Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

Dheepan & La Vie en grand


These are two new French films set in the rough cités of the northern Paris banlieues and which I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. ‘Dheepan’, as one likely knows, was the surprise Palme d’or laureate at Cannes last May. The pic begins in a DP camp in far northern Sri Lanka, at what looks to be the moment of the army’s final victory over the LTTE insurgency (which would set it in 2009). LTTE fighter Sivadhasan—actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who was an LTTE guerrilla himself in his youth, so is familiar with the subject matter—is trying to hightail it out of the country—and for good reason, in view of the behavior of the Sri Lankan army after its victory (not to mention before)—for which he is aided by LTTE higher-ups, who furnish him with the passport of a dead fighter named Dheepan, that thus becomes Sivadhasan’s new identity. To improve his asylum chances abroad, he has to constitute a bogus family en catastrophe—his own has been killed—so does so with young widow Yalini (actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and nine-year-old orphan Illayaal (played by the impressive Claudine Vinasithamby, who was in primary school in the Paris area when she was cast for the role). They make the short hop by boat across the Palk Strait to India and then to Paris by plane (how that happened was not clear; did they get visas at the French consulate in Chennai? I’d be curious to know how this works, in view of the large numbers of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees France has received over the past 25-30 years).

Once in Paris, Dheepan requests political asylum for himself and his “family,” aided in crafting a halfway plausible story by his Tamil translator during the interview with the French case officer. The translator essentially makes up Dheepan’s story for him, with the fonctionnaire naturally not understanding a thing of what the two men are discussing and concocting. This bit I found interesting, as it points up a real problem in evaluating asylum requests, which is that asylum seekers can and do fabricate part or all of their stories—for which one can hardly blame them—and that are difficult, when not impossible, to verify by the host country authorities. And the veritable stories of many asylum seekers are indeed ambiguous. Dheepan, e.g., had well-founded reasons to fear that his civil rights, if not his physical integrity, would be violated were he to be taken into custody by the authorities of his country. On this level, his asylum application would be a no-brainer. But he had also been a fighter with an insurgent organization that carried out numerous atrocities, assassinations of elected officials—and in more than one country—and acts of terrorism—with it thus being designated as a terrorist organization by the EU, US, and others—which could result in the rejection of his asylum request. While watching ‘Dheepan’ I thought of the very good 2013 Sri Lankan film ‘Ini Avan’, which I wrote about at the time. The protag in that one, a former LTTE fighter, was not being sought by the authorities but, in view of his past, had become a social outcast and with his only option for making a living being criminality, of accepting offers he couldn’t refuse. And he was at permanent risk of retribution and from both sides. Had he been an asylum seeker in Europe, he would have had a strong case.

Returning to the film in question, after Dheepan’s asylum request is filed—and in France the process can take up to two years—he receives a job offer, to be gardien d’immeuble (superintendent) in a slummy building in a trashy cité, incongruously named Le Pré (the meadow), up in the Val d’Oise. This cité is as bad as they get: spatially isolated, populated entirely by immigrant families from the African continent—with nary a Français de souche in sight—and with rival drug-dealing gangs ruling the roost and engaging in periodic turf wars settled with semi-automatic weapons. If France allowed televised political advertising, the Front National would have a field day with images from the film. But a job is a job and an apartment that comes with it—even if it’s a dump—is an apartment, so Dheepan and his “family” take up residence there no complaints (this may be a movie—and thus fiction—but the image of immigrants willingly taking jobs that no one born and raised in France would do is real). Most of the film is set entirely in the cité and with three storylines, the first of the reality of their “family” situation, the couple of Dheepan and Yalini being purely instrumental, pour la forme, and devoid of sentiments—during most of the pic, at least—and with Yalini refusing to play mother to Illayaal, but with Dheepan nonetheless trying to build a normal life for them. And then there’s their adjustment to life in France, not speaking French—most of the film is in Tamil—and with the cité in which they live resembling nothing that the vast majority of French and non-Frenchmen alike would recognize as France. Dheepan, who has handyman skills, puts 100% into his job—he’s not a slacker (immigrants never are)—and forges a camaraderie with the older men in the building, who sit on the rooftop drinking and talking, while their gang-banger sons—over whom they have no authority—occupy the grounds of the cité below. Yalini finds relatively lucrative employment tending to the infirm father of the caïd, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), of one of the gangs, who’s nice to her but is not someone whose bad side one wants to get on. Illayaal has social adjustment problems in school. And then there’s the gang violence in the cité, that harks back to what Dheepan et al left in Sri Lanka and from which they cannot escape.

I found it an absorbing, well-acted film. The tension slowly builds, as you know something is going to happen. And—spoiler alert!—it does with Dheepan, who, fearing for the safety of Yalini and Illayaal, and fed up with the gangs and their crap, employs the skills he mastered as an LTTE fighter to bring the voyous to heel and clean up the cité. But the paroxysm of violence at the end sent the film into genre territory, as more than one reviewer observed. We’ve seen it countless time (I thought of the final scene in ‘Straw Dogs’). This was too bad. As one critic incisively tweeted: “It was 80% a great film…and then it wasn’t. Va savoir.” And the rose-tinted final scene, of Dheepan and the family—now a real one—settled in middle-class English suburbia, was problematic and on three levels: 1. The nightmare of France and its cités are starkly contrasted with the idyll of England (if current refugee/migrants in Calais were to see the scene, they would redouble their efforts to get across the Channel), suggesting a curious—and debatable—parti pris on director Jacques Audiard’s part. 2. How do Sri Lankan asylum seekers in France receive authorization and then visas to move to the UK anyway? and 3. How does a man who has just killed several persons in a bloodbath—even if they were lowlifes just asking to be whacked—get off the legal hook so quickly? I know that one sometimes has to suspend credulity for movies but still. So while I will give it the thumbs up, what could have been a great film turned out to be merely a good film and with a couple of issues. It is not on the same level as Audiard’s chef d’œuvre ‘Un prophet,’ though ranks above ‘Rust and Bone’, which I didn’t like too much. As mentioned above, its Palme d’or was greeted with surprise by critics at Cannes. As I have seen only one of the other nineteen pics that were in competition, I can’t say for myself if it was deserved or not. French reviews are good on the whole—critics and Allociné spectateurs alike—though the Africultures website critiqued what it saw as the film’s clichéd, stereotyped portrayal of the banlieues. Hollywood press reviews are also good grosso modo, notably the ones in Indiewire and THR. Trailer is here.

The second film is ‘La Vie en grand’ (English title: Learn By Heart), the directorial debut of Mathieu Vadepied and which also premiered at Cannes (though not in competition for the Palme). This one is set in a cité in the neuf-trois, also gang-ridden, where 14-year-old Adama (first-time actor Balamine Guirassy) lives with his Senegalese immigrant mother, Fatou (actress Leontina Fall), who has been constrained by a judge to live apart from her polygamous husband—as living in a polygamous household will get one’s carte de séjour cancelled—and is having difficulty making ends meet. Adama is an indifferent student at school and on the verge of expulsion for failing grades, which are not due to lack of ability but rather his preoccupation with his mother’s precarious financial situation, having to work the marchés at dawn to earn a little money, and his separation from his (half) siblings, who live in another banlieue and whom he misses. One day his buddy, the 11-year-old Mamadou (Ali Bidanessy), finds a quantity of hashish, comme ça, and then Adama finds even an even greater quantity (this one dumped by dealers during a police raid), which the two decide to sell to the upscale kids at the local private lycée. So they go into business together, though with Adama only wanting to make money to help his mother. But as drug dealing is a dangerous business, not only because it’s illegal but as new entrants inevitably encroach on the turf of other dealers—and who are never nice people—Adama gets into trouble with some badass motherfuckers, who decide to make him and Mamadou work for them. One thinks of the runners in season 4 of the The Wire. But Adama tries to outwit the caïds all while striving to keep up with his schoolwork and avoid expulsion. And aided by three of his teachers plus the school principal—who are firm with him but go all out to help him succeed—he does so.

The school, with its teachers and principal, are Adama’s salvation. The film is a paean to l’école de la République. If I were a fonctionnaire with l’Éducation nationale, I would love the pic. And as for me, I did like it. Despite the subject matter it ends up being a feel good movie, mainly as Adama and Mamadou are absolutely, totally adorable. They’re boys you care about and want to help, indeed give a big hug to. And then there’s the happy ending (no spoilers). Going into the theater I was under the impression that the pic would be a comedy. It’s more of a dramedy, though, with the comedy part being one particularly hilarious scene, when Adama, who is ordered by the principal to bring his father to school the next day for an urgent meeting—but which Adama cannot and will not do—pays a clochard to accompany him and impersonate his father. This is one of the funniest sequences I’ve seen on the screen this year. Reviews of the film—by critics and spectateursare mostly good, though Africultures, in the link above, sniffed that the film’s feel good side served to downplay the complexity of the problems of the banlieues (and which the functioning of the educational system is a part of). Bof. Trailer is here.


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Abbas Milani and Michael McFaul, both of Stanford University, have a must-read piece in The Atlantic on “What the Iran-deal debate is like in Iran.” In short, Iranian democrats—i.e. those Iranians who oppose the regime and seek a normal relationship with the West—are for the deal. None are opposed (not in Iran, at least). Obviously. Why would they be?

If one hasn’t seen it, check out the reportage from Iran by The Forward’s Larry Cohler-Esses, “A Jewish Journalist’s Exclusive Look Inside Iran.” Money quote (one among others)

During the course of my conversations with several senior ayatollahs and prominent political and government officials, it became clear that there is high-placed dissent to the official line against Israel. No one had anything warm to say about the Jewish state. But pressed as to whether it was Israel’s policies or its very existence to which they objected, several were adamant: It’s Israel’s policies. Others, notwithstanding their ideological objection to a Jewish state, made it clear they would accept a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians if the Palestinians were to negotiate one and approve it in a referendum.

Ordinary Iranians with whom I spoke have no interest at all in attacking Israel; their concern is with their own sense of isolation and economic struggle. (…)

Charles Schumer & Co., take note.

If one is seeking a glimpse of Iranian society today—urban society, in Tehran—make sure to see the great Jafar Panahi’s latest film, Taxi, which won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale. As one knows, Panahi was, in 2010, forbidden by a Tehran kangaroo court from making movies for twenty years and leaving Iran, though he continues to surreptitiously make movies anyway. I saw his This Is Not a Film—which I called, in my ‘Best (and worst) movies of 2011’ list, the “Saddest home movie from Iran depicting the judicial persecution of a great filmmaker”—though didn’t the more recent Closed Curtain, which, for some reason, hasn’t come to France. The latest one opened here in April and to rapturous reviews (Hollywood press reviews were likewise). Audience reaction was also stellar and with the film a box office success: 580,000 tickets sold in France, which is exceptional for this kind of film, i.e. a film from Iran and in which not much happens. It’s just Panahi playing taxi driver, picking up passengers—from a cross-section of Tehran society—and conversing with them. It’s all staged, of course—the persons one sees are actors, professional or amateur—though with the ending, when the VAJA—or whatever branch of the security services they are—catches up with him, not being staged at all. As I asserted in my last Iran post, Iran has a vocation to be friends with the US and Europe. Not the VAJA or other regime goons but the Iranian people. How can one not think that after seeing Panahi’s movie?

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Following up on my Iran nuclear deal post earlier this week, here’s a documentary that I recommend to anyone who has a serious interest in Iran and with strong convictions on the political situation there (the two usually going together). The documentary is the fruit of an original idea of the director, Mehran Tamadon—who left Iran for France in 1984, at age 12, with his communist parents, returning to live there for a few years in the early ’00s—which was to invite a group of mullahs to a private home near Tehran, where they would all discuss religion, laïcité, the place of secular Iranians in the Islamic Republic, and what common ground, if any, they could find to peacefully coexist in the same polity. “Le vivre ensemble,” as we say here. It took three years for him to find willing participants in his scheme—who would agree to be filmed—but he eventually did. So it was one atheist democrat vs. four pro-system mullahs in a friendly clash of ideas over a full weekend (with sumptuous meals prepared by their wives, who did not partake in the discussions, needless to say).

The film passed under my radar screen when it opened last December but this Le Monde article in February, on the interest the film had sparked in the discerning, intellectually highbrow cinephile milieu in the Paris area, aroused mine, so I went to see it at a Saturday morning screening in March and with the director present. It’s an engaging film, reminding me somewhat of discussions I had with Islamists in Algeria in the late ’80s-early ’90s: a dialogue of the deaf—though the dialogue in the film, between persons of the same culture and polity, and speaking in their native language, is far deeper than any I ever had. But while there is no meeting of the minds between Tamadon and the mullahs, the dialogue is civil and with the head mullah of the group—and biggest talker—displaying a sense of humor and bonhomie. Everyone seemed to have a good time and find the exercise useful. One does not imagine such a dialogue could possibly happen in Saudi Arabia or in Egypt these days, or just about anywhere in the Sunni Arab world. I certainly can’t imagine it in Algeria at any point over the past three decades (of a Pagsiste or pro-RCD intello engaging pro-FIS imams in dialogue over 48 hours in close quarters). Take a look at this two-minute Euronews report on the film, plus this three-minute excerpt (French s/t) of Tamadon and the mullahs debating laïcité. And see this review of the film in Qantara.de by writer Igal Avidan, who saw it at the 2014 Berlinale.

On the Iran deal, Robin Wright has an article in The New Yorker (July 30th), “‘Death to America!’ and the Iran deal.” The lede: “Iranians seemed befuddled about why the inflammatory mantra of the Islamic Revolution would ever impact the fate of the nuclear deal.” That’s right. It’s been clear since even the hostage crisis of 1979-80 that the mobs chanting “Death to America” in front of the US embassy were trucked in by the regime to perform for US television news. It’s theater.

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Arabian Nights

As Mil e Uma Noites Vol1 O Inquieto

Volume 1, The Restless One. This is the first part of a trilogy, or triptych, by Portuguese director/auteur Miguel Gomes, which opened in Paris last month to dithyrambic reviews. As I have been more or less riveted to Greece and the EU over the past three or so weeks, it seems logical to have a post on this film and at this moment, as its subject is precisely the deleterious effects that the European Union’s austerian policies have had on Portugal with the crisis that began in 2008-09.

The film is an original—if not idiosyncratic—presentation of the manner in which the crisis has affected that country. Quoting from this pre-projection dispatch in Screen Daily

Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights, a contemporary re-telling of One Thousand and One Nights, is set to premiere in Directors’ Fortnight, a parallel section of the Cannes Film Festival (May 13-24).

Arabian Nights, the film – or, even better, the three miraculous films – by Miguel Gomes, will be premiering at the Directors’ Fortnight,” said Directors’ Fortnight artistic director Edouard Waintrop.

“The breathtaking triptych is inspired by the tales told by Scheherazade and by some events that occurred in Portugal between 2013 and 2014, while the country was subjected to a political power denying all forms of social justice. It will set the pace of our program. Each film, directed with a wild fantasy and a great freedom, will have its day.”

Set against the background of the economic crisis in Portugal, a contemporary Scheherazade paints a picture of the country’s woes, across three episodes: Volume 1, The Restless One; Volume 2, The Desolate One; and Volume 3, The Enchanted One.

The Portuguese economic and social crisis, recounted via The Arabian Nights‘s Scheherazade, updated for our present era and with stories that have actually happened in Portugal these past few years. What an original idea for a film. And Hollywood press critics, who saw “Volume 1” at Cannes, indeed piled on the praise. Variety’s Jay Weissberg, whose reviews are always reliable, thus began his

The first installment of Miguel Gomes’ trio of pics acts as a melancholy paean to a broken Portugal and a denunciation of European financial control.

The number of films dealing head-on with the global economic crisis have been shockingly few, leaving the field wide open for someone with the creative complexity and storytelling verve of Miguel Gomes, whose three-part “Arabian Nights” tackles the subject with characteristic imagination and, unsurprisingly, righteous anger. While too early to tell how the trio of pics hang together, it’s possible to say from “Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One,” that audiences are in for a meaty opus that weaves actuality and allegorical fantasy into an outraged portrait of European austerity, witch doctors, the Portuguese politicos at their beck and call, and, most importantly, the unemployed masses. (…)

And this from The Hollywood Reporter’s Boyd van Hoeij’s review’s “Bottom Line”: “People in crisis and flights of fancy come together in this frequently fascinating collage of stories.” And then there’s Indie Wire’s Oliver Lyttelton, who simply said that Miguel Gomes’s triptych was “astonishing.” No less.

As the last film I saw by Miguel Gomes, the 2012 ‘Tabu’, was quite good and original, and in view of the US reviews (always more reliable than the French), I assumed this one would be a guaranteed thumbs up.

The verdict: I found it incomprehensible. I didn’t understand what was happening in the film (made up as it is of several vignettes, all allegories; trailer here). I ceased trying to follow it after some twenty minutes, as I couldn’t make sense of the story (as there didn’t appear to be one). I could have walked out of the theater (sparsely attended, and on opening day) at any moment but stuck it out to the end, though for no good reason, as I was bored to tears for the two long hours. So for the first time in my recent movie-going history, I am obliged to part company with Jay Weissberg. Gomes’s film is one for critics, not audiences. And I am manifestly not alone, as after four weeks in the salles, barely 29,000 have seen it in all of France (cf. ‘Tabu’, which attracted 144K spectateurs during its run; for this latest one, Allociné spectateurs are decidedly less enthusiastic than the critics). In France that is called an échec, i.e. the pic has bombed, and among its natural audience of highbrow cinephiles.

The second “volume” of the triptych opens next week. I think I’ll skip it. And I certainly won’t be the only one.

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Dylann Roof (Photo via lastrhodesian.com)

Dylann Roof (Photo via lastrhodesian.com)

[update below]

Did you, dear reader, see Jon Stewart’s monologue—sans jokes—last Thursday on the Charleston massacre? If you didn’t, watch and/or read it here now. It’s brilliant, possibly Stewart’s best ever.

Along with many others, Stewart emphasizes that it was a terrorist attack. Obviously. Now I happen to agree with the sensible proposal of this conservative pundit—a well-known commentator, and with specialized knowledge, on matters having to do with Islam and Muslims—who argues that the “terrorism” label has become so imprecise that it best be dropped altogether. In other words, let’s eliminate the term from our vocabulary. Right, but still. If Dylann Roof had been named Mohammed Sath and shot up a synagogue—or a Burger King, or anything—the entire media and every last politician of both the major parties would be calling him a terrorist. There would be no disagreement on this whatever. So all those who are loudly insisting that the Charleston massacre was an act of terrorism are correct to do so.

On the subject, the NYT’s Charles Blow had a column yesterday on Dylann Roof as “a millennial race terrorist.” And in the current NYT Magazine is a reflection by writer Brit Bennett, who, looking back in history, observes that “White terrorism is as old as America.” Her conclusion

In America’s contemporary imagination, terrorism is foreign and brown. Those terrorists do not have complex motivations. We do not urge one another to reserve judgment until we search through their Facebook histories or interview their friends. We do not trot out psychologists to analyze their mental states. We know immediately why they kill. But a white terrorist is an enigma. A white terrorist has no history, no context, no origin. He is forever unknowable. His very existence is unspeakable. We see him, but we pretend we cannot. He is a ghost floating in the night.

Very good commentary, though Bennett is not totally correct on the “not trot[ting] out [of] psychologists to analyze [the] mental states [of foreign or brown terrorists],” at least not in France. In reading about Dylann Roof I am reminded of Mohamed Merah, the 23-year-old Franco-Algerian terrorist who murdered seven people—Jewish children and off-duty soldiers—in Toulouse and Montauban in March 2012. In committing his acts Merah was driven by a jihadist ideology but was clearly a psychopath in addition. As the Paris-based Tunisian psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama thus wrote at the time

La courte trajectoire de sa vie montre qu’il s‘agit de ce qu’on appelait auparavant «un psychopathe», c’est-à-dire une personne qui a de puissantes pulsions anti-sociales, dont il va recycler le penchant criminel dans des idéologies salvatrices folles, idéologies qui servent de niche à ce genre de personnes, afin de les capter et de les utiliser.

For my posts on Mohamed Merah, go here, here, and here.

Dylann Roof is, as was Mohamed Merah, clearly a psychopath but is also, rather clearly, driven by an ideology and to the same degree as was Merah. On Roof’s ideology of white supremacy, the “Reflections on the murders in Charleston, South Carolina” by U Mass-Amherst emeritus professor Julius Lester, posted on his Facebook page, are worth the read.

Among other things, Lester asks Republican politicians and others seeking to change the subject to stop talking about this being a “time for healing.” No, this is no time for “healing” but rather for a national reckoning—and particularly on the American right—of America’s history and present reality of racism, and of the consequences of this. And one of the consequences of America’s persistent racial question is the strength of the increasingly far right-wing Republican party, which, as Paul Krugman reminded us in his column yesterday, is largely due to the defection of white Southerners from the Democrats, with the civil rights movement and enfranchisement of the South’s black population.

À propos, we have learned over the past few days (e.g. here and here) that Dylann Roof drew particular inspiration from the Council of Conservative Citizens (CofCC; founded in the 1950s as the White Citizens’ Council). Now the CofCC may be considered a fringe hate group in Washington and by the national media but it is not seen as such by the Republican party in the South, as I learned in my brief encounter with the CofCC delegation at the French Front National’s annual festival some seventeen years ago (see here; scroll down after the photo of Jean-Marie Le Pen shaking hands with Ronald Reagan). It is a secret de Polichinelle that the GOP in the deep South maintains an informal relationship with the white supremacist, Jim Crow-nostalgic group with which Dylann Roof identified.

The CofCC’s presence at the FN’s festival was noteworthy, reminding one that far right groups—ultra-nationalist by definition—do have relationships with kindred groups in other countries. On this, Morris Dees and J. Richard Cohen, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, have an op-ed in the NYT on “White supremacists without borders.”

On white supremacists, a film opened here in France two weeks ago, Un Français (English title: French Blood), whose subject is neo-Nazi skinheads. It’s the first-ever cinematic treatment of this species of humanity in France, indeed of the extreme right (see Raphaëlle Bacqué’s full-page article on the film in the June 10th Le Monde). I hesitated on seeing it—the trailer put me off—but, with the Charleston massacre, decided that it was sufficiently topical, so checked it out this past weekend at a local theater. The opening scene was akin to that of the 2011 German film ‘Combat Girls’, which was about neo-Nazi skinheads in that country (go here and scroll down): graphically depicting gratuitous violence inflicted by these dregs of society on dark-skinned or leftist-looking people minding their own business. The violence of the opening scenes in the two films was such that I couldn’t even watch, wondering why I had even come to see the film in the first place—like, who needs this?—but then both settled into a more serious story. I’ll let Screen Daily’s fine critic Lisa Nesselson, whose review was just posted (and is the only one I’ve seen in English), describe the pic

It’s hard staying true to your youthful convictions when they would have fit well in Nazi Germany but it’s the mid-1980s-and-after in France where Marco Lopez (the excellent Alban Lenoir) is a ferocious young skinhead from the lower class Paris suburbs who carries a meat cleaver and is happy to wield it if anybody objects to him and his buddies stomping on the ‘faggots’, ‘Arab scum’ and ‘filthy Negroes’ they see as polluting the pure and proud meant-to-be-white landscape of their beloved France.

As a rare attempt to address an enduring strain of xenophobic thought in French society (and that, as hate-crime headlines sadly show, is by no means limited to France) this compact, unsettling tale deserves to be seen beyond local borders. Drawing respectable admissions on 11 screens in Paris proper and 50 additional screens throughout France since its June 10th release, French Blood managed to land the second spot in terms of ticket buyers per print for new releases on opening day — with Jurassic World in first place.

In his second feature, writer-director Diastème (who, as a film critic, director, screenwriter and playwright uses only one name) follows Marco — a fictional character drawn from the director’s own birthplace and youthful environment — from 1985-2013. It’s a convincing portrait of blind ignorance and lethal anger as Marco gradually evolves toward a more reasonable approach to living among others in a multi-cultural society. The melancholy truth that gives the film its power is that initially reprehensible Marco manages to become an infinitely better person but, in real life, the Extreme Right thinking he embraced in his twenties hasn’t dimmed and may have grown stronger for many of its French followers.

The trio of male friends at the heart of Mathieu Kassovitz’s Hate (La Haine) circa 1995 were an Arab, a Jew and a black guy. They wouldn’t have wanted to cross paths with Marco and his three brawling buddies as portrayed in the opening reels here. Fights are convincing and miles removed from Fast and Furious-style silliness in that punches hurt, knives slice and bullets cripple. Diastème captures a restless, angry, violent vibe.

The film’s most shocking episode — a black street sweeper being forced to drink drain cleaner — was inspired by an authentic crime against a man from the formerly French island of Mauritius. Although the film is a work of fiction, it follows a timeline inspired by real events particularly within Jean-Marie Le Pen’s extreme right wing party the Front National. Diastème knows his subject — he hails from the same suburb where the first skinheads in France were born and he sang in a choir whose benefactors included fundamentalist Catholics. He first reported on the Front National as a young journalist in 1990.

Although he has certainly been hit on the head more than once, as Marco ages, he starts to question his own actions. In a series of ellipses marked by changing facial hair and authentic TV news snippets, Marco grows into leading an increasingly honest life of meagre satisfactions. Marco doesn’t have one shining moment of realisation that his behaviour is horrific but, rather, gradually comes to feel that it is neither right nor good to beat up — let alone kill — people because they’re “different.” When a panic attack leads him to a pharmacy where the pharmacist (Patrick Pineau) goes beyond the call of duty, Marco starts to think for himself in tiny but lasting increments.

Come 1998, Marco is living in Guadeloupe. He used to beat up dark-skinned people for sport but now has no problem serving them alcohol in the beachfront bar where he works. But his wife, who can pass for sleekly refined when she’s sober, scoffs at the about-to-triumph soccer World Cup team whose talented players are mostly of African and North African heritage and therefore unworthy to represent France whatever their athletic excellence.

Following another ellipse it seems unlikely Marco will be able to pass on what he has learned about acceptance and tolerance to his daughter since he isn’t permitted to see her. Ironically, that’s because he no longer shares his ex-wife’s hard core racist views. Adding to his loneliness, Marco’s former skinhead buddies don’t fare very well with passing time.

The film garnered attention before its release with media reports that certain exhibitors, spooked that hooligans might trash their theatres, cancelled sneak previews. If there’s any truth to this, now that the film is out it’s hard to fathom what today’s neo-Nazis might object to. If they’re misguided enough to think the Le Pen family has the right idea, those ideas are presented in an accurate context.

Nesselson’s review is comprehensive and gets it right, though she appears to rate the film higher than I do. Not that I didn’t like it—it’s pretty good overall—but I had a couple of issues. E.g. protag Marco’s transition from violent, hate-filled thug to nice, better person—and who abandons extreme right-wingism altogether as he grows older and wiser—which is depicted via body language but is not convincingly explained (cf. the neo-Nazi skinhead protag in ‘Combat Girls’, whose transition is more fully developed). Also the scène de ménage on the beach in Guadeloupe with Marco and his bleached-blond bourgeois chick, named Corinne (actress Lucie Debay), the latter’s words and general rhetoric ringing false IMO.

Mais peu importe. The film’s treatment of politics is on the mark, of the relationship of the skinheads to the Front National (not specifically named in the film—except in the televised footage—but more than obvious). The FN engaged the skins—notably in recruiting them into its security service (DPS), Marco in the film being part of it in the early phase of his better person transition—but sought to keep them at a distance at its public events (e.g. they were not in evidence at the FN festivals and rallies I attended in the late ’90s, likely having been asked to stay away). The FN’s relationship to the neo-Nazi skins is indeed akin to the southern GOP’s with the CofCC: the latter being a little extreme and not publicly fréquentable but still part of the family, to be engaged with discreetly.

Also notable in the film are the scenes toward the end, where Marco watches from a distance as Corinne—now his ex, whose personal convictions were as extremist and racist as his in his youth, but, in her case, did not change—, leaves Sunday mass in bourgeois banlieue, with bourgeois husband and Marco’s now teen daughter—whom he has not been allowed visitation rights in view of his police record—and then sees them on television marching in one of the big 2013 hard-right demos against the government’s bill legalizing gay marriage. Subtext: there are plenty of upstanding, respectable members of society not from the lower classes who share the world-view of the neo-Nazi skinheads—or, in America, of white supremacists—but, as they are upstanding and bourgeois, are not considered infréquentable on that side of the political spectrum.

As for Dylann Roof, he looks too physically wimpish to be a marauding skinhead. He wouldn’t have been allowed. Skinheads need to be physically strong. But who needs physical strength when you can go out and legally purchase a .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol? Thank God—and the Republic—one cannot do that in France.

In case one missed it, Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, of UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University, respectively, had an op-ed in the NYT the day before the Charleston massacre on “The growing right-wing terror threat” in America, which, they say, is of greater preoccupation to law enforcement than that from Muslim extremists.

And TNR’s Brian Beutler has a commentary on South Carolina GOP governor Nikki Haley’s announcement yesterday that she will seek to have the Confederate flag at the SC State Capitol removed, which, Beutler says, does not make her a hero; she’s just doing damage control for Republican presidential candidates too terrified to take a position on the issue themselves.

UPDATE: Watch here Jon Stewart go after Fox News for its coverage of Charleston. Excellent.

un français

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That’s the literal translation of director Stéphane Brizé’s La Loi du Marché, the market here being the neoliberal market economy (the film’s actual English title is ‘The Measure of a Man’). It was in competition at the Cannes film festival, which ended yesterday and with Vincent Lindon—the only professional actor in the film—winning the best actor award. The film opened in France last week and, as it happens, I saw it yesterday evening, learning about Lindon’s prize in a newsflash some ten minutes after leaving the theater. I can’t say if it was well-deserved, as this is the only one of the nineteen films in competition at the festival I’ve seen—which is logical, as none of the others have opened yet—though he did put in a very good performance, as he always does. Lindon is a fine actor, though his persona, for me at least, tends to overwhelm whatever role he’s playing. He does have range, though is always Vincent Lindon, if that makes sense.

In this, he plays a 51-year-old member of the skilled working class named Thierry, who has been laid off from an enterprise that, as the viewer is informed, was making a profit but with the company home office, for reasons not having to do with its bottom line, deciding to close the plant and send the personnel to Pôle Emploi. Collecting unemployment compensation for close to two years, Thierry is taking a mandatory retraining course but which is a waste of time—and he and everyone he has to deal with know it—as, at his age and given the way the system works—and with the unemployment rate in France being what it is—there is almost no chance it will yield anything for him. With a wife in a low salary job, a handicapped teenage son, and unemployment checks down to €500/month—and refusing to consider selling their modest condo, which would compromise their (barely) middle-class status and all that they had worked for—he takes a job as a security guard in a hypermarket in a shopping center (which looks to be in the Paris banlieue, though it could be anywhere), though which mainly involves monitoring the video surveillance cameras, to spot not only shoplifters but also employees—principally cashiers—who may be cutting corners or doing things they shouldn’t. And it is made clear to him that the company is looking to shed staff, so his fellow employees are particular targets of the surveillance and nabbed for transgressions that are, objectively speaking, not a big deal but nonetheless a pretext for getting fired. And in France these days, one knows what it means to suddenly lose one’s job, particularly under such circumstances and if one does not have in-demand skills to begin with. So Thierry, who lost his previous job in a company that was looking to increase its profits—and no doubt executive compensation too—at the expense of its personnel, now finds himself as a peon on the side of le patron, not only getting colleagues fired but nailing shoplifters who, in fact, don’t have the means to pay for the food they’re concealing in their coats or purses, i.e. who are in much the same financial situation he was facing before, out of desperation, he took his minimum wage job.

The pic is an obvious sociopolitical commentary from the opening scene, on the nature of capitalism in our era and the precarious state in which an ever larger portion of the workforce finds itself. Lindon and Brizé—the two collaborating closely in the film’s making—have made this clear in interviews, with Lindon—who does not conceal his gauchiste views—telling the JDD, in regard to film’s story, that “delation makes me want to vomit” and “I am a man angry [at finance capitalism] and, above all, furious at injustice,” and Brizé denouncing to Le Monde the fact that, these days, “people are eliminated for the most minor of infractions.” I thought the film handled its subject with sufficient subtlety—more so than Ken Loach or Robert Guédiguian would—notably the way Lindon’s character dealt with each situation he was confronted with. The film depicts the reality of the working lives for the lower half of French (and American, British, etc.) society more accurately than any other I’ve seen in a while. On this, it’s almost documentary-like. But some—e.g. those whose views on economic questions are akin to the line of The Economist magazine and Wall Street Journal editorial page—may find the pic’s engagé side to be heavy-handed, if not downright agitprop. On this score, there are indeed a couple of sequences, including the ending—no spoilers—, that are borderline. Mais peu importe. It’s a good film. If you are, however, the kind who sees hedge fund managers as wealth creators and “makers”—and who considers the Thierrys of this world to be “moochers” and “takers”—then the movie is definitely not for you. But if your world-view is the opposite of this, then you’ll likely appreciate it. Hollywood critics who saw the pic at Cannes gave it the unreserved thumbs up—here, here, and here—as did those in France, whose reviews are particularly gushing. And people in the media here were positively thrilled at Vincent Lindon winning his prize. He is clearly well-liked by those who’ve met him (I’ve seen him a couple of times in public in the 6th arrondissement; he seems like a cool guy). Trailer is here.

French cinema was a big winner at Cannes, with the Palme d’Or going to Jacques Audiard’s ‘Deephan’ (which opens in August) and Emmanuelle Bercot winning the best actress award ex-æquo for her role in Maïwenn’s ‘Mon roi’ (opens in October). Bercot, it so happens, was also the director of the film ‘La Tête haute’ (Standing Tall), that opened the festival (out of competition) two weeks ago, and which immediately hit the salles here. I’ve seen it. It’s good. Will have a post on it soon. Many good films coming out in France these days. Whoever said French cinema was in decline?

One French film that came out recently, and with a very similar theme to the above discussed one, is director Pierre Jolivet’s Jamais de la vie (English title: The Night Watchman). This one is also about a man in his early 50s, here named Franck and played by the Belgian actor—and Dardenne brothers’ favorite—Olivier Gourmet—the similarities with Vincent Lindon are striking—, who, one understands, had a decent working class job—and was a union delegate—but lost it ten years prior, now works the graveyard shift as a security guard at a hypermarket in a shopping center in a soulless Paris banlieue (sound familiar?), and spends his off hours drinking en suisse in his flat in his cité high rise—he lives in la zone—where he knows and gets along with everyone, including les jeunes. He was clearly a leader during his factory/union days but has had a tough time since, and is looking at a bleak future financially, with the necessity of working till he’s 70—all but impossible in France—to collect a livable pension. The social commentary is pretty obvious, though Franck’s attention is directed not at his employer or finance capitalists but rather criminal elements among his watchmen colleagues. It’s not a bad film—it certainly held my attention—and is carried by Gourmet, who’s in almost every frame. It’s quite a performance on his part. He’s a real screen presence. THR’s review is here. Trailer is here.

jamais de la vie

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titli une chronique indienne

This is a first-rate film from India I saw the other day, about a lowlife crime family in greater Delhi and their lowlife antics. I’ll let Variety’s Jay Weissberg—who probably knows non-Western cinema better than any other US film critic—describe the pic

The rising profile of Indian indies on the international scene receives another boost with Kanu Behl’s grittily impressive noir debut, “Titli.” Set within the claustrophobic confines of a criminal family in a downtrodden section of Delhi, the film plunges into this pitiless milieu with headstrong assurance, presenting a paternalistic world where corruption seeps into people’s pores and women need backbones of steel to survive. Behl coaxes standout perfs from the largely non-pro cast and captures the volatility of a society where violence lies uneasily just below the surface…

If the recent horrific rapes reported from India have taken much of the globe by surprise, “Titli” seems to be saying, “Look, let me show you where this comes from.” Behl and co-scripter Sharat Katariya make no apologies; nor do they create one-dimensional monsters: They depict a dog-eat-dog culture where feelings of powerlessness engender acts of terrible cruelty. Part of this stewing anger comes from the increasingly independent power of women, creating a backlash and crushing wives unable to maintain their precarious control.

The name Titli translates as “butterfly,” an apt moniker for a character (Shashank Arora) who undergoes a troubling transformation. He’s the youngest of three brothers, living together with their father (Lalit Behl, the helmer’s dad) in a cramped, dingy home off one of Delhi’s countless unpaved streets. Titli dreams of escaping and buying the concession for a newly constructed parking garage, but he’s about $500 short. Once his family is introduced, it’s apparent why Titli is so anxious to get out: Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) is a belligerent tyrant who’s driven his wife to file for divorce, and middle brother Baawla (Amit Sial), through his calm demeanor, enables Vikram’s expansive ruthlessness and their father’s silent control. (…)

To read the rest of Weissberg’s review, go here.

The film paints a bleak portrait of contemporary India in this era of globalization—urban India’s globalized logo consumer culture is declaimed in the opening scene—, neoliberalism, and—how else to put it—modernization and the attendant anomie, with the violence that suffuses social relations, not to mention relations within the family, and the general breakdown of social mores. My grandfather (1903-80) would die a second time if he saw what India has become, where money is all that matters, people have extramarital affairs and get divorced, and you name it. Indian culture is famously family centered, which the film depicts well, except that the families are distinctly Mafia-like—no sentiments, just pecuniary interest—but with the women neither passive nor taking shit from their menfolk. At least some things have changed for the better. The Lunchbox—a most heartwarming film—this is not. And this one no doubt nails a certain reality in India these days more than did Gangs of Wasseypur, which was over-the-top and borderline cartoonish toward the end.

In addition to the backhanded social commentary, the pic is gripping—I didn’t check my watch once, which, for a 2+ hour film, is not bad—and very well acted all around, in particular the comely Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), the protag Titli’s wife (or “wife”). As for Titli’s name, I thought it odd, as that’s normally a girl’s name (or nickname), but it’s mentioned halfway through that his mother (deceased) so wanted her third (and last) child to be a girl—as her first two sons were destined to be sleazebags from birth, who could blame her?—that she gave him a girl’s name anyway. The film—which has so far opened only in France (it has yet to in India)—contains a warning that some spectateurs may find certain scenes shocking (for the violence), so be ready to avert your eyes (as I did). Reviewers from THR and Screen Daily who saw the pic at Cannes last year give it the thumbs up, as have French critics. Trailer is here.


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