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2015 Oscars

The-Oscars-or-87th-Academy-Awards-Nominees-2015

I’ve seen all but three of the films in the top categories (unlike last year, when I managed to see all). The list of nominees is here. Some of them I have blog posts on (or will imminently): American Sniper (reprehensible film), Boyhood (excellent), Gone Girl (way overrated), Selma (meritorious but not a masterpiece), The Grand Budapest Hotel (good), Two Days, One Night (excellent). As for those I haven’t posted on, here’s my brief take on each, starting with the Best Picture nominees:

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): I’ll see anything by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who is always interesting even if his films are not without issues (‘Amores Perros’ is his best IMO). I had high expectations for this one, in view of the top reviews and strong word-of-mouth on social media. I will readily acknowledge the film’s merits, notably Iñárritu’s direction—which is impressive—and the acting. And it certainly held my attention, which is saying something for a two-hour film that takes place almost entirely inside a theater. But while it is, in an objective sense, a good movie, I found the characters so unpleasant, indeed antipathetic, that I just couldn’t gush about it afterward. And Michael Keaton is a tête à claques (an admittedly subjective opinion). C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

The Imitation Game: Good quality Hollywood entertainment and a biopic that works to boot, as I knew nothing about the personality—Alan Turing—beforehand, so didn’t know what was going to happen or how the pic would end. And it’s always good to see a well-made WWII movie. The message—admittedly not original—was salutary too: of how prejudice (here, against gays) not only shatters lives but also undermines the interests of nations and states. Benedict Cumberbatch is solid in his role and Keira Knightley is too (and I am normally not a fan of hers). So thumbs up to this.

The Theory of Everything: This biopic works less well than the one above. Eddie Redmayne is exceptional as a quadriplegic Stephen Hawking but Felicity Jones, who plays Jane Hawking, hardly merits an Oscar nomination for her performance. The pic left me unsatisfied, as its main focus is the relationship between the two, with Hawking’s science getting short shrift. And one does not come away with a clear sense of how he has managed, with his debilitating handicap, to keep so productive, make new scientific breakthroughs, write books, and all. In other words, how did he do it? So my reaction to this one is neither thumbs up or down but just bof

Whiplash: I was originally not going to bother with this one, as I am not a great fan of jazz—except for jazz piano (Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, etc)—and do not understand why anyone out to learn a musical instrument would choose drums (sorry if I offended any drummers out there; I respect you all the same; and if it makes you feel better, I just came across this piece on social media informing us that “drummers are smarter than…everybody else”). But as the pic received top reviews—and particularly in France—and was playing at my neighborhood theater during Xmas week, I decided WTH. In short, I was absorbed in the story from the outset, at the midway point started think that it was a very good film indeed, and decreed toward the end that it would make my Top 10 list of the year. It’s an excellent movie. And J.K. Simmons is redoubtable as the sadistic psychopathic fascist jazz maestro. Voilà!

And then there are these:

Foxcatcher: I knew nothing about the story going in except that it was about wrestling, and have no memory of the 1989 fait divers that concludes it (I was living outside the US at the time). It’s an absorbing, well-paced, well-acted movie that held my attention throughout, which is saying something in view of its 2+ hour length and the fact that I don’t find wrestling particularly interesting. Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo deserve their Oscar nominations (though I don’t know if they deserve to win). The film also has a politically progressive message—if one wants to see it that way—which is the parasitical character of the scions (a certain number of them) of wealthy families—the kind of people who were born on third base and think they hit a triple—and who are destined to occupy an increasing portion of America’s ruling class in the coming decades. If one wants an ironclad argument for a steep estate tax on wealth in the eight or nine figures, this movie is it. So: recommended.

Wild: Woman in her late 20s, whose life is a mess, sets out to walk the thousand mile Pacific Crest Trail—despite having no hiking or camping experience—so she can work through her personal problems (pic is based on a true story). Why did I go see this? I was on vacation (in the US) and had seen all the other interesting-looking movies playing at the local multiplex. It’s okay, memorable mainly for the impressive nature scenes. Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern put in perfectly fine performances but do not merit their Oscar nominations. The movie may be seen, but may also not be seen.

Voilà my ballot:

BEST PICTURE: Boyhood.
A no-brainer.

DIRECTING: Richard Linklater (Boyhood).
Alejandro G. Iñárritu is a credible winner for this, as is Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), but Linklater deserves it for his tour de force.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything).
This is by default, as the real winner of this should be Jake Gyllenhaal for his role in Nightcrawler, but for which he was incomprehensibly not nominated. Michael Keaton, who is likely to win it, is worthy, I suppose (even though he’s a tête à claques).

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE: Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night).
This one is also by default, as it is an almost forgone conclusion that Julianne Moore will win for her role in ‘Still Alice’, but which I have not seen, as the film hasn’t opened in France yet (and hadn’t nationally when I was in the US last month). Now I love Marion Cotillard and who was excellent in her film, but as it’s not American I don’t know what she’s doing in this category. But as the remaining nominees absolutely do not deserve it, I have to go with her.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash).
Obviously. I’m sure Robert Duvall is great in ‘The Judge’ but I missed it.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood).
A natural choice. I didn’t see ‘In the Woods’ (and have no intention of), so can’t speak to Meryl Streep’s performance, but hasn’t she won enough already?

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Leviathan.
This is the nº1 of the five available options, with Timbuktu a close second. Ida is a haunting, impressively shot film but it didn’t blow me away the way it did to everyone else. ‘Wild Tales’ is fun but doesn’t merit the top prize in any awards ceremony outside Argentina. I haven’t seen ‘Tangerines’.

 

2015 academy awards nominations

American Sniper

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I saw this three days ago, the day it opened in France. I made it a point to read nothing on the movie beforehand—either reviews or articles—though am aware that it is a big box office hit in the US—beyond all expectations—and particularly among conservatives. And I still haven’t read anything about the movie, though will, after writing this. My verdict: It is a reprehensible film. It is so because it makes a hero out of a man who is, in fact, not a hero and who achieved his heroic status—in the eyes of those who accord him this (and they are numerous in l’Amérique profonde, as one sees at the end)—in fighting and killing in a war that America had no business fighting. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is considered a hero because he killed 160 combatants and other irregulars who were out to kill American soldiers in a war zone. Bully for him. Soldiers protect their own in all wars, no? What else is new in the history of warfare? CPO Kyle, we learn, went beyond the call of duty to protect his buddies. He was a brave man, intrepid even. Bully for him again. One may understand why he was considered a hero within the US military—fellow soldiers called him “the legend”—but there is no rhyme or reason for him to be considered as such by any citizen outside the military.

It would be otherwise, of course, if CPO Kyle had been killing enemy combatants who were at war with America and posed a threat to America inside its borders. Celebrating his feats in the larger society would thus be comprehensible. But this was the Iraq war. The nagging (rhetorical) question that went through my mind throughout the film, in watching Kyle and his fellow soldiers engaged in urban warfare in Fallujah and Ramadi, was WTF were they doing there in the first place? What enemy were they fighting? Now it is established early in the film that Kyle enlisted with the SEALs following 9/11, as a patriotic reflex of an American whose country was attacked. Lots of Americans had that reflex (for the anecdote, in the days after 9/11 I let the US embassy in Paris know that my services were available—including to any intelligence agency—should they want them; I didn’t hear back). After completing SEAL boot camp the film jumps to Kyle in Iraq. But Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Iraq posed no threat to America. Now the US government of the time and all sorts of other Americans intoxicated by nationalist hysteria or Washington groupthink believed that Iraq was indeed a threat to the United States, but those who knew something about the Middle East and, more generally, how to analyze and think coherently—which includes myself, obviously—knew this was preposterous and argued it to all and sundry.

At one point in the film, Kyle tells one of his buddies that “we have to kill the enemy here so they don’t come and kill us in New York or San Diego” (approximate quote). That even an ignorant soldier could believe such bullshit by 2005 is breathtaking. The enemy that Kyle & Co were fighting is clearly identified: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his Al-Qaida in Iraq (not once is Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist regime—the ostensible threat to America in 2003—mentioned in the film). Now Zarqawi and AQI were definitely not nice people. I will even agree with Kyle that they were Evil (capital E) (the notion that America is fighting Evil, and not just in Iraq, is evoked more than once in the film). But here’s the thing: America did not invade Iraq to fight Zarqawi and AQI. AQI, which posed no threat to the American homeland, did not even exist when America launched the Iraq war. The very existence of AQI—and its presence in Iraq’s Sunni triangle—was a direct consequence of America’s invasion. And Fallujah being reduced to rubble and its population driven from the city was directly caused by America being there (the scene in the house that the soldiers have stormed—with Kyle demanding to know what the family is doing there and why they hadn’t evacuated the city—is incredible, as if people should naturally abandon their homes and worldly possessions—to looters, criminals, terrorists, whoever—because a foreign army tells them to). None of this is examined in Eastwood’s film. America is in Iraq fighting the enemy because that’s what it’s doing. America is there because it’s there. Fighting Evil there, before it comes for us here.

Further contributing to the film’s reprehensibility is its backhanded celebration of America’s gun culture—and of militaristic values more generally (American society being the only one in the Western world, as Tony Judt observed in one of his later essays, which continues to exalt the military and its values). In the opening scene we see seven-year old Chris in rural Texas bagging a deer on his first hunting trip with his father. Kyle père is teaching his son how to handle firearms. Now I can accept that rural people the world over and since time immemorial hunt and have rifles at home. I don’t relate to it but, for rural folk, that’s just the way they live and I pass no judgment on it. But the moral code that daddy Kyle seeks to instill in his sons around the dinner table—which is underpinned with violence and accompanied by stupid ass references to God and the Lord—is another matter. I’m sorry but Chris Kyle’s father—who was ready to whip his sons with a belt—was an asshole. And then there’s the scene toward the end, of Kyle at home with wife and kids—before he drives off in his pick-up and gets murdered—goofing around the living room and kitchen with a six-shooter, no doubt loaded. Anyone who keeps a loaded handgun at home and in proximity of children—or anyone else—is a reprehensible SOB.

On ‘American Sniper’ as cinema, it’s okay. Bradley Cooper puts in an acceptable performance, though hardly deserves an Oscar nomination for it. Sienna Miller is likewise acceptable as Chris’s wife Taya—she’s certainly attractive—but spends too much of the film weeping over her husband going off on yet another tour with his beloved SEALs (for Chris Kyle, Iraq was a war of choice). And the scenes of their lovey dovey satellite phone conversations while he’s picking off enemy fighters from rooftops or heading into combat stretched credulity. One would think that any soldier who chats up his wife or g.f. on the phone while under fire would be reprimanded by his commanding officer, if not subjected to disciplinary action. Generally speaking and in view of its inescapable political parti pris, I don’t see how anyone outside of Jacksonian America—to borrow from Walter Russell Mead—can possibly adhere to the film and its message. But, as it happens, the early reaction in France has been positive, among both critics and Allociné spectateurs. The French love affair with Clint Eastwood continues. Every last Eastwood movie—including his worst and/or schlockiest—receives a rapturous welcome here and ‘American Sniper’ appears to be no exception. Hélas.

ADDENDUM: A further comment. Toward the end of the film Chris Kyle, in dealing with his PTSD, attends rehab sessions with Iraq war vets who have suffered serious injury (limbs blown off, etc). Some 40,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded in Iraq, many of the latter saved thanks to advances in military medicine, who would have died of their wounds in previous wars. What do Jacksonian, Fox News-watching Americans make of this? In fact, they almost have to uncritically accept the thesis of the film—that America was fighting Evil, no questions asked—as if one were to accept that the Iraq was a catastrophic mistake—the most disastrous foreign policy decision in American history—then there would be no escaping the conclusion that Americans died or had their lives shattered for absolutely nothing. And then there is, of course, the number of Iraqis killed, which, since 2003, is heading upwards of 200,000 (if not more). Now most of those Iraqis have been killed by other Iraqis. But if Iraq in 2003 was a Pandora’s Box, America came in with a baseball bat and smashed that box open. The catastrophe in Iraq happened on America’s watch. And while there’s a lot of blame to go around, the catastrophic situation in Iraq today is ultimately America’s fault.

2nd ADDENDUM: One bit about the movie that caused me to jolt in my seat, but which slipped my mind while writing this post, was the final battle scene, where CPO Kyle finally terminates AQI sniper Mustafa with the golden bullet. The battle took place in Sadr City, which, as any halfway knowledgeable person knows, is the big Shi’ite quartier populaire of Baghdad. But AQI—which has since mutated into ISIS—is Sunni. AQI was killing Shi’ites when it wasn’t killing Americans. Sadr City at the time was Muqtada al-Sadr’s fiefdom, and he and his followers didn’t like AQI, to put it mildly. So on this level the scene makes no sense. Clint Eastwood and his team betrayed inexcusable ignorance here.

A correction: I wrote above that Kyle enlisted with the SEALs after 9/11. In fact, he did so after the 1998 Nairobi/Dar es Salaam bombings.

2015 César awards

40ème César

[update below]

The French movie industry’s carbon copy imitation of the Oscars. The awards ceremony is happening tomorrow night—two nights before the Oscars (as usual)—at the Théâtre du Châtelet (as always). The full list of nominees is here. Leading with ten nominations is ‘Saint Laurent’, followed by Les Combattants (Love at First Fight) with nine, Timbuktu with eight, and Hippocrate and ‘Yves Saint Laurent’ with seven each. There were several films in the top categories I hadn’t seen when the nominations were announced last month. In order to cast my ballot, as it were, I managed to catch all in the past three weeks (DVD and en salle). I have blog posts on most of the nominees. For the ones I don’t—those seen of late—here’s my brief take on each:

La Famille Bélier (The Bélier Family): This is the crowd-pleasing, heartwarming, feelgood smash hit comedy of the season, with over six million tix sold since its release the week before Xmas and racking up six César nominations, including Best Film. I originally had no intention of seeing it but, César oblige, had little choice. The story: The Béliers—husband Rodolphe (François Damiens, Best Actor nominee), wife Gigi (Karin Viard, Best Actress nominee), 16-year-old daughter Paula (Louane Emera, Most Promising Actress nominee), and 13-year-old son Quentin (Luca Gelberg)—are a zany family of deaf dairy farmers (they make cheese) in the bucolic Mayenne Angevine—except for Paula, who has normal hearing and thus acts as family interpreter, as it were (Damiens, Viard, and Emera learned sign language for the film; Gelberg is hearing impaired in real life; Viard also looks to have dropped 50 or 60 IQ points for her role). At school Paula chooses chorus as an elective—as that’s what the boy she has a crush on is taking—the teacher of which (Eric Elmosnino, Best Supporting Actor nominee) is a slave-driver who relishes skewering students for their lack of talent (recalling the jazz teacher in ‘Whiplash’, though without the sadistic psychopathic side). But Paula turns out to have talent indeed, so impressing her hard-to-impress teacher—a Parisian who lives his posting in bumfuck rural Anjou as a sort of purgatory—that he takes her under his wing, telling her that she absolutely has to go to music school in Paris, which would, of course, mean leaving the farm and her loving, zany, deaf family. And that’s what she decides to do. The pic actually has a few good laughs and gags, notably from Rodolphe (François Damiens is a well-known Belgian comic actor), who, in a subplot, decides that the mayor of the village is such a condescending idiot that he, Rodolphe, is going to run in the local election to unseat him, even though he can’t hear or talk; to surmount the insurmountable odds he draws inspiration from François Hollande’s writings, which he carefully studies in bed at night; now that’s funny (he wins, of course). The bons sentiments naturally kick in toward the end (have hankies ready, for the tears of joy). Middlebrow family entertainment for the masses (though it will likely be hit with an R rating in the US for the sex talk and allusions, of which there’s a lot). If it wins Best Film I will definitively lose all respect for the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma.

Pas son genre (Not My Type): Clément (Loïc Corbery) is a late 20ish Parisian philosophy professor—in lycée (philo being a required subject for all 12th graders in France) and university—high culture maven, and author (with prestigious publishing house), who cannot conceive of life outside the 6th arrondissement, with morning café and croissant at Les Deux Magots and all. But being a fonctionnaire with l’Education nationale he pretty much has to go where he’s assigned, so when informed that he’s being posted to teach high school philo in Arras—Prefecture of the Pas-de-Calais, which is only an hour on the TGV from the Gare du Nord but not really practical for a daily commute, so he has to live there for at least part of the week—he reacts like he’s being sent to French Guiana, or to a provincial town in Madagascar. Purgatory (a refrain in French movies; see above). Now Clément is not the most outgoing guy: he’s a psychorigide cold fish and arrogant snob to boot, and clearly has problems in his relationships with women (established in the opening scene). But once in Arras, he takes a liking to bubbly hairdresser Jennifer (Emilie Dequenne, Best Actress nominee), asks her out on a date, and stuff inevitably happens. Educated intellectual guy takes up with girl down the education/social class ladder. Not exactly an original cinematic theme, nor what happens between them: she falling for him more than he for her, but then she melting his ice-cold exterior, causing him to fall for her but while she, cognizant that the relationship can’t possibly go anywhere, pulls back. The film—otherwise unexceptional—is carried by Dequenne’s performance. She’s very good and deserves her César nomination (pour mémoire, Dequenne, who’s Belgian, won Best Actress at Cannes for her role in the Dardenne brothers’ 1999 film ‘Rosetta’). So while the pic is not worth going out of one’s way for, it may be seen chez soi on DVD.

Saint Laurent & Yves Saint Laurent: Two biopics on the famous fashion designer in the same year. Can you believe it? Crazy. Don’t producers coordinate these things? I had zero interest in seeing either but, in view of their respective slew of César nominations, decided that I really should. The seven nominations for ‘Yves Saint Laurent’—the first of the two to come out (Jan. ’14)—include Best Actor (Pierre Niney), Best Supporting Actor (Guillaume Gallienne), and Best Supporting Actress (Charlotte Le Bon). This one is the more conventional biopic, covering the couturier’s life from the launch of his career in Algeria at age 21—in 1957, during the war; YSL was a Pied-Noir from Oran—and apprenticeship with Christian Dior to his “Russian ballet” collection of 1976—considered his greatest—with flashes ahead to his later years. The relationship with the high-flying businessman and philanthropist Pierre Bergé, YSL’s companion to the end of his life (d.2008), is a natural focus of the film (Bergé collaborated with director Jalil Lespert, lending him the original 1976 outfits for the reenactment of the runway show). The film, which did well at the box office, received generally good reviews, with Allociné spectateurs giving it even higher marks. It’s a perfectly acceptable by-the-numbers biopic that may be seen (at home; not worth schlepping to the cinoche for). The second one, ‘Saint Laurent’—which came out in October and whose ten nominations include Best Film, Best Director (Bertrand Bonello), Best Actor (Gaspard Ulliel), and two for Best Supporting Actor (Jérémie Renier and Louis Garrel)—covers only YSL’s 1967-76 period. It’s stylized, impressively shot, well-acted, and got top reviews, though Allociné spectateurs were more lukewarm (and the film was not a box office success). On this, I go with the vox populi. The pic, which is an unreasonable 2½ hours long, is tedious and drags for long stretches. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. The one thing I’ll say in its favor, though, is the beautiful outfits for the 1976 collection, which were created by costume designer Anaïs Romand—they look more Arab than Russian in style—as Pierre Bergé and the YSL house refused to have anything to do with Bonello’s film. I know nothing about fashion and care even less about it but was impressed with Romand’s creations, which, IMO, are even better than YSL’s originals.

Un beau dimanche (Going Away): Baptiste (Pierre Rochefort, Most Promising Actor nominee) is an early 30ish itinerant primary school teacher—who appears more intello than your average instituteur—in a beach town near Montpellier, who takes charge of a pupil whose father forgot to pick up at school. When Baptiste takes the boy to his mother, Sandra (Louise Bourgoin)—who works as a waitress in a restaurant on the beach—they strike up a conversation and one thing leads to the next. Yet another movie about bourgeois guy—Baptiste being, as we learn in the latter part of the pic, the brebis galeuse son of a very wealthy local family—and prolo girl (and who has made bad choices in her life and frequented the wrong type of people). It’s a small film, nothing to write home about, and utterly forgettable. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

Voilà my vote:

BEST FILM: Hippocrate.
This was the best French film of the year. ‘Timbuktu’—which will almost certainly win—is a fine runner-up, though it’s not a French film.

BEST DIRECTOR: Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu).
A semi political choice but deserved nonetheless.

BEST ACTOR: Guillaume Canet (La Prochaine fois je viserai le cœur).
Pierre Niney will probably win this one for his role in ‘Yves Saint Laurent’ but Canet is utterly convincing as a serial killer in his film.

BEST ACTRESS: Sandrine Kiberlain (Elle l’adore).
Most of the nominees here—Marion Cotillard, Adèle Haenel, Catherine Deneuve, Emilie Dequenne—are worthy winners but Kiberlain hit it out of the park with her performance in the film for which she has been nominated. She won the big prize last year and deserves it again.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Reda Kateb (Hippocrate).
Other nominees are worthy but Kateb is The Man, hands down.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria).
Stewart may be an American and who speaks not a word of French in the film but as it’s French-made, directed by a Frenchman, and her performance was tops, she gets it in my book. Claude Gensac, the adorable mamie in Lulu femme nue, is the runner-up.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Ahmed Dramé (Les Héritiers).
Kévin Azaïs will likely win this one for his role ‘Les Combattants’ but Dramé is my sentimental choice (see post on film).

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Ariane Labed (Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice).
This is a very strong category, with all the nominees worthy winners, but Labed is my favorite.

BEST COSTUMES: Anaïs Romand for ‘Saint Laurent’.
I would normally pay no attention to this category but Romand’s beautiful outfits (see above) merit an award.

BEST FIRST FILM: ‘Elle l’adore’, by Jeanne Herry.
Of the films nominated this is nº1.

BEST FOREIGN FILM: Winter Sleep.
All of the nominees are good and some are great, but Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s chef d’œuvre is the best.

BEST SHORT FILM: ‘Les Jours d’avant’, by Karim Moussaoui.
This is the only one I’ve seen in this category—it’s Algerian, though French produced—and is very good (I’ll eventually have a post on it). As it’s a sophisticated little story about the 1990s “dark decade” in Algeria and by a new, young Algerian director, I hope it wins. The New Algerian Cinema deserves the recognition.

UPDATE: ‘Timbuktu’ was the big winner, with seven awards out of eight nominations, including Best Film (obviously). The YSL biopics got only one apiece. I was on the money with most of my choices or predictions. The awards list is here. Variety’s dispatch is here.

fidelio-l-odyssee-d-alice

Voilà a few noteworthy French films of late 2014 that have received César nominations (the awards ceremony is tomorrow). This one (English title: Fidelio, Alice’s Journey), directed by newcomer Lucie Borleteau (Best First Film nominee) is about a merchant mariner named Alice (Ariane Labed, Most Promising Actress nominee), who’s around 30, lives somewhere near Toulon with her Norwegian graphic designer b.f., Felix (Anders Danielsen Lie)—he’s the man of her life—and receives an urgent summons to join an aging cargo ship, the Fidelio, en route to Dakar, to replace the chief engine room mechanic—Alice being one herself—who has suddenly died aboard (was it a suicide, as she is told, or an engine room accident that the shipping company wants to hush up?). She’s the only woman on the ship—in a man’s world and doing a job normally not done by women. Her cabin is the same as her deceased predecessor’s, where she finds his personal diary and reads (throughout the film), in which he recounted, entre autres, his many love and sexual affairs at the ports of call on his long voyages away from home—but also his sentiments of melancholy and loneliness—and which resonate with her own life at sea. Love and sex—above all sex, of her own sexuality but also of the other crew—are a central theme of the film. Soon aboard the ship she discovers that the captain, Gaël (Melvil Poupaud), is an ex-lover of hers, whom she hadn’t seen a long while. They cautiously reconnect and though he’s married and she all but is—she regularly Skypes with Felix, professing her love (genuine)—they briefly rekindle the flame, but that should, in principle, not affect their relationships back on land, as “what happens at sea stays at sea” (dixit the poster above). As for her fellow shipmates—who, in their free time, play cards, drink, and watch porn movies—they treat her as one of the guys. She’s sexually off-limits to them and vice-versa, so when she has a one-nighter with a Romanian mariner who boards en route, she is upbraided by a colleague for violating the taboo. Her commitment to Felix is never questioned, but she can’t reconcile her desire for a stable life with her man and the realities of her career on the open sea, which keep her away from home for weeks, even months, at a stretch, and with the inevitable straying. Back with Felix after the voyage to Senegal, she makes a mistake that upends their relationship, though the film’s ending—in Gdansk, where, now promoted to captain, she’s taken the Fidelio to be scrapped—leaves open the possibility of reparation.

I really liked this movie. Ariane Labed, who’s in almost every frame, is terrific. She’s a real screen presence. And I will readily admit to finding her extremely attractive, not only physically but her persona in the film and the work she does (I think it’s cool seeing women as engineers and working with heavy machinery, and in other such jobs that one normally associates only with men). She’s mainly a stage actress and, until this one, has mainly had small roles in films (she lives in Greece, so away from the French cinema scene; she had a bit part in Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Midnight’—set in the Peloponnese—in the luncheon sequence). French reviews are very good and Hollywood critics gave the film the thumbs up (here and here). Trailer is here.

My brief take on the other films:

‘Clouds of Sils Maria’, directed by Olivier Assayas. This one has netted six César nominations, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Juliette Binoche), and Best Supporting Actress (Kristen Stewart). Since I’m lazy I’ll let this website give a synopsis of the story

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an actress at the peak of her international career who is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years earlier. Back then she played the role of Sigrid, an alluring young woman who disarms and eventually drives her boss Helena to suicide. Now she is being asked to step into the other role, that of the older Helena. She departs with her assistant (Kristen Stewart) to rehearse in Sils Maria, a remote region of the [Swiss] Alps. A young Hollywood starlet with a penchant for scandal (Chloë Grace Moretz) is to take on the role of Sigrid, and Maria finds herself on the other side of the mirror, face to face with an ambiguously charming woman who is, in essence, an unsettling reflection of herself.

The film, which is almost entirely in English, is driven by the dynamic between the Binoche and Stewart characters: the famous actress rehearsing a role she is greatly ambivalent about playing and her youthful assistant who pulls her along. I’m not a great fan of Juliette Binoche—I think she’s overacts—but thought that Kristen Stewart—a well-known American actress, so I learn, with roles in films I would never consider seeing, so knew nothing about her—is first-rate. As for the film, it held my attention, despite the story not being overly compelling IMO. I’ve found Olivier Assayas’s films to be uneven—the ones I’ve seen (though his 5½-hour biopic on the terrorist Carlos is a near chef d’œuvre)—but will put this one in the thumbs up category (for home viewing, not worth traveling to the cinema for). French reviews (very good) are here, early US reviews (generally good) are here, trailer is here.

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‘Eastern Boys’, directed by Robin Campillo. This has been nominated for three Césars: Best Film, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (Kirill Emelyanov). The story: Mid-40s gay white-collar professional, Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin), engages a youthful prostitute—whose name is either Marek or Ruslan (Emelyanov), and may or may not be a legal adult—he spots at the Gare du Nord. Marek/Ruslan is part of a gang of Eastern European guys, over and under age 18, who hang out at the Gare and are clearly up to no good. To consummate the transaction Daniel has Marek/Ruslan come to his apartment, which was a real mistake, as the entire gang comes along and, led by the gang leader—a not-nice Russian dude they call Boss (Daniil Vorobyov, perfectly cast)—proceed to relieve Daniel of his worldly possessions. But despite having set a trap for himself, Daniel continues to seek remunerated sex from Marek/Ruslan. With his life manifestly devoid of something (meaning? love?), Daniel develops a genuine attachment to Marek/Ruslan—who at first claims to be Ukrainian but turns out to be Chechen—stops the sex, begins to treat him as almost a son, and decides to save him from Boss’s gang (made up of undocumented bogus asylum seekers). It’s a gripping film and from beginning to end. Setting aside two implausibilities in the story and one leap of faith, I’ll give it thumbs up. French reviews (very good) are here, US reviews (mostly good) are here and here, trailer is here.

eastern boys

‘Party Girl’, directed by Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger, Samuel Theis. No less than three directors. It’s been nominated for two Césars, including Best First Film (for the three directors). I saw it last September, on the recommendation of Guillaume Duval of Alternatives Economiques, if I remember correctly. The film is a real life story about a 60-year-old almost lifelong bar woman, Angélique Litzenburger, who works in downmarket cabarets in the declining industrial Lorrainer town of Forbach on the German border. She’s had four children—one of them a co-director of the pic (Theis)—presumably not of the same father, and, given her lifestyle, has not been the greatest mother to them. But they’ve stayed in touch with her and done okay for themselves (we meet them in the film). The main pic’s story—it’s a semi documentary, with not much of a plot—is the marriage engagement of Angélique with regular bar patron Michel (Joseph Bour). He wants her to finally settle down and with him, and she agrees, but then gets cold feet, because she’s been a bar woman her entire adult life and can’t conceive of leaving that life. It’s a small film but interesting and totally original. French reviews were good, as were those of Hollywood critics (here, here, here, and here). Trailer is here.

party girl

Bande-de-Filles

In my December 31st round-up of French films of 2014, I mentioned that I’d have a separate post on films focusing on immigration and ethnicity, of which there were several last year. Le voici. Three discussed here have received nominations for this Friday’s César awards. ‘Bande de filles’ (English title: Girlhood) leads with four, including Best Director (Céline Sciamma) and Most Promising Actress (Karidja Touré). The story, in short: Marieme (K.Touré), a.k.a. Vic, is a mid teen girl of African immigrant stock, who lives with her hard-working mother (hotel chambermaid) and two brothers in a cité in the neuf-trois. She’s generally well-behaved but doesn’t have the grades to get into a lycée général—that would track her to higher education, which she desperately wants—and is thereby told that the only option open to her is a lycée professionnel (vocational high school), which she refuses. Following this setback she falls in with a gang of black chicks (African), led by the cool and cheeky Fily (Mariétou Touré), drops out of school, adopts an attitude, and spends her days with her new BFFs, getting into fights with other girls, riding the RER into Paris to hang out at the Forum des Halles, shoplift, and just fool around. But then the nice boy Ismael (Idrissa Diabaté) takes a liking to Vic and she to him, but as Ismael is a pal of Vic’s dictatorial older brother, who enforces the code of honor of the cités—thereby keeping tabs on his sister’s girl-boy interactions—the budding relationship with Ismael runs into logistical problems. So Vic, who’s basically a good kid, splits from the cité and takes her distance from her girl gang. It’s a coming of age movie about a black teen in the Paris banlieues who is finding her way. I was engaged enough with the film—it is well acted and certainly holds one’s attention—but wasn’t bowled over. French critics mostly gave it the thumbs up—N.B. in particular this review on the Africultures website—and their American counterparts positively loved it (the pic opened in the US on Jan. 30th). So as cinema it may be seen; as ethnography—if one is into that—it may definitely be seen. Trailer is here.

A note on the film’s choreographed opening scene, of a team of black girls playing American football, which more than one US reviewer took note of. The scene, which one may interpret as symbolizing the aggressiveness of the social interactions one sees in the film, is, as one reads, a mere clin d’œil of director Céline Sciamma at her favorite TV series, ‘Friday Night Lights’ (the players are from an amateur female American football team in the banlieue).

Also receiving a César nomination is ‘Samba’, by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, who co-directed the 2011 Über hit comedy Intouchables—which sold 19.5 million tix in France, making it the nº2 French film of all time—and became the biggest ever French film at the box office in several countries. And it propelled the career of Omar Sy—already popular with the younger generation—into the stratosphere. So seeking to capitalize on his and the film’s success, Toledano & Nakache made another movie intended to be crowd-pleasing—though this a dramedy, so more serious—with Omar Sy in the lead, and accompanied by top draws Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim (though the pic’s one César nomination went to the relative newcomer Izïa Higelin for Best Supporting Actress). In this one Sy plays an undocumented Senegalese immigrant in Paris named Samba, who has been working hard for ten years (in a restaurant kitchen), causing no trouble whatever and stealing no job from a single French person, and whose boss wants to promote him, except that he doesn’t have papers. Snared by the police, he is subjected to deportation proceedings and sent to a detention center near CDG airport. In trying to avoid deportation, he is assisted by a not very experienced immigration case worker named Alice (Gainsbourg), a corporate executive on extended medical leave for burn-out—which is, as I have learned from a friend who is suffering from it, a serious affliction indeed—who is volunteering her time with undocumented immigrants during her recovery. She is touched by Samba, develops feelings for him, and the two forge a relationship of sorts, which I didn’t find entirely convincing BTW (no spoilers, so I won’t say what does or does not happen between the two, or whether or not the pic has a happy ending). The film, which has its share of bons sentiments and tugs at one’s heart toward the end, is perfectly watchable but is not a chef d’œuvre by any stretch. French reviews were good to very good on the whole, though US critics who saw it at the TIFF were more reserved (here, here, here, and here). The word-of-mouth on the film was obviously good, though, as it sold over 3 million tix, which was nowhere near ‘Intouchables’ but still very good by any measure (and way higher than any other film discussed here). This is good and gratifying, as the film presents undocumented immigrants—and from Africa—in a sympathetic—and accurate—light, as law-abiding, hard-working potential future citizens—should they have the good fortune to have their status regularized—who want no more or less for themselves than any other Frenchman or woman. On this level—and in view of the near toxic nature of the issue in France at the present time, and with the attendant demagoguery and political surenchères—the film is salutary. Trailer is here.

affiche-samba

Also netting César nominations is ‘Qu’Allah bénisse la France’ (May Allah Bless France), a biopic of Abd al Malik (né Régis Fayette-Mikano), the well-known Franco-Congolese (Brazzaville) slam poet and rap singer (I should say well-known in certain milieux, as I was not familiar with his music and other artistic work before the film came out; see the NYT’s 2012 portrait of him here). The pic is directed by Abd al Malik himself—earning him a César nomination for Best First Film—and based on his eponymous 2004 autobiographical novel, though his role is played by Marc Zinga (César Most Promising Actor nominee). The film begins with the teen Régis/Abd al Malik’s life in the tough Strasbourg cité of Neuhof, where he hangs out with his homies, most of whom are drug dealers and petits voyous—Régis/Abd al Malik partaking in petty crime himself—lives with his nurturing (mother-headed) Catholic family, and performs brilliantly in lycée—notably in French and philosophy—resulting in an invitation by the school to enter hypokhâgne after receiving his bac (signifying that he is indeed very bright and with marked literary talent). Needless to say, there aren’t too many cagneux around of his social class and ethno-racial background, so he kind of stands out among his fellow students. He keeps up his friendships with his gangbanger homies, though, and when one with whom he was close gets killed in a gang règlement de comptes, Régis/Abd al Malik decides to convert to Islam (and change his name). During this time he’s writing slam poetry, composing music, and gaining celebrity. Under the influence of the Franco-Moroccan Nawel (Sabrina Ouazani)—his g.f. and future wife—he moderates his religious practice and a spiritual voyage of discovery to Morocco brings about a reconversion, as it were, to sufi Islam, which gives him inner strength, peace, and everything else contemplative, mystical sufism is supposed to do. The film—which is in black-and-white, à la Mathieu Kassovitz’s ‘La Haine’—is understated, almost low-key. And while one hears the poetry, there should be more of Abd al Malik’s music. The film could have also delved more into what the title strongly suggests, which is Abd al Malik’s (positive) relationship with France. His life experiences and trajectory give the lie to the crap one hears almost daily about problems of integration in France—whatever “integration” is supposed to mean and which I will insist is not a problem in this country—as Abd al Malik is clearly a success story of the Republic (among other things, he has published books with titles like La guerre des banlieues n’aura pas lieu and L’islam au secours de la République). It all goes to show that, yeah, one can be a rap-singing convert to Islam of 100% African stock and love France all the same. The film received generally good reviews in France—for a US review go here and scroll to the end—but was not a box office hit, which is perhaps unfortunate in view of the present-day salience of the immigration issue and the clear message of the film. The word-of-mouth clearly did not work in Abd al Malik’s sizable fan base, a likely consequence of him opting to make a film d’auteur rather than a more conventional, bigger-budget biopic. Trailer is here.

quallah benisse la france

Another recent film with an Islam/immigration focus is ‘L’Apôtre’ (The Apostle), written, directed, and produced by Cheyenne Carron—who was previously unknown to me—which opened in October in exactly one cinema (independent) in Paris, before being released on DVD the following week. The reason why the film played in only one salle: no distributor would touch it, as the subject was deemed too hot to handle. And what is the subject? The conversion to Christianity of a young Maghrebi Muslim. The story: Akim (Fayçal Safi), who’s in his late 20s, lives with his parents, older brother Youssef (Brahim Tekfa), and adoring younger sister Hafsa (Sarah Zaher) in an inner Paris banlieue. The family is close-knit and middle class (living in a house, not a flat in a cité). And they’re practicing Muslims, though “moderate”—mother and sister are not veiled—and with the father’s brother the imam at a nearby mosque. Youssef, who takes his religion seriously, is following in his uncle’s footsteps and it is hoped that Akim will become an imam too, but he declines. One day Akim is invited by his friend Fabien to attend the baptism of the latter’s baby daughter. It was Akim’s first time ever in a church. He is taken by the Catholic ritual and sets out to learn more about Christianity. The interest becomes a fascination, leading to a meeting with the priest of the local cathedral. Deciding that Catholicism suits his spiritual needs more than Islam, Akim takes the plunge and converts. And when he announces to his family that he’s found Jesus, well, a little crisis ensues, and particularly with Youssef, who considers his younger brother—the two are very close—to be an apostate and disgrace to his family. But—spoiler alert!—things work themselves out and there is no tragic ending.

I thought it was a pretty good film—the few reviews of it were positive—and on a topic of vital importance, as the issue of how Muslims deal with conversions out of Islam is a real one. The phenomenon is not insignificant in France, where the Muslim identity population (of some 4 million) is the highest in the Western world (the number of Muslim-to-Christian converts in France is into the five figures and one sees literature tables and other proselytizing efforts by Maghrebi and African Christian converts—mainly evangelical Protestant—in heavily immigrant areas). After seeing the film I was interested to know what kind of reaction it received among French Muslims. But as it played in just one theater—albeit off the Champs-Elysées—practically no one saw it (and no one I know). And I have seen no mention of it on the higher profile French Muslim websites (e.g. Oumma.com, Al-Kanz). C’est dommage. The film merits being seen and discussed. Trailer is here (followed by a 14-minute interview with actors Safi and Tekfa).

There are several more films I’d intended to discuss here. Will do so in a separate post in the next week.

l-apotre

Timbuktu

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Everyone who pays any attention to cinema has at least heard of this by now, on account of the buzz, stellar reviews in France and the US alike, the Oscar nomination for best foreign language film (Mauritania’s submission) and its no less than eight César nominations, including best film (as the pic is French produced, it’s considered French here) and best director (Abderrahmane Sissako, who’s Mauritanian-Malian but lives in France). It’s a beautiful, powerful film, and understated, which adds to its force. As one knows, its subject is the jihadist (Ansar Eddine et al) takeover of Timbuktu in 2012—though the film is not situated in time and no organization is named (and, for security reasons, it was not shot in Timbuktu but in Oualata, Mauritania)—, the jihadists imposing their particular conception of Islamic law, and the destruction of a good part of the city’s architectural and historical patrimony. Anthropologist and northern Mali specialist Andrew Hernann has a good review of the film (dated February 9th) in the Africa Is a Country blog, “Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Timbuktu complicates the Jihadist narrative,” which expresses many of the thoughts I had about it. He writes

Timbuktu, which opened in the United States on January 28, centers on a Tuareg family living in a tent on the outskirts of Timbuktu. Both honor and fatigue make the family reluctant to flee with their family and friends. This leaves them worried and lonely. It also makes them vulnerable to the jihadist regime, as well as fellow Timbuktians, who are equally frightened and on edge. But the film also highlights other residents—including locals and jihadists—as they negotiate the demands of the occupation.

Many film critics have lauded Timbuktu as a “visual masterpiece,” praising Sissako’s use of vast landscapes and captivating cityscapes. However, the cinematography accomplishes more than stunning images. Instead, it evokes the loneliness, confusion, desperation and sense of abandonment that so many Timbuktians experienced. Who could they rely upon and trust aside from the few who remained? How were residents to gauge the jihadists’ often conflicting motives?

Others critics have also applauded the film’s supposed comedic and satirical script. Such praise is somewhat misleading in my opinion. Timbuktu does not portray the jihadists—at least not all of them—as either purely ideological or bumbling buffoons. Many are depicted as critical thinkers in their own way. Others—(former) lovers of rap music and soccer—are depicted as youths who are way over their heads. Contrary to certain criticism following the Charlie Hebdo attack, however, this is not to suggest that Sissako is an apologist for extremism. Far from it. Instead, he depicts the jihadists as real, not as a caricature.

Sissako also demonstrates local resistance to shari’a. He includes a scene of a fishmonger critiquing new regulations that force her to wear gloves. And he includes another of lower-level jihadists searching for singers and guitar players. Some viewers and critics find these scenes amusing, and perhaps they were partially intended to be. Nonetheless, rules enforcing public veiling and prohibiting music were far from amusing to the Timbuktians with whom I worked in 2013. And as Sissako accurately illustrates, the jihadists brutally countered these local expressions of resistance.

To read all of Hernann’s review, go here. See also the review by NYU grad student Ethan Gates in TNR (February 9th), “Oscar-nominated ‘Timbuktu’ shows the terrors of life under Islamist extremism.”

One of my takeaways from the film was precisely the depiction of the jihadists not as a caricature of wild-eyed, bloodthirsty fanatics wreaking terror in the city—even though they are fanatics and who do terrorize—but rather as cold, determined men out to impose their vision of an Islamic order ruled by Shari’a law as they interpret it. In this respect, one notes their attachment to procedure and the law, though their knowledge of Islamic law is, to put it charitably, rudimentary. E.g. the scene where the protag Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed Pino) is hauled before the Shari’a “court” for having (unintentionally) killed the fisherman. He is assured that the “judge”—who, one may safely assume, had never set foot anywhere near Al-Azhar—is wise and just, but who is as inculte as the rest of his jihadist associates, making up the law as he goes along. The law is whatever the jihadists say it is.

Another takeaway was the incredulity of the Timbuktians—every last one a practicing Muslim—when confronted with the jihadists’ crackpot understanding of Islam: banning music, sports, and just about everything else, and the ordering of women to wear niqabs and gloves. As Andrew Hernann, relating his experiences in Timbuktu after the French army liberated the city in January 2013, writes in his review

[I]t’s important to consider that most Timbuktians themselves refused to identify the occupiers with Islam. Almost every time I referred to them as “jihadists” or “Islamists”, my friends would (sometimes angrily) correct me, saying, “No, these people know nothing about Islam. This is not Islam. They are terrorists, pure and simple.”

One notes Hernann’s remark about some of the young jihadists being in “way over their heads.” Hailing from various countries in West Africa, the Maghreb (jihadist commander Abdelkrim, played by actor Abel Jafri, is Algerian), and Europe, they don’t always speak a common language; thus the amusing scenes of the jihadist comrades trying to communicate with one another in broken English. As some appear nostalgic for music, football, and cigarettes—i.e. their pre-jihadist lives—one gets the feeling that at least a few among them could possibly waver in their ideological commitments and be lured back to the real world.

Though I ranked ‘Timbuku’ as one of the top films of 2014 it won’t be receiving my vote in either the Oscars or Césars. The Tuareg family at the center of the film is a little too idealized, both the family idyll and the Tuaregs more generally, who have long had a lofty stature in the French imaginaire (though the Malian Tuareg MNLA fighters have hardly been enfants de chœur, engaging in their share of bloodletting in recent years, as one is reminded in this critique of the film by Sabine Cessou in Rue89). Mais peu importe. The film is a must-see. Trailer is here.

les-heritiers

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, France 2 broadcast, over one week, an eight-part documentary series—totaling seven-and-a-half hours—on the Nazi extermination of the Jews, “‘Jusqu’au dernier': La Déstruction des Juifs d’Europe,” by the French filmmakers William Karel and Blanche Finger (English title: Annihilation: The Destruction of Europe’s Jews; English trailer is here). I missed it on TV but managed to see all eight episodes streamed on France 2’s website (before they disappeared, as French television regulations unfortunately only allow the viewing of programs on the web for a week after their broadcast). I’ve seen numerous documentaries on the Holocaust over the decades—and read plenty on the subject—but this one is particularly remarkable. The series, which begins with the 1933 Nazi seizure of power and closes with the memory of the Holocaust over the decades following WWII, is almost entirely composed of Nazi film footage and other images, and with the narration interspersed with interviews with some fifty historians and authors from eight countries. The documentary is a tour de force. The impetus for its making was a French public opinion survey in 2010 revealing that a majority of the under-35 age cohort had never heard of the Rafle du Vel’ d’hiv and, ergo, was ignorant of the details as to what happened to the Jews during WWII. For Karel and Finger, one of the goals of the documentary is to explain the Holocaust to the younger generation, now and in the future. It will soon be available in DVD and eventually shown in the US, UK, and elsewhere (it already has been in Germany and Belgium). It is absolutely worth seeing in its entirety by everyone, including those who think they know the subject well.

On teaching the Holocaust to the younger generation, there is a film on the subject presently showing in cinemas in France, ‘Les Héritiers’ (English title: Once in a Lifetime), and that merits mention. The pic is based on a true story, of a class of 10th graders at the Lycée Léon Blum in the Paris banlieue of Créteil during the 2008-09 school year and their participation in the Concours National de la Résistance et de la Déportation: an annual competition, inaugurated in 1961 by the Ministry of Education, of participating 9th and 10th grade history classes, which submit class projects around a theme—set by the Ministry for the year—concerning some aspect of the resistance or deportation during the war. The theme for the 2008-09 year was “Children and teenagers in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps.” The Lycée Léon Blum class, composed mainly of turbulent 15 and 16-year-olds of immigrant families from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, ended up winning the competition.

I was particularly interested in seeing the film, on account of the theme but also because I live right next to Créteil, in the banlieue to its north, and thus know the place well. The Lycée Léon Blum, where the film was also shot, is 15 minutes by car or bus from chez moi, just off the major arterial thoroughfare and behind the Créteil mosque (which one sees in the film). Créteil, which has a population of 90,000, is not attractive—with its forests of soulless high-rises, most of them public housing—but it’s not the ghetto, let alone a “no-go zone” (a cockamamie fantasy that Fox News and certain right-wing commentators outre-Atlantique went on about after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher murders last month, provoking incredulity, hilarity, and ridicule in France). Créteil has a major teaching hospital, a campus of the University of Paris system, and is the prefecture of the Val-de-Marne (94), with a multitude of civil servants employed in administrative and judicial organs of the French state there. And it’s connected to Paris by the metro (line 8). The city, which has a large post-colonial immigrant population but also a sizable middle class, votes for the left—François Hollande took 62% of the Créteil vote in 2012, ten points above his national score—and is run on the municipal level by the Socialists (not the Communists, which is normally a sure giveaway that a poor, immigrant-origin population predominates in the commune).

A notable feature of Créteil’s multi-ethnic demography is its Jewish community, which numbers some 20,000—mainly of Tunisian and Moroccan origin—and with some 15 synagogues, making it one of the largest in the Île-de-France. The different ethno-confessional populations have lived in bonne entente since the immigration waves began in the 1950s, though there have been incidents in recent years, the worst being the antisemitic crime this past December 1st, committed by three lumpen immigrant-origin youths (two African, one Maghrebi) and that happened in the area just behind the Lycée Léon Blum. ‘Les Héritiers’ does have a couple of scenes depicting the general bonne entente between Maghreb/African-origin kids and Jews, though one sees no Jewish students in the lycée itself, likely because they are few in number—most cristolien Jewish teens attending the nearby private Collège-Lycée Ozar Hatorah or one of the well-reputed public high schools—i.e. with middle/well-to-do class compositions—in neighboring, more upscale Saint-Maur-des-Fossés (one of the schools being my daughter’s alma mater).

The film hues closely to what happened in the Lycée Léon Blum class in 2008-09, as the screenplay was co-authored by one of the students, Ahmed Dramé—along with director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar—and who plays the student named Malik in the film (and for which he has been nominated for “Most Promising Actor” in the upcoming César Awards). And, as it happens, Dramé, now age 21, wrote a book, Nous sommes tous des exceptions—published last October by Fayard—about his tough upbringing—uneducated immigrant parents from Mali, growing up in a cité, raised by his mother (father absent), older brother in prison—and the lycée competition (watch him here interviewed on television last November). Dramé presents Léon Blum as the best public lycée général—i.e. for university-bound students—in Créteil and that he was determined to attend, but his 10th grade class being the most rowdy and undisciplined in the school. When their prof principale (homeroom teacher) and history-geography teacher, Anne Anglès, had to absent herself for a couple of weeks early in the year, the unruly students made life miserable for her substitute. So when Mme Anglès returned, she proposed, in order to re-establish authority and get control of the class, that the students participate in the national competition on the Nazi camps.

The students initially scoffed at the idea—as did the school principal and other teachers—saying that it was not something for them or that they were capable of. And there was reticence over the subject, with retorts to the teacher on the order of “Madame, we’ve had enough hearing about the Shoah” and “Madame, why does everyone always talk about the Jews?” As Dramé writes in his book—and that one sees in the film—the students, whose understanding of the Holocaust was rudimentary at best, viewed it as a massacre like so many others in modern times (Rwanda, Bosnia, etc). But Mme Anglès—played by the perfectly cast Ariane Ascaride (who’s been in almost all the films of gauchiste director Robert Guédiguian)—wouldn’t give up trying to persuade the students to participate in the competition. She patiently and respectfully responded to their questions, explained the specificity of the Holocaust—a genocide driven by a racialized, essentialized hatred of Jews that aimed to kill every last one the Nazis could get their hands on—, took them on a field trip to the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris—where I’ve taken American students a dozen or so times over the past decade—, all of which finally convinced the class—after three months of hesitation—to go ahead with the project (the film shows only one student refusing to participate, an ethnic French boy recently converted to Islam). But what clinched the students’ commitment to the project was a visit to the class by Holocaust survivor Léon Zyguel, who was arrested in Mont-de-Marsan in June 1942—at age 15—with his mother and siblings (his father had already been hauled off the previous year), interned at Mérignac and then Drancy, deported to Auschwitz, and who survived the January 1945 death march to Buchenwald. The students were stunned by Zyguel’s account—as the film shows and Dramé writes—and with many in tears (Zyguel is in the film and the emotion of the amateur cast was apparently for real; much of the film was indeed improvised by the cast, so it appears). So with that, the students forged ahead with the project. And they won. The ceremony at the École Militaire—facing the Eiffel Tower—and with the Minister of Education declaring the winner is a moment of high emotion in the film. Only those with hearts of stone will not be moved by it.

It’s a wonderful story—and literally so close to home for me—though I won’t say that the film, as cinema, is a chef d’œuvre. Much of it has the quality of a téléfilm, it’s replete with bons sentiments, is clichéd at times, and, helped along by the piano soundtrack, clearly seeks to jerk one’s tears (it certainly did with mine, I will readily admit). But who cares? While watching it I was reminded of the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, which I loved and found so inspiring at the time. And the experience of the Concours had such an impact on the students themselves, with all passing the baccalaureate three years later—and twenty with a mention (i.e. making the honor roll)—as one learns in this joint France 2 interview with Anglès and Ascaride the day of the film’s opening on December 3rd. It clearly affected the lives of a number of students, and, above all, Ahmed Dramé, who writes in the epilogue of his book of how the Concours National de la Résistance et de la Déportation changed both his world-view and perception of himself.

Reviews of ‘Les Héritiers’ by Paris critics have been very good on the whole—not one is negative—and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs way up. And it’s done well at the box office, with 530,000 tickets sold so far—which is not bad at all for a film of this kind—and is still showing at 109 theaters across the country nine weeks after its release. The Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher murders have certainly increased the interest in the film. And à propos, Anne Anglès was interviewed in Le Figaro on January 23rd on how the events were perceived by the students at the Lycée Léon Blum (there were only two incidents in the school of students not respecting the minute of silence for the Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher victims). Trailer w/English subtitles is here.

In the William Karel-Blanche Finger documentary on the destruction of Europe’s Jews, more than one historian interviewee mentioned that there would soon be no survivors of the Holocaust left to offer personal testimony to the younger generations. As fate would have it, Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem issued a communiqué on January 30th—nine days ago—informing the public that Léon Zyguel had passed away.

Ahmed Dramé_Nous sommes tous des exceptions

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