When asked what drew her to the darkly comedic neo-noir thriller The Lesson, director Alice Troughton says, "I think everybody sees something different in it, which is one of its best qualities." The film is a single-location thriller about an aspiring novelist (Daryl McCormack) who gets the opportunity to tutor the son of his literary hero (Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant). Before long, the young writer finds himself caught up in a surprising mystery involving his idol's latest novel.
The Lesson marks Troughton's feature directorial debut, and she says that she was intentional in choosing a project within the noir genre. "I've always loved trying to knock down genre doors that women historically haven't been allowed through. Before I started The Lesson, I think I thought that noirs had to be terribly poe-faced and straight down the line, and then I realized I was wrong."
At the center of The Lesson is the nagging sense of imposter syndrome that plagues both Grant and McCormack's characters. One would be forgiven for assuming the theme struck a similar chord with the film's director. "I think there are things you do that are an act of will, and as an act of will, I refuse to have imposter syndrome," Troughton says. "Female directors still only make up 18 percent of our field's work populace, so it's easy for someone else to try to undermine me. The people around me have more power. They've got 80 percent of the films.”
"In the end, I can't be bothered to play the imposter syndrome game," she reasons. "I'm really happy making movies, and nobody is going to make me feel like I can't do that."
While she doesn't relate to the sense of artistic uncertainty that pervades much of The Lesson, Troughton does connect a bit more deeply, albeit not literally, to its themes of creative theft. "I don't ever steal directly, not unless I'm doing it very self-consciously. But I am being influenced all the time," she explains. "I'm always keen to research the genre of a project before I go into it. At least that way, I know what rules to break if I'm going to break any."
With that in mind, Troughton cites everything from Bong Joon-ho's Parasite to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining among the various inspirations for her new film. Below, the director shares with A.frame the five movies that most influenced The Lesson.
Directed by: J. Lee Thompson | Written by: John Cresswell and Joan Henry
A gripping capital punishment, British noir classic starring Diana Dors as a woman awaiting execution for murder. This film is actually featured in The Lesson during a scene where Richard E. Grant's Sinclair and Daryl McCormack's Liam eye each other up with suspicion and intent. Blonde Sinner underpins the development of those characters' rivalry and hints at where it might lead, and it also shows the classic noir femme fatale in action, which similarly ties back into The Lesson's plot.
The film's visual language — its Dutch framing and extreme close-ups — are all echoed in our film's framing. The diegetic use of the opening brass band that adds so much tension to Blonde Sinner's central murder also builds in our film and actually passes through Richard E. Grant at one point, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Dors is not shown in full until she commits the murder, passing elliptically through the frames to create intrigue, and this was something we paid homage to as well. As Peter Bradshaw wrote when re-reviewing this classic, 'There is a terrible power in its descent of darkness.'
Directed by: Ida Lupino | Written by: Collier Young and Ida Lupino
Of course, we could spend hours talking about Ida, acknowledged as one of the foremost female directors of the 1950s and '60s — not that there was a long list to choose from. She was prolific and skilled, and that shows in the directorial craft in this incredibly tense, murderous two-hander, which features fantastic performances and a real understanding of craft. It was also a hit film when it was released, proving that women can direct action and genre movies and could do so 80 years ago, despite this being a question we female directors still get asked at most meetings. This is, unfortunately, the only noir that was directed by a woman during the genre’s heyday.
Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky | Written by: Fridrikh Gorenshteyn and Andrei Tarkovsky
We looked at this more for its style and mood rather than any direct connections, although Tarkovsky laughed in the face of being bound by genre. His images, style, and tone inspired us. In Solaris, he creates a ghostly tip-of-the-tongue feel, a lurks-just-round-the-corner vibe. My director of photography, Anna Patarakina, is Russian, so we ended up watching a lot of Tarkovsky and were both huge fans of Solaris’ sun-drenched 16mm look and the film’s use of brave, long-developing shots — what we call c**k-swinging oners in the industry, as so many directors have tried them and failed. We didn't try a huge one ourselves but just enjoyed playing with the technique, and it’s true that it takes real nerve to construct and let such shots play out. Solaris, particularly its opening, felt really relevant to us with its use of sunlight, water, menace, foreshadowing in nature, repetition of images, and a house that feels almost identical to our location. Every shot is a classic, but never a self-conscious one.
Written and Directed by: Bruce Robinson
How can this not be on the list of influences? I've lived and loved and quoted this film for years and have just introduced my son to it, too. 'We've gone on holiday by mistake' has entered our collective family vocabulary. But it's not merely a straight comedy, Bruce Robinson is far too clever and dark for that. In the end, we are fully in a tragedy, the broken end of a love story, and that’s when Richard E. Grant gives the best rendition of Hamlet's 'What a piece of work is a man' I have ever seen. It's haunted me for years.
Directed by: Billy Wilder | Written by: Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz
While we were making The Lesson, we loved watching Billy Wilder, an astute psychological director who bounced with alacrity between genres and who pioneered the same juxtaposition of dark humor with the noir genre’s typical archetypes that we really wanted to capture. He knew and loved the femme fatale and, in this film, shows he is the master of the rug-pull plot twist, like the one in The Lesson (she says as she crosses all fingers). I'm an Agatha Christie uberfan, so I have lived and loved this film for many moons. I was also reassured by reading that Wilder didn't believe in pigeonholing films or directors, and always just set out to make as good a film as possible. As the man himself once said, 'If you have any kind of style, the discerning ones will detect it.'