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UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: French Lessons, A Trip Up the Nile, and a Book in English

Tom Stempel is taking a cinematic holiday in France with 'Paris, 13th District,' 'Happening,' 'Petite Maman,' followed by a boat cruise in 'Death on the Nile,' and 'Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love.'

The French Being French.

Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades, 13e) (2021. Screenplay by Jacques Audiard, Léa Mysius, Céline Sciamma, Collaboration by Nicolas Livecchi, Based on four short stories by Adrian Tomine. 105 minutes)

Lucie Zhang as “Émilie” and Makita Samba as “Camille” in Jacques Audiard’s PARIS 13TH DISTRICT. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Lucie Zhang as “Émilie” and Makita Samba as “Camille” in Jacques Audiard’s PARIS 13TH DISTRICT. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

If I tell you this is about three or four (depending on how you count) young people in Paris and their romantic relationships, you might think this is an undiscovered Éric Rohmer film. It is not.

If I tell you it begins with some gorgeous black and white shots of Les Olympiades, a suburban Paris district built in the 60s and 70s, you may think Michelangelo Antonioni has come back from the dead, attracted to the architecture of the time. He hasn’t.

If I tell you that one of the opening shots is a pan across a group of windows in a building, you might suspect that we will go inside and find Janet Leigh in her black bra and slip. We won’t.

When we do go inside, we find Émilie (Lucie Zhang), a Chinese woman, having naked sex with Camille (Makita Samba), a Black man. We only learn a little later that they just met. He came to her apartment in answer to an ad looking for a roommate. They are both of the sex first, get to know each other later generation.

Yeah, he gets the room, and then we watch their relationship develop and fall apart. Audiard, who directed, and his two women co-writers, both of whom are directors as well, are paying close attention to the nuances of both characters. Audiard is not certain the two co-writers brought a particularly feminine or feminist perspective to the material. In an interview in the April issue of Sight & Sound, he says he thought that what was more crucial was that they were both directors, “Perhaps they bring a certain pragmatism to it, rather than literary poetry.” Given that the women in the film always seem to be getting the better of the men, I think they did bring a feminine perspective to the script.

The script is based on four stories by the American cartoonist and writer Adrian Tomine, rethought by the screenwriters for the French culture, although some material (Camille’s sister wanting to be a stand-up comic) is condensed into a minor character sub-plot.

So after we get half an hour of Émilie and Camille, we suddenly leave them and pick up Nora (Noémie Merlant). She has come to Paris to study law. One night she goes to a party in a blonde wig, which makes her a dead ringer for Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), a porn star. The classmates bully Nora and she drops out of school. She gets a job in a real estate office run by…Camille, who has dropped out of teaching. They start an affair that does not go anywhere. Nora meanwhile has started talking to Amber on a video chatline. Then the Camille/Nora relationship goes somewhere. Which convinces Nora she does not want him. You can see where that’s going.

What makes this carousel go-around is the detail that the writers and the actors bring to the characters. At first, we are amused by Émilie, but then we begin to find her just as annoying as Camille does. And vice versa. The actors are very precise in the realities they find in the characters, particularly Zhang as Émilie and Merlant as Nora. Watch Merlant as she gets to know Amber. Merlant was Marianne, the painter in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), which was written and directed by Céline Sciamma. I don’t know how much of Nora’s story was written by Sciamma, but I suspect it was a case of a writer/director knowing what the actor can bring.

U.S.A. 10, France 2.

Happening (L’événment). (2021. Screenplay, adaptation, dialogue by Marcia Romano & Audrey Diwan, based on the novel by Annie Ernaux. 100 minutes)

Anamaria Vartolomei appears in Happening by Audrey Diwan. Courtesy of IFC Films.

Anamaria Vartolomei appears in Happening by Audrey Diwan. Courtesy of IFC Films.

A while back the U.S.A. had a terrific little film about a teenage girl who gets pregnant and tries to get an abortion. It was called Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) and you can read my review of it here.

What made it so good was that the writer-director Eliza Hittman kept the focus on Autumn, the pregnant girl, and Sklar, the only friend Autumn has that she can tell. It helped that the two actresses playing the girls, Sydney Flanigan and Tyler Ryder, respectively, brilliantly held the screen.

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Happening starts out with more problems. The novel it is based on is a fictionalized memoir by Ernaux of what happened to her in her college years. Ernaux worked with Diwan, who also directed. Ernaux gave Diwan notes on the script, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times. She also agreed with Diwan that a lot of the interior monologue in the novel had to be dropped, always a potential problem in adaptation. Instead, we get several shots of our main character Anne walking along very long roads, both country and town, while she is obviously thinking whatever Ernaux wrote in the novel. But we can’t hear it.

Whereas Hittman in Never focused on Autumn and Skyler, Diwan and her co-writers stick to Anne.

The film becomes a very flat recounting of what happens to Anne, as in one damned thing after another. It never quite gets to the point of being silly, but almost. You keep wondering what can happen to her next.

The biggest problem is that Annamaria Vartolomei is not an expressive actress. The two women in Never are much better, as are the two women in Paris, 13th District, Michelle Yeoh in Everything, Everywhere, etc., Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza, and others we have talked about lately. Cute is not enough.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Connections]

Speaking, as we were, of Céline Sciamma.

Petite Maman (2021. Written by Céline Sciamma. 72 minutes)

Petite Maman. Courtesy of NEON.

Petite Maman. Courtesy of NEON.

Yes, it is French, but there is no naked sex, grim abortion scenes, or lesbian scenes with an artist and her model.

The film opens with the 8-year-old Nelly talking to an old woman. Nelly says goodbye to the woman and walks to the next room, where she says goodbye to another old woman. She walks (and Joséphine Sanz, who plays Nelly, has a great little bowlegged walk I have never seen on a French girl) into the next room and says goodbye to another old woman. Nelly walks to the next room, which is empty except for a woman in her thirties packing up a box. Nelly says, “Mama.”

OK kids, let’s see you write an opening scene so simple and direct that tells you that Nelly’s grandmother has just died without saying so. Between Sciamma’s elegant writing and Sanz’s wonderful walk, I will follow Nelly anywhere. Which is what we do in the rest of the film.

Nelly, her mother Marion, and Nelly’s father go to the grandmother’s house in the woods. Marion has to leave for reasons we do not know. Or at least Nelly does not know.

Nelly goes for walks in the woods and finds the hut her mother had built as a child. She also finds another girl her age who looks very much like her (played by Sanz’s twin sister, Gabrielle). They become great friends. The other girl’s name is Marion.

Now if this were a Marvel movie, the skies would open, 152 different Marvel characters would show up and they would burn the forest down. This is not that kind of movie, thank goodness. Nelly and Young Marion are friends and realize in one of the quietest scenes in a very quiet movie, who each other is. And they simply accept it.

I began to wonder how Sciamma, who also directs, can find an appropriate finish for the film. She does of course, with one element clearly planted and another a pleasant surprise.

No, Hercule Poirot is Not French.

Death on the Nile (2022. Screenplay by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie. 127 minutes)

Gal Gadot as Linnet Ridgeway and Ali Fazal as Andrew Katchadourian in 20th Century Studios’ DEATH ON THE NILE, a mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh based on Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel. Photo by Rob Youngson. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. 

Gal Gadot as Linnet Ridgeway and Ali Fazal as Andrew Katchadourian in 20th Century Studios’ DEATH ON THE NILE, a mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh based on Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel. Photo by Rob Youngson. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. 

The film gets off to an awkward start. We are not on the Nile and the film is not in color. We are in the trenches in World War I, and we are in black-and-white. Not only does it look like Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory, soon there is a very elaborate tracking shot through the trenches obviously inspired by Kubrick. What’s going on here?

It is a very elaborately produced prologue that will eventually tell us why Poirot, the great Belgian detective, grew his famous moustache. That’s a long way to go for a ‘stache.

One person commenting on the IMDb said that “nothing happens” in the first hour. That is not entirely true. We get introduced to a lot of characters, but they are not all that compelling, since Green is saving what makes them interesting until after the murder start. Some are played by stars, some are not. In film adaptations of Christie’s novels in the 70s and 80s, the producers loaded up with top stars. Since Christie was never that great on characters, it helps to have people who can hold the screen. The trailer for the film emphasizes Gal Gadot. You may remember I was not crazy about her in the Wonder Woman films, but she has developed some screen presence as well as some acting skills. Unfortunately, her character is the first person killed off.

So when she is killed, we now spend the third quarter of the film getting a lot of backstory about how everybody on board the ship has a motive to kill her. The third quarter of the script is when either story picks up speed, or you fill up the time with a big action sequence, e.g. the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959).

Michael Green’s dialogue does not help. His screenwriting credits are a mixed bag, although you may remember I liked his script for Jungle Cruise (2021). Most of the Christie films of the 70s and 80s were written by Anthony Shaffer, whose credits include both the stage play and film Sleuth (1972). One of the stars he was writing for in the 1978 Death on the Nile was Bette Davis. When the bodies start to pile up, Shaffer gives Davis the line, “The place is beginning to resemble a mortuary.” Now that’s a great Bette Davis line. The equivalent character in this version is played by Jennifer Saunders. You would have thought that Green could have come up with something close to that for Edwina of Absolutely Fabulous.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Stars and Actors]

Kenneth Branagh not only stars as Poirot, but also directs as he did Murder on the Orient Express (2017). His Poirot is a little more dramatic than David Suchet’s sophisticated Poirot in the television series, but less slyly amusing than Peter Ustinov’s version in the late 70s/80s films. That opening sequence tells us that Branagh’s directorial style will be very flashy. It is. Once the picture gets going, the camera never seems to stop, which almost distracts us from the script that is not that interesting.

The film is also, to use an old New Yorker comment “inhumanly overproduced.” Everything is bigger and flashier than life. A lot of the film is done with CGI that, like most CGI, is never quite convincing, especially when it is trying to be real. When David Lean takes Lawrence into the desert, we are in the desert. No questions asked.

Helpful Insights for Screenwriters.

Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love (2021. Book by Kevin Goetz. 214 pages)

This is not officially a book about screenwriting, but it may help you think about your screenwriting.

Kevin Goetz has been involved for thirty-some years in running test screenings for major and minor studios. He sets up screenings, gets audiences for them, has the audiences fill out cards about how they feel about the films, and then selects a small group from the audiences for more detailed discussions. He organizes all this into a report for the studio, the producer, and the director.

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What all this does is give the filmmakers an honest evaluation of what the audience responses are. As you might imagine, sometimes the creative people, especially the directors, do not like what they hear. An enormous amount of diplomacy is needed on Goetz’s part.

Goetz’s point in the book is that this process improves the film, not necessarily artistically, but certainly financially. He gives the numbers on several films to show what a difference the process can do for a film.

Where this information can be helpful to a screenwriter is learning a) what can go wrong on a film, and b) how it may be fixable. Better you correct the mistakes before you have spent several million dollars. I never saw the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail (1988), but Goetz has a detailed account of the changes that were made and turned it into a hit. He also has tells how the late Peter Bogdanovich, the director of At Long Last Love (1975), refused to make the changes the audiences comments suggested and ended up with his first big flop.


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