I’ve been going to Rendezvous with French Cinema now for about 5 ears and it’s somewhat of a disappointment for me to announce that their 22nd year has been nothing short of dismal in respect to French films getting their US Premiere in NYC via Unifrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Consider that last year, their lineup was one of the strongest, with pictures reflecting a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and solid storytelling — the Palm D’Or Dheepan and Cesar nominated Fatima come to mind — this year, standout entries were few and far between. Of their over 20 films, I can think of only Frantz, by Francois Ozon, and Raw, by Julia Ducournau, as must-sees. Slack Bay would be a distant third, and only because of its strident humor and entries into farce. I haven’t as of this writing seen the biopics Django and The Odyssey or the transgressive Nocturama (the latter was sold out almost immediately and I’m a FSLC member; the former two . . . I mean, how many more biopics can a person take without wanting to slash one’s eyeballs a la Chien Andalou? Perhaps once they come to the US — and they will, I’m sure of it — I’ll see them. And neither Marion Cotillard nor Natalie Portman were enough to attract me to see them in From the Land of the Moon and Planetarium, at least not at the festival. Perhaps when they make it here, if they do.
(3 / 5)
For a year, artists and intellectuals of all types converge in Villa Medici, a place (and I mean this not as a term but as a plane of action) in Rome where they develop their works through the power of isolation and their own creativity. This might not sound like movie material for you, but bear with me: it is. Among this group are two story lines that transpire in today’s time. One involves Camille (Clothilde Hesme), a writer who feels increasingly suffocated by the success of her also writer husband (Tcheky Karyo) who not only is much older than her, but also has procured an old fashioned typewriter to bang away his thoughts. On the other end there is Axele, a photographer trying to find some link to her surroundings through her own photography.
A third, and more subtle, story, emerges once the artists are left to their own. It’s one that seems to come from another time, whilst occupying Villa Medici’s mane rooms and halls. It would seem that perhaps Villa Medici may be haunted — and to a degree it is, by its own art, which lives on and occasionally and sometimes in a spooky way seems to take a life of its own, to recreate scenes for us, the witness, to bear testimony, as if we were a part of something greater, cosmic. There is a casually surreal tone to these proceedings — it often seems that they’ve been happening forever, and I recalled briefly the concept that Stephen King touched in The Shining — the party never ended. They — the energy of the departed, had always remained, semi-sentient, hoping for some vague acknowledgement from the physical world.
This development is by far the more curious of the two women’s stories which are on a collision course; however, first-time director Caroline Deruas-Garrel doesn’t seem to find the glue to make these and the paranormal stick together. Sometimes it does seem as though one were watching two separate movies at once, so much that it seems a tad schizophrenic tonally and visually. For substance, Daydreams is as ethereal as they come even in its more organic confrontations. Stylistically, the film feels as pretty as a painting, two-dimensional, and stiff.
RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW
(2.5 / 5)
Office politics take center stage in Pascal Bonitzer’s convoluted soap opera of a movie, Right Here, Right Now, in which Nora (Agnes Bonitzer), a young and ambitious corporate bee on the rise attempts to make her mark despite the conflicts of interests that exists between her bosses — one good, one bad. Adding to the mix are subplots involving Nora’s sister Maya, a bartender / singer who gets involved with Nora’s colleague Xavier (Vincent Lacoste), and her boss’ wife, Solveig (Isabelle Huppert, the sole reason to watch this movie), a frosty blonde who seems to know more than what she conveys. Right Here, Right Now suffers from too much plot while leaving its characters undeveloped as people. No one really emerges as a true, flesh-and-blood person, and even Huppert seems to walk through her scenes with an air of icy detachment . . . until a development late in the movie has her almost exploding in emotion. Simply put, it’s the equivalent of walking into an all-white house with minimal decor: you feel as though you must take your shoes off, and walk on eggshells because of how perfect everything looks. It might have a chance to play in the US due only and exclusively to Huppert, but then again, the film is just not the kind that will have any resonance this side of the ocean.
HEAL THE LIVING
(4 / 5)
I was very surprised when Heal the Living made its bow in US cinemas (becoming the first of two new films to launch the newly renovated Quad Cinema, the other being the NYFF Official Selection A Quiet Passion by Terence Davies). Katel Quillevere’s quietly lyrical and delicate feature film deals with several intersecting stories that focus on a fatal car accident and its eventual outcome.
Heal the Living begins underwater, as three surfers ride the waves as though they lived in them. Much of this sequence transpires in and out of water, but mainly underwater, and in complete silence. Quillevere then transitions to them returning back home, and the manner that she films this scene — of the car moving along the road — is of transforming it into the ocean itself, with larger and larger waves looming towards them, until something horrific happens. One of the teens, Simon, survives, but he’s on life support and with next to zero chances of resurfacing.
He leaves behind grieving parents (played by Emmanuelle Seigner, last seen in Francois Ozon’s In the House, and Kool Shen) who are given the task of deciding what organs they;d like for Simon to donate once the inevitable happens. The story then shifts focus to a woman, Claire (Anne Dorval, last seen in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy and incredibly touching here). Claire is a former musician who has a heart condition that needs to be treated. When we meet her, she’s with her two sons who could almost be twins but have their own distinct personalities (one of them is played by Finnegan Oldfield). The scene is almost unabashedly tender as they cuddle in her bed while watching a movie but seem to be protecting her from any tiny disturbance from the outside.
As Claire awaits for news that she will get a transplant we see glimpses of her life — her romantic relation to another woman (Alice de Lencquesang), her going to see a concert which requires she be carried up the stairs, since she is disabled by her heart. Intermixed in between is a touching flashback sequence where we see Simon before his fatal accident romancing a young girl, and then, in a dream sequence, coming back to say good bye to her. Quillevere’s film is almost too lyrical for its own good; it’s so touching to see these people relate to one another with a sense of fragility, as if life itself were an ephemeral thing. When a film that is only 100 minutes long can make it feel as though one would like another hour to see more of these people, then it’s time well spent. Heal the Living is one of the best surprises from this years Rendezvous with French Cinema with a quiet accumulation of emotion that swells until the final, symbolic shot.
Director: Francois Ozon
Runtime: 112 minutes
Language: French, German
There is a point in every director’s career when the need to veer into unknown territory, whether to expand a technique, try something new, or simply tell the same story under the guise of the same themes, becomes almost a siren call. Francois Ozon, a director with a distinct body of work that almost always veers on the queer — whether in light-hearted fare like In The House or more somber stories such as 5 X 2, takes a detour into a historic drama with his remake of the 1932 movie Broken Lullaby, itself directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
In 1919, Anna (German actress Paula Beer in an intimate performance) lives with her husband’s parents in the small town of Quedlinberg, Germany. Germany, as we know, has been defeated in the war and has experienced the loss of an entire generation of boys sent to a war from which they’d never return. [Anna’s fiancee Frantz Hoffmeister, a musician, was one of them.] While delivering flowers to Frantz’s grave she notices a tall, young man also paying his respects to Frantz’s grave. The man turns out to be a former French soldier, Adrien (Pierre Niney). A conversation arises, Anna introduces Adrien to the Hoffmeisters despite the animosity that was palpable between the French and the German, here symbolized between the Hoffmeisters and Adrien, but it’s not long when Adrien reveals his story with Frantz, changing the entire turn of the story.
The lingering thought however, arises: being an Ozon movie, is this a film about two gay men who somehow found each other and then fought on enemy lines? Adrien seems to know a lot about Frantz, and in winning over his parents, he seems to also be allowing the approval of the ghost in the house and it’s not long before Mrs Hoffmeister is already pondering that Anna could potentially marry Adrien. The fact that Anna seems to be falling for Adrien also adds to the film’s already complex story: could she be that deluded, not knowing that there may have been a clearly homosexual relationship between her fiancee and Adrien, or would she rather forgo this, a life of loneliness and lost memories, if not for this man who knows so much of the man she loved?
Ozon’s first movie in black and white occasionally lapses into color whenever the spirit of Frantz comes alive be it in narration or flashbacks, and it’s a gorgeous move for a movie that is already saturated with austere blacks and whites. It’s perhaps a little too overlong for its own good, and the last 30 – 40 minutes get the Hitchcock treatment as Adrien departs, unexpectedly, to France and goes MIA and Anna, wanting — needing — to get to the bottom of the secrets still lingering behind the veil, goes in search of him. Out of this year’s entries which I saw at the Rendezvous with French Cinema, this one was one of the strongest, but it still comes off as somewhat too restrained even for Ozon himself, too tame, almost as if though he’d decided to play it safe rather than go risque (a thing that he’s not above from doing). In short, Frantz the film, while a solid entry, is somewhat too muted, its characters not terribly alive, and its pacing as slow as paint drying.
Frantz is currently playing at the Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York.
MA LOUTE! (SLACK BAY)
Director: Bruno Dumont
Runtime: 122 minutes
Language: French, English
Bruno Dumont’s satire takes place in three different levels. On one level, we’re introduced to two detectives, Inspector Machin and his assistant, Malfoy (played by Didier Despres and Cyril Rigaux), dead ringers for Laurel and Hardy, are investigating a series of disappearances of tourists who visit he Slack Bay Area. The murders,we learn early, are being committed by the Brufort family who has no qualms about offing rich tourists, not for financial gain as much as, well . . . it seems they like their taste. A hilarious scene introduces Mme. Brufort asking her sons if they’d like a foot, or perhaps an ear? It’s a moment filled with social commentary, since the narratives occur side by side of each other.
At about the same time we get introduced to the eccentric Van Peteghems headed by Andre and Isabelle (Fabrice Luchini and Valeria Bruni-Tedechi) who’ve arrived for a family retreat with their two daughters and niece Billie (Raph). Billie falls for a strapping young man who, the Breforts refer to as Ma Loute, usually in exclamation points. Here’s where the story gets interesting: Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville) doesn’t suspect that Billie has a secret (which Dumont reveals rather early in the film and has more to do with her gender non-conformism), and both begin this tentative relationship that hints at a possible romance. And we haven’t even introduced the film’s most strident character, but when she arrives, it’s with bells and whistles, shrieking at the top of of her lungs.
Mme. Aude Peteghem comes onto the scene like that relative you never, ever want to meet unless you’re flipping drunk or at least moderately high. Juliette Binoche, an actress known for her restraint, let’s it all go and dials the extremism of her emotions to eleven and beyond. When she appears, the movie basically stops to pay homage to the sheer audacity of her existence, enveloped in furs of bright colors and a rococo temperament. It’s somewhat of a problem because this is essentially an ensemble, and while everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, Binoche plays her character like thunder and lightning in slow-motion, at all times.
Dumont’s movie movie is bound to enamor Francophiles who get the visual and aural tone (Machin’s pig-like squeak as he walks, and later, in a surreal sequence, flies; Ma Loute’s animal grunts that reveal his cannibal nature, Petegham’s ill-conceived ride on a plane that sends him flying into and over a shipwreck). There are parts of Slack Bay that are pretty funny, but the story stretches itself a little too slim, the socioeconomic aspect — the haves and have-nots — remains underdeveloped. Billie’s story-line becomes too violent for words — it just seems like taken from another movie and leaves a sour aftertaste due to its homophobia. If I were to classify it via a sequence, it would be that of a vapid farce that, like Inspector Machin, goes flying off into the air because like the plot, it had nowhere else to go but up. Slack Bay is a slim story of eccentrics living in this isolated bubble that never quite knows how to make itself relevant, or memorable other than that of its cast who all wallow in brittle self centered weirdness.
Slack Bay premieres at the Film Society of Lincoln Center April 21.
Director: Julia Ducournau
Runtime: 99 min
One of the best things about attending film festivals and premieres is meeting the director and the movie’s main cast who, at the end of the screening, have a sit-down with the audience to discuss their film and answer any questions. This year, the 22nd Annual Rendezvous with French Cinema ended its first week with the premiere of Julia Durcounau’s debut feature film Raw which arrives in theaters March 10 in New York City. When the film ended, she came out and presented her view of the events of the story which itself takes several twists and turns, and I was solidly impressed at her command of the stage, how she managed to recreate to us the entire film through her own speech, from its initial concept, selection of the actors and what they represented as symbols, and ending to what was the running themes in her film. This is a woman who we should pay attention to because not only is her first work a bold manifestation of the horror genre, it’s a complex, and sometimes perverse take on the blood ties that bind people, for better or worse, and what can happen when one gives into the baser forms if instinct and forgets to either control it, or aim for a higher sense of self.
If it all sounds a bit metaphysical, it’s because it is. Raw is a difficult film to classify although technically it remains firmly rooted in the style and themes of both David Croneberg and David Lynch with Croneberg the dominating force. It has a short prologue involving someone running (or throwing themselves) in front of a speeding car that in a last ditch attempt not to hit the person crashes into a tree. We then see the person slowly get up and walk towards the car with potentially sinister purposes. It’s a shocking scene which will form a neat parenthetical narrative later on in the film neatly in the same way Sam Raimi’s pre-credits scene in last year’s Don’t Breathe did.
The story of Justine (Garrance Marrilier), a young teenage girl who enters veterinary school at a college where it seems there is no order and a hierarchy of hazers and bullies, it seems that Raw will go that route. And, for a few scenes, it does, but first, let me go to the beginning, when we meet her proper, post prologue. We come into Justine’s story at a restaurant with her parents as they’re on their way to drop her off at the college where she will be staying. She’s a vegan, and we come to know this when she bites on a piece of meat and has a bad reaction to it. Once she arrives to the college proper, the parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) also make a stop at both the hospital and the morgue, It’s almost inconsequential and even dismissive (I certainly thought none of it) until we realize why.
No sooner is Justine at her dorm (and barely has time to meet her new dorm partner, the gay Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) that the vicious hazings begin, leading to an alcohol-fueled party that seems to go on forever. It’s there where Justine runs into her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) who shows her around. The following day, however, the freshmen — Justine included — get splashed with seemingly endless amounts of blood in a sequence somewhat reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s Carrie. They are then forced to eat raw meat and Alexia instead of helping Justine wing this one, denies she’s a vegan, tells her to get over it, and forces her to eat the piece of meat. Soon after, Justine develops a horrific, cringe-inducing allergic reaction and has to go to the infirmary where a kind nurse advises her to lay low for the first year. That she does . . . except that something has changed. At lunch, she sneaks in a meat patty (that Adrien has to pay for). At night, she goes on the prowl in the dorm room kitchen for a chicken breast, which she eats raw. It’s not long before Justine’s attraction to meat intensifies and translates over to people.
Could Justine be some kind of mutant zombie? Not really, she’s far from undead and is clearly aware something is wrong with her. [Plus, the movie, while referenced by The Girl With All the Gifts, another story of a girl trying to overcome her base instincts, is less concerned about this aspect even when it presents it as episodes of mounting body-horror.] The urge to consume meat (and blood) becomes the thing she can’t control when a waxing mishap (grotesque in its own right) morphs into something unspeakable. It’s then when the film does one of a couple of neat twists, and now we’re in completely unfamiliar territory. Where a more conventional horror movie would have hinged on Justine’s secret being discovered by Adrien, or Alexia, or anyone else, Raw throws caution to the wind and attempts to merge a coming of age, a girl discovering her sexuality, and a girl becoming a higher human being instead of reverting to the lowest of passions — cannibalism.
Sisterhood is also a strong theme in Raw: one could say the movie is precisely about sisters and how their relation can swing from blissfully perfect to terrifically violent in a matter of seconds. Alexia seems to be in total control from the start — she’s older, knows the ropes, is popular. However, as the movie progresses, her character experiences a progressive dissolution. She loves Justine, but she can also be fantastically cruel for cruelty’s sake and that, I think, is the crucial difference between her and Justine. Justine is the character we project goodness even when she’s trying to figure it out, even when she reverts at times to truly bizarre behavior. The love-hate relationship between the two is something straight out of Dead Ringers and culminates in a fight sequence so vicious, I recall people walking out of the movie and not returning.
As lean as the meat that Justine finds herself attracted to, Raw is muscular and fluid and bears not an ounce of extraneous material. On the contrary, to be able to pack so much into little more than 90 minutes of screen time and still come out with a deeply disturbing tale tells of a director (Ducournau) who has a sharp eye for striking visuals, precise camera work, and who is unafraid to provoke her audience into strong reaction.
At the time of its release the concept that guides this South Korean horror movie was rather new, so it’s a problem for me to review this movie when its conceit has practically worn itself out. a Tale of Two Sisters is the story of Su-Mi and Su-Yeon Bae, two sisters who come to live with their father and their stepmother. Soon after their arrival, they begin experiencing paranormal visitations of vengeful ghosts unwilling to left bygones be bygones. An accident precipitates the mental deterioration of one of the sisters, and what transpires on film may not be what is exactly happening.
A Tale of Two Sisters is good in establishing its ghost-lore rather quickly — from the get-go, one of the sisters who has been institutionalized hints at horrible secrets yet to be revealed. Her and her sister’s arrival to the house is met with Gothic coldness; the stepmother, a porcelain beauty, has what seems the heart of a dead animal. Night scenes are almost impossible to appreciate directly without staring into the flat-screen. It’s as though director Jee-woon Kim wanted to portray a household whose very own darkness has been swallowed by petty passions and unresolved issues.
One sequence in A Tale of Two Sisters is a standout and it involves a guest a dinner party completely losing her mind at something she sees. We never truly get the glimpse of it (although we are made privy to it later), but the progression is frightening and once unleashed, it becomes impossible to control. However, Sisters loses a bit of its steam later on and its switcheroo — a device that by now has been done to death — while shedding light, brings little satisfaction, and as the final scenes approach one gets the feeling that a great horror movie sold itself short by execution and the use of an overused plot technique of an unreliable narrator.
(3.5 / 5)
Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs finds itself in this list because I saw it a month ago even though it was released in 2009. I just felt it was appropriate for me to see the original as it was released in lieu of renting the American remake that went straight to VOD a little under a year ago. Knowing the penchant we have for fucking up originals, I didn’t wish to take a chance and waste my own time.
Martyrs is a movie you’ll either like due to its visuals and ultra-violence or hate because your trained eye will catch a glaring plot holes that by proxy should have buried the plot before it took one final tumble down the rabbit hole. When Martyrs starts we see a young girl fleeing a run down warehouse, screaming in pain as she’s been tortured and has narrowly escaped a horror beyond all imagination. The young girl, Lucie, finds herself in an orphanage where she befriends a young girl named Anna. Anna becomes her only link to the outside world as she suffers from extreme bouts of PTSD following her ordeal and continues to see a horrific apparition that refuses to let her alone.
Years later, we come into a scene of domesticity: a family having dinner. [Catch a young Xavier Dolan, who would go on to direct I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways, Mommy, and most recently, Just the End of the World.] In bursts Lucie who swiftly dispatches them. She informs Anna that this is the family who kept her captive years ago and submitted her to unbearable torture. Anna, wanting to help, is a little freaked out by what just has happened, and you would think they would leave the place and start anew, but Laugier has other things in mind. Darker, more depraved.
Anna overhears the matriarch, still alive, and tries to save her from certain death to no avail: Lucie interferes with bloody results. At the same time, Lucie gets attacked by the spirit who’s been tormenting her since she was a girl. Anna realizes that something else is happening: Lucie is having hallucinations that she can’t seem to control. Becoming aware that this apparition will not leave her alone — having been a girl she was unable to save years ago, she does the unthinkable. Anna, now, has become our Final Girl.
From here on Martyrs takes a different turn that if you can stomach, you will probably like. Leave it to the French to commit to the art of delving into pure, creative sadomasochism that would make Sade a happy man. Martyrs takes one last turn into its own heart of darkness that takes the viewer into the limits of tolerance. It is a terrific incursion into complete cruelty into another human being, and that as a viewer I was still there, wanting to know where it would all lead, shows that this is either a good movie or I’m a potentially twisted individual with nothing better to do than watch the unwatchable.
Laugier seems to be onto something but his love for nihilism for the sake of it makes me refrain from recommending this level of horror to anyone but the die hard. If you do watch Martyrs, just be advised; it’s not an easy film to stomach once the carnage begins.
THE EYES OF MY MOTHER
(5 / 5)
You’ve probably never seen a movie quite like The Eyes of my Mother, and this is precisely why you need to see it immediately. If it’s playing in an art-house near you, go. If you can rent it on Amazon or DirecTV, do so. If you still would rather wait a while, that’s okay, but please see it. This is how horror should be — slow, devoid of a single jump scare, disjointing, and progressively shocking.
I don’t want to talk too much about this movie because this is the kind that you have to go in with only a thread of information in order to experience its enveloping layers of horror firsthand. We get introduced to a quiet household in rural America. A little girl lives with her elderly parents in what seems a suspended paradise. One day — because that is how every basic story begins — a stranger arrives, and despite his googly smile, he’s not one to trust. His visit, as it turns out, comes with the heaviness of fate and impending doom, and doom does happen . . . but the story is less interested in this aspect. It’s interested in the little girl and how she grapples with the ultimate horror — loneliness — which invades her perfect world and tears it apart, only to permutate itself into something even more gruesome and perverse.
The Eyes of my Mother, a movie whose title can be interpreted several different ways, uses black and white to striking, nightmarish effect. One early sequence shows a woman running for her life in a deserted road as a truck looms behind her. Shots done overhead, from a distance, or in near darkness give the movie a sense of rising discomfort and dread and often recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but more importantly, Georges Franju’s Eves Without a Face (to which this film does owe a little its own title). Then the sound — one murder sequence is mostly heard but never seen, and then there’s a disturbing sequence involving a man in chains eating food from a plate that is frightening in its own context.
Nicolas Pesce has created a horror movie drenched in poetic imagery that begs to be seen and experienced in its austerity. You will almost regret how short it is.
(2 / 5)
Lights Out exists as a cheap imitation of other horror movies reviewed here — like Martyrs and A Tale of Two Sisters. That it does have a couple of good visuals doesn’t make it exactly anything remotely watchable. However, I’m pretty sure that ghosts do not behave like the living; and could we please — please! — stop with the floor dragging already? What are people, stand-ins for Swiffers? Jesus on a stick. Oh that Paranormal Activity had never been made. Ever! Now every ghost we see is outlined in black and can, it seems, drag people under a bed, through doors, and act as through they were completely alive. Let it go already. Surely there are other ways to present haunts as actual scares.
Also, the jump scares again. When a movie can’t offer any plausible reason for an action to go on without something scary to see, in waltzes the fucking jump scare complete with the loud, shrieking violins and the boom. I’m so sick of it. Kill it already. There has to be something better than having them on cue, every ten to twelve minutes because the director can’t trust his or her audience enough to feel scared — or at least, very uneasy — without going “BOO!” If a movie does this, reader, just get up, count your losses, and sneak into the next theater to watch a potentially better film. Or call it a day and move onto something truly horrifying, such as watching our “president elect” deliver some speech and attempting composure.
Also, what’s with ghosts looking like featureless, ashy humanoids? This one is in dire need of Vitamin D, stat.
I think this is all I have to say about this movie. It’s garbage. It stinks. It wastes the talent of Teresa Palmer who should be doing better. It really, really, REALLY under uses Maria Bello, and that in itself is a crime. Just stay away. There’s nothing to see here.
(3.8 / 5)
Someone must have read Stephen King’s Cujo and thought that rather than film a remake, better, do a reconfiguration. If any of you read the book (I did) or saw the movie (did that, too), you’ll remember that much of the book’s conflict takes place in a lonely stretch of rural America where a woman and a child huddle inside a car that won’t start while a rabid dog stalks them. Bryan Bertino’s latest movie The Monster seems to have borrowed snippets from Cujo down to the backstory that interrupts the story in flashback sequences. It tells the story of Kathy (Zoe Kazan), a train wreck addict who just can’t get it together. She has, it seems, custody of her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentina). However, from the looks of how badly she treats Lizzy, both in the present and in flashbacks, how awful, how completely, irredeemably dysfunctional their relationship is, fractured to the point of no return, it becomes clear that Lizzy needs to be with her absentee father. This is Mommie Dearest, played straight and with a bite. Kathy is basically a monster-mother.
On the night that Kathy has to drive Lizzy off to give her up to Lizzy’s father, they take a dark and lonely road. Nothing out of the ordinary; there are many roads like this in the country. When they hit an animal, an event that causes their car to break down and force an injured Kathy to call for roadside assistance and an ambulance, Kathy, selfless mother that she is, tells Lizzy to go out and inspect. It’s a wolf, all right . . . but there are teeth embedded in its fur that don’t belong to any animal Lizzy knows. Something just out of visual reach is out in the woods. Something large, bestial, and hungry.
Sure enough, the mother-daughter tension that had been brewing like a pot of water blows wide open when havoc breaks loose and the two of them now have to come together to defend themselves against this horrifying new attacker. I found it rather interesting that here we have yet another film that uses symbolism to perhaps narrate the real story of a woman fighting the monster within her — the beast of her own addiction. It’s been done before, so well, in movies like The Shining, Under the Shadow, Goodbye Mommy, and The Babadook. If you think of it, the apparently unrelated flashbacks, who at first seemed to be filler for a movie, clearly telegraph who the monster of the story really is, but in horror, you can always alter the perception of reality and use other techniques in order to get the point across. And so, here we have an actual beast and a woman who is largely unsympathetic diving headfirst into motherhood at its most violent, committed to seeing her daughter doesn’t get killed. It’s probably not going to win any awards but who cares: this is a very good movie from a first-time director and it delivers the shocks in spades
NEXT TIME I’LL AIM FOR THE HEART
(4 / 5)
It is said truth can be stranger than fiction and there is no better example than Cedric Anger’s 2014 movie that was an official selection for Rendezvous with French Cinema and officially released earlier this year for a very limited run.
During the winter of 1978, the Oise Killer terrorized the region. Several women were found murdered at gunpoint, their bodies abandoned on the roads. What no one knew was that the gendarme in charge of the investigation, Alain Lamarre, was also the same person doing the murders.
Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart is dark and slick, never deviating from a rather drab blue-grey palette that fills the story with a sense of dread right around the corner. It doesn’t over-glamorize Lamarre — here renamed Franck — and doesn’t go into overkill during some of the more salient murder sequences, particularly its shocking opening sequence and another sequence where Franck picks up a hitchhiker. Even so, these are handled with great delicacy and remain a tough act to watch. Of course, being that this is based on a notorious case, it’s somewhat predictable only because much like its companion movie that also was a part of 2014’s Rendezvous with French Cinema, SK-1, it has a well-known ending. Even so, the pace never lags, there is one surreal sequence involving a case of Franck seeking a woman for company and arriving at a rather hilarious surprise. One of the better surprises from France, a country that continues to turn out surprising features that have long since left the sunnier French New Wave in the dust for good.
(4 / 5)
The ghost of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona looms large in this well-executed, tense psychodrama about two actresses on the rise who find themselves circling each other like lionesses about to engage in a fight to the death. Sophia Takal’s second feature following her 2011 little-seen film Green follows the story of Beth (Caitlyn FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis) as they plan and execute what seems to be a weekend getaway at a distant lodge cabin in Big Sur. Already before the movie’s plot’s wheels are beginning to spin we’re given cues of what might be trouble underneath: Beth comes first, facing the camera, crying, hair disheveled, clearly uncomfortable, begging an unseen person she’ll do anything to win him back. It’s revealed to be a mere audition for a part, and it presents her in a passive, almost simpering feminine role not unlike Shelly DuVall’s Wendy in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Anna comes next, also facing the camera before a white background. However, her face is more androgynous — bordering on soft masculine. She’s also angry and spews out line after line in a furious tirade. Her introduction, however, turns out to be Anna herself living this moment in real life as she complains about a bill for her car repair.
We later learn that Anna is having trouble getting film parts while Beth has been luckier, landing parts here and there with extreme ease. Anna’s resentment rings loud and clear — particularly in a sequence that starts with Anna making a discovery about Beth. In this sequence, Anna finds out Beth has landed a plum part in a commercial that is giving her loads of exposure. Anna feigns happiness, but it rings shrill. Anna, however continues to make a point to state how much she’s happy that Beth is making it. A later reading of Beth’s lines starts to morph slowly into something completely disturbing once Anna encourages Beth to play the other part so she can show her how Beth’s part should be played. Here is where Sophia Takal’s camera draws you into the unseen tension building within the two women: a slow, creeping zoom-in shows Beth growing increasingly uncomfortable as Anna, as the antagonistic character, rips right into her, a mass of what Addison DeWitt called “fire and music.” Anna clearly could be playing it too well . . . but there are layers and layers of subtext hidden right on the surface of her delivery — how she seems to strike out at Beth with every hurtful word, wanting to push Beth, make a point.
Beth, of course grows increasingly cautious of Anna’s increasing anger. I felt my breath getting tighter and tighter during the movie. While not a lot happens that may register as a plot per se, the noose between the two women continues to grow tenser with each frame. It’s almost a rule that in a movie in which two people engage in continuous conversation pregnant with the unsaid and rife with emotions bubbling under the surface calls for a moment where the lid will essentially, blow, and Sophia Takal directs her movie with a sure hand, escalating each scene into something bigger. And midway through, the film starts fucking with you.
This is a sharply made psychological thriller that also dares to push the boundaries of film, identity, and reality — at one point cleverly inserting a shooting clapper that again is reminiscent of the scene in Persona where Bibi Andersson discovers Liv Ullman has been using her and the film per se breaks apart, only to reform again. It’s an important little insert because while it still ensures you that you are watching a filmed story, it still brings a wink in tow telling you this is merely a film within a film, meta-narration, maybe even just a state of mind.
As a female-centric movie, Always Shine boasts a critical look at how women can be as ruthless as men in outperforming the other when it comes to landing plum parts in film or commercials, but also, a way that we see them — sometimes with clearly distinct personalities, sometimes interchangeable.
When I wrote the first post a little over a month ago I wasn’t intending to make this more than a two-parter, only because I felt that all the movies coming out of France that I had seen and enjoyed (or not) would have come out by now. Considering this is August, it seems that ever since Rendezvous with French Cinema ended in mid-March there’s been a new French production getting its release in the US week after week, often in groups such as when there were five of them playing at once in several different theaters in NYC during the early part of July: among them, Cosmos, Diary of a Chambermaid, The Innocents, Microbe et Gasoil, and Les Cowboys while Dheepan and Tale of Tales still enjoyed a screening each at IFC Center. Since then, Summertime and Phantom Boy have also been released, and coming this Friday, Disorder, also known as Maryland, which I saw and reviewed in March, makes its debut, followed later on by Fatima (also seen and reviewed) and Mon Roi. [These last three, the aforementioned Dheepan, and Summertime are all part of this year’s excellent Rendezvous with French Cinema collection for 2016.]
From its trailer, The Innocents, which at one time was also known as Agnus Dei, would give the idea that this is France’s version of the well-known Agnes of God (and there is a strong debt to John Pielmeier’s famous play, or maybe it’s the other way around? Food for topic for another discussion. There is also a nod to the recent conflicted-nun story Ida, winner of the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture.). It’s actually the true but little known story of Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laage), a Frenchwoman working with the Red Cross in 1945 war-torn Poland. Mathilde receives the visit of a young nun who has left her convent where seven nuns lie pregnant amidst the murmur or prayers, asking for assistance. Beaulieu cooly brushes her off since it would be out of protocol, but a glimpse of the praying nun in the middle of the snow changes her mind. Beaulieu travels to the convent where she assists a nun who is about to give birth. It’s here where she meets Sister Maria (Agata Buzek and the even sterner Mother Superior (Agata Buleska, the disgraced judge of Ida), who are trying to maintain a sense of order within the convent while hopefully delivering these babies without scandal.
What is a wonder is that when Beaulieu examines some of the nuns they reveal themselves completely unable to understand their predicament, some girlishly innocent and under the belief that they may have been impregnated by an act of God. In conversations, the French-speaking Sister Maria, at first as forbidding as the Mother Superior, forms a friendship with Beaulieu that grows stronger as both expose their personal views on society. Because the nuns were raped by Soviet soldiers (who attempt early on to gain access to the convent and threaten to return when Mother Superior orders them to leave in a tense scene), Sister Maria’s faith is in conflict. Beaulieu’s own stance in a career that doesn’t smile at women comes into the forefront, and oddly dovetails with Sister Maria’s own. However, while both Sister Maria and Beaulieu find a common ground, Mother Superior, blind with religion and acts of what she sees as merciful, does the unthinkable at one point, which gives The Innocents a much darker tone than even Ida (already rather dark to begin with).
The Innocents is a deeply compassionate movie that features three strong female perspectives who face a horror the nuns in the background — and we, the viewer — can’t quite fathom. While truly innocent in every way, each nun slowly emerges as a person and leaves her imprint in the narrative. A short vignette towards the latter part of the story features a nun leaving the convent, now knowing she has a life outside where she can find her faith in a different way — a complete opposite decision from the one Sister Anna takes in Ida. This, and the ending coda, bring in a sliver of hope that was possibly not an option for Poland right after the war.
Lou de Laage is rapidly becoming France’s next must-see actress. I knew nothing of her before her breakthrough movie Breathe which played in the US in both VOD platforms and theaters during 2014 and the uneven L’Attesa opposite Juliette Binoche. She displays a stoic hardness that slowly peels away a deeply sensitive person committed at all costs to doing right by the nuns she has decided to protect. Agata Busek and Agata Buleska play off each other in terms of power — Busek’s Sister Maria at first merely a follower of Mother Superior, who later morphs into a defender of these nuns. Vincent Macaigne, usually an intense actor, downplays his part as Beaulieu’s colleague and lover. [A}
Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (La Belle Saison) is a more typical “French” movie in the line of Olivier Assayas’ Apres Mai (After May) and Mia Hansen-Love’s Goodbye, First Love, and if it weren’t for its two female leads (Cecile de France and Izia Higelin) would probably remain one of the pile, undistinguished and almost predictable. Two women meet in the summer of 1971 as the women’s rights movement was happening.
Delphine (Higelin) is the more assertive of the two despite being much younger and having lived all her life working and living in her family’s farm. Her father wishes that she would find a good man to settle with and is unaware that she’s been seeing a young woman for some time who’s decided to marry. Meanwhile, Carole, who is older, is a Spanish language teacher and staunch feminist living in Paris with her boyfriend. Both meet in the middle of a street riot, but things don’t happen immediately: Delphine is not out (not yet), but adapts to the feminist group rather quickly and easily while eyeballing Carole from the sidelines. An outing brings forth Delphine’s lesbianism, which results in a kiss between Carole that turns awkward (Carole has as of yet been unaware of her own sexuality despite being a liberal city woman of the post-60s revolution). Eventually, a surprise move from Delphine brings it all out, and soon enough both women are tangled in each other’s arms, breathing into each other’s faces, unable to get enough of each other, a thing that costs Carole her relationship and her interest in feminism for pure romance.
The turning point of Summertime, however, comes when Delphine receives news that her father has fallen gravely ill and can’t tend the farm anymore. A separation is inevitable, but that doesn’t last long as Carole follows Delphine into the French countryside to be with her even when they can’t express who they truly are to each other to a more provincial mentality, particularly to Delphine’s mother who hopes for a marriage. Summertime, free of its Parisian constraints, glows with the natural pastoral settings, letting both actresses breathe in their respective roles. It’s a bit of a shame, then, when Corsini’s camera starts to chop the story up into odd edits that don’t quite do the movie justice the way, for example, that Todd Haynes lit Carol for its exterior and interior scenes. I would have preferred a more vintage palette even in outside settings, if at all to enhance the situation of repressed passions among the thick green of the countryside as well as the dimly lit interiors of the farm. Even so, Summertime works because of its two leads and simple, blatantly romantic story that finds its own way in a time when gay rights was still at its own dawn. [B]
The opening shot pretty much tells you what you should expect in Eva Husson’s debut feature film Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) which was part of this year’s official selection for Rendezvous with French Cinema (and one of the few I was unable to attend to, preferring instead to stick with the more ethnically diverse Dheepan and Fatima, among others). We see a dizzying array of young teens seen in an increasingly complex yet mesmerizing combination of sexual poses lounging around a country manor followed by the voice of the narrator, Alex (Finnegan Oldfield, also seen earlier in Neither Heaven or Earth and the upcoming Les Cowboys) starts with his voiceover narration that then flashes back to how “the summer of Bang Gang” came to be.
Turns out, Alex lives in this sumptuous house alone with his absent mother who is somewhere in Morocco. He and his friend Nikita who also rooms with him meet up with two schoolgirl friends Laetitia and George. Alex sizes up Laetitia to be ugly solely based on her looks (she’s a demure brunette) while he sexes it up immediately with George, a frail Bardoesque blonde. Nikita and Laeitia don’t seem to have a lot of chemistry with one another and remain in the sidelines. Even so, the foursome come up with creating the Bang Gang at Alex’s house — drug-infused sex parties where everything goes and all from school are welcome to let loose. At the fringes of the foursome is another schoolboy, Gabriel, a loner who has a thing for composing synth music.
The somewhat meandering plot takes some interesting turns. Alex and Laetitia ultimately hook up in the middle of one of his sex parties where he tells George to leave (she doesn’t, not immediately, as the sex her mode of escape and validation), but the girl’s friendship fractures and remains so. Party after party happens until the balloon breaks and George, who by now has become ferociously promiscuous, falls ill with syphilis.
I have heard comparisons to Kids but other than the ages of these teenagers I don’t quite see it. Eva Husson’s movie treats the subject matter rather casually, without shock or titillation, but she also doesn’t lambaste your eyes with it to a point that it almost becomes unwatchable. Quite the contrary, there is enough drama between all of the characters to keep the story moving. There is a constant of either a remote parent, as in the case of Alex and Nikita, or parents who are somewhat distant or at odds such as with Laetitia and George. Gabriel’s father is shown in one scene to be disabled.
Of the characters I found Laetitia and George to be a lot more complicated than what their looks entail. Laetitia presents herself as a virgin at the start of the movie and even when we see her having sex with Alex, later on, when she has to reveal her sexual history, she continues to reaffirm she;s a virgin (which backfires badly in more than one way). George, apparently charming and confident is actually quite vulnerable and as her character disappears midway through the movie (while Alex and Laeitia are dating and hosting) only to reappear ready for self-destructive debauchery, she has one quick scene that establishes just how insecure and lonely she is. Right after she catches Alex with yet another girl — this time a blonde (we only see the back of her head) she seems to go into a sad haze. Seconds later the music fills the space of the action and she’s diving forward into the demise of her own reputation.
I do think that the way Husson chose to resolve the story was both good — every character’s storyline gets wrapped up in the end — but at the same time, it happens too cleanly. To me, it seems as a slight afterthought that a pill and an injection, as one character mentions, can take it all away and while today’s advances might make it surely possible it also defuses a little of the consequences of such debauchery. Even so, Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) is a sharp debut that serves as a cautionary reminder that a moment of sexual pleasure can forever, through disease and YouTube, create a tidal wave of consequences that will forever haunt a person.
This year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema has featured some of the most diverse films coming out of France and it’s hit two home runs by bringing to US audiences the Cesar Award winner for Best Picture, Fatima, and Dheepan, the Palm D’Or winner at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, both which I saw back to back at the Walter Reade. Thematically, both are strikingly similar films dealing with the issue of cultural differences and a language barrier that immigrants experience when coming into France. However, those similarities end there: while Fatima grapples with a less than veiled racism and two conflicted daughters. Dheepan contains elements of the mythical warrior pushed to his limits.
Having lost everything to war, Sivadhassan, a Sri Lankan soldier, Yalini, a young woman on the verge of womanhood, and an orphaned young girl, Illayaal, procure false IDs to leave Sri Lanka for a better life. In a striking, near wordless montage, Dheepan (as Sivadhasaan is now known) walks the streets of Paris covered in cheap glow lights trying to sell them to anyone who will buy for pennies. When Immigration reels him (and the other two) in, a sympathetic Sri Lankan translator helps his case out, grants the three of them temp visas, and relocates them to the Parisian projects where they can start anew.
The problem is that these like your typical projects are rife with drug dealing and with that vicious shoot-outs. Dheepan gets work as a caretaker, Yalini lands a job taking care of a largely mute older man (which comes with its own set of complications), and Illayaal attends school for kids with special needs, which in Paris is aimed at children who cannot speak the language but nevertheless need education.
For a while, everything is going well except for a couple minor ruffles: Illayaal getting into a school brawl over being rejected at recess and Yalini confusing the mail is the worst of their problems. Relations are at a rocky, unstable start — Yalini would rather continue to London and leave Dheepan and Illayaal behind. However, a gradual sense of comfort starts to come into the picture and it’s not long when the three of them have formed a new sense of family, and Dheepan has begun to fall a little for Yalini.
Just outside the picture, another drama is about to explode. Brahim, a drug-dealer and leader of a vicious gang often visits the man Yalini is taking care of, and while there is a certain, tentative attraction between the two, that comes to a crashing halt one day when a shoot-out takes place and almost hits Yalini and Illayaal on the way home from school. It proves to be a little too much for her to bear, because didn’t she leave a war-ravaged country already?
This is where the second half of Dheepan smashes this false sense of security: as he was considering an engagement ring to make his life with Yalini legal, she’s panicked and taken off. At about the same time a character from his past, another Sri Lankan soldier, wants his help in the war, but Dheepan has moved on and is on another plane. These two events rip the ground off his feet and define the more violent second half, where Brahim’s own out of control violence will intersect with Dheepan’s self-contained warrior. Director Jacques Audiard ratches up the tension as rival gangs threaten not just themselves but Dheepan himself, and at times the ferocity of how characters clash seems out of context with the slow buildup that has preceeded, but seems fitting due to the story’s location.
Dheepan is carried out almost entirely by newcomer Jesusthasan Anthonythasan who plays a character not too dissimilar from his life as a child soldier in Sri Lanka. From the first scene to the last, he is the one character your attention focuses on, going through the motions of tragedy of a past he can’t go back to, to the insecurity of the future, to the anguish of having to dig back into his past to make sure that future, faint at first but burgeoning, doesn’t die before it has a chance. Equally as good are the newcomes playing Yalini and Illayaal and Vincent Rottiers as Brahim, a bad guy who has a soft spot for Yalini.
Human survival gets tested all the way in this often touching, but never over-dramatic film. I highly recommend it.
She’s a divorced Moroccan immigrant barely making ends meet to support her two daughters in a country who’s language she can hardly speak. Her two daughters seem to harbor a resentment towards their own heritage for different reasons that stem to the fact that they’re in a white-intensive country, with white values, and would like to have what’s called a “normal family.” Such a rift, visible to her Moroccan neighbors, causes a sense of anger: how dare these two young women reject their own?
To that, Fatima (Soria Zeroual) offers no clear answers because there are none. All she can do is toil ahead in menial jobs to pay for her daughters Nesrine’s and Souad’s college and high school, respectively (although she does get some help from her former husband). Most of the conflict lies in the language barrier between Fatima and her own daughters, her employers, and the unspoken racism that permeates the story with every encounter. One early example is when Fatima mentions to the woman who’s house she cleans that Nesrine is studying to be a doctor. The woman, a stately, patrician redhead, has just had an argument with her son who’s throwing his future away. Upon Fatima’s revelation, again, spoken in terrible French, there’s a clear stiffening in the woman’s pose. It’s almost as if this challenged her own sense of privilege, her own status: her cleaning lady also having a daughter who will one day become a doctor.
Another example is when Nesrine goes looking for an apartment to move into: there is a tension between the very white blond landlady and these three dark-skinned women that ends on a negative note. If you’ve read how minorities are treated here in the US when seeking apartments in nicer areas, Fatima lays it out pretty plainly. Later on in the movie Fatima reveals in conversation with Nesrine that her employer has been leaving money out carelessly in places where she will clean. It’s almost as if her employer would want her to steal it to self-fulfill her own prejudice that all foreigners not of Anglo origin are thieves.
To top this off, Fatima has begun to have increasing problems with Souad, her youngest daughter. While Nesrine’s conflicts arise from her own need to succeed and pass her exams (and that she doesn’t feel the need to wear a scarf around her head which angers her neighbors), Souad’s problems are much deeper.There is a sense of something missing from her life. Her grades are dropping, her relation with both her parents is deteriorating, and she seems to be hanging with “the wrong crowd,” she mocks Fatima’s French (which Fatima countermocks Souad’s own poor Arabic). It’s a situation that brings argument after argument with Fatima and one wonders whether there can be a middle ground between the two.
The only action sequence is a tumble down the stairs that renders Fatima with severe shoulder pain and in need of therapy. It’s a shocking development that comes out of nowhere but as a hidden blessings it allows Fatima to writer her innermost thoughts which she shares with her therapist and (offscreen) learn French to communicate better, on her own terms
Fatima is a brief, yet wonderfully warm slice of life that manages to draw a complete portrait of an otherwise invisible woman that a privileged section of society would rather tend to forget due to her African origins. I loved how lived in, how real the entire story felt and how this could appropriate itself to many foreigners who now live in a country that, while giving them limited resources, often tries to stamp out their identity by turning the other cheek. That this unassuming woman slowly comes to her own after a time spent in the shadows makes it a must-see.
As of yet there is no US release date for Fatima although Kino-Lorber has acquired it for distribution.
Having been seen in period dramas (and art-house heavies, female crowd-pleasers) like Far from the Madding Crowd and A Little Chaos last year it’s a return for Matthias Schoenaerts to the more brooding characters such as the ones he essayed in Rust and Bone. In Alice Winocour’s newest movie, a drama turned thriller about a man suffereing from PTSD, Schoenaerts plays his Vincent, an ex-soldier, as a man who’s all reaction and little communication, hyper alert and ready for even the slightest attack, but also in pain from his own inner torment. This is a man who, because of having fought to protect his country, has been rendered so damaged he might as well be untrustworthy. So the fact that he moonlights as a security guy is an odd choice, but not uncommon for men accustomed to protect. The problem then becomes, can they be trusted with the well-being of those in charge when he himself suffers from moments of crippling panic attacks and loss of judgement?
Disorder opens to a series of scenes that showcase the brutality of discipline, followed by finding himself not just abandoned by that life, but now, thanklessly serving as a security guy for a party hosted by a Lebanese magnate in a luxurious mansion where he is all but invisible. After walking into a meeting not meant for his ears, he’s asked by the Lebanese to go in search of the host’s wife Jessica (Diane Kruger). At first meeting, there is a palpable animosity between Jessica and Vincent, but as fate would have it, Denis has to bow out of a weekend assignment to guard her and the household while her husband is out on business. Vincent steps in . . . and starts to see danger at every turn.
Winocour plays her cards somewhat close to her chest during a large portion of the movie. We’re not totally sure that Vincent may be unraveling — he’s too quick to spot danger even in the most innocuous details — but a drive to the beach terminates all that. It’s here that Disorder changes gears and becomes a high-intensity thriller where no one is safe at any moment and threats are lying in wait in the shadows as the mansion becomes a battleground of heart-thumping, escalating violence. Even moments of stillness where Jessica and Vincent start to get to know each other doesn’t offer much respite. It just shows that true to its title, while VIncent may have PTSD, it’s actually Jessica who living a life of bliss and, aware of it or not, reaping the benefits of illegal dealings, at the center of a much different chaos: the chaos of the ugliness tucked under the carpet in order to preserve status.
Disorder will most likely get a release proper in the US later this year. I suggest to go see it: this is a powerful thriller with a thumping, masculine score set to techno music that starts out strong and becomes nearly unbearable towards its explosive finale. Winocour is a director to take notice of. I wouldn’t be surprised the day she crosses over and lets her talent loose this side of the pond.