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I saw this film just a couple of days ago on the Hamburg Film Festival
together with a crowd of, say, only 50 other people with good taste. Okay,
French with English subtitles is not the usual stuff for most Germans
are used to dubbed films....
This film is about a boy, about this boy's father, this boy's father's friends and the story of their lives, set during WW II and the late 50s.
What I had expected was a drama or even a tragedy, very heavy and not easy to digest. What I got was a most wonderful film with light moments, sad ones, funny ones, heavy ones, and above all terrific actors. Namely Jacques Villeret and André Dussollier are amazing, there is great chemistry between them as best mates during difficult times.
I haven't read the book by Michel Quint which seems to be a best seller in France - that's what the director Jean Becker said, he was present at the screening I saw - but I leafed through it and I believe they changed a few characters' names...
Anyway, if you have the chance to see this rare jewel, do so! Even if stories from WW II are not your cup of tea, this one you shouldn't miss.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the only one of the recent spate of French films set in WW11 that employs the flashback. Ostensibly it is set vaguely in the 60s and finds teenager Damien Jouillerot hacked off at schoolteacher father Jacques Villeret, who persists in acting the clown both in the classroom and the annual fete. Cue Villeret's best friend, Andre Dussolier to set the kid straight which segues nicely into a flashback to the closing days of WW11. The three leads, Villeret, Dussolier and Thierry Lhermiite are given first names that correspond to their own and although I haven't read the novella on which it is based it would be stretching coincidence to somewhere just this side of Mindanao if the three principals just happened to be named Jacques, Andre and Thierry. Nevertheless the ensemble cast work together splendidly, not least the two femmes, Suzanne Flon and Isabelle Candelier. Despite the central premise - a wimpish father revealed to have a more substantial side, think Atticus Finch in 'To Kill A Mockingbird' - that verges on the clichéd the central performances and ever present warmth, charm, and ensemble playing (and if you've ever tried to play an ensemble you'll know how difficult it is) lift it out of the run of the milieu. The central revelation, that Villeret is, in effect, doing the act that a humane German guard performed when the trio (plus Benoit Magimal) were close to execution, even so far as using the same red nose that belonged to the German (who was himself executed by his comrades for failing to execute the quartet) is slipped in seamlessly and unobtrusively. Recommended.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The least that one can say about this film is that the subject matter is fairly original .... Sometime in the late fifties in the St Etienne area of France, a young lad is fed up with seeing his dad dress up as a clown at regular intervals. One day, when the boy is sufficiently of age, one of his dad's friends explains to him the origin of this practice .. during the German occupation of France, both his dad and his friend had sabotaged a signal box in an attempt to "do their bit" for the resistance movement. Unfortunately, they are rounded up by the Germans and thrown to the bottom of a big pit with a couple of others until the the those responsible for the sabotage come forward. During the time they spent at the bottom of the pit, one of the German guards befriends them - indeed he is hardly cut out to be a soldier, being more pacifist and above-all clown like. When ordered by his superiors to shoot the men at the bottom of the pit, he refuses to do so, and pays dearly for this refusal with his own life. On dying, his clown's (red) nose falls into the pit and is recuperated by one of the prisoners who is the boy's father ( played by the late and much missed Jacques Villeret ). This episode will forever mark Villeret's life, and his son, on learning this episode of his dad's life will henceforth see his father in a totally different light. So much for the script, which is based, I think, upon a novel. The film is generally very good - I found some passages overlong when our friends are at the bottom of the pit, plus the fact of people speaking in the dark ends up tiring me - but apart from this, the film is quite touching and I had tears in my eyes at the end - I don't know why exactly but it was probably due to the high level of emotion distilled generally rather than to one particular event. In addition to this the theme music is subtle and most agreable to listen to. I have always liked Villeret, Dussolier and Lhermitte as actors. As to Magimel, I had not before heard of him and liked him less than the others. The film is currently available on DVD in France at very cheap prices but from what I can see is not available in this medium elsewhere in the world. It seems to have been made in the village of Palussin in the Loire Department, not that far from LYon and getting on for the Drôme department. The scenes in the "pit" would appear, as far as I can make out, to have been made in the "Carrières Fayol" ( Fayol Company Quarries ) near to a place called Larnage which is slightly further south in the Drôme department and near to the city of Tournon. The sabotage of the signal box and other railway scenes were made in the Limousin area but I am not sure of what village ! Becker has made a number of films recently, not least "Les Enfants du Marais" which I found rather static and boring if visually pleasant, and the much better an more incisive 'Un Crime au Paradis" which from what I can gather, has more international renown than Effroyables Jardins and which is none other than a remake of the Sacha Guitry classic "Le POison".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
... also 'spoiled' in the following review. (Warning)
Indeed, "Strange Gardens" is bound to inspire the inevitable comparison as a poignant tragicomedy with WW2 as a backdrop. "Life is Beautiful" was about Guido, literally a guide preserving not only his son's life but his spirit in the worst possible setting: a death camp, using the only weapon he was blessed of : humor, the best of humanity against its worst, fair trade.
"Strange Gardens" is a no-less inspiring version of "Life is Beautiful" for it tells, in a flashback, during the Occupation, the story of Jacques, played by the late French actor with the lovable buffoon's face, Jacques Villeret and the misadventure he lived with his friends André (André Dussolier), Thierry (his no-nonsense partner in "The Dinner", Thierry Lhermitte) and a young resistant, Emile, played by Benoit Magimel. "Life is Beautiful" was narrated in flashback and that it was the son's adult voice didn't leave much for optimism regarding his father's fate. But in "Strange Gardens", we know they lived, but the point isn't about survival, but a life-changing experience.
The storyteller is André who just realized Jacques' son's embarrassment while his father was performing a clown number during a summer village festival. André explains the little boy that his father's vocation has a deeper meaning and the film's poster gives a clue (hopefully, someone will put it on IMDb) it's a red clown nose under a German soldier's helmet, a reminiscent of the Hippie sign and 'Born to Kill' in "Full Metal Jacket". We have the juxtaposition of the necessities of war and those of life, fighting versus laughing, something that divides and something that unites people. Surely, you can't be a soldier and a clown, and any German who'd rather act like a buffoon than a Nazi, is liable to be called a hero.
"Strange Gardens" intelligently puts a new perspective on the hackneyed concept of heroism. In the village of Douai, Jacques and André are two bachelor friends who try to live their life peacefully, but their virile pride is tickled when the local pretty girl Louise (Isabelle Candelier) expresses her admiration toward young men from the Resistance, who risk their life for their country. The two men desperately invoke self-preservation, and realism but they know, deep inside that a man not afraid to die is just too romantic for women's words. So like two bratty kids, they decide to have a little fun, and contribute to the Resistance. They make their bones by throwing a bottle of wine on a German train passing under the bridge and as they hide, they can feel the exhilaration.
So they go for a more ambitious and risky project, probably driven by the enthusiastic pride of having to tell that story to Louise. They sabotage a signal box with explosives, an old French railroad worker is injured, but they manage to run away. But as a common act of vengeance, the Germans pick four villagers as hostages; giving an ultimate chance to the saboteurs to reveal their identities. Ironically, André and Jacques are among the selected prisoners, besides Thierry, the insurance banker and the young Emile. They're all put in a deep clay pit; like the one Poitier and Curtis had to climb up in "The Defiant Ones", but the four men can't as the soil is too watery. They're literally stuck in the hole waiting for any help.
Some heroes, indeed who basically tried to be ones for wrong reasons: to impress a girl and then jeopardizing the lives of innocent men who were so honorable they couldn't even believe them when they admitted their guilt. But now, they're in a situation begging for a hero. And the first salvation cord will come from the most unlikely person: a German. Bendt (Bernard Collins) loves France perhaps as much as he loves life and joy and provides the four ill-fated friends a few tastes of sausages, wine, and fun through a slapstick performance, like a last good meal before the execution. They laugh together, brag about their cultural differences as if war never existed and at that point of the film, it hits the same sensitive chord as "Life is Beautiful", and instinctively, we feel there shall be a deadly cost for the four men's lives.
Indeed, the injured worker at the edge of death will volunteer to take the blame in order to save what he thinks are innocent people, but this sacrifice could've been useless as in the same time, German soldiers were already aiming their rifles at the four Frenchmen trying to cover from a certain death. Their life handed on a nick of time, still, enough time for Bendt to keep his rifle low, to disobey the orders and put his clown nose instead, as a last F-you to the whole crappiness of War. Bendt being shot had the same feeling than Guido's off-screen execution, two generous souls dying because they had to hide someone dear from an evil attention. This is what heroism is about, straightforward, disinterested and mercilessly lethal. Both the old worker and Bendt sacrificed themselves; and teach a lesson about the true meaning of heroism.
After the emotional climax, the movie tends to sustain more than the time needed; there had to be a scene where the two men admit their guilt to the worker's widow but their hesitation is rather awkward as you'd think they could at least had the guts to do something that didn't put their lives at stakes. Suzanne Fion, who plays the widow, forgives them with a look begging them to earn these sacrifices. This is why Jacques became a clown and why at the end, the kid finally smiles as he sees his father.
Like Villeret himself, Jacques uses his amicable rotund appearance to remind us that to laugh is the proper of a man, and as long as there are men
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film was recommended to me and it was "Film of the Week" in the
local TV guide. I saw the user rating of 7.0 and favourable user
comments on IMDb. All in all, I was expecting something pretty
I was very disappointed, right from the opening scene. With a title like "Strange Gardens" I expected a dreamy, semi-mystical atmosphere and pace; but what I got was a rather lame bit of slapstick comedy. For almost an hour I kept waiting for the film to snap itself together, but it never happened. The comical tone persisted even through the blowing up of the railway signal box and the fatal injuring of the innocent French railway employee. There were only three sequences that were handled seriously: the shooting of the humane German guard, the railwayman's wife's "exposure" of her husband, and the execution of the injured railwayman. At the end, when the troubled son has been told the story about his father, his conversion from rebellious ingrate to devoted son is ridiculously sudden and complete, and it also doesn't make sense. Apparently he's supposed to realise that his father is not just an ineffectual buffoon, but a man of bravery and substance; that is supposed to emerge from his father's heroics in the Resistance. But what heroics? For 6 years prior to the Allied invasion on D-Day, the father has done precisely nothing to resist the occupying Germans. Then, when he and his mate and their girlfriend hear that the Allies have landed, they decide to sabotage the railway, without any real idea of how to do it. They manage to pull it off, thanks to an incompetent German guard and a lot of luck, but they fatally injure an old and innocent French railwayman in the process, having forgotten about him. Then they are rounded up as hostages with two others, all four having been chosen at random. They will be shot unless someone confesses to the crime. Do they confess and save their innocent comrades? No. The railwayman, knowing he is going to die anyway, falsely confesses and saves their skin.
So where's the heroism? If I had been the man's son and heard that story, I think I would have regarded it as confirmation that my father was every bit the idiot I had always thought him.
Quite a lot could have been made of that basic plot. Jean Becker, unfortunately, made little or nothing of it.
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