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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 ours) 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' attidudes 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 quares).
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 do WE, poor viewers are we 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.
A new director is born
'Louis-Do de Lencquesaing' (qv) is a very active movie and TV actor (85 films between 1990 and 2017), who worked for such talented directors as Chabrol, Kahn, Desplechin, Godard, Assayas, Haneke, Bonello and Ramos in roles rarely leading (the producer of _Le père de mes enfants (2009) (qv) – his best performance to date; the father in _Taj Mahal (2015)_(qv)), more often supporting (the bookstore owner in Caché (2005)_ (qv)). Also a theater actor and a stage director, the characters he embodies are often in his own image, casual, charming and slightly mocking, which does not prevent him from playing character parts, including historical figures (Jean de Luxembourg in _ Jeanne captive (2011) _ (qv)) and/or malevolent beings (the wealthy pedophile who believes himself above the law in _Polisse (2011) _ (qv)). All these activities are apparently not enough for this passionate workaholic. As a matter of fact, he has also (starting in 1998) tried his hand at filmmaking and managed to direct, write and interpret (in the latter case with one exception) three shorts and one feature, all displaying more or less strong autobiographical overtones (sonhood, fatherhood - especially father-daughter relationship -, satire of the Christian noble family he comes from and rejection of its values, writing, coming of age, love, separation...). "Mécréant" is the first of these four efforts. To tell the truth, this modest short, although amusing and intriguing, has nothing particularly remarkable about it. Compared to _Au galop (2012) (qv) _ , de Lencquesaing's very rich first feature, this one shows much more limited ambitions (a wise move in fact for a first-time director) : filmed in one sequence, in a single place (an office), with only two actors (Louis-Do as Vincent, an office worker, and Nelly Borgeaud as his mother), it merely consists in a phone conversation. The plot is basic as well : Vincent's mother, a declared catholic, is organizing the funeral mass of her own mother and is currently on the phone with her son Vincent, who is irritated not only at being interrupted in his work but at having to collaborate to something he deeply disapproves of (in this particular case, the choice of funeral hymns, and more generally speaking, the Catholic religion he has rejected). But his mother is his mother and although reluctantly and with ironic bites, he abides. I said above that the situation was elemental in its extreme simplicity but this is not totally true. In fact, it gets complicated by another call on another line in which a family member announces the birth of a new baby. The result is that Vincent, who has had his work interrupted by a first call, now sees it interrupted by a new one. The effect produced is both comic (his being forced to juggle two antagonistic conversations at once) and touching (death and life intermingle). Although, not an outstanding work, "Mécréant" is pleasant to see. Light and elegant (despite Vincent's constant swearing!), it acquires more substance if you take it as an introduction to de Lancqueseing's director's corpus and if you view it with the prospect of his films to come. Part of the actor-director's themes are indeed already present, connecting - discreetly but undeniably - this "sour candy" to the much more invigorating "Au Galop", his deep and charming first feature.
Not "Raining Stones' or 'The Full Monty' but quite watchable social comedy
Typically the sort of movie I would have loved to love but that I ended up finding only middling. Neither absolute junk nor the masterpiece it could have been, 'Discount', Louis-Julien Petit's first feature, can be considered a relative disappointment probably for promising too much for what little it had in store. Advertized indeed as a social comedy (one of my favorite genres), this tale of marginalized people joining forces to fight the big bad ultra-liberal ogre immediately conjured up in me images of such British delights as 'Raining Stones', 'Brassed Off', 'The Full Monty', 'Made in Dagenheim', et al.) - the kind of intelligent entertainments (no, the two terms are not oxymoronic!) where social commentary goes in hand with great laughs. Unfortunately, the exhilaration expected was not in the cards, although I liked the subject and found the acting tolerably good. What then accounted for the impression of dissatisfaction I was under on leaving the theater? The answer came to me upon reflection: I had simply asked a bit much to what was nothing but a modest effort and which did not look further than that. This is a first film after all and as such its shortcomings are understandable. Petit still has time ahead to make progress and father more accomplished works in the future. His following work, for one, 'Carole Matthieu', a taut social drama, is an interesting prolongation of 'Discount', in a serious mode this time. As I said, the plot of 'Discount' is not at play in my (relative) disappointment. On the contrary, its premise is perfect : in a hard discount store whose management focuses on profitability at any cost, Gilles, Christiane, Alfred, Emma, Momo and Hervé are declared redundant and will soon be replaced by automatic pay stations. After a period of doubt and depression, they decide not to accept the situation passively and under Gilles' guidance soon organize resistance by opening a solidarity grocery selling... goods 'borrowed' from the store they still work in! By stealing those who have robbed them of their jobs, thereby of their resources and dignity, and by redistributing the products among the needy, they become a kind of Robin Hood and his Merry Men (and modernity oblige, women!). A wonderful premise which could have generated torrents of laughs and tears, all mixed together, like in a Capra, a Frears or a Loach gem. The trouble is that, if the satire is biting enough, the comedy lacks hilarity while the drama is scant in emotional punch. As a Whole 'Discount' lacks life , rhythm and relief, its weak dialogues fail to hook the viewer, who is not involved enough and accordingly responds only mildly to potentially strong stimuli. As for the actors (Corinne Masiero, Pascal Demolon and Zabou Breitman in the lead) they are good enough, but never shine particularly because of the lackluster text they have to deliver. Quite imperfect as far as its form is concerned, 'Discount' is nevertheless a film worth watching for substance particularly when it comes to its right presentation of the labor relations in today's France. Moreover, not everybody shares my reservations on the film. So, do not shy away from it, you may be part of these happy viewers.
Chante ton bac d'abord (2014)
Singin' in... the school
"We Did It on a Song" is quite a singular movie, maybe the only one of its kind... A documentary? For sure it is one, but a documentary in which the protagonists, although not professional performers, regularly express themselves... singing. Somewhat unusual, isn't it? A very bold project at any rate, which had every chance to derail but nonetheless blossomed into an exclusive masterpiece.
David André, its director, is an expert documentarist ("Armes de dérision massive: "Le Nouvel activisme américain" (2008), "La vie amoureuse des prêtres" (2012),...) and as such, his idea of following a group of students throughout their senior year will hardly surprise anyone. What is more original is the choice of Boulogne-sur-Mer as his place of investigation owing to the fact that the seaside town, once a thriving port, has been hit hard by the crisis, thus deteriorating into a zone where the prospects are anything but bright for the young. André could have been content to accompany a chosen sample of such students for nine months, from their first day back to school to their "bac" (secondary education final exam), along the lines of a pure documentary approach. But he wanted more: his chosen few were to comment on their daily experiences in filmed scenes of their lives combined with interviews of themselves and of their parents. Even more innovatory , he would ask his young 'heroes' to create songs (in partnership with the composer and himself) to sing them on the screen.
But, original and attractive as this idea might appear on paper, would it be possible to really get it off the ground ? Which of the 12th graders would be willing to confide their feelings before the director's camera considering that everybody would know everything about them once the film was shown? Which of them, supposing they accepted (they finally did after viewing a sample of David André's works), would keep the viewer interested for an hour and a half? The director naturally asked himself these questions but finally overcame his doubts and took the plunge. How right he was! How beautifully his bold move paid off! Successful in every category – psychological, sociological, documentary and musical – this 'documusical' is a genuine enchantment.
The first factor contributing to such an achievement is first and foremost the inspired choice of the main protagonists and their serious involvement in the project. The photogenic Gaëlle Bridoux is undoubtedly its leading figure insofar as not only is she refreshingly charming but she is also the only one having definite ideas about her future. Which does not mean that the others leave you indifferent. On the contrary, they are all interesting persons and even if they do not appear so as of the beginning, they each have their own engaging personalities. And they may be less determined than Gaëlle, but it may be their very insecurities which makes them touching. Rachel - the slender saturnine girl others misjudge as haughty, Alex – the punk- looking but adorable boy who takes all lightly, Caroline - the sensitive girl unsettled by the fact she may never be able to leave her narrow dreary environment, Nicolas - the handsome guy with a brain, a heart and... delicate nerves. You all get to know them intimately and when the film closes, you find it hard to have to leave them. Just the way they do knowing that after their finals, their group will be separated and nothing will be the same again.
The other strong point is the social aspect. Through the individual cases described above, the director takes stock of today's problems in a place particularly stricken by deindustalization and its corollaries, decline, unemployment, poverty and loss of bearings. An agenda that would be hard to swallow if the film was made in the mere tone of statement but which is made much more palatable by the empathy for the characters the viewer become closer and closer to. A prodigy Ken Loach ("Raining Stones", "The Navigators", "I, Daniel Blake) usually achieves in the same way, with humor instead of songs
In the final analysis, David André has more than won his bet – a bet that looked almost impossible to win. But magically (or rather through a cocktail of passion, talent and perseverance), he managed to make this 'impossible object' possible. An amazing and unique work where opposites meet like they rarely do elsewhere: realism and poetry, journalism and music, Jacques Demy and Ken Loach. Highly recommended for all.
Gang Related (1997)
A duo of cops + dope + a famous-rapper-turned-movie-star, what can you expect from such a mix of ingredients? The usual vile brew, you may say... But surprise! "Gang Related" soon proves worth much better than that – a fact you realize right from the very first minutes of projection, – and with what pleasure! Directed by the relatively unknown Jim Kouf, the film can indeed boast a personal tone, which makes it easily stand out of the crowd of lowbrow crime movies. Of course there is a duo of cops in this one but, to begin with, they are bad cops, a sure guarantee against an umpteenth rehash of "48 Hours", while creating at the same time a malaise rather uncommon in the duo of cops sub-genre. The two improbable partners here are white detective DiVinci (James Belushi, excelling at being unbearably talkative and self- satisfied) and his black counterpart Jake Rodriguez (Tupac Shakur, surprisingly collected in his last role). Another originality of the script is that they are not reluctant partners like in Hollywood's run of the mill cop movies: on the contrary they are on the same wavelength and not for the sake of fighting the good fight. Or to be more exact they were... as long as their shenanigans did not go too far. Because just now DiVinci is crossing the line. Not content indeed to steal the drug from dealers, he has started to kill them. Which is not to the taste of Rodriguez who, although not a lamb himself, cannot put up with such deviations anymore. Little by little he turns into the Jiminy Cricket type but to no avail: the more he tries to refrain his partner, the more radical DiVinci gets. One of the plot's driving forces is precisely the worsening of the two men's relationships, with a more and more reluctant Tupac Shakur and a more and more freewheeling James Belushi, without the former managing to curb the latter's blind madness. The second main effective element lies in the parallel (and inexorable) worsening of the situation they find themselves in. As a matter of fact, DiVinci, who thinks he has a knack for finding ways out of bad situations invariably makes his mate and him jump out of the fire into the frying pan. The suspense does not lie in their desperate rushing along then – it is a recipe for disaster - but stems from the question 'how will DiVinci manage to make them sink even lower ?, Thrilling throughout, extremely well written, "Gang Related" is a superior crime movie – and with a moral viewpoint to crown it all. Nothing to do with Tarantino and his complacent displays of cynicism and sadistic violence. In 'Gang Related', the viewer is confronted from the beginning to the end to the question: are you ready to break the law in your everyday life and if so, where do you draw the line? But be reassured, nothing to do with boring lecturing either. Fun and surprise await you instead.
Crash Test Aglaé (2017)
India tries to make it to... India
Year after year, once or twice a summer season, appears a regular UFO, all the more refreshing and enjoyable as it has been unheralded before and so, totally catches you by surprise. And this is the case here. Who indeed had heard before of Eric Gravel (a French Canadian living in France whose first feature this is), of his main actress India Hair (whose hitherto supporting roles – often as a schoolgirl or a student - still had not given her a name) and of the movie itself, oddly titled "Crash Test Aglaé", filmed in 2015 but shelved until August 2017? Hardly anybody I would say, but little does it matter since no sooner have you read the summary or watched the trailer than you are hooked: you just feel like going to the closest movie theater in the area to find out about the plot developments. And to become friends with the heroine, 25-year-old Aglaé, that young woman like no others. To tell you more about her, know that the lady has been brought up by irresponsible parents and, as a result, has been suffering from permanent anxiety. In order to fight her insecurities, she has devised a special method, namely living an extremely well-ordered life and practicing her job (as a vehicle crash test worker) in a rigorous, almost finicky way, which incidentally makes her her factory's best preparer. So just imagine the shock she experiences the day she learns the plant she works in is to be relocated: her inner framework logically tumbles down and depression looms. A different job is just unconceivable! Which is why when the parent company hypocritically offers her (along with the rest of the staff) to hold the same job at its new location... India, she... accepts! Even if it means having to travel and live 7,500 kilometers away from her native place, even if the trip is at her expense, even if it includes a pay cut and the loss of all welfare benefits. What does that matter, she will go there come rain or come shine! And away she drives in an old Citroën Visa, accompanied by two co-workers, Liette (Julie Depardieu) and Marcelle (Yolande Moreau), who – for reasons of their own - have decided to follow her. An eventful trip ensues, whose twists and turns must not be spoiled: you will be better served when you discover them on a screen yourself, whether small or big.
Suffice it to say that there are plenty of gags and witty lines - mainly in the first half of the film -, the comedy being aptly provided by Julie Depardieu and Yolande Moreau (the latter downright irresistible with her improbable Looney Tunes Granny look and wry humor). Among the most effective comic effects are the satiric bites at today's so-said managers of human resources, their being ridiculed acting as a vicarious revenge on those inhuman fellows (I'm thinking, in particular, of the one in charge of delocations unabashedly eating peanuts under the nose of those he lays off). The relationships between the three women, whether in the factory scenes or in those featuring the trip's disastrous beginning, also rank among the funniest.
But don't be mistaken: "Crash Test Aglaé", while undeniably a comedy, cannot be reduced to this kind of light entertainment. So don't expect a pure exemplary of the genre. For there is more to Gravel's film than just a series of good laughs. As a matter of fact, the more Aglaé moves on, the darker the tone of the narrative gets, passing from a bit crazy at the beginning to more and more serious, going as far as to border on the tragic towards the end. The reason is that, as time goes on, difficulties pile up in hostile environments for Aglaé (now alone as her companions have dropped her midway). And as the young woman never wants to give up whatever the obstacles, the situation cannot but worsen. What also makes the film less funny (but more profound) is that the journey , merely physical at the beginning is gradually matched by another - all interior: Aglaé puts herself to the test and discovers her own reactions to the ordeal she goes through until in the end she knows who she actually is and how she will embrace life in the time ahead.
But although graver the second part sequences are never boring, surprising and unpredictable as they are. The most remarkable thing may lie in fact that in the closing scenes Eric Gravel manages to marry the opposite tones of his film's two parts. Humour and satire then resurface within the philosophical tale but without jarring, thus ending at best this offbeat picture.
As a bonus, this second part features unexpected but all the more impressive views of the Kazakhstan desert.
And let's not forget India Hair for whom the whole movie is a showcase. Her talent really explodes in it. Forceful and stubbornly serious in a comic environment, she stands out of all the other performers. She really carries the whole film on her young shoulders and deserves praise for that
My recommendation is not to miss this stimulatingly original film. Believe me, not only will it surprise and entertain you but it will give you food for thought in addition. Not a bad programme, is it?
Les combattants (2014)
The paratroopers of love
One more "Boy Meets Girl" story? Just another Rom-Com? Not really. First things first, you will never prevent boys from meeting girls and the reverse, so there will always be love stories and thank heaven for them when they manage to rise above the clichés and the cheesiness too many of them bathe in. A defect mercifully avoided by this particular affair of the heart. A mere look at the title ("Les Combattants" - literally "The Fighters" -) is an obvious guarantee that you will be spared the stale old exasperating Cha Ba Da Ba Da tale. Actually, neither the characters nor the situation are conventional or predictable. Take our young Romeo for example: Arnaud is a young carpenter who does not show any real passion for his trade. Docile, mild-mannered and easy-going, he takes life as it comes; in other words he still has to find himself. For her part Madeleine, the girl he meets, has little in common with the frail, sensitive Juliet. Three adjectives best qualify her: brusque, burly and nihilistic. Completely out of this world, the horsey lady has an obsession: mastering survival skills in order to... get through the end of the world! As you can see, not the standard Rom-Com, all the more as the stereotypical gender roles are reversed: Miss Headstrong is the dominant one while Mr. Least Line of Resistance yields and follows... at least for a time.
For all the rhetoric, though, this is a love story. Even if it looks just the opposite. Even if it is set in a more and more unusual context as the minutes pass. And it is precisely the odd settings and the crazy story developments that prevent boredom. Unique in its kind "Les combattants' has romance bloom... within the framework of a training session for wannabee paratroopers and, a little later, in the middle of a survival experience in the grip of untamed nature!
Nothing wishy-washy to fear as you can see. On the contrary in the end you will have been told the touchingly serious story of two creatures who attract each other but have to struggle to find who they really are and to make out how they can relate to each other satisfyingly. Another quality of Thomas Cailley and Claude Le Pape's screenplay, lies in the fact the two characters, a bit caricatural at the beginning, evolve in the course of the action and gain in depth. The last added value is the film's interesting examination of what it is like to be young in today's France, a country once prosperous and proud of itself which now seems to have lost its bearings. Both Madeleine and Arnaud, each in their manner, are disoriented and do not know where they are going. A statement that, by extension, can be applied to a big share of French youth and brings the movie a rich sociological touch.
Always where you least expect him, Thomas Cailley succeeds in combining several genres (documentary, comedy, romance, psychological study, army movie, disaster movie) without ever sinking into confusion. So much so that "Les combattants" appears as a unique example of its kind. Well-served by its actors (delusively bland Kevin Azaïs and always under pressure Adèle Haenel), it will surprise and amuse you while giving you - Thank God in a casual way - food for thought.
Great documentary about the green years of a great writer
It is amazing to think that French writer Colette (1873-1954), world- acclaimed for the imaginative delicacy of her writing and for her indomitable freedom-loving spirit, loomed large on French literature for over five decades and has managed to survive oblivion without even having to endure the least barren period. When in 1900 she first stood out of the crowd, it was, to be true, as much for scandalous reasons as for the qualities of her style. But opprobrium has its compensations: if daring to defy the prudishness of her time through her writings indeed created an outcry it also brought the young woman a cohort of devoted readers. Many indeed were those who bought and read the 'Claudine' series (four spicy episodes in the life of a cheeky teenager turned young married - and bisexual - lady). The novels that followed, once again more or less loosely based on her intimate and/or artistic life ('L'Ingénue libertine', 'La Vagabonde', 'L'Envers du music- hall'...) were also well received, both for their inflammatory content and their inspired style. But the early 1920s marked a turning point in Colette's career as started exploring a new, less provocative vein: evoking her youth. Growing older (she was nearly fifty at the time), the writer felt a sudden urge to look upon her green years. A significant part of her production now concerned the people and the places that had made her youth an enchantment: her mother Sidonie (nicknamed Sido), her native village (Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye), her native region (Burgundy) and its wonderful nature... From 'La maison de Claudine' (1922) to 'Paysages et portraits' (posthumous, 1958), she did write thousands of admirable lines about her ideal first eighteen years and her ideal mother.
Ideal or idealized? That is the very question Jacques Tréfouël, the excellent TV director ('Médecins de nuit', 'Les Eaux dormantes') asks himself in 'I Belong a Place I Have Left'. And he does have questions to ask! Here are some (among others): if Sido was such a perfect mother, why didn't Colette visit her when she was seriously ill while she begged her to? What were her real relationships with her father, one-legged ex-captain Colette? Why did the writer sidestep the eighteen months she spent in Châtillon-sur-Loing after leaving Saint- Sauveur?
To address these uncertainties, Trefouël, playing the sleuth, literally investigates the mystery. He turns his interrogative camera towards Saint-Sauveur and the surrounding countryside (a place which has changed very little since 1890), he snoops around Colette's birth house, he lets us into Colette's school, etc. Like a detective craving to uncover the truth, he interviews and interviews - both local people and Colette specialists (the best known being the novelist-biographer Michel del Castillo). And like a historian, he consults and consults (and shares with the viewer) an impressive number of period documents.
The result is an exciting work, miles away from hagiography, which manages to brush the complex portrait of a complex human being. After seeing this highlight documentary, Colette, Sido and Saint-Sauveur will have lost part of their mythical aura but will have gained authenticity. Which will not prevent you from enjoying Colette's idealized version of her youth: her books dealing with the subject do remain masterpieces of literature, as evidenced by the lines read of Ludmila Mikael and Véronique Silver in the course of the film. Do not be afraid, knowing the author better will not turn you away from her, just the opposite: it will actually give you the desire to immerse yourself in her superbly written memories, idealized as they are.
Nuts? Really? Streisand and Dreyfuss as nutcrackers!
Powerful, punchy, full of frills and spills, why on earth does this exciting court drama remain so little known? 'Nuts', Martin Ritt's next to last opus, is an excellent work though. The direction is solid and its fast-paced editing combined with first-rate performances from such established talents as Richard Dreyfuss, Maureen Stapleton, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach... are a decided guarantee of excitement. At the same time, Martin Ritt, has never been as the king of hollow entertainment, so you can be assured that, as a bonus, he will give you food for thought. Tom Topor's finely crafted play indeed gives him a new opportunity (remember 'The Great White Hope, 'Conrack', 'Norma Rae'...) to advocate human dignity (the basic theme of all his body of work). Ritt does it this time through questioning the limits of American justice and, by extension, of American democracy. In 'Nuts', he rises one more time against the vices undermining the virtues of the system, namely self- righteousness, hypocrisy, selfishness and intolerance. Fortunately for the viewer, the director never preaches. On the contrary, he has the intelligence of putting emotions and entertainment first, making meaning derive from the action instead of inducing it the way they do in heavily demonstrative 'thesis films'.
A lot of reviewers keep complaining about Barbra Streisand being hammy as Claudia Draper, a woman accountable to no-one whose parents want to pass off as insane. I agree with them that Streisand does not go in for subtleties but supposing she did wouldn't be out of step with her character? Claudia's behavior is determined by her adamant resolution to be her own and only mistress, whatever the circumstances are. Now, refusing to be subject to or controlled at any time by - parents, husband, superiors, judges,... requires no small strength of mind, especially when you are a woman. Taking this factor into account, a peremptory tone, strong words, abrupt attitudes or poses make perfect sense then. Playing such a character as Mrs. Soft Touch would even be sheer misinterpretation. Anyway, what just cannot be denied is Barbara's deep personal involvement in the achievement of 'Nuts'. Not only does she give a sincere and passionate performance (even if considering she overplays) but she also produced the film and wrote its score. Not really surprising when you realize both the fictional Claudia and the real-life Barbara are equally determined, and straightforward – not to say pushy. Such a miraculous adequation just could not not be. To put it in a nutshell if you do not mind intelligent entertainment feel free to enjoy 'Nuts'... without restraint
The legacy of a war
It is a well-known fact that the ravages of war do not end on the battlefield and that, accordingly, the return home of war veterans does not come easily. Logically a recurring theme in American cinema ('The Best Years of Our Lives' 'The Deer Hunter', 'Coming Home', 'Rambo', and dozens of others), it is oddly enough much less present in French films. The works examining the pangs of ex-soldiers having to deal with their trauma among those - more or less unsympathetic - who stayed at the rear can indeed be counted on the fingers of one hand ('Retour à la vie', 'Les parapluies de Cherbourg', 'La vie et rien d'autre', 'La chambre des officiers', 'Frantz'). Yet this is the theme that Emmanuel Courcol (also known as an actor and the co-writer of four films by Philippe Lioret) has chosen to explore in 'Ceasefire', his first feature length movie and he must be credited for such a move insofar as it was far from the easy option (a contemporary love story, crime movie or comedy would, for instance, have been a less risky business).
The story, set in 1923 (and two years later in the coda) concerns Georges Laffont, a man who, traumatized by the horrors of the First World War, finds it hard to reintegrate into a society among people who only think of forgetting and having fun. For a time, he finds refuge in Africa where he lives an adventurous life before circumstances drive him to return to his family home. There, he must struggle to take a fresh start while dealing with his afflicted mother (endlessly mourning Jean, one of her three sons, killed in action) and with his brother Marcel (whose reason has been faltering also as a result of his experiences in the war). Quite tense a situation indeed, only slightly alleviated by the relationship Georges develops with Hélène, a sensitive sign language teacher.
As can be guessed, with such troubled characters placed in such a difficult situation, drama is guaranteed. And Emmanuel Courcol being a proved screenwriter, his thorough, psychologically detailed script is enhanced into the bargain by relevant sociological and historical notations. Of course a good script does not necessarily make a good film. Does it in the present case ? In this writer's eyes, the answer is definitely yes given the fact that the director Courcol not only illustrates the script of the writer Courcol but also does his best to translate its potentialities into visual realities. The way he recreates the atmosphere of the early 1920's, to begin with, is very convincing despite the limited budget at his disposal. The settings, costumes and props all have an authentic look, nothing to do with the cardboard or too glossy imitations which, in certain movies, block total immersion in the film. The direction is fine, particularly concerning working with actors, Romain Duris first and foremost. Far from the juvenile cheekiness he showed in Cedric Klapisch's trilogy, Duris once again displays his new capacities to step into the shoes of complex adult characters (he who recently was: a man who has everything but disappears, a husband who indulges in cross-dressing, a priest...) As Georges, an embittered man in turmoil, the actor has become a name French cinema cannot do without any more. On a par with him is the always superior Gregory Gadebois who meets the challenge of expressing himself silently (Marcel has become mute) whereas he is a member of the famous Comédie-Française company : his facial expressions and body language are really remarkable. Both actors are well supported by their two female partners, Céline Sallette, feminine but in a fresh unvarnished way, and Maryvonne Schiltz, who gives dignity to the "Mater Dolorosa" she embodies by never overacting.
Some will blame 'Ceasefire' for the dead-time occasionally slowing down the action. It is true that such slow moments exist but after all, this is rather a meditative work than a frenzied action movie. And even supposing they are a shortcoming the other qualities of the film largely outweigh it. A competent director quite rightly privileging characters over showy artistry (sorry, no complicated camera angles or other displays of virtuosity) along with top of the range actors interpreting a thought-provoking story amid the modest but excellent recreation of the early 1920's period... well, there are worse things in life, aren't they?
Cama de Gato (2012)
Meet Joana, a single mother from Setubal, Portugal
What is it like to be an eighteen-year-old single mother in Bela Vista, a popular district of Setúbal, (a medium-sized town by the Atlantic South of Lisbon)? You can find part of the answer in « Cama de Gato» relevant in terms of sociology but only half-satisfying as a documentary. Co-directed by João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis, the film works well as pure social commentary: throughout its 57 minutes running time you will be provided valuable information about Joana Santos, the young single mother in question: the public housing apartment she lives in with her baby girl, the school she still attends (if only very occasionally), the people she mixes with, the cafés she stops at, her relationships with her friends, parents, cousin...
If I say half satisfying, blame it on the choice of the main protagonist, Joana Santos. Well, the girl IS pretty and cheerful, in other words pleasant to look at, but I personally disliked her personality: superficial, self-centered, not to say downright irresponsible. Which is why having to spend so much time with a person whose attitude I globally disapprove of upset me a little. I'd rather have lived an hour of my life with a person more engaging than Joana. To this rule, I have come across only one exception, the long sequence in which the girl talks with tears in her eyes about her botched love story with the father of her child. In this case, Joana appears as a three-dimensional human being, not as a puppet of consumer society always trying to get immediate pleasure. Then, and only then, did I manage to relate to her. The rest of the time, she got on my nerves.
Well you could object to me that films are not necessarily about likable persons or characters and you would be right. In this case you will not be disturbed the way I was by the lightness of the person "Cama de Gato" focuses on and you will be able to fullyenjoy this documentary which, beyond that "shortcoming", has an undeniable sociologic value.
Yagodka lyubvi (1926)
Dovzhenko funny? Are you joking or what?
The name of Dovzhenko immediately conjures up grand images of conquering tractors, heroic people fighting brutish reactionaries, revolutionaries in ecstasy, solemn faces turned towards a better future, vast skies, rolling fields, boundless sunflower fields... but you will never associate the master with farce, antics or slapstick. At least until you discover the existence of "Love's Berries", an amazingly funny twenty- six minute burlesque comedy he made for the VUFU studios in 1926.
As long as you have never seen this romp, you will be excused if you think that the Soviet director and humour do not see eye to eye. But after viewing 'Love's Berries', you will have no alternative but to review your opinion.
Storywise, the plot, as is often the case in the best slapsticks, is minimal. Dovzhenko, as it happens, quite rightly follows Mack Sennett's lesson, who once told Chaplin, "We have no scenario - we get an idea, then follow the natural sequence of events until it leads up to a chase, which is the essence of our comedy." And the Soviet director does it to excellent results. Sight gag after sight gag, the viewer indeed laughs out loud - until the final twist – at the misadventures of a man who, reluctant (and that is putting it mildly) to be a father, bends over backwards to get rid of a baby his girlfriend has put in his arms. Constantly thwarted by the circumstances, he tries and tries again and one cannot but be delighted at the blind stubbornness of this new Sisyphus. That is all there is to it but who needs more sophistication in a slapstick?
A far cry from 'Arsenal', 'Earth' or 'Chtchors' to be sure, 'Love's Berries', not content not to follow the official line, has even the luxury to constantly sin against it (isn't the antihero a shamelessly bad life companion, a bad father and a bad citizen?), which naturally did not escape Pavlo Netches, the manager of the VUFU studios where Dovzhenko was learning his trade. After viewing the film, the irate superior simply told the film student: "Sachko, you should be fired from here. You have no talent for writing scripts so stop trying. I'll have a last try with you – here's a screenplay. If you manage to make a film of it – it is your chance. If you don't – I'll give you the sack!"
Dovzhenko complied, hence the conquering tractors, ecstatic revolutionaries, etc. The fact remains that this delightful little film still exists – for our biggest pleasure. Try and find that special something (which is not so hard to do as it is often combined on DVDs with the extremely well-known 'Arsenal'). You will not regret it.
Paris pieds nus (2016)
Paris, the vagrant and the Canadian spinster.
Comedy has many faces (verbal, farcical, deadpan, regressive, good- natured, satiric, nonsensical and more..., certain forms of humor overlapping each other in the same work) and I love them all. But I need to recognize I have a soft spot for a very special kind of "make'em laugh" movies, those engineered by Tati, Etaix, Suleiman, Iosseliani and their likes, among whom Abel & Gordon, the co-directors, co-writers, co- producers and co-stars of "Lost in Paris".
Like the former mentioned, the Belgian clown and his Canadian-born partner (Dominique Abel & Fiona Gordon have been partners since the 1980s) are not content to tread the usual paths of "funny movies", they manage on the contrary to create an offbeat universe of their own which they inhabit in a highly unusual way. Whether in "L'Iceberg", "Rumba", "The Fairy" or the present "Lost in Paris", they form an improbable couple, each - and in their own way - out of synch with their physical and social environment. In their last opus, Dominique Abel is Dom, a happy-go-lucky homeless guy who has pitched his tent on an artificial island in the middle of the River Seine. A distant cousin of Chaplin's eternal tramp, Dom equates poverty with liberty: he eats exclusively the food of the nearby luxury restaurant (yes, picked up from its garbage cans, but still!), he smokes the best cigarette brands (okay, just butts gathered from the sidewalk, but still!), the lot. And as is the case for Charlie, poverty does not make him an angel : although never rotten to the core, Dom can be selfish, disrespectful or unpleasant. As for Fiona Gordon, she plays an ageless Canadian librarian from the Far North (where it is not recommended to open doors to the outside, the object of two hilarious gags). After landing in Paris pack on back, events beyond her control soon cause her to be stranded alone in the big city. The helpless uptight spinster will of course be taken care of by Dom, but, as can be guessed, in a very singular manner. Such an odd pairing cannot but generate lots of funny unexpected situations of which the characters get out through gags of all kinds, mainly sight or poetical comic effects.
An excellent additional idea makes "Lost in Paris" even better than Abel & Gordon's first three efforts, namely the choice of Emmanuelle Riva, the famous actress ("Hiroshima mon amour", "Thérèse Desqueyroux", "Amour"), as Fiona's aunt. Known for her grave, intellectual, dramatic roles, Riva was also, unnoticed by those who did not mix with her in real life, a very cheerful person who hated taking herself too seriously. Who could then play eccentric old Martha better than her? The answer is obvious : nobody else..., but someone had to think of it! Also noteworthy is the participation of Pierre Richard, as Riva's old flame and dance partner. They have a delicious scene together where, sitting on a bench in a cemetery, they merrily allow their legs and feet to follow in step with a happy music of their golden years.
If you have nothing against imagination, fantasy and unusual gags (which I made a point of not describing not to spoil your pleasure of discovering them), this charming extravaganza should normally delight you as much as it did me. It is at least the worst thing I wish for you.
Successful portrait of a female ahead of her time
Being a woman has never been a matter of course, being a woman and an artist even less so, particularly when like Paula Becker, you try to impose a personal, unconventional, "un-womanly" style in a narrow-minded environment.
It therefore comes therefore as no surprise that Christian Schwochow, a director who loves women, grasped the subject and dealt with it with gusto. Remember the insecure actress of 'Die Unsichtbare' (2007) as well as the two female defectors from the GDR of 'Novemberkind' ('08) and 'Westen" ('13). To these sensitive portraits of sensitive women is now added that of Paula Mendersohn-Becker (1876-1907), a German painter and one of the most important representatives of early expressionism.
Simply entitled 'Paula', the film is quite worth seeing for several reasons, the first being its documenting the life of a major artist little known outside Germany, at least until 2016, when a significant part of her 750 paintings and 1,000 drawings was displayed at the Paris Museum of Modern Art and a biography by Marie Darrieusecq published. Let us say that with this well-made and well-written movie, a new stone is added to the edifice of her memory. Plotwise, we are invited to follow the final seven years (1900-1907) of Mendersohn-Becker's life, from the time of her reluctant studies of neo-academic art at the Worpswede colony of artists to her untimely death at age 31 nineteen days after giving birth to her daughter.
'Paula' is a biopic indeed and as such reports the events in the painter's life faithfully (or nearly so as a few facts have been changed for the sake of narration): her friendship with sculptress Clara Westhoff and poet Rilke, her long unconsummated marriage with painter Otto Mendersohn and playing stepmother to his daughter Elsbeth, her running away to Paris, having an affair there with a French drawing master, her returning to Worpswede, her painful delivery and unbearable death. But what really lifts the movie above the standard life story is Swochow's constant effort to understand and make us understand Paula's artistic approach while at the same time making an artistic object of his tribute film. The director indeed manages as well to show Paula creating her work under our eyes (she strikes the canvas, spreads the painting with her thumb, scratches it with a knife, sometimes even splits and cuts it) as to capture the beauty of the Worpswede region of flat plains, swamps and forests of birches. Kudos, in passing, to cinematographer Frank Lamm who finds cinematic equivalents to famous paintings of the time (Otto Modersohn's : 'Birches in the Moor' , Hans am Ende's 'Autumn in the Moor', etc.).
Psycholologically speaking, 'Paula' proves equally satisfying. This 'Portrait of a Lady' met with narrow-mindedness, prejudices, machismo... actually does not lack edge. All the less as Schwochow has found the actress ideal for the role, the Italian-Swiss Carla Juri. Not only is her physical appearance close enough to her model but she immerses herself in her role so intensely that she manages to replicate with stunning accuracy Paula's personality and feelings (known from the letters and journals she left behind): she can be in turns youthfully spontaneous, impish, coquettish, abandoned to love, idealistic, sweet, tough, brooding, furious, unjust...
She is well supported by a competent cast, especially by Albrecht Schuch in par with her in another complex role, that of her husband Otto, evolving throughout the story: he too is convincing in the various stages of his life with Paula; as a lover, a husband with a problem, a victim and finally an admirer of his wife's work. Also notable is the performance of Roxane Duran ('The White Ribbon') as Clara, Paula's best friend.
To make a long story short, if you have nothing against a beautiful, documented, intelligent, moving work about an engaging woman ahead of her time, do not hesitate, 'Paula' is for you.
Le chômeur de Clochemerle (1957)
Fernandel a little more caustic than usual
« Clochemerle », a novel by Gabriel Chevallier, has been a bestseller since 1934 when it was first published in France. A biting and hilarious satire of parochialism, « Clochemerle » has been translated into 26 languages and sold million copies, soon entering the French language as a term characterizing heated disputes or quarrels over trifles. Chevallier wrote two sequels, « Clochemerle-Babylone » (1954) and Clochemerle-Les-Bains (1963), the quibble in the latter case being over the metamorphosis of Clochemerle into a spa. Pierre Chenal adapted the first episode for the big screen in 1947 and the BBC remade it in 1972. In 1957, it was Jean Boyer's turn to deal with another volume of the series. Helped by Jean Manse (Fernandel's brother-in-law), the very uneven writer-director indeed set about adapting « Clochemerle-Babylone ». Both men intended it as a vehicle for the French comedy star, which meant squeezing Fernandel's universe into the world of Gabriel Chevallier, a less than obvious move...: Provence vs. the Rhone region ; harmless comedy vs. caustic satire, it was doubtful that the graft would take. And yet the result, now entitled « Le Chômeur de Clochemerle », is not so bad as could be expected. First of all because the film (rather) faithfully respects the plot of the novel, the most conspicuous evidence of it being that Chevallier himself wrote the dialogue, which can appear as a tacit approval of the whole operation. Of course, as part of a Fernandel movie, the action had to be moved to the actor's native Provence. The purists in office could not but grind their teeth. But why not after all? Aren't there actually as many jealous, foxy, moronic, tart-tongued people in the Bouches-du-Rhône department as there are in the Rhône (and anywhere else for that matter!) where Clochemerle was originally situated. Second, because although diluted in a « Fernandellerie » that tends to cosy up to family audiences, part of Chevallier's insolence does survive. One example among others : when the mayor (Henri Vilbert) tries to flatter the washerwoman (Béatrice Betty) into making her believe she could easily go into politics, the good woman's reply is final: « I am busy enough with my own dirty linen! ». You will also be surprised to see Fernandel, the consensual comedian, kiss Maria Mauban on the mouth as well as gulp at Ginette Leclerc showing her bare breast or the village priest (Georges Chamarat) lie shamelessly. But, to rise above details, the film's must mostly be credited for not betraying Chevallier's look on human nature. For through Tistin, the happy-go-lucky villager who refuses to abide by the ways of the others' « right-thinking »( a type best described in Georges Brassens' song « La Mauvaise réputation »), Chevallier lauds the libertarian anarchist over the hypocritical Pharisee. Tistin dares poach, not look for a job, defy the churchy old maids for instance, but he does no one any harm. All he wants is to live life as he pleases and be happy. And, though in a slightly softer way, Boyer and Manse tell just that Not a masterpiece, but a pleasant surprise in the final analysis : an interesting theme, a good cast and a couple of witty lines make this comedy quite watchable. One of Fernandel's honorable efforts and one of Jean Boyer's superior achievements, with "La chaleur du sein", "Circonstances atténuantes", "Le passe-muraille" and "Sénéchal le magnifique" .
Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)
The only good Indian is a living Indian
« Songs My Brothers Taught Me » invites you to discover life in a Native American reservation, namely Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. But definitely not in a superficial way: you will not find yourself on the side of a dusty road buying Indian trinkets and other souvenirs before having a couple of pancakes at the local restaurant and inserting a few coins into a slot machine at the local gambling house. No, this is real life indeed; and by real I mean drab, monotonous, without scope. Not that such a life is not worth living at all : the hero, Johnny Winters, a young Oglala Indian, does experience a few good times: in his final year of high school, in company with his thirteen-year-old sister Joshaun who is very fond of him and naturally with his beautiful girlfriend Aurelia.
But apart from social or personal intercourse, there is not much to do or to hope for in Pine Ridge. As far as employment is concerned, now that he is graduated, our young Native American struggles to get by while accommodating his mother and sister. A weak income earned from selling alcohol, not only a menial job but an illegal one into the bargain since drink is banned on the reservation's grounds. A better position is out of the question, the opportunities within a reservation being close to zero.The only hope for him to make a decent living is to get away from his place of birth. To this purpose he plans to accompany Aurelia to Los Angeles, where she is to further her studies. But that will mean leaving Joshaun behind. And the question is: will the sensitive little girl cope with the ordeal? And how will Johnny manage to square the circle?
As can be seen, a psychological side adds up to the sociological interest. Also the writer of the script, Chloé Zhao masters this dimension brilliantly. The characters (Johnny, his sister, his mother, the tattooist...) are as well drawn as is the aspect of life in the reservation. And the young Oglala's questions and expectations as well as his moral dilemma are examined in depth. Which makes this film a full immersion not only in the everyday life of a seldom shown environment but also a plunge into the psyche of several of its inhabitants. Very well interpreted by John Reddy as Johnny and the touching Joshaun St. John as his loving little sister, Chloé Zhao's movie could qualify as a masterpiece were it not a few defects: a rather disorganized, improvised approach and one or two tedious passages. But it is a first film after all and that should not be enough to deter you from watching this rare foray into a territory little seen on the big screen, thus getting to know worthwhile people you would be unlikely to meet in the flesh in real life.