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The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Ginger as a young Sarah Bernhardt, not a low point to a French viewer like me!
I see written everywhere (thus replicating the words of Leonard Maltin in his 'Movie and Video Guide') that Ginger Rogers declaiming 'La Marseillaise' at the end of 'The Barkleys of Broadway' is the LOW POINT of the movie. Let me say that, as a French viewer, I totally disagree. What Miss Rogers does here is remarkable on the contrary: she actually brilliantly mimics her model, drama diva Sarah Bernhardt whose style of acting was pompous and bombastic. Such a style sure looks very outdated today but was very much admired and in demand at the time. Now, just imagine Sarah had underplayed her scene the way Ginger does so well in other circumstances, she would never have been accepted by the stiff and starchy jury of the Comédie Française! Even more impressive is the American actress's accent: she indeed delivers her tirade in more than passable French. Well, Americans may think this sequence ridiculous, but not French people. In any case, gallically speaking, it by no means constitutes a LOW but a HIGH POINT of this altogether excellent musical comedy.
Bergman and the (poor) women.
A filmmaker as a cartoon hero, this would have been inconceivable a few years ago. But now it is not an oddity anymore. Just think of Luis Buñuel being the main protagonist of the excellent "Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles".
"Fettknölen", as far as this cartoon short is concerned, features Ingmar Bergman, who had also been the heroof the impressive documentary "Bergman - a Year in a Life".
"Fettknöten", though a bit amusing, is rather disappointing compared with the feature documentary about Ingmar and even more with "Buñuel in the Labyrinth of of the Turtles". The live feature film presents Bergman as a complex man, both a great artist and someone very difficult when it comes to his relation to others, especially to women. In the cartoon, only his way to mistreat the women of his life is shown. Bergman is then reduced to the obnoxious side of his personality: jealous, egocentric, unfaithful, unreliable, which he certainly was... but not just that! An, to tell the truth, that is a bit embarrassing. There is good and bad about this genius, while here all you geta trial against an accused.
The same is true if you compare it to "Buñuel in the Labyrinth", in which Don Luis is shown doing or saying debatable things, but where you will find much more to it than just that.
A little amusing as I said, "Fettknölen" rests on a good idea, that of the lipoma. Not only a growth under one of Bergman's cheeks, it has a funny rounded face and body and, above all it talks. It speaks and disturbs the master who soon realizes that the lump is the voice of his conscience, which he is loath to hear as you can guess and even more so to listen to. This the most entertaining aspect of this cartoon. It unfortunately never dispels the general impression of discomfort experienced from the beginning.
You can watch this little film out of curiosity rather than out of necessity. But don't miss "Bergman - a Year in a Life", a real achievement by the same director Jane Magnusson.
La nave bianca (1941)
A feel for humanity and everyday reality transcends (only mild) propaganda
It is little known but Roberto Rossellini had an artistic life before "Rome, Open City ", one the pope of neo-realism was loath to brag about, since he had put his talent at the service of Mussolini. His first three feature films (gathered under the generic title of "The War Trilogy") were indeed made under the flag of fascism, "The White Ship" being the first of the three.
Filmed in 1941, using (to surprisingly good dramatic effect) filmed achives dating from 9-7-1940 (Battle of Punta Stilo) and 27-11-1940 (Battle of Cape Teulada), "The White Ship" is in no way a criticism of Mussolini's policies. How could it? If it had tried to be, it would never have existed! But can it be qualified as pure propaganda, in the manner of "Vecchia Guarda" (1934) or "Luciano Serra pilota" (1938)" for instance?
The answer to this tricky question is... yes and no!
Yes, on the one hand, because Rossellini is clearly on the Italian side : Mussolini's war is a just war. The opening is telltale in this respect: a mighty battleship is given to our admiration and the martial music that accompanies those glorious shots leaves no doubt about who the victors should be, who the victors will be. But shortly after this embarrassing introduction the tone changes significantly. And we are soon led to think that no, this not a propaganda work, at least that there is more to it than just political brainwashing. For what is Rossellini obviously interested in? Showing how mighty the Italian Navy is? The first Eisenstein-like shots already described naturally give this impression but as the film unfurls, what does the director show us ? A semi-victory won at the cost of many casualties and destructions. And does he present his characters in a heroic light, like so many American or Soviet films? Not at all, the sailors on board are ordinary young men with ordinary feelings: they long for home, think of the girl they left behind, try to raise each other's spirits during moments of relaxation... And when Rossellini's camera shows them in the throes of battle, it does not hide the fact that many get killed or severely burned. Not very effective in terms of propaganda, is it?
Another option that goes against the notion of successful agitprop is the director's obvious privileging the human factor over metaphor or allegory. The officers are little seen and are reduced to the status of men trying to carry out their task as competently as possible. While the sailors, as I have already said, are never shown acting heroically, they are John Does doing their duty, no GI Joes. The same is true for the second part of the story taking place on a hospital ship where the wounded main protagonist has been transferred : all we see is suffering patients and the medical staff at work. Nothing metaphoric about them, they are only themselves as part of a war machine beyond their control. An impression that gets reinforced by the fact that none of the actors are professionals. In "The White Ship", veracity matters more than the official ideology.
It all happens as if Rossellini was instilling the neo-realism to come into what was intended by the authorities as a sheer propaganda object, which saves the film and its maker from dishonor. Is "The White Ship" a masterpiece for all that? Not really ! For three reasons: first it is a hybrid product hesitating between documentary and fiction, between agitprop and realism. Secondly, it has a conventional love story, just worthy of a photo-novel. The third defect may be the worst: the characters lack psychological depth. They ring true but remain superficial all the time, preventing the viewer from identifying with them.
Nevertheless, "The White Ship" is not a film to be disdained. It has a rich historical value and manages to stick to the sailors' and officers' everyday lives rather than produce the pompous call to glory expected by Rossellini's fascist sponsors. Imperfect as it is, it is a valuable document as well as in its best moments, a precursor of neo-realism. Rome will soon be opened.
Fantômes du cinéma forain (2012)
What the worlds now is... crazy collectors!
Collectors are strange people. Maybe even a bit crazy. Take René Charles and Guy Coursaud, the two heroes of this documentary. They have spent an incredible lot of time and money acquiring what? Reels of discarded old film copies, rusty film projectors and old-fashioned vehicles used in a distant past by fairground entertainers! Crazy? Maybe so but supposing they had not existed, very little of the material they have patiently collected would have survived. Yes, both are or were (since René Charles died before this report was made) eccentric, but the world needs eccentrics, because the people of that kind enrich it by not simply following the mainstream flow but by exploring its margins and saving what we others overlook. That is what these two men achieved and the result of their efforts, then stored in a large warehouse in Angoulême, can be admired in Philippe Vimeret's film.
Biographic details are provided by Pierrette Charles (Renés widow), whose tongue is sometimes sharp (a sure antidote against boredom) et technical explanations are provided by specialists, without them being too specific (another antidote against tediousness). The musical illustration is pleasant and there is a funny animated sequence at the end.
On the whole "Fantômes du cinéma forain" is a good documentary, informative, surprising and entertaining. Recommended, especially to film lovers.
Life is a big big tank of water
"All the world's a stage", Shakespeare says. Not at all, "Life is a dream", Calderón answers him back. Nothing could be more wrong, Doris Day assures in her smooth voice, "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries", period. Is that so? Well, not for Christine Caron, aka Kiki, the star of "Aquarelle" (a playful title, quite like her): for her part, what else could life be but a... swimming pool? Life? Just a big big tank of water where to jump, slosh and frolic to her heart's content... before shaking herself dry until an even bigger splash. And where to swim naturally. And where to swim as fast as possible. Didn't the cheerful girl win the silver medal in 100 m backstroke at the 1964 Summer Olympics and the gold medal in the same event at the 1966 European Aquatics Championships? Didn't she, during her swimming career, win no fewer than 29 national swimming titles?
Don't worry, I will not tell inflict my own definition of life on you. You would not care a bit anyway! But what is certain is that it would neither be a pool nor a running track. For I have to admit I am not interested in sports at all. Neither is Dominique Delouche by his own admission. And yet I had a lot of fun watching this little movie. And yet, Delouche had a lot of fun making it and it shows!
Therefore the question arises :what makes this modest sports short a success ?
In the first place I would say: its exhilarating tone. Narrated by Kiki Caron herself, "Aquarelle" indeed gives an impression of healthy cheerfulness and youthful light-heartedness, quite in tune with its heroine's persona. With the star swimmer commenting, nothing seems to weigh more than a bubble, whether it is constant effort, never-ending training or cut throat competition.
The second positive point is the film's thematic consistency with the filmmaker's former and future films. As is well-known, Dominique Delouche has always favored human beings who are not content to live a routine life but who make a point of pushing their limits, whether it is artistically (his portraits of great dancers, musicians, the mime artist Marcel Marceau...) or spiritually ("Edith Stein", "La Messe sur le monde"), so why not those who surpass themselves physically, like Christine Caron? All the more as you can't manage to tame and train your body without working on yourself, which implies mental - and spiritual - strength.
Also important is the director's love of dance, music and rhythm. You can bet that Delouche will not be interested in the results of the swimmer's efforts but in the efforts themselves. Chistine Caron's movements in or outside the water will then be scrutinized, broken down and choreographed just as if she was a ballerina rehearsing.
A beautiful score adds to the pleasure of the viewing experience, especially the baroque-like accompaniment of Caron's last race. A beautiful sequence in which the music, the variety of angles (above and under the water) and the dynamic cutting combine for the best.
"Aquarelle", as previously noted, is not a pure sports film and must be appreciated for the artistic object it is. But sports fan will be interested too (Despite everything it is a filmed report on the famous swimming champion, filmed in 1965, documenting her daily efforts under the supervision of her coach Suzanne Berlioux). Feel free to see it, it can easily be found on YouTube.
Body and soul
Body and soul, here is an expression that gives its full measure when applied to the art of dance. And which could very well be the motto of director Dominique Delouche, the author of "L'Adage", knowing that his passion for dance is matched only by his ceaseless quest for the soul in the human being. Perfect graceful bodies projected into the air, almost free of gravity, in unison with each other, far beyond the trivialities of the flesh, what could inspire Delouche more? Nothing, to be sure.
For inspired, the director undoubtedly is. This particular documentary (a very reductive term in this instance) and all the others he made about dance are clear proof of it.
The magnificent bodies and souls Delouche chose to focus on this time are those of prima ballerina Nina Vyrobova and of her partner Attilio Labis. In "L'Adage" (a technical term for soft connected movements), the helmer is not content to film them during a performance, he also aims (and we with him) to witness the genesis of what will later appear to audiences as a regular miracle of perfection. His admiring camera therefore follows work in progress rather than the final stage of the representation. That is how we are shown to see Vyrobova and Labis rehearsing Adolphe Adam's ballet "Gisèle" rather than their final public performance, a way for Delouche, as he is wont to do, to approach some kind of sacred mystery, here the mystery of dance, in its loftiest dimension. Using all the technical means at his disposal, whether camera, lighting or sound equipment, he hunts down the unspeakable. With their support, he accompanies, encircles, draws near to or moves away from the artists at work: the elaborate lighting sculpts the bodies, the well thought-out framing places the viewer at the ideal distance while the use of stills (showing the dancers stopped in their movements...) enhances the impression of graceful lightness. As for the acoustic effects (the sound of a ticking metronome, the dancers' voices but very sparsely heard...), they help us not to forget that the magic proceeds from the real and does not exist in itself. Delouche never dissociates the sublime from the mundane, which makes the sublime even more sublime. If the dancers appear to us "not of this world", everyday details are there to remind us they are also creatures of flesh and blood just like us (their arrival at the opera-house in their winter clothes, Adam's beautiful music identified as coming from a tape running on a recorder, the panting of Vyrobova and Labis...)
We will not conclude without mentioning the voice overs, the solemn ones of Laurent Terzieff and Pascale de Boysson, which not only allow an overall impression of the ballet, of which we actually only see excerpts, but also bring into relief its dark romanticism, love being inextricably bound up with death. The text they read is a French translation of the poem by Heinrich Heine which later inspired librettist Vernoy de Saint-Georges and composer Adolphe Adam for "Gisèle".
From words to music, from rehearsals to the work performed, from the camera eye to the intangible of a miracle, everything is contained in this brief but bewitching short.
Fascinating attempt at decoding an undecipherable masterpiece.
When commissioned by Madrid's Prado Museum to make a film about Hyeronymus Bosch and his work, famed cinematographer-documentarist José-Luis Lopez-Linares proposed to the curator not to deal with the artist's entire work but to concentrate instead on one of his paintings, "The Garden of Dreams", only. A bold gamble knowing that the finished film would last about eighty minutes. But Lopez-Linares knew what he wanted and thought he would be able to capture the viewer's attention throughout: relying on art historian Reindert Falkenburg's original idea, he would have the triptych opened before our eyes at the outset of his documentary and then ask personalities in various fields to each express their own feelings and interpretation. Among them there would be writers (Orhan Parnuk, Salman Rushdie), musicians (Ludovico Einaudi, William Christie), artists (Miquel Barcelo, Max), scientists, art specialists and historians and even a philosopher (Michel Onfray). Their words would be accompanied by varied (and original) music pieces or songs (Arvo Pärt, Bach, Verdi, but also Jacques Brel and Lana Del Rey).
The daring project was okayed by the Prado and the other producers (including France's Stéphane Sorlat), which proved a right move, for the finished film does live up to its concept. Indeed however long "The Garden of Dreams" is and although it focuses on a single work, the viewer (informed naturally, but who chooses to watch such a film if they are not informed) is never bored. Exploring the painting in detail, all the more through the eyes of the brilliant commentators, is indeed an enlightening experience. What is Bosch's message when he paints such or such vignette ? Is this the fruit of the arbutus or only a symbol, or also a symbol ? How come this cloud of birds fly through a ring of stone? And why are these animals larger than the humans represented ? Etc, etc. The questioning is endless and despite the various - and varied - explanations or mere assumptions, mystery seems to add to mystery, which results in "The Garden of Dreams" being even more cryptic and enigmatic at the end of the projection than at the beginning. And which adds the film-produced fascination to that of the triptych itself. A rare experience indeed you'd better not miss out on.
When today's artists meet their forerunners of 36,000 years ago
In 1994 a prehistoric cave, the Grotte Chauvet, was discovered in the French department of Ardèche. 36,000 years old, it constitutes one of the most ancient artistic statements of mankind known today with its extraordinary painted walls. The animals represented there (horses, rhinos, lions...) reveal an admirable mastery that disrupts the former notions we once had about the degree of development of Cro-Magnon men. The people who decorated the Grotte Chauvet were indeed great artists and have nothing to envy from their current counterparts : their paintings are elegant, precise, faithful to reality but sufficiently refined to be more than a mere representation of their environment. Their work both informs and opens the door to the imaginary.
The public obviously had a right to visit such an inspiring site but the experience of the Lascaux cave, among others, had shown that a massive flow of visitors was synonymous with deterioration. What was to be done ? Banning opening to the public would have been a major frustration. A team of prehistory specialists, scientists, visual artists, painters and sculptors was then formed and the decision was made to build an almost compete replica (80% were to be reproduced) one mile away from the original cave.
Christian Tran's interesting documentary follows this amazing, somewhat crazy undertaking, with all the questions it involved : building a new site, but where? in what exterior style? how to integrate it into the surrounding nature? Copying the paintings, but how? rendered identically? reinterpreted to best grasp their spirit?
What the day-to-day atmosphere was like before, during and immediately after the construction of La Grotte Chauvet 2 is what Christian Tran's documentary is all about. A work in progress that manages to keep the viewer's attention throughout.
Altogether a relevant, serious (a little too serious maybe), illuminating effort, recommended for all, especially art and/or prehistory lovers.
Tries to capture the soul of an instrument and one of its best interpreters
Dominique Delouche is a past master at the examination of three main fields, religious faith, dance and music. His object here is classical music and more precisely one instrument, the cello through one of its best interpreters, French cellist Maurice Gendron (1920-1990). And less precisely trying to find out what makes music by great composers (in this case Haydn, Boccherini, Chopin and Bach) played by a great instrumentalist so uplifting. Has the instrument a soul? Or the composer? Or the music itself? The film does not actually answer these questions in the end (how could it?) but the director does his best to identify the contours of the spirit of it all. To this end Dominique Delouche uses a variety of techniques to penetrate the mystery (intercut, animation, split screen, low angle shot, hands in negative, hands playing an invisible instrument, multiplication of the cello player,...) But whatever the device Dominique Delouche resorts to, Maurice Gendron goes on playing and, through this continuity the magic happens and lingers on. Has the cello a soul? Or the interpreter? Or the composer? Who knows (I was about to say God knows)? What is sure is that there is soul in music.
Les vieux fourneaux (2018)
Well made, funny and meaningful
Let me as a preamble confess one thing: I have not read the original comic book series (though I do feel like it now). I will therefore deal with Christophe Duthuron's movie as such, without any point of comparison of any kind with Wilfrid Lupano and Paul Cauuet's source work.
The first point I would like to raise is that I enjoyed the movie very much. Not specially for its story, whose starting point is nothing new. We have indeed seen dozens of films describing a funeral and the forced gathering it entails: a group of individuals (whether relatives or friends) whose ties have loosened owing to estrangement or diverging interests, suddenly find themselves face to face again for just this circumstancial reason. Not very original maybe but on the other hand generally giving rise to works above average. Which is the case for "Les Vieux fourneaux" ("Tricky Old Dogs") as well, thanks to an impressive lot of added value, namely fleshy characters, an excellent cast, witty dialogue and a knack for mixing comedy and drama, laughter and emotion. What is awesome is Christophe Duthuron and Wilfrid Lupano's facetious one liners never prevent a meaningful social commentary or a no-nonsense look on the sorry condition of today's world - and the reverse. As for the direction by newcomer Duthuron (hitherto a screenwriter and theater director), it proves quite a good surprise. For the fledgling filmmaker is not content to stage a fine screenplay and to direct top notch comedians to perfection, he also has interesting cinematic film ideas. For example the sequence in which a factory at the bottom of a valley slowly disappears under the eyes of the three old pranksters to give way to the unspoilt nature of their youth. The next second, they are seen as the brats they used to be, joyfully frolicking. Or that other scene wherein Antoine (Roland Giraud) revisits a past workers' strike whose participants in black and white are suddenly frozen while the onlooker remains in color and in movement. Or else that of a puppet show which transforms itself into an animated sequence.
Wonderfully played by a hilarious threesome of old grumpy rebels, Pierre Richard as Pierrot, the restless old anarchist, Roland Giraud as Antoine, the testy dandy, and Eddy Mitchell as Mimile, the retired globe-trotter, the film cannot but make you laugh. Add to the three musketeers'flawless performance an excellent role for an excellent actress (Alice Pol, who gets into the role of Sophie, Antoine's grandaughter, revolted like the three old men but for better reasons), Myriam Boyer (the elderly farmer hated for bad reasons) and Henri Guybet (very moving as an old industrialist who is losing his head, assuredly his greatest performance to-date) and you will have no bad surprise, the acting is invariably top notch.
A comedy for sure and a funny one at that but also a serious movie with serious themes (old age, revolt, loyalty, treachery) and a relevant social examination (the ravages of ultra-liberalism). A well made popular film which does not take people for fools. Therefore recommended.
Messieurs les ronds de cuir (1959)
The Discreet Charm of... Bureaucracy
Henri Diamant-Berger was an important figure of the silent era. A pioneer of quality production in France and in the USA, he met with tremendous success, both artistic and public, with his 1922 adaptation of 'The Three Musketeers'. But with the advent of sound he gradually became a name among others, only occasionally rising (slightly) above a run-of-the-mill level ('La Maternelle', 'Monsieur Fabre'). He reached his nadir during the 1950s, when he appeared desperately out of sync with his times. Who on earth indeed remembers his outdated 'Mon Curé' comedies? Or even worse, his pathetic tribute to radio and TV bland presenter Jean Nohain titled 'C'est arrivé à 36 Chandelles'? So when the 63-year-old producer-director announced his intention to can a new version of Georges Courteline's hilarious novel 'Messieurs-les-Ronds-de-Cuir' (The Bureaucrats), one had a right to be skeptical. But what was to be Diamant-Berger's last directorial effort (he would go on producing until the late 1960s) finally came as a refreshing surprise. Seeing the finished film proved one thing, Courteline had not only inspired the veteran filmmaker but given him a new lease of life, artistically speaking at least.
There is no denying indeed that this 1958 version comes close to equaling Yves Mirande's 1936 hilarious one, not to say equals it. Do the test: see both and you will certainly conclude that each of the two adaptations works fine. What brings them together is certainly an equivalent mix of caustic wit, unbridled nonsensical humor and top rate comedy actors, three well-proportioned ingredients that make one and the other converge to the best.
Let's take these ingredients one by one. Satire, in the first place, bites home with the same sharpness in Diamant-Berger's version as in Mirande's, courtesy of Courteline who knew what perfectly well what he was talking about. Having indeed been a civil servant himself (as little hard-working as his hero Lahrier by his own admission!) - and for fourteen years -, the writer had had every opportunity to observe the closed world of French administration. Targeting its shortcomings and abuses was not only easy for him but also paved the way to success insofar as the general public enjoys seeing bashed those who all too often plague their lives when having to deal with them. What makes Diamant-Berger's adaptation all the more palatable (as was also the case with Mirande's) is that Courteline's text and characters are respected, which as well meets the expectations of those who know the text as delights those who discover it. Last but not least, the cast. If the 1936 picture could boast a gathering of giants of the thirties (Saturnin Fabre, Jean Tissier, Arletty, Pierre Larquey), the new one does not lag behind, bringing together talented comedians of the new generation (Jean Poiret, Michel Serrault, Jean Richard, Micheline Dax, Philippe Clay, Jeanne Sourza) and actors who were already stars in the 1930s (Noël-Noël, Pierre Brasseur) including one, Lucien Baroux, who appeared in the first version (Lucien Baroux, Lahrier in 1936 and Soupe - the former's pet aversion - 22 years later) . Who can beat that?
Among all those excellent actors, I would like to highlight the brilliant performance of singer Philippe Clay, also an excellent but very underrated actor (Casimir le Serpentin in Renoir's 'French Cancan', Clopin Trouillefou in Delannoy's 'Notre-Dame de Paris', and many other singular roles) Bony-faced, all skin and bones, with incredible goggling eyes, he was the ideal person to play Letondu, the demented public officer who jumps, shouts, laughs hysterically and plays the trumpet inconsiderately. Clay is both very funny and very scary: nobody else could have been a better Letondu!
One could argue that Diamant-Berger's direction is just serviceable, which is rather true but as he serves a great text after gathering a somewhat ideal cast what is there to complain about ? Moreover, if you look at the film without blinders, you will notice some (timid but real) camera or editing work off the beaten track.
All in all, the 1958 version of "Messieurs-les-Ronds-de-Cuir" may be less legendary than the 1936 one, it is however quite worth watching. Even the modern ending stands on its own merits. The introduction of computers in French administration was still science fiction in the 1950s. Diamant-Berger's film therefore has all the more merit for its right anticipation of two realities yet to come: on the one hand, computers would some day be used by civil servants and, on the other hand, that... would not change anything. And it is a fact that nowadays, and in spite of the serious work of a great part of public officers, the same sins still affect French administration : mismanagement, incompetence, disrespect of the public and other free rides. Had Courteline still been alive, he could very well have written the 1958 film's coda along similar lines.
Well, one thing is clear: if you do not know this adaptation of Courteline's masterful farce, do not hesitate to view it. René Chateau, who kindly thinks of you distributes it on DVD.
Good enough suspense, but...
A moderately interesting episode of an old-fashioned TV series, "Picnic With death" has its moments, in particular when it comes to the sequences in connection with the title, in which the suspense is well enough managed. There are also one or two good scenes about the intrusion of the Invisible Man's privacy by the press. But the rest is talky and rather boring and the two young actresses are just exasperating, especially clever monkey Deborah Watling. As for the special effects, they are all right, nothing more
Kona fer í stríð (2018)
A lady, a bow, arrows and aluminium
A virtuous man alone against the system, there has been a lot on the silver screen, particularly when it comes to American movies where the figure of the individual hero is set, in accordance with the American ethos, as the paramount role model. From early cinema till today, examples abound, among the most seminal "The Life of Emile Zola", "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", "The Setup", "Harvey Milk" come to mind, but they are but a few samples of a practically endless list. By contrast, their female equivalents can be counted on the fingers of one hand: women fighting alone like Sally Field ("Norma Rae") or Julia Roberts ("Erin Brokovich") are the exceptions that prove the rule. But, well, The Times Are-A-Changin', as Bob Dylan once sang and are slowly acquiring (not everywhere alas!) the role they deserve. A point illustrated by this excellent Icelandic film, aptly titled 'Woman at War', offering the striking portrait of a modern-times female warrior, the wonderful Halla, played by the equally awesome actress Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir ("Regina!", "Of Horses and Men"). Inventively directed by Benedikt Erlingsson (the author of the already mentioned "Of Horses and Men"), it may well become a cult classic.
To tell you the truth, before entering the hall, I thought I knew in advance how the film would develop : a corrupt system (in this case an aluminium company that threatens the environment of Iceland and its people), would make the protagonist (a carbon copy of the white hero) an activist who would start by winning her first fights before having to face severe counter-attacks only to triumph in the end, all the wrongs righted. The only thing that really attracted me was that the story was set among the unusual landscapes of Iceland. How big (and pleasant) my surprise was! For, as of the very first shot, it was quite evident that "Woman at War" was not going to tread the beaten track. What other movie indeed opens on a fifty-year old lady drawing a bow and shooting an arrow towards high voltage power lines? And not only that but also managing to cause a short-circuit cutting off supply in the aluminium plant area? There mustn't be many. Such an attack against toxic modernism carried out by a woman using archaic weapons sets the tone for this fanciful and utterly unpredictable film.
For, in the wake of this inspired overture, imagination, suspense, laughter, happily follow suit. The delighted viewer is indeed treated to a whole menu of various pleasures, such as breathless sequences (Halla being hunted by cars, dogs, drones, helicopters), constant surprises and twists (impossible while watching a scene to guess what will come after), unexpected changes of tone (the underground warrior being also the conductor of an amateur choir), unusual ideas (Halla saved from icy waters by being plunged into a... hot water source), detachment from the action (the ever-present brass band) and irrepressible comedy (the recurring mishaps of a poor foreigner). At the same time and for the same ticket price, you get a very serious social and political commentary (among the topics broached, corruption, commitment, environment, the future of mankind). And although this last aspect is pessimistic, even bordering on bitterness and despair, it is always alleviated by the writer-director's sense of humor and narrative skills.
A very positive assesment, to which can be added a fine homegenous cast in which Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, remarkable as she is, never tries to be number one.
All in all, a perfect film, managing to combine art, entertainment and reflection, which is not so common. Recommended of course.
Au poste! (2018)
Never find a corpse outside your apartment building!
A police station, a suspect interrogated for hours and hours by a nasty inspector..., the scene has been shown over and over in hundreds of crime movies. One could go as far as to consider the thing as a sub genre in itself, its most masterful illustration being Claude Miller's classic "Garde à vue" (Under Suspicion). No one indeed has forgotten tough inspector Lino Ventura psychologically torturing an artful Michel Serrault over a night's time. Well, there is no denying that "Au poste" (Keep an Eye Out) adds to a long long list but the good surprise is that it does it in its own, singular way. One can even affirm that such a "police interrogation movie" has never been seen before! Not so surprising if you take into account the fact that Dupieux has never once made what could be called a "normal" movie, let alone told the type of story that lazily unfurls between a beginning and an end, featuring stereotyped characters with predictable reactions. Such a conversion to stale conventions would in fact have constituted a total disappointment from a man who dared (and managed) to make a film around a... tyre killer ("Rubber") or else about a director who has 48 hours to find the best... groan of pain in film history ("Reality")! Well if conventions and clichés there are, they are here only to be challenged, mocked and demolished. And although one may in a way say that this is Dupieux's "most normal" work of all, you are sure to find a lot of oddities sticking out from the rigid frame of the police interrogation genre: dreams, flash forwards encased in flashbacks and others I will refrain from detailing not to kill the surprise effect. What you'd better not do is mistake "Keep an Eye Out" for a "normal" movie. If you do so, you are likely to be taken aback and reject the whole thing. On the contrary, il you consider it as a reflection on a coded genre, you are on the right track to enjoyment. For, if you look closely, you will find that Quentin Dupieux's last opus works on no fewer than three levels, which is for those who perceive it a threefold source of pleasure:
- a plain crime story which, despite being crossed by whiffs of irrationality, remains basically believable. The situation itself, the story as well as the characters, minus their eccentricities, are indeed quite realistic. Moreover, the dialogues are well written, funny and uttered with talent by two masters of comedy, Benoît Poelvoorde (the bad-ass inspector) and Grégoire Ludig (the helpless suspect), both more sober than they usually are.
- a satire challenging the clichés and set pieces of the sub genre already mentioned: the charmless interior of the police station; the worn out, a bit sadistic interrogator and his dubious jokes ; the suspect maintaining his innocence without being able to prove it, the cigarettes, sandwiches, colleagues dropping in and out, ... It is all here, but in a slightly offbeat, farcical way.
- a commentary on the theatricality of such "in camera" dramas. Dupieux shrewdly plays on the fact that as soon as a murder is committed and suspects are interrogated, each of the protagonists seems to play a role written in advance and is at a loss as to how to extricate themselves from having to live out that role.
To make a long story short, you will find "Keep an Eye Out" either an exciting or a senseless movie, depending on whether you play the game or not. I wish you to be in the second case.
A fine blend of humor and seriousness
After viewing Ilan Klipper's first fiction film, one thing is sure: the young director has something to say. A decent budget (he collected only enough money to make a short) was not assigned to him but ideas he does have (in 77 minutes, he elaborates more than many others do in many a lavishly produced bloated epic). One more evidence that in life "the best things are free".
Filmed urgently and feverishly over a period of twelve days (and nights), the poetically titled "The Starry Sky Above Me" (a quotation from Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason") is concerned with Bruno, a fifty-year-old writer who once hit the mark with his first novel but never made it to the second book. For twenty years now, he has lived in solitude, neglecting himself, confusing day and night, writing drafts of novels he never completes. He only occasionally meets a friend or two and his love stories or mere sex plans invariably fail to pan out.
The story opens on a sample of Bruno's "daily life". In the middlle of the night, he is seen alone in his apartment, clad in mere underwear, pacing to and fro, gesticulating, talking to himself, sending one or two provoking messages from his pc, looking for, finding and typing sentences for one or another of his unfinished books, eating and drinking at random before finally sinking off to sleep in the wee hours.
The next night and all the following ones should normally unfurl along similar lines, except that disruption sets in all of a sudden. It is ring at his doorbell at an unwanted time (isn't the afternoon for sleeping ?) that comes tearing up routine's pattern. Dazed and more scantily clad than ever, Bruno opens the door. And guess who is there? Surprise, surprise, it is his parents (with whom he is on bad terms and who hardly ever visit him)! And surprise, surprise, surprise! They are in the company of a young woman not only unknown to him but absolutely charming as well.
The circle being thus broken, the action can really begin and, although within a short running time, it will be lively - to say the least : one unexpected visit after another and complications by the dozen. Scene after scene, one realizes Klipper masters the codes of comedy brilliantly: elements of surprise, misunderstandings, exponential accumulation of characters and other devices are a guarantee of uninterrupted laughs.
Which does not mean there is no substance, on the contrary. Several serious issues are examined in "The Starry Sky" such as conformity vs. nonconformity, tolerance vs. intolerance, sanity vs. insanity. Simply, humor avoids stodginess and boredom.
Wonderfully played by Laurent Poitrenaux, able to express all kinds of feelings and emotions, the film also showcases a few notable talents: Marilyne Canto in a two-faced character role, Michèle Moretti as an all-too convincing abusive mother and Frank Williams as the phoney "good" friend.
Do not miss this delightful cocktail of lightness and seriousness. You will not be disappointed.
Place publique (2018)
Jaoui-Bacri, the censors of morals, strike again!
Following the model of their great ancestor, La Bruyère, and his famous 'Caractères' (1670-1694), Agnès Jaoui and her partner Jean Pierre Bacri, besides being the talented actors we know, have been correcting the manners of their times by laughing for three decades and a half now. Starting in 1992 with 'Cuisine et Dépendances' (the play and its film adaptation), the two new La Bruyères have been unremittingly hurling barbs at the pretenses, hypocrisies, mediocrities, foolishness, meanness of our contemporaries. They strike again with 'Place publique', their latest project to date. This time around, the devilish couple have gathered together and locked up for a couple of hours a sample of individuals who, of course, will not emerge unscathed from the experience. All are guests at a house warming party in the countryside (but not too far away from Paris !), during which they will show, beyond social manners and affected airs, who they actually are. Having responded the invitation of Nathalie, a TV producer, are celebrities or "semi celebrities" like Thomas - an actor, Biggistar - a YouTube star ; Castro - a TV host whose star is paling), committed people (Agnès, Nathalie's sister - a leftist militant ; Jean-Paul - a Doctor without Borders ; Guy - a sought-after organic gardener.) There is also a handful of everymen and women such as Manu - Castro's young driver ; Mickey - a sound engineer ; Vanessa - a waitress more inclined to flutter around V.I.Ps than to do the job she has been hired for ; Delavenne - a quick-tempered farmer.
Trapped in such a unity of space (from dusk till dawn) as well as of space (Nathalie's house and its premises), the characters first greet each other, exchange platitudes and words of circumstance (oh, such a lovely place in the country! And so close to Paris!), pat themselves on the back, drink champagne, show off their best clothes, but it does not take long before the joyful atmosphere deteriorates and the guests' true nature appear. And off we go for a relentless game of massacre!
The worst of the gang is undeniably Castro, a self-centered, conceited, falsely affable, ex-TV star whose show consists in pumping famous people for some dirt. Other defects of his pop up as the story develops, among which jealousy, spying over his girlfriend (half his age naturally), unfairness (the way he treats his driver). The man, who was once married to Hélène and shared her ideals of justice and equality has given them up for long over cynicism. His ex-wife, as for her, has stuck to them, still showing sympathy for the weakest and most underprivileged, always there with a petition to sign. At the moment, she is moving heaven and earth to have Castro invite an Afghan refugee in his show - the last thing on earth he wants! But the virtuous lady is not beyond reproach either. For instance, having damaged a car while parking, she is in no hurry to get known by its proprietor. On the other hand, has she been such a good mother to Nina ? Didn't she show sympathy for all... - but her ? And what about Hélène's relationship with her sweet life companion ? Doesn't she, believing (wrongly) about Jean-Paul's feelings for her, envisage dumping the poor fellow without further ado? Well, it looks as if the saint has feet of clay!
I will not go into details concerning the other characters, but be assured that their foibles, hypocrisies and ridiculous behaviors are a guarantee of chuckles throughout.
Some will blame "Place publique" for not breaking new ground. Well, they are not wrong in this but so what? Should all works be avant-garde? I would say no, as only a minority of pioneers explore new ways of expression; which they do at the risk of disconcerting the public. The great majority of filmakers simply try do a good job of entertaining their public. And the best among them are those, like Jaoui and Bacri, who have the twin ability to make us laugh and to step back and look at ourselves. Viewed in this light, "Place publique" is just excellent. A clever plot enhanced by clever lines uttered by clever professionals, seasoned or still in their prime..., well, there are worse things on earth, aren't there?
You will certainly take pleasure in a satire that constantly bites home. And you may also rejoice over the authors' determination not to sink into sterile bitterness. Jaoui-Bacri's causticity is indeed (and quite rightly to my mind) softened by their handling of two characters, Manu, Castro's chauffeur, and Nina, Hélène and Castro's daughter. Neither Quixotic dreamers nor awful cynics, both are no nonsense persons who grapple with life as it comes, without cheating or putting themselves forward; Manu and Nina simply do the best they can in a callous society so oblivious of its youth
A way for the La Bruyères of modern times of paying homage to the new generation and professing their faith in those who will take over. By the end of the story, the two young people are about to form a couple - a nice way to conclude a film which otherwise, would have been sour and nothing else.
La comtesse de Charny (1989)
Good mix of history and romance
Seen in 2018 (roughly thirty years after it was made), the French TV series, "La Comtesse de Charny" happens to have aged quite well, which is not the case of all the Gallic products of the kind.
Not that it is perfect.
True, it has a "feuilletonnesque" side. Yes, there are some gimmicks charateristic of the serial (and Alexandre Dumas, the famous writer adapted here, did not lay it on with a trowel in that respect), namely coincidences and improbabilities, sensational events, great outpourings, a.s.o., but they are in limited quantity and the good qualities of the finished product easily outnumber this (relative) defect. And between us, a little bit of soap provides a kind of guilty pleasure..., which is not to be despised!
Another defect which could be pinpointed is the liberties the writers take with history. And it is undeniable that in real life, Marie-Antoinette did not fall for Count of Charny (she had a lover but it was Axel de Fersen), that Joseph Balsamo/Cagliostro was not really such an omniscient gray eminence of the Revolution, and the same goes for a few other debatable details. For all that, much of what is shown in this ambitious saga (spanning a period ranging from 1770 to 1792, no less) displays commendable historical accuracy. Overall, the series presents a good insight into what France was like at the given period, particularly into the corridors of power: besides the two characters already mentioned, you will also meet, among others, Louis XV, Louis XVI, Rousseau, Lafayette, Mirabeau, Marat, Danton, Robespierre. And some of them like the two kings, Marie-Antoinette or Mirabeau are far from being mere silhouettes. Which does not mean the masses are absent from this entertaining epic. Billot, a farmer and Ange Pitou, a young peasant (both turned revolutionaries) are the main representative of the common people and, although fictitious, prove true to life.
All in all, Marion Sarraut's camera captures in a commendably faithful way the spirit of the times, from the end-of reign atmosphere at Versailles to the turmoil of the Revolution. Which provides a suitable backdrop to the momentous adventures and loves of Andrée de Taverney, later Countess of Charny and all those, famous or not, around her. On the plus side as well - and very much so - is the director's ability to find the right performer for each character and to direct them to perfection: Unforgettable for instance are Eric Prat as the doomed Louis XVI, a little soft around the edges, somewhat hesitating but full of good will, of humility, practicality and common sense, eager to be loved by his people ; Jean François Garreaud, his deep manly voice and his dark imposing presence as Balsamo/Cagliostro; Philippe Clay and his inimitable way to play the every day cynicism of Andrée's father ; Patrick Farru, displaying with an equal talent the opposite qualities (freshness of soul, born generosity) in the shoes of young Ange Pitou, etc, etc. Not everybody, on the other hand, likes Isabelle Guiard's Marie-Antoinette, mainly because of her fake Austrian accent. I personnally do not mind this alleged defect, first due to the fact that I am no expert at Austrian accent but mainly because I admire her creation of a very complex Marie-Antoinette. When I have added that he actress plays a double role (she parallelly embodies an evil French maidservant without an accent!) you will understand that I find her performance worthy of interest. It would be too long to name all the cast, which is a pity since all give full satisfaction, from the most important parts (Anne Jacquemin, Alain Payen, Benoît Vallès, Patrice Alexsandre, future humorist Stéphane Guillon... in a romantic part) to the smallest ones (Armand Mestral, Dora Doll, Yves Brainville...).
Each episode is well-paced, accompanied by a very efficient score by Jean-Paul Guiot, and as is the case for a good serial, you crave to know what happens next. In a word, you are hooked. Marion Sarraut aimed to move, educate and entertain us : mission accomplished. And so well accomplished that in 2018, the attraction of « La Comtesse de Charny » has remained undiminished.
When surprise and information go hand in hand.
Did you know that somewhere in Northern Germany (formerly the GDR), in a hitherto forsaken place, coachloads of tourists flock daily to a... mysterious metallic excrescence, some kind of gigantic hall of unidentified use. What on earth can be such an improbable building, so incongruously erected in the glade of a pine forest, amid the remains of a decaying airfield? What can possibly be hidden behind its walls that so attracts so many people from Poland, Denmark and other countries farther North than Krausnick, the municipality on whose territory the "giant bean" is located? Surprise! Surprise! What the hangar now houses (originally, it was zeppelins) is a... tropical island, complete with blue lagoon, fine sandy beach, damp heat, lush vegetation, the lot. Aptly named "Tropical Islands", the unusual resort offers its man-made "virgin paradise" to tourists mainly from the North of Europe at a shorter distance than the original models, enabling them to go bathe and wallow in the sun at a low cost and for a limited period of time, including in the middle of winter. With the added advantage that they can lounge by the beach in total safety: no wild beast will attack them, no devilish insect will bite them, no fever will strike them.
The moment she discovered this paradoxical site, plastic artist and filmmaker Marie Voignier felt like sharing her surprise with as many of her fellow human beings as possible. And what better way was there than to make "Tropical Islands" the object of a documentary. But what about its length, its form, its angle, its length? Curiously indeed, Voignier opted for a 50 minute format, suitable for television, but quite a long one if the director was content just to film the resort and show how it worked. The surprise effect would surely operate for a time but would as surely die away after a while. The runtime influencing the form and the substance, Voignier quite rightly undertook to explore two extra paths with a view to enriching the matter, one stylistic, the other thematic.
The former consists in playing on contrasts (views of Rausnick in the cold of November vs. the never-ending Summer of Tropical Islands, the archive sequences about the initial function of the hangar vs. its present use, the evocation of the roar of jets once flying very low vs. the peace and quiet reigning in the desolate air base, aso). A clever move which effectively keeps attention aroused.
The second way to fight boredom, is a (relevant) search for substance. There had to be more about 'Hinterland' than just a mere (and overlong) travelogue. And there is. Not only is "Tropical Island" shown as the curiosity it is but the place where it stands (Krausnick) is also put in perspective with its historical, sociological and economic background. After a couple of minutes, the pure description of the Disneyesque park indeed blossoms into a serious (if always entertaining) documentary, the viewer's interest being regularly revived through filmed archives and interviews. The latter are particularly varied and interesting, ranging from the resort's cook to its managers, from two old ladies from Krausnick to the town's minister. They offer, each in their own style, and without Voigniet second-guessing the answer, a worthwhile foray into today's German society as well as yesterday's GDR (including its relationships with the Soviet brother).
The four dozen minutes thus go by fast and you end up watching 'Hinterland' both amused and better informed than when you started - the very definition of a successful documentary, isn't it?
A new Russian director to follow
Tesnota', a film directed by 26-year-old Kantemir Balagov, impresses with its rugged authenticity, its uncompromising standards and its bold aesthetic option, all the more as this is the young filmmaker's first fiction.
Based on a real fact that took place in 1998, in the town of Nalchik in North Caucasus, 'Testnota' tells the sad story of a Jewish family, hitherto barely tolerated - like the rest of their community - by the rest of the population of this Kabardino-Balkar republic of Russia. One unfortunate day, the precarious situation the Kofts are in (Avi Koft is a modest garage owner) is challenged by the abduction of the family's son, David, the very night he got engaged to Lea. A large ransom is demanded, so high that they cannot afford to pay it. And, for some reason, calling the police is out of the question... The rest the story is for you to discover but be assured that it is eventful.
The backbone of the tale is Ila, David's rebellious older sister, played with dark incandescence by a talented newcomer named Darya Jovner. Craving for freedom, Ila does only what she has decided to do, like loving who she has chosen (a Kabard instead of a Jewish boy) or doing the job she is fond of (being a mechanic for her father for free rather than having a paid office work), and although the director's (and accordingly our) sympathy goes to her, the strong-willed girl cannot but make things even more complicated than they already are. This is one of the reasons why, even if this is deliberately not an action flick (the kidnapping remains off camera for instance), tension appears early in the narration and never abates until the final scenes. Simply, the suspense stems from the characters' attitudes and their confrontations rather than from car chases or other stunt set pieces. And at that, Balagov (who has studied cinema with the famous Aleksandar Sokurov) is already a past master. The characters all being in disagreement with each other guarantees a series of powerful scenes, not unlike the best ones in Tennesse Williams or Edward Albee's theater. It goes without saying that to reach such a level, it takes great performers, which is the case here. The already mentioned Darya Jovner is well supported particularly two other noticeable thespians, Olga Dorunova (as the suffering but intolerant mother) and Atrem Tsypin (as her mild husband always trying to round the squares).
Artistically speaking, 'Tsenota' is also some kind of an achievement. The choice of the 1.37 ratio for one is particularly relevant as it enhances the feeling of suffocation experienced by the Koft family members. The work on colors, translating into visual sensations the feelings they are going through at a given time (blood red, electric blue, etc) is equally meaningful and remarkable.
Not that 'Tesnota' is absolutely perfect. A few scenes drag on (the deflowering and the nightclub scenes, for example). Worse, a slaughter video is shown full-time in all its graphic details. It lasts and lasts and serves no other purpose than to show the young Karbads who are watching it remain indifferent to the sufferings of the victims, which we would have understood as easily without such a display of complacency. What is the point of dwelling so much on the matter? WE do not approve of the Chechens' methods, even if WE think their fight is justified . So, why are WE, poor viewers, condemned to endure such horrors for such long minutes ? To be persuaded of what we were convinced in the first place? Quite debatable!
But, apart from such occasional shortcomings, 'Tesnota' undoubtedly is an outstanding work. An interesting description of a little known place, a well chosen starting point that holds its promises, exceptionally well directed actors, an in-depth psychological and sociological study, an artistic achievement, all these points contribute to make the film it a must-see and Kantemir Balagov a director to follow.
Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja (2017)
Sang-soo Hong, South Korea's most famous film director, besides having a long and well-stocked career (24 works, long or short, since 1996) is an international film festival fixture. An admirer of Eric Rohmer, he is noted - like his master - for his dislike of gratuitous effects and for his knack for depicting every day relations. On the other hand he is sometimes criticized for always making the same film, in the same environment (Seoul, its streets and... restaurants!) and for indulging in superficial marivaudage.
Sure, his stories almost always address the subject of love but the Korean director is definitely not a mere illustrator of the grand maneuvers of amorous seduction. A minimum of attention makes it glaringly evident: there is always more to his characters than just one trying to lure another into their bed. True, his characters all have sex drive but they also have a brain, a heart and... many defects! Agreed, there is often a light comedy tone to his works (well exemplified by 'The Day After', one of his latest efforts) but, although very good at the genre, the director is more ambitious than just that. Bringing smiles is obviously one of his strong points but in his case, humor serves above all as a springboard for more serious matters. If you are not content with a superficial look, you soon realize that the Korean master's agenda (hidden or not) consists in examining such weighty topics as the meaning of life, human behavior, social relationships, and naturally art - particularly cinema and literature... Everybody knows that Marivaux and Rohmer did not deal only with mating, well... nor does Hong. And as for "always making the same film", haven't the self-appointed prosecutors heard of variations on a theme? What else do Fellini, Bergman, Woody Allen do? Hong does not repeat himself, he simply has a universe and motifs of his own: yes, his heroes are mainly intellectuals, but what is wrong about featuring those he mixes with and accordingly knows best, all the more since brainy ones - by definition - think (even if they often do it badly) and give depth to the stories told.
Yes, the scene is often set in Seoul, but not exclusively so: if you take the Hong train, you will also travel to Kangwon Province, Juju Island, Shinduri, Tongyeong, Gangneung, Paris, Trouville, Hamburg, Cannes...
"On the Beach Alone at Night", the work we are concerned here with, is an excellent illustration of my assertions. The story once again involves a film director (Sang Soo Hong is easily recognizable in the dream sequence as a tortured creator, who like his equivalent in real life is having a complicated love affair with actress Min-Hee Kim). And there is another of these hearty meals with plenty of beer and other spirits the director is a specialist of, but besides the fact that this kind of set-piece is as eagerly awaited by Hong enthusiasts as their equivalent in Hitchcock, Sautet or Chabrol films, they are always both hilarious and profound; side-splitting because loss of inhibition engendered by alcohol induces the characters to act foolishly; deep as liquor makes them spout (cruel) truths they usually keep unexpressed. In "On the Beach alone", there is not one but two of such meal sequences and they are amusing to compare. The second one, set in Gangneung is the classic Hong meal sequence : a group of "friends" laugh and make cutting remarks, especially the charming, well-educated, usually reserved heroin. The members of the group composed of people who had great expectations but driven by circumstances to lower their ambitions laugh at each other and instead of easing the atmosphere rub salt in the wounds. Earlier in the film, Yeong-hee, the actress, has lunch with a German couple in Hamburg. How different the atmosphere is then. In the company of a well-meaning, sensible, health-oriented, water-drinking German couple, no barbs are hurled but on the other hand the atmosphere remains awfully stiff and nothing of importance is exchanged.For Hong, perfection is obviously synonymous with dullness.
The sure thing is that « Alone on the Beach » is anything but superficial. It is first and foremost the superb portrait of a woman who, despite her young age, finds herself at a crossroads. Having had, because of a scandalous affair with her director, to withdraw from the screen, the charming Yeong Hee wanders aimlessly throughout the story in a state quiet desperation, close to outright hopelessness, examining her life, her love story, the meaning of it all with no compromise, including in a surprising nightmare sequence. As for Hong, he lives up to the Bergman-like ambition of his project (although with a lighter touch than the Swedish master), proving both a consummate painter of melancholy and great woman's director.
From the refreshing initial sequences in Hamburg (when Yeaong-hee still hopes her lover will come to see her) to the darker (and at times humorously dark) ones set in Korea, the writer-director aptly manages to make the audience connect with the young woman, making their own her states of heart and mind. He could not be served better than by Min-hee Kim, as engaging as she is beautiful, never putting on a show. On the contrary, she is herself and touches us all the more for that. The actress is well surrounded by Hong regulars, among whom Hae-hyo Kwon (as an old friend) or Sung-keun Noon (as the lover-director).
« Alone on the Beach at Night » is accordingly - and definitely - one of Song-soo Hong's major works and is therefore, recommended.
Le potier (1966)
A craftsman of yore made redundant
How does it feel to be a seasoned craftsman, proud of one's work and giving one's customers full satisfaction only to realize that one sells less and less? This is exactly what happens to this old potter of a desert village of Aragon in 1960s Spain, as plastic, cheaper and more resistant, inexorably replaces his creations - noble as they are. Juan Luis Buñuel, in his first film, applies to record - lovingly - the age-old gestures of the craftsman before they disappear for ever, just the way Jacques Demy did in 'Le Sabotier du Val de Loire' (1955). At the same time, the tone of this documentary is blunt and sharp, its style without flourish, quite close to how Juan-Luis' father, the great Buñuel, filmed "Las Hurdes" (1933) thirty years before.
A striking and moving experience. A must-see for all those who seek authenticity.
Copying Beethoven (2006)
A symphony in music and images.
How to make a movie about Beethoven while managing to live up to the stupendous composer he was? And more particularly, as is the case here, about the making of his immortal, exhilarating, uplifting Ninth Symphony? Mission impossible? Well, judging from a series of past artistic failures on the theme, one would be tempted to say yes. For sure, a few of the roughnecks who dared enter such uncertain terrain should have thought twice before getting burned. Take Abel Gance for example and his outrageously overblown « Un grand amour de Beethoven », to say nothing of his equally ridiculous « 10th Symphony ». Feeling wary for fear of watching just another of those boring phoney biopics about a great genius is then justified. But the prejudice is soon - and happily so - to be disproved by what is given to see and to hear. As a matter of fact, as Agnieszka Holland's movie unfurls, the viewer (and listener) feels more and more involved... to the point of being downright carried away. It looks (and sounds) as if where Abel Gance failed (achieving to image Ludwig Van's fiery romantic music), Agnieszka Holland (a very underrated director), succeeds as for her in converting the try.
Not that the movie is perfect (No one is obliged to do the impossible!). There ARE one or two debatable points. The main criticism addressed to « Copying Beethoven » concerns the script. Many are those who blame the writers (Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson) for taking liberties with the facts. And it is true that although building on a historically accurate situation (in 1824, after the death of his favorite copyist Schlemmer, Beethoven, who had encountered problems with his new collaborator Peter Gänzler, asked his publisher for a new one), the two authors soon take a side road. In real life, the composer was assigned two male copyists whereas in the film, there is only one - and a female one to top it all! A well-founded objection if one sticks to hardcore historical truth. But art wants what art wants: poetic licence has always existed and is acceptable insofar as the spirit of the material is respected, which is the case here, at least in my opinion. It is worth noticing by the way that the film would not have existed but for this transgression - imposed by the producers. Moreover, if - as advocated by Coleridge - you use suspension of disbelief, you will be amply rewarded. First owing to the fact that the character of Anna Holtz is well-drawn and engaging (the young woman is a true lover of music and never plays the seduction card). Also because Diane Kruger embodies her with talent, always finding the right tone, whether it be respect, fear, admiration, determination or revolt. And, what matters most, she constantly exudes a sense of dignity. All in all, the strong presence of Anna Holtz as performed by the radiant Diane Kruger gives the film a more modern (and hence universal) dimension to the film than if it had been scrupulously historically correct. The second blame often put on 'Copying Beethoven' is its way of representing Beetoven's deafness. The question is relevant: a correct representation of a deaf person on a screen does pose problems. Before making a movie featuring someone either deaf or hard of hearing, the authors indeed have a choice to make, either putting themselves (and us for that matter) in the place of the deaf character(s) or cheat a little and pretend that a spoken exchange, necessary to keep the action moving, is possible. Anyway, whatever their option, what they will show us will not be conform to reality. And whatever they choose, they will be criticized for it.
In the present case, he scriptwriters opted for the second solution and my position about that will echo the one I expressed above about historical faithfulness: let's accept this convention and let's enjoy the film without playing those who know best. Beethoven managed to exchange views with Anna Holtz... All right, why not ? After all, actors do not REALLY die on the set no more than an actress actually delivers a baby! A film is NEVER a record of reality, it is always A READING OF REALITY. Whether it is a good or a bad reading is the question, not whether things happened exactly the way they are shown or not. This premise admitted, the spectator can then take advantage the rich exchanges about art, music, creation, solitude, womanhood... between the master and his not-so-obedient pupil. And admire without reservations the fabulous performance delivered by an inspired, unrecognizable Ed Harris in what may be the role of a lifetime. This all-American is downright amazing: he rings more true in his embodiment of Beethoven than Ludwig himself!
I will conclude by witnessing to what has been one of the most intense emotional experiences I have been through, meaning by that the highly inspired rendering of the 'Ninth Symphony'. This amazing sequence is - even if nobody ever mentions it in film histories - a genuine piece of anthology. It works exceptionally well- at full capacity - on three levels : music of course (with a perfect performance by the London Symphony Orchestra), drama (the suspense coming from whether Beethoven will be able or not to conduct his piece till the end) and editing (the various shots and camera angles being cut in exact accordance with the pulse of the music), with the effect that each separate element (music, image and story) are blended together only to carry you away out of this world to a superior continuum, a kind of nirvana where only ravished souls access.
If only for this fabulous time of rapture, 'Copying Beethoven' is not to be missed. So, my recommendation is: leave your prejudices aside and let yourself go. You will not regret it. A cocktail of history, great music, excellent filmmaking, exciting dialogue, brilliant acting and storytelling, that's an offer you can't refuse !
L'homme idéal (1997)
Unfunny French comedy
An exciting cast (Christophe Malavoy, Pascal Legitimus, Daniel Russo, Zabou Breitman) and an a priori amusing original idea (a young woman unable to find the ideal man in a single person splits her time between three imperfect males who, added one to the other, own all the qualities she requires from Mr. Right). Unfortunately the actors mentioned - good as they are - are not given much to do, with the exception of Zabou, who is outrageous as one of the protagonists' nutty sister - the type of girl who attempts suicide by swallowing vitamin c instead of barbiturates! As for the basic situation, things do not go any better. As a matter of fact, it soon proves so artificial that the necessary suspension of disbelief does not last long. Boredom sets in instead, all the more as the comedy is poor in good gags. You will laugh more over the antics of Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis having to deal with three mistresses in "Boeing Being" (and God knows that this is no masterpiece) than before this plodding comedy. Lubitsch, Donen or Wilder could have made the most of such a script - artificial as it is, not Xavier Gélin who has no genius and who is obviously making a film for... making a film!
There is not much one can save here, except one very funny scene featuring François Berléand as a stoic restaurant customer, Zabou's already mentioned eccentricities and volleyball scenes (a sport rarely shown in fiction movies). Barely acceptable as a time-killer. In any other circumstance, you can zap that one without damage!
Douze heures d'horloge (1959)
Inferior French Noir
The 1950's mark the birth of a new style of gangster movies in France. Two milestones set the tone for dozens of variations on the theme offered by quite a few filmmakers, Jules Dassin's unequaled heist film "Du Rififi chez les hommes" (1955) coming on the heels of Jacques Becker's seminal post heist tragedy "Touchez pas au grisbi" (1954). From Verneuil to Melville, from Grangier to Sautet - not to mention Jean-Luc Godard and his deconstructed "A bout de soufflé" (1960), many indeed are those who contributed to the renewal of the Gallic crime movie genre, whose dark clouds still more or less overshadow our cinematography today. Of course, not every filmmaker is either Dassin or Becker. Most of them do not rise above the level of good workmanship, which is the case of helmer Geza Radvanyi, who after emigrating to the West failed to equal the qualities – human and artistic – of his Hungarian classic "Somewhere in Europe" (1948). An estimation which is not likely to be undermined by the viewing of "Twelve Hours by the Clock". From the first minutes of film though, it looks as if you are in for another great entry in the 1950's French noir new trend. The black and white pictures, finely crafted by the talented "light sculptor" Henri Alekan, the well-shot and edited prison break sequence and and the presence of three competent actors playing the escaped prisoners, Lino Ventura, Laurent Terzieff and Hannes Messemer, go in this direction. Unfortunately, due to two fundamental flaws, this initial good impression does not last. The first (major) defect lies in the fact that, on the pretext that the action takes place in the South of France, the actors (including the German ones !) speak with a fake Southern French accent. The result of such nonsense is that it immediately (and irreversibly) torpedoes the credibility of the whole thing. Second and even worse defect, the tense basic situation (after their escape, the three men have a twelve hour window to find documents before boarding a cargo ship to liberty) deplorably shifts from noir to stale romance. After the captivating beginning in the style of "Reservoir Dogs" or "Desperate Hours", the narrative dissolves only too soon into photonovel sugar dripping from a worn "you love me-you love me not" thematic. Loss of interest involving boredom, the state will not leave you until the end of the movie, despite one or two flashes of violence. It is always a bad thing when a story starts intensely and loses impact minute after minute.
Which is why I would not recommend "Twelve Hours by the Clock" to anybody but film historians (as a sample of the French Film Noir wave) and/or Lino Ventura completists. The others are likely to be disappointed: wet powder is useless!
7 minuti (2016)
A social drama without sanctimonious rhetoric
Well, to say the least, "il bel uomo" Michele Placido ("Till Marriage Do Us Part, "Marcia trionfale", "Three Brothers"...), has become along with time a heck of a director ("Romanzo Criminale", to name but one example). This time, with "7 minuti", Placido is back in business in a big way. Not only is the subject he has chosen food for thought but the Italian director manages to make the potentially dry subject a great show, full of tensions and suspense. All this from a simple but very effective starting point: the buyers of a textile factory promise no layoffs on the only condition that the she-workers give up seven minutes of their fifteen minute break. Following this offer, eleven of the staff representatives, including their spokesperson (Ottavia Piccolo), gather for the vote and... the heated discussions preceding it. Socially relevant (there are countless cases where workers have to face such dilemmas) honest (naive optimism is not on the agenda while racism, hatred and jealousy are rife; all the points of view are exposed and debated) and committed (employment blackmail is harshly denounced), Placido's last opus is also a model of construction (an "in camera" drama in the line of "Twelve Angry Men", complete with clashes pitting the ones against the others and final suspense) and of actress direction (all the performers, young, mature or old ARE sensational). All in all, this film is an exploit in its ability to talk straight and to entertain at the same time. Agreed, Michele Placido is not the only one in this category (Martin Ritt's "Norma Rae" is another example of such a talent) but he is one of the few artists capable of such achievements.