl falls to syphilis and another to addiction, in desperate need of money the madam is persuaded to “lend” the laughing lady to a host of obscure parties where she is showcased alongside dwarfs and people with more unusual features and their admirers. The efforts are made to no avail and the house is forced to close, bowing out in style, the penultimate scene is that of their final party, a Bastille Day masquerade ball where everything is on the house.
It’s not an easy film to watch in places and the stark parallels it draws between the belle époque and modern day are haunting and as hard to shake as the flashing scenes of the creation of the woman who laughs. It is truly thought-provoking and ultimately a tale of formulating families in the most unlikely of places in order to survive.

Monday, 13 February 2012


Tomboy is the 2011 queer-themed French language film from Céline Sciamma, the director and writer of the 2008 film, Water Lilies. However, Tomboy’s 10-year old main character Laure, tenderly portrayed by Zoé Héran, faces a personal battle with gender as opposed to that of sexuality as in Water Lilies. The film received critical acclaim last year, winning many awards including the Audience Award at the San Francisco Frameline Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

After moving to a new apartment in a suburb of Paris with her father, heavily pregnant mother and wonderfully mischievous little sister, Jeanne, the film follows Laure as she ventures out in search of new friends. The first face she sees is that of potential love interest, Lisa, to whom she introduces herself to as a boy named Michaël. Instantly captivated, Lisa introduces Michaël to the other neighbourhood boys forcing them to include the sandy-haired newcomer in their games. What follows is a truly enchanting tale of the innocence of childhood and a desire to be accepted for who you are and not who you feel you should be. Set against the back drop of endless hot summer days, the whole film is littered with beautifully poignant scenes including the fashioning of a fake bulge for a swimming trip, and secret squatting in the woods while the other boys pee proudly upright.

The life Michaël has created for himself is soon jeopardised when little Jeanne wants in on the daily adventures, however, in his younger sibling he finds a willing accomplice and the pair share the secret. As the new school year fast approaches and a fight within the group causes a neighbour to pay a visit to Laure’s mother, the truth is inevitably revealed. Laure’s eventual “outing” is cruel in a way that only kids can be with the final blow (Michaël’s trousers being pulled down) being dealt by the one he trusted most, Lisa, hurt from the ridicule she has also received. Don’t be put off though, the film is ultimately uplifting when the story returns to its beginning with a slightly remorseful Lisa asking, for the second time: “What’s your name?”.

The simplistic cinematography reflects the freedom of the group of children that the film is centred on with the French sun almost melting from the screen. By the end of the film you’ll be filled with a sense of nostalgia and a wish to return to a time when everything seemed simpler and before opinions were marred with prejudices. Worth watching when you’re feeling at odds with the world.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Based on the 1998 off-Broadway show, this film was written and directed by James Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus) who also stars as the film’s transgendered lead. As with Shortbus, Mitchell uses an explicit plotline as a vehicle for a more subtle tender story of love and intimacy.

The film follows Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a band of Korean-born army wives as they attempt to make a living playing in coffee shops and bars in southern USA. Hedwig, an East German transsexual with a penchant for androgynous glam rock and philosophical ideologies, fronts the group as their final tour dates are interwoven with glimpses of her troubled past. Starting out her life as Hansel Schmidt, the young Hedwig falls in love with an American soldier and after a brief gummy-bear fuelled romance the couple are to be married. One botched attempt at a sex-change later, leaving Hedwig with the aforementioned useless “Angry Inch” of skin between her legs, the couple are married and relocate to Kansas. The relationship’s rapid demise forces a lonely Hedwig, abandoned in a backwater trailer park, to channel her pain into rock songs performed by her and accompanied by her band of fellow rejects.
Running parallel to their tour dates are that of rock superstar Tommy Gnosis, a young Christian boy once loved by Hedwig before he sought solo fame with her songs. The almost ethereal star has a dominant presence in the form of memories and dreams until the pair’s troubled past and theatrical reunion, results in the film’s heady ambiguous climax.

Although not a musical in the strictest sense, the songs provide the greatest insight into the core philosophical themes of the film, ‘Origin of Love’ in particular. This song, based on Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, tells the story of everyone’s search for their other half whether they be gay, lesbian or heterosexual and how sexuality came to be, a recurring theme throughout. The rest of the impressive song list, written by Stephen Trask (Dreamgirls) for the stage show, somehow manages to combine witty philosophical lyrics with a punk-rock backing. Aided by accompanying visual interpretations, the songs translate well to the screen and are the main reason for my strong recommendation of this film and repeated checking of any UK theatre that may show it in its full real-life glory. 

Other directorial work from Cameron Mitchell includes the music video for Scissor Sisters’ “Filthy/Gorgeous” and Rabbit Hole, the 2010 film starring Nicole Kidman, both worth a watch.