A persuasive case could be made that “Nelly And Nadine”’s director Magnus Gertten could have equally called his Teddy Award-winning documentary “Nelly And Sylvie.” The film feels just as much the story of how a granddaughter faces the truth about her grandmother as it is the story of a loving relationship that ultimately survived the horrors of war. But whichever way Gertten’s touching and engrossing documentary is seen, the viewer will not forget Nelly, Nadine, or Sylvie.
As a child, Sylvie Bianchi loved her grandmother Nelly Mousset-Vos. The older woman’s ability to hit incredibly high notes when she sang never failed to impress Sylvie or her sister Anne. However, one thing Nelly pointedly never talked about was her World War II experiences. A box of Nelly’s belongings kept in the attic of Sylvie’s house included a diary of that period in the older woman’s life. However, Nelly’s granddaughter had tried and failed for 20 years to bring herself to read that diary. Now she realizes the time has finally come to learn her grandmother’s tale. Key to that story will be Nadine Hwang, whose connection to Nelly turns out to be greater than “fellow survivor of Ravensbruck concentration camp.”
Sylvie’s initial inability to recognize the nature of Nelly and Nadine’s relationship isn’t an act of hatred (see Sylvie’s mother Claude) or denial via living a double life (see Nelly and Nadine’s Caracas-based friend Jose Rafael Lovera). Rather the problem is that, as writer Joan Schenkar puts it, “Nothing is real, socially, until it’s expressed.” Once Sylvie admits that Nelly and Nadine were lovers, a lot of pieces of the two lesbians’ lives the granddaughter saw but didn’t understand start becoming clearer.
For instance, Sylvie’s memories of Nelly’s fondness for singing during the Christmas holidays leads to some significant information about her grandmother’s past. Nelly’s amazing ability to hit the high notes came from her professional training as a mezzo soprano. The singing during the holiday season is a call back to the first time Nelly met Nadine during Christmas 1944. The trained soprano had been allowed by the prison authorities to sing requested Christmas carols and other songs to the other prisoners. Nadine stood out because she requested a song from “Madame Butterfly.” Performing the opera’s “Un bel di” unexpectedly helped Nelly start to recover her pre-imprisonment spirit. The kisses Nadine bestowed upon the singer after her performance ended certainly did the rest.
The account of Nelly’s first meeting with Nadine and what happened afterwards is of course not the product of Gertten’s speculation. Nelly’s aforementioned diary contained the account of her first meeting with Nadine. Anne Coesens wonderfully reads the passage describing that moment. Other passages read by Coesens capture the tribulations and cruelties Nelly and the other prisoners underwent. For example, there are memories of numbed fingers from working in frozen fields or being forced to stand in the rain unprotected for twelve hours.
But Nelly’s diary is not the only source of information about her shared past with Nadine. The box of Nelly’s possessions in Sylvie’s attic also contains a trove of Super-8 home movies Nadine made of her life with Nelly in the Venezuelan city of Caracas, photographs taken by Nadine, and even photos from Nadine’s time with Natalie Barney’s Academe Des Femmes artistic salon. The photographs provide particular insights into Nelly and Nadine’s relationship as the images captured by the camera lens reflected the love and affection Nadine had for her lover.
Part of the fun of watching Gertten’s film is sharing in Nelly’s granddaughter’s joy at discovering new information or insights about her grandmother’s past. For example, Nelly wound up in Ravensbruck because the Nazis found out she was a member of the Luc French Resistance network, and had been since 1940. Lovera provides insights into Nelly and Nadine’s life together in Caracas.
Equally entertaining and jaw-dropping are the unexpected avenues that open up as a result of Sylvie’s search. Maria Alexandra Lovera, the daughter of Nelly and Nadine’s old Caracas friend, learns to be more open about her own sexuality. Irene Krausz-Fainman finally gets to come full circle on fulfilling a promise made to her mother’s friend Nadine.
It’s ironic that while Gertten’s film reveals much about Nelly, Nadine by contrast remains something of a cipher. Schenkar may reveal that Nadine was the daughter of the Chinese ambassador to Spain and that she had an unrequited love for salon hostess Barney. Yet these nuggets of information get outweighed by questions about Ms. Hwang’s life that remain unanswered. Why did Nadine’s blood relationship to the Chinese ambassador fail to keep her out of Ravensbruck? Had Nadine been disowned by her family? How did Nadine manage to survive at Ravensbruck before she met Nelly? How much did Nadine open up to Nelly about her own internment experiences? Where is Nadine’s body buried?
At the very least, given the dramatic impact of Nadine and Nelly’s forced separation, some more detail could have been provided than what’s in the film. Why was Nelly transferred to the Mauthausen camp? Was it because the prison authorities learned about her relationship with Nadine? If after the war Nadine was in Malmo, and Nelly was in Brussels, how did they eventually find each other again? It’s not clear if a spotty historical record is the primary cause of these huge gaps in information. Perhaps what’s needed is a “Nelly And Nadine” sequel called “The Search For Nadine.”
What does sound promising is learning that Nelly and Nadine had wanted to publish their recollections of their wartime experiences. Publishers of the time didn’t bite. Perhaps the still-LGBTQ+-friendly social environment of today might result in Nelly and Nadine’s story in their own words finally being introduced to readers?
The shorts program “Constant Craving” can be described as a program of shorts revolving around the theme of desire, sexual or otherwise. They take a variety of approaches from science fiction to poetic mood piece to documentary/fiction hybrid. As might be expected, the results vary in quality.
Jean-Sebastian Chauvin’s “Exalted Mars” kicks things off on a very low-key level. Why does the short open with protracted shots of evening city traffic? It’s not until the viewer sees the sleeping naked man (is the sign-language word tattooed on his chest the name Mars), followed by more shots of night time traffic, that a point of understanding is reached. The mundane urban sights, such as the traffic patterns and a continually unlit street lamp, are intended as metaphors for the state of the sleeper’s body. The steady flow of traffic represents his smoothly functioning circulatory system.
However, by the time that understanding is reached, at least this viewer had started wearying of playing more of Chauvin’s intellectual games. The meaning of the unlit street lamp comes quickly and obviously. Indeed, the director may have done better to retain viewer interest by increasing the visual allure of the naked sleeper. But even with a graphic expression of sexual pleasure, Chauvin’s short eventually left this viewer wanting to join the short’s central figure in slumber.
Even if Yann Gonzalez’ “Fou de Bassan” celebrates the carnal over the intellectual, it’s still a more satisfying viewing experience. This dialogue-free film takes place in a cruising alley for wlw activity. The titular saxophone solo provides the musical backdrop to the short. The music’s emotional tenor swoops from longing to satisfaction of various timbres.
The wlw activity seen as the camera wanders the alley covers a variety of consensual sexual fetishes. They range from the basics such as simple kissing and voyeurism to domination and the sexual allure of licking a knife blade.
A variety of body shapes celebrated by the film takes Gonzalez’ short out of male gaze-y service. By extolling the promise of finding a satisfactory sexual expression even for the “imperfect,” the short can liberate a viewer from settling for just the perfunctory basics of mediocre vanilla sex.
“Kiss,” from director Chou Tung-Yen, offers a more ambivalent picture of desire. Is wanting the touch of another man an understandable desire or an example of a death wish?
A nameless man in a space suit wanders through a barely lit male spa. It’s some time after an unknown disaster has apparently wiped out many human beings. But what happens when this man in a spacesuit encounters a healthy yet unprotected naked man who doesn’t appear to be an illusion?
Chou’s film creates a sense of history for the spa. As the nameless man wanders through the facility, the ethereal images of past couplings at the spa and the belongings left behind show that even though the men who patronized the spa are no longer physically present, their emotional presence still lingers. On the other hand, having such imaginings may be a red flag regarding the unnamed man’s own suppressed gay desires.
The encounter with the apparently still-living naked man sets up “Kiss”’ central conflict. Will this protected explorer try to consummate the desire the naked man offers? Or will the naked man be treated as a possibly lethal danger? The trouble with the resolution Chou offers is that there is nothing transcendent about the explorer’s decision. His risking his life by removing his protection doesn’t seem in service to anything other than mundane satisfaction of personal desire. As a result, “Kiss” left a homophobic aftertaste in this viewer’s mind.
For a more gay-positive message, viewers should welcome Tristan Scott-Behrends’ “The Man Of My Dreams.” It can be described as an answer film to the “Hedwig And The Angry Inch” song “The Origin Of Love.”
Scott-Behrends’ film focuses on the night-time urban adventures of two young gay Asian men. Both are dressed in striking women’s outfits, one of which features platform heels and a bright yellow dress with a plunging collar. Whether they’re kissing each other in the street or sharing a late-night bite to eat, the duo seem to be in their own world of personal bliss. Yet as the unnamed narrator (the one in the yellow dress) starts talking of old passions to be relit, the images of the couple’s happiness need to be taken at something less than face value.
The message of Scott-Behrends’ short film offers an empowering strike against the fear of being too freakishly different to ever find a significant other. The narrator of “The Man Of My Dreams” would regard such anxieties as a betrayal of one’s personal uniqueness. The solution the narrator devises honors both a personal truth and an optimistic solution to this problem of finding someone simpatico.
The title for most visually stunning “Constant Craving” short would have to go to Mindy Stricke’s “Melting Point.” Calling it a graphic depiction of two women having sex doesn’t provide the fullest description of the film. What’s missing is mentioning that their sexual encounter is shot with a thermal camera. This means the cooler parts of the image are rendered in purple and black while brighter colors such as yellow represent hotter parts of the image.
Instead of setting off more prurient viewers’ ick reaction, the colorful and abstract images turn the sex act into a glorious explosion of riotous motion and color. Instead of the two women having to fake getting turned on for the camera, the images of their body heat lets the viewer see the reality of their physical arousal. The result is a piece whose images happily occupy the liminal space between surface concealment and visual abstraction.
The Constant Craving program closes things out with Erica Sarmet’s “A Wild Patience Has Taken Me Here.” Yes, there is a lovely sequence of wlw desire expressed in several different couplings. The short even has a lively bouncing soundtrack. Yet the main craving at play in Sarmet’s involves the desire for generational connection.
Main character Vange might be called a prototypical old-school lesbian. She’s at least middle-aged and lives alone with a cat. Her dyke on a bike card is verified by her well-worn black leather jacket and a well-used motorcycle. As far as relationships go, romantic fate means less to her than accidents. One evening, her social isolation bubble gets popped at a bar via an encounter with a younger lesbian. Vange and the life she’s led fascinates the younger woman. An offer of a friendly drink at the younger lesbian’s home (with her friends and roommates soon joining in) turns into bridge building among lesbians of two different generations.
What makes the women’s conversation so enjoyable is the participants’ treatment of each other as equals. None of these lesbians use their age differences to judge the others. Vange admires the young lesbians’ world of twerking and video manipulation via smartphone. The young lesbians are in turn fascinated by Vange’s recounting of lesbian dating in Sao Francisco decades ago, where discretion meant flirting on the ferry, making out, and then returning to one’s distant home neighborhood.
The viewer in fact winds up feeling privileged watching Vange and her new friends spend time together. The furtiveness that served as an undercurrent of the older lesbian’s younger days has been replaced by a heartwarming openness. The American viewer may not know the names of the women cited in a playful round robin of “F**k, Marry, Kill” but the sense of affable camaraderie needs no explanation. Similarly, the performance of what seems like a mental calming ceremony involving the gentle ringing of metallic bowls feels like it’s aimed at banishing or suspending emotional inhibitions regarding sex.
The low-key finale, where the two different generations of lesbians have gathered on a beach, is a culmination of the sentiment underlying the film’s title. After such a long wait, Vange has found her people again. Even if the two men playing further down the beach turned out to be a threat, the happiness these two generations of lesbians have found in meeting each other will not be denied. Their mutual strength will overcome the silences imposed on them.
(“Nelly And Nadine” and “Constant Craving” will be available for streaming online as part of the Frameline Encore program running from June 24-30. Go to www.Frameline.org for more information.)Filed under: Arts & Entertainment