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Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

Au revoir là-haut & Les Gardiennes

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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Best (and worst) movies of 2017

Voilà AWAV’s annual list (for last year’s, see here). The movies here opened in theaters this year in France or the U.S. As usual, several well-reviewed Hollywood movies—and that figure on the “best of” lists of US critics—are opening in France after the new year, so I have yet to see them.

TOP 10:
Afterimage (Powidoki)
Beauty and the Dogs (La Belle et la Meute على كف عفريت)
Get Out
Loveless (Нелюбовь)
Moonlight
Paris la blanche
The Blessed (Les Bienheureux السعداء)
The Florida Project
The Nile Hilton Incident (حادث النيل هيلتون‎)
Wùlu

HONORABLE MENTION:
In Syria (Insyriated في سورية)
May God Save Us (Que dios nos perdone)
See You Up There (Au revoir là-haut)
The Workshop (L’Atelier)
Wind River

BEST MOVIE FROM IRAN:
A Man of Integrity (لرد)

BEST MOVIE FROM GEORGIA:
My Happy Family (ჩემი ბედნიერი ოჯახი)

BEST MOVIE FROM DENMARK:
Land of Mine (Under sandet)

BEST MOVIE FROM SWEDEN:
The Square

BEST ROAD MOVIE FROM ALGERIA:
Until the Birds Return (En attendant les hirondelles)

BEST SURVIVAL MOVIE FROM SOUTH KOREA:
The Tunnel (터널)

BEST CROWD-PLEASING MOVIE FROM PALESTINE:
The Idol (يا طير الطاير)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ABOUT URBAN PALESTINIANS CASTING OFF PATRIARCHY:
In Between (بر بحر)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ABOUT RURAL BEDOUINS WHO TRY BUT FAIL TO CAST OFF PATRIARCHY:
Sand Storm (عاصفة رملية)

BEST MOVIE FROM GREECE ABOUT A PUDGY MIDDLE-AGED MAN WHO TRIES BUT FAILS TO MAKE IT WITH WOMEN HALF HIS AGE:
Suntan

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT THE ANGUISH OF A FARMER WHO IS ABOUT TO LOSE HIS LIVELIHOOD:
Bloody Milk (Petit paysan)

BEST POLITICAL MOVIE FROM FRANCE:
This Is Our Land (Chez nous)

BEST POLITICAL MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT A CIVIL SOCIETY MOVEMENT:
120 Beats per Minute (120 battements par minute)

MOST OVERLY COMPLEX POLITICAL MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT CORSICAN SEPARATISTS:
A Violent Life (Une vie violente)

MOST OVERLY COMPLEX POLITICAL MOVIE FROM SPAIN ABOUT BASQUE SEPARATISTS:
Smoke & Mirrors (El Hombre de las mil caras)

MOST UNORIGINAL MOVIE FROM BELGIUM ABOUT A MUSLIM IMMIGRANT FAMILY CAUGHT BETWEEN TRADITION AND MODERNITY:
A Wedding (Noces)

MOST WELL-REGARDED MOVIE FROM CHILE THAT WAS JUST AN OKAY MOVIE:
Los Perros

MOST MERITORIOUS BUT IMPERFECT MOVIE FROM THE CONGO:
Félicité

MOST PROMISING FIRST MOVIE FROM ZAMBIA:
I Am Not a Witch

MOST SO-SO MOVIE FROM BURKINA FASO THAT COULD HAVE BEEN A BETTER MOVIE:
Wallay

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE:
C’est la vie! (Le Sens de la fête)

BEST ROMANTIC COMEDY FROM FRANCE:
Just to Be Sure (Ôtez-moi d’un doute)

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE MAKING FUN OF RADICAL SALAFISTS:
Some Like It Veiled (Cherchez la femme)

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE ABOUT A RACIST PROFESSOR AND A STUDENT OF COLOR WITH ATTITUDE:
Le Brio

BEST MOVIE FROM BULGARIA BY A GERMAN DIRECTOR:
Western

BEST MOVIE FROM THAILAND BY A BURMESE-TAIWANESE DIRECTOR:
The Road to Mandalay

MOST TEDIOUS MOVIE FROM THAILAND BY A JAPANESE DIRECTOR:
Bangkok Nites

MOST UNBEARABLY TENSE MOVIE FROM TEXAS BY AN AMERICAN DIRECTOR:
Nocturnal Animals

BEST MOVIE WITH AMY ADAMS IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Arrival

BEST MOVIE WITH JESSICA CHASTAIN IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Miss Sloane

BEST MOVIE WITH FRANCES MCDORMAND IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE WITH ANNETTE BENING IN THE LEAD ROLE:
20th Century Women

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE WITH RACHEL WEISZ IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Denial

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH KARIN VIARD IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Jalouse

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH SANDRINE BONNAIRE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Catch the Wind (Prendre le large)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH TAHAR RAHIM IN THE LEAD ROLE:
The Price of Success (Le Prix du succès)

MOST UNSATISFYING MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH EMMANUELLE DEVOS IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Number One (Numéro Une)

MOST IRRITATING MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH JULIETTE BINOCHE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur)

MOST MIND-NUMBING MOVIE WITH RYAN GOSLING IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Blade Runner 2049

MOST EXECRABLE MOVIE WITH JOAQUIN PHOENIX IN THE LEAD ROLE:
You Were Never Really Here

BEST ANGLO-FRANCO-GERMAN BIOPIC ABOUT A GREAT 19TH CENTURY REVOLUTIONARY:
The Young Karl Marx

BEST ANGLO-FRENCH BIOPIC ABOUT AN INFAMOUS NAZI WAR CRIMINAL:
The Man with the Iron Heart (HHhH)

BEST BIOPIC FROM FRANCE ABOUT A FAMOUS SINGER:
Dalida

WORST BIOPIC FROM FRANCE ABOUT A FAMOUS SINGER:
Barbara

BEST INDIE MOVIE ABOUT TWO AMERICAN SOLDIERS IN THE IRAQ WAR:
The Wall

MOST GRATIFYING MOVIE ON THE BLACK EXPERIENCE IN AMERICA:
Hidden Figures

MOST POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY ON THE BLACK EXPERIENCE IN AMERICA:
I Am Not Your Negro

MOST OFFBEAT ORIGINAL DOCUMENTARY FROM FRANCE BY AN ELDERLY NEW WAVE FILMMAKER AND A YOUNG PHOTOGRAPHER-MURALIST:
Faces Places (Visages, villages)

MOST IMPRESSIVE DOCUMENTARY FROM THE CONGO BY A FRENCH FILMMAKER:
Makala

MOST BONE-CHILLING DOCUMENTARY FROM BURMA BY A SWISS FILMMAKER:
The Venerable W.

BEST MOVIE BY AKI KAURISMÄKI:
The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen)

BEST MOVIE BY MICHAEL HANEKE:
Happy End

BEST MOVIE BY JEFF NICHOLS:
Loving

BEST MOVIE BY KATHRYN BIGELOW:
Detroit

BEST MOVIE BY ANG LEE:
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

MOST OVERRATED MOVIE BY CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:
Dunkirk

MOST EVANESCENT MOVIE BY HIROKAZU KORE-EDA:
After the Storm (海よりもまだ深)

MOST SLEEP-INDUCING MOVIE BY MARTIN SCORSESE:
Silence

MOST ANTHROPOLOGICALLY INACCURATE MOVIE BY JAMES GRAY:
The Lost City of Z

MOST MERELY WATCHABLE MOVIE BY VOLKER SCHLÖNDORFF:
Return to Montauk (Rückkehr nach Montauk)

MOST ANNOYING MOVIE BY THOMAS VINTERBERG:
The Commune (Kollektivet)

MOST PERVERSE MOVIE BY FRANÇOIS OZON:
The Double Lover (L’Amant double)

MOST INSUFFERABLE MOVIE BY ARNAUD DESPLECHIN:
Ismael’s Ghosts (Les Fantômes d’Ismaël)

MOST UTTERLY FORGETTABLE MOVIE BY TERENCE MALICK:
Song to Song

MOST WASTE-OF-MY-TIME POPCORN MOVIE FOR THE MASSES:
Baby Driver

WORST EVER DOCUMENTARY FROM ALGERIA:
Bienvenue à Madagascar

WORST MOVIE FROM ALGERIA PERIOD:
I Still Hide to Smoke (À mon âge je me cache encore pour fumer)

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By United Kingdom Government, signed by Arthur Balfour (Public Domain)

[update below] [2nd update below]

I hadn’t intended to mark yesterday’s centennial of the Balfour Declaration, as I have nothing in particular to say about it. And not being a Jew, and thus neither a Zionist nor anti-Zionist, I do not have personal or identitarian sentiments on the matter. As for the Palestinians, one may understand their collective view of Balfour, though without sympathizing with their fixation on the Declaration a century after the fact—e.g. the laughably absurd demand that the British issue an apology—as if the Balfour Declaration could possibly be abrogated or reversed—and which, in any case, did not ineluctably lead to the Nakba or other future calamities that befell the Palestinians (or which they brought upon themselves, as the case may be).

I did come across one essay, in the Financial Times, by the historian Simon Schama on Balfour and the birth of Israel, which I think is worth reading. Schama mentions, among other things, the predicament of the Jews caught between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies in the final years of the First World War, and then caught between the Whites and Red Army in the Russian civil war that followed. If there was ever an argument for the necessity of a Jewish homeland, it was then, precisely when the Declaration was issued.

France was a good country for Jews at the time—Glücklich wie Gott in Frankreich—then was not twenty-five years later, and then became so again. The situation nowadays is complex. Institutionally and with the larger society, there is no problem, but for many Jews in everyday life, it is getting worse, as detailed in the headline story in Le Monde dated today: “En France, l’antisémitisme ‘du quotidien’ s’est ancré et se propage.” The lede: “Insultes, intimidations, violences physiques, tags… Des juifs racontent des agressions devenues banales et qui se multiplient depuis 2000.” Jews, particularly in the Paris banlieue, are increasingly subjected to intimidation, including physical, in public space and even in their homes, for the sole fact of being Jews. As for the perpetrators, they are, as always, lumpen youths of post-colonial immigrant origin. It is an outrageous situation, which, for the present moment at least, is overwhelming the public authorities and the Jewish community itself.

Adding to the outrage, one learns that the stele of Ilan Halimi in Bagneux—the banlieue where he was sequestered and tortured for three weeks in the winter of 2006, in the most horrific antisemitic crime in France since the Second World War to that date—was profaned in the early hours of November 1st (and not for the first time). Now I am opposed to the death penalty but would maybe make an exception for the perpetrators of such a heinous act, as they deserve no less—or, better yet, that they be subjected to the same calvaire as was Halimi at the hands of the gang des barbares.

On this subject, a feature-length film, Tout, tout de suite (in English: Everything Now), directed by the well-known actor/director/screenwriter Richard Berry, was released in May 2016. It was the second film on Ilan Halimi and the gang des barbares, the first being Alexandre Arcady’s 24 Days, which came out two years prior and on which I had a blog post at the time. Arcady’s film was recounted from the perspective of Ilan’s mother, Ruth, and focused on the police investigation. Berry’s version, though, reenacted what happened to Ilan and in excruciating detail. To call it a horror film is almost an understatement. The Youssouf Fofana character (actor Steve Achiepo) was the most terrifying sadistic psychopath I’d seen on the big screen since Javier Bardem in the Coen Brothers’ ‘No Country for Old Men’. I was originally going to include Berry’s film in my post on recent French films on terrorism, because a terrorist act it was. The pic is almost impossible to watch at points, with the violence, sadism of the gang des barbares, and knowing what is going to happen. It was no doubt for this reason that the film was an utter, total box office failure. It sold some 16,000 tickets, i.e., next to nothing, before vanishing from the salles. I saw it on the first Friday night after it opened, at the MK2 Bibliothèque multiplex. There were maybe a dozen people in the theater. Now much of the target audience was at home that night, but Jews—who were traumatized by what happened to Ilan Halimi—clearly decided in their totality that they really didn’t need to spend two hours watching a nice young Jewish man be tortured to death by lowlife antisemitic dregs, and for the sole crime of being Jewish. Conclusion: Richard Berry should have never made the film in the first place.

Ilan Halimi is buried in Jerusalem, as his family knew that, in France, his tombstone would be under permanent threat of profanation. Given what happened to the stele the other day, their fears were well-founded.

UPDATE: Joann Sfar—the well-known comic artist, novelist, and film director—in linking to the Le Monde article mentioned above, offered this commentary on his Facebook page

Je ne sais pas si on se le raconte aussi clairement mais les tueries de Merah ont marqué un tournant dont la façon dont la communauté juive parle des agressions. Avant ce drame, chacun avait à coeur de faire connaître les agressions lorsqu’elles avaient lieu. Depuis, c’est l’inverse. Pour une raison simple: On a découvert que chaque attaque suscitait des vocations. Je voudrais qu’on rappelle les messages anonymes infects qu’a reçue l’école Ozar Hatorah après les massacres. Je me souviens que le carré juif du cimetière de Nice, celui où repose ma mère, a été profané quelques jours après. On se souvient, tous, enfin, que ces tueries ont été le point de départ d’une recrudescence de ces violences antijuives. Donc oui, de plus en plus, lorsqu’ils rentrent chez eux le pardessus recouvert de crachats, les juifs religieux ferment leurs gueules. Et les juifs qui n’ont pas l’air juifs ne savent plus comment se planquer. On leur a dit que les écoles publiques n’étaient plus pour eux. On ne compte plus ces réunions honteuses durant lesquelles des chefs d’établissements annoncent officieusement aux familles qu’il vaudrait mieux scolariser les enfants ailleurs. Puis il y a eu Merah et les écoles privées sont devenues elles aussi un lieu de danger. Depuis deux ans ce sont les agressions aux domiciles, qui se multiplient. Pourquoi mes mots? Pour insister sur le fait que contrairement à ce que croient trop de gens, les juifs ne passent pas leur temps à dénoncer, ou à pleurnicher. Au contraire. Sur ces affaires, la plupart des victimes ferment leurs gueules, se font le plus petites possibles, en espérant que l’orage passe, pour ne pas donner des idées à d’autres salopards. Il ne va pas passer, l’orage. Tout le monde a très bien compris. Qu’est-ce qu’on doit faire? Chaque réponse qui me vient me donne envie de me cogner la tête contre un mur. Je n’ose plus dire aux victimes que je croise que “la solution est l’éducation”. Si je dis ça je prends une baffe. Ce n’est pas aux victimes de faire quelque chose ou de trouver des solutions.

2nd UPDATE: Martin Kramer, for whom I have high regard as a historian of the Middle East, has two articles in Mosaic Magazine, dated June 5th and 28th: “The forgotten truth about the Balfour Declaration” and “The Balfour Declaration was more than the promise of one nation.”

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The Venerable W.

I am presently riveted newswise to Hurricane Irma, which is heading toward Florida as I write, though am reading about other calamitous events across the globe as well, one being the communal conflict in Burma and campaign of ethnic cleansing there against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the western part of the country. It is a tragedy and a crime against humanity, and which has been in the works for years, indeed decades. On the matter, I saw earlier this summer a bone-chilling documentary that opened theatrically in France, The Venerable W., by the well-known Swiss filmmaker Barbet Schroeder, the subject of which is the fanatical, high-profile (in Burma) Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who unabashedly preaches hatred against Burma’s Muslims in terms that would put Radovan Karadžić and Pamela Geller to shame. His rhetoric is borderline genocidal, expressed openly to Schroeder and without mincing words. And as one sees in the film, his following in Burma is not insignificant. Buddhism, in stereotyped ways of viewing things, is supposed to be about peace and love, whereas Islam is seen as the opposite, but here the clichés are turned on their heads. The uttarasanga-wearing Burmese monks are as fanaticized as any given bunch of Salafists or alt-rightists outre-Atlantique.

For more on the film, see the reviews by Jay Weissberg in Variety, Jordan Mintzer in The Hollywood Reporter, and Lee Marshall in Screen Daily, all of whom saw it at Cannes. One may also read the 2013 Time magazine cover story on “The face of Buddhist terror.” Trailer is here (where one will, entre autres, see Wirathu praising Trump).

The film, as one reads, completes Schroeder’s “Trilogy of Evil,” the first being the 1974 Général Idi Amin Dada: autoportrait—which I saw in the summer of that year at Le Cinéma Saint-André des Arts, with family and friends—and the second the 2007 L’Avocat de la terreur, on the sulfurous Paris lawyer Jacques Vergès. Of the three, Ashin Wirathu may certainly be considered the most dangerous.

Schroeder’s film touches on the troubled role—or non-role—played by Aung San Suu Kyi in the Burmese communal bloodletting. I am not sufficiently well-informed to have a viewpoint on the question but have the sentiment that she’s not a player in the conflict, that the military and radical Buddhist nationalists are in control of the campaign against the Rohingyas. As a longtime admirer of Aung San Suu Kyi, as everyone else has likewise been, I hope this is the case.

 

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Jerry Lewis, R.I.P.

Receiving the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur,
from Minister of Culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, Paris, 16 March 2006

I had no intention of marking his passing, as I never cared about him and don’t recall having ever seen any of his comedies from beginning to end. There is, as one knows, a tenacious myth among Americans that the French love (present tense) Jerry Lewis—which I’ve pushed back against here (third paragraph down) and here (in comments thread)—and that won’t die. The well-known journalist Pascal Riché has a piece up in L’Obs, “Pourquoi les Américains pensent que Jerry Lewis est idolâtré en France,” that pretty much settles the matter. The lede: “Aux Etats-Unis, Jerry Lewis est bizarrement considéré comme l’idole absolue des Français. Une légende née d’un engouement populaire et intellectuel dans les années 1960…”

Maybe now I’ll get around to seeing ‘The Nutty Professor’ (in France: Docteur Jerry et Mister Love), which is said to be hilarious.

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Saw it last week. The verdict: it is the most overhyped, overrated movie of the year. Period. It’s not that I didn’t like it. On account of the hype and gushing reviews, I was, however, expecting a chef d’œuvre, to be blown away. But I wasn’t. It’s a perfectly acceptable war movie and with some positive facets, but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor. I will rank any number of WWII movies— those in which combat scenes are central—above it: e.g. Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Letters from Iwo Jima, Fury, Hacksaw Ridge, Come and See (the greatest WWII movie of all time). I was not on the edge of my seat or personally moved at any point (except maybe by the 17-year-old on the private boat). I didn’t find it a “white-knuckle thriller.” And I didn’t have the feeling that what it’s been praised for—the technical feats (aerial dogfights, etc) or depictions of heroism and cowardice—I hadn’t seen before in other such films.

As one surely knows, the film has been praised to the heavens by critics outre-Atlantique et Manche—and considered by more than one to possibly be the greatest war film ever—not to mention in the Hexagon itself, so I will simply offer a few contradictory comments. First, on the technical side. One reads about the 70 mm hand-held IMAX cameras and is informed by critics that the film should optimally be seen on IMAX. Well, there are only three IMAX theaters in the Paris area, none of which are convenient for me and all showing only films in their dubbed version (and I’ll be damned if I’m going to see a Hollywood movie—indeed any non-French movie—in V.F.). If a particular format is recommended for a movie but which is not accessible to most people, that’s a shortcoming of the movie IMO.

One little thing that bugged me—that I have seen no mention of in any review—is that one sees the sprawl of modern Dunkerque in the background. The buildings and infrastructure are post-WWII (and by a few decades). It’s flagrant. This is a flaw in the film IMO. And while the city looks intact in the film, it was, in fact, heavily bombed by the Germans during the evacuation. Most of the city was indeed destroyed during those two weeks in May-June. But in the movie one sees but several Luftwaffe Stukas dive-bombing British ships but nary a plume of smoke over the city.

The discordant breaches of continuity: this is an interesting feature of the film but I was a little confused by it and did not pick up on this being the film’s structure —The Mole: 1 week/The Sea: 1 day/The Air: 1 hour—nor did the sharp cinephile friend with whom I saw it. And if normally sophisticated, highbrow folks like us didn’t get this—and how was one supposed to know what “The Mole” was? (I only learned in reading reviews afterward)—then I wonder how many in the great unwashed masses did…

And then there’s the depiction—or relative lack of—of the French role. They’re seen fighting in the opening scene—which is good, as they did indeed fight there and to protect the British while they evacuated—but the only French soldier in the movie afterward is a cheese-eating surrender monkey. Christopher Nolan could have profited by studying a little more history before making the film. Nolan’s perspective is decidedly Anglo-centric, giving comfort to, as French air force lieutenant-colonel and military historian Jérôme de Lespinois put it in a Le Monde tribune, the nombriliste attitude outre-Manche that the English are better off when they go it alone.

London-based writer Salil Tripathi seconds this view, asserting that “‘Dunkirk’ reinforces Britain’s self-image, that it was fighting for freedom all alone in World War II.” Oxford history professor Yasmin Khan thirds it, writing in the NYT about “Dunkirk, the war and the amnesia of the Empire” and how “two and a half million Indians [who] fought alongside the British in World War…are left out of accounts like Christopher Nolan’s film ‘Dunkirk’.” In this vein, New Republic film critic Christian Lorentzen informs us that

The Dunkirk episode was trotted out by the Leave campaign in the runup to last year’s EU referendum, and it’s easy to mistake Dunkirk for a piece of pro-Brexit propaganda. Plucky nationalist myths and box office populism have a way of aligning, and Nolan has a track record of flirting with reactionary politics.

For the record, I am not a fan of Nolan’s films, at least those I’ve seen. I wasn’t taken with ‘Memento’ and turned off the DVD of ‘Inception’ after fifteen minutes. I had no interest in seeing his other blockbusters.

The review in the wonderfully-named “War is Boring” blog makes the spot-on observation that the soldiers in the movie are too “squeaky clean with no dirt and no grit… [that t]his is one of the most sanitary war films…ever [made].”

Salon critic Matthew Rozsa writes that ‘Dunkirk’ is “a good film, but a far better history lesson,” that “its ability to place viewers in history is what truly impresses.” I wish to differ. The fact of the matter is, the film provides no historical context whatever. This is no big deal for historically-knowledgeable persons, e.g. AWAV’s readers, but I will promise that 98%—probably 99.5% in fact—of Americans who see the movie know nothing whatever of the historical episode in question. They know zero about the Fall of France—except for mendacious clichés of cheese eaters and surrender monkeys—or when it happened. And the movie won’t enlighten them. (The historical ignorance of Operation Dynamo is widespread in France too, BTW, but at least people here can plug it into a history they do know). And then there’s the rest of the world, where ignorance of France in May-June 1940 is on the order of 99.9%.

But please don’t get me wrong. ‘Dunkirk’ is serviceable war movie that I won’t discourage anyone from seeing. And if people disagree with my assessment, I respect that.

I mentioned Hacksaw Ridge (French title: Tu ne tueras point) as a WWII film that is superior to ‘Dunkirk’ IMHO. I initially overlooked the pic when it opened in Paris last November but noting the stellar Allociné spectateur rating (4.5: excellent), decided to check it out. It was still playing to packed salles seven weeks after its release, and for good reason, as it’s a first-rate film. It’s a great, true story and sure-fire crowd-pleaser, of Seventh Day Adventist conscientious objector Desmond Doss (actor Andrew Garfield) who was determined to serve as a medic in combat. And it is one of the most powerful Hollywood movies ever made depicting the horrors of war. The reënactment of the Battle of Okinawa was a directorial feat on Mel Gibson’s part. He may be a reactionary catho intégriste but is one fine film director.

Another WWII movie seen late last year was Robert Zemeckis’ Allied (French title: Alliés). I found it generally engaging and love Marion Cotillard but had mixed feelings about it overall, mainly as the premise of the story was so wildly implausible. I also had issues as to the historical accuracy of two sequences. The first was on the presence of uniformed Nazis in French Morocco, which was under the authority of the Vichy regime (until November 1942). But under the terms of the armistice—which the Germans respected until Operation Torch—the Germans did not enter the unoccupied zone. In the movie, the target of the Brad Pitt-Cotillard operation is the German ambassador (who would have, in fact, been the consul-general, and in Rabat, not Casablanca, but we’ll pass on that detail) and who heads a sizable German presence, and which is armed and carries out police-style operations, e.g. the hot pursuit of Pitt-Cotillard after their operation. From the standpoint of historical accuracy, this struck me as way off base.

The second sequence concerned the German bombing raid on London, which, in the movie, would have been in 1943. But I was quite sure that no such raids happened at that stage of the war (after spring 1941). And, as it happens, my qualm on this was addressed in the first comment here.

These two particular criticisms were not the main reasons as why I had mixed feelings about the movie (e.g. the whole Pitt-Cotillard relationship was ridiculous). Many such films have anachronisms, e.g. Bridge of Spies had a few, though I thought that one was quite good. And the friend with whom I saw ‘Allied’—who is an academic and with highbrow tastes—liked it a lot, particularly how it treated the themes of spying and intelligence gathering. Likewise the chairman of the history department at a flagship US state university, with whom I exchanged views on the film via social media, who also appreciated it for the spying and treason themes. Voilà, I can respect that.

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