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Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

In English: The Bureau. In my last post, on Icelandic films, I mentioned the French actress Florence Loiret-Caille, who plays a character in this brilliant, excellent, terrific French TV series, the first three seasons of which my wife and I binged-watched (on DVD; yes we still watch stuff on those) over the past couple of months. I had been hearing about the series—which began in 2015—for the past year, notably from dear friend Adam Shatz, who deemed it sufficiently compelling to devote a post to on the LRB blog (the series may be viewed subtitled in the US and most everywhere else).

In short, the series centers on the deep cover section of the DGSE (the French CIA)—dubbed “le bureau des légendes”—its operatives, and their operations, notably in the Middle East (and principally in Syria, with ISIS and all). It’s a French version of ‘Homeland’ but is far superior (I watched three seasons of the latter before abandoning it). There is no comparison between the two when it comes to the sophistication of the screenplays and knowledge of its subject matter (espionage, the Middle East, etc). The geopolitical knowledge is indeed very good and numerous languages are spoken by the French agents—English, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew—which one does not see in ‘Homeland’, needless to say. The Middle East-North Africa scenes—here, Iran, Syria, Algeria—are naturally shot in Morocco, as in ‘Homeland’, but are pulled off much better (e.g. the scenes in Tehran really do look like Tehran—so much as I imagine Tehran, at least—though the ones in Algiers were admittedly rather obviously shot in Casablanca; bon, a minor detail). And the CIA and Mossad naturally figure.

The pacing is not Hollywoodish, that’s for sure. If you like high octane, edge-of-your-seat action thrillers, with car chases and explosions, ‘Le Bureau des Légendes’ is probably not for you. On ne peut pas plaire à tout le monde

As for the casting, it’s stellar, with well-known French actors of the big screen: Matthieu Kassovitz, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Léa Drucker, Sara Giraudeau… And then there’s the Nadia El Mansour character, played by the Franco-Moroccan actress Zineb Triki—her Syrian Arabic accent is impeccable, so I am told—who is quite simply one of the most beautiful women on this planet (there is a developing consensus on this among both men and women I know).

In short, if you loved The Wire, you are certain to feel likewise about ‘The Bureau’, no two ways about it. The fourth season debuts on Canal+ this fall (and which is focused on Russia, so one reads). Will binge-watch when the whole thing is available.

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I’ve been intending for almost the past month to post something on the antics of the mentally deranged dotard who presently resides in the White House, as—along with just about every American person, wherever s/he may happen to live—I obsessively follow his actions and words, wondering—as we all have since late January 2017—how much longer this can possibly go on. Answer: probably for another 2½ years. The problem with doing blog posts on Trump is that he will say or do something bonkers or downright insane, e.g. trash-talking and insulting leaders of Western democracies, threatening trade wars with America’s most important trading partners, sucking up to Vladimir Putin and against the agencies of the American state, etc, etc, and by the time I get around to offering my own commentary, it’s already old news. So last week, as we’ve moved on to the next crazy ass thing he’s said or done.

So in lieu of depressing commentary on US politics, here’s a post on Icelandic cinema, beginning with the good, fun, enjoyable film, ‘Woman at War’ (its international title), directed by auteur Benedikt Erlingsson, which opened in Paris earlier this month to thumbs-up reviews from critics, and has received likewise from Allociné spectateurs. It’s a crowd-pleaser for the type of people who go to Icelandic movies, about a late 40s-something choir teacher in Reykjavik named Halla (actress Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), beloved by everyone, who moonlights as an eco-terrorist, single-handedly taking down electrical power pylons in the countryside with a bow and arrow, to thwart a mega-investment project of a Chinese conglomerate that threatens to scar Iceland’s pristine landscape, and with the security forces of the Icelandic state hot on her heels (and with technical assistance from the country’s NATO allies). Some of the sequences are very amusing, as are some of the (goofy) characters. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer, who saw the pic at Cannes, characterized it as “offbeat, poignant and visually exquisite;” Variety’s great critic Jay Weissberg, for his part, called it “an intelligent feel-good film that knows how to tackle urgent global issues with humor as well as a satisfying sense of justice.” Indeed. Trailer is here.

I saw the film with two cinematically-discerning friends, Rebecca and Sylvia, who loved it (as did my friend Joëlle, who writes screenplays for movies and TV series for a living). At a restaurant afterward, I told my two friends about several Icelandic films I had seen in recent years, which they didn’t know about. So I promised to do an informational blog post on them. Voilà.

One that I loved is ‘Rams’ (in France: Béliers), directed by Grímur Hákonarson, which came out in late 2015. It’s about two bachelor brothers in their 60s (actors Theódór Júlíusson and Sigurður Sigurjónsson), both sheep farmers in a remote northern part of the island, who live practically next door to one another but had a falling out forty years earlier and haven’t spoken since. But then a sheep in the area is diagnosed with scrapie, with the sanitary authorities thus decreeing that the brothers’ entire herds have to be destroyed. They respond to the tragedy in different ways but are inevitably brought together. If you liked ‘Woman at War’, you’ll like ‘Rams’, and vice-versa. US critics all gave the pic the thumbs up, e.g. Kenneth Turan, A.O. Scott, Todd McCarthy, and Alissa Simon. Trailer is here.

After ‘Rams’ there’s Sparrows (the pic’s international title), directed by Rúnar Rúnarsson, which came out in France in July 2016 (but seems not to have in the US). It begins with the protag, a 16-year-old boy (actor Atli Óskar Fjalarsson) who lives with his mother in Reykjavik—parents are divorced—being put on a plane (at the municipal airport, not Keflavík, known to all who have flown Icelandair or WOW Air) to join his alcoholic father, who lives in the middle of nowhere on a fjord in the northwestern part of the island. As a city boy—and with talent as a singer—he’s out of place, to put it mildly, with his age cohorts, who’ve never been anywhere and don’t know anything about anything. In effect, the folks up there are the bas-fonds—Icelandic white trash, if you will—for whom the only work available is gutting cod in local fisheries, and where there is little else to do in one’s free time but get drunk, consume whatever drugs are available, raise hell, and fuck. It’s a good film. Trailer is here.

Also released in 2016 was L’Effet aquatique (in English: The Aquatic Effect), a Franco-Icelandic comedy directed by the Franco-German-Romanian Jewish-American-Icelandic Sólveig Anspach, who sadly died (of cancer) before the film came out (I much liked her 2014 Lulu femme nue), and which begins in France, specifically in the Paris banlieue of Montreuil. At Montreuil’s big public swimming pool, la stade nautique Maurice Thorez (of Communist Party fame), 40-something Samir (actor Samir Guesmi), who’s a simple working class guy, develops a crush on swimming instructor Agathe (actress Florence Loiret-Caille, who, for those in the know, is the Marie-Jeanne character in the series Le Bureau des Légendes). To make Agathe’s acquaintance, Samir pretends that he doesn’t know how to swim, so he can take lessons from her. But, after a few sessions, she sees that it’s all a ruse, is not impressed, and, in effect, tells him to take a hike, after which she flies off to Reykjavik, to an international congress of swimming instructors, where she’s the French representative. Samir, totally smitten, hops a flight to follow her and, once in Reykjavik, finds the congress. Seeing that the Israel seat is vacant, he passes himself off as the Israeli delegate—who happened to be late to the event—and is then called upon to speak, so he improvises a speech in broken English, where he catches Agathe’s attention. No need to describe the scene here except that it’s hilarious. He becomes the star of the congress. And so Samir and Agathe connect in Reykjavik, funny things happen, they have an escapade around the island, and voilà. An enjoyable, heartwarming film. Trailer is here.

Lest I forget, I saw a not bad Icelandic film in 2013, ‘The Deep’, that I wrote about at the time (here, scroll down).

Then there’s Greenland, which is next door to Iceland, though is completely and totally different—there is no comparison between the two—though I should nonetheless mention the crowd pleasing 2016 French comedy Le Voyage au Groenland (in English: Journey to Greenland), directed by Sébastien Betbeder. In this one, two 30ish Parisian buddies both named Thomas (real life actors Thomas Blanchard and Thomas Scimeca), both of whom are unemployed actors registered with Pôle Emploi, decide to take a break and travel to a remote village on Greenland’s western coast—is anywhere in Greenland not remote?—where one of their fathers has been living for twenty or so years. And so they hang out with the local Inuits and get to know them and their culture. It’s a light film, enjoyable, and ethnographically interesting, insofar as one gets an idea as to how Inuits have entered the globalized world of the 21st century. Trailer is here.

As it happens, there’s a Franco-Danish film set in Greenland, Une année polaire (A Polar Year), that opened in Paris two months ago and is still playing, but which I have not seen. Maybe I will.

UPDATE: Here’s an article from The Washington Post, dated 29 April 2017, on the impact of climate change and modernity in a village in northern Greenland.

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Karl Marx + 200

Yesterday was the bicentennial of his birth, as everyone no doubt knows. I was aware it was coming up, in view of all the articles on Marx that started to appear on my social media news feeds—and I did remember that he was born in 1818—but only learned that it was yesterday while listening to an interview with Pierre Laurent, the PCF’s no. 1, on France Inter, who was asked the inevitable question about Marx and his legacy (positive, bien évidemment). As I was a Marxist—or called myself one—in my late teens to mid 20s—and with Marxism permanently influencing my way of thinking—I should probably say something about him. But as it’s been a very long time since I’ve read Marx, I won’t, except to say that I was more drawn to his writings on current events than economics, with The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte being one of the more brilliant works of political sociology I read in my intellectually formative years. Marx indeed made his mark as a journalist, as James Ledbetter reminds us in Jacobin. As for the economics stuff, I tried to read volume 1 of Capital in my freshman year of college—in a poorly taught course that I should not have taken (and that should not have been offered in the first place)—but couldn’t get through it or really understand what I was reading. And I did not have the occasion to go back to it. Tant pis pour moi.

As for the interpretive works on Marx, of which I read lots (hasn’t everyone?), Shlomo Avineri’s The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx stands out.

On the occasion of the bicentennial, Arthur Goldhammer posted on social media a nice essay he wrote in November 2016 in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Marx as educator.” There are obviously countless articles that have been published on the subject in the past week but I will cite just two—that I’ve actually read—both on the Dissent magazine website. One is by historian Andrew Hartman, “Marx at 200: Just getting started.” The lede: “In our fully globalized world, Marx’s ideas still conform to a deeply felt sense about what capital does to our labor.” The other, by political scientist Sheri Berman, is entitled “Marxism’s fatal flaw.” The lede: “Marx’s social-democratic critics recognized a fundamental point that the great economist missed: that a better world was not inevitable, but achievable, and that their job was to bring that world into being through politics.”

And then there’s the movie, The Young Karl Marx, directed by Raoul Peck—who co-wrote the screenplay (with Pascal Bonitzer)—which I saw soon after it came out last fall. It’s very well done and I enjoyed it. Peck is a great director—his film on Patrice Lumumba is one of the best biopics I’ve seen—and probably only he could have pulled this one off, as it took a sophisticated knowledge of history and of Marx himself to make it. No Hollywood director or screenwriter could have done so, ça va de soi. My friend Guillaume Duval, editor-in-chief of Alternatives Économiques, had this spot-on reaction to the film, posted on Facebook last October

[J]’ai beaucoup aimé : on s’y croit vraiment et on comprend bien l’époque et en particulier le formidable internationalisme qui prévalait alors bien qu’il n’y ait ni téléphone ni internet, ainsi que la dynamique qui a lié Marx et Engels pour la vie. Les personnages de Marx et d’Engels, bien sûr, mais aussi ceux de Jenny et de Mary, la femme d’Engels, ont beaucoup d’épaisseur.

Et qu’est-ce que cet hymne à la révolte contre l’ordre établi et l’injustice fait comme bien en ces temps où Guizot-Macron nous saoule de nouveau sur le thème “enrichissez-vous”…

The New Statesman’s Suzanne Moore got it right in her review of the pic, “The Young Karl Marx is a sparky retelling of the build up to The Communist Manifesto.” Trailer is here.

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2018 Oscars

I’ve seen just about every film in the top categories. The list of nominees is here. I have a review of exactly one, Dunkirk (overrated). For the others, here’s my brief assessment, beginning with the Best Picture nominees.

The Shape of Water: I saw this just two days ago, so it’s fresh in my mind. I hadn’t read any reviews of it so didn’t know what to expect, except that it had a fantasy element, which one gleans from the trailer. I am not a fan of fantasy films and normally do not consider seeing them, though did like ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, the one previous film I’d seen by director Guillermo del Toro, whose entire œuvre is in the genre. The verdict: I loved it (as did the highbrow/intello friend who accompanied me to the cinoche). It’s a first-rate film on several levels. First (in no particular order), the depiction of early 1960s America—which is borderline satirical—is pitch perfect: e.g. the food (or what passed for this in America at the time), TV sitcoms (aimed at audiences with a 6th grade intellect; one glimpses ‘Mister Ed’ and ‘Gilligan’s Island’, entre autres), the values conveyed by the consumer culture (e.g. the amusing sequence with the teal/green Cadillac). Second, the political critique is manifest, with the characters who incarnate state power, or simply the dominant ethos, being reactionary and antipathetic: Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, perfect in the role)—with his torture baton and references to the Bible to justify his sadism—the worrisome Gen. Hoyt, the racist cook at the diner… Trumpian America before Trump. The sympathetic characters—the good people, with a sense of humanity—are all marginals: the mute Latina cleaning woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins, excellent); her Afro-American colleague, Zelda (Octavia Spencer); lonely gay friend, Gilles (Richard Jenkins); and, of course, the South American Amphibian Man (“The Asset”) himself—who’s more human, and with a far bigger heart, than the men who want to kill and vivisect him. And then there’s the absurdist Cold War theme, with the Soviet Keystone Cop espionage ring and Dr. Robert Hoffstetler/Dimitri (Michael Stuhlbarg), who turns out to be a sympathetic character himself—and, as a Russian, also an Other in the America of the time. Third, the cinematography—the color palette and use of light—is remarkable. The film is visually arresting: the decor (of Elisa’s and Gilles’ apartments, the laboratory) and everything else. Fourth, it’s riveting, with the suspense building as it moves toward the denouement, but also with a number of humorous, indeed hilarious, moments, e.g. Elisa telling Col. Strickland to ‘f— off’ in sign language, the Amphibian Man caressing the cats after having eaten one, the passwords of the Soviet spies (these are quite funny)… Fifth, it’s a beautiful love story. Conclusion: ‘The Shape of Water’ fully merits its 13 Oscar nominations.

Get Out. One of the best films of 2017. I’ll have a separate post on it soon, along with other Afro-American themed films.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. People—whom I know, at least—are all over the place on this one. Some loved it, others hated, and with more in between. E.g. one ultra-cinesnob friend, who rubbished it—as he invariably does with movies most people of his social class like—sniffed to me: “Frances McDormand is always fun to watch, I grant you, and I don’t even want to think what the movie would have been like without her holding it—barely—together. It’s warmed-over Coen Brothers, the umpteenth tongue-in-cheek brew of small-town eccentrics and obsessives, with extreme violence always lurking beneath the surface, and a dollop of 2017 political correctness to top it off. Not to mention the sheer implausibility of much of it (e.g., that Dixon almost kills the billboard manager in plain view and faces no more than dismissal from his job, that Mildred firebombs the police station and they believe her alibi)…” Ouf. I thought the pic was pretty good myself. It’s an entertaining second degree black comedy, with off-the-wall characters and great acting—Frances McD of course, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson, entre autres. It did indeed recall the Coen bros’ ‘Fargo’—with Frances McD and down to Carter Burwell’s music—though that one was a chef d’œuvre, which ‘Three Billboards’ is not. As for the implausible scenes, hey, it’s a (black) comedy, i.e. not to be taken in the first degree (e.g. one amusing implausibility was the rural county sheriff having an educated Australian wife). I had a slight issue with the racist cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell) finding redemption at the end—becoming an almost sympathetic character—though without having renounced his racism or made amends for “torturing n*ggers,” as Mildred (Frances McD) had snidely asked him about. But in reaction to my qualm, a (solidly left-leaning) Parisian friend responded, “The fact that the Dixon character is not a stupid nasty racist to the very end seemed to me, au contraire, to be an interesting aspect of the film and that works…” Oui, peut-être.

The Post: Is it possible not to give the thumbs up to this one? Steven Spielberg was almost performing a public service in making the film, to transmit the heroic story of a free press standing up to a rogue president—and winning—to the current younger generations. The parallel with today is more than obvious. The workmanlike Tom Hanks is good, as always, as is Meryl Streep, though she hardly merits the Oscar she’s been nominated for, as it’s just another Meryl Streep performance.

Lady Bird: This is one of those films that I liked when leaving the theater and that grew on me even more as I thought about it afterward. It’s the best, most sophisticated teenage coming-of-age film I’ve seen in a long time. The characters are all great, the dialogue complex, and the acting excellent, particularly Saoirse Ronan (the protag, Best Actress nominee) and Laurie Metcalf (the protag’s mother, Best Supporting Actress nominee). Greta Gerwig is a credible Best Director nominee. Whatever Oscars the pic wins will be deserved. Voilà, c’est tout.

Darkest Hour: I went into this one biased against it, having read Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s review essay in the NYRB, which detailed its gross distortions of the historical record, plus A.O. Scott’s skewering in the NYT, for its great man hero worship of Churchill and “fall[ing] back on an idealized notion of the English character that feels, in present circumstances, less nostalgic than downright reactionary…” I don’t doubt Wheatcroft’s critique for a second and Scott’s is well-taken, but I found the film to be great cinema nonetheless. It’s riveting from beginning to end. And Gary Oldman is exceptional as Churchill. An acting tour de force. That’s it.

Phantom Thread: I’m not a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, having liked but one (sort of) that I’ve seen by him (‘The Master’), so went into this with not high hopes, and despite the effusive recommendation from a cinephile friend whose taste I hold in the highest regard. My reaction was a little more positive than anticipated, mainly on account of Daniel Day-Lewis’ stellar performance. Il crève l’écran, as they say here. Vicky Krieps (Alma) and Lesley Manville (Cyril) are also very good. And it’s beautifully filmed—in an otherwise outmoded 1950s style—down to all the details and with an interesting portrait of the haute couture world of the era. That said, the film, while meritorious, did not knock my socks off the way it did the above-mentioned friend and others. Ça arrive. [UPDATE: After writing the above I read the review essay of the film by J.Hoberman in the March 22nd NYRB, who praises it and the director. J’en prends acte.]

Call Me by Your Name: Critics and audiences alike just love this movie, and on this side of the ocean as well as stateside. It was nice enough to watch—bringing back memories of my visits to Italy in the early-mid 1980s; and I certainly wouldn’t mind having that country home in Lombardy—but I did not find the heart of the story interesting: of the relationship beween Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), and their respective ambiguities about their sexuality. Their summer romance did not move me. If people like the pic, I respect that, but, personally speaking, it wasn’t my cup of tea.

And then there are these:

The Florida Project: This made AWAV’s Top 10 of 2017. It’s terrific and on several levels, meriting more than its single Oscar nomination (a great Willem Dafoe for Best Supporting Actor). First, it’s a wonderful movie about children—here, age 8 and under—and their world, plus their resilience in the face of bad or irresponsible parents. Halley (Bria Vinaite) is clearly an unworthy mother—partly because, maturity-wise, she’s a child herself—but loves her daughter Moonie (Brooklynn Prince, adorable) all the same, attends to her in her own way, and Moonie loves her back. One has mixed feelings about what happens at the end, when the state social workers finally (and rightly) intervene. Second, the film brilliantly depicts the trash culture that pervades the American heartland—here, in Florida—the trash food people eat, and just the all-around trashiness one gets in America. It’s hardly surprising that so many Americans are ignorant, obese, in bad health, and/or take opioids or other narcotics. And vote for an idiot like Trump. (A parenthetical aside: numerous polities these days are witnessing populist demagogues propelled to the forefront, but only in America—in the Western world, at least—does one get a populist demagogue who is as stupid and trashy as Trump). Third—and most significantly—the film reveals the substantial American underclass that exists in view but, at the same time, out of sight, in cheap motels on suburban highways and who live a hand-to-mouth existence. Here they survive in the shadow of Disney World—a world of dreams, of monts et merveilles—but which is off limits, to which they have no access. They are, quoting Le Monde critic Isabelle Regnier, “les damnés de l’enfer néolibéral” (the wretched of the neoliberal hell). But there’s goodness and solidarity nonetheless, incarnated by motel manager Bobby (the Dafoe character). So all is not lost in l’Amérique profonde. [UPDATE: Writer Kalena Thomhave has a review essay on the film, “The poverty at Disney’s doorstep,” in The American Prospect, in which one finds some of the observations and points made above.]

I, Tonya. If the above movie depicts a general American trashiness, this one zeros in on a specific white trash family. I remember well the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan saga—given the media circus of the time, could one possibly forget?—but not all the details, e.g. who precisely did what and the extent of Harding’s personal implication. I thought this a well-done, entertaining film, and with brilliant casting, particularly Margot Robbie (Best Actress nominee) as Tonya and Allison Janney (Best Supporting Actress nominee) as her mother from hell. Great soundtrack too.

All the Money in the World. I saw this partly out of curiosity over the last minute casting switch—of Kevin Spacey being excised and replaced by Christopher Plummer (Best Supporting Actor nominee)—partly because it’s Ridley Scott (not that I see everything he does), partly because, like everyone born before 1960, I remember the story well. It’s a perfectly okay movie, with the whole thing a build-up to the awful act performed on Jean Paul Getty III by his ‘Ndrangheta kidnappers. I can’t speak to the interminable, excruciating scene, as my eyes were closed throughout (as were my friend’s). Really, who needs it? The pic may seen but may also be skipped.

And then there are these, nominated in technical categories I am not competent to express an opinion on or don’t think about:

Molly’s Game: I saw this because this it looked entertaining and had the always compelling Jessica Chastain in the lead. As far as entertainment goes, it’s empty calories. If it weren’t for Jessica C. and Idris Elba, who make it watchable, I would have decreed the pic a waste of my early January Wednesday evening.

Baby Driver: I went to see this because (a) I had a ticket at a major Paris theater chain that needed to be used by that date and (b) it received top reviews stateside and here alike. So it must have been worth seeing, right? LOL. While sitting though the pic at the packed MK2 Bibliothèque salle, I continually asked myself: Why am I here? Why am I wasting two-plus hours of my otherwise precious time sitting through this schlock drivel for the masses? Maybe I’m just too old, or too far outside the mainstream, but this just wasn’t a movie I needed to see. C’est tout.

Blade Runner 2049: I mentioned above that I am not an aficionado of the fantasy genre. That also includes science fiction and other futuristic-type films (though there are exceptions, e.g. ‘Arrival’, ‘Gravity’, among others in recent years). This one was, of course, praised to the high heavens—by critics, audiences, and friends alike—but I decided that I was simply not going to see it, as I did not like the original ‘Blade Runner’ back in ’82—I was in an ultra-minority—and couldn’t imagine that I would feel differently about this one. But when I saw the recommendation on social media by a stateside academic friend, who’s cosmopolitan, gauchiste, into post-modernism, and you name it, I thought, what the hell. So I went with my above mentioned highbrow/intello friend, who had already seen it but willingly agreed to do so again for my benefit. Rien à faire, I was bored to tears during the entire 2¾ hours. It was insufferable to watch and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Chacun son goût, très honnêtement.

Voilà my vote:

BEST PICTURE: ‘Get Out’.
‘The Shape of Water’—which will no doubt win—is a very close second, almost ex aequo. ‘Lady Bird’ is third. After that, whatever.

BEST DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro (‘The Shape of Water’).
This seems obvious. If one of the others wins it—particularly Christopher Nolan (‘Dunkirk’) or Paul Thomas Anderson (‘Phantom Thread’)—I will understand.

BEST ACTOR: Gary Oldman (‘Darkest Hour’).
Daniel Day-Lewis (‘Phantom Thread’) and Denzel Washington (‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’) are ex aequo second.

BEST ACTRESS: Saoirse Ronan (‘Lady Bird’).
I was going to go with Frances McDormand (‘Three Billboards’) but changed my mind, as she’s already won this prize and for a film (‘Fargo’) and performance that were superior. Sally Hawkins (‘The Shape of Water’) is deserving.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Sam Rockwell (‘Three Billboards’).
He’ll get it.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Laurie Metcalf (‘Lady Bird’).
I was about to go with Allison Janney (‘I, Tonya’) but her role was a little too one note. I have yet to see ‘Mudbound’, so can’t speak to Mary J. Blige.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: ‘Last Men in Aleppo’.
I haven’t actually seen this but know it’s the best. The only nominee I have seen is ‘Faces Places’, which is charming.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: ‘The Insult’ (Lebanon).
I’m pulling for this one, as not only is it a fine film but one of the screenwriters also happens to be a friend. Will have a post on it in the coming days. ‘Loveless’ (Russia) is excellent. ‘The Square’ (Sweden) is good but doesn’t merit an Oscar. I haven’t seen ‘On Body and Soul’ (Hungary) or ‘A Fantastic Woman’ (Chile).

 

 

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2018 César awards

[update below]

France’s Oscars, if one doesn’t know. The ceremony is tomorrow (Friday)—two days before the US Academy Awards, as always—at the Salle Pleyel (in the 8th arrondissement). The full list of nominees is here. Leading with thirteen nominations each are Au revoir là-haut (See You Up There) and ‘120 battements par minute’ (BPM: Beats Per Minute), followed by Le Sens de la fête (C’est la vie) with ten, ‘Barbara’ with nine, ‘Petit Paysan’ (Bloody Milk) with eight, ‘Grave’ (Raw) six, and ‘Le Redoutable’ with five. I’ve seen almost all the films in the top categories, have posts on several, and will of more, hopefully soon. For those that won’t get a post, here’s a brief mention.

Barbara, by Mathieu Amalric. A biopic of sorts of the French chanteuse—an icon in France, unknown in the US—whose heyday was in the 1960s and ’70s. I say “of sorts” as it’s a mise en abyme—a film of the making of a film about Barbara, with Jeanne Balibar (Best Actress nominee) playing the actress who plays Barbara; and Amalric (Best Director nominee) the director of the film of the film. Let me just come out and say that I disliked it. I found it insufferable and couldn’t wait for it to be over. It’s the kind of film that critics praise—as they did, including in the Hollywood press—but that regular movie-goers do not. I’m fairly conventional when it comes to biopics: I like them to proceed chronologically and cover the high points in the personality’s life—unless if it’s very specifically just of a slice of the life—and if it’s of a singer, to hear his/her best known songs. ‘Barbara’ (nominated for Best Film, BTW) does not do this. As one critic put it, the pic is “dreamlike” and “opaque,” which tells you as much as you need to know. À propos, there was also a biopic last year of the Egyptian-Italian-French chanteuse Dalida—a contemporary of Barbara’s and an icon in France herself—and that was indeed a more conventional film in the genre. It has been nominated for no Césars but audiences liked it far more than ‘Barbara’ (or the critics). I found it sufficiently entertaining myself, so on this I’m with the vox populi.

Django, by Étienne Comar. Another biopic on a famous French singer: the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-53), played by the invariably excellent Reda Kateb (Best Actor nominee).This one focuses on a slice of his life, during the Nazi occupation of France, beginning in 1943, with Rienhardt, who was a Sinti Roma, playing publicly in Paris (mainly at the Folies Bergères) at the sufferance of jazz-loving officers in the German high command, who could have packed him off to a concentration or death camp at any moment. Advised by his mistress, Louise (Cécile de France), who’s in the Resistance, that he was in danger, Reinhardt flees with his family to Thonon-les-Bains on Lake Geneva—and where there’s a Roma encampment—to await clandestine passage to Switzerland. While in Thonon, he is forced to deal with German officers, some of whom like jazz, others who—being better Nazis—do not. It’s unclear in the film if he actually makes it into Switzerland but he did survive the war, with the final scene of him in Paris in May ’45, performing a non-jazz score he composed, “Requiem pour mes frères tsiganes,” in remembrance of the Roma who perished at the hands of the Nazis. ‘Django’ is an entertaining, well-done biopic, worth seeing for Reinhardt’s great music—of which there’s a lot in the film, played by the The Rosenberg Trio—Kateb’s performance, and as it’s an interesting story about a major musician of the 20th century.

La Promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn), by Éric Barbier. Yet another biopic, this of Romain Gary (played by Pierre Niney), based on his best-selling (in France) 1960 autobiographical novel, which is as much about his strong-willed mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Best Actress nominee), who sacrifices all for her son, as about himself. Gary (1914-80) had quite a life: a Lithuanian Jew, brought to France at age 14 and converted to Catholicism; World War II aviator who flew missions for the Free French; French diplomat in the immediate postwar era; a major literary figure and who won two Goncourt prizes (under pseudonyms); and who had a tumultuous love life—he was Jean Seberg’s second husband—was a tortured soul, and ended his life with a gunshot to the head. The stuff of novels and biopics. This one is classic in its structure. It was a box office hit in France and audiences loved it. It may be seen.

Un beau soleil intérieur (Let the Sunshine In), by Claire Denis. Isabelle (Juliette Binoche, Best Actress nominee) is a 50-something Parisian artist from les beaux quartiers (naturally), divorced (of course), and in search of true love (what else?). And though she has no problem landing lovers—she has a string of them, of various ages and professions—she cannot settle with one, as she just doesn’t know what she wants. The pic is, to quote one review, a “delightful foray into romantic kinda-comedy.” Quoting another, it is a “grownup film, inspired by…Roland Barthes [and] a sophisticated delight.” It is indeed the kind of film that critics effuse over—as they do of anything directed by Claire Denis—but that audiences do not at all. The discrepancy between the two camps is particularly striking in France, with (most) critics giving it the thumbs way up and spectateurs the total opposite. As one may suspect, I’m with the latter. I found the movie trivial and a waste of time. I did not like Isabelle—perhaps partly because I’m not a big fan of Juliette Binoche to begin with—and couldn’t have cared less about her états d’âme. And the final scene with Gérard Depardieu, playing a radiesthesist, is ridiculous. The mere fact that the co-screenwriter was Christine Angot, who’s a complete nutcase, should have been a forewarning. A cinephile friend of mine did like the film, however—though two others shared my view—so this is one over which reasonable persons of highbrow taste may disagree.

Numéro Une (Number One), by Tonie Marshall. Emmanuelle Blachey (Emmanuelle Devos, Best Actress nominee), also 50-something, is an ambitious engineer climbing the ladder at a major French corporation in the renewable energy sector, who succeeds in breaking through the glass ceiling to become CEO. But she then runs into all sorts of problems, not a small part of which are related to her being female in what is—and certainly in France—a very male world. It’s a feminist film, thus timely in this age of #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc, but is not without problems. Devos is very good, as always, but I found the plot overly complicated. It’s hard to follow and one gets lost. This review gets it exactly right. The film may certainly be seen but make sure you have a scorecard and pay very close attention to who is who and who says what.

Monsieur & Madame Adelman (Mr. & Mrs. Adelman), by Nicolas Bedos. I will let THR critic Jordan Mintzer do the talking here: “Chronicling four decades in the life of a quintessentially French couple, Mr. & Mrs. Adelman reveals the highs and lows, passions and betrayals, pontifications and intellectual masturbation of a writer [Victor (Nicolas Bedos)] and his wife [Sarah (Doria Tillier, Best Actress nominee)], from the 1970s to the present day. (…) Like a bottle of supermarket red wine masquerading as a vintage Chateau Margaux, the film purports to be a classy French dramedy but winds up leaving a bad taste in your mouth. It’s filled with energy and a certain amount of wit, but its premise is so overstretched, its characters so cliched and its late third-act reversal so ridiculous, that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. (…)” Tout à fait. I wasn’t bowled over by this movie, as one may surmise, though Allociné spectateurs gave it the thumbs up (as did my wife). Chacun son goût.

Grave (Raw), by Julia Ducournau. This one’s a horror movie, which completely passed under my radar screen when it opened a year ago, and despite its very good reviews (including in the US). A mini-synopsis: Justine (Garance Marillier, Most Promising Actress nominee) is a 16-year-old overachiever from a family of militant vegetarians, who is about to enter veterinary school, where her older sister is a student. She’s never tasted meat in her life but that changes during the intense hazing of orientation week… The movie, in the words of one (tongue-in-cheek) reviewer, “tells the all-too-common tale [emphasis added] of a vegetarian woman becoming a cannibal after being forced to eat raw rabbit liver. This relatively innocent tasting quickly develops into a lust for man-flesh as…Justine turns from a naive freshman into blood-thirsty cannibal.” No less. When the pic was screened at the Toronto film festival, paramedics apparently had to be called in when members of the audience fainted. Oy vey. Reminds me of reading about George Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ back when it came out, of theaters posting warnings and shell shocked persons who saw it necessitating psychiatric intervention (I first saw it with friends in college—at a midnight screening and no doubt after having smoked an illicit substance; we thought it was a hoot). If one is an aficionado of the horror genre, then ‘Grave’ may certainly be seen. If not, then it need not be seen.

Marvin ou la Belle Éducation (Reinventing Marvin), by Anne Fontaine. A touching film about a boy growing up in a trashy, lower class family in a village in the Vosges, who becomes aware of his queer identity as he hits puberty, is bullied at school, and has to confront the incomprehension of his IQ-challenged parents and siblings (his father is played by the very good Grégory Gadebois). Named Marvin Bijou, he is saved, as it were, by the school principal, who enrolls him in her theater class and which changes his life. He ends up in Paris in his late teens, changes his name to Martin Clément (Finnegan Oldfield, Most Promising Actor nominee), and joins an avant-garde theater troupe, helped along by nice people (including Isabelle Huppert in a cameo role, playing herself). The film is inspired by Édouard Louis’ best-selling 2014 autobiography En finir avec Eddie Bellegueule (in English: The End of Eddy).

I’ll have posts soon on Petit Paysan (excellent), Le Redoutable (better than expected), 120 battements par minute (very good), Ava (not bad), and Jeune Femme (mixed).

My ballot:

BEST FILM: ‘Au revoir là-haut’.
‘Patients’ and ‘Petit Paysan’ are worthy contenders but they’ve also been nominated for Best First Film. ‘120 BPM’ will probably win (for PC reasons).

BEST DIRECTOR: Albert Dupontel for ‘Au revoir là-haut’.
Logically.

BEST ACTOR: Jean-Pierre Bacri in ‘Le Sens de la Fête’.
Other nominees are worthy but Bacri is great and has never won this one.

BEST ACTRESS: Karin Viard in Jalouse.
There is no obvious choice here but Viard stands out in her role.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Laurent Lafitte in ‘Au revoir là-haut’.
He’s an excellent actor and totally convincing here.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Sara Giraudeau in ‘Petit Paysan’.
Pourquoi pas? Laure Calamy (‘Ava’) is the runner-up. Adèle Haenel (‘120 BPM’) has already won this one. Anaïs Demoustier is no doubt good in ‘La Villa’ but I did not see it.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart in ‘120 BPM’.
Good acting in this film, by him along with all the others

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Camélia Jordana in Le Brio.
A strong category this year. Iris Bry (Les Gardiennes), Laetitia Dosch (‘Jeune Femme’), and Eye Haidara (‘Le Sens de la Fête’) are all very good but Jordana is tops.

BEST FIRST FILM: Patients and ‘Petit Paysan’ ex aequo.
A coin flip here. Both are far superior to the other three nominees.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, by Raoul Peck.
Hands down. I liked ‘Visages, Villages’ by Agnès Varda and JR—didn’t everyone?—and ‘Carré 35’ is compelling. I haven’t seen ‘À voix haute: La force de la parole’ or Raymond Depardon’s ’12 Jours’.

BEST FOREIGN FILM: ‘Le Caire confidentiel’ (The Nile Hilton Incident).
One of the best movies of 2017, period. The Russian ‘Faute d’amour’ (Loveless) is a close second. ‘Dunkerque’ (Dunkirk) and ‘La La Land’ are overrated, and ‘The Square’ does not merit all the awards it’s received or been nominated for. The Belgian ‘Noces’ (A Wedding) is flawed. I haven’t seen ‘L’Échange des princesses’ (The Royal Exchange); as it’s manifestly a French film, I have no idea what it’s doing in this category.

UPDATE: ‘120 BPM’ won six awards—including Best Film, as expected—and ‘Au revoir là-haut’ five. The Hollywood Reporter’s dispatch is here. Libération’s film critics, who are not too impressed with the whole spectacle, weigh in here.

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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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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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