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Ronit Elkabetz (Photo credit: Bebert Bruno/SIPA)

Ronit Elkabetz (Photo credit: Bebert Bruno/SIPA)

[update below] [2nd update below]

She died today, at age 51. Cancer. I was shocked, as I had no idea. She was Israel’s leading actress, well-known in France, and one of my favorites (of any nationality). She was terrific. I saw her in eleven films, almost all good—with the best being the 2007 The Band’s Visit (in France: La Visite de la fanfare). I love this movie. She also co-directed (with her brother, Shlomi) three very good films—a trilogy, in which she had the lead role—two in the last decade: To Take a Wife (Prendre Femme) and The Seven Days (Les Sept jours), which, entre autres, are almost ethnographic in their depiction of Moroccan Jewish sub-culture in Israel.

The third part of the trilogy, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (in France: Le Procès de Viviane Amsalem), came out in 2014. It is entirely set in a rabbinical court room in Israel, with the protag, Viviane (Elkabetz’s character, who is loosely modeled after her own mother), seeking a divorce—gett, in Hebrew—from her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), from whom she is separated, can no longer stand, and doesn’t want to even try patching things up with. She wants a divorce, period. But as personal status in Israel—as in all majority Islamic countries excepting Turkey and Tunisia—is governed by religious law, she has to seek the divorce in a rabbinical law court, presided by three rabbinical judges. Husband Elisha refuses the divorce—and only he can grant it—and the rabbis reflexively take his side, so she is constrained to remain married to the man she loathes. The entire two-hour film is of Viviane’s judicial nightmare and which lasts five years, of her and her lawyer trying to persuade three rabbis, who are no more sympathetic to the woman’s side of the story than would be any qadi in a Shari’a law court. It’s a gripping film, though seemed interminable after a certain point—it just goes on and on—but which was certainly deliberate on the Elkabetzs’ part, for the spectator to feel the exasperation of the wife with the interminability of the divorce proceeding—Jewish halakha law, objectively speaking, being archaic and retrograde when it comes to such a matter (for an elaboration on the subject, see the interview with Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz in The New Republic, “In Israeli divorce, ‘the man has all the power’;” an opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post by rabbinical court advocate and attorney Osnat Sharon, “When film and reality meet;” and an article by Adam Janofsky in Tablet on “chained wives” refused Jewish divorces by their husbands).

Le Monde’s Middle East grand reporter Christophe Ayad posted on social media today a portrait of Ronit Elkabetz he published in Libération in September 2009. And writer Ayelet Tsabari has a piece in the Forward today on “How Ronit Elkabetz gave Mizrahi women like me permission to dream big.”

UPDATE: Haaretz has a tribute to Ronit Elkabetz with this lede: “In the span of only 25 years, Elkabetz grew to become one of the most respected Israeli creators, pushing Sephardi women to the cinematic forefront.” Accompanying the tribute is a one-minute video on her life and career.

2nd UPDATE: In an interview in Le Monde in 2007, Ronit Elkabetz had this to say about Israel and Arabs:

Je fais donc partie des deux peuples, Israël et Palestine, depuis toujours et pour toujours. La culture arabe est dans nos veines, dans notre cuisine, notre musique et notre langue. Les gens qui le nient sont loin du réel.

Pour l’info, Elkabetz was opposed to the occupation. N.B. her role in Michal Aviad’s film ‘Invisible’, which I posted on three years ago.

gett the trial of viviane amsalem

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2016 Oscars

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I’ve seen all but three of the films in the top categories. The list of nominees is here. Some of them I have blog posts on: Bridge of Spies (tops), Spotlight (excellent), The Big Short (good), The Hateful Eight (sucked), The Martian (very good). As for the more numerous among them that I haven’t posted on, here’s my brief take on each, starting with the Best Picture nominees:

Brooklyn: A good movie about emigration, love, commitment, loss, and not being able to go home again, set in early 1950s Ireland and New York City, and based on the novel by the well-known writer Colm Tóibín. Best Actress nominee Saoirse Ronan is meritorious but I’m not voting for her, and I would be most surprised if it won Best Picture. Those who have not seen it should by all means do so, however, as it is worth the while.

Mad Max: Fury Road: I have not seen this. It did not occur to me to see it when it opened last May, not even for a split second, and despite the stellar reviews. Not that I have a principled objection to seeing movies like this, but it’s just not my genre. And one can’t see everything. Noting that it made the “best of” list of the year of practically every Le Monde and New York Times critic, however, I thought that maybe I’d open my mind and catch it on DVD. But that thought was quashed after watching the trailer. Not a chance I’ll sit through such a film for two hours (and send my wife fleeing while I’m at it). As for its ten Oscar nominations, I don’t doubt that it deserves some of the technical ones but as for Best Picture, this I cannot imagine for a split second.

Room: I haven’t seen this one either, as it hasn’t opened in France yet. When it does (next month), I will.

The Revenant: Is there anything to be said about this movie that has not already been? It is, of course, great Hollywood genre entertainment—the classic revenge story of two men, only one of whom will survive to the end—notable for the extreme climatic conditions under which it was shot, which everyone has heard or read about by now. It is a directorial tour de force by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and, above all, Leonardo DiCaprio’s role of a lifetime. Amazing to think that he actually did the things one sees him doing in the film, that it wasn’t special effects.  [UPDATE: Gilles Havard, director of research at the CNRS and member of the Centre d’Études Nord-Américaines, has an essay (March 14th) in the intello/academic webzine La Vie des Idées, “Le trappeur, fantôme d’Hollywood: À propos du film d’Alejandro González Iñárritu.” And there’s an essay in Le Monde’s Culture & Idées supplement (dated February 20th) by Marc-Olivier Bherer, “Dans ‘The Revenant’, un méchant à l’accent délicieusement français,” in which Gilles Havard’s new book Histoire des coureurs de bois is reviewed.]

And then there are these:

45 Years: Critics fell over themselves with dithyrambic praise for this film but I’m going to come straight out and say that I didn’t like it. Sure, the acting and all that is fine, and with Charlotte Rampling’s Best Actress nomination no doubt deserved, but I simply did not relate to the story, which is the discomfort, bordering on jealously, of Rampling’s character when her husband of 45 years—and it’s been a reasonably successful, trouble-free marriage, so we understand—has sudden occasion to think and reminisce about the first love of his life, tragically deceased before he met his wife, and whom he would have married had she lived. So people have a past. La belle affaire. I simply do not see how a partner in a decades-long marriage could get all upset about such a thing and into his or her 70s no less. This is alien to my way of being. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

Carol: The reviews of this were even more stellar than for the one above, and with everyone I know who saw it praising it to the heavens. I thought it wasn’t bad, though won’t say it knocked my socks off when I saw it. The depiction of early 1950s America was, for me at least, easily the most impressive aspect of the film. This was really good. But I was not initially convinced by the story, of the relationship of the Cate Blanchett (Best Actress nominee) and Rooney Mara (Best Supporting Actress nominee) characters. A discussion of the film with a young female colleague, however, prompted me to rethink my reaction, as she convincingly explained that the lesbian relationship of the two women was credible and well-portrayed, that the dynamics between two gay women are quite different from those between men (which I have no problem believing). Looking at the film in a slightly different light, I now think more highly of it. And it does merit comparison to ‘Brokeback Mountain’—a chef d’œuvre IMO—as a portrayal of a relationship between two gay women in an era before such became socially acceptable.

Creed: I would not have seen this had it not been for Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor). Now I knew this one was related to the films in the Rocky series—of which, believe it or not, I had not seen a single one—but I did not realize going in to the cinoche that it was a sequel, that the pic was, in effect, Rocky VII. Moreover, this was only the second film I had ever seen starring Stallone—the previous one, ‘Fist’, dating from 1978 (I also watched part of ‘First Blood’ in a bar in Tel Aviv in 1985). Crazy, no? Now I did know something about the Rocky series, as it’s been part of popular culture for four decades now, but not all the details and characters. I must have been the only person in the salle in this situation. Three short comments: First, seeing this movie was not a judicious use of my time. Second, if one has not seen the other Rocky movies, there’s no point in seeing this one. Third, Stallone’s Oscar nomination has to be purely sentimental, as he looks to be playing his stock character. Voilà, c’est tout.

Joy: I saw this for one reason and one reason only, which is Jennifer Lawrence’s Best Actress nomination. What to say, it’s light Hollywood entertainment, a biopic about a person, Joy Mangano, a rags-to-riches born entrepreneur in my adult lifetime, whom I had not heard of before seeing it, and played by Lawrence (Mangano apparently liked Lawrence’s performance, despite an age difference). I thought it was an okay movie—I don’t sign on to the mixed reviews of it—made watchable by Lawrence, who’s very good. The end was not satisfying, though: Joy is a struggling, near-failed businesswoman for almost the entire film, but does not give up, finally achieving wealth and fame in the end. I thought this part was sort of by the numbers. It is, however, a film that may be seen (at home, on the small screen) if one wants something light and that won’t tax brain cells or critical faculties.

Steve Jobs: This is not a conventional biopic, if one doesn’t know the film. It is structured into three acts, of the behind-the-scenes psychodrama (professional and personal) in the hour preceding Steve Jobs’s presentation at the formal roll-out of three products of companies he headed at the time (Apple and NeXT): the Macintosh (1984), NeXTcube (1990), and iMac (1998). Michael Fassbender (Best Actor nominee) is very good as Jobs—though the latter was, it seems, not as odious of a prick as he’s made out to be here (which would be the doing of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay)—as is Kate Winslet (Best Supporting Actress nominee) as Jobs’s right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman. The film does not evoke Jobs’s pre-Apple years, except in one scene, where, at a restaurant, he points out to an associate the restaurant’s owner, who Jobs says is his biological father. The restaurateur, Abdulfattah “Abed” Jandali—who hailed from Homs, Syria—had no idea at that moment that Jobs was his son. For the anecdote, my parents were friends with Abed Jandali and his first wife, Joanne Simpson, during the 1950s in Madison, Wisconsin. My mother has written on her blog about Abed & Joanne. If one is interested in reading her account, go here and scroll down several paragraphs.

The Danish Girl: I was initially not going to see this and despite the Oscar nominations—Eddie Redmayne for Best Actor, la belle Alicia Vikander for Best Supporting Actress—as I am not interested in transgender as a subject (apologies to any transgender persons out there mais c’est comme ça). But I was persuaded to see it by a colleague—the above-mentioned one, who got me to modify my view of ‘Carol’—who gave it the enthusiastic thumbs up. And she was pretty much right, as I liked the movie more than I had expected to. It’s beautifully shot and tells a moving story. My attitude was also perhaps influenced by the fact that I got a crush on Alicia Vikander while watching it (which can happen). The film is apparently riddled with inaccuracies and other distortions. Perhaps. I wouldn’t know. It’s just a movie.

Trumbo: Haven’t seen it. It opens in France in April.

My vote:

BEST PICTURE: ‘Spotlight’.
No two ways about it. ‘Bridge of Spies’ is the second choice, ‘The Martian’ third.

BEST DIRECTOR: Alejandro G. Iñárritu (‘The Revenant’).
He got it last year (for ‘Birdman’) and deserves it again.

BEST ACTOR: Leonardo DiCaprio (‘The Revenant’).
This is so obvious that nothing more need be said.

BEST ACTRESS: Jennifer Lawrence (‘Joy’).
It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Brie Larson will win this one for her role in ‘Room’ but I haven’t seen it, so have to go with Lawrence here. [UPDATE: Having now seen ‘Room’ (March 20th), I will confirm that Brie Larson deserved to win the best actress award; she’s very good, as is the film.]

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mark Ruffalo (‘Spotlight’).
He’s a good actor and deserves it. Tom Hardy (‘The Revenant’) is nº 2.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Alicia Vikander (‘The Danish Girl’).
But of course (see above). Kate Winslet (‘Steve Jobs’) is a close second.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Son of Saul.
The criteria for selecting the pics in this category are, of course, ridiculous but one goes with what one gets. Mustang and ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ are also credible winners. I haven’t seen ‘Theeb’ or ‘A War’.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: ‘The Look of Silence’.
I have seen none of the others in this category but don’t imagine that any could rise above Joshua Oppenheimer’s mind-blowing masterpiece on the memory of the 1965-66 bloodbath in Indonesia. Will eventually have a post on it.

Table showing 2016 Oscar nominees in top categories. TNS 2016

Table showing 2016 Oscar nominees in top categories. TNS 2016

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Spotlight

spotlight.2016

This is a terrific film. Period. And, for the record, everyone I know who’s seen it agrees. It is not a fluke that it has received a 93 score on Metacritic and 4.0/4.2 on Allociné. If one doesn’t know by now—if that’s possible—the pic tells the story of the Boston Globe’s 2001-02 investigation into reports of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the Boston archdiocese, and which yielded the revelations that everyone knows. I remember the story from the time, of course, but didn’t pay undue attention to it, as I’m not a Catholic, was consumed by 9/11 and its aftermath, and it somehow didn’t surprise me that there would be a sex scandal on a mass scale in the only religion in the world that prohibits its official propagators of the faith from marrying and having normal sex lives. Objectively, scientifically speaking, the Roman Catholic Church’s prohibition of sexual relations for members of its ecclesiastical hierarchy is totally abnormal.

The film, in addition to being riveting, well-acted, top-notch entertainment, has a couple of important messages. One, obviously, is the centrality of a free press. A free press, however, does not only signify the absence of formal censorship or assurance that reporters and/or their bosses won’t be prosecuted for merely doing their job. It also means financial independence—of not being dependent money-wise on public or private power—i.e. being truly independent. Moreover, a free press also necessitates professional journalists who are operating in a polity with a certain degree of transparency, know how to do investigative reporting (Spotlight being the Boston Globe’s investigative unit), and do not fear taking on powerful, respected institutions.

A second message, or takeaway, is precisely the courage it takes to investigate these powerful institutions. One learns in the film that the behavior of the abusing priests had been well-known for a long time, and even reported in passing in the Globe several years earlier. But the Globe came up against the omertà of the Boston ruling elite, of men who all knew one another (and that included the Globe itself)—and often since childhood—and the acquiescence of ordinary people who uncritically accepted the moral authority of the church. And when a newspaper report is buried in the inside pages and not picked up by other news outlets, it dies. A big story has to be on page one to have legs. And having outsiders making editorial and reporting decisions in the newspapers—persons who are not from the city and therefore don’t have longstanding personal relationships with those they’re investigating—is of central importance.

The film has been nominated for several Oscars, including best picture. It deserves to win this.

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The Martian & Bridge of Spies

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These are two good, entertaining Hollywood movies that, as one likely knows, have been nominated for several Oscars each, including best picture. I saw both last fall with an academic friend—a brilliant Africanist and specialist in the domain of development economics—with whom I often go to movies. My friend is culturally refined and with highbrow tastes in everything but, when it comes to cinema, has a marked preference for Hollywood blockbusters (and over any French film whatsoever; if it weren’t for her, I probably wouldn’t see half the movies I do in the Hollywood mega-production genre). When we exit the cinoche and exchange initial reactions to the film just seen, I’ll usually say something like “ouais, c’était pas mal” (yeah, it wasn’t bad), whereas she will embark on a complex analysis and with all sorts of insights, and which invariably leads to an interesting discussion. On The Martian (in France: Seul sur Mars), we were in entire agreement as to the film’s merits, both as entertainment and the larger, subliminal messages conveyed. On the latter, we identified four.

The first is the praise bestowed on science and scientists—astrophysicists, botanists, all of them—and with particular attention to those who think originally—outside the box—the kind of research scientist who risks having his or her precociously cutting edge papers heavily critiqued, when not rejected outright, by mainstream scientific journals in the peer review process (a point made by my friend, who has had rather more experience with this than I). Seeing scientists extolled in the way Ridley Scott’s film does is gratifying in the present period, characterized as it is by increasing obscurantism in large parts of the world—including the United States, e.g. climate change denial—the domination of the world of finance—which is sucking away top mathematical minds—budget cuts for research, and short-term thinking. The second takeaway from the film is the celebration of a multicultural society—here, that of the United States—and, implicitly, of a liberal immigration regime. The teams of scientists in the film are straight out of a Benetton ad. One reason—perhaps the principal one—why the US has been able to maintain its edge in science and technology has been its liberal immigration policies over the past five decades, which has made America a magnet for talent throughout the world (America’s great, well-endowed research universities also play a role, obviously). A third takeaway is the dead-on accurate portrayal of the scientific milieu and of the conditions in which the scientists in the film work, with an absence of hierarchy and the only thing mattering being excellence and results. This particularly struck my friend, who has spent her career in the French scientific research establishment, which, while producing excellent work, is riven by steep hierarchies (notably age) and clientelism (and money-wise is less well-endowed than in the US). In America—but not so much in France—if you’re young and good, you will be catapulted over your less good elders. My friend hopes that the movie will be an inspiration to young people—and particularly women—who are contemplating scientific careers. The fourth implicit message of the film is international cooperation. NASA, despite its massive brain power and resources, could not bring Matt Damon back from Mars on its own. It needed the help of other countries, notably China, and their scientific know-how. America can do great things but not all by itself. And that’s okay.

Another good thing about the movie is the soundtrack. Great pop songs from the 1970s!

On how scientists evaluated the film, my friend sent me an interview with planetologist François Forget, “Peut-on vraiment rester ‘Seul sur Mars’?” in the CNRS’s online magazine. His verdict: the film was inaccurate or implausible on several points but largely got the science right. And he enjoyed it.

As for Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (Le Pont des espions), we both liked this one too (as did, for the record, three well-known Parisian intellos with whom I discussed the film on social media a couple of months back). It’s a riveting geopolitical thriller, even if one knows how it’s going to end, which impeccably depicts—down to the smallest detail—its historical period. One feels transported back to the late ’50s-early ’60s. And it conveys well the political climate in the US during the height of the Cold War, when the American public viewed the Soviet Union and communism in the same way as it does radical Islamist jihadism today (though the Soviet Union—with its nuclear arsenal and superpower military—did pose a threat to the United States in a way that Al-Qaida and the Islamic State objectively do not). To merely provide disinterested legal counsel to a suspected Soviet spy could get one labeled a traitor. Despite Spielberg’s attention to detail, though, there was a little error that most people, myself included, did not pick up on. The American doctoral student in Berlin—whom Tom Hanks’s character goes to rescue—crosses into the Soviet zone as the wall is going up. The weather is cold and there are snow flurries. But the Berlin Wall went up in August, i.e. in the summer. Spielberg no doubt wanted to depict a Cold War both figuratively and literally… Also, it took a few weeks for the wall to be built, whereas in the film it looked to happen over a couple of days. There’s also another weather-related goof in the pic, mais c’est petit et pas bien grave. It a fine film and totally recommended.

Bridge of Spies

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The Big Short

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The Césars happened last night, the Oscars are tomorrow. This is one of the eight films nominated for Best Picture, which I saw last month (I would imagine that anyone with an interest in seeing it has by now). I thought it was entertaining, well-acted—though Christian Bale’s Michael Burry character got on my nerves—and had a good, multifaceted message to convey about the roots of the 2008 financial crisis, one of the facets being that it wasn’t obvious who precisely was responsible for the near collapse of the world economy: the greedy traders who made a killing during the housing bubble did not create that situation—they merely took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves—but, also, that not every last person in the world of finance was a scurrilous, amoral scumbag. A few did have a conscience. I won’t say that I understood all of the film’s finance mumbo-jumbo, and with the pedagogical exercise by Salena Gomez and Dr. Richard Thaler at the blackjack table not helping much (or, rather, I thought I got its explanation, until I got lost again). On this, I don’t imagine I was alone; even the family member with whom I saw the pic, who has an MBA and does a lot of online trading—he’s riveted to the CNBC ticker a few hours a day—said a lot of the insider fast talk about collateralized debt obligations, derivative mortgage securities, and credit default swaps was over his head. To try to make sense of all this, Michael Lewis’s articles and books on the general subject are a better bet than the movie (he’s a great writer and a pleasure to read).

The big question about the film, naturally, is how accurate its portrayal of its subject is. On this, one turns not to film critics but to economists and economic journalists. The short answer: yes, the film does basically get it right (though there are naturally differing views on this). Here are some of the analyses I came across:

Paul Krugman, “‘The Big Short,’ Housing Bubbles and Retold Lies.”

Neil Irwin (NY Times senior economics correspondent), “What ‘The Big Short’ Gets Right, and Wrong, About the Housing Bubble

Dean Baker, “‘The Big Short’: A Tale of Stupidity, Greed, and Corruption.” Also this by Baker: “The Big Short, the Housing Bubble and the Financial Crisis.”

Matthew Yglesias, “The Big Short tells a complicated story, but the Great Recession is very simple.”

Todd VanDerWerff (Vox culture editor), “The Big Short turns the financial collapse into an angry, funny, sad underdog story: It’s not perfect, but it’s still essential viewing.” See also this by VanDerWerff: “Big Short director Adam McKay talks about finding the humor in the financial collapse.” The lede: “[These guys] were doing their job. They foolishly believed that the market was fair.”

A libertarian view: Tyler Cowen (George Mason U. econ prof) reviews ‘The Big Short’.

A French Keynesian view: Christian Chavagneux (editorialist at Alternatives Économiques), “‘The Big Short’ ou comment gagner des milliards en pariant contre la finance.”

A critical view: Michael Grunwald (Politico Magazine staff writer), “What ‘The Big Short’ Gets Wrong: How a heroic effort to explain finance whiffs on the big message of the crisis.”

An alternative view: David Beckworth (adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute) and Ramesh Ponnuru (visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute), “Subprime Reasoning on Housing.”

As for the film critic reviews, here are the American and French. Trailer is here.

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2016 César awards

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[update below]

France’s Oscars. The ceremony is happening tomorrow night. The full list of nominees is here. Leading with eleven nominations is Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse (My Golden Years) and Marguerite, followed by Dheepan and Mustang with nine, La Tête haute (Standing Tall) and Mon roi with eight, and ‘Fatima’ and ‘Les Cowboys’ with four. As usual, there were several films in the top categories I hadn’t seen when the nominations were announced on January 28th but have managed to catch all of them since (which is not hard to do if you live in Paris and have a flexible work schedule). I have blog posts on most of the nominees and will eventually on the others. For those that won’t get a post, here’s a brief mention.

Les Bêtises (The Cocktail Party), by Rose and Alice Philippon. A short (>80 minutes) light comedy set in Strasbourg and the Alsatian hinterland, about a clumsy, klutzy 30-year-old named François (Jérémie Elkaïm), who’s always tripping, falling down, knocking things over and that sets off chain reactions, and making a mess of everything. He was given up for adoption at birth—the pic starts with that scene, before fast-forwarding three decades—and sets out on a quest to find his birth mother, which is really hard to do in France but, in one of his clumsy mishaps, he serendipitously manages to get the secret information. He thus locates her sumptuous villa in a picturesque village, shows up on a Sunday when, as it happens, a garden party is just underway, and surreptitiously makes his way in, disguised as the hired help. The subsequent sequence, which is most of the film, recalls Blake Edwards’s ‘The Party’, with François the Peter Sellers. The pic has its moments and with a host of goofy, offbeat characters, one being Sonia (Sara Giraudeau, Most Promising Actress nominee), his colleague on the hired staff. As a light comedy, it naturally has a happy ending. It’s not bad and may be seen, though is hardly essential.

Connasse, princesse des cœurs (The Parisian Bitch, Princess of Hearts), by Eloïse Lang and Noémie Saglio. This feature-length film that came out last April—of which I blissfully knew nothing until the César nominations were announced—is an extended version of a series of two-minute TV sketches (on Canal+) of the same name—that I had never heard of—on the antics of Camilla (Camille Cottin, Most Promising Actress nominee), a French female Borat with attitude. Thus la connasse, i.e. the bitch. It’s a comedy, for persons at least two generations below mine and with a rather different sense of humor. At 1 hour 20 minutes the film is way too long. The two-minute sketches will do (and even then). Anyone reading this does not need to see it. Many who did clearly appreciated it though, as it bagged over one million entrées in its cinematic run. C’est dingue.

Voilà my ballot:

BEST FILM: La Loi du marché (The Measure of a Man).
This was the best French film of 2015. If ‘Fatima’ or ‘Mustang’ win, it will have to be seen as a political choice. ‘Marguerite’ and ‘Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse’ are credible winners, though are not the best French pics of last year IMO. ‘Dheepan’ already won the Palme d’or at Cannes. If ‘Mon roi’ wins, I will seek to have the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma hauled out and shot.

BEST DIRECTOR: Xavier Giannoli for ‘Marguerite’.
He edges out Jacques Audiard (‘Dheepan’).

BEST ACTOR: Jean-Pierre Bacri in La vie privée de Monsieur Sim.
No hesitation on this one. Antonythasan Jesuthasan in ‘Dheepan’ is runner-up. Vincent Lindon in ‘La Loi du marché and Fabrice Luchini in L’Hermine are totally credible choices but they’re almost always great in their roles (and you can’t win all the time). UPDATE: Lindon has actually not won all the time—I was in error here—having been nominated for best actor five times in the past but never getting it. As he’s popular—with cinema people and the public—he likely will this time (et tant mieux, though I still vote for Bacri). As for Luchini, the only César he’s ever won is best supporting actor back in 1994.

BEST ACTRESS: Catherine Frot in ‘Marguerite’.
A no-brainer. Catherine Deneuve in ‘La Tête haute’ is runner-up. Soria Zeroual in ‘Fatima’ would be a political choice, as would Loubna Abidar in ‘Much Loved’ (a Moroccan film, not French).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Benoît Magimel in ‘La Tête haute’.
Why not? Vincent Rottiers in ‘Dheepan’ would be okay too.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Noémie Lvovsky in La Belle saison (Summertime).
Faute de mieux. Not a particularly strong category this year IMO.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Rod Paradot in ‘La Tête haute’.
I gave this one to Quentin Dolmaire in my post on ‘Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse’ but now think that Paradot really deserves it for his role.

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Lou Roy-Lecollinet in ‘Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse’.
Hands down.

BEST FIRST FILM: Mustang.
This is actually not a French film; it’s Turkish. The only thing that makes it French is that it was French co-produced and the director is a naturalized French citizen. But as it’s on the list, it’s my choice.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: L’Image manquante (The Missing Picture).
I’ve only seen two of the five on the list but this so obviously deserves to win.

BEST FOREIGN FILM: Son of Saul.
I’ve seen but three of the seven nominees. I imagine that if I were to see all seven, this one would still be it.

UPDATE: ‘Fatima’ won Best Film. A political choice, as I said it would be. Now I wholeheartedly approve of the politics here and thought it a good film, but, objectively speaking, it was not the best French film of 2015. I was right in all my other choices, save Arnaud Desplechin for Best Director, Vincent Lindon for Best Actor, Sidse Babett Knudsen for Best Supporting Actress (‘L’Hermine’), Zita Hanrot for Most Promising Actress (‘Fatima’), Demain for Best Documentary, and ‘Birdman’ for Best Foreign Film.

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MARGUERITE

Continuing from my previous post on French films nominated for César awards (the ceremony happening tomorrow), Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite has garnered eleven—tying ‘My Golden Years’ for the most—including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Catherine Frot), and Best Supporting Actor (Michel Fau & André Marcon). It was a hit this past fall in France, with over a million tix sold—meaning it was one of those movies that occasional cinema-goers made a point to see—and received very good reviews from critics and Allociné spectateurs alike. If one doesn’t know the story, it’s set in the early 1920s in and near Paris, where the Baroness Marguerite Dumont (C.Frot) lives in a château with her husband, Georges (A.Marcon)—whom she loves madly, more than he does her (N.B. she’s the one with the inherited wealth)—and fancies herself an opera singer, which is her obsession, performing before friends and invited guests at the château. She sings tragically off-key, but which she has no clue of, as no one will tell her (the Baroness’s character is inspired by the real life American socialite and amateur operetta soprano Florence Foster Jenkins). Husband Georges can’t bring himself to—he always finds pretexts to miss her private performances—the household staff certainly won’t, her devoted butler, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), shields her from all bad news, and her friends and hangers-on will not even hint to her how cringeworthily, comically bad she is (sort of like an academic not telling a fellow academic friend that his work sucks). Not even the opera singer, Atos Pezzini/Divo (M.Fau), whom she hires for private lessons, will tell her that she has zero talent and should just hang it up. When she decides to sing in public for the first time, which no one can dissuade her from doing, reality catches up. Everything one needs to know about the film is in the Hollywood press reviews (all tops) here, here, and here, and in the trailer here.

The scenes of the Baroness’s performances at the château are certainly amusing, though one gets the idea pretty quickly. And watching someone cluelessly making a fool of him/herself does make me uncomfortable. But there’s a lot more to the film than that, one theme being the hypocrisy—but also cruelty—of all those in the Baroness’s social circle who played along with her unwitting farce, as she was fabulously wealthy and generous with her money. Those who politely applauded and then mocked her behind her back don’t come across too well. And all the more so as the Baroness was a nice, sincere, good-hearted person, who would have likely abandoned her opera diva fantasy if she had been made aware of what her fellow socialites really thought of her (lack of) talent. And again, she loved her philandering, indifferent husband, who finally revealed his tender feelings toward her—as she was such a nice, sincere person. The acting in the movie is great, and particularly Catherine Frot, for whom the role—of singing off-key—was apparently a challenge, as she is said to be a very good singer. So, all in all, it’s a good movie. Recommended.

Another film that has received César nominations (eight) is La Tête haute, directed by Emmanuelle Bercot (English title: Standing Tall), including Best Film, Best Director (Bercot also being nominated for Best Actress for her role in the execrable ‘Moi roi’), Best Actress (Catherine Deneuve), Best Supporting Actor (Benoît Magimel), Best Supporting Actress (Sara Forestier), Most Promising Actor (Rod Paradot), and Most Promising Actress (Diane Rouxel). Practically the entire cast is up for an award. The film opened last year’s Cannes film festival, hitting the salles in France immediately after and to top reviews. In short, the film’s protag, Malony (R.Paradot), is a turbulent, out-of-control, manifestly disturbed mid teenager, who has been in and out of state foster homes since he was six-years-old, as his drug addict, white trash single mom, Séverine (S.Forestier, perfectly cast for the role), was not capable of raising him on her own. His case has been in the hands of the same juge d’enfants (juvenile court judge), “La Juge” (C.Deneuve), throughout his childhood and adolescence. Malony, given his personality and behavior, was in a straight trajectory toward a life of delinquency, crime, and prison, but the adults in charge of him—”La Juge” and the social worker assigned to work with him, Yann (B.Magimel), who, one learns, had his own issues in his youth—were determined to do all they could so that would not happen. The film is a two-hour paean to the professionals—here, functionaries in state social service agencies—whose mission it is to put wayward youths on the right path. It took the state to raise Malony. Indeed. The film is not bad. The acting is first-rate and with a great cast. And one cares about Malony—who finally gets tamed by a girl, Tess (D.Rouxel), his first g.f.—even if one wants to give him a good hiding at times. Anglophone press reviews were good overall (here, here, here, and here). Trailer is here.

la tete haute

Mommy, by Xavier Dolan. I’m cheating here, as this is not a French film—though it’s Quebec Canadian, so in French (more or less)—and has not been nominated for any Césars this year, as it came out in 2014—though it did win the César last year for Best Foreign Film (as well as the 2015 Prix de Jury at Cannes). The reason I’m including it here is because ‘La Tête haute’, which I saw some six months after this one, bears a strong resemblance to it, with the central character a mid teen boy, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), who suffers from ADHD and is really out of control, along with his devoted but overwhelmed mother, Diane (Anne Dorval), who raises him—no juge d’enfant or assistant social here (though state institutions are looming)—and a neighbor schoolteacher, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), who, taking a liking to Diane and Steve, helps Diane out with her turbulent, hyperactive son. It’s a pretty good film, though one should know a couple of things before seeing. First, it’s the fifth feature-length film of the precocious director Dolan (born 1989) and not the first of his to be screened and to win awards at Cannes and other top festivals (Venice, Toronto, among others). Would I have had such a palmarès at his age. Dolan’s previous films, so one reads and hears, contain information that give context to ‘Mommy’, but I had not seen a single one of them (and still have not). A certain number of cinéspectateurs in France—where Dolan has a following—had, though, so knew the antecedents to the story. There was indeed a certain hype over the film when it came out here (October 2014), it did very well at the box office (over one million tix sold, which was higher than for ‘La Tête haute’)—the Quartier Latin cinoche where I saw it was totally packed—and the reviews (critics and Allociné audiences alike) were dithyrambic. Not bad for a 2 hour 20 minute subtitled pic—and it had to be subtitled, as the Quebec French (Joual, in fact) was almost incomprehensible. Quant à moi, I thought the characters were powerful and the acting even more so, but wasn’t as blown away by the pic as were so many others. On Allociné’s 5 star scale, I give it a 3 or 3.5 (not bad to good).

There is one technical feature of the film that bothered me—and this is the second thing to know about it—which is its 1:1 aspect ratio. I thought through much of the film that there was a problem with the projector, realizing only toward the end that the small square image—only taking up part of the screen—was deliberate. Whatever reason Dolan did this—and I haven’t sought to find it out—it really wasn’t necessary IMO. It adds nothing to the film but maybe does take something away. Anglophone critics, who gave it top reviews (here, here, here, and here), manifestly didn’t share my sentiment. Trailer is here.

Mommy-Affiche

La vie très privée de Monsieur Sim, by Michel Leclerc (English title: The Very Private Life of Mister Sim). Voilà l’histoire: François Sim (Jean-Pierre Bacri, César Best Actor nominee) is the dictionary definition of a loser. A pauvre type, socially clumsy, and whose life has been one succession of failures: he can’t hold a job, his wife left him because he was so hapless, his teen daughter thinks he’s a klutz, his father won’t even take him to lunch when he comes to visit, and he’s blown golden opportunities to make it with hot babes who were beckoning him to make the first move. And he’s a bore, the type who starts talking at the person sitting next to him on a plane—which is how the pic begins—but saying nothing whatever of interest. Monsieur Sim is shy, awkward, not at all courageous, has a low opinion of himself, and consequently feels very much alone in the world. His is a life of solitude. After losing the last job, he gets a new one, as a travelling salesman for a small company that makes ecologically friendly toothbrushes, setting off from Mâcon—where he lives—in a company car to promote the product, but which becomes a road trip—a road movie—with detours to drop in on his ex-wife and daughter, visit with people he’s met recently and reconnect with those from his past, forges a bond with “Emmanuelle”—the female voice on the car’s GPS—and comes to realizations about himself.

The film is based on British novelist Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. It’s a sad film but touching, and which does not lose one’s attention. Jean-Pierre Bacri dominates the film as Monsieur Sim. It’s a stellar performance on his part and with a fine supporting cast, including the ubiquitous Mathieu Amalric, la jeune et jolie Vimala Pons, Carole Franck, Félix Moati, and Vincent Lacoste, entre autres. So: recommended. French reviews were good (there are none so far in English). Trailer is here.

la vie tres privee de monsieur sim

Valley of Love, by Guillaume Nicloux. This one—which premiered at Cannes last year—is entirely set in Death Valley, California, where a famous, long divorced (and since remarried) French movie star couple, Gérard (Gérard Depardieu, nominated for César Best Actor) and Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert, Best Actress nominee), have rendez-voused—at a cheesy motel—in response to a request from their dead son, who had committed suicide in San Francisco—where was living—six months earlier and, in his suicide letter, had asked that his parents—neither of whom had tended to him during his childhood—meet there for an improbable reason. The movie is all Depardieu and Huppert—deux monstres du cinéma français, in their first film together in 35 years—raking over the past and dealing with the guilt over the son both had so neglected. Huppert is good comme d’hab’, even if she always seems to be playing the same role, but Depardieu is grotesque. He is so grossly obese—he looks like a bloated whale—that, while watching him, one is half waiting for him to keel over with an infarction. And he actually parades around without a shirt on, showing off his bod… In your face. The film, which was thankfully short (an hour and a half), left me indifferent. It was bof, though did have a couple of positive facets. One was Isabelle & Gérard’s chance encounters with Americans at the motel and nearby restaurants. Des Américains moyens dans toute leur splendeur. One nods in recognition, cackles knowingly, and maybe winces. The other positive facet was the scenery of Death Valley. Otherwise, I have nothing in particular to say about the pic. Hollywood press reviews (respectful) are here, here, and here. Trailer is here.

valley of love

L’Affaire SK1, by Frédéric Tellier. This one opened in January 2015 but totally passed under my radar screen at the time. It’s been nominated for two Césars, including Best First Film. The pic is a police thriller and based on actual events, of the seven-year manhunt in the 1990s of serial killer Guy Georges, who atrociously raped and murdered seven women in Paris’s 11th and 12th arrondissements. Anyone who lived in Paris during the 1990s will remember well the fait divers. The protag, Franck (Raphaël Personnaz), is a young cop at the celebrated 36 quai des Orfèvres on the Île de la Cité—HQ of several specialized units of the Paris police—who is part of the team—the head of which is cop Bourgon (Olivier Gourmet)—tasked with finding the murderer(s) of the women, whom, once it is determined that it is a single person, is designated SK1 (Serial Killer 1). The film shifts back and forth in time, between the 2001 trial of Guy Georges—who is defended by two lawyers, played by Nathalie Baye and William Nadylam—and the manhunt as it unfolded between 1991 and Guy Georges’s arrest in 1998, with all the frustrations and dead ends. It’s a total genre film, which one has seen countless times, and, as it reenacts a true story, one knows how it’s going to end. But it is nonetheless a taught, riveting thriller, and with a top flight cast to boot. At no point does one look at one’s watch. What one takes away from the pic and the Guy Georges story, entre autres, is the multiple failures of the police of the time, of the serious problems in their organization and of their inter-service rivalries and lack of cooperation, the consequence of which was that, in this case, the serial killer remained unidentified and at large at least three years longer than he should have been—and with young women horrendously murdered in the intervening period as a result. In France’s famously centralized state, the police, despite being national, were anything but. One of the consequences of the Guy Georges case was the systematic recourse to DNA tests and the creation of a centralized police data base for this.

The film received good reviews—particularly from Allociné spectateurs—and didn’t do too badly at the box office (400K tix sold). One Hollywood press review is here. Trailer is here.

l_affaire_sk1

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