Julie Bertuccelli in Georgia and Australia

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Since Otar Left (2003)

If you can imagine the experience of watching an Abbas Kiarostami film in an Iranian mountain village, or Star Wars on a space station, you’ll have some idea how strange it was to see Julie Bertuccelli’s wonderful Since Otar Left (2003) at a Tbilisi film club less than a decade after it had been shot in that city. In fact, some scenes had been shot directly outside that tiny cinema on Rustaveli Avenue. There were chuckles of recognition.

That season Tbilisi revealed to me its double identity. When the clouds were black the city was an atmospheric post-Soviet ruin stinking of cold mud and acrid cigarettes. The sagging balconies of its nineteenth century apartment buildings sometimes hung by a single bolt, while the Soviet concrete monoliths looked, bizarrely enough, centuries older. Rubble piled up on the footpaths. The flaking and mould-blackened yellow paint, the makeshift patches of rust-red tin, the bare-limbed trees — all contributed to an atmosphere of devastation. And yet when the sun sparkled on the River Mtkvari all that decay seemed diminished and Tbilisi was as delightful as an Italian renaissance town.

Since Otar Left captures that urban duality. Co-written by Bertuccelli and Bernard Renucci, the film centres on three generations of a Georgian family. The elderly matriarch’s adored son, a doctor named Otar, is working as an illegal immigrant in Paris. The report comes of his accidental death. To spare the old woman this devastating news, her granddaughter begins to fake new letters from Otar. This plot is nothing new — E. L. Doctorow’s story ‘A Writer in the Family’ (1984) spins from the same basic idea — and yet the subtle screenplay and the tremendous performances of its three central actresses are the foundations of a powerfully moving film.

Each of the three main characters seeks her own vision of dignity and independence. The elderly matriarch Eka (Esther Gorintin) is stubborn, full of life despite her years, and unfairly critical of her supposedly ambitionless daughter Marina (Nino Khomasuridze). Marina’s daughter Ada (Dinara Drukarova), while dutiful and loving, is bored by her university studies, bored by her casual boyfriend, and bored by the squabbles of her mother and grandmother over the legacy of Stalin in the close quarters of their ramshackle apartment.

All this takes place in an era of economic deprivation. The film repeatedly returns to the failure of Tbilisi’s basic utilities a decade after the end of the Soviet Union. Power outages leave the women in the dark. The water supply cuts while Marina is washing her hair in the shower, causing her to cry out in despair, “Life’s impossible in this fucking country!” (By 2011 the situation had improved, although most of the shops in the city centre had a petrol-powered generator on its stoop ready to start puttering.) To survive, Marina must sell items in the open-air antiques market beside the river with her supportive but inessential lover; at one moment she tells him with a laugh, “I wish I was in love with you.” (That week I had browsed in that very market, where ruined cars live on as permanent stalls selling every imaginable item: swords, canes, pick-axes, rusty pistols, button accordions, 8mm camera equipment, pictures of 1970s Soviet film starlets, cigar boxes decorated in Polynesian kitsch, and century-old adding machines.) When Eka falls ill, the hospital facilities are inadequate and the bill must be paid immediately in cash to the bored, chain-smoking doctor.

Despite hard times, life goes on in Georgia. Eka, Marina, and Ada own an idealic country dacha where they collect fruit. They gather with friends in their apartment to sing folk songs. They pause by the roadside to tie strips of cloth to a wish tree — until Ada refuses to perpetuate this superstition.

The women also follow family tradition as devoted Francophiles — although none of the three have ever actually visited France. This is one reason Eka is so supportive of Otar’s life in Paris. At night Ada reads to Eka from a volume of Proust, part of the valuable library of French books that had to be hidden during the darkest Soviet years. France represents the apex of culture and economic opportunity. There is a powerful conclusion as Ada, with Eka’s complicity but Marina’s distress, decides to remain behind in Paris as an illegal immigrant. As an audience we are left in no doubt that Georgia is a provincial dead-end for Ada. The film boldly depicts illegal immigration as a step towards self-fulfilment. France offers a new life. It might have been a colossally chauvinistic move for these French screenwriters to invent Georgian characters who exalt France in this way, but I have to admit I was totally won over by the humanity of the performances and the universality of the film’s theme: the desire for a better life and to transcend the mundane here and now.

Nevertheless, watching this story about Tbilisi in Tbilisi gave me a usefully unsettled perspective. Is Since Otar Left a film made for international audiences rather than for the Georgians it purports to depict? I’m sure many locals do not consider it a Georgian film. Although acted in a mixture of Georgian and French, only one of the three leads, Nino Khomasuridze, is actually a local (the late Esther Gorintin was Polish and Dinara Drukarova is Russian). I’m not suggesting that Bertuccelli was a superficial tourist — after all, she was a protégé of director Otar Iosseliani — but I wondered whether Georgians consider her a cultural interloper, a Western European condescending to tell a story about the citizens of an impoverished country who idolise her own.

Luckily, Bertuccelli has given me a convenient opportunity to evaluate that question because her second fiction feature, The Tree (2010), was made in my home country, Australia. All the characters are Australian with the exception of its nominally French-English protagonist, Dawn, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. The setting is rural Queensland. Dawn’s husband dies and leaves his family in grief. His young daughter (Morgana Davies) comes to believe that the enormous Moreton Bay Fig on their property has absorbed his spirit and can speak to her. Dawn also toys with the belief. But the tree grows wildly, and its roots and branches invade the house. The neighbours are outraged. The family’s grieving process, the slow acceptance of the man’s death, is mirrored by the eventual abandonment of the tree after an act of God.

How well does Bertuccelli grasp the Australian milieu? An interesting question, because I don’t actually think many unquestionably Australian films demonstrate any particular insight into Australia as it really is. Despite tiny box office and indifferent reception, much of the national cinema doggedly sticks with a default set of elements: depressing subject matter, protagonists of limited intelligence who lack agency, and plenty of lingering shots of the landscape. There’s nothing inherently limiting about that, but so far Australia hasn’t produced filmmakers of the calibre of the Dardenne brothers or Andrey Zvyagintsev or Andrea Arnold who would find universal resonance, let alone poetry, in the dark and mundane surfaces of Australian society. Instead we frequently wind up with badly written, pretentious, and crushingly boring movies that nobody really likes.

I had high hopes for The Tree after the triumph of Since Otar Left. Bertuccelli was also a assistant director on Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Blue (1993), a truly great film about a grieving widow. What could go wrong? But I’m afraid The Tree, to borrow a phrase from Jean-Luc Godard, is a film like any other. Although beautifully photographed, its Australian characters have none of the complexity of Bertuccelli’s Georgians. True to the conventions of our national cinema, no character in The Tree is allowed to have any sort of intellectual life — not even a corny worship of Le France. The dead husband and his replacement, a plumber, are almost interchangeable tanned men in flannel shirts, amiably laconic, of whom almost nothing is discovered. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Morgana Davies give strong performances with what they have but the dialogue often sounds unrealistic. The narrative meanders, and many scenes could have been removed with little consequence to its coherence.

To date these are Bertuccelli’s only two fiction features, although she has been a prolific documentarian of French society. I’m happy to see that a third starring Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni is in post-production — a feature film, finally, set in France.

Edinburgh, February 2018

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Hemingway’s Garden

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Here are two older pieces, the latter updated, about Ernest Hemingway’s intriguing unfinished novel The Garden of Eden (1986). They originally appeared at the blog Honey for the Bears.

AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES SCOTT LINVILLE

In late 2010, hiding from the chill of the Manhattan winter in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, I had tea with screenwriter James Scott Linville. An American who lives in London, Linville is a former managing editor of the Paris Review. His adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s Garden of Eden—Linville’s first produced screenplay—is now available on DVD in the US through Lions Gate.

The film recreates the sun-blanched milieu of the Lost Generation at play between the wars. On an extended honeymoon on the Côte d’Azur, Catherine (Mena Suvari) draws her writer husband David (Jack Huston) into androgynous sexual role play. They soon have identical bleached blonde haircuts and are the scandal of the season. David, a less macho Hemingway hero than we’re used to, doesn’t put up much resistance. Catherine then seduces the smitten Marita (Caterina Murino), a beautiful Italian heiress, and offers her to David as a part-time mistress. This time-share arrangement soon dissolves as Catherine drifts into madness and David and Marita grow close. Interpolated into this narrative is a dramatization of David’s work-in-progress, a short story based on a childhood elephant hunt in Africa with his father (Matthew Modine).

Colonel Boyle, a World War I pilot and David’s former comrade, is played by Richard E. Grant. “He’s astonishingly good,” said Linville. Boyle appears only in passing in the novel, but Linville expanded the role to three scenes. “I liked Colonel Boyle because he was a bit of an outsider, stepping in and quickly getting the lay of the land.” The Boyle role turned out to be useful in raising money for the project. “The producer told me, ‘Inadvertently you created a cameo for a star. We will pay him to come in for four days, but his name will be up there.’” Linville smiled. “I had no idea. It was luck. But it was also a great education.”

Linville’s literary background helped in unexpected ways. He had worked on many Paris Review author interviews in the 1980s and 1990s with George Plimpton (Plimpton had famously interviewed Hemingway for the journal in 1958). Linville learned firsthand Plimpton’s techniques of “fiddling” with transcribed speech for print. The reverse was necessary when transforming Hemingway’s laconic dialogue for the screen. “Even if a line reads well on the page,” Linville said, “it’s not necessarily going to sound right in the actor’s mouth.”

Hemingway’s novel was controversial not just for its preoccupation with androgyny when published posthumously by Scribner’s in 1986. The 247 page book had been created by editor Tom Jenks from a much longer, more ambitious unfinished manuscript Hemingway worked on during his last fifteen years. A long manuscript analysis in Rose Marie Burwell’s Hemingway: The Post-war Years and the Posthumous Novels (1996) indicates how much of Hemingway’s original conception was excised, including a mirror plot about a painter named Nick Sheldon and his wife Barbara.

I asked Linville if he made a trip to the Hemingway Archive at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston to read the purported 1500 pages of raw manuscript. He said no. Firstly, Jenks had told him the published book was very close to one version of the manuscript. “The other thing is I was given the commission and had to start three days later on Monday. The clock was ticking on some equity that could be put into the production, and I had to finish and lock a script to go out to actors by a certain date,” said Linville. “I approached this as somebody who loves the writer’s work, loves this book, not as an academic.”

The film was not well-received by critics when released theatrically in December 2010. Linville said, “In some ways people have been arguing with Hemingway. They’re arguing with the movie because it’s Hemingway taking his themes and turning them upside down, examining them, taking them apart.” The novel, like several other posthumously published works, suggests that late in life Hemingway was reconsidering his core beliefs. “There are scenes of hunting but the lead character of the subplot is making an anti-hunting argument.”

“When the book came out it got wonderful reviews from James Salter, E. L. Doctorow, and John Updike. At the same time it sold millions of copies. Why is there slightly less respect for the book now? I don’t quite understand. In some ways Hemingway is somewhat out of fashion. He was even more so at the time the book came out and that was why there was such a startling reassessment.” Linville added: “I think The Garden of Eden is one of his most interesting books. It might be his best about a writer writing.”

John Irvin (Hamburger Hill and the 1979 TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) directed the picture. Linville joined the cast and crew on location in Spain’s Alicante province. The small city of Alcoy doubled for 1920s Madrid. Hemingway’s immeasurable gift for evoking the physical qualities of a landscape is beautifully translated to film by cinematographer Ashley Rowe.

Linville praised Mena Suvari’s “brave performance” and called the Italian actress Caterina Murino, who previously appeared in Casino Royale (2006), “a revelation. She’s considered a Bond girl but she’s a wonderful actor, extremely refined, very beautiful. You’re seeing a young Sophia Loren. She’s been in a lot of French movies but none have come out in the United States. I think this movie should probably be remembered for introducing her.”

With a new Raymond Chandler adaptation recently completed, Linville faces the possibility of another Hemingway project. The Garden of Eden and its unusual history still fascinates him. “Mena Suvari was very curious and did a great deal of research for the part. She wants to go to JFK and read the original.” He laughed. “Maybe we’ll all go on a field trip.”

CALL FOR A CRITICAL EDITION

I enjoy the edition of The Garden of Eden published in 1986, although Tom Jenks’ drastic reduction of the unfinished manuscript makes Mary Hemingway’s posthumous tampering with A Moveable Feast look like mere spell-checking. Nevertheless, I like the published novel’s rich evocation of the 1920s Riviera setting, the dark portrait of a ménage à trois, and its embedded African hunting story.

According to Rose Marie Burwell, Hemingway wrote The Garden of Eden between 1948 and 1959. It evolved from an ur-text he began after the war – from which also grew Islands in the Stream, Across the River and Into the Trees, and The Old Man and the Sea. Thematically, The Garden of Eden evolved at least partially from the discarded “Miami” section of Islands in the Stream (much of “Miami” was published as a short story, “The Strange Country”, in 1987’s not-exactly-complete Finca Vigia story collection). Burwell makes the case that Garden, Islands, A Moveable Feast and Under Kilimanjaro (initially published in edited form as True At First Light):

form a serial sequence that was at times consciously modeled on Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The works form a tetralogy that is Hemingway’s portrait of the artist as writer and painter, and as son, husband and father; but their serial nature, and their place in the body of his fiction, has been unrecognized, misconstrued, and undervalued because of the manuscript deletions made for publication, the order in which the […] works appeared, and the restrictions of archival material that clarifies much about their composition and intentions.

Of course, some kind of drastic editing was necessary to create a readable and marketable Garden of Eden. The Garden manuscript material, according to Burwell, is immensely repetitious. But Jenks went to an extreme by deleting half of the plot, and as such distorted the very conception of the novel.

The publication of the ‘restored’ Moveable Feast in 2009 initiated a series of ‘Hemingway Library Editions’ overseen by the Hemingway heirs including grandson Seán Hemingway. Each volume — not exactly a critical edition — contains the text of an original book with appendices of deleted sequences, alternate drafts, and relevant historical documents. To date we’ve seen The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Green Hills of Africa, and a volume of selected stories. Meanwhile Cambridge University Press has pressed on with their mammoth, multi-volume complete letters project, executed with scholarly rigor.

In other words, Hemingway continues to be republished and the ouevre goes on expanding. The Garden of Eden‘s moment of reconsideration has not yet arrived. The manuscript poses an editorial challenge that may require several parallel volumes. I don’t believe the Jenks version should go out of print, but a judiciously edited, essentially comprehensive reading edition of the full manuscript — similiar to Under Kilimanjaro — would give us a much better indication of Hemingway’s ultimately unrealised ambitions.

There should also be a simultaneous publication of a facsimile edition of Hemingway’s very long typescript with his annotations intact. Similar editions exist of other Hemingway manuscripts. The mass market has had their version of the book for more than thirty years, and it is time to release the full manuscript to those who want to slog through it.

Madrid, March 2011
Sydney, July 2009