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Rue Tartarin (1980)
Angst in the slums
One night, a few friends meet in a house to play cards. End of the plot. For sure, the interest does not lie in the "action". Can this be called a slice of life then? Well, yes, in a way. But, if I may put it so, a slice of "bitter life", or should I say a bitter slice of life? To begin with, "Rue Tartarin" does not take place anytime and anywhere and the characters are not ordinary people leading an uneventful life. The year is 1957 ; the house is a rickety hut built as best as possible in the shantytown of Nanterre somewhere in the Paris region. As for the protagonists, they are Algerian immigrants who try desperately to have a good time together. For them indeed, fun is a hard thing to get: how can they actually concentrate on their game when they are both assaulted by nostalgia and distressed by the future of their native country (will Algeria ever become independent; and if it does, will things really improve?)... And how not to feel worried when the Citroën Traction Avant of the French police regularly prowls by?... To say nothing of their "brothers" who, outside their shaky walls, settle their scores and execute so-said traitors...
Yet, at the end of the film, nothing has really happened to the characters (although one of them does court disaster at a time). However this lack of strong storyline has not prevented your interest from being kept aroused to the end. Which goes to show, if it were still necessary, that action is not everything. Otherwise, Okacha Touita's short would not leave such a lasting impression on you: you do not escape unscathed from the heavy insidious atmosphere the director has immersed you in. Admitted, tragedy has not struck the characters directly but is that such good news ? Doesn't the threat remain in the air unchanged?
Another great quality is Touita's choice to deal with a too often overlooked aspect of the Algerian War, namely the infighting between the two main Liberation Movements, the National Liberation Front (FLN) vs. the Algerian National Movement (MLN), which only added fear and terror to that spread by the French Army. A courageous point of view, of course ill thought of by the almighty FLN in power, which Touita illustrated to more length and more clearly in his feature film on the same subject "Les Sacrifiés" made three years later. Which is also the reason why Touita, always prone to examine subjects disturbing for the party, could not shoot films in Algeria for years.
The only defect of this impressive insight into the life of Algerian immigrants in the late 50s may be its lack of clarity. Which first originates from the elocution of the actors, who express themselves in turns in Algerian Arabic and in accented French; and that does not help those who do not speak Arabic. The second problem concerns the historical background which remains vague and therefore confusing. Of course, it can very well be an artistic choice meant to best capture the bewilderment that prevails in the protagonists' minds. Well, quality or defect, it will be for you to decide!
Whatever the case may be, "Rue Tartarin" is an interesting piece of filming which goes off the beaten track and is accordingly worth seeing.
La nuit sera longue (2003)
A divorced father spending one Saturday at an amusement park with his estranged kid - the theme has been visited and revisited by huge numbers of filmmakers, but although being the umpteenth movie dealing with the subject "La nuit sera longue", a medium-length film written, directed and starring Olivier Torres, has nothing trite. It stands out on the contrary. And this thanks to its two strong points, its radical approach of unassumed paternity and the muffled violence of its tone. Set in the space of a single day, from dawn till dusk, this bitter chronicle concerns Jean, an offhand would-be writer waking up with one of his numerous one-night stands, literally kicking her out of his apartment, then fetching his little boy Simon at his former wife's, taking him to the Jardin d'Acclimatation (both a zoo and an amusement park) in the Bois de Boulogne, until finally driving him back late to his furious mother and getting back home ready for a long, lonely night... On the face of such summary, you realize at once that it is not in the "action" as such that you will find excitement. This is a slice of life, not a thriller! But even without car chases,explosion and plot twist, your attention is sustained throughout, mainly through the twofold portrait it draws, one subtle and nuanced (of Simon, the little boy), the other accusatory ( of Jean, the thoughtless self-centered father). Showing sympathy for Simon's helplessness (supposed to have a good time for his outing, he will be seen left to himself several times, drink beer, vomit the meal he shared with his father, go to bed in the deleterious atmosphere of a row...), Olivier Torres charges Jean with all the sins possible (indolent and full of himself, he has no sense of responsibility : not only is picking up girls and bedding them much more important to him than taking care of Simon but he dares scold for the bad things he did during his absence). The action in fact is the product of your mind as you can't help experiencing strong feelings while watching the film, mainly of pity (for Simon) and revolt (against Jean). At the same time, Olivier Torres deftly avoids over- simplification. Simon on the one hand is not an absolute cutie, he is an ordinary child who makes mistakes, who rails insults at his dad behind his back while, for his part, Jean, has a certain charm and is not openly detestable, at least at first sight.
On the whole "La nuit sera longue" is filmed without ostentatious effects, which does not mean without style. Torres places this pseudo idyllic outing to the park in a context of snow and biting cold, quite in keeping with the father's lack of human warmth. Superbly captured by Caroline Champetier's cinematography, the Jardin d'Acclimatation, frozen by winter, exudes a mournful melancholia. The director also makes the most of the fairground attractions (the hall of mirrors, the shooting gallery, the merry-go-round) and the zoo animals which he films in such a way as to make them rather threatening than recreational. But, as I said before, all these impressions are rendered with discreet efficiency. Nothing to do with German Expressionism!
And icing on the cake, "La nuit sera longue" is graced with two excellent performances, that of Olivier Torres himself, who portrays the indignant father with remarkable restraint, and of Lou Rambert-Preiss as his son, who under the direction of the former, manages to hit the right note in each of his scenes. Both have (quite rightly) been given a joint best actor award at the Gruissan Film Festival. Recommended.
Vain quest of a vein of gold ore
At the time when it was released - right in the middle of August - both in Germany and in France, Thomas Arslan's seventh film, 'Gold', appeared as the ugly duckling puddling clumsily around the pond of Summer movies. No cheap thrills, no big gags, no sultry scenes in this German UFO. Nothing about it to draw huge audiences. To begin with, it is a western, once a popular genre but today the ghost of what it used to be, at least in terms of box office (with the notable recent exception of 'Django Unchained'). Even worse, once again as far as box office is concerned, it is spoken in... Goethe's language! Okay, laugh you cynical money grabbers while it is still time! As for me, I would not be so surprised if this unusual effort should become a classic in the years to come. Agreed, associating the terms "German" and "western" looks incongruous at first sight but let's not forget there HAVE BEEN German "cowboy movies" before, mainly in the 1960's. Of course at the time they were generally nothing but undemanding adventure films meant for the young public, most of the time shot in Yugoslavia and aspiring to nothing higher than "to entertain". Whereas in the present case the ambition is different and while the end credits roll the viewer is now assured that the words "German" and western" can go together quite well. For 'Gold' is a little gem of a western movie, which is made apparent as of the first minutes through the feeling of authenticity it generates. For one thing, Arslan's rough and uncompromising work is shot entirely on location: all the places shown or mentioned (Baskerville, Clinton, Goldbridge as well as the wastelands of British Columbia) are the real ones. Moreover, the writer-director has worked from actual documents of the time (the Yukon gold rush of 1898), among which photographs, newspaper articles and pioneers' diaries. All that is shown is therefore realistic, not to say hyper realistic, from the horse tack to the weapons to the costumes to the train. Such a serious approach is commendable and would suffice to make 'Gold' a good film but there is even more to it than the true-to-life account of the journey of a group of German gold diggers, namely an allegoric dimension. Indeed, Beyond the facts reported lies a fable about the futility of man's efforts. Driven by the lust to get rich quick, the seven characters (with the one exception of the determined female hero... but for how long?) ride and suffer only to give up or die in the end. A sense of utter absurdity is thus gradually built, reinforced by the structure of the movie (almost all the protagonists disappear one by one in the manner of an Agatha Christie whodunit). I am pretty sure John Huston would have liked 'Gold' even if its tone is yet more pessimistic than his (for Huston, the final goal is absurd, only the adventure is worth living whereas for Arslan, the whole thing is purposeless). Well made, well interpreted by competent German actors (among whom Nina Hoss as the dark, untamed Emily Meyer), 'Gold' is an excellent surprise. Not totally flawless (a faster pace would not have gone amiss), it is nevertheless an outstanding achievement in its category. And quite an unexpected one at that!
Maguy: Maguy rock (1991)
low, low, low grade humor
Just appalling. Not that "Maguy", the popular French sitcom, is of a high quality, but with this episode, the series really hits rock bottom. "Maguy Rock", the title of episode 271, is indeed of the worst kind. It is grossly overacted by all the performers (with the notable exception of Sophie Artur though) and the laugh track does not help, quite the contrary. Everybody tries so hard to cheer us that it has the opposite effect, at least on me: from the first to the very last second I can say I could not help splitting my sides... NOT laughing! For a comedy to hit home, there are two conditions: first, it must be based on an effect of surprise; second, it should not be foreign to the reality experienced by the viewer. Which is exactly what this TV episode does not do. For starters, do not expect any astonishment here: there is not one comic effect that is not worn out. The basic misunderstanding device, for instance, on which the episode lies has been used and abused since ancient Greek comedy. Which did not prevent Elisabeth Alexandre, the writer, from using and abusing it: at the outset of her "story", she lets us know that Caro, Maguy's daughter, has put on weight recently, that she feels sick and has her say on the phone that she is two months late. Guess then what is her grandmother's conclusion...: Well done, you win: Caro is pregnant. How original! How hilarious! And as concerns the link with reality, there is none: Maguy and the other protagonists are nothing but puppets gesticulating foolishly. As for the satire of rockers, which could have had a connection with reality, it is so pathetic (the moronic pot-bellied lead singer; the stupid songs the band performs) that it raffles your feathers rather than make you laugh. To make a long story short, "Maguy Rock" is a bomb. To be avoided at all cost.
Un heureux événement (2011)
Event yes ! But happy... ?
UN HEUREUX EVENEMENT
Adapted from Eliane Abecassis' (very) autobiographical novel recounting her own (rather sour) experience of pregnancy and baby raising, "Un heureux événement" (A Happy Event) cannot be called a feelgood movie but it is an interesting one nonetheless provided of course you are not an expecting woman, a future dad or simply someone fainthearted. For the main quality of director Rémi Bezançon (whose former film was the excellent "Le premier jour du reste de ta vie") is his full frontal approach to the subject, without any false prudery or watering down.
"Un heureux événement" (quite an ironic title since, as exemplified here, having a baby is not necessarily an experience in keeping with the "happy event" cliché) deals with the case of Barbara (Louise Bourgoin), a philosophy student doing a doctoral thesis, who, after falling in love with Nicolas (Pio Marmaï), finds herself with child. Not that she is a born mother (she is even a dedicated feminist) but love changes everything, which leads her to grant Nicolas' desire to keep the baby. Of course she has no experience in the field but she is determined to practice learning by doing: how to be a pregnant woman, how to prepare for childbirth, how to go through the stages of labor and baby delivery and how to become a parent. Not an easy path for sure but one that millions of first-time mothers follow more or less overcome with anguish but successfully in the end. And this is what what would normally happen to Barbara who, with this wonderful gift, hopes to make her companion happy. Alas! Nicolas gradually turns from Prince Charming to Naughty Brat unable to hold his responsibilities, a bit like those kids who ask for a pet without the least notion of all the investment which goes with it, leaving it to their parents. From then on, Barbara (as well as her couple) sinks into the doldrums and the "happy event" gradually turns into a dreadful burden.
If you have seen "Le premier jour du reste de ta vie", you will certainly find this movie less inventive and original. In the former film, Remi Bezançon had managed to tell the story of a singular family presented successively by its five members, each one reporting a key event filtered through their own subjectivity. Here, there is only one point of view (Barbara's) and the story is told in chronological order, without the fancy displayed in the former work (one exception though: a weird nightmare sequence). But this does not mean that the director has lost his creative sense. The unsophisticated form is actually a deliberate artistic choice, Bezançon's camera following Barbara's slow but implacable descent into hell from the beginning to its close in a documentary-like way, with nothing to distract the viewer. Which makes his film a dour realistic work whose uncompromising approach may account for its mixed results at the box office. But it is also a film that rings true (Eliette Abecassis knows what she is talking about), very well interpreted by Lise Bourgoin who, despite (or maybe because) her personal lack of experience of motherhood, is totally and courageously invested in her role. Heartthrob Pio Marmai is very good too in his embodiment of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" as defined by Milan Kundera.
Not a pleasant film experience, as I wrote before (but must the arts always please us?), "Un heureux événement" is a worthwhile one though, at least for those whose defense mechanisms are strong enough to stand it.
Pleasant beginning for a nice series
The first installment of "Au siècle de Maupassant: Contes et nouvelles du XIXème siècle" is an adaptation of "La Cagnotte" (The Piggy Bank), Eugène Labiche and Alfred Delacour's hilarious comedy in five acts. It is a good choice insofar as it already brings together the qualities which will characterize the whole series. Stylishly produced by Gérard Jourd'hui, its episodes are always based on well chosen works (by Balzac, Barbey d'Aurevilly, Hugo, Zola, Jules Renard among others) while being directed by competent filmmakers (Chabrol, Heynemann, Schatzky, Verhaeghe,...). They also benefit from good historical recreation (neither too cheap nor too ostentatious) and constitute a showcase for fine actors (Didier Bourdon, Mathilda May, Pierre Arditi, Michel Duchaussoy, Romane Bohringer, Michel Duchaussoy, Philippe Torreton...), often cast against type. To make a long story short, "Au siècle de Maupassant" is synonymous with good quality entertainment satisfying for any category of viewer, whether high or lowbrow.
To introduce the series, the producer has quite rightly opted for comedy, but of course not any type of comedy. For sure the tone of the play is light and the mishaps the characters go through produce laughter but the laughs "La Cagnotte" generates are never gratuitous. Sight gags or mere puns are never good enough for Labiche whose taste for satire is well known; what he really aims in his works is to criticize the petty-bourgeois attitudes of his characters, and by extension the low-grade "values" of the whole society. Which is exemplified in "La Cagnotte" by the group of friends from La Ferté- sous-Jouarre whose tribulations it depicts : if they find themselves in trouble during their weekend of "pleasure" in Paris, it is only themselves they have to blame. It is indeed their arrogant self- satisfaction that leads them to catastrophe. Or almost..., since thank God this is a comedy not a naturalist drama!
With made-for-TV"La Cagnotte", you are entitled to a well-crafted product, directed by one of those competent filmmakers mentioned above, in this case Philippe Monnier, and interpreted by a cast that ventures off the beaten path. French rocker Eddy Mitchell is not the obvious choice for the role of Champbourcy, a nineteenth century annuitant who takes himself seriously, but his performance is so convincing that after one minute or two, you easily forget who he is in real life. Likewise, Philippe Chevallier and Alain Doutey would probably not be the first choice of a casting director, but as two local notables, friends of Champbourcy, they are perfect. In lesser roles, Gilles Droit as harassed police commissioner Béchut and Ivan Cori, as dignified farmer Colladan's unworthy son, also stand out.
The direction is vivid, the angles and settings (a few exteriors are filmed in historical Le Mans) are more varied than for a stage performance. As for the script, it has been aptly reduced to the 60 minute format by veteran Jean-Charles Tacchella. Of course some secondary characters (the tax collector, the grocer, the greengrocer...) have disappeared in the process but the spirit of the play has not been betrayed. A last good point, common to the whole series, is the intelligent use of music of the past to illustrate the story. In this case, who could have been more in harmony with the superficial characters willing to live the Parisian life than... Jacques Offenbach?
I recommend "La Cagnotte". It is the well done first episode of a worthwhile series. which will probably make you wish to see all of it.
Déi zwéi vum Bierg (1985)
War days in Luxembourg
"Déi Zwéi vum Bierg" is a (very cheap) production made by unknown directors (Mann Bodson, Marc Ollinger & Gast Rollinger) in one of the tiniest countries in the world (Luxembourg), boasting neither star attraction nor great action scenes. And yet watching this 'little' TV film proves quite a rewarding experience. How has such a miracle been possible? First thanks to Henri Losch's script (the chronicle of the lives of two friends in a small village near the Belgian border), which soon proves far more high reaching than one could have thought. To begin with, it is set in the past and thus entails a minimum of historical reconstruction ; even more demanding is the fact that it spans the four years and a half of the most troubled period of the Twentieth Century Luxembourg went through. Having the action open with the celebration of New Year's Eve on 31 December 1939 and close after the end of hostilities is evidence that Henri Losch and the directors display great ambition. Not only are they bold enough to span the whole war period, complete with the times of prewar threat, the Nazi Occupation and its attendant woes (including the choice of collaboration, resistance or the wait-and-see approach) but they also illustrate the immediate postwar era, its joys and (which is less common in most war movies) its painful aftermath. This way they manage to make the village, although described with scrupulous authenticity, a microcosm emblematic of the whole Grand- Duchy of Luxembourg and by extension of any occupied country in the world. But if the stakes are high, ambition alone does not make a good work of art unless an artist lives up to it. Well, it must be said, Losch, Bodson, Ollinger & Rollinger, for all their Poverty Row budget, do not show themselves unworthy of their subject . Of course this is not "The Longest Day" or, to be more relevant geographically, "The Battle of the Bulge", but the oppression of war IS palpable on the screen from the first to the very last minute. The presence of the Gestapo and its collaborators, arrests and deaths are enough to burden the atmosphere. Epic battles would surely have been spectacular but would have added nothing to the funereal ambiance that pervades the whole film, including during the final "happy" chapter. All the actors, professional or not, provide a globally satisfactory performance, particularly Christian Kmiotek and Fernand Mathes as Mill and Felten, the two young villagers who have sworn to stand by each other through thick and thin. Also convincing are Henri Losch (the screenwriter) as the vicar and Fernand Fox as Jemp, the collaborator- out-of-weakness. But the award goes to the talented Marie-Christine Faber who successfully makes her character (Jemp's German-born wife and dedicated Nazi follower) a hateful creature. All in all, "Déi Zwéi vum Bierg" is the striking demonstration that you can achieve something if you really believe in it. If you do not have much money then do like the makers of this movie, put all your heart in it, mobilize the energies all the people of good will around you and go for it! Money may be the sinews of war but is in no way an absolute necessity.
Les ennemis (1962)
Little known spy movie, unpretentious but not without qualities
Made just before the great spy movie wave of the sixties, 'Les Ennemis' (A Touch of Treason) is typical of the genre which was to sweep the screens only a few months after its release, beginning with 'Dr. No'. Halfway between the unbridled fantasy of the James Bond saga and the ruthless toughness of 'The Spy Who Came In from the Cold', Molinaro's first foray into the world of espionage (he would return to the genre six years later with 'Peau d'espion') is very much a product of its time, quite pleasant if not revolutionary.
Based on an obscure novel by Fred Noro, the plot is as embroiled as a spy story should be, one of the pleasures of the viewer being to try and unravel the tangle it forms. The whole thing revolves around a certain Andrei Smoloff, the cultural attaché at the Soviet Embassy, from whom reputedly undecipherable documents have been stolen. Has the diplomat simply been imprudent or is he a traitor to his motherland preparing to defect to the West ? Such is the question to which both Borghine, the Chief of the Soviet Services, and Captain Jean de Lursac accompanied by his teammate Vigo, two agents of the French Intelligence, try to figure out an answer, each on their own. It goes without saying that before the riddle is solved we will have been witness to the fierce struggle waged between the French, Soviet and American counter-espionage, their objective in the circumstances of the story being to trace Smoloff and to be the first to get their hands on the missing documents.
Nothing startlingly new in all that for sure but the film is well put together, skilfully combining fast-paced rhythm, humor and an ounce of gravity. The same thing could be said about the "buddy cop movie" gimmick the film rests on: it can hardly be called original as we know from the very first minute that the two teammates will be at each other's throats throughout their mission while remaining inseparable! But the duo works well and a good time in their company is guaranteed. Anyway, once admitted that "Les ennemis" does not break new ground it proves commendable for other reasons, the main one being the serious way it deals with its subject, even if it is in a light tone most of the time : the members of the various intelligence services all speak their own language ; the day-to-day operations of these services, whether French or foreign, are described realistically, without resorting Bond- like gadgets; and best of all, the stress is laid on what could bring antagonistic countries (France and the USSR in this particular case) closer together rather than the opposite as is wont in such a codified genre. Another good point is the director's propensity to dot his narrative with a multitude of details, unrelated with action or secondary to it, but which enrich it delicately. It goes from Gerlier (the boss of the gang) feeding the ducks, to Lemoine (the young hoodlum) swatting a fly while giving a phone call, to a totally gratuitous cameo by director Claude Chabrol as a gym instructor, to the appendage of colorful secondary characters (de Lursac's snobbish mother, the counter- espionage doctor played by... comedian Jean Lefebvre!)
One final thing to keep in mind is Molinaro's light touch when it comes to the things of love and sex. He is at his best when he describes the relationship that binds Jean (Roger Hanin) and Christine (Pascale Audret): tenderness laced with humor, adult but discreet eroticism; the few scenes involving the couple are full of charm. Nothing to do with the brazen exhibition of flesh de rigueur in this kind of flicks. All in all, a watchable little film, benefiting from a slick direction and fluid editing. It is rather suspenseful, quite entertaining (witticisms burst forth throughout), well-played (as interpreted by the excellent Michel Vitold, the character of Smoloff is more than one- dimensional), graced with an efficient jazzy score... More than one alleged masterpiece cannot boast as much.
Lavardin takes the waters
It sure is a pleasure to meet police inspector Lavardin again. Mmm... his awfully bad manners ; yum yum... his unashamed arrogance ; yeeha... his devastating political incorrectness! All of which qualities (or defects depending on points of view) being embodied beyond perfection by Jean Poiret, now and forever inseparable from the character he has created under the approving gaze of Claude Chabrol. This time around, our beloved John Blunt is spending a holiday in an Italian spa town. Or so it seems. For can you actually picture our hedonistic friend swallowing glass after glass of salt-sulphated water? You can't and you are right! In fact, Lavardin is only posing as a patient. He is of course on duty and, seconded to Interpol, monitors the actions of Ruggero Anello (Franco Interlenghi), a millionaire who is suspected of being the leader of an arms network. Things get complicated with the unexpected murder of Claire Anello (Christiane Minazzoli), a famous crime novel writer and wife of Ruggero. From that moment Lavardin engages in a battle of wits between the millionaire, the candidate of a quiz game who might well be one of his accomplices (Riccardo Cucciolla) and Caroline (Amy Werba), Claire Anello's charming but secretive secretary. Fun is guaranteed but, to be honest, the viewer's pleasure would be complete only if Chabrol's direction was more than just serviceable. With "Maux croisés", we are far from the intensity of "La femme infidèle or "Le boucher", to name two of the director's masterpieces. For aside from a few camera moves, the director is content to record the scenes rather flatly. The other bad point is the Italian cast : to avoid subtitles, the Latin actors are forced to express themselves in French with a thick accent and they are not at ease with it. In these conditions, who could blame them? On the other hand the French-speaking Poiret, Albert Dray (as Dédé the barman) and Amy Werba (whose ambiguous charm works throughout) are excellent. And the witty dialogues bite home. Also noteworthy is the original use of Giuseppe's music and the satire of television quiz shows. All in all, if not a lesson in filming, "Maux Croisés" benefits from enough qualities to make you have a good time for an hour and a half. Which is not so bad after all.
In a Forest (2010)
A short... short but a brilliant display of talent
For sure three minutes (credits included) is not a long running time but it is enough for a gifted filmmaker to display his talent. A statement which applies to Fons Schiedon, the Dutch animator who, besides providing the story, the design, the editing and compositing of "In a Forest", manages to thrill and impress audiences in such a brief capsule of time. The film immediately plunges the viewer into the midst of a fast-moving chase. The prey is a funny-looking rabbit and the pursuer some kind of terrifying long-toothed wolf. The place is a menacing forest, the time the dead of night. Anxious glances, frantic grasps, clouds of mist, wild roars, all this is to be found here and we seem to be off for a classical suspenseful sequence. Until a surprise ending comes questioning the whole thing... Well designed, amazingly well animated, "In a Forest" proves in addition a challenging experience that moves you from one reality to the next. As I wrote before, three minutes are enough for a real artist to show all the range of his talents but I must admit I felt a bit frustrated when this brilliant exercise came to its close. I would gladly have kept company with Fons Schiedon for several additional scores of minutes...