UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Women From Across the Pond, Clothed an Unclothed

By Tom Stempel • August 04, 2022

Tom Stempel deals today with films with women from Europe in 'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,' 'Official Competition,' 'Both Sides of the Blade,' and 'Irma Vep.'

Yes, there is nudity.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022. Written by Katy Brand. 97 minutes)

Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack appear in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. Photo by Nick Wall. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

If you have read or seen any, and I mean any, of the publicity for this film, you have read or seen the film’s two stars, Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack, talk at great length about rehearsing the nude scenes and playing the nude scenes.

Bravo for them. My problem is how the nudity is used in the film, or rather when and how.

Thompson plays Nancy, a 55-year-old woman who has had a miserable sex life (not an orgasm in sight) with her husband. She is now on her own and determined to find out what she has missed. So she hires McCormack’s Leo, a sex worker (and how did a woman in her situation find out about sex workers and how did she get his number? The writer could have answered that in a couple of funny lines). The film is four scenes showing their four appointments.

The first three take place in the hotel room Nancy has engaged.

The first scene is a meet-and-greet between them. We get to know them as they get to know each other. Yes, it is mostly a dialogue scene, as are nearly all the scenes in the movie are. Several reviews have said this could have been a stage play, but I doubt it. Brand and her director focus on Leo and Nancy’s reactions to each other, which are better caught on film than on stage. Both actors are great at what they have to do. Just when they are about to start having sex, we cut to the next appointment. For a film that is so openly about sex, that seems rather cowardly of the filmmakers.

In the second appointment, we get them discussing what happened at the end of the first, and then we move on, but again the film cuts away before we get any action.

The third appointment goes badly since Nancy has learned a lot about who Leo really is. He is very upset about this since he tries to keep his private and professional lives separate.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: The Return of People, Jets, and Dinos We Loved. Sort of.]

The fourth scene takes place in the hotel coffee shop. Nancy wants to make amends to Leo. The scene is enlivened by the waitress, who happens to be a former student of Nancy’s. We have a little fun watching the waitress try to figure out what is going on.

Nancy and Leo seem to come to some kind of understanding. Then and only then do we get a montage of the sex scenes, but they just seem tacked on here. And they do not seem to show us what Leo and Nancy have talked about. I can’t help but wonder if they were originally intended to go in the body of the film, but the filmmakers felt they did not work well enough there. There is at least one great shot at the end of the montage, but I will leave you to discover it for yourself.

So the question is, could they have had the sex scenes in the main part of the film? The answer is yes. A film that did just that is the 2012 film The Sessions, which is about a sex surrogate hired to help a man in an iron lung lose his virginity. You can read my review here, which will give you some idea of how it can be done.

A Red Wig and Chewing Gum. What More do you Need?

Official Competition (2021. Written by Mariano Cohn, Andrés Duprat, Gastón Duprat. 115 minutes)

Antonio Banderas as “Félix Rivero,” Penelope Cruz as “Lola Cuevas,” and Oscar Martínez as “Iván Torres” in Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s OFFICIAL COMPETITION. Courtesy of AccuSoft Inc. An IFC Films release.

The setup here is simple. A rich man decides he will finance a movie with the best director and the best actors. Hijinx ensue.

The award-winning director is Lola Cuevas, played by Penélope Cruz. This is about as far away from her performance in Parallel Mothers (2021) as you can get. It is a brilliant comic turn, in which Cruz does as much or more with a red wig than Joe Pesci did with his hairpiece in JFK (1991). She also gets a lot of mileage out of chewing gum. No, I have no idea whether the wig or the gum were written in the script. Cruz is having a good time making fun of every director she ever worked with.

The two actors hired for the film are Félix and Iván. Félix is the movie star and played by Antonio Banderas, making fun of every star he ever worked with. Iván is the serious theatre type played by Oscar Martinez and he nails the type beautifully. The first three-quarters of the film are the exercises and rehearsals Lola puts the actors through, irritating both of them, often at the same time.

Just when you think the film should move on from the fun and games, it does. Not, unfortunately in a good way. It gets serious. And melodramatic. Because it has spent so much time on the comedy, it has to rush the melodrama, which does not let us get into it as deeply as we should. The last quarter of the film might have worked better if the melodrama had been condensed and focused more.

Well, we still have the first three-quarters. Enjoy.

Claire Denis and Juliette Binoche Together Again.

Both Sides of the Blade (2022. Screenplay by Christine Angot, Claire Denis, based on the novel Un tournant de la vie by Christine Angot. 116 minutes)

Vincent Lindon as “Jean” and Juliette Binoche as “Sara” in Claire Denis’ BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE. Courtesy of Curiosa Films. An IFC Films release.

Five years ago Angot and Denis collaborated on the film Let the Sunshine In, also with Juliette Binoche starring. As you can see from my review here, I was not crazy about it. Binoche’s character was involved with several men, all of who were not very satisfactory.

Now Sara (Binoche again) is primarily involved with two men and they have more good qualities than all the men in the older film put together. We first meet Sara and Jean romantically swimming on holiday. Then they seem very much in love as we watch them go about their daily routines. Jean does not seem to be employed, and we come to think that’s because he was in prison for a while.

Jean gets a job offer from his friend François, who was Sara’s lover before Jean. Everybody thinks Jean and François can be business partners. But Sara still has strong feelings about François and that leads them to get together.

The writers keep us from meeting François for a long way into the film. We are sympathetic with Sara and as much or more with Jean. Then Sara starts fudging the truth with Jean, and we get intense, intimate scenes (that work better than the intimate scenes in Leo Grande). I would have appreciated the emotionally intimate scenes all the way through the film if the cinematography was not dreadfully underexposed.

I will leave you to see how it ends, but Angot and Denis handle it in a simple scene between Jean and a person we had not met before. Nice ending.

What, Her Again?

Irma Vep (2022. Written by Olivier Assayas, based on his 1996 feature film. Eight 1-hour episodes)

Alicia Vikander as Mira Harberg in Irma Vep. Photo Carole Bethuel/HBO

Olivier Assayas, who both writes and directs this mini-series, obviously has a thing for Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial The Vampires. In 1996 he made a very entertaining feature about an attempt to do a remake. It starred the Chinese actress Maggie Cheung playing a version of herself who has come to France to star in the remake. Needless to say, things do not go smoothly as she has to deal with the French way of making a movie, including a more-than-slightly deranged direction played brilliantly by Jean-Pierre Léaud. The film runs a nice 99 minutes.

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

I have no idea why Assayas decided to turn it into a mini-series. Longer is not better, as I have pointed out on a number of occasions. Yes, there are more scenes satirizing filmmaking. The director in this version seems even more unstable than Léaud’s in the feature, so much you wonder why anybody would give him money to make a film, or actually a mini-series. The question comes but is never answered.

Cheung was charming in the feature, but here Mira, the actress hired to play Irma, is hampered by both the script and the publicity for the series. The actress is Alicia Vikander, who has been wonderful in most things she has done. The publicity states that her character is a “movie star disillusioned by her career and recent breakup.” There is nothing in the script that suggests she is disillusioned and Vikander plays her as though this is just a potentially interesting new gig. Vikander is charming at that, but it gives her no place to go with her performance. We get the sense that the breakup was something that just happened. She seems perfectly willing to become involved with other people.

Let’s hope Assayas has now exorcised Irma Vep and can get back to making real movies.

Learn more about the craft and business of screenwriting from our Script University courses!