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22nd March
written by Mad Cow

cowbells4cowbells4Mad Cow’s rating: cowbells44 Cowbells (out of 4)

               This complex movie is about many things but wouldn’t exist without its theme of motherhood.  Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) is a photojournalist who travels the world to trouble spots, photographing the horrors of war and terrorism. But her loyalty to her husband and two daughters is tested when her husband Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) objects to the perilous nature of her job after she has been injured by a suicide bomber. The film opened with a statement that it is still a “work in progress” but I hope they change very little. It’s exquisite as it is, although I welcome the suggestion that they may change the music, which is overwhelming at times.

               This movie can truly be called international. Performed in English, the film is directed by Norwegian filmmaker Erik Poppe, with screenwriting from Harald Rosenlow Eeg and Poppe. The brilliant Juliette Binoche is of course French. There may be a bit of an autobiographical source for the film, as Poppe began his career as a press photographer. Mention must be made of cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund who, with the director, advances the themes with every beautiful shot.

Juliette BinocheJuliette BinocheRebecca, a world-famous photographer, has two daughters, young teenager Steph (Lauryn Canny) and her younger sister (Adrianna Cramer Curtis). They are well cared for by their dad and enjoy their life on the coast of Ireland. But they miss their mother when she is away and fear for her life. In shock from her injuries and fearful of losing her husband, Rebecca decides to give it all up until she inadvertently finds herself in another global trouble spot and is driven to make a decision.

Binoche and Coster-Waldau are superb in the way they express the love and conflict in their marriage. A Thousand Times Goodnight is from the balcony scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Juliet says it to Romeo to get him to go away as the dawn breaks and he is in danger of detection. He replies that the “good night” is now a thousand times worse because they are parting. The allusion to love and death, literally and figuratively, is compelling.

The stark and poetic photographic images always move the plot along. We see people through water, frosted glass and gauze, suggesting that we don’t always see things clearly, and even our loved ones seem framed in distortion. Rebecca sees veiled women secretly anointing a young woman preparing for her death. She is allowed to “see,” but what is she actually seeing? What does she see when photographing machine gun fire? At one point Steph, in a moment of anger, takes repeated frames of her mother in tears and frustration, mimicking the repetitive shots of the guns. If we take enough pictures of each other will we be able really to see or will we kill each other?

               There are so few movies that show women devoted to their work. It’s exhilarating to see Rebecca’s skill and devotion to what she does, putting herself in danger because she wants people everywhere to wake up to injustice. We can see the adrenaline working as well. The parallel to the hot dog soldier in The Hurt Locker is apparent in her zeal to pursue the work in the face of danger and her boredom with everyday life at home. But the character in The Hurt Locker didn’t have to defend his choices. Rebecca does, to both her family and to herself.

Binoche is gut-wrenchingly convincing to us. One cannot doubt that she is a devoted mother. It would have been so easy to portray her in parallel to men who give lip service to family but really only care about their work (and perhaps supporting the family). She is passionately devoted to both work and family. But her work is not just a job. It is work seen in the same way we saw it expressed in Frida, who painted from her bed even as she was dying and in pain. More than that, Rebecca’s conflict becomes our conflict. This is not just about taking pictures or putting oneself in danger. It’s about identity.  

               Most women in the U.S., and probably Western society, find the need to boast that their families (or at least their children) come first, no matter what. Sometimes to me, an unparent, it seems like a cult. Could a woman ever say that she loves her children but would die without her work? Can she say that and still be a good mother? An academic friend of mine who traveled extensively to research women’s issues in other countries was asked about its effect on her children. She replied that she was glad to be a role model to them with regard to exploring other cultures. It was as simple as that.

               We are also asked to question journalistic ethics, such as the implication that photographing murderers carries with it some of the responsibility for the deaths involved. One may be conspiring with murderers or bravely finding evidence to show the world, or perhaps both. I’ve been taught by other movies that journalists are often crass individuals just looking for a story at any cost, consequences be damned. Rebecca isn’t like that but there remains the question of whether getting the story is an example of hubris or one of courageous justice seeking. We get to ponder this and perhaps decide. Do see this movie when it is circulated more widely, which it is sure to be.

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