À la plage – July Monthly Top
When you read this article, you will probably be on your way to the seaside, driving with the sun in your eyes, trying to get there first to claim a patch of sand and dip your toes in the sea for the first time this year. The summer holiday is an opportunity to discover new versions of ourselves, break free from our old selves, and have a great time (that’s a must). Therefore, I chose some older and more recent films that portray seaside escapism, the song of the waves and the heat of the sun as a respite from the boring and repetitive quotidian that fills our lives during the rest of the year.
Pauline à la plage / Pauline at the Beach (dir. Éric Rohmer, 1983)
An undeniable master of summer escapades, Rohmer begins and ends his third episode of the Comedies and Proverbs series with a static shot of a wooden fence: an element that enables access to the house where the protagonists, Pauline (Amanda Langlet) and her cousin, Marion (Arielle Dombasle), stay, opening and closing the gate to their world and setting the time bounds of the holiday. True to the reflective and introspective style of the characters, Rohmer opts for summer to invite not only to casualness but also to fleeting, superficial affairs. In Pauline at the Beach, summer is the territory where bright nature and hazy feelings collide, the time for mistakes and weak judgments. Here, the beach and the summer are not the catalysts of the conflict, but rather its witnesses. Pauline is portrayed in chromatic harmony with the coastline, dressed in shades of white and blue melting in the translucence of the sea and sky, while the poster of La Blouse Roumaine by Matisse in her bedroom places the freshness and naivety of the protagonist within the walls of the cottage. Like most of Rohmer’s films, Pauline is filled with eloquent discussions about sex, relationships and fidelity where the characters are hesitant and consumed by doubt and temptation. The camera and natural lighting accentuate the skin tones in the sun, the swimming and windsurfing lessons as a background for the perfect adventure, in one of the most austere creations by the French director. With no soundtrack and few camera movements, contrary to the predominant trend in Rohmer’s romantic films, Pauline proves to be, despite her lack of experience in love affairs, the most mature person in her group of tourists. Through the non-interventionist approach of the protagonist and choral perspective on the narrative, Rohmer tempts the viewer to adopt a voyeur gaze: we witness these volatile affairs, just like the stories Pauline and her cousin tell each other to make reality bearable.
Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot / Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (dir. Jacques Tati, 1953)
The film introduces Tati’s iconic character: the clumsy but well-meaning Monsieur Hulot, played by the director himself. The tall, thin gentleman, with his pipe permanently glued to the corner of his mouth, spends his vacation in a small village in Brittany. Devoid of spoken dialogue for the most part and dominated by the characteristic visual gags, the film is an incursion into a typical holiday resort, with its repetitive rituals such as swimming, picnics, playing tennis and small talks between the sun-lounger neighbors. Tati invites us to observe the aesthetics of vacation with all its limitations – sometimes absurd and boring – through a series of vignettes more or less linked on a narrative level, relying rather on the subtlety and meaning of the characters’ gestures. Humor springs from the protagonist’s mannerisms and everyday situations, as Monsieur Hulot entertains by inadequacy (the disproportionately small car in which he arrives at his destination, his rather short slacks that reveal his striped socks, his stooping posture) and by the way he interacts with others, disrupting their vacation time despite their initial disinterest in him. Like Tati’s other films starring Monsieur Hulot, the character is cast from the beginning by the director as a symbol of non-conformism and defiance of social conventions. While everyone waits to read the newspaper, Hulot uses it as a helmet to shield himself from the sun, indifferent to the news of the city left behind. The film satirizes the silly things people are determined to do to have a great time on their holiday, reviewing familiar characters such as the elderly couple, bored children, the intellectual, the uptight waiter, and the hot girl who turns all heads, making us laugh at the old-fashioned Monsieur Hulot when, in fact, he is the only one who seems to enjoy himself.
Paradise: Love (dir. Ulrich Seidl, 2012)
In Love, the first film in the Paradise trilogy by Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), a woman past her prime, travels to a seaside resort in Kenya to escape her frustrating life in Vienna. There, the protagonist can get what she doesn’t have at home: sex, attention and company of young men and, if possible, a little affection. The affairs between these young Kenyan men – or Beach Boys, as they call themselves – and the obese European matrons begin on the beach, where the former pose as street vendors and sweet talk their potential conquests. A rope acts as a barrier between the Indian Ocean and the beach packed with palm trees, where on one side, white women sunbathe, and on the other, black men do their thing, waiting for the women to cross on their side, a sign that their advances will be accepted. According to unwritten rules that make sex tourism seem more regulated than it actually is, Teresa is both a prey and a predator, reaching this position due to her buying power, which turns her into a rich woman in the African country. In this atypical paradise, the camera lingers indifferently on the soft white bodies, contrary to the traditional aesthetics, filled with macho images, in search of perfect female bodies, covered with beach oil. If, at first, Teresa’s connection with one of the young men reminds of the genuine relationship between the lonely widow and the young immigrant in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974), Seidl turns away from romance and favors a cynicism close to documentary style, since the men in the film are Beach Boys in real life. The oppressive neocolonialist aspect of these relations is not neglected either, but the Austrian director relies on the balance of exploitation, demystifying the paradisiacal holiday destination, which is just an instrument in a mutual exchange.
Y tu mamá también (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)
In Y tu mamá también, a film that made waves at its time, two teenage boys, Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna), embark on a journey of discovery along the Mexican coast with Luisa (Maribel Verdú ), an older Spanish woman, in search for an idyllic beach called Boca del Cielo. The utopian place invented by the two to impress the woman who looks the epitome of their fantasies serves as a catalyst for the sexual competition arising between them, as well as for the class struggle against the backdrop of a transient political environment. Cuarón opts for an omniscient narrator to present the sexual and social discourse, using dualist pairs such as upper class vs. middle class, Mexico vs. Spain, heterosexuality vs. homosexuality, female voice vs. male voice, urban vs. rural, and last but not least, life and death. The road-movie structure benefits the catharsis that the three protagonists reach at the culmination of their search after having a ménage à trois. When the three finally find the beach, their most intimate secrets and desires are revealed by Luisa, who transforms from object of pleasure into seductress. In the wild natural setting, far from the inhibitions and social pressure to fulfill the traditional male roles, the two boys turn into men, with unforeseen consequences for their friendship.
Murina (dir. Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović, 2021)
Winner of last year’s Camera d’Or at Cannes and awarded at the Bucharest International Film Festival (BIFF), Murina is a coming-of-age set on the Croatian coast. The film’s title, meaning the eel that the protagonist Julija (Gracija Filipović) and her father, Ante (Leon Lučev), spearfish in the depths of the sea, alludes to the duality of the sea as a space of freedom as well as of danger. Contrary to the ease she shows underwater, which seems to be her comfort zone, Julija is a quiet and obedient girl in her relationship with her controlling father, to whom she prefers to respond only from time to time in a passive-aggressive tone. Her mother is a former local beauty, submissive and little involved in her daughter’s life, with dreams she gave up to be with Ante, who like an octopus, spreads his tentacles over everything around him. Faced with the opportunity to do business with Javier (Cliff Curtis), an old friend, the family preys on every attraction the sea has to offer, including Julija as a seductive mermaid, maintaining the image of a relaxed and happy family. The arrival of the guest awakens the sexual impulses of the teenage girl, whose only options for freedom are to offer herself as a daughter, or, if not, as a lover to this nicer and more attractive paternal figure. With his yacht and his easy-going and seductive attitude, Javier presents himself as a Freudian alternative to Ante, the oppressive and suffocating father. In a significant scene for the relationship between Julija and Ante, the Croatian director uses the sea as a metaphor for the feelings nurtured by the young protagonist, who is forced to read a poem composed by her father. The verses describe how the sea will always bring her back to him; one of the many tactics the father uses to dominate her psychologically. Kusijanović uses the sea both as a liberating and oppressive force, a duality generated by the protagonist’s affinity for water. Even the house on the cliffs where they live is equally a shelter and a suffocating place, holding its inhabitants captive. The cinematography signed by Hélène Louvart emphasizes this polarity through the scenes in which Julija swims in the sea, away from her toxic family, but also through the underwater images showing the girl interacting with her father while fishing, using their common passion for water both as a connection and means of control.