Wednesday, January 6, 2016

In Defence of The Danish Girl, A Medium Film

On Twitter and in private conversations I have stated that while The Danish Girl is a completely medium film, I nevertheless recommend seeing it, or rather don't recommend avoiding it, because I think it does some interesting things. People whom I have said this to have then gone on to see the film and found it dull. It is! Let me explain what I think those interesting things are.

The complaint I have heard most often, about the film and about Eddie Redmayne's performance as Lili, is that it is artificial, giving us no sense of Lili's interiority. The critic Simon Price complained that the film suggests "that trans people are born from the outside in, not from the inside out". This could be a valid criticism (although the film does take pains to tie Lili's trans identity in with something within her from childhood) but The Danish Girl isn't about trans people. It's about one person, Lili Elbe, based on her diaries. Elbe would have had no precedents for her experience; no knowledge of trans culture; was, as the film shows, told that she was insane and perverted for pursuing her own identity. A bathetic aspect of the film is that while Einar Wegener was a successful artist, as Lili she rejected art entirely and was content being a shop girl. So much for interiority! 

What the film has to work with, it shows well: how in order to become herself, Lili modelled her gesture and her public performance of herself, on others. How she appreciated being contemplated. How she needed to appear as herself in society, needed to be herself in public. Redmayne has been criticised for a superficial performance, relying on fluttering hand gestures and Princess Diana eyes, but who is to say what models of behaviour or gender performance the real Lili Elbe would have had? It seems perfectly plausible to me that some of Lili's mannerisms would have been nervous, overly rehearsed; have 'rung false'. As a cis male I do not know about trans people's efforts to 'pass', whether trans women nowadays study cis women for gestures, reactions, body language; but I would hazard a guess that in a society totally divided along gender lines, as Lili's was, she would have found herself observing her environment for ways to enact her interior persona. 

As a queer man, I respond to the sense the film gives of the experience of coming out: the way one can have an awakening event (in Lili's case, being asked to wear a dress by her wife, which occasions an overwhelming desire in her) that triggers a process; the way different excitements and stimulations sustain you through the process; the way you grow in confidence and respond with astonishment to the truth of the character that is emerging from within; the way being yourself in public is necessary. All of this requires external unlocking. It cannot come from within, or not only. Lili never attains the final liberty that this process now traditionally ends with, but I think the film shows the rest very well. 

One of the things film does best as a medium is explore mimesis, and the act of looking. While The Danish Girl's visual composition is academic, not to say banal, it does still afford Lili her own gaze. In one of the film's best scenes, Lili visits a sex shop in Paris, at a point when her marriage is going through a difficult period. There, she pays a woman to put on a show for her - but gently and tenderly, the film shows how she is here merely to study this other woman, to learn from her sexuality, to adopt her movements as her own. Elsewhere, we experience the world as Lili may have seen it: the film is flat and placid, but it does pick out fabrics and colours, from dresses backstage at a ballet school to the scarves and frocks that Lili picks out for herself, touchingly similar to her wife's. By doing this the film almost arrives at the tactile experience it should fully be in order to serve Lili's view of the world. 

A final word on the film's best aspect. In a movie that is often so trite, with hackneyed writing and a stiff gaze, something happens that is fully queer. This is down to Eddie Redmayne's complicity in being objectified, in the - watch out, I'm going to say it - brave way he luxuriates in his beauty. At a time when The Revenant is coming out on the tail of a PR campaign that centres on Leonardo DiCaprio's virility, it is thrilling and completely new in cinema that a man has surrendered his masculinity entirely, and accepted to be observed, adored, regarded in a feminine way, absent of aggression. Marlon Brando was complicit in his own objectification in A Streetcar Named Desire, but the film posits him as a macho figure, an aggressor: Redmayne on the contrary is giving over to our gaze, letting us shape him in a sense - and something erotic emanates from this, despite the staid trappings of the movie surrounding him. So while some may find his performance simpering, I think we should also consider that he has worked to overturn our conception of him as a man, works on our expectations of male performance. 

So, yes, The Danish Girl is drab. Its final scenes are ridiculous. But I do not unrecommend it. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Safe Sex with the Tory Party

You'd already seen him a few times, at various house parties: he's a friend of Sarah, and Ivor, and the two Petes. He's sort of handsome, tall but doesn't seem it, is shy, has a smile that makes him seem immediately less attractive. You spoke to him once at, was it, that weird Thanksgiving party where no-one was American? Maybe. You made a joke about your host's tray of tit-shaped ice cubes, and he laughed.

Today you found yourselves out at a club together - you with colleagues, when post-work drinks became raucous and your boss shanghaied you into joining a hunt for further booze after closing time; he with a bunch of dead-looking people, on a stag do that he blushed to mention when you approached him at the bar.

"The music here is terrible," you said.

"Yes, it's awful, I want to die," he said.

"And have you seen those two white people with dreadlocks on the dance floor? Headbanging?"

"Oh god, don't," he said. "One of them was dancing near me just now and I think one of its hair bits touched my arm."

You talked together in a corner of the club for a bit. He touched you for emphasis once, and then again soon afterwards, this time not for emphasis. You and he had somehow moved closer, and he was leaning over you now. A song by Taylor Swift came on over the sound system.

"Fuck this shit, would you like to go somewhere else instead?" you said.

He smiled. "My place is nearby, if you'd like a nightcap."

You kissed outside the club, to make certain there was no misunderstanding, and because you felt like it. You kissed him again outside his house, as he was fumbling for his keys in his ironic tote bag. You both laughed. You were on a good footing: your shared knowledge of what would soon be happening gave you a skittishness of gesture; your intimacy was laced with laughter, with darting glances at one another.

In his bedroom, a few minutes later, he says:

"Hi, I'm Michael by the way," and extends his right arm for a comically formal handshake. "It's just you haven't said my name all evening, and I thought you might be uncertain."

"Hi, Michael," you say. You don't say your own name back. You both laugh.

In bed later, you're kissing. The kissing is good, so you carry on with that for slightly longer perhaps than you usually do before moving on to other stuff. Then you move on to other stuff; this develops. He's slightly rougher of gesture now - pleasingly so - and his breathing has become heavier. He lifts your face up to him, kisses your neck, a little slurpingly, not entirely enjoyably but not horribly either. He's holding you to him, and is now stroking your backside with one hand. He is thrusting his groin against you, meaningfully. You grind back against his thrust to signify permission, approval.

"You want to...?" he asks.

"Sure!" you say.

You kiss again, hungrily.

"Safe, right?" he says.


"OK, hang on one second."

He leaves you kneeling there, a little self-consciously. He stretches his whole body across the mattress, reaching into a little table on the other side of the bed. You take in his body as he rattles his hand around inside a drawer in the table.

"OK, here we are", he says finally, turning towards you while  putting on a cardboard mask of George Osborne.

You stare at him, sitting there on his haunches - his chest a little hairy and not totally muscular; his erection straining towards you; his face an exact replica of the face of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Weirdly, his hair aligns perfectly with George Osborne's hipster haircut, whose choppy fringe sits on the uppermost edge of the mask.

There is an aperture in the mask at mouth level, through which he has poked his lips, forcing them into a kind of duck's bill shape, a wet and roseate flapping thing which now says to you:

"Suck my dick?"

"I'm sorry?" you say, looking in undisguised horror now at that face which so closely resembles a freshly droned primary school. Everything in the unsmiling visage is gray. George Osborne's face regards you coldly, as if you were a thief caught in flagrante delicto making yourself a sandwich at the fridge while burgling his house.

George Osborne's face says again: "Go on, suck my dick a bit. Get me back in the mood. I got a bit distracted."

Your lover's voice is warm and gentle, unlike the voice of George Osborne, the chief strategist of the Conservative Party. But looking through the eye holes in the mask, you can only see the pupils of your lover's own eyes, not his green and twinkling irises. Here the blacks of his eyes are small, blending seamlessly into George Osborne's eyes, which are like two freeze-dried raisins lying at the bottom of a ravine.

"Sorry," you say, "it's just that you..."

"...look like George Osborne?" His penis is wilting a little now. He scratches under an armpit.

"Yeah. Sorry, it's putting me off."

"Yeah, but you know they're issuing everyone with these masks, right?" He shuffles on his knees towards you, and pensively strokes you between your legs.

"Yeah," you say, as a cold shudder courses all the way from your anus to your nape. "I read about it on BuzzFeed or something, that you could send off for a Gideon sex mask, and the Department for Health would mail you one?"

"Yeah." He pecks hopefully at your ear lobe with his puckered mouth shape. From the corner of your eye you can see George Osborne, with his painted eyebrow raised in apparent fury against you, breathing hotly near your neck.

"It's just... it's just I've never fucked anyone who looks exactly like George Osborne before."

"No-one has," he says, removing the mask at the last. He sighs. "I suppose that's the point."

You snuggle up to him now, in relief, laying your head in his lap. He has put the mask down on the bed, whence it lifelessly considers you. You flip it over, so that the elastic-and-plain-cardboard face is now turned to you instead.

"I... sorry, I'm just not feeling it," you say.

"That's fine," he says. "Shall we say numbers to each other until we fall asleep?"

"OK," you say, as you lie down with him, nestling your head on his shoulder. "Nineteen."

"Forty-seven thousand," he says.

"Two billion."

"Minus one point two."

"Sixty-seven percent"

"Ninety-two thousand five hundred and nine"

You yawn. Your eyes are closing. "A trillion," you say.

He yawns too, and kisses your forehead. "Twelve hundred," he says, and turns off his bedside light.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Films of the Year - 2015

Where I would usually just post a list of my ten favourite films of the year on Facebook and hope to attract upwards of eleven likes and three comments calling me pretentious, this year I've felt compelled to say a few words about my top two films of the year - Cemetery of Splendour by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Mia Madre by Nanni Moretti. At first when I came up with my ranking I thought very little connected the two films, and then, the more I thought about them, the more I found points of similarity between the two that point to a radical shared agenda.

The first aspect on which the films share common ground is their exploration of trances and dreams. They set about this in different ways, so that the similarity can be easy to miss: Moretti's cinematic language is ostensibly forthright and realistic, whereas Weerasethakul's very aesthetic has to do with trances and slumber. Mia Madre, about the professional and personal struggles of a woman trying to make a film while her mother lies on the brink of death in hospital, deals with fairly practical considerations: what meals Margherita should bring her mother, how to get her main actor (John Turturro) to read his lines correctly. But Margherita is also prey to terrible dreams and visions that reflect her panic, her sense of not being up to the task. (All of Moretti's cinema is about incapacity, from his inability to make a documentary in Aprile to the pope's sense that he isn't the right man for the job in Habemus Papam.) Dreams about the death of her mother, half-remembered recollections of past events: these are the things that inhabit Moretti's central character. Moretti's set-up is deceptively simple, but his meshing of dream and reality in Mia Madre, so that the lines are blurred between the real and the unreal, is brilliantly accomplished and points to his antsy vision of a life without respite.

Weerasethakul also finds life and the dreamlike sharing a very hazy boundary. In his story, a nurse cares for a comatose soldier in a school-turned-hospital built on the grounds of an old graveyard for kings. Again we find a set-up of one person caring for another who is somewhere between life and death. Jenjira, the nurse, finds herself half in love with Itt, the soldier who is her charge. With the help of Keng, a clairvoyant who shoulders Itt's spirit to take Jenjira on a journey through the ghost of a now-ruined palace, Jenjira comes to feel she knows the soldier more intimately. Weerasethakul's rhythms, his work on sound, his colours, and the narrative line he sketches where real and imagined worlds are intimately connected, induces a sense of hypnosis in the audience, and opens up wonderful realms of possibilities for his characters who feel like something is missing in their lives. It is also a very sly way for the director to question the politics of his country: suggesting spiritual or imagined dimensions to a world that is controlled by a a military regime is a way of reclaiming a country enslaved by despotic rules. Weerasethakul's film is pointedly political, as the ghosts of the kings buried under the hospital come to nourish the souls of the languishing soldiers in hospital: we see that the film's narrative is deeply connected to the history of his country; the characters are bound to past events.

Moretti joins Weerasethakul in this political dimension, speaking of his country, like the Thai director, at a narrative remove. Not for nothing is the film within the film, that Margherita is struggling to make, about workers going on strike. Moretti's films have always had a political vein running through them (as have Weerasethakul's), touched on directly, as in The Caiman, or at a tangent, as in Caro diario. In Caro diario, his most delicious touch is to skewer the growing impact of television on his country, culminating in a farcical scene in which a character catches up on old episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful at the top of Stromboli. This is nothing less than a sly but murderous dig at Berlusconi, whose hold over Italy came about because of his control of television, which numbed the country with soaps and inane game shows while he set about grabbing the political reins. In Mia Madre, Margherita finds herself incapable of making a film about industrial action: she senses that she has lost the language to talk about it, that her images appear fake, overdone. Moretti shows that his country is losing the ability to talk about politics, to connect with real issues of labour and class struggle. His most thrilling gambit in Mia Madre, a heist that he got away with right under the noses of all the world's critics and filmmakers at Cannes, is to have Margherita's heartfelt, politically engaged film nearly torpedoed by the involvement of a useless American actor, the idiotic Barry Huggins. At Cannes this year were two other Italian films, Youth and Tale of Tales, whose casts were crammed full of American actors, in an effort to crack the international market, which were scuppered in the process. Italy, Moretti says - perhaps a little donnishly - has lost the ability to talk about itself, has forgotten what it represents. Another pointed moment: Margherita's mother, a Latin teacher, is trying to help Margherita's daughter with her homework. Later, Margherita observes (I paraphrase), "I know Latin is useful, but I can't remember why." The country is forgetting about its past: where for Weerasethakul the past is all around, in ghosts and in visions, and in the visible war wounds of his characters, for Moretti the ties with the past are disappearing, becoming dust.

A final point of commonality between the two films, one which is so moving and surprising, is in their blurring of gender and identity. Both directors employ a female alter ego: Weerasethakul's talisman, Jenjira Pongpas, takes the main role in Cemetery of Splendour, and contributed to many of the ideas and stories behind the film, while Moretti teams up with Margherita Buy for a third time in as many films, asking her to play a refracted version of himself. Of the two, Margherita is clearly the more direct stand-in for a director in their film: she plays a relentlessly self-questioning film director given to fits of rage and bouts of depression, who is torn between work and family. These are the hallmarks of Moretti (the man as well as the character) and there are a handful of scenes in which Buy gives an eerily accurate impression of Moretti - his intensity, his questioning body language. It's wonderful to see Margherita raging in Moretti's film, in a way we do not see women rage; to see her working at her job, in a way we are not seeing women accustomed to working on screen. Moretti, through this device, shows that his fears are universal, that he too when confronted with death feels all this tumult and chaos, is a vulnerable creature loaded with doubt. In a further dimension, Moretti himself plays Margherita's brother, Giovanni, a character who appears to be in charge of his life and who sidelines his sister; but Moretti shows him losing his job in a short, devastating scene that reminds you that none of Moretti's characters is ever completely in control. This multiplying of his selves gives a new dimension to Moretti's work, which has always played with fact and fiction: this experimentalism at a late stage of his career is somehow used to terribly touching effect.

Weerasethakul uses Jenjira - the actor's name is the character's, as in Mia Madre - to speak about himself, and about his country. She represents the voice of the film, a spiritual conscience, a conflicted soul, a damaged body. In Cemetery of Splendour she and Weerasethakul seem increasingly fused: she is the originator of stories, one who travels into new dimensions. Her mildness, and something gently sorrowful about her, something questing too, align her with the director. It's touching to see a kindred spirit filmed so lovingly. In Weerasethakul's film, Itt, the soldier, is reborn into the body of the female clairvoyant, Keng - and through her, in one of the film's most beautiful scenes, he licks the wound on Jenjira's battered leg, offering back to her some of the care and attention that she has expended on him in his sleep. Weerasethakul finds identity beyond gender - this fits with his past work on identity, from Tropical Malady onwards, and it is another beautiful act of liberation, of political resistance on his part to say to the tyrants who have stolen his country, that people are not their bodies, and therefore cannot be controlled, cannot be owned.

Final top ten for 2015:

1. Cemetery of Splendour, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
2. Mia Madre, dir. Nanni Moretti
3. Carol, dir. Todd Haynes
4. Taxi Tehran, dir. Jafar Panahi
5. Tangerine, dir. Sean Baker
6. The Lobster, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
7. Marguerite et Julien, dir. Valerie Donzelli
8. Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse, dir. Arnaud Desplechin
9. Magic Mike XXL, dir. Gregory Jacobs
10. Force Majeure, dir. Ruben Ostlund

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Honeys of the Year 2015

1. Pearl Liaison from RuPaul's Drag Race, for being sickening

2. Oscar Isaac, for having the highest handsomeness to talent ratio in 2015

3. Carlos Acosta, for retiring at his most bae

4. Big Sean, because, bless him, you don't need to be the best rapper when you're the hottest rapper

5.  Jérémie Elkaïm, for being hot when he shouldn't be in Marguerite et Julien

6. Alexander Skarsgard, for being hot when he shouldn't be in Diary of a Teenage Girl

7. Sufjan Stevens, for being the hottest and only person to make the best album this year

8. Deray McKesson, for being the hot face of Black Lives Matter activism

9. Dustin Brown, for services to tennis sexiness 

10. Tamal Ray from the Great British Bake Off, for being lovely and pretty while making cakes 

Friday, July 17, 2015

White Paper on the Future of the Moon

Executive Summary: this report finds that although 99% of respondents in surveys since the beginning of time said “I love the moon, I like looking at it at night - sometimes it’s crescent and sometimes it’s full, I like that”, now feels like the right time to think about either changing the moon or selling it off in order to receive better results. The moon has been around too long and is beginning to feel antiquated in this era of content on demand. These days a 9 year old can just dial up a Vine on their smartwatch, so why would they want to look at a big orb that will still be there tomorrow? Added to which, last year someone with a pencil wrote a paper saying we don’t actually need tides, so the moon needs to think very carefully about the service it provides.

Please respond to the following questions in this wide-ranging public consultation, so we can work out how best to work with the moon to optimise everyone’s experience.

1. Isn’t the moon a bit shit sometimes? Often you can’t see it behind clouds, and the sun is better. Mark the moon from 1 (quite shit) to 8 (very shit) according to user experience.

2. Have you ever been on the moon? Only a few people have. The moon should be for everyone. Please write ‘I hate the moon’ in red letters in the box provided.

3. The moon is too big. Yes? Please write yes, or YES.

4. How can auditing of added value generation models affect wider disparities with regard to the moon, notwithstanding the facilitation of economic patterns for subsequent generation of content data, over the last fifteen years? This one’s the biggie. Please cite Milton Friedman in your reply.

5. The moon has a known left-wing bias, as identified by Michael Heseltine when he was pissed up at a by-election in Berwickshire in 1987. What can be done to make the moon more egalitarian? Pick one.
a. Plant a flag with Rupert Murdoch’s face at the Sea of Tranquility.
b. Make the moon go from left to right in both hemispheres at once.
c. Always be a full one.
d. Scrap the moon so it doesn’t exist for anyone.

Thank you for answering, we'll get back to you in due time. Remember, anything could still happen, this is a totally open process.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

So You're Writing An Article About Modern Man

You are a man and you have decided, or been commissioned by a desperate editor with two pages to fill, to write a thinkpiece about ‘the new man’. Who is the modern man? What does he think? What does he wear? What beer does he drink and why? Congratulations! You are about to add to a rich and storied genre, whose practitioners’ aggregate Pulitzer count is through the roof. Here are some helpful tips to assist you in writing this era-defining piece:

1. Give a brief precis of the history of modern man. This can go back to the 80s, or the 60s if you are determined to be exceptionally rigorous. Mention the swinging sixties and Mick Jagger, of if you are starting your history in the 80s, talk about yuppies and Magnum P.I. Then seamlessly guide us through to the present day. Feel free to mention any or all of the following:
Nuts Magazine
Paul Gascoigne’s tears at Italia 90
David Beckham
Mad Men

2. Coin a new portmanteau for the bullshit phenomenon you are purporting to describe in your article. The king of all these words is ‘metrosexual’, which means tit-all but has stuck and is therefore dynamite. ‘Retrosexual’ doesn’t mean anything either and it rhymes with the King Word, but I’m afraid it’s already taken. Still up for grabs: “Letterosexual”; “”Betterosexual”; “Hypotheterosexual”. Go for it!

3. The phenomenon that you are pretending to notice must be anchored in zeitgeisty events. Be sure to namecheck any of the following: a recent X-Factor finalist who dresses a certain way; somebody from a popular TV show (think HBO or Netflix); an up-and-coming politician who tells it like it really is; a cult Twitter user.

4. There are only two directions this article can go, but don’t let that discourage you. It’s been written hundreds of times before and can be written again. One direction is: “men are becoming more masculine again after a disturbing feminisation period”. The other direction is: “men are becoming more feminine”.

5. Pepper your article liberally with  wordplay on man stuff. “Manorexic” always goes down a treat, but also splash out on “mangry”, “mangst”, “he-roes”, “men-tal health” and “dick-ay”.

6. Have you mentioned David Beckham yet? For god’s sake mention David Beckham.

7. Remember, this isn’t an article about gay men.

8. Whisper it: it’s not really about men of colour. (You may want to code this into your article a bit more subtly than your total leaving-out of the gays, which you can justify because people don’t think of gays as real men.) Interviewees for this article should be called Steve, John or Michael, not Olatunde.

9. Chuck in some interviewees: they must be men of the people, who tell you about their real lives. You can completely make these men up. Steve should be 28, John 33 and Michael 41. They are respectively single, engaged, and married with children. Their completely made-up jobs are: graphic designer, TV executive and architect. In their made-up quotes, have them mention their wives and girlfriends in order to make clear that they are straight. I repeat: don’t mention any queer guys, that could really sink this very important article.

10. Add an interview with a charlatan/published sociologist. She (!) should be called Chloe Kiriakou or Gemma Shayston, and the bullshit book she published last year should be called something like: “Having It All: Why Men Are Left Holding The Baby”, or “Adam’s Pear”, or “You’re A Big Boy Now: Peter-Man in the Wendy House”. Chloe or Gemma will tell you something about modern man - not a scientific fact, but a hugely generalised opinion based 100% on conjecture - that you will print verbatim as gospel. Ask her for another soundbite in paragraph 10. Hopefully she’ll mention David Beckham if you haven’t already (but really, you must mention David Beckham).

11. Interview another person, who unlike Chloe or Gemma isn’t an expert, but is half famous. Maybe a music producer. Where do they go on holiday? Cuba? Well, that says it all: weave it into your theory about modern man.

12: This is the point in the article where you mention women, in order to make clear that you’re not an arsehole. Some foolish people will be wondering if it’s at all appropriate to be writing a thinkpiece about the plight of men these days, when women are thoroughly dominated in all walks of life. Assuage the doubts of these simple folk by saying something like, “Of course, a lot of men have it easy compared to women when it comes to childcare - but…” or “Competition for jobs is fierce, with many women now going for top positions too.” That should do it.

13. Fashion! You haven’t mentioned clothes. Add something about a designer. Can you think of a straight designer? No? Go with Burberry.

14. It's time for a long bit on facial hair. What way have you determined that modern man is going - the masculine route or the feminine? If the former, mention some people with beards in a trendy part of town and a model who, weirdly, has a beard; if the latter, talk about the new clean-shaven man you can see everywhere from Eastenders to the Oscars. Both these sorts of man exist at the same time, don't worry, you'll be able to name loads.

15. Start summing up. Envision a future for your new phenomenon. Will your completely made-up brand of new man last a long time, or is he destined to die out come the new wave of [HBO shows, X-Factor finalists]? Predict a long reign for your creation. The Letterosexual, you will let us gather, is here to stay.

16. You’ve finished your bravura trend piece. It’s time to send it to the editor with a request to illustrate it with a large photo of a generic man looking at himself sadly in the mirror, plus smaller pictures of assorted Hollywood actors, singers and recent causes celebres.

17. Pick a headline for your piece. “Rise of the [bullshit category]” is good.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Au revoir l'enfance

Louis Malle made Au revoir les enfants, his masterpiece about childhood, set in a French school, in 1987 - the year my family moved to France and I started going to school there. I didn't see it in the cinema at the time because I was six, but a couple of years later it came to be among a handful of bashed-up VCRs my family regularly watched

Au revoir les enfants tells the story of a friendship between two boys - one Catholic, one Jewish - at a boarding school during the Second World War. The film shows the kids at play, in class, and venturing out with their teachers for the odd excursion beyond the school gates. It is shot through with nostalgia for childhood, but is also uncompromising in its examination of loneliness and exclusion. Malle's intuition for the soulfulness of children, the way he grasps their sense of alienation from the world of adults, makes the film poignant and vivid.

The world I went to school in when I arrived in France over forty years after the film's events was in many ways not particularly different. When I watched Au revoir les enfants then, its universe certainly didn't seem foreign or antiquated. The first school I attended, Ecole du Val, a large building with a plain playground at the bottom of town, by an old viaduct, had surely not changed a great deal since the 40s. In class we sat two by two at old twin desks with inkpot holders, and meekly raised our hands to ask to go to the toilet, which was a hole-in-the-ground job at the end of a long and cold tiled corridor. French lessons consisted of dictations and conjugation exercises; Maths, of sums that the teacher would call out and whose results we had to write down fast in chalk on our slates, which we held above our heads. In the canteen, we were served soup from great vats by large dinner ladies. At playtime, children played hopscotch, marbles or skip-rope.

When I arrived I could say 'bonjour', 'au revoir', 'merci beaucoup', 's'il vous plait', 'je m'appelle Caspar' and the numbers from one to ten. I had lived in the countryside in England, and to be propelled from quiet walks in the Blackmore Vale in Somerset to a busy Parisian suburb where I didn't understand anything, felt terribly hard. Teachers were enormous and forbidding - there was none of the Blue Peter-style singing songs and palling around with kids over Play-Doh that my teachers had gone for in England. Educators were strict, and inclined to tell you off or punish you, and school was a place for hard work, from 8.30 to 4.30 every day.

This is, in essence, the world that Malle depicts so brilliantly in Au revoir les enfants: crucially and devastatingly, the film hinges on that sense of displacement that children feel - that, perhaps, specifically French children feel, or felt. This sense that the world of grown-ups is forbidding, that you had better keep your nose out of their affairs, is key. In perhaps the best scene in the film, the main character, Julien, is left behind on a field trip taken by his class, in the enormous forest of Fontainebleau. Malle shows how children depend on grown-ups, are completely reliant on their help, and extracts so much anguish from this scenario. He very intelligently puts the viewer in the skin of the child, showing how although a war is going on, such a quotidian development can of itself be terrifying and devastating to a child. Later, he brilliantly shows how Julien is only dimly aware of events in the school: how the teachers are sheltering his friend Jean and several other Jewish people, and how compromised their existences are. In Malle's world, events in childhood are relatively simple, and it is adults who create terror, who manipulate the truth and hold secrets. When the film's terrible conclusion unfolds, Malle suggests that the act of growing up may simply be the veil of innocence being lifted from your eyes.

When preparing for school trips - my class went on 'Classe de mer' when I was eight, for two weeks - I remember my mother being frazzled by the list of demands. My twin sister and I needed our name printed on labels sewn into all our clothes, had to take a flannel each and our own soap box, were made to pack cagoules and thermal socks and all manner of old and hilarious clobber. We were made to write letters home to our parents every day, which our teacher read before posting "to check for spelling mistakes". Something of it seemed Gradgrind-like, revelling in the olden days, in the way things had always been. Childhood was a rehearsing of the past, built on a curious assimilation of hard education, tradition and high-minded French notions of 'liberty'. This aspect of France comes through in Malle's film, too - in its detail (the old, cold bathrooms in which Julien is left to soak on his own, dwelling on his own loneliness and misery; the harsh music lessons; the formality and strictures of school as well as its sense as a locus for discovery) - as well as in its argument. Malle is extremely stern towards the French, showing the banality of collaboration, the way it flourishes in a society that obeys and doesn't question. At the same time, he sees clearly the good intentions of French school, and laments the way it does not connect with children because it is built on lofty principles that evaporate all too easily.

I learnt French quickly enough; subsequently made friends easily and fast. Even then, French school could be daunting, but at least I was daunted at the same scale as other French children. But memories of being different in a cold, new world, still sometimes remind me of Au revoir les enfants. Weirdly, to this day, I consider my childhood as having taken place before I got to France, when I was innocent, back in England. Before I was six. Growing up takes place in that first burst of sorrow and discomfort.