Archive for February, 2013

Stéphane Hessel, R.I.P.


[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

His death has been the lead story on the news here today and been positively burning up my FB news feed, with a torrent of eulogies all day such that I haven’t seen in I don’t know how long. Stéphane Hessel was a good, decent man and did good, exemplary things in his life. And he remained in top mental and physical shape to the very end (I read his Le Monde op-eds with interest over the years and saw him a few times at public talks, plus watched him, in 2006, racing on the street to catch a bus as it had pulled away from the stop; not bad for a man of 89). The best tribute I’ve seen today, on FB at least, is this one by Patrick Weil.

The reason why Hessel was known to the grand public, including the majority of those on FB who are eulogizing him, is, of course, on account of the pamphlet he signed in 2010, Indignez-vous !, which became a mega-best seller, a veritable phénomène de société (if it hadn’t been for this pamphlet the vast majority of those who are singing the praises of Hessel today would have likely never heard of him). At €3 and 13 pages of text, it didn’t exactly put anyone out, either money or time-wise. Just about everyone on the left read the thing and praised it to the heavens. At 93 Hessel became a star and for those young enough to be his great-grandchildren. But at the risk of being a party pooper, I thought the pamphlet was inane and simple-minded, reflecting a sloppy way of thinking that is all too courant on the bien pensant French left. I was mystified that so many people could take it seriously. The passages on the WWII French Resistance were irrelevant to anything happening today and carried no lessons for anything. The pages on Palestine—the only conflict today that apparently aroused Hessel’s indignation—should have been highlighted on the computer screen and deleted. Sent straight to the poubelle. And the expressions of indignation were accompanied by no plan of action. Expressing indignation was an end in itself. I’m sorry but the pamphlet was worthless. Fortunately there was some push back on the op-ed pages at the time, by Pierre Assouline, Luc Ferry, and others. And in English, Christopher Caldwell had a good takedown.

But like I said, Monsieur Hessel was a good man and whose heart was in the right place. R.I.P.

UPDATE: France Inter political editorialist Thomas Legrand had a good commentary this morning on Stéphane Hessel and his Indignez-vous! (February 28)

2nd UPDATE: Haaretz has an obituary of Hessel here.

3rd UPDATE: Blogger Bernard Girard, in commenting on the legacy of Hessel’s pamphlet, asks what remains of it. Answer: not much.

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Gangs of Wasseypur


This is an Indian film I saw last year and that I’m going to talk about in a minute, but first my picks for tonight’s Oscars. Or, rather, my non-picks, as I have not seen one or more of the films in each on the top categories, so lack the requisite basis to express definitive preferences. I would have normally seen most of the Oscar nominated films but in view of my present medical condition, I have not been able to go to the cinema since mid-January 😦 so have yet to see several of those that have opened in Paris since then. But as I have seen most of the nominees for best picture, here’s my assessment of each:

AMOUR – Very good film. Of course. But as it’s French (and by an Austrian director) and has nothing American about it, it doesn’t belong in this category. Let it win best foreign film.

ARGO – Top notch geopolitical thriller. Enjoyed it from beginning to end. But it is not without flaws and cannot be called a chef d’œuvre by any stretch. So it does not get my vote here.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD – I recognize its merits but it did not bowl me over. And I had a small issue with its implicit celebration of the simple bayou people living in filth and squalor. Modernity does have its downsides but I’ll take it any day over the lifestyle of the film’s protags. Also, the young Quvenzhané Wallis may be impossibly cute and adorable—and no doubt melted many hearts during her live interview sur le plateau on the France 2 evening news when the film opened here—but it would be most premature for her to win the best actress award.

DJANGO UNCHAINED – Thumbs way up on this. Great entertainment, great acting, funny, offbeat, zany… in short, Tarantino at his best. Not having seen ZD30 (see below), this is my pick for best pic. And it’s too bad Samuel L. Jackson wasn’t nominated for best supporting actor, as he’s the man…

LES MISÉRABLES – I have not seen this and likely will not. I toyed with going while in the US over Xmas but couldn’t bring myself to. And the across-the-board panning by critics—and on both sides of the Atlantic—plus the fact that I don’t like musicals to begin with heavily outweighed the gushing, dithyrambic reactions of 20-something female FB friends. But I am 99% certain that even if I were to see it, I would not vote it best pic.

LIFE OF PI – Wonderful movie. It loses out to Django only by a hair.

LINCOLN – Is it possible not to praise to this one to the heavens? It would be most un-PC not to, that’s for sure. I did like the film, no doubt about it, but voting it the best would be an intellectual, cerebral decision, not an emotional, visceral one. And at the risk of sounding the contrarian, Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, while very good, did not light a fire under me. Tommy Lee Jones, on the other hand…

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK – Entertainment for the Bachelor’s degree and higher cohort. I generally liked it—and it did lend itself to discussion afterward (on the subjects of schizophrenia and bipolarity)—but would hardly rate it the best film of the year. (Pour les lecteurs Français, je trouve bizarre et plutôt idiot le titre qu’on a donné ce film en France, ‘Happiness Therapy’, qui ne veut rien dire, ni en français ni en anglais).

ZERO DARK THIRTY – Haven’t seen it yet, as it opened in Paris after I had my accident (and which has kept me housebound for the past five weeks now). Hope I’ll be able to before it disappears from the salles.

Back to the Indian movie at hand, ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, I’ve been intending to give the head’s up on it since seeing the second part after it opened here in December. In my ‘Best (and worst) movies of 2012’ list, I labeled it the “Best epic two-part movie from India about the interstices of organized crime, politics, corruption, communalism, and weak state institutions in the state of Jharkand.” Wasseypur is indeed a real city in what used to be southern Bihar, which is one of the poorer, wilder, and more lawless parts of India. Instead of describing the pic myself, I’ll let US critics do so. Here’s the intro to the review in Variety

The love child of Bollywood and Hollywood, “Gangs of Wasseypur” is a brilliant collage of genres, by turns pulverizing and poetic in its depiction of violence. A saga of three generations of mobsters cursed and driven by a blood feud, it’s epic in every sense, not least due to its five-hour-plus duration. Helmer Anurag Kashyap puts auds on disturbingly intimate terms with this psychopathic family and its hardscrabble North Indian mining town, while encompassing nothing less than India’s postwar history and deep-rooted problems in microcosm. Riveting…

And Hollywood Reporter last May

An extraordinary ride through Bollywood’s spectacular, over-the-top filmmaking, Gangs of Wasseypur puts Tarantino in a corner with its cool command of cinematically-inspired and referenced violence, ironic characters and breathless pace. All of this bodes well for cross-over audiences in the West.  Split into two parts, as it will be released in India, this epic gangster story spanning 70 years of history clocks in at more than five hours of smartly shot and edited footage, making it extremely difficult to release outside cult and midnight venues. Its bow in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight met with rousing consensus…

And Screen International

Though it runs at over five hours, there’s never a dull moment in this Indian gangland epic by one of India’s hottest indie directors, Anurag Kashyap. Oozing visual style, laced with tight and often blackly comic dialogue, bolstered by tasty performances and a driving neo-Bollywood soundtrack, this Tarantino-tinged Bihari take on The Godfather has what it takes to cross over from the Indian domestic and Diaspora markets to reach out to action-loving, gore-tolerant theatrical and auxiliary genre audiences worldwide.

Those with a particular interest in India and/or who are of a social scientific bent will want to see the film, for the way it deals with communal and caste issues, and of Indian political culture. A couple of things. The film is in two parts, which opened six months apart here, so when I finally saw the second I had forgotten some of the details from the first, e.g. who was who and how they were related to one another. So the two parts should be seen in rapid succession. Also, the first part is superior to the second, which descends into an orgy of violence of bloodletting. This part could have been substantially cut. Mais peu importe. If you can stomach the violence, do see it.


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Camille redouble


[updates below]

This is director-actress Noémie Lvovsky’s hit dramedy of last fall, which has received thirteen César award nominations (French Oscars), tying the César record. The ceremony is this evening, so we’ll see how many it actually wins. The pic is a French version of Francis Coppola’s ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’, where the 40-year-old protag, Camille (Lvovksy’s character), is being dumped by her husband—whom she met in high school, so the only man she’s ever been with—for a younger woman and whose life is falling apart as a result, so gets transported back in time to right matters and make it so she never got involved with the jerk to begin with. The movie is thus Camille back in the 11th grade and at home with her parents, though in her 40-year old body. For those who were teens in France in the mid 1980s, the pic is a trip down memory lane. I thought it was pleasant and entertaining enough, though wasn’t as bowled over as were local critics, who positively loved it (spectator reviews on Allociné, while grosso modo positive, were somewhat more tepid). US critics who saw it at Cannes last year were also generally, though not unreservedly, positive (here and here), though I do agree with Variety’s Justin Chang, who called it “an amiable comedy that ultimately goes on too long without taking its back-to-the-past premise in an emotionally satisfying direction.” US foreign film aficionados will be able to decide for themselves whenever it opens outre-Atlantique (I predict they’ll like it).

BTW, the film’s English title, ‘Camille Rewinds’, in an inaccurate rendering of the original. “Redouble” is the third person present tense of the verb redoubler, which means to repeat a grade (in school). Thus, Camille repeats the grade (here, the 11th)…

Two films have received ten César nominations each for tonight’s ceremony, ‘Amour’ and ‘Les Adieux à la reine’ (‘Farewell, My Queen’), both of which I’ve posted on. The first I liked, bien évidemment (did anyone not? I do know one actually, but he’s an outlier, on this as on cinema in general) [SEE UPDATE]; the second I did not like at all. Or, rather, it bored me to tears. ‘Holy Motors’, which I have not seen, received nine nominations. I avoided this when it hit the salles and despite the dithyrambic reviews, as it looked a little too much like David Cronenberg’s ‘Cosmopolis, which I absolutely HATED. But a couple of friends whose taste I trust have praised it to the heavens—including the one with whom I saw ‘Cosmopolis’, and who entirely shared my sentiments on it—, so I’ll catch it on DVD at some point.

One film that has received two César acting nominations is Pascal Bonitzer’s ‘Cherchez Hortenese’, with the always good Jean-Pierre Bacri and Kristin Scott Thomas. A “loquacious Gallic dramedy” as one US critic called it, “a pleasant, lightweight piece of entertainment, very French in spirit,” in the words of another. Yes, very French, including the title itself, that refers to a Rimbaud poem, which not a soul outside France (academic specialists of 19th century French literature excepted) will know a thing about. The film was perfectly acceptable, though also entirely forgettable. One little problem I had with it was that the Bacri and Claude Rich characters—who were son and father (and are the film’s two César nominees)—were both fifteen years older—in appearance and real life—than their characters in the film (e.g. Claude Rich looks to be in his 80s in the film, but the maximum retirement age of state functionaries, of which his character is, is 67). It’s a detail but a distracting one.


Two well-received films from the fall got no César nominations whatever. One was Olivier Assayas’s ‘Après Mai’ (English title: ‘Something in the Air’), which is a somewhat biographical reenactment of the director’s political activism as a high school student in the early 1970s. I was really looking forward to this film, as I thought Assayas’s epic biopic on Carlos (the terrorist) was excellent and ‘Après mai’ was billed by critics as a faithful reconstitution of the milieu of the post-May ’68 extreme left (thus the title) and the time period in general. And on this level, the film did succeed (entre autres, if one needs any reminding of the odiousness and loathsomeness of the French police, see the opening scene). But while French critics loved it—and with most US critics also enthusiastic (here, here, and here)—I noted that spectators on Allociné did somewhat less so. And as I’ve said more than once, when there’s a noticeable discrepancy between the appreciation of critics and spectators, go with the spectators. I indeed left the cinema somewhat dissatisfied, though couldn’t quite say why. This US review put its finger on it:

The major problem however, is that most of the characters aren’t terribly interesting. Of the young leads, only one, Armand, is older than 20, and most are in their first acting roles. Assayas seems to have cast as much for look, and for an evocation of the period, as anything else, but sadly most of the actors (bar Métayer and the more experienced Créton) struggle to make much of an impression, falling into a kind of bland prettiness.

This said, I don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing it. Il faut le voir et juger pour soi-même. [SEE UPDATES BELOW]

apres mai

The other well-reviewed film was Elie Wajeman’s ‘Alyah’, about a Parisian Jewish layabout drug dealer—I guess they do exist—who decides to get his act together, get away from his family, and do aliyah to Israel, a country he has never visited and has no particular interest in. Interesting theme, enough to get me to see it. US critics, like their French counterparts, gave the film the thumbs up (here, here, and here) but it left me indifferent. Ça arrive.


Back to tonight’s Césars, here are my preferences (not predictions, as most of my choices have little to no chance of winning). (N.B. I have seen all the films in the categories in question except for ‘Holy Motors’, ‘Les Saveurs du palais’, and ‘Quelques heures du printemps’.)

Best film: Dans la maison
Best director: François Ozon (Dans la maison)
Best actor: Jérémie Renier (Cloclo)
Best actress: Corinne Masiero (Louise Wimmer)
Best actor in a supporting role: Guillaume de Tonquédec (Le Prénom)
Best actress in a supporting role: Valérie Benguigui (Le Prénom)

UPDATE: I got it right for best supporting actor and actress but for the rest, it was ‘Amour‘ all the way. How could it be otherwise? ‘Camille redouble’ won nothing. I was pleased to see that Cyril Mennegun’s ‘Louise Wimmer’ won the award for best first film.

2nd UPDATE: FWIW, Ron Radosh—a 1960s leftist turned right-winger—liked Olivier Assayas’s ‘Something in the Air’. (May 20)

3rd UPDATE: Luc Sante has a review of ‘Something in the Air’ in the July 21, 2013, New York Review of Books.

4th UPDATE: The unnamed person whom I referred to as “an outlier [on ‘Amour’] as on cinema in general”—who is, in fact, a good friend—, informs me that several other persons in his entourage—as well as in mine, so he reminds me—were also “not keen” on Michael Haneke’s film. Dont acte.

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george galloway

Son of a bitch, if one doesn’t know American (en français: fils de pute, ordure, salopard…). It is banal and commonplace to call George Galloway an a-hole—the man is utterly despicable and beneath contempt, and has been so forever—but what he did last night at Oxford Univeristy—storming out of a public debate when he learned that one of the participants was an Israeli—was on another level of despicability altogether (see here and here for details, and do watch the video). A couple of comments. What Galloway—an MP in the House of Commons, pour mémoire—did would be inconceivable for a deputy in the French National Assembly, whether on the hard left or extreme right. If a French elected representative behaved in such a way to an Israeli—or to someone of any nationality and on the sole basis of that person’s nationality—, there would be a public firestorm and the elected representative would be formally sanctioned. Secondly, it is inconceivable that Galloway would have acted toward the debate participant if the latter had been anything other than Israeli. This rather strongly suggests that George Galloway is an anti-Semite, pure and simple. Period.

How an MP can get away with such behavior in Britain—despite the condemnations—but not in France is an interesting question, that I will perhaps attempt to address at some point. In storming out of the Oxford debate, Galloway invoked his support of the BDS campaign. I have much to say about BDS—which I do not support, needless to say—and that I will come back to soon.

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That’s Maurice “Morry” Taylor, CEO of the Quincy IL-based Titan Tire Co., who wrote a rather insulting letter to Arnaud Montebourg earlier this month—a copy of which was obtained by Les Echos—, explaining why he wasn’t interested in investing in the money-losing Goodyear plant in Amiens, as the workers there “get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three…” (see here and here). In other words, French workers are slackers. The story is getting a lot play in the French news today, and with everyone naturally indignant. Americans, Brits, and others, for their part, are no doubt snickering and guffawing but it’s bullcrap. Yahoos outre-Atlantique may not be aware but French labor is among the most productive in the world. This is a fact (as for the Amiens Goodyear plant, it is indeed the case that its staff is working three hours a day at the present time, but, as one learned on the France 2 news this evening, this has been imposed by management). Morry Taylor—who, as it happens, was a short-lived GOP presidential candidate in 1996—is a jingoistic ignorant idiot (and that Arnaud Montebourg, in his trenchant reply, told him in so many words). If you have any doubts on this, watch this Titan ad with Morry himself. Quel con.

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My Neighbour, My Enemy

Tripoli, Lebanon, Bab al-Tabbaneh from the Citadel, May 2010 (Photo: Arun Kapil)

Tripoli, Lebanon, Bab al-Tabbaneh from the Citadel, May 2010 (Photo: Arun Kapil)

BBC Arabic aired a 53 minute documentary of this title on January 21st, on the sectarian clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites in Tripoli, Lebanon, and that may be seen with English subtitles here. The communities, which respectively inhabit the adjoining neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, have been fighting and killing one another on and off—and presently on—for the past three decades. And it can only get worse as the situation over the border in Syria worsens (the clashes in Tripoli presently being a pale image of what is happening there). One take away from the documentary is that Lebanon, like Syria, is not a nation, if one needed any reminding. The documentary is not too analytical and gives little background as to the origins of the conflict, but is an important document nonetheless. If one wants a sense of where Lebanon may be headed, this is it.

ADDENDUM: A remark: an outsider can hardly support one side over the other in this conflict—in which both parties have blood on their hands in no doubt equal quantities—but the mere fact that the Alawite women are not veiled—and that Alawites are less given over to religiosity than the Sunnis—provokes, for me at least, a slight bias in their favor. I know I shouldn’t think this way but I can’t help it. It’s visceral.

2nd ADDENDUM: I am reminded of a post on this blog from June 2011, in which I quoted the text of a memorandum sent by six Syrian Alawite notables—one the grandfather of Bashar al-Assad—to French PM Léon Blum in 1936, expressing fear of the prospect of Sunni domination. Absolutely worth (re-)reading.

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My blogging consœur Victoria Ferauge has posted an annotated bibliography of recent scholarly works she has read of late on international migration, immigration, and citizenship. It will be useful for those interested in the general subject.

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