In putting together my ‘Best (and worst) movies of 2014’ list, I was struck by how many French films were on it. I saw a lot of French films this year, more than in any other year of my life (first-run films in the cinema at least). Now I won’t say that all were worth seeing—there was not a chef d’œuvre among them—but enough were good or at least good enough. All the films were either well-reviewed and/or by directors I follow—or were such huge box office hits, veritable phénomènes de société—that I felt compelled to check them out.
The best of the lot, IMO, is ‘Hippocrate’ (in English: Hippocrates), by Thomas Lilti, which opened in September to top reviews. I was initially not too interested in seeing it but word-of-mouth and the general buzz convinced me to do so. And I’m glad I did. As the ‘bottom line’ of Hollywood Reporter critic Jordan Mintzer’s review trenchantly puts it, the film is “[a] scathing yet touching social dramedy that depicts the sketchy underside of a French public hospital.” Mintzer’s review thus begins
The doctor is in, but he’s neither motivated, competent nor altogether sober. That’s at least the diagnosis in Hippocrates (Hippocrate), a darkly comic, socially potent portrait of a Paris hospital as seen through the eyes of a young intern making his very first rounds.
Starring — or rather slouching — Vincent Lacoste…opposite the terrific Reda Kateb (“Zero Dark Thirty”), this gritty workplace dramedy recalls French films like The Class and Polisse, tracking the daily grind of disgruntled state employees through a mix of humor, realism and two-fisted compassion. (…)
Named after the ancient Greek physician whose eponymous oath has become the code by which doctors are supposed to live by, Hippocrates reveals a reality far different from their promise to work for the “good of patients” and “never do harm to anyone.” Or, as one baggy-eyed intern states at one point, a cigarette dangling from his mouth: “Medicine is not a career. It’s a curse.”
That’s not exactly how it first appears to med student, Benjamin (Lacoste), who begins a six-month internship in the ward run by his father, [Professor] Barois (Jacques Gamblin). Slightly shaky when it comes to actual procedures, but already quite sure of himself, Benjamin learns the ropes the hard way, caring for elderly patients on their last legs while partying hearty with the other interns, whose boisterous meals and fetes resemble an episode of Doogie Howser M.D. crossed with scenes from Animal House. (…)
I haven’t seen such a dramatization of life inside a large urban hospital since the TV series ‘E.R.’. The film is, no doubt, the most dead-on accurate that has ever been made of hospitals in France. The fact that director Lilti is also an M.D., and has practiced at one of the hospitals seen in the film, certainly helped on this score. The French health care system may be second-to-none—on this, there is no dispute—but it is afflicted with serious problems—and which are laid bare in the film—among them the deplorable conditions of work of the interns, their low pay, the steep hierarchies in the medical profession, and the crumbling physical stock of the older establishments. The film was shot at different hospitals in Paris, including Cochin and Saint-Antoine, which were founded in the 18th century (I’ve been inside both pour l’info, having had in-laws hospitalized at the latter and a brother-in-law doctor at the former, who informed/assured me recently that it has undergone major physical renovations). I could hardly believe the almost slum-like living quarters of the interns and their wild parties—during which they decompress big time—but have been reliably informed that it really is this way.
On the acting—first-rate—Mintzer writes that
…it’s [Reda] Kateb — a rising star with three films in Cannes this year — who steals the show, portraying [an experienced Algerian physician] whose professionalism and humanity are constantly thwarted by the other staff members, especially the Gallic natives that don’t have to jump through the same hoops he does. The film ultimately reveals how Abdel [Kateb’s character] may be the only true hope for the Hippocratic spirit to be carried on in France, underlining how much foreigners contribute to a field that both welcomes and rejects them at the same time.
On the vital presence of foreign doctors in French hospitals—large numbers hailing from former colonies on the African continent—anyone who has been treated in a large hospital in this country can confirm this. And they’re treated shabbily, mainly via being overworked and scandalously underpaid (the pretext being that their foreign-earned diplomas are not equivalent to those from French medical schools). As for Reda Kateb (who is of Algerian and Italian/Czech immigrant stock), he is indeed a rising star in the French movie industry. He’s a great actor and very prolific these days. If a movie with him in the lead role gets even halfway decent reviews, I’ll see it. And if one has the chance to see ‘Hippocrate’, which will open in the US at some point, do so. Trailer (w/English s/t) is here.
Briefly, here are some of the other French films I’ve seen this year, in the order in which I recommend them (films that focus on immigration and ethnicity will be discussed in a later post):
Elle l’adore, by Jeanne Herry: As with ‘Hippocrate’ I was initially not going to see this one, as it looked a little too middlebrow and I hadn’t heard of the director—for whom it’s the debut film (she’s normally an actress and, pour l’info, is the daughter of Miou-Miou and Julien Leclerc)—but as the reviews were good and it was playing at my local cinema, I decided what the hell. I didn’t regret it. The story, in brief, concerns a mid 40ish ditzy divorcée Paris hairdresser named Muriel (Sandrine Kiberlain), whose main interest in life is a pop singer approaching middle age named Vincent Lacroix (Laurent Lafitte), of whom she’s been an obsessive fan for twenty years. One evening in the Lacroix household, in the course of a dispute between le chanteur vedette and his unhappy wife, the unthinkable happens—the wife is accidentally killed by a falling heavy object—Lacroix, assuming, not unreasonably, that the police will think he killed her (as it sure looks that way), panics and calls upon Muriel—whom he had never formally met, but whose existence (and address) he was aware of via her countless fan letters (which he’s archived) and front-row appearances at his concerts, to help him cover up the tragedy. Though having nothing explained to her—she’s initially clueless—she readily agrees to help her idol. And then all sorts of stuff happens. It’s a riveting movie, absolutely first-rate, and with great acting (including the two detectives, played by Pascal Demolon and Olivia Côte), and particularly the terrific Kiberlain. She won the last best actress César for her role in 9 mois ferme and deserves it again for this. Her performance in this has convinced me that she is presently one of France’s best actresses. (As I write this I’m wondering if I shouldn’t rank ‘Elle l’adore’ above ‘Hippocrate’; okay, it’s a close second). Hollywood press critics Jordan Mintzer and Lisa Nesselson, who saw the pic at Cannes, gave it the thumbs up. Trailer is here and (w/English s/t) here.
La French, by Cédric Jimenez. English title: The Connection. Put the two together and you get “The/La French Connection.” Duh. The pic is a French version of the story depicted in William Friedkin’s 1971 classic, beginning here in 1975 and lasting six years, with investigating Marseille magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) single-mindedly setting out to dismantle the heroin trafficking network headed by Marseillais mob kingpin Gaëtan “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lelouche). That’s the pic. It’s a middlebrow grand public crime thriller/policier, the kind best accompanied by a big box of popcorn. It’s by the numbers, hardly original, and thoroughly entertaining. The decor of the period is impeccable, as is the acting; Dujardin—in his first totally non-comedy role (he hardly cracks a smile in the pic)—and Lellouche are good, as is Céline Sallette as magistrate Michel’s wife. One notes, entre autres, the portrayal of longtime Marseille deputy-mayor Gaston Deferre (actor Féodor Atkine)—France’s answer to Richard Daley père and Socialist party heavyweight (and, pour mémoire, the party’s failed presidential candidate in 1969)—making his implicit compromissions with the Corsican mafia—which had thoroughly infiltrated the state apparatus in the Marseille area—and consequently thwarting Michel’s investigation, but once named Minister of Interior following François Mitterrand’s 1981 election to the presidency, gave magistrate Michel carte blanche to smash that same mafia. Reviews in France are good and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs way up. As for Hollywood press reviews, The Hollywood Reporter liked it, Variety thought it was okay, and Indiewire deemed it so-so. À vous de décider. Trailer is here.
Les Combattants, by Thomas Cailley. (The stupid) English title: Love at First Fight. This directorial debut I normally wouldn’t have bothered seeing were it not for the top reviews, both critical and by Allociné spectateurs, plus the awards won at Cannes. Put simply, this is a boy-girl (early 20s) more-or-less love story set in the Landes (south of Bordeaux). The boy, Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), is just a regular middle class French guy but the girl, Madeleine (Adèle Haenel), is something else altogether: a brooding, humorless, physically strong-as-hell survivalist chick, who wants nothing more than to join the army, push herself to the physical limit, and kick ass (Haenel has exceptional athletic ability, so didn’t have to go through a crash body-building regimen for the film). She’s a piece of work. In one scene, she jumps into an ice cold swimming pool and then eats a raw fish, just to test her endurance. In America she’d want to be a Marine or Navy SEAL. She and Arnaud are total opposites in every respect, but as opposites tend to attract he develops a powerful one to her, and finally she to him. It’s a pretty good film, carried, above all, by Haenel’s performance. Haenel, who won the best supporting actress César this year for her role in Suzanne, is an up-and-coming actress in French cinema. On the pic, see, in particular, Jessica Kiang’s review in Indiewire, plus this one, this one, and this one. Trailer is here.
Dans la cour, by Pierre Salvadori. English title: In the Courtyard. Last spring’s crowd-pleaser for discerning ciné-spectateurs, the pic is set in an older apartment building—mainly the courtyard—in Paris’s 11th arrondissement, with the focus an unlikely friendship forged between elderly propriétaire Mathilde (Catherine Deneuve) and the new gardien d’immeuble (superintendent), a 50ish shlump named Antoine (Gustave Kervern), previously a musician with a minor rock band who walked off that job and into this one via Pôle Emploi (unemployment office), is washed out and doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but is well-intentioned and an all-around good guy. So the story is about Mathilde, Antoine, and other offbeat residents of the building, funny stuff that happens, and with Mathilde and Antoine becoming slightly batty as the film moves along. It’s a light comedy, touching, and well-done overall. I didn’t find it particularly memorable, though one of my discerning ciné-spectateur readers loved it. Hollywood press critics who saw the pic at the Berlinale gave it the thumbs up (here, here, and here). Trailer is here.
Respire, by Mélanie Laurent. English title: Breathe. I went to see this for one reason only: that it was directed by Mélanie Laurent, whom I really like—as an actress (notably her role in Beginners)—and despite her 2011 directorial debut, Les Adoptés, not being too good. And also despite the fact that Mme Laurent has become an Anne Hathaway à la française: the actress that fellow compatriots—those who express their views on the Internet, at least—most love to hate (e.g. here, here, and here; N.B. the latter link is satirical). Apparently she’s seen as arrogant and pretentious, or something. Whatever. I don’t care. I still like her (and I happen to like Anne Hathaway too; as it happens, Anne and Mélanie are almost exactly the same age). As for the film in question—based on the eponymous best-selling 2001 novel by the then 17-year-old Anne-Sophie Brasme—it’s about the relationship between two 17-year-old girls in their last year of lycée in an unnamed town in the Midi—the pic was shot in Béziers and near Sète—named Charlène, a.k.a. Charlie (Joséphine Japy), and Sarah (Lou de Laâge). Charlie is serious and studious, Sarah—a newcomer in the school—is brash and with an attitude. Both are good-looking, bien évidemment, and have problematic family situations, but which, in Sarah’s case, only becomes clear later. They quickly become BFFs, totally inseparable, before the inevitable falling-out, when Sarah becomes Charlie’s worst enemy. The film recalls ‘La Vie d’Adèle’ (Blue Is the Warmest Color) minus the steamy scenes. In short, it’s about the passion-filled, turbulent relationship between two teenage girls. While watching it I was thinking to myself “Why am I sitting through this? What am I doing here? This is a movie for girls my daughter’s age, not me.” It’s not that I didn’t think it was a good film (though I didn’t like the ending); I just deemed it something I didn’t need to see. But afterward I checked out the reviews of US critics who saw it at Cannes, all of whom gave it the thumbs up and with enthusiasm (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here). Well, how about that. As far as the Hollywood press is concerned, the pic has earned Mélanie Laurent her chops as a director. And the youthful actresses Japy and de Laâge are ones to watch. So it may be recommended to females in the, say, 12 to 29 age cohort, plus their parents. As for those outside these cohorts, c’est à chacun(e) de décider. Trailer is here.
La Prochaine fois je viserai le cœur, by Cédric Anger. English title: Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart. I don’t know why I went to see this movie. In fact, I do know: It was playing at my neighborhood theater, received mostly good reviews, and had Guillaume Canet in the lead role. And then there was the morbid curiosity in seeing a film based on a true story of a psychotic serial killer, here the “tueur fou de l’Oise” (the mad killer of the Oise), Alain Lamare, who murdered several women in the department of the Oise, due north of Paris, in 1978 and ’79, sowing terror up that way until his arrest. Lamare had a predilection for murdering women in their late teens-early 20s (with firearms or his speeding car; no sexual assault). Named Franck in the film, Lamare was a gendarme, i.e. a cop, and participant in the hunt for the serial killer, i.e. himself, which prolonged the investigation somewhat. But he was finally nabbed and—to the outraged disbelief of the public—judged not responsible for his acts by reason of insanity, whereupon he was placed in a psychiatric institution (and where he logically remains to this day). Canet, who’s in almost every frame, is perfectly cast. He looks like a serial killer, or at least someone you would not want to be alone with in a car. But though Canet was first-rate and the film well-done, I did not enjoy sitting through it. Watching young women get killed by a psychopath, and seeing the terror on their faces as it’s happening, is just not my idea of a good time (and it’s not only because I have a daughter the age of the victims). After the movie was over I walked across the street from the theater to a restaurant, where I met my wife and a group of people for dinner, and announced to all that this was not a film that they needed to see. THR’s review is here, trailer is here.
Une nouvelle amie, by François Ozon. English title: The New Girlfriend. I went to see this for one reason and one reason only: the director, who is one of France’s best. Ozon’s recent films have been tops, notably Dans la maison (In the House)—which was the nº1 French film of 2012, IMO—and Potiche (Trophy Wife), one of the two top French films of 2010. I read nothing about this one beforehand (with rare exceptions, I don’t read reviews of films before seeing them). I just went, period. In most respects it was a good film: technically, the scenario, and, above all, the acting. Romain Duris is very good, comme d’hab’, as is Anaïs Demoustier. I’m not going to say a thing about the actual story—for that, one can read the reviews—except that I found it of little interest. Cross-dressing and people who are confused about their gender identity—or want to physically change it—do not interest me. While I could appreciate the film on its merits as a film, it left me indifferent. I didn’t care about it and gave it no thought after leaving the theater. In short, it was an unsatisfying 1¾ hours of my time spent. But that’s me and my tastes. Others may have different sensibilities. Hollywood press critics who saw the pic at the TIFF gave it the thumbs up (here, here, and here), though with at least one exception (here). Trailer is here.
One little detail about the film. While it is, of course, set in France, the houses and residential neighborhoods in the film are clearly not in France. They are obviously North American. And sure enough, as one learns from the credits (which I stuck around to read), those scenes were shot in Canada. Ozon did the same thing in ‘Dans la maison’. Curious. I wonder why he chose to do this.
Arrête ou je continue, by Sophie Fillières. English title: If You Don’t, I Will. Once again, I went to see this for one sole reason: the top billing of Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric. Des valeurs sûres. And it’s thanks to these two great actors that this trivial, utterly forgettable film about a middle-aged couple going though a middle-aged marital crisis is halfway worth watching. If you want to see it, then by all means do so. But if you don’t really want to, then absolutely don’t. French reviews were good on the whole but Allociné spectateurs—the vox populi—were less enthusiastic. Hollywood press reviews are here, here, and here. Trailer is here.