The work of Joe Sacco inspired me to find more graphic novels and graphic reportage so, after years of never going near the shelf with all the ‘comic books’, I now look out for new titles that are worth reading. This memoir by Marcelino Truong is brilliant. It follows an earlier work that I have yet to read but this volume covering the years 1963- 1975 is an excellent evocation of an interesting era. It makes it more interesting that the author/artist has dual heritage: his mother was French and his father Vietnamese. His father’s job in the Embassy in London brought the family to Britain and, although he changed jobs, this where they stayed.
Truong combines information about the Vietnam War with a personal family story. Where the two overlap, the most insights are to be found. In some senses, this is the story of every family. ‘Marco’ grew up in London at the same time I did so the references, both pictorial and written, to the changing times are of particular interest. So, too, is the invitation to consider the Vietnam War from a different angle. It isn’t the American angle but neither is it the contrary North Vietnamese view of things. Instead, Marco sees the radical students around him supporting the anti- colonial forces of the north and cannot understand why the communists are seen as benign. His position is one of concern for the family and friends in South Vietnam.
As his hair grew longer in the 70s so did his understanding of what was actually going on in Vietnam. When he moves to France as a teenager, he continues to find himself in the middle of the conflict between North Vietnamese supporting students and those who support the ‘western values’.
This memoir has a parallel story, though. It is one of being of mixed heritage and of living with a mother who has bipolar disorder. The effect of these two factors in his growing up and the directions taken by each of his siblings make for a poignant reminder of what family life can be.
‘Saigon Calling’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This autobiographical novel is from young French novelist Edouard Louis. It tells the hard hitting story of growing up as an outsider in poor circumstances in northern France. Young Edouard knows he is different; the signs are in the reactions to him from everyone else. Edouard is an effeminate ten year old boy when we first meet him. His persona annoys his peer group and worries his parents.
His childhood is a story of learning that survival will depend heavily on regulating how he comes across. What is surprising, and moving, is that the boy does not blame others for their reactions to him. He accepts as normal that his manner and his attitudes (and later his sexuality) place him very low on life’s hierarchy. At the top are the physically tough, his father and cousins among them. These are the men who dominate his village. Hard physical jobs just to survive turn out tough, physical men whose attitudes to, and treatment of, women are shocking. Their view of effeminate boys is equally as clear cut.
There is a sense of triumph to the book, if only because the relating of the childhood experiences suggest survival, if nothing else. Escape to the city must have provided the author with a second act where he was validated. How else would he have written a book that despite its grim subject is written with such beauty?
‘The End of Eddy’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This film with the title ‘Apres le Sud’ in the original French is an interesting study of four people each facing a personal crisis. The setting is the South of France in what seems to be a heatwave. Directed by Jean- Jacques Jauffret, the 2011 film plays with time so that when things unfold we pass moments that we have already witnessed. What makes it all the more interesting is the way the characters cross paths with each other as their personal stories unfold.
Amelie is a young woman with a holiday job at the supermarket. She urgently needs to speak to her boyfriend, Luigi, but tracking him down is hard and when he appears, she cannot be released from her work. He has his own issues as his father is harsh with him and he wants to return to his mother in Italy. He is unaware that the news Amelie has for him could change his decision about leaving.
Amelie’s mother has her own concerns and leaves for another city telling her daughter she is visiting a relative overnight. Instead, she goes to a clinic that could help with her weight problem. Georges is the fourth character we follow. He is a retired man who relies on public transport to go to the local supermarket. Quite lonely, but not without reason, he listens to classical music and fights off the irritation of teenagers playing football against his garage door.
As you would expect on such a hot day, everyone moves slowly and the camera lingers over small details so that there is a documentary feel at times.
When the paths cross in a final tragic scene, earlier scenes fall into place and the layers built up by the director come together. It is an accomplished film. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This French film has a lot of heart but to get to it you have to pass through the first twenty minutes or so of rather hard-hitting scenes inside a Paris sex club. The story concerns two young men who meet and who find their attraction to each other is on a different plane to the other encounters at the same club.
The problem is that their encounter has put one of them at risk and a trip to the hospital is required. They go together and then walk through the city getting to know each other and dealing with the strong emotions arising from their encounter. The opening was stronger than I am used to but, once through this, the film is sweet and shows the blossoming of love in a sweet way. Adding to the power of the film is its rolling out in real-time so that we travel through the night with Hugo and Theo.
We are left at the end with the same uncertainty faced by the boys themselves but with a large feeling of hope that this is a relationship will last. To make me feel this way after 90 minutes is quite an achievement.
This is another film that has great charm. As with most films about growing up it takes place over a summer; the period between school terms is always the best position for a film that explores coming of age. In this French film by director Michel Gondre, two boys set off for central France from their Paris suburb in a vehicle of their own making. It takes a certain suspension of disbelief but the ride is worth it.
There are elements that are the same as the American film ‘Kings of Summer’. Boys want to escape their confusing homes and overbearing parents and build a substitute home that has what can only be called ‘set designer take on what a child would build’. In this French film, though, the home is also a car so the boys can take to the open road.
The title comes from the not particularly flattering names given to them by their peers at school. When Theo arrives as the new boy he is quickly nicknamed ‘Gasoline’ because he tinkers with engines. He is an outsider in the same way as Daniel or ‘Microbe’ and the two become allies. They spend time together and build an engine from scraps so that when the summer comes, they escape in a car disguised as a small house.
The journey takes them through France where they meet various people of different levels of eccentricity. Daniel has a destination in mind. He loves a class mate and he knows where she stays during the holidays. Theo knows that he lacks the courage to tell her how he feels and encourages him to act on his feelings but Daniel is plagued by self- doubt, not helped by the fact that he is mistaken for a girl because of his longer hair.
The ending when it comes, as it must because, in films of this nature the close of the summer holidays brings things to a conclusion, is not predictable. What is clear, though, is that Daniel and Theo have both grown as a result of their journey.
‘Microbe and Gasoline’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
As today is World AIDS Day, I remembered this 2007 French film from the director Andre Techine. Set in Paris in the 1980s, the story tells us of the fate of Manu, a student up from a provincial town in the South of France. Since this is the early period of AIDS it is easy to guess what that fate might be. On the way to the conclusion, though, we find out what impact the young man has on his friends and lovers.
Sarah is married to Mehdi but they are having some marital problems. Sarah is a writer and this takes precedence over the couple’s baby. Mehdi finds it hard to hide his irritation with his wife. Her good friend is Adrien, an older doctor who happens to be gay. He meets Manu, has a brief liaison with him which turns into a firmer friendship and this connection leads to Mehdi and Manu meeting up. The attraction between them grows and they end up having an affair. Adrien is outraged at this and in the fracas between him and Manu he discovers spots on the younger man’s skin. It is soon clear that Manu has AIDS.
The fall out from this news affects each character in a different way. The end is inevitable but before we reach it we see the desperation of the sufferers, the crusading of the doctor, the split and reconciliation of the married couple and the devastation of the friends.
The film works best because Manu, played by Johan Libereau, is open and warm as a person. The cruelty of the disease is here to see.
Here is another film that sent me back to the cinema to watch it again, within the same week. It is one of the very best of the films of Louis Malle, a director I admire very much. This film from 1987 is his most personal work so it is no surprise that it came towards the end of his career.
Julien is a young boy at a Roman Catholic boarding school during the winter of 1943- 44 who notices everything. He wets the bed and misses his mother, characteristics that do not fit with the tough image he likes to portray. Life at the school is mostly boring but the arrival of some new pupils add interest to Julien’s life. The boys have been enrolled by Pere Jean, the headmaster. One of them, Jean Bonnet, is in the same class as Julien. Although he takes against him at first- he is too good at mathematics for his comfort- he changes his view when he discovers him praying one night and wearing a kippah. This discovery changes the relationship between the two boys and they become closer; the secret of Bonnet’s Jewishness is safe with Julien but events in the wider school cause problems. The black market run by the school’s assistant cook is discovered and he is sacked. As an act of revenge, he denounces the headmaster for giving refuge to Jews.
The ending is inevitable and a voice over by an adult Julien from 40 years later makes clear the fate that awaited the Jewish boys and their headteacher.
‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ is a moving film which shows the dilemmas faced during wartime as well as the extreme risks some people will take in the name of humanity. The film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?