I’ve seen a slew of French films over the past year but that I haven’t gotten around to writing about; with the César awards ceremony coming up this Friday, now’s the time. Arnaud Desplechin’s Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse (English title: My Golden Days) has netted, along with Xavier Giannoli’s ‘Marguerite’, the most nominations (eleven), including Best Film and Best Director. Desplechin—one of the “Frenchest of French directors,” as The Hollywood Reporter’s Boyd von Hoeij has called him—is held in the highest esteem by film critics and highbrow cinephiles on both sides of the Atlantic, so it is not surprising that this one would top the list. It opened in France last May, the week after its debut at Cannes. It’s only the fourth Desplechin film I’ve seen: his previous one, Jimmy P., is considered not to be among his best but the two previous to that one, Un conte de Noël and Rois & reine, are almost universally labeled chefs d’œuvre. At the end of both of these, though, I didn’t know what to think. Maybe the stories—involving complex interpersonal or family relationships with multiple characters—were too complex pour ma petite tête, je n’en sais rien. Not that I didn’t like the pics, which did hold my attention, but my immediate thought was that I needed to see them again (which I have yet to do), as I must have missed something.
This was sort of my reaction to the latest one. As for what it’s about, here’s the synopsis from this site
The story centers on Paul Dédalus [Mathieu Amalric (older), Quentin Dolmaire (younger)], an anthropologist preparing to leave Tajikistan, who has a series of flashbacks that include his childhood in Roubaix, his mother’s attacks of madness and his father’s alienating depression. He remembers his trip to the USSR, where a clandestine mission led him to offer up his own identity for a young Russian, whom he considered a phantom twin for the remainder of his life as well as remembering Esther [Lou Roy-Lecollinet], the beautiful, rude love of his life.
For more lengthy discussions, see the (stellar) reviews by Lisa Nesselson in Screen Daily, Oliver Lyttelton in IndieWire, and Justin Chang in Variety, who saw it at Cannes (trailer is here; the pic opens in the US on March 18th). One of my faithful readers, a highbrow cinephile in the south of France who goes by the nom de plume Massilian, wrote to me that he loved it. I asked him if he could write a paragraph explaining why and he agreed. Le voici (my translation)
I love everything about Desplechin’s films: his stories, the way he looks at things, the rhythm , the directing of actors, the editing… One should, however, maintain a critical distance. I do recognize that some of Desplechin’s films are better than others. Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse is among his best. All magnetisms are somehow unfair to those who get attracted or repelled.There are directors (artists, auteurs) for whom all is forgiven and others who are not too bad but for whom nothing is forgiven. Desplechin’s films are magnets that attract and then rivet me to the screen, fascinated as I am by his charm as a storyteller, like a book that does not leave my hands until the very last page. When the light goes out, when one has read the final page, one is still a little tipsy. In Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse I succumbed to the formidable invention of a passionate love at first sight, an absolute, total love that sweeps away everything in its path, a love that is inseparable from the folly of youth. Me as well: I have done everything—and anything—to love like that. Without fatal passion life had no meaning. That was my youth. Desplechin knows how to recount that. He finds the right actors to do it. And he knows how to film it. The music wasn’t bad either…
So one understands that the film is, above all, a love story. Lou Roy-Lecollinet and Quentin Dolmaire—who play the young Esther and Paul—totally carry it. They have been nominated for Most Promising Actress and Actor, respectively, and both deserve to win. Their performances are exceptional. As it happens, Mademoiselle Roy-Lecollinet was present at the screening of the film I attended at my local cinéma municipal, as she’s a resident of my banlieue and was, last year, a senior at the high school just down the street from chez moi (my daughter’s alma mater). This was not public knowledge, the manager of the cinema having learned about it par hasard from his own daughter—and after he had scheduled the film for the last week of May—who told him that a classmate of hers had had a part in a movie and was going to the Cannes film festival. So the youthful Lou entered the salle at the end of the credits, played a song on her guitar, made a few remarks, and fielded questions from the audience. She was modest, unassuming, almost shy—said it was her first-ever experience in public speaking—but was poised and manifestly self-confident. A Star Is Born. I pronounced her a slam-dunk for the meilleur espoir féminin César and will be rooting for her on Friday.
Love and passion are themes in several films nominated for the Césars. One is L’Hermine (English title: Courted), by Christian Vincent. I was originally not interested in seeing it but the positive word-of-mouth and box office success (almost one million tix sold) persuaded me. The story: Michel Racine (Fabrice Luchini: César Best Actor nominee, and who won this award for his role in the pic at the last Venice film festival) is a judge at the cour d’assises (criminal court) in Saint-Omer (sub-prefecture in the Pas-de-Calais). He’s in his early 60s, a humorless curmudgeon, so insufferable that his wife fled from him and people avoid his company, and with a reputation for handing down the maximum sentence possible on convicted lawbreakers. With Judge Racine, you’ll get at least ten years in the slammer, if not more. But everything is upended during jury selection for a horrible infanticide—the lumpen father indicted for the crime (which he denies)—as one of the jurors, the mid 40ish Ditte Lorensen-Coteret (the Franco-Danish Sidse Babett Knudsen, nominated for Best Supporting Actress), is a medical doctor who tended to Judge Racine during a lengthy hospitalization several years earlier and toward whom he developed an unrequited love that never died. And so the film is him juggling the difficult trial and dealing with his intact passion for Mme Lorensen-Coteret the juror, and which naturally reveals his softer side. The pic’s a crowd-pleaser for the over 40 age cohort. Reviews by Hollywood critics who saw it in Venice were tepid (here and here) but I liked it. Everyone I know who saw it liked it. If you’ve read this far, you’ll no doubt like it too. Trailer is here.
La Belle Saison, by Catherine Corsini (English title: Summertime). This one opened in France last August to very good reviews. The story: Set in 1971, Delphine (Izïa Higelin), who’s 24 or so, lives on a farm with her parents (she’s an only child) somewhere in the Limousin, cannot express her lesbian identity—soixante-huitard values having yet to reach la France profonde—so moves to Paris, where she gets a job working in a store. By chance she meets Carole (Cécile de France; César Best Actress nominee), a mid-30ish public school teacher of Spanish and feminist activist (this being the heyday of the MLF). Delphine doesn’t know a thing about feminism or anything political but accepts Carole’s invitation to attend MLF meetings and events, as she’s alone in the big city and is kind of attracted to Carole, though who’s straight—or at least appears to be—and lives with b.f. Manuel (Benjamin Bellecour), who a cool leftist. He even concocts a scheme where they all burst into a psychiatric hospital to spirit away a gay friend who had been committed there precisely for being gay. Carole and Delphine develop a close friendship and despite their educational and social class differences, the latter comes on to the former, awakening the former’s repressed bisexuality and with a vengeance, and with the two women embarking on a passionate love affair (and with requisite steamy scenes). But Delphine is suddenly called back home to tend to her dying father and, as her mother, Monique (Noémie Lvovsky; César Best Supporting Actress nominee), cannot run the farm by herself, Delphine decides to stay. Carole comes for a visit, announcing—after dumping confused and distraught b.f. Manuel—that she wants to live on the farm with Delphine, as that’s the only way to continue the romance. Monique, not suspecting a thing about her daughter’s lesbianism, appears fine with it, though hopes and expects that Delphine will marry village boy suitor Antoine (Kévin Azaïs), who’s had a crush (unrequited) on Delphine since primary school. Eventually the truth comes out, with—spoiler alert!—Monique telling Carole that she must leave immediately. Their romance is quashed and that is that.
I thought the film was okay, pas plus. The performances are certainly good, the attention to historical detail impeccable—director Corsini was careful about this—and the romance torrid but my socks were not knocked off. Corsini has called the film her “Brokeback Mountain on the Plateau de Millevache,” though the lesbian comparison with Ang Lee’s chef d’œuvre (which it was) more properly belongs, IMO, to the recent Hollywood movie ‘Carol’. I wondered how MLF veterans viewed the film; though I don’t have a response to that, the reaction of the presse féminine has been effusive. Hollywood critics who saw the pic at the Locarno film festival gave it the thumbs up (here, here, and here). Trailer is here.
En équilibre, by Denis Dercourt (English title: In Harmony). This one, which also stars Cécile de France, was not nominated for any Césars, which is too bad, as I thought it was one of the better French films of 2015. The protag is Marc (Albert Dupontel), an accomplished equestrian stuntman and horse trainer in the Loire-Atlantique, who is suddenly paralyzed from the waist down following a freak accident—he’s trampled by his horse after a freak fall—while on a film shoot. Florence (Cécile de France) is the insurance company adjuster handling his dossier, who has to persuade Marc to accept the payout, which he considers insultingly low, but also drive it into his head that he will never again be able to mount a horse, i.e. to practice his profession and do the one thing in life he loves. Their interaction does not get off to an easy start—and she has no particular interest in horses to boot—but improves as they spend more time together—strictly in her professional capacity, at first—during which it comes out that she also has—or had—a passion in life as well, which was the piano. She had aspired to being a concert pianist but didn’t pass the concours, so ended up working in insurance faute de mieux, but it was just a job and clearly not what she wanted to be doing. She’s happily married, more or less, and with children, but develops feelings for Marc and vice-versa, though that’s a sideshow to the main story, of two people with a frustrated passion in life but that they finally decide they are going to realize vaille que vaille. No spoilers but at the end one feels good and with a tear in one’s eye (I’m a sucker for that sort of thing). The movie is understated but that I enjoyed and was moved by. Others clearly felt likewise, as it did well at the box office (over 500K tix sold). For some reason it has yet to open commercially outside France. Trailer w/English subtitles is here.
Comme un avion, by Bruno Podalydès (English title: The Sweet Escape). A light comedy and also about passion, again for a pastime. Michel (played by director Podalydès) is a computer graphic designer just turned 50 in the Île-de-France’s grande couronne, happily married to Rachel (Sandrine Kiberlain, excellent as always), with friends and an overall decent life, and has a somewhat unique, lifelong passion for Aéropostale planes from the 1920s and ’30s, but which has also been a source of frustration for him, as the planes no longer exist and he never learned to fly anyway. Then one day at work he discovers the design of a kayak on the computer screen, sees that it looks like the wing of an Aéropostale plane, and so orders one in the mail, constructs it, and then announces to his initially puzzled wife that he’s going to go on a kayaking trip all by himself. And, with her support and love, he does, setting off on a voyage of (self-)discovery—flying away, as it were—down the languid back rivers of the bucolic Sologne, with camping gear and all. He encounters curious characters along the way (one a nutter, played by Pierre Arditi in a cameo role) and, on the second day, comes across a riverbank restaurant-auberge and asks if he can pitch his tent on its grounds for the night. The place is run by divorcée Laëtitia (Agnès Jaoui, César Best Supporting Actress nominee), with charming waitress Mila (la jeune et jolie Vimala Pons), and a couple of amiable oddballs. Michel has a good time there, ends up prolonging his stay by a day, during which he has a fling with Laëtitia, which is friendly and no big deal, as he will of course be going back to Rachel soon (though who knows what she’s been up to in his absence?). What’s a harmless little infidelity après la cinquantaine? And that’s pretty much the movie.
À trois on y va, by Jérôme Bonnell (English title: All About Them). This is billed as a romantic comedy. Charlotte (Sophie Verbeeck) and Micha (Félix Moati, César Most Promising Actor nominee) are a mid-20s couple, in love, and who’ve bought a flat in a quartier populaire in Lille (she’s a struggling chanteuse who gets occasional gigs in local bars, he’s a para-veterinarian). But despite their love, Charlotte (who’s bi, so one notes) has been carrying on a torrid secret affair with their mutual friend, young lawyer Mélodie (Anaïs Demoustier). Micha, feeling neglected by Charlotte, though suspecting nothing, develops a crush on Mélodie, spontaneously hits on her one evening, and with her, after a momentary hesitation, falling for him (though I frankly did not see his appeal). So Mélodie and Micha, à leur tour, embark on a torrid secret affair. All three are in love with the other. A ‘Jules and Jim’ à l’envers. But as the secrets cannot be kept forever, the truth all comes out in—spoiler alert!—a climactic ultra-torrid threesome.
It’s a trifle of a film, inoffensive, almost stereotypically French, thankfully short (under an hour-and-a-half), and not essential. French critics liked it but Allociné spectateurs were lukewarm. The handful of UK reviews are positive. Trailer is here.
Moi roi, by Maïwenn (English title: My King). This one—which debuted in competition at Cannes last May—has been nominated for eight Césars, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (Vincent Cassel), Best Actress (Emmanuelle Bercot, who won the same award at Cannes for the film), and Best Supporting Actor (Louis Garrel). Despite these laurels, I am putting it last here, as I despised this movie. If this movie were a person, I’d want to punch it in the face. Leaving my local theater when it was over, I proclaimed to the vendeuse at the guichet, “C’était nul!” I’m not going to go into any detail on the stupid ass story except to say that it’s constructed as a flashback by protag Tony (E.Bercot), who, recovering from a ski accident, harks back to a passionate love affair she had had six years earlier as a middle-aged divorcée—and which yielded a child—with Georgio (V.Cassel), a suave, smooth-talking, life-of-the-party tombeur, who has tons of money—he says he’s a high-end restaurateur—a jet-set social circle, and sweeps her off her feet. She falls madly in love with him and he with her, or so he claims, they fuck with abandon, do fun things together, et le total. But he is quickly revealed to be a mythomaniac, womanizer, a manipulative narcissist, and overall sleazy S.O.B. Un sale type. Moreover, he has a whack job ex-girlfriend, Agnès (played by supermodel Chrystèle Saint-Louis Augustin), who’s a drug addict and parasite and who won’t let Georgio go, but he finally won’t break with her either. And if this weren’t enough, he causes major financial prejudice to Tony and upends her daily life while he’s at it. Tony’s brother, Solal (L.Garrel), taking a dislike to Georgio, warns his sister about him, but she does not pay heed. As a lawyer she hardly needs Georgio for financial support and would certainly have other options in the men department, but remains smitten and under his spell.
The whole thing was just so ridiculous and not credible—from my way of viewing life, at least—but also insufferable to watch and from the get go, with the main characters either odious (Cassel) or pathetic (Bercot). Even the film’s poster (below) is gag-inducing. The Guardian’s film critic Peter Bradshaw got it exactly right in his thumbs down review, calling the pic
an unendurable confection of complacent and self-admiring nonsense: shallow, narcissistic, histrionic and fake… [I]t is an outrageous 130-minute firework display of drama-queen over-acting and bad acting: impossibly irritating and self-indulgent, featuring people who are clearly on some important level supposed to be irrepressible, adorable and richly life-affirming — but are actually tiresome prats.
Further down, Bradshaw makes a spot-on observation about the film that also irked me
But oh, what a dynamic force of nature this impossible, fascinating, glorious alpha male [Georgio] is! Always making Tony and the general roistering crew laugh uproariously in public places with his chaotic bohemian behaviour! In one horrific scene in a restaurant, Georgio impulsively grabs wine and plates of food and pretends to be a waiter, “serving” Tony and other diners. They all smile indulgently, as opposed to slapping him with a seabass. Maïwenn is always convening circle-jerk group scenes of this sort: characters incessantly drinking and laughing together.
Groups of people in restaurants or bars laughing uproariously, and no doubt over stupid stories or jokes that are objectively not all that funny. I can’t stand that. Other useful reviews are in IndieWire and Screen Daily. French reviews averaged between not bad and good, with Allocine spectateurs liking it even more (on this, I break with the vox populi). Box office in France was solid (750K tix sold), signifying positive word of mouth. Go figure. Trailer is here if one is interested but please trust me and avoid it.