I can’t remember the last time there was so much buzz over a French film outside France, and beginning four months prior to its commercial release no less. I was obviously not going to miss this one and not only because it won the Palme d’Or. I’ll see anything by Abdellatif Kechiche, though came to have mixed feelings about him as a director after his 2010 ‘Vénus noire’ (Black Venus). His first three films—’La Faute à Voltaire’ (Poetical Refugee), ‘L’Esquive’ (Games of Love and Chance), and ‘La Graine et le mulet’ (The Secret of the Grain)—were great, and particularly the latter two, which were among the best French films of the last decade and richly deserved their Césars. ‘L’Esquive’, which came out a decade ago, remains the best cinematic treatment to date of the teenage offspring of Maghrebi immigrants in France and the subculture of the peri-urban cités. ‘La Graine et mulet’ is first-rate on this score as well, and launched the career of the fine actress Hafsia Herzi to boot. Everyone I know who saw this one thought it very good, with the only point of disagreement being its 2 hour 20 minute length (it could have perhaps been cut by 20 minutes or so but this wasn’t a problem IMO). But I strongly disliked ‘Vénus noire‘, as did my wife, and was mystified by the top reviews it received here (though the reaction of Allociné spectateurs was more tepid). At 2 hours 45 minutes the pic was interminably, insufferably long for what it was. It could have worked had it been an hour or more shorter but its unjustifiable length turned it into a voyeuristic freak show, which provoked a certain malaise (with us at least), as the (true) story turned out to be about the lubricious fascination of 19th century European men with the outsized posteriors and extended labias of southern African women. My wife thus decided that Kechiche was a pervert and has not lost an opportunity to reassert this whenever his name has come up over the past three years (I’m agnostic on the question). She even decided ex post that the belly dancing scene in ‘La Graine et le mulet’—a film she liked when we saw it—was prima facie evidence of Kechiche’s esprit tordu in regard to women…
So when ‘La Vie d’Adèle’ (its title in France, though the English one—a direct translation of the graphic novel on which the film is based—makes more sense) won the Palme d’Or in May and its subject—the lesbian relationship between two young women, and with explicit sex scenes—became known, this was the clincher for my wife. No way was she going to see it. The brouhaha that ensued almost immediately after the Palme d’Or was awarded—of Kechiche’s allegedly fascistic directorial style and of being an insufferable jerk with his actresses and just about everyone under his authority more generally—didn’t help (for an amusing pictorial critique of Kechiche’s directorial style and work methods—put together by members of the technical crew—see here; though, in Kechiche’s defense, he is by no means the only major film director in history to have terrorized his actresses during the shoot). The film’s full 3 hour length was also off-putting: like, who does Abdellatif Kechiche think he is to make films so long and demanding of the audience’s time? With his Césars, he obviously has carte blanche from his producers to do whatever he pleases. The guy’s clearly become a megalomaniac. But the film was praised to the heavens by Steven Spielberg and his entire Cannes jury, followed by the great majority of critics on both sides of the Atlantic (here and here). So after unsuccessfully trying to persuade my wife to reconsider her refusal, I went to see it by myself.
The verdict: it’s a very good film. And totally engrossing. At no point during the three hours did I get impatient or look at my watch. The two actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos (who plays the younger character, Adèle) and Léa Sedoux (Emma, several years older), are absolutely excellent. What performances! They occupy the entire film, and particularly Exarchopoulos, who is in almost every scene. Elle crève l’écran. They more than deserved their joint best actress award at Cannes. And their love story is brilliantly developed. One feels the intensity. The portrayal of their respective worlds is also pitch perfect: Adele’s high school and her peers (the film is set in Lille), her sexual coming of age and discovery of her preferences in this domain, Emma’s artistic milieu, and their respective families (middling class for Adèle, highbrow intello for Emma). Through the 2 hour 15 minute mark I was calling the film a chef d’œuvre. But it ran into problems in the final 40 minutes or so, when Emma fell out of love with Adèle. This was by the numbers and not convincing to me, particularly the critical scène de ménage, which was overly theatrical and not believable. Couples do not break up like this after several years of romantic involvement and cohabitation. Their reunion in the restaurant and how it unfolded also stretched credulity. And too much was made of the social class differences between the two and their respective career choices; in a real life relationship, this wouldn’t be so big a deal. And I was puzzled by the way it ended. But all this does not detract from the pic’s overall quality; all the unsatisfying final quarter did for me was turn what could have been a masterpiece into merely a very good film.
As for the seven-minute sex scene, which has received undue attention in the US (more so than in France), it’s the most explicit I’ve seen in a mainstream film in a while. It’s borderline pornographic, though isn’t really. The scene, which was skillfully shot, has its place in the film and is not gratuitous, as it’s about passion and love rather than raw sex (though it’s that too). The question that has been posed is how realistic it is, if this is how lesbians really make love. The dominant view, so it appears, is that it’s a male fantasy of women having sex, of what lesbian sex must be like (e.g. here, here, and here; trailer is here). But one of my colleagues of the younger generation told me that lesbian friends of his thought the scene was spot on accurate. I wouldn’t know. Whatever the case, I’m interested in hearing the reaction to the film from younger women I know, and await, in particular, the assessment of my 19-year-old daughter and her best friend (NYT critic A.O. Scott, in scoffing at the ridiculous NC-17 rating—and which some US theaters are overtly ignoring—, writes that his 14-year-old daughter has seen the movie twice; why not?). But I recommend the film to all those who, knowing what they’ll be in for, have the slightest interest in it. In my book, it’s a must see. [UPDATE: The December 19th NYRB has a review essay of the film by Lorrie Moore, who teaches English at Vanderbilt. Her numerous insights—and notably of the long sex scene—are very interesting.]
Some brief comments on other recent French films on love and/or sex that I’ve seen over the past few months.
‘Jeune & Jolie’ (English title: Young & Beautiful), by François Ozon. Ozon is a valeur sûre, having directed some of the best French films of recent years, notably ‘In the House‘ and ‘Potiche‘. Had he not been the director of this one, I likely wouldn’t have bothered with it, and despite the inevitable buzz generated by its subject: a 17-year-old named Isabelle (played by the rather beautiful 22-year-old newcomer actress Marine Vacth; A Star Is Born…), from a bourgeois family in Paris’s beaux quartiers, a senior and good student at Paris’s most elite high school (Lycée Henri IV), and who, for inexplicable reasons, decides to become a call girl in her after school hours, making contact with moneyed clients via the Internet and rendezvousing in hotels or private apartments. Luis Buñuel’s ‘Belle de jour’ naturally comes to mind. Isabelle’s sexual awakening is depicted early on but her interest on this score in within the teen norm. She is not portée sur la chose, hardly needs the money, is socially well-adjusted (though does not tell any of her friends about her new after-school activity), does not come from a broken family (her parents—both professionals—are divorced but live near one another, and with her mother remarried), and has a good rapport with her 13-year-old brother. And knows—in principle—the potential dangers involved in meeting strange men in those circumstances. On the face of it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. And when she is inevitably found out—her family is naturally shattered by the revelation—she is unable to explain why she had done it. So I was particularly interested in the reaction to it by my daughter and her BFF, who saw it after I did, as they’re Parisians of almost the same age as Isabelle and with very similar physiques (and my daughter’s BFF is, like Marine Vacth, a fashion model, and even made it into the NYT recently; see here, third photo down on the left). Their reaction was somewhat negative, as they found Isabelle’s choice incomprehensible, repelling, and not credible for a girl of her social class. My explanation—which they did not contest—was that teenagers, even from the well-to-do classes, do crazy, reckless things and for which they do not measure the risks, e.g. consume hard drugs, get shitfaced drunk, drive cars way over the speed limit (mainly guys), mutilate their bodies in various ways (mainly girls), have sex without contraception, engage in petty crime (e.g. shoplifting) for no rhyme or reason, and that they are unable to rationally explain. The movie received good reviews both in France and from Hollywood press critics, who saw it at Cannes (here, here, and here; though this one is more mixed). When it comes out in the US it will no doubt be hit with the ridiculous NC-17 rating. But it should be seen anyway, including by teens, so one can form one’s own judgment. Trailer is here.
‘Grand Central’, directed by Rebecca Zlotowski. The appeal of this one for me was the A-list cast—Tahar Rahim (Gary), Léa Sedoux (Karole), Olivier Gourmet (Gilles), and Denis Ménochet (Toni)—and the top reviews it received. It’s set among workers at a nuclear power plant—which, from its appearance, is manifestly the complex at Cruas in the Rhône valley—, not the engineers and technical staff but those who do the subaltern jobs, which are dangerous and not well paid. The workers live in a trailer park near the plant and live the trailer park life in their off hours, with one of them, Gary—who’s done time in prison and is in réinsertion—, having a torrid affair with colleague Karole, but who happens to be the live-in fiancé of Toni, also a co-worker. The depiction of the world of nuclear power plant proletarians—whom one rarely hears or reads about—was interesting, particularly of the high-risk work they do (this part of the film was shot inside a decommissioned nuclear power station in Austria). But the love triangle was not too convincing IMO, notably why Karole took up with the not-very-interesting Gary and under the nose of her companion. So this part of the film fell flat for me (and sure enough, Allociné specatateurs were less enthusiastic over the film than were the critics). A couple of the Hollywood critics who saw the pic at Cannes liked it (here and here) but a couple of others (here and here) were more mixed. The latter got it right. Trailer is here.
‘Le Temps de l’aventure’, directed by Jérôme Bonnell. The English title is ‘Just a Sigh’, as translating the French one directly wouldn’t make sense given the meaning of “aventure” in this context. This one takes place over a single day in Paris, on precisely the first day of summer last year, with the Fête de la Musique going on throughout the city (and campaign posters of the last legislative elections visible). Alix (Emmanuelle Devos), who is based in Calais, is a 40-something stage actress taking the early morning train to Paris, where she has an audition, and makes eye contact with a handsome, distinguished-looking early 60s-ish passenger, who turns out to be an English university professor named Douglas (played by Gabriel Byrne; who is indeed handsome; for the anecdote, a certain older generation female member of my immediate family told me after seeing ‘Usual Suspects’ back in ’95 that she found him so beautiful that she could hardly look at him). Alix and Douglas briefly exchange words at the Gare du Nord, when he asks her (in English, as he doesn’t speak French) for directions to the Saint Clotilde church in the 7th arrondissement, after which they continue on their respective ways. But Alix has had a coup de foudre, can’t get the handsome Englishman out of her mind, so after her (failed) audition she heads over to the church, spots Douglas in the middle of what is a funeral service—of a French academic friend of Douglas who died suddenly—, he comes over to her afterward, there’s awkwardness, they go to a restaurant, then to a hotel, and voilà—and despite him being happily married and her in stable relationship (though she has a hard time reaching her companion, who lives in Paris, on the phone that day). After spending a torrid afternoon together—on a warm summer day in the City of Love—, she has to get the train back to Calais, where she has a performance, and he back to England. Two passing ships in the night. Things like this do happen, I guess, and if I racked my mind I suppose I could come up with a case or two of it with people I’ve known. The movie was well received by Paris critics (though somewhat less so by Allociné spectateurs), as well as by those in the Hollywood press who saw it (here and here; trailer is here). I had a couple of issues with the unfolding of the story and particularly toward the end, which I didn’t think were too credible. But what made it worth seeing was the performances, and particularly Emmanuelle Devos. She’s a great actress, no two ways about it.
Finally, ‘L’Écume des jours’ (English title: Mood Indigo), directed by Michel Gondry. I will say as little about this one as possible. Michel Gondry is a serious director but I’m not a fan of the two previous films I saw by him: ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (couldn’t get into it; not my kind of movie) and ‘The We and the I’ (tedious, too long for what it was). As this one is based on a 1947 novel by Boris Vian—utterly unknown to me—, which is, so I learned, beloved by countless Frenchmen and women of my generation and the one older, I decided to see the pic, what the hell. The all-star cast—Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Omar Sy—was also a draw. It’s a fantasy film. Surrealistic, loaded with special effects. When I realized five minutes into the pic that this was what it was going to be—and for the next two hours—my heart sank, as, with the occasional exception, I cannot stand fantasy/surreal movies. But I stuck it out, as I didn’t want to ask my wife if she would walk out of it with me (though she told me afterward that she would have willingly, as she also found it insufferable). There was a love story at the center of the film, involving the Duris and Tautou characters, but I wasn’t focused on it. It was two hours of cinematic torture, which I just wanted to be over. Now I won’t say that it was objectively a bad film. Adepts of the Boris Vian novel can weigh in on that. It just wasn’t for me, so I really can’t evaluate it as a movie. French reviews were all over the place. Here’s one in English. Trailer is here. See it if you like the genre (and have read the book). If not, avoid it with your life.