Life after death?

The French left goes back to school

In the Guardian this past weekend, John Dugdale wrote about the rentrée littéraire, the "collective insanity" that grips the French publishing industry in late summer and early autumn each year. In the course of just a few weeks, more than 600 novels will be published in France. (Dugdale suggests there's a similar phenomenon here in the UK. Certainly, the NS Books desk is groaning under the weight of more novels than we'd ever be able, or willing, to review. But I don't imagine for a minute the volume of new titles here comes anywhere close to the deluge en outre-Manche.)

Another fixture of the late-summer season in France are the universités d'été, or summer schools, held by the major political parties (not to mention the less populous groupuscules on both left and right), which announce the rentrée politique. The Parti Socialiste (PS) holds its summer school this weekend in La Rochelle, and it promises to be rather lively.

The PS has spent most of the summer in an agony of recrimination and self-examination following its mediocre showing in the European elections in June (sound familiar?). And some of its erstwhile supporters, notably Bernard-Henri Lévy, have gone as far as to pronounce a death sentence on the party. (Though for a magisterial dismissal of this view see this interview with the political philosopher Marcel Gauchet.) But there are signs of life: in Marseilles this past weekend, the Socialist MEP Vincent Peillon, himself a philosopher in a previous life, gathered an impressive array of figures from across the centre left, including the veteran of the barricades and Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the former leader of the French Communist Party Robert Hue, and a representative of the new centrist agglomeration, MoDem. They were all there attempting to answer the question: "A new progressive majority for France -- how and with whom?"

Predictably enough, the PS leadership was sceptical. And, further left, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (the subject of this NS report by Andrew Hussey) showed that the sectarian habits of the ultra-gauche die hard, declaring that an alliance between the PS, the Greens and MoDem would mark the end of the "workers' movement" as we know it.

To keep up with developments on the French left, bookmark Arthur Goldhammer's invaluable English-language blog, French Politics.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era