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Archive for February, 2018

There were several good French comedies in 2017—the most in years—and with Le Sens de la fête (English title: C’est la vie) the best since the 2014 sidesplitter Le Crocodile du Botswanga. The Hollywood Reporter’s Boyd van Hoeij, whose bottom line on the pic is “fizzy and fun,” thus begins his thumbs up review:

A cantankerous French caterer [Jean-Pierre Bacri] has to try and create a fairytale wedding while relying on the most disorganized group of waiters, cooks, photographers and wedding singers in the history of holy matrimonies in C’est la Vie (Le Sens de la fete). This is an expertly assembled, tartly played and hugely enjoyable romp from directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, whose Intouchables became a monster hit a few years ago… The duo’s latest…is a sprawling and often hilarious ensemble comedy almost entirely shot at a 17th century chateau that will be a serious moneymaker locally. It will also appeal to foreign distributors interested in subtitled mainstream fare. (…)

Totally. To continue reading, go here. Also see Screen Daily’s chief film critic Fionnuala Halligan’s equally thumbs up review. The pic was indeed a serious moneymaker in France, selling over 3 million tix. And partly as a consequence, it has been nominated for no less than ten Césars, including best film and five in the acting categories (all merited): J-P Bacri, Gilles Lellouche, Vincent Macaigne, Eye Haidara, and Benjamin Lavernhe. I’m hard to please when it comes to comedies but found this one very funny, not to mention thoroughly entertaining. I laughed out loud at numerous points. And if I did, so will you. Trailer is here.

Another well-reviewed comedy—though not of the belly laugh variety—is Le Brio, directed by Yvan Attal, which was also a box office hit (over 1 million tix sold) and has been nominated for three Césars, including best film. Here’s a synopsis, culled from the internet and translated and modified à ma guise

Neïla Salah (Camélia Jordana) is from Créteil, a Paris banlieue with a large immigrant population. She is a bright freshman law student at the prestigious Panthéon-Assas University in the Latin Quarter – a world away from her cité and previously alien to her, as it remains to her friends there today – where she is taking a course from Pierre Mazard (Daniel Auteuil), a renowned professor and jurist but known for being provocative and politically reactionary. On the first day of class he makes a borderline racist comment to Neïla in front of the students in the amphitheater, for which he is subjected to a social media campaign calling for him to be professionally sanctioned. Hauled before a university disciplinary commission, he agrees, in order to escape sanction, to tutor Neïla for a prestigious national rhetoric competition (concours d’excellence de la langue française), so the two are constrained, initially against their will, to work together one-on-one: he the older white right-wing bigot – but brilliant and erudite – and she the young, headstrong banlieue beurette with attitude, and quite smart herself…

So the film is about their interaction, which is initially antagonistic but becomes less so as they spend more time together. Évidemment. Not an entirely original theme but it works, mainly on account of the strong performances of Auteuil and particularly the spunky, pretty Jordana. She’s great (FYI, she’s of Algerian parentage and is better known as a pop singer than actress). I liked that she lived in Créteil—which borders my banlieue and where I go often—and took line 8 of the metro to Paris, which I also do periodically (when the RER line A is having problems or on strike). It’s not the best French film of the year—I will be shocked if it wins the César for this—but is entertaining and may definitely be seen. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer has a mostly good review here. Trailer is here.

Another noteworthy comedy is Rock’n Roll, directed by Guillaume Canet and starring himself, along with Marion Cotillard—Canet’s companion in both the movie and real life—and a host of other actors and celebrities—e.g. Gilles Lellouche, Philippe Lefebvre, Camille Rowe, Yvan Attal, Johnny & Laeticia Hallyday—and with everyone playing him/herself—Canet has a César nomination for his performance—and with references to their actual careers. It’s a celebrity satire, with the main butt of the joke Canet himself, who, now in his early 40s, is told that he can no longer be cast for high-profile roles calling for men younger—and more buff—than he—that he’s no longer “rock’n roll”—provoking a midlife crisis and with him going all out to turn the clock back on his physical appearance; to once again become “rock’n roll.” Amusing. There are several running gags in the pic, one—which I found hilarious—of Cotillard, having been cast for a movie by the French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan—which she in fact was: the execrable 2016 ‘Juste la fin du monde’—so sets out to master the Quebec accent (which—irrelevant detail—she didn’t actually need for that film, as it was set in France). So she starts speaking in Joual, and goes on with it for several scenes. The joke will be totally lost on non-French speakers, as THR’s Jordan Mintzer advised in his (positive) review, but it’s really quite funny (though Québécois themselves were less amused, saying that she didn’t get the accent right; it sounded good to me though). The critical and audience reaction in France was more tepid for this than the two above films, though it did well at the box office (1.3 million tix sold). I was certainly entertained. Trailer is here.

Yet another French comedy—also with midlife crisis as a theme—is Jalouse (English title: Jealous), directed by David & Stéphane Foenkinos, and with Karin Viard in the lead role. The film is all Viard—netting her a well-deserved César nomination—in which she plays an otherwise well-adjusted divorcée French lit professor at a highbrow Paris lycée, who, turning 50, flips out, descends into alcoholism, talks aggressively to colleagues and everyone else, and becomes jealous of those in her entourage, including her beautiful 18-year-old daughter (Dara Tombroff), pleasant-looking youthful new colleague (Anaïs Demoustier), ex-husband (Thibault de Montalembert) and his naturally younger g.f., best friend (Anne Dorval), and others. And she becomes scheming and does not-nice things in the process, though all turns out well in the end. It’s an “endearing French comedy,” as THR’s Jordan Mintzer put it in his thumbs up review, concluding that “the film’s very Parisian setting and subject matter could help land it in overseas art houses looking for upscale comedies with a sizable serving of bad behavior.” I enjoyed it myself. Trailer is here.

Finally, there’s Ôtez-moi d’un doute (English title: Just to Be Sure), directed by Carine Tardieu, a rom-com that was nominated for no Césars. Peu importe. I really liked this one. A synopsis:

The normally unshakable, 40-something divorcé Erwan (François Damiens), who clears World War II mines from the beaches of Brittany for a living, is suddenly thrown off balance when he learns – in a DNA test for his pregnant daughter, Juliette (Alice de Lencquesaing), who has no idea who the genitor is – that his own father, Bastien (Guy Marchand), is not, in fact, his real one. Despite the tenderness he feels for the man who raised him, Erwan discreetly sets out to find his biological father, and which he succeeds in doing (with the help of a private detective). His name is Joseph (André Wilms), a sweet, elderly man in a nearby town, and with whom Erwan develops an attachment. During his search, Erwan meets veterinarian Anna (Cécile de France), who attracts his fancy and he starts to court, and with feelings intensifying. And vice-versa. But when visiting Joseph one day, Erwan learns that Anna is – surprise! – his half sister: a bomb that is particularly delicate to defuse, and all the more so as Erwan’s adoptive father is beginning to suspect that he’s hiding something from him…

The film is charming, heartwarming, feel-good, and you name it. In the hands of a Hollywood director, it would no doubt be clichéd and formulaic. Thankfully it is not. THR’s Jordan Mintzer (him again), who saw it at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, gave it a stellar review, as did Variety’s Dennis Harvey. Trailer is here.

 

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[update below]

That’s the title of an erudite, excellently-written article by my friend Claire Berlinski, in the Winter 2018 issue of City Journal, that is a must-read for anyone who knows and loves Paris. Claire hates the modernist architecture that she feels—not without reason—has defaced Paris over the past seven decades and, guns blazing, lets it be known from the get-go. As they say over here, elle n’y va pas avec le dos de la cuillère. I largely agree with her, though do not possess her knowledge of architecture or the architectural history of Paris—despite having lived here for most of the past thirty years—so can only offer my personal opinions.

E.g. I don’t share Claire’s dislike of the Pei pyramid at the Louvre. I was impressed when seeing it for the first time, on the evening before its inauguration in 1988, and haven’t revised my view. It was certainly an improvement over what preceded it—a parking lot for the Ministry of Finance, which occupied the Richelieu wing of the Louvre before President Mitterrand sent it packing to Bercy. As for its incongruity in that space, I kind of like that.

The Pompidou Center: When I saw it for the first time, with my mother and a friend, in precisely December 1976 (it was completed but hadn’t yet opened), we went “WTF is that!!” Everyone has decided views on the place: My mother hates it but I’ve always liked it, more or less, and have visited it often from the late ’70s on. And what preceded it hardly merits nostalgia. The only thing that caused me to think that perhaps it should not have been built in the first place—that there were some major flaws in its design—was learning of the astronomical maintenance and heating costs. As for what Claire says about “drug dealers, pickpockets, and voyous” coming in from the banlieues to “loiter around” the place, and with “the derelicts know[ing], somehow, that it was meant for them,” I think she exaggerates a little. That may have been the case years ago but is not today; the area around the Pompidou center is lively at night, with lots of young people (not the kind who will pick your pockets) in the many cool bars and restaurants.

The Mitterrand BNF: I used to give it the thumbs down, having been influenced by Harvard University historian Patrice Higonnet’s early 1990s denunciations of it in the NYRB (subtly entitled Scandal on the Seine and The Lamentable Library), but am agnostic on it now (and I think many who used to criticize it have changed their minds). And given the real risk of flooding from the Seine (which Higonnet ignores), there was probably a good reason to store the books in towers rather than underground.

Grande Arche de La Défense: I don’t have a problem with the building itself but hate where it’s situated, as it obstructs the once clear view through the Arc de Triomphe, when looking up the Champs-Elysées from the Concorde.

Tour Montparnasse: Everyone hates it, of course. How nice it would be to have it pulled down.

Claire doesn’t mention Les Halles. Everyone agrees that the Forum des Halles that replaced the Pavillons Baltard was a travesty, but I am favorably impressed with the renovations, which have greatly improved the place (I pass through there several times a week, so trust me). As for the cost to the Parisian taxpayer, that’s another matter.

One disastrous byproduct of the buildings that went up in Paris from the 1950s to the ’90s is asbestos, which is one of the biggest scandals of the Fifth Republic. Thanks to power of the asbestos lobby, the material was banned in construction in France later (1997) than in other Western countries. In addition to the human cost, the final price tag for asbestos removal will be well into the hundreds of billions of euros, if not more (removing the asbestos from the Zamansky tower—which Claire rightly skewers—and other buildings at the Jussieu campus alone cost close to €2 billion).

Paris may be a beautiful city malgré tout, which no person with normal aesthetic tastes would deny, but this does need to be qualified. Quoting myself, from a post I wrote five years ago on the restored copy of Chris Marker’s 1962 documentary ‘Le Joli Mai’, shot on the streets of Paris:

Large parts of Paris and the inner banlieue were slums. And the city was dirty (polluted, the ancient buildings and monuments caked black with centuries of soot and grime, and generally run down outside les beaux quartiers). For the proletariat, the tours et barres of the cités constructed on a mass scale during those years were a godsend. As a couple of the interviewees [in the documentary] made clear, people couldn’t wait to move out of their quartiers populaires or bidonvilles and into an HLM. Vive le logement social!

And reading Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris, one learns that even some of the quartiers in the center of the city—e.g. off the Place Saint-Michel; don’t even talk about the northern and eastern arrondissements—were crumbling slums well into the 20th century. Despite modernism, Paris—like New York, Chicago, and other older, large American cities—probably looks better today than at any point in the past.

UPDATE: Take a look at the website, Save Paris, of the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris.

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This was one of the best French films of 2017 (English title: See You Up There). It is based on the the eponymous novel by Pierre Lemaitre, which won the 2013 Prix Goncourt (translated into English as The Great Swindle). In lieu of describing the pic myself, I’ll let Screen Daily’s Lisa Nesselson do so

One of the most satisfying French costume pictures since Marguerite set the bar so high in 2015, screenwriter/director/actor Albert Dupontel’s lavish adaptation of Pierre Lemaitre’s Goncourt Prize-winning 2013 novel…Au revoir là-haut deploys assured visual bravado in the service of a bittersweet tale of poetic justice set in the final days of the First World War and the two years to follow.

This exploration of the destructive reverberations of combat after the recognised hostilities are over may be set just about a hundred years ago but demonstrates that there’s no expiration date on the relevance of decrying the absurdity of war. As this splendidly cast tale of revenge makes clear, some will grow rich and some will be cheated whatever the original principles or affronts that pitted soldiers against each other. Propulsive but always clear story-telling and appealing Paris settings make this an excellent candidate for curious audiences beyond France.

At the outset, an ex-soldier in his late 40s, Albert Maillard (Dupontel) is telling a French officer in Morocco how he came to be under arrest. The bulk of the picture consists of one long flashback that begins in the trenches on November 9, 1918 as a French messenger dog makes its way across seemingly endless and utterly desolate battlefields to deliver the news that the war is about to end after four long years. Albert explains that nobody was interested in continuing to fight the Germans across the way since the only thing more stupid than being the first soldier to fall in a conflict was surely being the last.

But his unit’s villainous commanding officer, Lieutenant Pradelle (a delectably dastardly Laurent Lafitte) says the war isn’t over yet and sends his men into a bloodbath apparently just for the hell of it. Albert is buried alive by an explosion but saved in the nick of time by his good friend, Edouard Pericourt (Nahuel Perez Biscayart from BPM), a skilled artist who sketches striking portraits in the trenches. Unfortunately, moments after the rescue, Edouard suffers wounds that leave his throat and jaw mostly sheared away. He looks normal above his moustache but must wear extensive bandages and later masks to conceal what is left of his once-sweet face. Sustenance is injected into his neck and he’ll never speak again although he can grunt in agony. In the hospital and then back in civilian life, Albert tends his friend as best he can, even beating up other vets to steal their morphine.

Edouard is dependent on the addictive pain-killer but eventually finds artistic solace in designing extraordinary masks that express his creativity as well as make it possible for him to go out in public now and then. Albert takes a series of dull jobs as an elevator operator and a sandwich-board man. They get by with the help of a non-judgmental street urchin named Louise (Heloise Balster).

The devoted pair hit upon an inspired scam. Edouard will design elegant memorials to the war dead which every city and hamlet in France is clamoring for and they’ll get paid up front for each commission but will simply keep the cash and never make, let alone deliver, a single statue. They are aided in this elaborate swindle by the fact that both are believed to be dead.

The despised lieutenant and his wife (Emilie Dequenne), Edouard’s estranged father (Niels Arestrup) and household maid (Melanie Thierry), at least one humorless civil servant (Michel Vuillermoz) and the wild revelry of post-war Paris combine into a sometimes melancholy, sometimes funny but always emotionally honest portrait of making do with the cards one is dealt.

By the time Albert’s account lands back in Morocco, the audience is effortlessly on the side of those who usually get the short end of the stick in matters as lofty-on-the-surface yet horrific and profit-driven as war.

All of the characters are memorable with special mention for Lafitte as a walking template for entitled arrogance and Perez Biscayart who conveys a touching range of complex emotions mostly with his eyes. Production design, fluidly ambitious camera moves and the score are definite stand-outs in a project whose budget was well spent on just about every frame.

Spot-on review. The film is thoroughly engrossing, excellently acted across the board, with beautiful cinematography, and is just all around good. One leaves the cinoche exclaiming “Good movie!” It was a big box office hit (2 million tix sold) and with reviews tops (3.9/4.5 on Allociné, signifying that audiences in particular gave it the thumbs way up). And it’s been nominated for no less than 13 Césars, including best film and a slew in the acting categories. I would be most surprised if it doesn’t win at least several. No US release date so far but it will eventually make it there. Trailer (with English s/t) is here.

Another film from last year set during and immediately after World War I is Les Gardiennes (English title: The Guardians), based on Ernest Pérochon’s 1924 novel of the same title (not translated into English), and which has also been nominated for Césars (four). Here’s the review by Jordan Mintzer of The Hollywood Reporter, who says it better than I could

A war movie where the battles are fought far from home but resonate deeply with those who’ve been left behind, The Guardians (Les Gardiennes) marks a satisfyingly low-key return to form for French auteur Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and MenLe Petit lieutenant).

Straightforward and simply told, with emotions running just below the surface and then boiling up at key moments, this femme-centric drama — about a group of women holding down the family farm while the men are away at the front — is perhaps a tad too long and restrained for mainstream consumption. But it proves that Beauvois still masters his uniquely classical brand of filmmaking, coaxing strong performances out of veteran Nathalie Baye and newbie Iris Bry, who makes an impressive screen debut.

Adapted from the 1924 novel by Ernest Perochon, the narrative covers several years in the life of the Paridier farm in rural France, beginning in 1915 and running through the end of World War I. With husbands, sons and brothers all shipped off to combat, it’s up to the matriarch Hortense (Baye) to run the show, plowing the fields and reaping the crops with the help of her daughter, Solange (Laura Smet), and a brand-new farmhand, Francine (Bry), whom she brings on during the harvest season.

Soft-spoken and diligent, Francine, who was raised an orphan, gradually becomes a vital part of the Paridier household. After spending several months there, she’s hired on full-time and more or less adopted by Hortense and the rest of her clan, who band together to keep the place running as the battles wage on in Verdun and elsewhere.

Beauvois devotes significant screen time to depict the women furrowing, seeding, harvesting and grinding wheat, with regular D.P. Caroline Champetier (Holy Motors) capturing the pastoral setting in richly composed widescreen. If the abundance of agriculture may be too much for some tastes, the film subtly reveals how farming methods grew increasingly industrialized over the years: Just as the armies of the Great War employed modern weapons like tanks and airplanes for the first time, so the Paridiers begin to use combines and tractors to yield more crops with less labor.

While breaking her back in the fields, Francine’s finds her life suddenly transformed when one of Hortense’s sons — the dashing young Georges (Cyril Descours) — returns home on furlough and quickly takes a liking to the new girl. Temporarily forgetting his combat experiences, Georges becomes smitten enough to pursue her both on the farm and when he’s sent back to the front a week later, engaging in a lengthy correspondence that brings the two even closer together.

Yet as much as Francine seems to be in love, she’s fallen for a traumatized soldier who, along with Solange’s husband, Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), and Georges’ older brother, Constant (Nicolas Giraud), has suffered a significant amount of shell shock. Rarely do the men speak of what they saw on the battlefield, but you can tell by their expressions or by the way they wander around like ghosts — or from a nightmare Georges has at one point — that returning home hardly alleviates their pain.

Even more jarring is the way Beauvois shows how Hortense and the other women react to bad news about their loved ones, which regularly comes in the form of a local official appearing on their doorstep. In the film’s most powerful sequence, Baye simply looks up, sees the uninvited guest and knows that one of her boys is dead, and her simple reaction shot speaks volumes. In a later scene, which happens after Francine has been forced off the Paridier farm for reasons both silly and significant, the matron she’s now working with receives a similar visitor, and Francine solemnly takes the woman’s daughter out for a walk.

Such subtlety is not all that common in today’s movies, and The Guardians can seem so discreet and episodic that it takes on the guise of a telefilm whereas it’s really something much stronger: a serious-minded and, in its closing reels, rather powerful portrait of women getting by in a world where all the men are either gone or gone mad.

As quiet as it is, the drama is punctuated by the graceful melodies of New Wave composer Michel Legrand (Contempt), whose score is used sparsely but poignantly, as well as by songs that Francine sings to pass the time. Bry, who has never acted in a movie before, has an alluring presence whether she’s humming a lullaby, churning butter or lying in the arms of her lover. By the final scene, which plays like a homage to Stanley Kubrick’s WWI classic Paths of Glory, she movingly shows how the young orphan has grown into a free woman, braving the long war and emerging victorious.

Spot-on again. A few comments. First, Mintzer says that the film, which runs 2¼ hours, “is perhaps a tad too long and restrained for mainstream consumption.” Personally speaking, I was absorbed in it from beginning to end and did not at all feel that it was overly long. As for being restrained, there are indeed lengthy scenes of the women at work in the fields, threshing the hay, and where there’s little to no talking. For me at least, films depicting rural life, particularly in the bocage, can be mesmerizing. If you like car chases, shoot ’em ups, and the like, ‘The Guardians’ is definitely not for you. Second, Mintzer mentions the combines and tractors that arrive on the farm, though neglects to say that these were introduced by the Americans when they arrived in France in 1917. American soldiers were indeed temporarily billeted in the village and helped out on the Paradier’s farm—and took an interest in some of the local women (whose husbands or fiancés were in the trenches), and vice-versa. Third, the film, pour l’info, is set in western France—in the Deux-Sèvres, to be precise (and was shot in the nearby Haute-Vienne). Fourth, a fun fact: Nathalie Baye is Laura Smet’s mother (father: Johnny Hallyday). Mother and daughter in both the movie (Hortense & Solange) and real life. Trailer is here.

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Patients & L’Atelier

I see a lot of movies—mainly at the theater, occasionally at home—as one may be aware, but haven’t written much on them over the past couple of years. I don’t get too many comments on my movie posts, though have been informed by a number of readers that my reviews are appreciated, and with a couple of friends having told me that they look for my critiques and recommendations of French films in particular. So from now on I am going to have more posts on cinema, promis juré. And as the César awards are coming up (March 2nd), this is a good moment to start.

One film I saw the other day is Patients (English title: Step by Step), directed by Fabien Marsaud, a.k.a. Grand Corps Malade, and Mehdi Idir, and which has been nominated for four Césars, including best film. The pic came out a year ago, got great reviews (3.8/4.4 on Allociné, with audiences loving it), and was a box office hit (almost 1.3 million tix sold, which is a lot for France), but I wasn’t too interested in seeing it at the time, mainly because I find the theme—of people who have been paralyzed—somewhat angoissant.

My mistake, as it is first-rate, indeed excellent. Had I seen it before the new year, it would have made the AWAV Top 10. I had no idea. Here’s a synopsis, culled from the film’s English-language Facebook page (though it has yet to come out in any English-speaking country):

Ben is a newly paralyzed young man in a physical therapy rehabilitation center. His life is changed upside down: he can no longer get dressed, sit, walk, play basketball, etc. His new friends are tetraplegics, paraplegics, or victims of head injury— a peculiar group of friends. Together they will learn patience. They will resist, show off, quarrel, tease each other, and flirt; but above all, they will find the strength to live again. STEP BY STEP is a story of rebirth, a chaotic journey marked by wins and losses, tears and laughter, and especially, encounters with others: healing is a team effort.

There are no reviews in English so far, so for a longer description, go here. The film, which is based on co-director Marsaud’s best-selling 2012 book of the same title, is autobiographical, of Marsaud’s accident in 1997, at age 20, of diving into the shallow end of a swimming pool, which left him a partial tetraplegic, and of his time in a physical rehab center near Paris—where the film was shot—and where, against all odds, he managed to regain most of his motor functions (he now walks with a cane). The final scene excepted, the entire film takes place in the center, where one follows the heroic efforts of protag Ben (who’s Marsaud, played by actor Pablo Pauly), plus the physical therapists and nurses, and of the friendships made with other wheelchair-bound patients, all of his generation—and all but one of whom is of post-colonial immigrant origin (persons of color, in American parlance). The actors, all amateurs, are great (I particularly like the attractive Nailia Harzoune). The film is engaging and inspiring, as Ben and his friends never lost hope. What to say, I was moved by it. Trailer (with English s/t) is here and an interview with Marsaud in Variety is here.

Ben/Marsaud was an amateur basketball player and all-around athletic type when the accident happened, with it becoming rather obvious that he would not be able to pursue his sporting passions, regardless of his physical condition once he left the center. Marsaud thus found a new career, as a slam poet-singer, adopting the stage name Grand Corps Malade (abbreviated GCM; literally, ‘big sick body’), which is how he is known to the public. I am ashamed to admit that I was not familiar with his music before seeing the film. I am now and can assert that it is great, and particularly the film’s theme score, Espoir adapté (with Anna Kova). Now tell me this is not a terrific song! It literally moves me to tears (with this kind of music, it obviously helps to understand the lyrics, of what is being said). Other great songs by GCM I have discovered this week: Funambule, Au feu rouge (on refugees fleeing to Europe; very powerful), and Je viens de là (on being from the banlieue). There are more. I am a fan, point barre.

Another first-rate French film that came out last year—and which bears similarities to ‘Patients’—is the never uninteresting Laurent Cantet’s L’Atelier (English title: The Workshop), which has been nominated for one César (though not in the ‘best film’ category, where it should be). It’s a complex film, about a summer writing workshop of late teens from working class families—all but one of post-colonial immigrant origin (the actors are all non-professionals)—led by a prominent Parisian author (of crime and mystery novels) named Olivia Dejazet—played by the excellent Marina Foïs (nominated for the ‘best actress’ César)—and set in La Ciotat on the Mediterranean, some 35 km east of Marseille, where Olivia has a second home. La Ciotat was long known for its naval shipyard, which closed in the 1980s, and attendant labor and political militancy, the CGT being strong at the shipyard and the town governed for decades by the Communists and Socialists. But that’s all in the past, as La Ciotat, which went into sharp decline, is now remaking itself as a beach resort, and with the main activity at the former shipyard the maintenance and repair of luxury yachts.

Novelist Olivia has assigned her pupils a project, to write a collective novel about La Ciotat. She hopes they’ll focus on the town’s storied history but the young people, while not totally uninterested in that, have other ideas. The generational cleavage is significant, as Olivia’s political culture and references—she’s pushing 50—are not that of her youthful charges. As one critic put it

The Workshop conveys a stunningly authentic portrait of French youth today; their class, racial and occupational concerns. The seven young people in author Olivia’s…class represent a snapshot of France’s colorful young population, no intellectuals with writing experience among them…

And as another critic concluded

In “The Workshop,” the kids call the shots, and the rest of us aren’t owed any explanations.

Of the seven young people, one stands out, Antoine (actor Matthieu Lucci), as he adopts an attitude of defiance toward both the class and Olivia, and which ultimately prompts the latter to kick him out. He is also the one “white” member of the group, and who is, as one learns, riveted to extreme right-wing websites—the fachosphère—and whose older brother is part of a local, weapons-carrying neo-Nazi gang. Antoine is manifestly influenced by all this but, trying figure things out, is maybe not totally set in his ideas. He’s a lost kid who’s searching. The way in which young people can be auto-radicalized via the Internet is well conveyed (and it’s scary). Olivia, learning of Antoine’s political views, is repelled but does not entirely reject him. The second half of the film indeed focuses on their interaction, of the mutual repulsion but also attraction, and with some latent sexual tension. It’s an engrossing film, as Cantet’s invariably are, indeed a borderline thriller. Reviews in France were good to very good, with those by Anglo-American critics tops. Trailer is here.

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The Parkland massacre

Credit: NBC News

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

Another week, another school massacre in America. Okay, maybe there’s not one every week, but they occur with sufficient regularity that we’re not stunned anymore, or even surprised, when one happens. The only certainties are that there will be another school shooting somewhere in the U.S. of A.—and sooner rather than later—and that the Republicans in Congress will do nothing, no matter what, even if they were all regaled with the details of what it’s like to be riddled with bullets from an AR-15 or some other such semi-automatic rifle—and legally procured by someone who may perhaps be mentally ill but is more likely just an angry (white) male.

It’s nice to see a few conservatives, mainly Never Trumpers, denounce the Republicans and their NRA paymasters on the gun issue, though the response of the latter is more likely to be the one so described by Der Postillon, Germany’s answer to The Onion, in a faux dispatch (kindly translated on my Facebook page by Jeremiah Riemer):

US arms lobby calls for banning schools

Parkland, Fairfax (dpo) – There are already some initial repercussions following the most recent shooting rampage at a school in Florida with a toll of 17 dead. In order to avoid these kinds of unfortunate incidents, the US gun lobby NRA has called for a nationwide ban on schools.

“After a tragedy like the one in Parkland, there are always hysterical voices that want to regulate or even ban guns,” says NRA head Wayne LaPierre. “Yet, according to our surveys, it is not guns that are the main cause of school massacres, but schools.” (…)

“If we want to protect our children, then we need to close these terrible places and barricade ourselves at home, armed to the teeth,” according to LaPierre. “You’ll soon see: Once there are no more schools in the USA, the number of shooting rampages and mass murders at schools will quickly drop to zero.”

The NRA’s plan is expected to find numerous supporters in Washington — after all, schools and the subjects they teach such as evolution, global warming, human reproduction, and other socialist propaganda have long been a thorn in the side of Republicans.

Comme on dit en français: On rit. Jaune.

UPDATE: As expected, Adam Gopnik has an incisive commentary in The New Yorker, “Four truths about the Florida school shooting.”

2nd UPDATE: Senior editor at The Atlantic, Krishnadev Calamur, has a piece explaining that “The Swiss have liberal gun laws, too: But they also have fewer gun-related deaths than the U.S.” True that, as there are indeed more regulations in Switzerland regarding gun possession than in the US. The gun culture there and attitudes toward violence are also not the same.

It is almost a commonplace among Americans—and across the political spectrum—that America is a “violent” country. On one level, I find this notion absurd, or at least absurdly exaggerated, as individual Americans are no more prone to violence in their personal behavior than are Frenchmen, Italians, Turks, or anyone else. And American cities—a few neighborhoods apart in a few cities—are quite safe nowadays. One does not worry about violence, let alone see it, when walking the streets of Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Washington, or wherever. But it is true that Americans collectively exalt the military and martial values—which is to say, the recourse to violence in dealing with adversaries or threats—in a way that other Western societies simply do not. There is a significant American exception here—and which is partly reflected in the attitude toward guns and the consequent shootings and massacres. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi zeros in on this in his latest piece (Feb. 16th), “If we want kids to stop killing, the adults have to stop, too: America’s rage-sickness trickles down from the top.” Tout à fait.

3rd UPDATE: A citizen blogger in rural Oregon named Anna has a post (Feb. 15th), provocatively entitled “Fuck you, I like guns,” in which she advances an argument that reasonable persons can hardly disagree with (h/t Lori Lippitz).

4th UPDATE: Amanda Marcotte has a good piece up in Rolling Stone, “4 pro-gun arguments we’re sick of hearing: Shootings in the U.S. are too often met with arguments for why we can’t do anything about gun control.”

Der Postillon, 15 Feb. 2018

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

I read about the S.O.B. every day, maybe not obsessively but incessantly, like everyone else outre-Atlantique or who is from there. I have ideas almost daily for commentaries but what’s the point, as we’re all reading more or less the same stuff and thinking the same things. There is, however, one totally excellent essay that you, dear reader, must read if you haven’t, “The weight of the words,” by Jacob T. Levy—the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory and Director of the Yan P. Lin Centre for the Study of Freedom and Global Orders in the Ancient and Modern Worlds at McGill University—posted February 7th on the website of the Niskanen Center, a smart Washington-based libertarian think tank. The lede

Donald Trump’s words shouldn’t be shrugged off. Presidential speech is a form of political action that sets policy and shapes the public attitudes that sustain, or undermine, liberal institutions.

I won’t say anything more about it except to quote the social media commentary of the very smart political theory professor at the University of Washington, Jamie Mayerfeld: “Amazingly wise and perceptive essay…overflowing with intelligence, and worth reading many times over.” C’est fait.

Of the countless analyses of the unspeakable one’s first year in the White House—a reality I still can’t wrap my head around—one in particular stands out, “Donald Trump’s year of living dangerously: It’s worse than you think,” by Politico’s chief international affairs columnist, Susan B. Glasser, in the January-February 2018 Politico Magazine.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire.

UPDATE: Chuck Todd had a great commentary on MSNBC the other day (Feb. 8th), in case one missed it, on how “It’s difficult to take the level of ‘crazy’ of this White House.”

2nd UPDATE: James Kirchick has an interesting post in the NYR Daily (Jan. 17th) on “Trump’s debt to Ron Paul’s paranoid style.”

3rd UPDATE: Quinta Jurecic, the deputy managing editor of the Lawfare blog, has a sobering essay (Feb. 16th) in The Washington Post’s Outlook section, in which she informs us that “Institutions can’t save America from Trump.”

If one didn’t see it, Lawfare editor-in-chief Benjamin Wittes had a must-read analysis, dated Jan. 1st, “Why Trump’s war on the Deep State is failing—so far.” Money quote:

Trump has another personality liability for the project at hand, one that fewer people notice: He is ultimately a wuss. He talks about his boldness all the time, and a lot of people—including his enemies—lap up the self-description. He likes to talk in sweeping, grandiose terms about the things he is going to do and the things he has done. In practice, however, he’s actually very cautious most of the time. Think about it this way: Leaving aside Trump’s words and claims about himself, do the actions of his first year in office generally bespeak boldness? Yes, he left the Paris Climate Agreement. And yes, he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And yes, he did the travel ban. But think about all of the bold things Trump has promised and backed away from: scrapping NAFTA and waging a trade war against the Chinese, ditching the Iran deal, walking away from Europe, draining the swamp, and confronting conservative orthodoxy on taxation.

The boldest step Trump has taken, the firing of James Comey, was an accident. Trump actually appears to have believed that this move would be popular, because Comey had angered Democrats during the 2016 campaign. Most of Trump’s supposed boldness is just tweets and bombast and things he says. It’s a big part of his self-image, but the self-image is mostly a game of dress-up. When push comes to shove, he’s pretty paralyzed by circumstances much of the time.

4th UPDATE: Also if one didn’t see it, James Mann had an excellent essay in the Jan. 18th issue of the NYRB, “Damage bigly,” on Trump’s first year in the White House. The final paragraphs are worth quoting:

It is frequently said that through his incessant bellicosity, Trump is “playing to his base,” but that explanation raises more questions than it answers. His base represents less than 40 percent of the country. The election results of the past two months, particularly in Virginia and Alabama, demonstrate the limitations of merely exciting his base; by themselves, his core supporters are usually not enough for victory. Why, then, does Trump not try to expand his support in the way that other presidents have often done? (Bill Clinton’s strategy of “triangulation” comes to mind.)

One unsettling possibility is that Trump believes that somehow, in some future crisis, his polarizing approach may succeed in galvanizing the country into some new political constellation in which his base of 35 to 38 percent will suddenly jump to a majority. Another possibility, even more disturbing, is that we are witnessing a strategic embrace of rule by minority: Trump may believe that his judicial appointments and his favoritism toward the donor class of the wealthiest Americans, when combined with political tactics like gerrymandering and voter suppression, will enable him to govern and win reelection without ever gaining anything close to a popular majority. The third possibility is that there is no strategy at all; Trump cannot expand his support simply because he is by nature unable to do so. He can manage to convey only anger, resentment, and prejudice; he lacks the ability to heal divisions, to win over those who oppose him, to seek common ground.

On the day after Trump was sworn in, more than a million Americans turned out in protest demonstrations in Washington and other cities across the nation. The harm he has caused to the nation since then is severe enough to justify demonstrations many times that size. Street demonstrations, though, cannot remove Trump from office. He will stay on, most likely, for four or eight years, until he is defeated at the polls or removed from office through impeachment or the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. There are now extensive debates among Trump’s many opponents about which of these approaches to pursue. They involve serious questions of tactics and strategy that are beyond the scope of this article.

After Trump’s first year in office, what is clear beyond doubt is that the damage he is causing to the nation, to its domestic and foreign policies, and even more to the rule of law, to its constitutional system, to its social fabric, and to its very sense of national unity, is piling up week by week. The longer he stays, the worse it will get.

We are in a very precarious situation. If the Democrats fail to win even one house of Congress in November or if one of the five non-conservative SCOTUS justices dies before the end of the year, I will fear the worst.

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