Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

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

[update below] [2nd update below]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Venerable W.

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

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

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

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


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Jerry Lewis, R.I.P.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sam Shepard, R.I.P.

He was a cinematic reference for me when I was in my 20s (mid ’70s to mid ’80s). Or, I should say, to us: to me and my cinephile friends of the time. And I would occasionally hear about him personally from his younger sister, Roxanne, who was a friend in college (and remains one today).

Patti Smith has a beautiful remembrance in The New Yorker, “My Buddy.” Great photo, too.

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Jihadi terrorism, that is. The news was dominated this past week by the terrorist attack in Manchester. There is not a sentiment I can express about it that hasn’t been by everyone else. Targeting youngsters for death and maiming, and at a festive event no less: ça dépasse l’entendement. One has no words. Je ne sais pas qu’est-ce qu’on peut dire de plus.

I did not scour the internet for articles to read on the atrocity, though stumbled across a few, such as this one from The Independent, “Salman Abedi: How Manchester attacker turned from cannabis-smoking dropout to Isis suicide bomber;” Emily Crockett’s comment in Rolling Stone, “Why Manchester bomber targeted girls: As is so often the case, misogyny was woven into this act of violence;” and the report in The Telegraph that the security services ignored reports from Muslims in Salman Abedi’s neighborhood about his erratic, worrisome behavior. And this editorial in The New York Times: “When terrorists target children.”

Some ten days ago I took a group of a dozen journalists from Denmark, who work the immigration/Islamic radicalism/terrorism beat in their country, on a walking tour of “immigration and the changing face of Paris,” which I periodically lead for the Paris office of Context Travel. The leader of the group was a sharp Copenhagen journalist named Jakob Sheikh (he’s Danish-Pakistani), who has reported extensively on the radicalization of young Muslims in Denmark. Two articles of his have been translated into English, which are particularly pertinent at the present moment, “My childhood friend, the ISIS jihadist,” in Mashable (October 15, 2014), and “Meeting the foreign fighters: how does Islamic State recruit thousands of Westerners?,” in the New Statesman (December 1, 2015).

My mother emailed me the other day, asking, in the context of the Manchester atrocity, if I had done a blog post on Udayan Prasad’s 1997 film My Son the Fanatic, the screenplay of which was written by Hanif Kureishi (and inspired by his 1994 short story in The New Yorker of the same title). I have not, in fact, had a post on the film, as it’s been over ten years since I last saw it. The one thing I’ll say about it here—in addition to it being first-rate and with a great performance by lead actor Om Puri—is that it remains, twenty years after its release, one of the best cinematic treatments one will find of the religious radicalization of the youthful offspring of immigrant families from Muslim countries—here, Pakistanis in the British Midlands—and of the perplexity, indeed despair, this provokes in their parents, who seek nothing more than to work, better their families’ lives, and integrate into the receiving society. But their children feel no such need to “integrate”—whatever integration for them is supposed to entail (those who yammer on about this never say)—or to keep their heads low and not make waves, because they were born into that society and are of it. Anyone interested in the subject should see the film (which is available on Netflix). The late, great Roger Ebert’s review of it is here and the trailer is here. See also Hanif Kureishi’s piece in The Spectator last December 10th, “‘My son the fanatic’ revisited: Can one generation’s mistake be corrected by the next?”

À propos, jihadi terrorism has been the subject of some six French films—feature-length, that have opened theatrically or were initially slated to—over the past couple of years, all which I have seen. If there’s a pic on the topic, I’ll see it, no matter how mixed or negative the reviews. And the reviews are often this, as of the six or so films in question, only one gets the thumbs up from me—more or less—and may be recommended—more or less—which is Le Ciel attendra (English title: Heaven Will Wait), by Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar (who also directed the 2015 Les Héritiers). Moreover, it is the only one of the six or so that found an audience (330K tix sold, which isn’t too bad for a film of this genre).

The story is of two typically French middle-class teenage girls, Sonia (Noémie Merlant, nominated for the ‘most promising actress’ César for her performance) and Mélanie (Naomi Amarger, who lives in Créteil in the film, près de chez moi), with stable, loving families (Sonia’s father is Algerian but totally laïque) and who are doing well at school, but have become self-radicalized, via the internet, into Islamic State-style jihadi Islam. The film depicts their solitary descente aux enfers into Islamic extremism, the desperation of their parents (Sandrine Bonnaire plays the mother of Sonia) when they realize what is happening, and then the efforts to deradicalize them in therapy sessions led by the anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, who plays herself.

Bouzar has had a high-profile in France over the past decade, for her work on Islam and France—she publishes a book a year—and the tidy subventions she has received from the state for her association—the Centre de Prévention contre les Dérives Sectaires liées à l’Islam—and proactive work on deradicalizing French adolescents who have returned from Syria, been caught trying to get there, or contemplated doing so. For the anecdote, I saw Bouzar speak to a packed auditorium at the École Militaire, which seats 700, in January 2015 and which was streamed live to audiences throughout the world, but with her face blurred on the screen for security reasons (as if it was not already well-known to those who would want to know it). She was quite the star.

As for Bouzar’s arguments on self-radicalization and how to counter it—which I won’t try to summarize here—I found them interesting enough, though she has been severely criticized by academics and others who work in her domain, for, entres autres, her exclusive focus on juridical minors (those under age 18), emphasis on converts to jihadi Islam (including heretofore non-practicing Muslims), and of Facebook and other social media as a vector of radicalization. Bouzar and her work are controversial among practitioners and specialists, who consider her analysis of the wellsprings of jihadi radicalization to be problematic (there is also a personal side, as all of Bouzar’s university degrees were obtained after age 35, so she is not considered by some to be a bona fide member of the academic club, even though Olivier Roy was her doctoral thesis supervisor).

Back to Mention-Schaar’s film, French reviews were good (Paris press) to very good (Allociné spectateurs), though Hollywood critics who saw it at the Locarno film festival—here, here, and here—found it unsubtle, overly didactic, and with unconvincing performances. I won’t quibble with the stateside critics, though their objections didn’t bother me as much. One didactic point in the pic’s favor is that it depicted the reality of jihadi self-radicalization in this web 2.0 era by teenagers who have never set foot in a mosque or had actual face-to-face contact with real live salafis. Trailer is here.

As for the other films:

Made in France, by Nicolas Boukhrief: This was scheduled to open in theaters throughout France on November 18, 2015, and with big eye-catching posters (below) in the metro stations and elsewhere in public in the weeks prior. But then there was the terrorist atrocity of November 13th. Bad timing for the pic, the release of which was naturally postponed to a later date, and with the distributor finally announcing that it would go straight to VOD in January ’16 and not open theatrically at all. So one had to see it chez soi, on the small screen. That’s okay. It’s a by-the-numbers thriller, about a Franco-Algerian journalist named Sam (Malik Zidi) who infiltrates a jihadi cell in the Paris area (an alternative English title of the film is ‘Inside the Cell’) to land the big scoop. But then he gets caught in the engrenage—from which he cannot extricate himself—with the fanaticized cell leader Hassan (Dimitri Storoge), who is determined to commit a terrorist atrocity (spoiler alert: nothing happens), and flanked by the other cell members, all stock characters: Driss (Nassim Si Ahmed), the not-too-bright Maghrebi thug; Sidi (Ahmed Drame), the black, who’s not a bad guy deep down; and Christophe (François Civil), the Français de souche convert who’s settling personal scores. A genre film from A to Z. While entertaining, it’s not on the same pedagogical or sociological level—if one is looking for that—as Philippe Faucon’s 2012 La Désintégration. And the depiction of the cell—comprised of men who have not personally known one another for long—is of a bygone era. Jihadi terrorist cells in Europe nowadays are invariably composed of blood relatives. Hollywood press reviews—here and here—are more positive than for ‘Heaven Will Wait’. Trailer is here and interview with the director in The Guardian is here.

Les Cowboys, by Thomas Bidegain: This one, which opened two weeks after the November 13th atrocity, is less about terrorism than the sudden indoctrination of one’s child into a cult—here, salafi Islam, presumably terrorist-inclined—though which is not actually seen. It’s an odd film and from the opening scene, of a Western-style rodeo and hootenanny, with everyone dressed up like cowboys and cowgirls, contra dancing to country music, eating barbecue and burgers et le total, except that they’re all French people in the Bas-Bugey and in precisely 1994, when the story begins. Alain (François Damiens), Stetson on his head, is dancing with his 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, who then vanishes from sight. Alain and his wife, Nicole (Agathe Dronne), find a letter she has written them, saying that she has moved on to another life and bids them adieu. As they quickly learn, she has absconded with her petit ami, named Ahmed, who had become a salafi. She could be in Algeria—then in throes of the Islamist insurgency, though Ahmed’s Algerian immigrant parents, whom Alain knows, have no idea—the Middle East, Afghanistan, or anywhere. So Alain sets out on the obsessive quest to find his daughter, which takes him to Yemen, Pakistan—where he is helped by an American CIA type (played by John C. Reilly)—and other points on the globe, and that spans 17 years, though with him being killed in an automobile accident along the way, and with the search continued by his son (and Kelly’s younger brother), Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), who finally, maybe locates his sister in 2011.

Reviews of the film were good, including in the US, and with Damiens and director Bidegain receiving César nominations. It certainly held my attention, though I had mixed feelings about it. One understood Alain’s desperation as a father but his persona irritated me throughout, with his incessant blowing his stack and flying off the handle. And the ending left me unsatisfied. Bidegain was, as every review took care to mention, inspired by John Ford’s 1956 Western ‘The Searchers’, with Damiens obviously the John Wayne character and modern-day Muslims the savage Comanches. Having never seen ‘The Searchers’, I got it on Netflix in the US after seeing ‘Les Cowboys’. I was fully aware that Ford’s classic is considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest Westerns ever made—that, e.g., Martin Scorsese considers it one of the greatest films ever, period—but, personally speaking, thought it was crappy 1950s dreck, with wooden acting, a stupid story, and racist in the way it portrayed American Indians. And my mother, who has highbrow film tastes and knows well American cinema of the ’50s—when she was a young adult—entirely agreed with me. And no patient explanation of the film’s qualities will change our minds. Voilà. ‘Les Cowboys’, despite its flaws, is better. Trailer is here.

Taj Mahal, by Nicolas Saada. This one opened three weeks after the November 13th terrorist attacks. It reenacts the November 2008 terrorist operation in Bombay by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba—that lasted three days and killed 164 people—entirely from the perspective of an 18-year-old Franco-British girl named Louise (Stacy Martin, the protag in “Volume 1” of Lars von Trier’s preposterous 2014 ‘Nymphomaniac’), who found herself trapped during the attack in a suite at the Taj Mahal hotel, where she was staying with her parents. One hardly sees the terrorists as they maraud through the luxury hotel on their murderous campaign, the idea presumably being that one is supposed to feel the terror of a potential victim as she hides in the suite, keeping in touch with her parents, who are outside, via mobile phone.

I saw the film at an avant-première—on precisely the seventh anniversary of the first day of the attack—with the director and part of the crew present, plus members of the Association Française des Victimes du Terrorisme, who wholeheartedly endorsed the film. The intentions of the director were laudable and the film does have some merit—it was partly shot on location in Bombay—but unfortunately it’s a turkey. If one is expecting a high-octane, edge-of-your-seat thriller, this film is not it. One is struck by the blasé, low-key attitude of the parents (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Gina McKee) as they await the dénouement of the terror attack, and with their daughter at imminent risk of violent death. If it were me and my wife, we would, at minimum, be panic-stricken, if not downright hysterical. The general sentiment of Hollywood press critics is that the film was “inert” and low energy (here, here, here, and here). French reviews were more respectful—possibly because director Saada was a longtime critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, so a member of the club—though Allociné spectateurs were not so indulgent. The pic, needless to say, was a total box office failure. French audiences simply didn’t want to see such a film less than a month after November 13th. Trailer is here.

Salafistes, by François Margolin and Lemine Ould Salem. This is a  71-minute documentary that opened in late January 2016 and to controversy, as the Ministry of Interior sought to prevent its release—arguing that it constituted an “apology for terrorism” (a criminal offense in France)—and with the Ministry of Culture then trying to forbid it for persons aged 18 and under (which, in France, is exceedingly rare). The film, which finally opened in two theaters in Paris, consists of actual footage, by Mauritanian co-director Ould Salem, of Timbuktu under the rule of AQIM; interviews with radical salafi theologians in Mali, Mauritania, and Tunisia; and then raw footage of Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq carrying out horrendous acts, one of the more shocking being IS fanatics in their pick-ups racing down a desert highway in Iraq, machine-gunning every car they pass, just for the hell of it. In your face. My attitude during the film was who needs this? I am sufficiently well-informed on the subject, the film wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know, and watching psychotic people commit acts of gratuitous sadism and mayhem—not to mention salafi theologians (or “theologians”) blather about their crackpot Weltanschauung—is just not something I enjoy doing. But various persons thought the film worthwhile, e.g. former Le Monde editor-in-chief, Natalie Nougayrède, who wrote in The Guardian that “Salafistes is gruelling viewing – but it can help us understand terror.” And Claude Lanzmann, writing in Le Monde, called the documentary a “véritable chef d’œuvre…d’une grande beauté formelle, rapide, efficace, très intelligent,” and slammed the government for trying to block or restrict its release. And The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer also recommended it. Voilà, comme vous voulez. Trailer is here.

Voyage sans retour, by François Gérard. No one saw this film, or practically. It was slated for release in September 2013 but, in the month prior, was subjected to a campaign of denigration on social media, accusing it of being “Islamophobic,” with a lawsuit filed against it by a dodgy (subsequently disbarred) lawyer named Karim Achoui and actor Samy Naceri, who had a secondary role in the pic, entering into a conflict with the director and also trying to thwart its release. Director Gérard—who is ethnically Algerian (malgré his name)—denied that his film was in any way Islamophobic but the damage was done. It opened in only a couple of independent salles in the Paris area and was gone within two weeks. Vanished into the ether. I saw it via the internet a couple of years later (and needed help from a movie streaming-savvy colleague in finding the pic). In a nutshell, it’s about a Toulousian voyou named Kad (played by Gérard), who runs afoul of a gang of dealers, is obliged to hightail it out of France to England, where he is dragooned into an international terrorist organization, ends up in India and then Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he undergoes terrorist training, and with the idea that he will return to France to commit attentats. But then in Bombay, he runs into a former teacher of his, Nadine (Marie Vincent), who happens to be living there, the two develop sentiments for one another, and with her convincing him of the error of his ways. But he is not out of the woods yet.

The film was said to be loosely inspired by the story of Khaled Kelkal, though I didn’t perceive this at all. The review in Le Monde (one of the few) maintained that while “[f]ragile certes, imparfait assurément, Voyage sans retour est un document choc sur le recrutement des djihadistes dans les banlieues françaises, ce qui le pare d’une dimension testimoniale et pédagogique estimable.” This is too nice. All in all, it is not a good film. The sequence in south Asia is not credible—and particularly the relationship with the former teacher—the acting is mediocre, and one doesn’t give the film a moment’s thought after it’s over. If one wants to see the trailer, voilà. If one wants to actually see the film, good luck.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

The Financial Times website has a 15-minute video report, dated March 31st, on “the town that turned to Le Pen.” The town in question is Hénin-Beaumont, in the heart of France’s northern Rust Belt, which has become a Front National fief since Steeve Briois, a party heavyweight and Marine Le Pen ally, was comfortably elected mayor in 2014—and with Marine having lost the legislative constituency in 2012 by the narrowest of margins (0.22%; though she had the satisfaction of trouncing Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the 1st round). The FN is presenting Hénin-Beaumont as a model of FN good governance (contrasting with Vitrolles, the FN’s showcase municipality in the 1997-2001 period, where the FN experience ended in fiasco). If the 2015 regional election score in Hénin-Beaumont is any indication—Marine LP’s list taking 60% of the vote—the FN will be running the town for a while to come. So the FT’s Paris bureau chief Anne-Sylvaine Chassany went up there to find out what’s going on. Her report is worth the watch.

On the subject of Hénin-Beaumont and the FN, a feature-length film, directed by Lucas Belvaux, opened in February, Chez nous (in English: This is our land; FYI, “On-est-chez-nous!” is the chant most often heard at FN rallies). The FN flipped out when the film’s imminent release was announced in January, denouncing it as malevolent propaganda whose sole intention was to sully the party during the presidential campaign, and with the FN’s troll army going into action on social media to trash it—though, as one could have expected, not a single FN person had actually seen the film. Here’s a description of the plot, which I’ve cribbed from Atlantico and modified à ma guise

In Hénart, a fictitious town in the north, everyone knows and likes Pauline Duhez (Émilie Dequenne), a self-employed nurse who is out and about making house calls almost every day. It is thus normal that on the occasion of the municipal elections, Philippe Berthier (André Dussollier), a well-to-do medical doctor, former member of the European Parliament, and prominent local notable, proposes that she join the list of Agnès Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob), the national leader of the Rassemblement National Populaire (RNP). Berthier’s plan is the following: Pauline will be the n°2 on the list, behind the Parisian Dorgelle, and do the job for her as mayor while Dorgelle gives priority to her commitments on the national level.

Pauline, who is mostly apolitical, hesitates at first, saying she lacks the experience and is not sure she would be up to the job, but then succumbs to Dr. Berthier’s entreaties, adopts the RNP’s positions and eagerly plunges into the campaign, even though it means some changes in her work – which she loves – as a nurse. But things start to get complicated: with patients, who disapprove of her engagement with the RNP, and, above all, her retired former trade unionist, PCF-voting father, who stops speaking to her when he sees her on television as the RNP candidate. She then learns that Berthier has concealed from her shady parts of his political past. Adding to this is her new boyfriend, Stanko (Guillaume Gouix), with whom she had gone out in high school two decades earlier, who had been a member of the RNP’s security detachment of tough guys under Berthier’s supervision but been expelled for extremism and violent behavior – as this was tarnishing the public image of the RNP, which wants to appear respectable – and is now in a gang of neo-Nazi/skinhead goons that goes on migrant-bashing expeditions at night, but which he has concealed from Pauline.

So what was to have been a cakewalk to victory in the election becomes more complicated for Pauline. Skeletons come out of the closet and with Agnès Dorgelle, who wants people to forget about the past declarations of her father – from whom she had inherited the RNP leadership – on Jews, Arabs, and immigrants, is having a hard time burying the sulfurous past of her close collaborators. But she forges on…

It is rather obvious from the outset that Hénart is Hénin-Beaumont—the film was shot in the vicinity: in Bethune, Lens, and other localities in the Pas-de-Calais—the RNP is the FN’s big tent RBM (Rassemblement Bleu Marine), and the blond Agnès Dorgelle is, of course, Marine Le Pen. The FN’s ire toward the film, as Le Monde’s Raphaëlle Bacqué reported, was indeed focused on the casting of Catherine Jacob as the Marine lookalike, with, e.g., Steeve Briois calling her a “pot à tabac” (an uncomplimentary expression for a short, overweight woman)—not that the frontistes could have said anything else about the film, as they had not and would not see it.

Reviews were good on the whole—by critics and Allociné spectateurs alike, though there was an early troll campaign to lower its Allociné rating—but with some critics reproaching it for being too unsubtle. I thought it was quite good myself. The casting is pitch-perfect, particularly Émilie Dequenne, who merits a César nomination for her performance (pour mémoire, she was nominated for one in 2015, for her role in Belvaux’s Pas son genre). André Dussollier is likewise first-rate as the provincial bourgeois facho. And the depiction of the FN’s modus operandi and rhetoric is totally on target. I detected nothing that did not ring true and, with the exception of the flawed final scene, no contrivances. The film is very good in its portrayal of the cynicism of the FN, of the way it goes about recruiting and then manipulating candidates on the local level—and it is absolutely the case that the party seeks out political novices and ingenues, whose strings can be pulled from on high. Also spot on is the ambiguity of the party’s relationship with the violent elements on its fringe, whom it wants to keep out of sight, not out of fundamental political differences but because the goons make the party look bad and undermine its efforts at respectability and de-demonization.

Hollywood press critics who saw ‘Chez nous’ at the Rotterdam film festival gave it the thumbs up, e.g. from The Hollywood ReporterScreen Daily, and Variety, with the latter’s Jay Weissberg having this to say

The film is a shoo-in for Stateside distribution, since Belvaux’s theme is the cinematic equivalent of all those articles trying to understand the disgruntled white voters who supported Trump.

See also critic Boyd van Hoeij’s March 9th piece in The Atlantic, “Inside France’s most controversial film of the moment.”

The film has not been a big hit at the box office—with a mere 310,000 tickets sold seven weeks after its release—which is too bad (as I had declared on social media after seeing it that it was “Un bon film, à voir par tout citoyen avant le 1er tour de l’élection présidentielle”…). As for why it has been a relative commercial failure, perhaps people just don’t want to see an overly political film, particularly when they’re being bombarded daily with politics, and during an interminable, exasperating campaign to boot. Allez savoir. Émilie Dequenne and Lucas Belvaux appeared on February 4th on France 2’s late night “On n’est pas couché.” Trailer is here.

On how the FN operates behind the scenes—and manipulates and exploits its own candidates—France 2’s Envoyé Spécial had an exceptional one-hour reportage on March 16th, “Front national: les hommes de l’ombre,” on the three men at the heart of the FN’s finances: Frédéric Chatillon, Axel Loustau, and Nicolas Crochet. The three are formally independent businessmen and simple FN members with no official function in the party—and have no public profile—but are, in fact, in Marine LP’s inner circle. They’re her closest associates and her buddies—particularly Chatillon—whom she’s known since her late teens-early 20s, having partied together in their wild-and-crazy youth and who knows what else. And, as it happens, the three camarades were militants during their student days in the extreme right-wing GUD, known since its inception for physically bashing leftists. As one learns in the reportage, while Chatillon et al may no longer wear black rangers and wield truncheons, their facho politics have not changed an iota. They’re way out there on the extreme right, with the requisite antisemitism and all; thus their non-public profile in the party. If Marine is going to de-demonize the FN, the three camarades must stay out of sight.

But this is hard to do, as the three are so central to the FN’s money-making operations and corruption—and which involves, entre autres, legally obligating novice FN candidates to purchase their campaign material and other services at inflated prices from enterprises owned by Chatillon et al. Marine LP’s former geopolitical adviser, Aymeric Chauperade, is thus quoted in the reportage

Marine Le Pen minore ou néglige la dangerosité de ces gens-là. Il n’y a aucune raison que ce groupe disparaisse. C’est le groupe qui aura amené Marine Le Pen au pouvoir. Manifestement elle ne peut rien faire sans eux et elle ne peut rien faire contre eux, c’est ça qui est évidemment très grave.

It was said that Chauperade broke with Marine in 2015 over foreign policy differences but he asserts in the reportage that it was due to the influence of the three camarades. The Envoyé Spécial report, which is a must, may be watched here.

On Chatillon et al, also see the articles in the March 22nd and March 29th issues of Le Canard Enchaîné (to enlarge the images, right click to open in a new tab).

Another reportage—this in English—is a half hour analysis on the BBC, first aired on March 20th, “Detoxifying France’s National Front.” The description:

Has Front National leader Marine Le Pen really detoxified the party founded by her father 40 years ago? Is it a right-wing protest movement or a party seriously preparing for power? Anand Menon, professor of European politics at Kings College London, analyses the process the French call dédiabolisation. Le Pen has banished the name of the party and even her own surname from election posters and leaflets. Her party is making inroads into socialist and communist fiefdoms in northern and eastern France. Combining nationalism with a message designed to reach out to the left, she speaks up loudly for the have-nots, people who live in the land she calls “the forgotten France.” She targets trade unionists, teachers and gay voters. But widening the party’s appeal leads to a tricky balancing act. Can Marine Le Pen manage the process of political exorcism without alienating die-hard supporters?

Stanford University professor and FN specialist Cécile Alduy, who posted the link on Facebook, wrote that it’s “[o]ne of the best radio shows I’ve listened to in a long time, and the best reporting on the National Front in English you can find around.” Indeed.

L’Obs/Rue 89 has a post dated March 26th on the research of Université d’Avignon political scientist Christèle Marchand-Lagier, “Qui vote FN? Pourquoi? 3 idées reçues sur les électeurs du Front national.” Based on years of interviewing FN voters in the Vaucluse—Marion Maréchal-Le Pen’s fief and an FN bastion—Marchand-Lagier concludes that many FN voters (a) are not particularly ideological, are not well-informed about the FN’s program, and don’t vote for the party with the expectation that it will come to power and change their lives for the better; (b) are far more middle class than lower; and (c) could change their votes in the future, signifying that a significant portion of the FN’s vote remains one of protest rather than adhesion. That’s good to know.

Also refuting idées reçues is demographer Hervé Le Bras in a piece in Slate.fr, dated April 10th, “Qui vote FN? Pas forcément ceux à qui l’on pense.” Cool maps, as one usually finds in Le Bras’ publications. In short, a sizable part of the FN vote resembles that of Trump’s in the US: periurban, small provincial towns, and rural (i.e. not urban); middle class but who fear downward mobility (and which they see around them); and a sentiment of isolation from mainstream (urban) society and abandonment by the state.

Marine LP is having her Paris rally next Monday, five years to the day from the one in 2012. And as with that one, it will be held at the Zénith, which seats 6,300 (and with no standing room-only pit). This is not the largest arena in the city, e.g. some 12,000 can pack the Palais des Sports, and Bercy—where Emmanuel Macron will be holding his rally on Monday as well—can accommodate 20,000. Marine may be high in the polls—in the one out today from IPSOS, she’s tied with Macron for first, at 24%—but still can’t draw big crowds, and certainly not from the Paris region. Not what one would expect from a candidate who has an outside chance of being elected president of the French republic.

UPDATE: The New York Times’ Adam Nossiter has a detailed article (April 13th) on Marine LP and Frédéric Chatillon et al, “Le Pen’s inner circle fuels doubt about bid to ‘un-demonize’ her party.”

2nd UPDATE: Valérie Igounet and Vincent Jarousseau—a historian at the CNRS and photographer-documentarian, respectively—have a photoessay in the Spring 2017 issue of Dissent, “Scenes from the Front: France’s Front National in Power,” which is mainly of Hénin-Beaumont.

3rd UPDATE: Paris-based journalist Scott Sayare has a very good article (April 20th) in The Guardian on “How Marine Le Pen played the media.” The lede: “For years, she has accused French journalists of bias against her family and her party. Yet Marine Le Pen has managed to lead the far-right Front National into the political mainstream – and she couldn’t have done it without the press.”

4th UPDATE: Cécile Alduy of Stanford University has a must-read piece (April 23rd) in Politico, “What a 1973 French novel tells us about Marine Le Pen, Steve Bannon and the rise of the populist right.” The lede: “Stridently anti-immigrant, The Camp of Saints was originally ignored or pilloried. Now, it’s found a following.”

5th UPDATE: France Culture’s excellent ‘La Suite dans les idées’ program, hosted by Sylvain Bourmeau, has a half-hour interview (May 27th) with University of Rouen sociologist Violaine Girard, entitled “Le FN pavillonnaire est-il vraiment si populaire?,” in which Girard, based on her field research, refutes the idée reçue that periurban FN voters are victims of the economic crisis and experiencing downward mobility.

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