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DVD SAVANT
Savant Pal Region 2 Guest Reviews:

Letter to Brezhnev
and
My Life is Hell

Separate releases reviewed by Lee Broughton

England's C'Est La Vie have hit the mark with two very different releases that just happen to share a common plot device: an extraordinary night out on the town results in each films' female lead pursuing a love affair that is troubled by seemingly insurmountable obstacles. One involves a Russian sailor frozen out by Cold War politics, the other a former demon who has just three months in which to prove that he's a reformed character. Letter to Brezhnev is a gritty British classic set in recession-hit, 1980s Liverpool. My Life is Hell is an unusual and sometimes quite bizarre fantasy-cum-romantic comedy set in 1990s France.


Letter to Brezhnev
C'Est La Vie
1985 / Colour / 1.37 flat full frame / 91 m.
Starring Peter Firth, Alfred Molina, Alexandra Pigg, Margi Clarke, Neil Cunningham, Ken Campbell, Angela Clarke, Tracey Lea
Cinematography Bruce McGowan
Production Designers Lez Brotherston, Nick Englefield, Jonathan Swain
Editor Lesley Walker
Original Music Alan Gill
Written by Frank Clarke
Produced by Janet Goddard
Directed by Chris Bernard

Synopsis:

In mid-1980s Liverpool, Teresa (Margi Clarke) finishes her shift at a chicken factory and treats her unemployed friend Elaine (Alexandra Pigg) to a girls' night out that neither of them can really afford. A chance encounter with two Russian sailors, Peter (Peter Firth) and Sergei (Alfred Molina), leads to Elaine and Peter falling in love. When they subsequently try to keep in touch by post, they find that both the British and the Russian authorities are keen to scupper their long-distance relationship. In desperation, Elaine writes a letter to the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev asking for his help.

The cliché-cum-accepted given that all Liverpudlians remain somehow Beatle-esquely witty and philosophically hopeful and upbeat in the face of adversity made Liverpool the choice setting for a number of hard-hitting dramas that highlighted the severe economic and social problems that the UK faced during the Eighties. These shows succeeded in telegraphing the real feelings of desperation that the Northern working classes were experiencing but their Scouse protagonists' dogged refusal to just roll over and accept the hardships forced upon them engendered a welcome sense of resistance, while their ability to retain their sense of humour gave rise to an equally welcome sense of hope.

Letter to Brezhnev isn't always as obviously political as some of its contemporaries but it is a real winner in the 'resistance and hope' stakes. The gritty nature of its everyday life subject matter, and its characters' struggles, allows parts of the film to claim a connection to both Italian neorealism and the British New Wave. By contrast, elements of its final act are just plain fanciful fantasy. But everybody knew that. Nobody really believed that the Soviet premier could or would have involved himself in the workings of a trans-continental love affair in real life. But the very notion that an unemployed, working class girl from Liverpool could move a world leader, and defy the bureaucracy of the British government, by simply digging her heels in and refusing to give up on her simple-if-impossible dream was something that British cinema-goers of the time were only too happy to embrace.

On the occasions that he does get overtly political, scriptwriter Frank Clarke pulls no punches with his wry observations. Elaine desperately wants to work but there simply isn't any work for her. Having a job means that Teresa is viewed as "one of the lucky ones" but this luck involves her working all week in a "dump doing a job that's fuckin' disgusting" just in order to survive on a pittance. When Peter explains that, in Russia, if you don't work you don't eat Elaine responds with "It's a bit like that here as well." And when an obnoxious journalist asks Elaine how she would cope with the food shortages in Russia, she advises him that he'd soon find food shortages in English kitchens too if he'd only care to look. Ultimately Elaine comes to the conclusion that life in the Soviet Union really could be no worse than the life she presently has in the UK.

Letter to Brezhnev is a really quite remarkable little feature. Low budget and disarmingly simple in its basic premise and execution - much of its runtime is taken up by the events of just one night and the following day - the film heralded the cinematic debuts of its director, its scriptwriter and most of its cast. Made up of mostly local faces, the cast and crews' relative inexperience is evident in some sections but the enthusiasm and self-belief projected by all concerned obscures most of the film's minor shortcomings. It's generally presumed that Firth and Molina (who were already established film actors) and Pigg (who had acted in a TV soap) were systematic in bringing a sense of professionalism to the production but the first-timers and non-professionals all carry themselves well too.

Whether by accident or design, Letter to Brezhnev is a film that could be described as World Cinema and the show was completely at home when it was screened on the UK's second Arts channel, Channel Four. But the film's undeniable wit and charm, along with its natural and engaging sense of exuberance and the irrepressible Margi Clarke's quite superb turn as Teresa, ensured that the feature found an eager audience on the UK's popular cinema circuits too. Twenty years on, the Eighties night-club fashions have dated the film a touch but Alan Gill's excellent symphonic/electro soundtrack score has lost none of its emotional pull and the film itself still manages to project a magic all of its own.


Some shots on this DVD presentation look just a tad tight at the sides while other shots play just fine. Footage from the film's premiere included in the extra features section does suggest that the image here has been slightly cropped at each side. That said, this film was financed in part by Channel Four and so much of its framing would probably have been set up with the film's eventual 4:3 television transmission in mind. The film was shot on 16mm and, given that fact, the picture quality here is reasonably grain free for the most part. There are odd bits of minor print damage present but the image itself is fairly colourful and sharp and the sound is very good. Two interesting period featurettes are complimented by a new production which features Chris Bernard talking us through a selection of behind-the-scenes footage and location shots. Bernard, Alexandra Pigg and Margi Clarke each provide a separate commentary track.


My Life is Hell
C'Est La Vie
1991 / Colour / 2.35 anamorphic 16:9 / 104 m. / Ma vie est un enfer
Starring Josiane Balasko, Daniel Auteuil, Richard Berry, Michael Lonsdale, Catherine Samie, Jean Benguigui, Jessica Forde, Luis Rego
Cinematography Dominique Chapuis
Production Designer Hugues Tissandier
Editor Catherine Kelber
Original Music Les Rita Mitsouko
Written by Josiane Balasko and Joel Houssin
Produced by Jean Claude Fleury
Directed by Josiane Balasko

Synopsis:

A dowdy dental nurse, Leah Lemonnier (Josiane Balasko), spends her days fantasizing about her psychiatrist, Dr Langsam (Richard Berry). When Leah's jet-setting mother (Catherine Samie) leaves a grotesque antique mirror at her daughter's apartment, Leah receives a visitation from Abargadon (Daniel Auteuil), a wise-cracking "5th circle demon on a surface mission." Harassment from Abargadon results in Leah losing her job and she is forced to sign a pact with him in order to meet her psychiatry bills. It turns out that the pact was actually intended for Leah's mother and the Archangel Gabriel (Michael Lonsdale) steps in, voiding the contract and ordering Abar to return to Hell. Instead Abar treats Leah to a fantastical night out on the town which reveals to her how sweet life really is, bringing out her own inner beauty in the process. But disobeying Gabriel results in Abar being transformed into a mortal and he is given three months in which to renounce Satan or face enduring forever the pain that he brought to his former clients. With the pair now hopelessly in love, Leah becomes determined to help Abar reform.

We're essentially dealing with a burlesque romantic comedy here but writer/director/lead-actress Josiane Balasko has cooked up a quite novel theme that, in turn, throws up some bizarre notions and imagery: angels dress in white and travel in white limousines that can fly while demons dress in black, drive black drag-racer cars and hang out in their very own bad boys' bar. And Abar is a decidedly bad boy - the contract that he forced on Leah had a small print clause that gave her just ninety days to live - but he's got a mischievous streak, and a sense of justice, that Leah comes to find attractive.

Part of the film deals with the way that society and the media deem looks and body-shape to be of more importance and significance than personality and the person within, and these sections are pursued with something of a feminist edge. Leah is ecstatic when Abar temporarily transforms her into 'Scarlett' (Jessica Forde), a hot blonde who effortlessly captivates Dr Langsam and his cronies when she bumps into them on the golf course. Back at the club house, Abar grants Leah/'Scarlett' her request to be miniaturized so that she can sneak up and hear the compliments that the men must surely be making about her. Alas she's deeply upset when she hears their sexist and degrading private banter. Abar decides to grant her the last laugh by giving her a penis just prior to Langsam getting her alone.

Leah also has to contend with unwanted attention from her sex, drugs and porn-obsessed neighbour, Mr Chpil (Jean Benguigui). He's some kind of mover and shaker in the music business and he is determined to bed Leah, advising one visiting rock star that "dogs like her can be great in the sack. She's so uptight, it's a turn-on." When Abar inadvertently drinks a cocktail containing "Chartreuse, made by monks" he starts melting away: he and Leah rush round to Chpil's place to secure an antidote, a bottle of 'Drano' detergent. When a recuperated Abar carelessly tosses the half-empty bottle to one side, its spilt contents melt Chpil's favourite blow-up doll and Abar is forced to conjure up two demonic beauties to pacify him. Chpil's excitement doesn't last long because the pair soon transform themselves into dominant and vicious wild panthers.

Balasko's political observations widen in scope towards the end of the film when Leah and Abar become destitute and are forced to live in poor housing in the immigrant quarter. Seeing the reduced quality of life that the city's poor have to endure, along with the mundane nature of standing in endless queues to find a job that pays a pittance etc, really affects Abar, who is used to getting what he wants when he wants it and supernaturally jaunting from one place to another in an instant. Unfortunately, somebody wants Abar's quest for rehabilitation to fail and when he mysteriously gets his supernatural powers back he finds it impossible to resist using them: which leads to something of a twist ending for the film.

This film never stands still for a moment. It's continually veering off into bold and unexpected directions and introducing new and unfamiliar aesthetic approaches. I'm sure that this means that more than one viewing is needed to fully appreciate the film's finer points. The acting here is generally excellent (Auteuil makes for a convincing demon in human form) and Balasko's direction is unfussy but good. The framing on some shots looks just a little rushed but Balasko makes pretty good use of the 2.35 frame most of the time. My Life is Hell is certainly one of the most interesting films to have come out of France during the Nineties but I was left feeling that the film couldn't quite decide whether it wanted to be a full-on romantic comedy-cum-fantasy in the European tradition or an eccentric but humorous Art House piece with something important to say. Richard Berry feels that Balasko has simply made a film which is about "the worries and the existentialist anguish of a woman" adding that, in an attempt to address and understand these issues and concerns, she has chosen to place them within "an extremely excessive and delirious context" while "pushing things to the limit."


Given the often esoteric nature of the films that C'Est La Vie select for release it's not always possible for them to find and secure pristine elements. There's no such problem here, though. The quality of this disc's anamorphically enhanced picture is excellent. Same goes for the audio, which features the film's original French soundtrack supported by removable English subtitles. The content of the Richard Berry interview is particularly thoughtful and intelligent.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Letter to Brezhnev rates:
Movie: Excellent -
Video: Good ++ / Very Good -
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: From Liverpool With Love behind the scenes featurette, TV featurette with Frank Clarke & cast, TV featurette with Chris Bernard & cast, photo gallery, cast and crew biographies, booklet and commentaries by Chris Bernard, Alexandra Pigg and Margi Clarke
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 16, 2004

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, My Life is Hell rates:
Movie: Good ++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, photo gallery, biographies/filmographies, booklet and an interview with Richard Berry
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 16, 2004




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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