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Archive for February, 2022

Putin’s war

Like countless persons the world over—and just about everyone I know—I have been riveted to the unfolding events in Ukraine over the past week, following the news and talk shows, and reading numerous articles daily plus the many commentaries on social media. I naturally have things to say about it but will limit myself here to a link to one piece, “Vladimir Putin sits atop a crumbling pyramid of power,” by novelist and playwright Vladimir Sorokin, in The Guardian (Feb. 27).

One may also watch the one-hour documentary, Inside Putin’s Russia, that aired on PBS Newshour in July 2017 (h/t John S.).

More will follow on the subject when I get back to France later this week.

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2022 César awards

[update below] [2nd update below]

The César awards seem kind of irrelevant at the present moment, with madman Vladimir Putin having launched—Saddam Hussein-like, unprovoked—what is sure to be the biggest war Europe will have seen in eight decades, and which will surely have catastrophic consequences for Ukraine but also for Europe and the world economy more generally. But as the awards ceremony is happening later today whatever the geopolitical situation, and I’ve posted on the Césars for the past eight years running, I can’t not write on it now, war in Europe or not. The list of nominees is here. Leading with fifteen nominations is ‘Illusions perdues’ (Lost Illusions), followed by ‘Annette’ with eleven, ‘Aline’ with ten, ‘BAC Nord’ (The Stronghold) with seven, ‘La Fracture’ (The Divide) with six, and ‘Boîte noire’ (Black Box) and ‘Les Olympiades’ (Paris, 13th District) with five each. I’ve seen most of the films in the top categories, all of which were released theatrically after May 19th, when the cinemas reopened after having been closed for nearly seven months. There was a substantial backlog, with at least four or five worthwhile films a week hitting the salles. It wasn’t a bad year for French cinema, though several good films received few, if any, César nominations—and while there were a few very good French films that came out in 2021, there were none that I would label excellent, let alone a chef d’œuvre. And in this respect, the ‘best film’ category is somewhat wanting, as the two French films I rated the highest last year were entirely shut out of the Césars. One was the wonderful Hafsia Herzi’s second directorial effort, Bonne mère (Good Mother), about a 50ish woman named Nora (played by the non-professional Halima Benhamed, who merits an award for her performance) in Marseille’s quartiers nord, who puts in well over the legal 35 hours a week as a custodial and home care worker, all while selflessly providing for her useless, layabout young adult son and daughter. The other was Le Discours (The Speech), a clever comedy about an awkward, uptight dude—Benjamin Lavernhe, in a one man show—whose fiancée announces out of the blue that she wants a “pause” in their relationship, throwing him for a loop and with him caught in a Groundhog Day-like family dinner with parents, sister, and future brother-in-law, who informs him to his terror that he is expected to deliver a speech at their wedding. It’s an amusing film, believe me.

BEST FILM: Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions).
This grande fresque historique based on Honoré de Balzac’s famous novel, of a young provincial poet striving to make it in the literary world of Restoration-era Paris, is sort of an obvious choice given those on offer. It’s a very good film, objectively speaking, and with a first-rate cast—receiving six nominations in the acting categories—but I have to say that I liked somewhat more the year’s other film based on a Balzac novel, director Marc Dugain’s Eugénie Grandet (with Joséphine Japy and Olivier Gourmet), but which received not a single nomination.

Catherine Corsini’s La Fracture (The Divide), which offers a microcosm of France’s socio-political divisions played out over an evening in a Paris hospital emergency room during the Gilets Jaunes protests, is a worthy runner-up. Also worthy is L’Événement (Happening), about a university student in mid 1960s France who has plans for her future but with a casual encounter resulting in a decidedly unwanted pregnancy, and at a time when abortion was not only illegal but could lead to a prison sentence and social ostracism in mainstream society—and with the only way out for most women being costly clandestine abortionists with coat hangers. The film, which won the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, is in itself about as powerful an argument as one will find in favor of legal abortion.

The grand public BAC Nord (The Stronghold), while thoroughly entertaining, is not a worthy contender for best film, having no doubt been nominated solely on account of its box office success (2.2 million tix sold, which is a lot). The pic, which is based on an actual story, is a high octane police action thriller about three cowboy cops from the BAC, whose beat is the tough housing projects of Marseille’s immigrant-populated quartiers nord, where drug trafficking gangs rule the roost—and with the cops themselves employing illegal methods, which ultimately gets them into trouble. N.B. Right-wing politicians and presidential candidates, including Eric Zemmour, have invoked the movie—a cinematic work of fiction—as a case in point of the Islamization of France’s Muslim-inhabited territoires perdus de la République, though Islam or jihad is not hinted at once, even indirectly.

Three of the best film nominees are not, in point of fact, 100% French. Leos Carax’s grandiose rock opera Annette, which I found rather unpleasant despite the spectacular production values, is set in Los Angeles and is entirely in English. Valérie Lemercier’s crowd-pleasing biopic of the great pop chanteuse Céline Dion, Aline, is naturally set in Quebec—though the Quebec French is, for a change, not subtitled for the supposed benefit of Hexagonal audiences. Arthur Harari’s very good Onoda, 10 000 nuits dans la jungle (Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle), on the incredible tale of the last Japanese soldier of WWII, who hid in the jungle in the Philippines for 29 years before emerging in 1974 (I remember well the news story from the time), is entirely in Japanese and shot in Cambodia.

BEST DIRECTOR: Leos Carax for ‘Annette’.
Xavier Giannoli will probably get it for ‘Illusions perdues’ but the spectacle offered in ‘Annette’ is a directorial tour de force, despite my mixed feelings about the film. Arthur Harari would also be a worthy winner for ‘Onoda’. A note on Julia Ducournau’s horrible, deranged, preposterous Titane: I quite simply hated this movie and cannot comprehend for the life of me how it could have won the Palme d’or at Cannes. Period.

BEST ACTRESS: Laure Calamy in Une femme du monde (Her Way) & Leïla Bekhti in Les Intranquilles (The Restless) ex æquo.
Laure Calamy won the award last year (and was my no-brainer choice) for her one-woman show in the delightful ‘Antoinette dans les Cévennes’ and deserves it again for this one—which should have also been nominated for best film—as a middle-aged streetwalking prostitute in Strasbourg who is having difficulty making ends meet while trying to steer her headstrong 17-year-old son onto the right path. A very good film. Leïla Bekhti is equally deserving as a mother of an 8-year-old son and devoted, loving wife to her artist husband (Damien Bonnard), and who loves her back, but who suffers from bipolar disorder and often refuses to take his meds, which puts severe strains on their married life. A good film. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is fine in ‘La Fracture’ but I thought she was particularly excellent in the pleasant Rohmeresque rom-com Les Amours d’Anaïs (Anaïs in Love), though which received no César nominations. Vicky Krieps was okay, I suppose, in Mathieu Amalric’s film d’auteur Serre moi fort (Hold Me Tight), as a woman who abandons her children and husband for no apparent reason to embark on a melancholic road trip without a clear destination. I didn’t like this movie, which I found convoluted and perplexing. Virginie Efira (who seems to star in several films a year) is good enough in Paul Verhoeven’s wild-and-crazy Benedetta, which recounts the veritable life of a nun in a convent in 17th century Tuscany, with borderline hardcore lesbian sex, full frontal nudity, Tarantinoesque blood-and-gore, and you name it. Not a film to be taken in the first degree. Léa Seydoux is very good in Bruno Dumont’s parody of the broadcast media, France, as a glamourous, ruthlessly ambitious TV reporter named France de Meurs (get it?) who begins to have qualms about her ethical lapses and develops a conscience, but the film as parody does not work IMHO.

BEST ACTOR: Damien Bonnard in ‘Les Intranquilles’.
See above. Pierre Niney is good in Boîte noire (Black Box), a slick, gripping thriller in which he plays a technician at the BEA who, in investigating the inexplicable crash in the Alps of a jetliner on a Dubai-Paris flight, discovers a technical defect in the aircraft that the (French) manufacturer was aware of but sought to cover up, and with the BEA itself in cahoots. Corporate malfeasance big time. Vincent Macaigne isn’t bad in Médecin de nuit (The Night Doctor) as a night doctor, as the title suggests, in the northern arrondissements of Paris, who tends to street drug addicts (pharmaceuticals) and becomes somewhat of a drug dealer himself. Benoît Magimel is apparently very good in De son vivant (Peaceful) but I missed this one.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Aissatou Diallo Sagna in ‘La Fracture’.
She’s the nurse’s aide in the emergency room, which happens to be her occupation in real life. I’m sure Adèle Exarchopoulos is fine in Mandibules but, looking cretinous from the trailer, I opted not to see it.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Karim Leklou in ‘BAC Nord’.
Why not? To be honest, I don’t have an opinion on this section one way or another.

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Anamaria Vartolomei in ‘L’Événement’.
She seems like the logical choice. Lucie Zhang was perfectly okay in Jacques Audiard’s Les Olympiades (Paris, 13th District), which is set in the quartier-esplanade of middle-class highrise apartment buildings in the 13th arrondissement’s Chinatown—which I know well, having lived next to it for several years in the 1990s. I had high expectations for the film but was somewhat disappointed, as I didn’t care for the characters or the intersecting stories.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Benjamin Voisin in ‘Illusions perdues’.
Again, a logical choice. Sandor Funtek is good in the role of Kool Shen in Suprêmes, a biopic of the early years of the hip hop singer JoeyStarr. La caillera de banlieue dans toute sa splendeur. Likewise with Sami Outalbali in Leyla Bouzid’s Une histoire d’amour et de désir (A Tale of Love and Desire), who plays a shy, inhibited rebeu from the banlieue, who, alone among his homeboys in the cité, goes on to the fac—and the Sorbonne no less, to study literature—where he befriends a carefree Tunisienne (Zbeida Belhajamor), who tries her hardest to get him to loosen up (and he does, more or less).

BEST FIRST FILM: La Nuée (The Swarm), by Just Philippot.
This is the best in an otherwise not overly strong category, about a single mother-farmer (Suliane Brahim) who raises edible locusts (for animal feed) and, having financial problems, seeks to increase her output using questionable methods but which gets a little out of hand, driving her mad in the process. A Hitchcockian thriller (à la ‘The Birds’). Slalom by Charlène Favier is also good, about the relationship between a 15-year-old Olympic-level skier (Noée Abita) in the Savoie and her narcissistic pervert coach (Jérémie Renier), who dominates her in every respect. A #MeToo drama. Gagarine, by Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh, is set in a crumbling, soon-to-be demolished Ivry-sur-Seine cité by that name, where a teenager and born engineer aptly named Youri (Alséni Bathily) dreams of being a cosmonaut like his homonym and hero. Not a bad film but a little too poetic for my taste. Vincent Maël Cardona’s Les Magnétiques (Magnetic Beats), a period piece set in the early 1980s of two pirate radio DJs, left me indifferent. La Panthère des neiges (The Velvet Queen), by Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier, is a documentary that follows the trek on the Tibetan plateau of wildlife photographer Munier and writer-traveler Sylvain Tesson, as they search for the snow leopard and engage in philosophical reflections on humanity and nature. Audiences give the film the thumbs way up.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: Debout les femmes! (Those Who Care).
I will write separately on this very good political documentary. As for the other nominees, apart from ‘La Panthère des neiges’ I haven’t seen them.

UPDATE: The list of the winners is here. All my choices won except for best actress (Valérie Lemercier in ‘Aline’), best actor (Benoît Magimel in ‘De son vivant’), best supporting actor (Vincent Lacoste in ‘Illusions perdues’), best first film (‘Les Magnétiques’), and best documentary (‘La Panthère des neiges’).

2nd UPDATE: For the record, Fox News-like CNews host Pascal Praud—France’s answer to Sean Hannity and grand ami of Eric Zemmour—asserts in Le Point that ‘BAC Nord’ won not a single César because it was, in effect, deemed too politically incorrect by the voters of Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma. Ben voyons.

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That’s the title of my article (here) in the 24 February 2022 issue of the London Review of Books, which was posted on the LRB website on Wednesday—and has been making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. I was invited in late October by LRB editors Adam Shatz and Jeremy Harding to write an article on Zemmour, of some 4,000 words. So after reading some seven of Zemmour’s books plus lots of other stuff, attending his December 5th Villepinte rally, and generally following the SOB daily, I submitted, the day after Christmas, a text of a little over 8,000 words, which was significantly edited over the subsequent weeks by the LRB editors and cut to 4,790 words. Some of my style was lost in the process, which is always inevitable. Thanks to Adam and Jeremy for the opportunity to publish in such an august review! I will have much more to say about Zemmour, and the French presidential campaign more generally, in the coming weeks.

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