Voilà a few noteworthy French films of late 2014 that have received César nominations (the awards ceremony is tomorrow). This one (English title: Fidelio, Alice’s Journey), directed by newcomer Lucie Borleteau (Best First Film nominee) is about a merchant mariner named Alice (Ariane Labed, Most Promising Actress nominee), who’s around 30, lives somewhere near Toulon with her Norwegian graphic designer b.f., Felix (Anders Danielsen Lie)—he’s the man of her life—and receives an urgent summons to join an aging cargo ship, the Fidelio, en route to Dakar, to replace the chief engine room mechanic—Alice being one herself—who has suddenly died aboard (was it a suicide, as she is told, or an engine room accident that the shipping company wants to hush up?). She’s the only woman on the ship—in a man’s world and doing a job normally not done by women. Her cabin is the same as her deceased predecessor’s, where she finds his personal diary and reads (throughout the film), in which he recounted, entre autres, his many love and sexual affairs at the ports of call on his long voyages away from home—but also his sentiments of melancholy and loneliness—and which resonate with her own life at sea. Love and sex—above all sex, of her own sexuality but also of the other crew—are a central theme of the film. Soon aboard the ship she discovers that the captain, Gaël (Melvil Poupaud), is an ex-lover of hers, whom she hadn’t seen a long while. They cautiously reconnect and though he’s married and she all but is—she regularly Skypes with Felix, professing her love (genuine)—they briefly rekindle the flame, but that should, in principle, not affect their relationships back on land, as “what happens at sea stays at sea” (dixit the poster above). As for her fellow shipmates—who, in their free time, play cards, drink, and watch porn movies—they treat her as one of the guys. She’s sexually off-limits to them and vice-versa, so when she has a one-nighter with a Romanian mariner who boards en route, she is upbraided by a colleague for violating the taboo. Her commitment to Felix is never questioned, but she can’t reconcile her desire for a stable life with her man and the realities of her career on the open sea, which keep her away from home for weeks, even months, at a stretch, and with the inevitable straying. Back with Felix after the voyage to Senegal, she makes a mistake that upends their relationship, though the film’s ending—in Gdansk, where, now promoted to captain, she’s taken the Fidelio to be scrapped—leaves open the possibility of reparation.
I really liked this movie. Ariane Labed, who’s in almost every frame, is terrific. She’s a real screen presence. And I will readily admit to finding her extremely attractive, not only physically but her persona in the film and the work she does (I think it’s cool seeing women as engineers and working with heavy machinery, and in other such jobs that one normally associates only with men). She’s mainly a stage actress and, until this one, has mainly had small roles in films (she lives in Greece, so away from the French cinema scene; she had a bit part in Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Midnight’—set in the Peloponnese—in the luncheon sequence). French reviews are very good and Hollywood critics gave the film the thumbs up (here and here). Trailer is here.
My brief take on the other films:
‘Clouds of Sils Maria’, directed by Olivier Assayas. This one has netted six César nominations, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Juliette Binoche), and Best Supporting Actress (Kristen Stewart). Since I’m lazy I’ll let this website give a synopsis of the story
Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an actress at the peak of her international career who is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years earlier. Back then she played the role of Sigrid, an alluring young woman who disarms and eventually drives her boss Helena to suicide. Now she is being asked to step into the other role, that of the older Helena. She departs with her assistant (Kristen Stewart) to rehearse in Sils Maria, a remote region of the [Swiss] Alps. A young Hollywood starlet with a penchant for scandal (Chloë Grace Moretz) is to take on the role of Sigrid, and Maria finds herself on the other side of the mirror, face to face with an ambiguously charming woman who is, in essence, an unsettling reflection of herself.
The film, which is almost entirely in English, is driven by the dynamic between the Binoche and Stewart characters: the famous actress rehearsing a role she is greatly ambivalent about playing and her youthful assistant who pulls her along. I’m not a great fan of Juliette Binoche—I think she’s overacts—but thought that Kristen Stewart—a well-known American actress, so I learn, with roles in films I would never consider seeing, so knew nothing about her—is first-rate. As for the film, it held my attention, despite the story not being overly compelling IMO. I’ve found Olivier Assayas’s films to be uneven—the ones I’ve seen (though his 5½-hour biopic on the terrorist Carlos is a near chef d’œuvre)—but will put this one in the thumbs up category (for home viewing, not worth traveling to the cinema for). French reviews (very good) are here, early US reviews (generally good) are here, trailer is here.
‘Eastern Boys’, directed by Robin Campillo. This has been nominated for three Césars: Best Film, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (Kirill Emelyanov). The story: Mid-40s gay white-collar professional, Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin), engages a youthful prostitute—whose name is either Marek or Ruslan (Emelyanov), and may or may not be a legal adult—he spots at the Gare du Nord. Marek/Ruslan is part of a gang of Eastern European guys, over and under age 18, who hang out at the Gare and are clearly up to no good. To consummate the transaction Daniel has Marek/Ruslan come to his apartment, which was a real mistake, as the entire gang comes along and, led by the gang leader—a not-nice Russian dude they call Boss (Daniil Vorobyov, perfectly cast)—proceed to relieve Daniel of his worldly possessions. But despite having set a trap for himself, Daniel continues to seek remunerated sex from Marek/Ruslan. With his life manifestly devoid of something (meaning? love?), Daniel develops a genuine attachment to Marek/Ruslan—who at first claims to be Ukrainian but turns out to be Chechen—stops the sex, begins to treat him as almost a son, and decides to save him from Boss’s gang (made up of undocumented bogus asylum seekers). It’s a gripping film and from beginning to end. Setting aside two implausibilities in the story and one leap of faith, I’ll give it thumbs up. French reviews (very good) are here, US reviews (mostly good) are here and here, trailer is here.
‘Party Girl’, directed by Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger, Samuel Theis. No less than three directors. It’s been nominated for two Césars, including Best First Film (for the three directors). I saw it last September, on the recommendation of Guillaume Duval of Alternatives Economiques, if I remember correctly. The film is a real life story about a 60-year-old almost lifelong bar woman, Angélique Litzenburger, who works in downmarket cabarets in the declining industrial Lorrainer town of Forbach on the German border. She’s had four children—one of them a co-director of the pic (Theis)—presumably not of the same father, and, given her lifestyle, has not been the greatest mother to them. But they’ve stayed in touch with her and done okay for themselves (we meet them in the film). The main pic’s story—it’s a semi documentary, with not much of a plot—is the marriage engagement of Angélique with regular bar patron Michel (Joseph Bour). He wants her to finally settle down and with him, and she agrees, but then gets cold feet, because she’s been a bar woman her entire adult life and can’t conceive of leaving that life. It’s a small film but interesting and totally original. French reviews were good, as were those of Hollywood critics (here, here, here, and here). Trailer is here.