The Weekend Australian - Review
Paradox of passion
Inspired by one of France’s most famous literary creations, this series has made its leading man, Omar Sy, an international star
‘Love is anterior to life / Posterior to death, / Initial of creation, and / The exponent of breath.” So goes one of my favourite poems by Emily Dickinson, which speaks of love’s endurance throughout the trajectory of a life and beyond. Dickinson’s compact, riddling and indisputably brilliant missives were written mostly in seclusion from society; she spent her adult life in partial retreat from the world, and her friendships, while deep and enduring, were almost entirely pursued through correspondence.
There has been much emphasis on Dickinson’s chasteness, reclusiveness and eccentricity – for a time, she dressed entirely in white, and would speak to visitors to her home through closed doors – yet in spite of her solitary existence, she wrote some of the most searing love poems of all time.
Few poems achieve the depth of longing Dickinson does in Wild Nights – Wild Nights! speculated to be about her sisterin-law Susan Gilbert: “Wild Nights – Wild Nights! / Were I with thee / Wild Nights should be / Our luxury! // Futile – the winds – / To a heart in port – / Done with the compass – / Done with the chart! // Rowing in Eden – / Ah, the sea! / Might I moor – Tonight – / In thee!”
As these two differing examples from Dickinson suggest, love poetry takes many forms. There are love poems about love as an abstract idea, and those that focus on its earthly incarnations; there are those about platonic and erotic love; and those about familial love too.
Some exult the loved one’s idealised qualities; others, like Shakespeare’s My Mistress’s Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun, celebrate their flaws.
Many focus on the pain of unrequited love, like John Clare’s The Secret, which begins, “I loved thee, though I told thee not, / Right earlily and long, / Thou wert my joy in every spot / My theme in every song”, or AE Housman’s Because I Liked you Better, which the poet withheld from publication in his lifetime due to its intimations of Housman’s homosexuality, and which begins: “Because I liked you better / Than suits a man to say, / It irked you, and I promised / To throw the thought away.”
Some of the greatest love poems are about the paradox of love: the feeling of unity among two who can never become one. Here I think of Anne Bradstreet writing, “If ever two were one, then surely we” or John Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, in which the poet revels in paradox: “Our two souls therefore, which are one, / Though I must go, endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion, / Like gold to airy thinness beat.”
Others focus on the asymmetry of love, such as WH Auden’s “If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me.” Love’s ephemerality surfaces in Philip Larkin’s moving An Arundel Tomb, where the poet contemplates the effigies of a couple in Chichester Cathedral and meditates on how mortality gives love its urgency, an idea that echoes in Charles Simic’s regrettinged Errata, in which the poet declaims “my greatest mistake / the word I allowed to be written / when I should have shouted / her name”.
Others yet mourn the end of love, like John A. Scott’s superb
Changing Room, where the end of a relationship also signals the end of poetry: “She’s leaving; and the similes are gone,” Scott writes, “A borrowed room, and everything quite suddenly / and only like itself: this coat, this coat. / This floor, this floor.”
Great poems about sex, however, are few and far between. The British journal Literary Review has, for the past 30 years, run a Bad Sex in Fiction Award, lambasting the hyperbolic, purple and just plain embarrassing passages about sex by novelists including august names such as John Updike and Norman Mailer.
If a similar award for poetry were established, I imagine it would not want for contenders. Yet in an Australian context there are some exceptions to the rule that more than stand up to scrutiny, including Dorothy Porter’s superbly frank erotic poems and Gwen Harwood’s sensuous Carnal Knowledge I, which begins with a post-coital invocation: “Roll back, you fabulous animal / be human, sleep.”
This week’s poet, Adrienne Eberhard, picks up love in its many guises in her fifth full-length collection, Chasing Marie Antoinette All Over Paris (Black Pepper).
The volume opens with a number of poems fixated on maternal love in the natural and human worlds. In Fledglings, the poet contemplates a brood of chicks she is caring for whose mother is lost, and who are beginning to individuate themselves: “your lost mother recedes as you loll / in the sun”, the poet says to the chicks, implying a metaphor for the poet’s own motherhood in the final line, “while I juggle this unwieldy knowledge”.
In Heart, the poet tracks the changes in her own mother, who was once a woman who “used to feed sheeps’ hearts to our cat”, but now has a “heart frail as paper, / blown like Venetian glass” which “flare[s] like fire into sudden fibrillation”.
In Sailing the Sabot, the poet addresses her son at four years of age, who is momentarily swept away by the wind while sailing. Here, love is figured as a pelagic expanse: “I stood in the shallows, watched the wind whisk you / to submerged shadows, I cried to the steel-blue // to release its hold, the wind to blow you back / to my arms so that I could wrap // you like a flower, take you home / and anchor you, asleep in your room, // where the walls are a shifting-ocean blue, / fathoms deep as my need of you.”
For Valentine’s Day this week, I’ve chosen the poem Advice to Lovers Embarking on a Journey, which is an epithalamion: a poem written to celebrate a marriage.
Epithalamion literally means “at the bridal chamber” in Greek; these poems were originally sung outside newlyweds’ bedrooms, and stretch back to antiquity. Catullus, Sappho and
Ovid contributed to the form, among others. Eberhard’s epithalamion takes the form of instructions to a couple who are about to embark on a journey overseas: here, love is figured through the luminous objects of the world, whose textures and colours – “spices, chilli, / pots of coriander glowing green in the dark” – signify erotic joy and discovery.
Eberhard’s epithalamion is also structured as a list; through its tumbling energy, the poet conveys the headiness of love, as well as its pitfalls and perils. In the last line, the poet gives a metapoetic wink to the reader, subtly suggesting that love’s immensity exceeds description – an idea that connects her poem to a conundrum as old as poetry itself.
is a poet and an associate professor at the school of creative practice at the Queensland University of Technology. Poet’s Voice receives sponsorship from The Copyright Agency and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Regular poetry submissions to The Weekend Australian should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
It seemed to come from nowhere, hardly promoted and with little discernible advance publicity. But within weeks, even after the seductively entertaining Bridgerton had become a controversial media sensation, the brilliant French language crime series Lupin had become Netflix’s biggest original series. It made its leading man, Omar Sy, already a legend in France for the box office hit The Intouchables, into an international star, winning rave reviews for his performance as gentleman thief Assane Diop.
Since its release, it has reached well over 70 million households, bigger than not only Bridgerton but also The Queen’s Gambit. I’ve only just caught it, bingeing this stylish and so cleverly self-aware piece of TV in an evening of delight as many of you may have already done.
It was created by the suddenly very visible George Kay, in collaboration with French comedy writer Francois Uzan. Kay, who dominates the publicity and appears to have had the original idea, is a British writer and producer who most recently co-created the brilliant Netflix procedural series Criminal, a cop drama built around interrogation, questioning the moral effectiveness of the law and justice system from an intense psychological perspective in four different counties.
It is an intense watch, too, with the drama built around an incessant play of furtive meanings and ambivalences. Lupin couldn’t be more different, a comedy mystery caper drama drawing on the French attitude to both immigration and racism while at the same time celebrating the mystique of literary legacy.
The show follows Diop, a Senegalese immigrant brought to Paris as a child by his father Babakar (a lovely restrained performance by Fargass Assande) for a less impoverished life, as events conspire to propel him into what becomes a story of revenge.
The narrative as it plays out in cleverly pitched flashbacks is shaped by a book containing the adventures of the fictional thief Arsene Lupin written a century earlier, and given to the hulking Diop by his father before Babakar is framed for stealing the priceless Queen’s Necklace from the wealthy and corrupt Pellegrini family for which he works. His father commits suicide in prison, his son laden by a legacy of calamity from which his adoption of the persona of Lupin redeems him.
It’s a clever, witty and very meta twist, self-reflective and self-referencing actual source material about a fictional character who attacks the rich, stealing their purses along with their secrets, widely regarded as one of France’s most famous literary creations. (Sy, already under contract to Gaumont Television, which produces Lupin, when asked by the producers to select his dream role as they considered projects for him, “If I were British, I would have said James Bond, but since I’m French, I said Lupin.”)
Created as a consequence of the popularity of Sherlock Holmes, which surged throughout Europe and America towards the end of the 19th century, Arsene Lupin, was a gentleman thief moonlighting on occasions as a detective created by French writer Maurice Leblanc. Epitome of the Belle Epoque dandy, Lupin first appeared in a short story published in July 1905 in the magazine Je sais tout (“I know all”) and quickly became a sensation as well as an archetype declared at the time by one stylish magazine as “dernier cri”, the latest fashion.
From 1905 to 1939, Leblanc wrote him into seven novels and 39 novellas, co-authored several plays featuring his hero, turning the monocled Lupin into a venerable mainstay of French culture, appearing in films, TV shows, even crossing to Hollywood in the 1930s and to Japan in the late 1970s in Miyazaki Hayao’s feature actioncomedy adaptation Lupin the Third.
And Kay, who wrote several episodes of the wonderful first series of the deliciously twisted Killing Eve, another series featuring disguises, fabulous outfits, chases and personal reinvention, imbues the whole caboodle with the same kind of criminal impudence and comic outrageousness.
He’s wittily assisted by the talent of veteran action director Louis Letterier, best known internationally for the first two hit Transporter action thrillers, and the CGI-heavy reincarnation of The Incredible Hulk.
Letterier is all over this production, expert at using pace to generate energy, breaking scenes up into many visceral shots, operating the camera himself at times it seems looking at the behind-the-scenes Netflix footage, the action gaining a cumulative momentum.
It’s a lovely series to look at, Letterier’s direction at times delightfully ethereal and graceful. Just like his star.
Kay’s idea was inspired. While the Arsene novels had been adapted many times he believed he could bring new life to the style and tone of the original books through a reimagined characterisation of the suave thief, escape artist, and master of disguise. Kay told Variety he knew he wanted to keep the sense of “mischievous, adventurous crooks and criminals intersecting establishment”, but he felt it was equally important to “take everything we loved in the books, subvert it, update it and create a really modern story through the heart of it”.
The original works are used as a source of inspiration for his leading man Assane, who devours them like religious texts, as well as the tumultuous events and even locations of the first 10 episodes, including the first heist story that dominates the initial episode in rollicking action movie style.
Diop decides to steal back Marie Antoinette’s necklace, the one that resulted in his father’s death, when it resurfaces for the first time in more than a decade. Inveigling the help of local gangsters, he infiltrates the Louvre as both a lowly janitor, after casing out the museum and spending time with the Mona Lisa, and also in disguise as a wealthy art patron there for the public auction of the necklace. “It’s worth a thousand years of minimum wages,” a black maintenance colleague tells him as he earlier insinuates himself into the museum.
Letterier, as he does throughout the series, makes great use of the iconography of the Parisian landscape, not only the Louvre, the other star of the first episode, with sublime shots of the illuminated leoh Ming Pei Pyramid and Montmartre’s Sacre-Coeur Basilica featured in a visceral high speed chase across Paris’s zinc and slate rooftops. And our gentleman thief makes an astonishing escape from the Luxembourg Gardens, between Saint-Germain-des-Pres and the Latin Quarter, utilizing its diametric lines and angles to somehow escape on a bicycle disguised as a food carrier.
The first five episodes are with us, ending somewhat surprisingly with a brilliant cliffhanger that has you throwing the remote at the screen as you shout, “More, I want more now”. This narrative turning point is set at Normandy’s Étretat beach - an homage to fans of Leblanc’s character, specifically the 1909 Lupin book, The Hollow Needle, the promenade jammed with aficionados wearing Lupin’s original costume of top hat and flowing black cape.
But Kay it seems always intended the break in the propulsive narrative, the second five episodes to follow quickly, all designed as a kind of origin story, the first chapter of something bigger. This is the back story of Kay’s Assane Diop that in its final five chapters will tell us how he got to this point in his life and then the series which will undoubtedly continue – rather like Leblanc’s many Lupin adventures – will tell us what happened in the gap between him being 15 years old when we first meet him in the early episodes and being 40.
“So we’re kind of retrospectively educating with this huge backstory,” Kay says. His Assane, while like the original “a man of a thousand disguises: in turn a chauffeur, detective, bookmaker, Russian physician, Spanish bullfighter, commercial traveler, robust youth, or decrepit old man”, as the narrator of the first novel tells us, is also a kind of knight errant with an action-oriented code of honour whose moral code enables him to act in a violent world without losing his moral force.
Like Leblanc’s original, Diop practices burglary with gallantry. This of course is given extra dimension in storytelling terms because of Assane’s race, a hard-boiled outsider with a soft heart, who criminally penetrates the Establishment that he robs from within, often of property gained in the first place illegally or immorally. He knows from long experience that that evil is endemic in the well-heeled social order.
A gleaming and deceptive façade hides a world of exploitation and criminality shot through with undertones of betrayal and danger, epitomised by the evil Pellegrini patriarch. “Assane is defined by a sense of injustice – the fact of being ignored, of being invisible – which has become his trauma,” says Sy. “He uses that. As he changes costumes and trades, he blends in with the crowd.” His ability to stay concealed, invisible among people is like his superpower, exploiting the implicit racial biases of the French. “You didn’t look at me; you saw me, but you didn’t look at me,” he tells the white thugs he outwits in persuading them to take part in the heist.
Sy’s performance is magnificent, a beast of a man with a wonderful lightness and charm. He has the gift the director Mike Nichols once called that “deal where you do nothing and it turns out you were doing everything. That’s what a great movie actor does. They don’t know how they do it, and I don’t know how they do it.”
Lupin is streaming on Netflix.
As early as 1965, then 22-year-old Mick Jagger may or may not have said something along the lines of not being caught dead singing Satisfaction past the age of, well, 30, 32, 40 or 45, depending on the source. We all know how that turned out.
The point is, he was idealistic, his creation at once inspired the young and shocked the old, and, behind his rock-star posing and dissatisfaction with a culture controlled by older people, he, like the rest of us, didn’t relish growing into the generation he was rebelling against.
All this by way of introducing Why are You Like This?, a raucous and outspoken new comedy series of six half-hours in which a trio of selfabsorbed 20-something Melburnians navigate a world where — to quote the equally raucous ABC press kit — “every thought is soaked in the corrosive brine of identity politics and no opinion is left unsaid”. Surprising, profane and possibly culturally baffling to anybody without a 20something in their own life, these purposefully exaggerated modern moral dilemmas will nevertheless prompt a high degree of proudly un-woke comedic satisfaction.
Seemingly the only woman in a tech start-up, anxious yet righteous crusader Penny (Naomi Higgins) is prone to saying things like “as a white person it is my job to shield you from microaggressions wherever possible”, whether her intended target needs or even wants the advocacy. Penny shares a house with out-of-work artist and aspiring drag performer Austin (Wil King), who performs under a series of outrageous names and thinks his perpetual depression will shortly dissipate after having seen an off-screen therapist exactly once. Their fast friend is Mia (Olivia Junkeer, Yashvi Rebecchi on Neighbours), a bi, South Asian woman possessed of unchecked narcissism who sabotages job after job while offering unwanted opinions along the lines of “Incels. They love free speech until a woman uses it to do something sexy online.”
Each fast-paced episode charts their parallel and often intertwined adventures in a world they’re trying hard to understand but can’t seem to get out of their own ways long enough to do so.
Highlights include Penny mobilising a group of marginalised female employees at a maledominated workplace with catastrophic results, Mia’s attempt to monetise an online cosplay endeavour and later struggles with her religion, and Austin’s thankless job in artist services.
Why are You Like This? is the throbbing brainchild of stand-up comic and writer Higgins, writer-illustrator-lawyer Humyara Mahbub and Mark Samual Bonanno, the actor, writer and one of three featured players in the Aunty Donna sketch troupe. All three have writing credits on four of the six shows, with Mahbub and Bonanno each delivering standout episodes. Each edition is drenched with popular songs both new (Princess Vitarah) and old (Skeeter Davis) that comment on the action. In a world where culture is being questioned from all sides, Why are You Like This? is a show that refuses to be cancelled.
Why are You Like This?, Tuesday, 8.45pm, ABC TV Plus and iview.
Already established as among his generation’s most chameleon-like and forceful performers for distinctive work in touchstone films, from writer-director Shane Meadows’s 2006 British drama This is England to Martin Scorsese’s 2019 late-career triumph The Irishman, British actor Stephen Graham has also distinguished himself on the small screen. Performances in Meadows’s trio of This is England sequels and the most recent series of the BBC police procedural Line of Duty are of note. Incredibly, also in 2019, Graham reteamed with Meadows for the laceratingly emotional four-part series The Virtues, which has finally made its way to an Australian streaming service.
Autobiographically inspired, if “inspired” is the right word, by a recently remembered trauma from Meadows’s childhood, it showcases a sublimely nuanced performance of great vulnerability and authoritative power from Graham that is even more intense, if that’s possible, than anything he’s done to date.
In contemporary Liverpool, labourer and recovering alcoholic Joseph McCarthy (Graham) is steeling himself for an unpleasant yet necessary task. Debbie (Juliet Ellis), the ex-wife he lost to drink, is moving with their son Shea (Shea Michael-Shaw) to a better life in Australia with her new partner, David (Evan Hamilton). Graham clears up all doubt of Joe’s sincerity with a moving talk between father and the son he obviously loves dearly in which he promises to faithfully stay in touch via video chat. As strong as he clearly yearns to be, Joe is nevertheless overwhelmed with grief and promptly goes on a monumental bender with strangers at a local pub — a bravura sequence of sustained improvisation and looming disaster — that loses his job and leaves him nearly penniless.
For reasons that only incrementally become clear, Joe uses the last of his funds to take the
Belfast ferry to his small Irish village hometown and reunite with the sister, Anna (Helen Behan), whom he hasn’t seen in three decades. After her initial shock, she welcomes Joe into her family of three kids, and he’s immediately hired as a day worker on a building site by Anna’s understanding contractor husband, Michael (Frank Laverty).
Back in instinctually familiar surroundings, Joe’s traumatic childhood memories begin to resurface. How he was forcefully separated from Anna at age nine, and ran away from the nearby orphanage to which he was subsequently taken. But why? When he discovers one of his co-workers, Craigsy (Mark O’Halloran), remembers Joe from their days together at the institution, another piece falls into place. It isn’t until he forges a bond of sorts with Michael’s directionless sister, Dinah (Niamh Algar), herself grieving the child she gave up for adoption at 15, that truth comes flooding back. Joe’s knowledge prompts a reckoning for himself and Dinah.
Meadows and long-time This is England writing partner Jack Thorne fashioned the script from a random incident of sexual abuse the director endured as a child. Commenting on the repercussions such trauma can have on victims’ lives, Meadows told one interviewer:“It’s very easy to expect people to be virtuous, it’s very easy to judge. But someone who appears to be taking a ‘sinful’ path, addicted to substances or whatever, may be doing a lot better than you think, given circumstances. That’s what this story was really about, making you care about characters who on the surface appear pretty broken by showing you how they ended up there.”
As Joe, Graham does just that, imbuing his essentially decent everyman with a core strength that speaks simply and powerfully to the endurance of the human spirit in an unforgiving world. The Virtues is essential viewing.
The Virtues, streaming on Stan.