Open Seas: Welles on the March!

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Marching Song: A Play by Orson Welles with Roger Hill; edited by Todd Tarbox. 178 pp. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Like a few other American giants—Mark Twain and Duke Ellington come to mind—Orson Welles left behind vast archives of unreleased work in varying states of completion. He’s been dead for thirty-five years but we’re still catching up with his oceanically ambitious—albeit frequently frustrated—creative life.

The latest rediscovered Welles work is Marching Song. This play about the radical abolitionist John Brown was written in 1932 with some help from Welles’s teacher and lifelong friend Roger Hill. It was only staged twice in 1950 by the amateur drama club at Welles’s alma mater, the Todd School for Boys. Its publication caps a decade’s worth of posthumous treats including the Too Much Johnson workprint (amusing silent comedy sequences filmed in 1938), the half-hour Merchant of Venice intended for TV (1969), and, most prominently, the Netflix reconstruction and completion of his feature The Other Side of the Wind (1970-76). Meanwhile, paintings and drawings from Beatrice Welles’s personal collection have been exhibited and published by Titan Books as Orson Welles Portfolio, and two books of transcribed conversations remind us that Welles was one of the world’s great talkers. Not a bad haul for Welles fans—and more pieces to fit into an unfinishable jigsaw puzzle.

One of those books of conversation, Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts (2013), was edited by Hill’s grandson Todd Tarbox. Now returning with his edition of Marching Song, Tarbox argues for a better recognition of Welles the writer, and wishes that Welles’s “newspaper and magazine articles, radio and print essays, movie scripts, speeches, and letters were bound between the covers of a book.” Welles certainly deserves a Heminges and Condell to compile this notional Orsonian First Folio, although it’s certain to be thick as a telephone book. In the meantime Tarbox has made a laudable gesture towards that ambition with this slim volume, a very good quarto indeed.

Writing was an essential first step of the creative process for almost everything Welles made for film, television, radio, or stage, but he only occasionally wrote specifically for publication. This is why despite a scattering of published books in various languages—plays, screenplays, dubiously-credited novelizations—Welles’s writing exists in relative obscurity. Perhaps inspired by Shakespeare’s example, he seemed not very concerned with his writerly legacy. Only a few of his plays were actually published, namely Moby Dick–Rehearsed in 1956 and a volume bundling two short plays (The Unthinking Lobster and Fair Warning) in French translation in 1952. Others, such as Time Runs… (1950), were performed but never published. A number of additional plays await both premiere staging and publication, an opportunity for enterprising theatre directors. (I examined the late 1950s cold war comedy Brittle Glory at the Museo Nazionale Del Cinema in Turin a few summers ago.)

Written by a seventeen-year-old, Marching Song is by definition juvenilia, although that might not mean very much when speaking of the precocious Orson Welles. Tarbox’s volume contains the complete play accompanied by reproductions of Welles’s set sketches and photographs from the 1950 Todd Troupers production (directed by Tarbox’s father, Hascy). There is also a long and engaging introduction by Tarbox that explores Welles’s crucial relationship with Hill. It quotes in full poems Welles wrote for school publications as well as generous passages from the Highland Park News column he wrote as a teenager—including a lively dispatch from Japan. Most valuable of all are the letters Welles wrote to both Hill and his guardian Maurice Bernstein on a painting tour of Ireland in 1931. We encounter the boy in thrall to Irish culture and on the verge of his first professional experience on the stage (“Scores” of additional letters from Welles’s youth, once in the collection of Beatrice Welles, are now archived at the University of Michigan.)

Marching Song‘s 1857-59 setting predates the action of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles’s back-to-back recreations of post-Lincoln America. The play is unsurprisingly ambitious. Welles’s sketches illustrate his plans for innovative sets and lighting. Keeping in mind the preliminary condition of all of Welles’s scripts, certain to be transformed by the happy “accidents” of production, this extant draft is a tad talky and expositional, with a swollen dramatis personae. It is no apparent lost masterpiece, although with its speculations by journalists on the true nature of John Brown, a charismatic and dangerous ‘great man’, it certainly seems like a model for future Welles dramas.

Tarbox’s epilogue, ‘The Social Conscience of Orson Welles,’ helps contextualize Marching Song as an early entry in Welles’s long agitation for racial justice. He includes fifteen pages of transcripts from Welles’s 1946 radio commentaries on the scandal surrounding Isaac Woodard, a black World War II veteran brutally blinded by a policeman in South Carolina. It is valuable to have these stirring texts in book form for the first time. The epilogue makes a helpful supplement to Michael Denning’s study of Welles as a radical political artist in The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996).

Edinburgh, April 2020

Originally published at Wellesnet: The Orson Welles Web Resource on April 6, 2020.

Header image is a detail from The Last Moments of John Brown (1882–84) by Thomas Hovenden at The Met. Public domain.

Open Seas: Twain Goes West

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Roughing It by Mark Twain. 590 pp. Penguin, 1981 [1872].

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that Mark Twain is best read in dog-eared, mass-market paperback. You can keep your fancy collectable and critical editions — no point wearing white tie and tails to a hootenanny. That said, I once maintained more elevated bibliophilic tastes and over the years owned various pseudo-deluxe Twain anthologies such as the Folio Society’s shiny slipcased Treasury and a tall, half-leatherette collection from Readers Digest. My shelves once displayed a handsome pair of blue and grey cloth volumes (Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer) liberated from a Nelson-Doubleday set of complete novels. But my attitude changed recently when I read Roughing It in handy, democratic paperback format on the Brussels-Paris Megabus route. It did fine. Shortly after that, back home in Edinburgh, I decided to sell my copy of the unexpurgated Autobiography (the first pedantically annotated volume of three). The book dealer was admiring but despaired of its massive bulk and, with apologies, refused to take it. No shelf space.

Roughing It may be a hefty six hundred pages but, like all Twain’s travel books, should ideally fit in your pocket. Sure, the Iowa-California critical edition of 1972 features an excellent map of the American southwest on its endpapers, but it’s too cumbersome for the bus and especially the Megabus — and the stagecoach, for that matter. This is a book to read on your own travels or while lying on the beach. Tolerant of extended gaps in reading, it’s useful to have on hand for an idle moment.

Twain wrote his various books of comic memoir out of order. Roughing It narrates a fanciful version of his “variegated vagabondizing” from 1861-67, chronologically following the period he would eventually set down in Life on the Mississippi (1883), the story of his early manhood. In 1861 Twain went west with his brother Orion Clemens, newly crowned Secretary to the Nevada Territory. Twain covers episodes from his ill-fated career prospecting for gold and silver, his days as an often-desperate newspaper columnist in Virginia City, and his arrival in San Francisco. The book is relaxed enough to include such asides as a contemptuous history of the Mormon church. The last chunk of the book recounts his travels to Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands) in 1866. Plenty of humorous chapters can be read as self-contained fictions — ‘Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral’, ‘Bemis Finds Refuge in a Tree’, the story of the bandit Slade.

Roughing It is endlessly interested in the details of how things worked. “Information appears to stew out of me naturally, like the precious ottar of roses,” he writes. Here is the Old West in all of its grit, hardship, and natural majesty. It is not, as Twain puts it, “a pretentious history or philosophical dissertation.” Nor does it dwell on his personal life or development throughout these years. For that reason it pleasantly, rather than compellingly, rambles from place to place, adventure to adventure, joke to joke. The extended Hawaiian section, largely reworked from newspaper articles, would really be more suited to a separate book (the original articles were indeed posthumously  published as Letters from Hawaii in 1966). A reasonably satisfying conclusion to Roughing It is provided by Twain’s first success as a lecturer back in San Francisco, although ‘lecturer’ may be misleading; by the account here, he was a prototypical stand-up comic. The book itself, like a string of routines, endlessly delivers the punchlines. The young Twain’s observations and exaggerations are grotesquely racist on occasion, more concerned with pandering to the prejudices of his nineteenth century readership for laughs than with anything else.

I’m surprised this big baggy book has not been more frequently adapted for film and television. There’s no shortage of dramatic episodes, ambuscades, and ironic reversals — all set in the epic landscapes of the American southwest. A fine comic western could be strung together from this raw material.

Twain rarely flags as an entertainer, but this kind of episodic book inevitably tempts anthologists to dig for choice nuggets. In addition to Life on the Mississippi, Twain wrote three travel memoirs in a similarly expansive and picaresque format: The Innocents Abroad (1869), A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Following the Equator (1897). Charles Neider was the prominent Twain anthologist of the mid-20th century (in 1959 he edited the most readable version of the Autobiography from that mountain of rambling dictations more recently published verbatim, and in that unwieldy and shelf-clogging format, by the University of California). Neider selected his preferred moments from all five memoirs and put together 450 pages as The Travels of Mark Twain (1960). For casual Twain readers, backpackers and bus riders, it might be just right — and it is available in paperback.

Edinburgh, April 2020

Publication: Essay on Welles’s Conrad Adaptations

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My new article at Bright Lights Film Journal, based on archival research at the University of Michigan and the Museo Nazionale Del Cinema in Turin: At Sea, In Port, Up the River: Orson Welles’s Conrad Adaptations

See also a related interview with Ray Kelly at Wellesnet: Orson Welles’ fascination with the works of Joseph Conrad

Part of this work was presented at the Joseph Conrad Society conference in London in July 2019. See a report at Unproduced Orson Welles ‘Surinam’ script to be detailed by Matthew Asprey Gear at literary conference

Moseby Confidential: an extract, reviews, and podcast appearances

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Read an extract from Moseby Confidential: Arthur Penn’s Night Moves and the Rise of Neo-Noir at Bright Lights Film Journal: The Birth of Night Moves: Alan Sharp on the Edge of America

Reviews

Tony Williams at Film International
Jonathan Kirshner at Midcentury Cinema
Andrew Nette at Pulp Curry
Don Herron at Up and Down These Mean Streets
Andy Wolverton at Journeys in Darkness and Light

Podcast interviews

The Projection Booth (26 Sept 2019)
Films(trips) (31 Aug 2019)
Filmwax Radio, Episode 563 (4 Jul 2019)

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For more information see the book page at Jorvik Press

Open Seas: Shylock Must Die

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Shylock Must Die by Clive Sinclair. 192 pp. Halban, 2018.

Clive Sinclair seems to have taken to heart the hot tip Isaac Bashevis Singer gave him in the seventies: “Never begin a story until you are convinced that you are the only person who can write it.” Here was not just permission but an imperative to write about one’s idiosyncratic obsessions. In Sinclair’s case, a Jewish Londoner born in 1948, those included such things as John Wayne and Israel, Kafka and Tintin, anal sex and football. Sinclair’s seemingly incongruous lifelong enthusiasms proved to be a sustaining source of plots–many of his stories are the fictionalised travelogues of a far-seeking pilgrim–and also of enlightening metaphors. His unmistakable voice delivered all the necessary coherence, the singular vision.

When I interviewed him at his home in Chelsea in early 2011, I was surprised by the contrast between the cosmopolitan elegance of his prose–both in his fiction and in his emails–and unpretentious Clive in the flesh, who seemed already significantly older than his early sixties, evidently worn down by the grief and kidney disease of his middle-age. Yet his “soap opera from hell,” as he had memorably put it, had not ruined him. He remained kind, funny, and generous. He was still eagerly engaged with literature and politics as a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. He’d pushed through into a long and fruitful second act despite the decline of the literary fame he’d achieved in the 1980s. The stories, I think, had become richer.

Clive died on March 5 but has left his readers with a final book, Shylock Must Die. As he had used the western genre in True Tales of the Wild West (2008), he latterly turned to Shakespeare’s Shylock as the spark for six occasionally interconnected comic stories that explore his classic themes of Jewishness and antisemitism, fathers and sons, illness and death. He freely ranges across the centuries and the map. There are fewer cowboys and less eroticism than usual. Several stories are populated by members of two twentieth century Anglo-Jewish families whose fishy names–Carp and Salmon–are courtesy of a facetious Prussian bureaucracy in long-abandoned Warsaw. The Salmons closely resemble the Sinclairs of Hendon in London, which means the ridiculously-named son Calman is Clive’s alter-ego.

This collection’s eponymous novella was first published in Death & Texas (2014) and reappears as the anchoring tale of the new book. As Wide Sargasso Sea challenged the Victorian trope of the Mad Woman in the Attic by giving us her point of view, ‘Shylock Must Die’ provides a rather more comic retelling of The Merchant of Venice through another set of Venetian blinds — those of Tubal, Jewish P. I. (“two hundred ducats a day, plus expenses.”) It turns out that Shakespeare’s dramatisation of the unusual legal squabble between Shylock and Antonio was highly selective and misleading. Antonio and Bassanio are, in fact, ruthless murderers of a Jewish boy and Shylock is a mensch, the pound of flesh a clause intended to fulfill “divine justice.” Meanwhile, Shylock’s disloyal daughter Jessica is the silly dupe of Lorenzo, who sells her to white-slavers bound for the Americas. Tubal is given the thankless job of rescuing her from a ship in Genoa. Jessica finally wises up and turns femme fatale.

‘Tears of the Giraffe’ is another tale of the generation gap. Two teenage Swedish Hitler enthusiasts will discover the inconvenient fact they have a Jewish mother during the Nazi era. The story is bookended by stage productions that suggest the mutability of Shakespeare. A German-language Hamlet at Elsinore itself in 1940 presents Claudius as a Shylock-type with “lank greasy hair, and a nose that could cut a path through the north-west passage.” When Claudius virtually confesses his murderous crime during the play-within-the-play, the audience/mob cries spontaneously “Kill the Jew!” Yet four horrible years later, when The Merchant is staged at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre, Shylock is a sympathetic Swedish-accented victim.

Clive sometimes mentioned his plans to write a lucrative novel about a detective to whom he would lend his own failed kidneys. It would be preceded by a prequel set in the detective’s dialysis-free childhood and inspired by the Tintin adventure The Castafiore Emerald (1962). He never seems to have found a worthy villain for his detective novel, but the prequel was achieved here as ‘A Wilderness of Monkeys.’ Calman Salmon is the detective-to-be. In 1961 the Salmons holiday in Venice’s Hotel Belmont, which has only recently re-opened its doors to a quota of Jews. Mr. Salmon buys a ruby necklace for his wife, which leads to an accusation of cat-burglary by an antisemitic Contessa, a trial, and a payoff that reaches into the present day.

The other stories take place mostly in our own era and fictionalise several Shylock-inspired peregrinations. One incorporates a 2012 performance of The Merchant in Hebrew by Jerusalem’s Habima Theatre at the Globe amid heavy security and persistent heckles. Clive told me how fascinated he’d been by the strange situation of Jews attacked for attempting to stage and watch an antisemitic play. Although not without sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, Clive resented the self-righteousness of the English protesters, many of whom he identified as antisemites, and “the unspoken assertion that if you were not with the hecklers, then you were a latter-day Shylock yourself, demanding your pound of Palestinian flesh.”

Other stories arose from his attendance at Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s mock trial of Shylock in the Venetian Ghetto in 2016 and a visit to the Venetian Resort Hotel in Las Vegas. In the Vegas story, a fast-moving political fantasy of the American West, his fictional hotel mogul Shy Lokshen — descending, of course, from Jessica and Lorenzo — creates a golem who becomes a Trump-like President. Incidentally, Clive emailed me in late 2016 to describe how much he had enjoyed taking a swing at a Trump piñata in Santa Cruz. Finally, ‘Shylock’s Ghost’ takes an ageing Calman to the Hendon film set of his son’s “reboot” of Merchant. He slips through a time portal and briefly visits his long-dead parents in the company of the 18th century actor Charles Macklin (in the guise of Shylock). Our narrator returns to the present but on the final page is fading away, appearing to his son “as insubstantial as a kodachrome.”

With a prefatory tribute to the late Israeli painter Yosl Bergner and a epigraph from Hamlet on the death of fathers, this is an unavoidably death-haunted book. And yet Clive did not allow the unappealing coming attraction to strip out the zest, humour, and searing intelligence he brought to all of his inimitable, individual, profoundly human stories.

 

[Image: Orson Welles as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1969)]

Publication: Orson Welles, ‘V.I.P.’, and other discoveries in Turin

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My report for Wellesnet on my recent Welles research in Turin.

VIVA ITALIA! – REPORT ON ARCHIVAL DISCOVERIES IN TURIN

by Matthew Asprey Gear

“A few weeks ago I visited Italy’s Museo Nazionale Del Cinema in Turin on a research project under the sponsorship of the Ernest Hemingway Society. While there I not only made significant discoveries to aid my project, but also had the chance to survey the highlights of a largely unexplored archive that should excite all Wellesians….”

Read more

Ray Kelly of Wellesnet also writes on another discovery of mine:

LOST NOVEL CREDITED TO ORSON WELLES UNEARTHED IN TURIN

“A previously unknown English-language novel credited to Orson Welles has been discovered in the archives of the National Museum of Cinema in Turin.

“The bound hardcover typescript of V.I.P. ― mistakenly cataloged at one point by the museum as a treatment for the movie The V.I.P.’s  or V.I.P ― is an English version of Welles’ French novel Une Grosse Legume (A Big Shot), translated by Maurice Bessy and published by Gallimard Editions of Paris in 1953, according to Matthew Asprey Gear, author of At The End of the Street in the Shadow: Orson Welles and the City.”

Read More

Appearance: John Updike Society in Belgrade

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On June 4 I presented a paper “Mustered Opinions: John Updike’s Non-Fiction Collections” at the Fifth Biennial John Updike Society Conference at the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade in Serbia.

The abstract:

“John Updike was one of the most wide-ranging and conscientious book reviewers in the history of American publishing. For half a century he operated as a “psychotic Santa of volubility” (in the words of Martin Amis), producing hundreds of reviews and occasional essays for the New Yorker and other publications.

“Updike assembled compendiums of this non-fictional prose at regular intervals throughout his career: Assorted Prose (1965), Picked-Up Pieces (1975), Hugging the Shore (1983), Odd Jobs (1991), More Matter (1999), and Due Considerations (2007). Despite the seeming modesty of their titles, and the mock-apologetic tone of their prefaces, these collections are enormously ambitious and comprehensive.

“This paper critically examines Updike’s methods of collating his non-fictional prose, the efforts of a meticulous self-anthologist building a uniform oeuvre. It will discuss critical responses to Updike’s collections, as well as contrasting publication practices by contemporary essayists including Anthony Burgess and Gore Vidal.”

The program of the conference is HERE

Recent Publications & Appearances

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EVAN HUNTER’S JUNGLE KIDS and AN INTERVIEW WITH FLOYD SALAS

I have made two contributions to a beautifully illustrated book edited by Andrew Nette & Iain McIntyre called Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980 (Oakland: PM Press, 2017). 

The first is a long essay on Evan Hunter’s contributions to the juvenile deliquency genre including The Blackboard Jungle (1954), A Matter of Conviction (1959) and The Jungle Kids (1956).

The other is an interview with the fascinating and under-appreciated American writer Floyd Salas, conducted in collaboration with Andrew Nette: ‘Whoever Was In Control Was The One To Watch‘.

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ORSON WELLES’S THE TRIAL

A study of Orson Welles’s screen adaptation of The Trial in Jim Craddock (ed.), Books to Film: Cinematic Adaptations of Literary Works, Volume 1 (Boston: Gale Cengage Learning, 2017).

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ANTHONY BURGESS AND ORSON WELLES: HACKWORK AND BRICOLAGE

A paper presented at the Anthony Burgess: Life, Work, Reputation conference at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester (3-5 July 2017).

Publication forthcoming.

2017-05

ADRIAN MARTIN looks at CONTRAPPASSO: WRITERS AT THE MOVIES

Adrian Martin’s article ‘What is Literary Cinephilia?’, which discusses the special ‘Writers at the Movies’ issue of Contrappasso Magazine (2015) edited by Noel King and Matthew Asprey Gear, appeared in the May 2017 issue of Sight and Sound, pp. 56-57.

Open Seas: Julie Bertuccelli in Georgia and Australia

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Since Otar Left (2003)

If you can imagine the experience of watching an Abbas Kiarostami film in an Iranian mountain village, or Star Wars on a space station, you’ll have some idea how strange it was to see Julie Bertuccelli’s wonderful Since Otar Left (2003) at a Tbilisi film club less than a decade after it had been shot in that city. In fact, some scenes had been shot directly outside that tiny cinema on Rustaveli Avenue. There were chuckles of recognition.

That season Tbilisi revealed to me its double identity. When the clouds were black the city was an atmospheric post-Soviet ruin stinking of cold mud and acrid cigarettes. The sagging balconies of its nineteenth century apartment buildings sometimes hung by a single bolt, while the Soviet concrete monoliths looked, bizarrely enough, centuries older. Rubble piled up on the footpaths. The flaking and mould-blackened yellow paint, the makeshift patches of rust-red tin, the bare-limbed trees — all contributed to an atmosphere of devastation. And yet when the sun sparkled on the River Mtkvari all that decay seemed diminished and Tbilisi was as delightful as an Italian renaissance town.

Since Otar Left captures that urban duality. Co-written by Bertuccelli and Bernard Renucci, the film centres on three generations of a Georgian family. The elderly matriarch’s adored son, a doctor named Otar, is working as an illegal immigrant in Paris. The report comes of his accidental death. To spare the old woman this devastating news, her granddaughter begins to fake new letters from Otar. This plot is nothing new — E. L. Doctorow’s story ‘A Writer in the Family’ (1984) spins from the same basic idea — and yet the subtle screenplay and the tremendous performances of its three central actresses are the foundations of a powerfully moving film.

Each of the three main characters seeks her own vision of dignity and independence. The elderly matriarch Eka (Esther Gorintin) is stubborn, full of life despite her years, and unfairly critical of her supposedly ambitionless daughter Marina (Nino Khomasuridze). Marina’s daughter Ada (Dinara Drukarova), while dutiful and loving, is bored by her university studies, bored by her casual boyfriend, and bored by the squabbles of her mother and grandmother over the legacy of Stalin in the close quarters of their ramshackle apartment.

All this takes place in an era of economic deprivation. The film repeatedly returns to the failure of Tbilisi’s basic utilities a decade after the end of the Soviet Union. Power outages leave the women in the dark. The water supply cuts while Marina is washing her hair in the shower, causing her to cry out in despair, “Life’s impossible in this fucking country!” (By 2011 the situation had improved, although most of the shops in the city centre had a petrol-powered generator on its stoop ready to start puttering.) To survive, Marina must sell items in the open-air antiques market beside the river with her supportive but inessential lover; at one moment she tells him with a laugh, “I wish I was in love with you.” (That week I had browsed in that very market, where ruined cars live on as permanent stalls selling every imaginable item: swords, canes, pick-axes, rusty pistols, button accordions, 8mm camera equipment, pictures of 1970s Soviet film starlets, cigar boxes decorated in Polynesian kitsch, and century-old adding machines.) When Eka falls ill, the hospital facilities are inadequate and the bill must be paid immediately in cash to the bored, chain-smoking doctor.

Despite hard times, life goes on in Georgia. Eka, Marina, and Ada own an idealic country dacha where they collect fruit. They gather with friends in their apartment to sing folk songs. They pause by the roadside to tie strips of cloth to a wish tree — until Ada refuses to perpetuate this superstition.

The women also follow family tradition as devoted Francophiles — although none of the three have ever actually visited France. This is one reason Eka is so supportive of Otar’s life in Paris. At night Ada reads to Eka from a volume of Proust, part of the valuable library of French books that had to be hidden during the darkest Soviet years. France represents the apex of culture and economic opportunity. There is a powerful conclusion as Ada, with Eka’s complicity but Marina’s distress, decides to remain behind in Paris as an illegal immigrant. As an audience we are left in no doubt that Georgia is a provincial dead-end for Ada. The film boldly depicts illegal immigration as a step towards self-fulfilment. France offers a new life. It might have been a colossally chauvinistic move for these French screenwriters to invent Georgian characters who exalt France in this way, but I have to admit I was totally won over by the humanity of the performances and the universality of the film’s theme: the desire for a better life and to transcend the mundane here and now.

Nevertheless, watching this story about Tbilisi in Tbilisi gave me a usefully unsettled perspective. Is Since Otar Left a film made for international audiences rather than for the Georgians it purports to depict? I’m sure many locals do not consider it a Georgian film. Although acted in a mixture of Georgian and French, only one of the three leads, Nino Khomasuridze, is actually a local (the late Esther Gorintin was Polish and Dinara Drukarova is Russian). I’m not suggesting that Bertuccelli was a superficial tourist — after all, she was a protégé of director Otar Iosseliani — but I wondered whether Georgians consider her a cultural interloper, a Western European condescending to tell a story about the citizens of an impoverished country who idolise her own.

Luckily, Bertuccelli has given me a convenient opportunity to evaluate that question because her second fiction feature, The Tree (2010), was made in my home country, Australia. All the characters are Australian with the exception of its nominally French-English protagonist, Dawn, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. The setting is rural Queensland. Dawn’s husband dies and leaves his family in grief. His young daughter (Morgana Davies) comes to believe that the enormous Moreton Bay Fig on their property has absorbed his spirit and can speak to her. Dawn also toys with the belief. But the tree grows wildly, and its roots and branches invade the house. The neighbours are outraged. The family’s grieving process, the slow acceptance of the man’s death, is mirrored by the eventual abandonment of the tree after an act of God.

How well does Bertuccelli grasp the Australian milieu? An interesting question, because I don’t actually think many unquestionably Australian films demonstrate any particular insight into Australia as it really is. Despite tiny box office and indifferent reception, much of the national cinema doggedly sticks with a default set of elements: depressing subject matter, protagonists of limited intelligence who lack agency, and plenty of lingering shots of the landscape. There’s nothing inherently limiting about that, but so far Australia hasn’t produced filmmakers of the calibre of the Dardenne brothers or Andrey Zvyagintsev or Andrea Arnold who would find universal resonance, let alone poetry, in the dark and mundane surfaces of Australian society. Instead we frequently wind up with badly written, pretentious, and crushingly boring movies that nobody really likes.

I had high hopes for The Tree after the triumph of Since Otar Left. Bertuccelli was also a assistant director on Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Blue (1993), a truly great film about a grieving widow. What could go wrong? But I’m afraid The Tree, to borrow a phrase from Jean-Luc Godard, is a film like any other. Although beautifully photographed, its Australian characters have none of the complexity of Bertuccelli’s Georgians. True to the conventions of our national cinema, no character in The Tree is allowed to have any sort of intellectual life — not even a corny worship of Le France. The dead husband and his replacement, a plumber, are almost interchangeable tanned men in flannel shirts, amiably laconic, of whom almost nothing is discovered. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Morgana Davies give strong performances with what they have but the dialogue often sounds unrealistic. The narrative meanders, and many scenes could have been removed with little consequence to its coherence.

To date these are Bertuccelli’s only two fiction features, although she has been a prolific documentarian of French society. I’m happy to see that a third starring Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni is in post-production — a feature film, finally, set in France.

Edinburgh, February 2018