William Trevor: My House in Umbria (1991) Novella and Movie

My House in Umbria is one of two longer novellas contained in the book Two Lives. The other one is called Reading Turgenev. I’ve had the book for a while and since Mel u’s Irish Short Story Week has been prolonged, I decided to read it now. William Trevor is one of those authors I always wanted to read more of.

My House in Umbria is a surprisingly somber and complex novella. As lovely as the setting is, a villa located near Siena, there are some dark undercurrents, nasty secrets and a back story unlike any other to discover.

The story is told in the very unique voice of Mrs. Emily Delahunty. Delahunty is one of a few names she has chosen for herself. She is a romance novelist with a more than troubled past. Sold by her parents as a child, abused by her step-father and later abandoned by a lover and stranded in a hotel in Africa where she meets Quinty. Quinty isn’t any less mysterious or adventurous than Emily and this strange couple forms an interesting alliance. At the beginning of the story they live in the afore-mentioned villa in Umbria. Surprisingly Emily’s novels have brought money and fame and she lives a comfortable life. She is haunted by the past but her incredible imagination helps her to flee to nicer places whenever the clouds get to dark. And there is always alcohol as well, to help circumnavigate the roughest cliffs.

At the beginning of the story she boards a train to Milano. The wagon she is sitting in is blown up and most of the passengers die. Only Emily, a young German man who loses his girlfriend, an old general who loses his daughter and Aimée a little American  girl whose whole family dies, survive.

After a stay at a hospital, Emily invites the three people to stay with her in her house in Umbria. The calm and peacefulness of the country-side, the beauty of the house, will help them recover, she hopes.

These four highly traumatized and maimed people share some moments of great intimacy, – reminiscent of the group in Enchanted April – until the day Aimee’s uncle announces that he will come and fetch the girl.

What follows is equally sad and dramatic and what little peace these wounded  people  have acquired is shattered for good. The idea that a man she has never seen before and who seems distant and unlikable, comes to get the girl who still suffers from amnesia is particularly painful for the three other victims.

Mrs Delahunty sounds like an unreliable narrator for most of the book but she isn’t. Some of the things she tells sound unbelievable but they turn out to be true, only, she mixes things she imagines with things that happened. She has a a habit of inventing back stories for each and every person she meets. It’s not surprising she has become a novelist. Hearing her we think she would have had what it takes to write great literature, yet she chose to write romances as a means to escape the memory of her past. Not only was she abused but it seems that before discovering that she is a writer, she was an escort girl in Africa.

It’s not often that I watch a movie based on a book right after having finished the book but I watched My House in Umbria the day after finishing Trevor’s novella.

I really enjoyed how the movie brings to life the great character of Mrs Delahunty. Maggie Smith is amazing in this role. They way she plays this very kind, vulnerable and sad woman is touching and funny at the same time. The movie changed the ending completely but stayed true to the rest of the story. It underlines and enhances the characters and episodes in the novella and I would say I liked it even better. Others may prefer the darker novella; I liked the way the movie interpreted some facts and changed a few others. In any case they work extremely well together. What the movie offers, apart from great acting, is enchanting pictures of a beautiful landscape and some truly comical moments when the worlds of Mrs Delahunty and Aimée’s uncle clash. It’s one of my favourite movies so far this year. But don’t get me wrong, the book is excellent as well.

It’s rare that a main character in a book is so memorable but I’m beginning to think that creating great characters is one of William Trevor’s strengths.


Ladies in Lavender – The Short Story by William J. Locke (1916) and the Movie (2004)

Ever since I have watched the charming Ladies in Lavender I had felt like reading the short story on which it was based. It took a while to find it as I did not know William J. Locke‘s books. I finally discovered that it was in his short story collection Far-Away Stories. Ladies in Lavender is the only one I have read but since I liked it and I bought the book, I will certainly read others sooner or later.

Two elderly sisters (they are 45 and 48 respectively in the book but in their 70s in the movie), both spinsters, live together in a beautiful house on the seaside in Cornwall. They inherited the house from their late father and since his death, some 27 years ago, they have been living in that house alone, sharing a bedroom like a married couple. Theirs is a quiet life, very similar to the life of the ladies in Cranford. A change of weather, something special for lunch, a visitor, are the only distractions they seem to have. They are content and live a certain routine, with the older of the two being in charge.

All this ends when they find a young man on the beach below their window. The sea has washed him ashore. He is unconscious and his ankle is broken. The two ladies cannot help seeing how delicate and beautiful he looks and decide to have him carried to their house and look after him.

What follows is at times quite comedic in the movie. The young man doesn’t speak English, only a little German, but the ladies hardly speak any German at all. It takes a while and some coincidences until they find out that he is a talented Polish violinist.

It is touching how intensely these two old women fall in love with the young man. None of them has ever fallen in love before. They were not married, never had lovers. The adventure with the young man is the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to them, it feels like a fairy tale and they assume he will stay with them forever.

The story of two elderly women falling in love with a very young man could seem somewhat far-fetched but a few years back my mother told me a similar story. She lived in an area of the city that is very green and where a lot of people walk their dogs. My mother was part of a group of 50 and 60+ women going for walks together when suddenly, one day, an extremely good-looking young man appeared with his dog (I wasn’t introduced so can’t tell you how good-looking he was). In any case my mother was quite bewildered as she observed how one of the older women started to fall for the young man. But not only was she in love, she assumed that he had feelings as well as he was very kind and attentive. When he finally showed up after a few months with a young girlfriend, the woman had a major breakdown.

Judi Dench and Maggie Smith play the elderly sisters in the movie and they play them extremely well. They are touching and funny at the same time. The choice for the young man, German actor Daniel Brühl, was less fortunate. I just don’t think he is all that handsome, at least certainly not at handsome as the man described in the book.

In the novel, the story plays clearly before WWI while the movie takes place just before WWII, apart from this and changing the age of the main characters, the movie stays true to the short story but goes into much more detail in the second half.

As nice as the short story is, I preferred the movie. It’s a lovely movie with great actresses, a beautiful setting and a melancholic undertone that depicts very well a certain type of woman that life has passed by.

As I said in the beginning I did not know William J. Locke. It seems he was born in British Guinea in 1863. His novels were five times on the bestseller lists in the US and there are 24 movies based on his work. Amazing.

Zabou Breitman’s Je l’aimais – Someone I Loved (2009) The Movie Based on Anna Gavalda’s Novel

I wasn’t aware of this movie until I read about it on Guy Savage’s second blog Phoenix Cinema. I liked Anna Gavalda’s short story collection I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere (Je voudrais que quelqu’un m’attende quelque part) and her subsequent novel Someone I Loved (Je l’aimais) a great deal and was looking forward to watch the movie.

Zabou Breitman’s Je l’aimais or Someone I Loved is a very subtle, touching movie and the main actors are amazing, all three of them.

At the beginning we don’t really know what happened. Pierre (Daniel Auteuil), Chloë’s father-in-law, drives her and her two kids to their holiday house, near Annecy. It’s quite cold, the mountains look bleak, there is a constant drizzle and the young woman is crying during the whole trip. At the same time she emanates a fierceness. She seems desperate, wounded and angry at the same time. Florence Loiret Caille plays the wounded woman with such intensity, it’s painful to watch, we forget that it is a movie and think that we are really watching someone in distress and pain.

Once arrived in the little house, the girls start watching TV non-stop, Chloë cries and Pierre tries to take care of them. For a while, it works more or less, they hardly talk, keep politely distant but then Chloë has a break out and shouts and screams and tells Pierre she can’t take it any longer, these polite silences, the way how in their family they always remain silent, never talk and that this silence is precisely the reason why she never saw it coming. She never even expected that her husband had a mistress, she wasn’t prepared to be left like this, without forewarning.

This outburst, the honesty and directness move Pierre and he starts to talk. First he tells Chloë about his brother who died very young after having served in Indochina and later he tells her that he also had an affair.

We see the story of the love of his life in flashbacks, we watch how he meets Mathilde (an excellent Marie-Josée Croze) in Hong Kong on a business trip, how he falls in love head over heels, how they continue seeing each other for years in different places, Hong Kong, Paris, anywhere in the world. He tells Chloë of his extreme happiness, how well they felt together until the day Mathilde asked him what would become of them. From that moment on things got complicated.

Despite a loveless marriage Pierre cannot break free. There is his wife, the children, his reputation, the house, the holiday house, his habits, his way of life. He would have liked to go on like they did forever, meeting Mathilde whenever possible, but not changing his routine. For a while Mathilde accepts this but one day she cannot take it any longer and Pierre must make a decision.

It is easy to judge Pierre and I guess everyone who watches this movie at a certain moment will judge him. But after a while one starts to understand and one also understands why he told Chloë his story. He doesn’t want her to keep back his son. He doesn’t want his son to be a coward and to destroy two lives.

Je l’aimais is a great example of what French cinema has to offer. Actors who are so excellent, they let you experience what the characters they portray go through. The three people come across as so vulnerable and naked, it’s quite amazing. The camera seems glued to their faces and they fill the screen at any moment, every gesture, every facial expression is meaningful.

I couldn’t find an English trailer and had to attach the French one but there are subtitled versions of the movie available.

Je l’aimais is my first contribution to Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris In July.

I decided to do a weekly French cinema post on Sunday starting today until the end of the month.

Juan José Campanella’s El Secreto de Sus Ojos / The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) An Argentinian/Spanish Thriller

Juan José Campanella’s movie El Secreto de Sus Ojos aka The Secret in Their Eyes is an unusual thriller. It’s a Argentinian/Spanish co production, based on Eduardo Sacheri’s novel El Secreto de Sus Ojos.

The story is told in an unusual way, takes many twists and turns and offers an astonishing and thought-provoking ending.

Benjamín Espósito is a retired Argentinian federal agent. He has started to write a novel about a case that happened many years ago and that took an unsatisfactory turn. Liliana Coloto, a beautiful young woman, was brutally raped and murdered in her own apartment. Although Espósito and his colleague probably found the killer, the man was let go.

Espósito writes his novel for many reasons, one of which is giving an ending to something that didn’t have one. In order to achieve this, he revisits the case and the people who were involved.

Espósito pays a visit to the former chief of the department, Irene Menéndez-Hastings and tells her about his plans to write a novel about the case. She isn’t very keen on the idea. The case and its outcome were too upsetting. And there may be other reasons why she doesn’t want to remember what happened so many years ago.

The story of the case is told in flash backs and bit by bit we see what happened, how the people involved in the investigation lived, how they got emotionally involved in the case. Espósito cares a lot about Liliana’s husband. The man is devastated by the loss and the brutality of the crime and tries to find the murderer on his own.

In a conversation between Liliana’s husband and Espósito, Liliana’s husband says that he wouldn’t want the man to be executed. Capital punishment would be much too merciful.

I liked this movie a lot, it’s very melancholic, manages to interweave different story lines and offers a few interesting themes like writing as a means to find closure,  second chances, capital punishment and justice. The characters are very complex and interesting.

The movie is mysterious for a long time but I can assure you that everything is resolved in the end, all the loose ends will be tied together.

I’m not always tempted to read a novel after having watched a movie but it in this case I’m really curious. Has any one read the Spanish original? The English translation The Secret in Their Eyes will be out soon as well.

Literature and War Readalong May 27 2011: The Sea and Poison by Shusaku Endo

Shusaku Endo’s The Sea and Poison is the first WWII novel of the Literature and War Readalong. The first time I read about this book was on Parrish’s blog (here is his review). Its topic is very unpleasant. Endo focuses on the theme of morality, exploring it through the central story of the vivisection of an American prisoner of war by three Japanese surgeons.
I just discovered that there is a movie based on the book that can be watched on YouTube. I did attach the first part as a teaser.

Although it might be an unpleasant topic I’m looking forward to read my first Endo. Since it is a very short book, only 160 pages, I hope some of you will be in the mood to read along but I would understand if the topic isn’t to everybody’s liking.

Should someone want to watch the movie instead and review it, that would be great as well and I would link the review.

12 Recent German Movies on German History

I have said it repeatedly elsewhere, I think that Germany produces some of the best movies and especially when dealing with German history they have shown great talent. Many movies that have stayed with me far longer than the 1.5 – 2hrs it took to watch them were German. Here are some of the best of the last decade. They are all focusing on history, sometimes local (Requiem, Sass), mostly on a larger scale. All of them are good or very good or at least (Dresden) they manage to show something that hasn’t been shown like this before.

Sass (2001) Sass tells the incredible true story of the brothers Sass. After getting into huge financial problems they become the most famous bank robbers in Berlin in 1924. They were so cheeky and cunning that they became heroes. The police just couldn’t get them. It’s a wonderful period piece that reawakens the Berlin of the 20s with its salons and smoky dance halls. Ben Becker and Jürgen Vogel are two of my favourite German actors and they are great as the brothers Sass. Rola wanted to make a “Larger than Life ” movie and did well.

Herr Lehmann aka Berlin Blues (2003) Based on Sven Regener’s outstanding first novel, Herr Lehmann tells the story of a barkeeper in West Berlin’s Kreuzberg just before the wall falls down. It’s not as good as the book but still worth watching as it captures the “alternative scene” of the 80s very well.

Goodbye Lenin (2003) This is the funniest movie and maybe one of the best German movies ever. It’s simply brilliant. It portrays the former DDR in a humorous way but manages to really show what it must have been like to live behind the wall. It is also able to show what people who grew up in the DDR miss about it. Alex’ mother is in a coma when the wall is removed. She awakes and because the doctor says she shouldn’t be stressed or she might die of a heart attack, Alex tries to keep the DDR alive for her. This is extremely difficult. The trailer gives you an idea of the problems they face. It’s hilarious.

NaPoLa aka Before the Fall (2004) NaPoLa shows the machinery of the so-called National Socialist Elite Schools. It shows how the black pedagogy led to total subordination albeit costing the souls of those who were not totally accepting. It’s a shocking and tragic movie. It conveys how the Nazi regime already got hold of the very young and through ritual and discipline achieved to turn the young people into mindless machines.

Der Untergang aka The Downfall (2004) The last weeks of Hitler showing an outstanding Bruno Ganz. Der Untergang captures Hitler’s madness and the madness of those around him. It’s very chilling and a must-see.

Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage aka Sophie Scholl – The Final Days (2005) Sophie Scholl is very moving film that tells the last days of the Geschwister Scholl or Weisse Rose, as they were called. It shows what people are capable of. It makes you want to become a better person and to put yourself behind an ideal. Sophie is such an admirable young woman and it’s hard to believe that someone so good existed, someone so unflinching and strong. Very sad and touching. She was one of the heroes of WWII Germany.

Das Leben der Anderen aka The Lives of Others (2006) Another look at life in the former DDR. What was it like to be under suspicion in the DDR? What was it like to work for the Stasi (Staatssicherheit/secret police)? The terror and horror of the life under a totalitarian regime.

Requiem (2006) Based on a true story this movie tells about a shocking event that took place in the 70s in Germany. The young student Michaela who suffers of epilepsy leaves her home in which she suffocates. Her parents are ardent Catholics and didn’t leave her any freedom. In the city she enjoys life until she starts to have psychotic episodes. Believing she is possessed by the devil, she seeks help from a priest who will try to exorcise the demon. This is not a horror movie, mind you, but it is no less shocking. Superstition and fanaticism will cost the young woman her life.

Dresden (2006) Dresden is a TV production and a bit corny. I wouldn’t recommend it here if it wasn’t the best movie on the bombing of Dresden that I have ever seen. If found it very well done (apart from the tacky love story). It gives you an idea of the atrocity of the burning city and is very thought-provoking. Were the Allies really justified to erase a whole city like Dresden, a city of culture and art? Was the bombing of Dresden a war crime?

Die Fälscher aka The Counterfeiters (2007) Germany WWII. Crooks, thieves, communists and Jews all land together in the Concentration Camp in Sachsenhausen where they will help the Nazis to forge the money of the Allies. Helping the Nazis, is helping them to win the war. Opposing them could cost you your life. It’s based on a true story and explores the question whether you are allowed to think of yourself while the whole world is at war.

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008) In the 70s things were not as they should have been in Germany. Many of the former National Socialist party, ex-Nazis,  were still in important positions. The US had their bases in Germany. The Vietnam war was raging. A couple of students didn’t want to take it any longer. They protested and then terrorized the country systematically. The famous heads were Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof. This is their story. Extremely worth watching. You cannot deny that they were right, only the means to achieve justice were not well chosen. And they paid for it. Each and every one of them. But what is the most amazing, is the fact that they were willing to go the whole way. You cannot be more radical than this.

Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin aka Anonyma –  A Woman in Berlin (2008) Berlin at the end of WWII. If you ever wondered what happened to the women in Berlin when the Russians arrived… This excellent movie will tell you. It is based on the diary of a German woman who lived in Berlin at the time. It’s a tale of rape and ruins. And despite all this, quite a beautiful love story.

Yves Angelo’s Le Colonel Chabert (1994)

I am really glad I have watched this movie. I liked every minute of it. It’s beautifully filmed, the interiors are wonderful, the actors are extremely good.

One of the problems I usually have when a movie is based on a book is that so much I liked has been left out. Le Colonel Chabert is an example of the opposite. Where the book gives us just a few details, the movie elaborates them. The character portraits are much more interesting; the Countess Ferraud and the lawyer Derville, have more depth and complexity and also the Count Ferraud, who is more or less just a distant presence in the book, becomes a real person.

I will not summarize the plot, I have already done this in the review of the novel, I will rather point out a few differences and how the film director managed to put into pictures what has before been put into words.

The movie starts with a view of the battlefield. This isn’t easy to watch. I mentioned somewhere else the problems I had with the movie Waterloo because of the dead horses. The amount of wasted horses is heartbreaking. The scene is very graphic; bodies of men and horses are piled up high and disposed of, just like garbage. There are three instances like this in the movie. They are falshbacks and represent what the Colonel Chabert remembers from the battle of Eylau where he was so severely wounded that he was reported dead.

While the book is rightly called Le Colonel Chabert, the movie could also have been called The Countess Ferraud. There is much more emphasis on her and the role and fate of women in the French society in the 19th century. She is not only greedy and ambitious like the Countess in the novel but she is also a woman who fights for her survival in the society. The movie shows that they are just pawns in a game and that “love” mostly equals lust and where that ends, “love” stops. A woman must constantly fear to be replaced by another one that is either more attractive or more likely to bring a man the social status or wealth he craves or the son he needs. I am not a fan of Fanny Ardant but she is excellent in this movie.

Derville’s role is also much more substantial. I like the way he speaks about his profession and how it made him unvover the ugliest in human society. The avarice, the greed, the fighting over money. Derville is truly a good person. He has seen so many vile acts that it seems to have transformed him into a better human being. There is not much to gain for him, in helping the Colonel, yet he does it anyway. Fabrice Luchini plays this incredibly well. The scene in which he visits the Colonel in his filthy abode is priceless.

Le Colonel Chabert is beautifully filmed. The decor, interiors and costumes are really worth watching. I particularly liked how the lawyer’s chambers were shown and the filthy backyard in which the Colonel lives.

Gerard Depardieu will always be one of my favourite actors no matter how often he parodies himself. I love his voice and he is often great. He is great in period drama but he excels in modern movies. The final scene of  Le Colonel Chabert shows him at his very best. This alone would have made this movie worth watching for me. On the other hand I have to point out that whoever is familiar with French cinema of the 80s and 90s knows that there is one thing to deplore. Whenever there was a big budget movie, it was more than likely he was casted. This makes it occasionally difficult to see the character and not the actor and his former roles. When I saw Chabert I also saw Rodin, the Count of Monte Christo, Cyrano de Bergerac, Vidocq, Vatel, Valjean, Columbus, Maheu, Jean de Florette and Balzac.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a trailer. I attached a few film stills instead.