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Each new year comes with tantalising scope for self reinvention. The turn of the calendar presents an illusory milestone that lures many of us into hoping we can somehow force a step-change in our character or situation that will bring us closer to being the person we really want to be.
Yet, however big or small the resolutions we make for ourselves, the change is fraught with the pitfalls of simply relaxing back into the person it’s always been easy to be – with the same shortcomings and neuroses.
In films, turning over a new leaf comes so much easier. All the same pitfalls and setbacks are there, of course, but the arc of a satisfying story depends on forward movement and the sense that the characters are ending in a different place from where they began. Hopes can and will be fulfilled.
In Eric Rohmer’s spellbinding 1986 film The Green Ray, change comes not in January but at the height of summer. Parisian secretary Delphine (Marie Rivière) has been dumped by her boyfriend just prior to holiday season. Her plans abandoned, she flits from one destination to another, joining friends, striking off on her own – but it seems there’s nothing anyone can do to awaken her from her sadness and sense of isolation.
It’s easy to take against Delphine. She’s self-absorbed and prickly to engage with – refusing to do much to help her situation. But therein lies the truthfulness of her character. Despondency makes a mountain of starting over and pulling your own socks up.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
Yet, while completely naturalistic in its 16mm filming and improvised acting, there’s a sublime, almost mystical feel to Rohmer’s film. It’s something about the wind in the trees, and the playing cards that Delphine finds from time to time abandoned in the street. And hope will come in the strangest place: in an overheard conversation about an optical illusion (the ‘green ray’ of the title) which – on rare occasions – can be glimpsed as the sun sets over the sea.
When, like Rohmer’s heroine, you need inspiration for taking a new step, these 10 films offer 10 possible paths to fresh horizons.
Walk Cheerfully (1930)
Director Yasujiro Ozu
Starting anew, shaking off bad influences, and forming healthier, more law-abiding habits requires motivation. And there’s no stronger motivation than love. For Kenji, the small-time gangster hero of Ozu’s silent film Walk Cheerfully, the glimpse of a kimono-clad good girl is enough to tip him on to the straight and narrow. That’s the thrust of this beguiling, stylish movie, which the director summed up as the story of “a delinquent who goes straight”.
While the path of true love, and reformation, throws up obstacles and detours, the lesson of Ozu’s film is that starting over is not a solitary process. Kenji’s attempt to extricate himself his circles of hoodlums and harlots and join his beloved’s small family has consequences for those around him. Will his partners in crime be forced to go straight alongside him? Will his new lady-love be violently dragged in to his old world? We expect family fragmentation dramas from Ozu, and Walk Cheerfully is no exception.
Billy Liar (1963)
Director John Schlesinger
Sometimes it takes more courage to resist the temptation of starting anew than it does to take the plunge. Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) has nothing to lose in joining Liz (Julie Christie) on the night train to London, as he has burned so many bridges in his dreary northern town. However, he knows that his boast of becoming a scriptwriter for comedian Danny Boon (Leslie Randall) is as empty as his promise to abandon his imaginary world of Ambrosia.
Thus, Billy would rather try to put things right with his despairing parents, risk the ire of two deceived fiancées and face the music with the employers he robbed than grow up and commit to a meaningful relationship. It may be hard in our celebrity-obsessed era to empathise with a daydreamer who would rather live out his fantasies in his imagination than on a talent show or social media site. But there is much to commend in starting again while staying put.
The Big City (1963)
Director Satyajit Ray
How does work transform a woman? From Mildred Pierce (1945) to Working Girl (1988), women’s journeys from the inside to the outside of the home – into the world of money and influence – can be both empowering and destabilising. In Satyajit Ray’s wonderfully compassionate film The Big City (Mahanagar), his central character, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), lives a modest and conservative domestic existence with her husband, son and in-laws. Her duty is to be at home, her husband’s is to be at work, but when their limited finances become overstretched, Arati fearfully takes a bold step into the world of paid employment.
As she finds a new agency in the fortunes of her family, her quiet transformation has a profound and troubling effect on everyone around her. Ray based his film on a shift that occurred in Bengal in the 1950s when increasing numbers of middle-class housewives began to take up jobs, but his focus is on the significance of the smallest of changes. From Arati’s first glide of lipstick (at a time when it was frowned upon for respectable Indian women to wear colour on their lips) to the thrill of her very first pay packet, Ray effortlessly captures the pleasures and pains of Arati’s foray into independence.
My Fair Lady (1964)
Director George Cukor
Set in Edwardian London, My Fair Lady tells the story of Covent Garden flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), whose thick Cockney accent attracts the attention of phonetics expert Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison). On a bet, Higgins vows to transform Eliza from a “deliciously low” street urchin into a proper lady. Using bullying and insults, he forces her to practice speaking until “proper English” flows effortlessly from her lips and she’s presented in high society without revealing her lowly origins.
Eliza’s transformation is a success, but she’s not the only one who ends up turning a new leaf. When she becomes fed up with Higgins’ ill treatment, the professor realises he can’t live without her, thus proving even classist curmudgeons are capable of discovering what really matters in life.
Winner of the 1964 best picture Oscar, George Cukor’s musical screen adaptation of Lerner and Lowe’s Broadway hit (based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw) is a classic rags-to-riches tale presented with colourful, toe-tapping gusto. It remains a favourite of old Hollywood musical aficionados.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Director Martin Scorsese
Following the death of her husband – a sudden end to a loveless marriage – Alice sets out for her hometown in Monterey, the last place she remembers being happy. Ellen Burstyn’s Alice is adamant; she will not swerve off-course. She’s like one of Toussaint rancher David’s persevering cows that get electrocuted reaching after apples on the other side of the fence: “They can smell them”, he tells her.
It gives Alice an almighty earache to have to admit that “starting over” might mean settling: not compromising, but pulling in and putting down her packing case – alongside a man she loves and who loves her, the chance to pick up her singing career, and a motor-mouth friend for her motor-mouth son in Toussaint.
We’re all of us capable of fixing (and fixating) on a resting-place up ahead in the future – a new career in a new town – living truck stop to truck stop till we get there. Fewer of us know when to let it go, even as it shows itself an ignis fatuus, a fantasy. As in Alice’s case, turning over a new leaf may mean opening our eyes to what’s under our noses: a wellspring in the present.
The Passenger (1975)
Director Michelangelo Antonioni
Here’s an idea for making a fresh start: slip into somebody else’s life, leaving your own identity abandoned like a rejected outfit crumpled on a changing-room floor. Become a passenger, like Jack Nicholson’s disillusioned reporter David Locke in this existential thriller from 1975.
A TV journalist making a documentary on post-colonial Africa, Locke sees a window of opportunity when a fellow guest at his hotel dies suddenly. So Locke simply borrows another life, doctoring the dead man’s passport so that it’s Locke whose death is reported back home. In this beguiling premise, Locke is set adrift from any of his prior responsibilities, emotional or professional. But – now in possession of another man’s appointment book – he lets his curiosity take him into dangerous new waters, and eventually to a rendezvous at a hotel in Andalucia where he must keep in mind what cats have long known about curiosity.
Not perhaps a model we should all adopt when attempting to turn over a new leaf – but Antonioni’s endlessly mysterious film resonates with the notion that each film we watch is a vehicle of escape, a life tried on for size.
The Unbelievable Truth (1989)
Director Hal Hartley
“People are only as good as the deals they make and keep,” utters Audry (Adrienne Shelly) in a rare piercing moment amid the deadpan dialogue of Hal Hartley’s first feature. She’s talking to Josh (Robert Burke), who is recently out of jail; for him, making a quick deal is a way of building temporary bridges. Audry’s father, a garage owner who places his every breath in verbal contracts, entrusts Josh with work as a mechanic, but not with seeing his infatuated daughter, and he constructs a deal to keep them at arm’s length.
Within a world that is constantly in swing, however, Hartley shows the absurdity of these commitments, and it seems every binding handshake is subject to change. As the townsfolk converge in the film’s finale, moving in circles, marooned by contradictory statements, what remains relevant are the lasting unspoken trades and exchanges between Audry and Josh. The pair elevate themselves with the realisation that to begin a different, progressive life together, their faith is best placed, not in believable lies or unbelievable truths, but in intuition and in heart.
Shirley Valentine (1989)
Director Lewis Gilbert
Lewis Gilbert’s witty film of Willy Russell’s play saw an Oscar-nominated Pauline Collins reprise her role as the eponymous free spirit trapped in the body of a downtrodden housewife. With only her kitchen wall for a conversation partner, Shirley spends the film’s first half fixing up a desultory dinner of chips ‘n’ egg for her cantankerous husband Joe (Bernard Hill), all the while weighing up the pros of escaping to Greece for a fortnight break. Shirley takes the plunge, and while abroad finds comfort in the arms of a Greek lothario (Tom Conti), and, refreshingly, succour in solitude.
Russell’s script is sharp on how women and men alike become trapped in gendered social roles, while Collins commands the screen with a light touch and an impressive emotional range. Best of all, the film, like Shirley, never loses the courage of its convictions: when the credits roll, our heroine remains in Greece, committed to her new life – Joe, to his credit, has travelled in an attempt to win her back, but their reconnection is left, deliberately, as a mere possibility. Valentine’s new beginning is no false dawn.
Groundhog Day (1993)
Director Harold Ramis
Bill Murray has form when it comes to drastic life overhauls: he’s been a slacker turned army conscript in Stripes (1981), a bogus scientist turned city saviour in Ghostbusters (1984), and a Dickensian villain given a supernatural scolding in Scrooged (1988). In Harold Ramis’s droll existential comedy, the cosmos again appears as a corrective force for goodwill, punishing Murray’s acid-tongued weatherman Phil Connors for his misanthropy by forcing him to relive the same day endlessly.
Here, the notion of a fresh start is paradoxical in nature: Phil is granted seemingly infinite pushes of the reset button, yet remains shackled by the predictable mechanics of his looping 24 hours. Even death offers no exit, merely a fast-track rewind to the taunting wake-up call of ‘I Got You Babe’ on breakfast radio. Suspended in the purgatory of snowy Punxsutawney, this eye-rolling Sisyphus experiences denial, despair, delusions of grandeur (“I’m a god”, he tells eventual romantic interest Andie McDowell) – and finally, inspiration. Phil’s temporal snafu magnifies the difficulty of starting over: do we succumb to a rote existence or challenge it and truly change ourselves?
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Director Sharon Maguire
The idea of starting anew is never more concisely condensed than in the makeover montage. Bridget Jones’s Diary’s peripeteia is no exception, and sees writer Helen Fielding’s eponymous protagonist choose not to “accept a permanent state of spinsterhood” (and topple heroically off an exercise bike). Instead, she decides to take charge of her life, swapping her career in publishing for one in television and replacing one set of new age dating manuals (‘How to Make Men Want What They Don’t Think They Want’) with another (‘Women Who Love Men Are Mad’), in a montage set to Chaka Kahn’s ‘I’m Every Woman’.
Witty, romantic and, more than 10 years on, still searingly funny, Bridget Jones’s Diary transplants the post-feminist politics of Sex and the City from New York to Richard Curtis’s Blairite Britain, asking whether the modern working woman really can have it all. Bookended by two New Years Eve’s, the film sees Bridget (Renée Zellweger) retain agency, undergoing a real heroine’s journey; a rare feat for a romantic comedy character.