Category Archives: Rendezvous with French Cinema

Rendezvous with French Cinema: Slalom and Summer of ’85

A teenage ski prodigy navigates sexual abuse in Chàrlene Favier’s zeitgeist drama Slalom, and François Ozon returns to his earlier oevre in Summer of ’85. Also seen at the Philadelphia and Seattle International Film Festival.

Prepare to be repulsed by Slalom. I came into it naked and unprepared for the levels of insidiousness that the character played by Jérémie Renier’s ski instructor character Fred would impose on his protege Lyz (a compelling, but sometimes maddening Noée Abita). From the word go we are drawn into Lyz’s harrowing story in which she, a skier with the potential to win big, becomes the unhealthy target of Fred’s obsessive training style which borders on the transgressive and would label him a criminal in the US (if reported). From the moment he lays his eyes on Lyz, her fate is set. Vulnerable, her isolation from her never-there mother (Muriel Combeau) makes her an easy target to mold to his standards of what he deems perfect. A predator who operates so casually on his instinct, perhaps because he’s been operating freely without any supervision, he treats Lyz like cattle, ordering her to undress in order to get her measurements. Lyz, strangely, acquiesces, perhaps because she hasn’t realized how love-starved she is. That we get to see progressive acts of transgression in which Fred eliminates the natural and logical boundaries between himself and Lyz in order to get her under his total control becomes almost unbearable to watch. This is an ugly movie to watch. It is also doubly important not to shy away from it. Too many men (and shockingly, women) in power have got away with these acts of degradation with the excuse of being a harsh teacher. Favier displays it all on camera, shot in shades of mostly chiaroscuro. We can only look and be outraged. A ferocious debut. [B+]

François Ozon has, for the better part of the past decade, been moving away from his early queer movies which were a bit lighter and experimental in tone and embracing a darker side. I think the moment that his cinema changed was in 2000 when he released Sous le sable (Under the Sand) and began to create narratives ripe with queer sensibilities but without being necessarily gay or lesbian, the exception to that trend being 8 Femmes (8 Women).

Summer of ’85 is based on the YA novel Dance on my Grave by Aidan Chambers. Summer tells the story of 16-year-old Alexis Robin (Felix Lefebvre), who’s on the verge of being arrested for being a suspect in the death of his 18-year-old friend David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin). Much of the movie transpires in extended flashback sequences as Alexis starts to tell his story which proceeds to let us in on how he met David, and what exactly happened between the two.

Much of Summer of ’85 moves rather rapidly, almost as if Ozon himself were trying to gloss over the rough pages and let us in only on the meat of the situation rather than trying to let the situation itself breathe on its own. That in many ways is fine — the chemistry between Lefebvre and Voisin practically leaps off the screen. The problem lies in that while their progressive evolution from simply friends to something more intimate is rife with suspense and erotic tension, once the inevitable happens, the movie veers into a forced situation involving a female British tourist. That in itself takes the story into unexpected terrain, and we are left with a somewhat unsatisfying coming of age with an ending so tacked on it almost looks like it could belong in another movie.

On the plus side, Summer of ’85 is a gorgeous view — from the scenery to its two young male leads who are polar opposites but fit together like a glove to a hand. Voisin resembles a young Nicolas Cage at the start of his career with his deep-set, soulful eyes and swagger. Lefebvre is more internal, and because he has the more difficult part, he has to evolve from an insecure, dependent young man to someone who could effectively be on his own and find the right guy. Ozon brings in frequent collaborators Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Melvin Poupaud in supporting parts — she as David’s clueless mother; he as Alexis’ teacher. [C+]

Slalom is available to stream on virtual cinema. Summer of ’85 will have its US release on June 18, 2021.

Rendezvous with French cinema: My Donkey, My Lover, and I

I’m not really sure why I chose to watch Caroline Vignal’s Anne dans les Cévennes, which received the pretty atrocious title of My Donkey, My Lover, and I for English-speaking audiences. As I mentioned in my writing about Little Girl, Unifrance and FSLC have been delivering some of the most unremarkable French movies I’ve seen in a while. It is truly rare when one of them sticks after making its debut in RWFC. Can anyone remember any movie that really stuck with them after the film festival? I’ve been going for almost 10 years and I can barely count to five without stretching it. François Ozon’s In the House comes to mind. While it delves into the many trappings of French cinema — a casual attitude towards sex and seduction comes to mind — this was a truly spellbinding mystery. Of course, when you see who penned it, you find that it was Juan Mayorga, and Spain is well-known for its twisty tales.

But I digress and realize I have to go back to the movie in question. Anne and les Cevennes is, no shock here, a very French sex comedy. It centers on Antoinette (Laure Calamy, seen earlier this year in the movie Sibyl), a teacher carrying on with Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe). Vladimir is married, and she’s okay with it. Once she finds out that he’s not going to spend the weekend with her but with his wife and family at the Cevennes National Park, she impulsively decides that she’s going to be a part of it, too. Does she think this through? Of course not, or this wouldn’t be a comedy, would it?

She takes off after Vladimir, caution to the wind, and winds up shacking in a bed and breakfast and having to drag a donkey through the park. It is to note that she doesn’t get just a donkey but one that is described as a bitch to handle. Undeterred, she soldiers forward, hoping to catch a glimpse and perhaps steal a kiss from Vladimir. Easier said than done. Vignal uses Calamy’s comic talents to great advantage as she tries to keep up with her tour group (and Vladimir, who is still nowhere to be seen). From here on, Calamy’s Antoinette becomes more and more sympathetic if and only because we realize before she does the futility of what she’s getting into because she’s simply too clueless to realize it. It will take finally confronting not only Vladimir but the entire family for her to realize perhaps this isn’t what she wanted.

I’m actually going to say that while Antoinette has a few moments when she could find love, her sole companion, the mute donkey in question, slowly becomes her main focus. It’s quite funny, and charming, to see her slowly warming up to the animal who also seems to have a mind of its own. Her relationship, dysfunctional as it is, manages to slap Anne awake into finding a new reality for herself rather than pining away for an unattainable man. It’s quite a surprise, to see that all the time I was looking for one aspect in this unassuming sleeper comedy and found another, stronger aspect.

And with that, I have to say, this is a refreshing little comedy with some rather weird undertones — technically, Antoinette is stalking a family, which is bizarre, to say the least. Even so, the movie is screwball in tone and always keeps the viewer engaged in Antoinette’s mindset and emotions without delving too much into the dark. I don’t think there will be an audience for My Donkey, My Lover, and I, but there is always the chance it will get screened on virtual platforms sometime later this year or in early 2022.

Grade: B

Rendezvous with French Cinema 2021: Little Girl (Petite Fille)

The Lincoln Center returns with a virtual-only version of its Rendezvous with French Cinema film festival. Now in its 26th year, the film festival shows no sign of slowing down and manages to continually reinvent itself rather than present the same tired Catherine Deneuve/Isabelle Huppert movies that frankly, are just fillers and manage to say nothing new about the language of film. I’ve nothing against either one — I have always admired Huppert and know her to be the better actress — but Deneuve has mostly coasted off of her golden locks and vacuous stares that were the rage in the 60s at the height of her fame. Now she’s been whittled down to spewing out at least a film or three out for the sake of repetitive acting working. Sometimes they stick. Sometimes, it’s like chomping down on some fluff — it’s super-sugary but has no substance. The closest thing she has come to actually deliver a true performance was in last year’s The Truth, which was the film to open the 25th edition of RWFC, and which received a belated release thanks to the pandemic.

This year, if there is a movie to watch it is Sébastien Lifshitz’s documentary Little Girl (Petite Fille). If I’m not wrong, this is the first documentary to open at the French film festival. Lifshitz’s movie focuses on a special character. His subject, the mononymous Sasha, is seven years old, and while she may have been born a boy, she clearly — and openly — affirms herself as a girl. Scratch that — she is a girl, plain and simple. Her mother Karine, while in therapy early on, expresses support that is so open-hearted, so emotional and complete, that it threatens to overshadow Sasha’s own story. Karine partly blames herself for Sasha, a situation that any parent of a gay or transgender child might experience. Wanting a girl so badly, she wonders if perhaps her own intensity of desire may have caused Sasha to come into the world announcing her femininity to French society, which plays a large part of the doc, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Little Girl establishes that Sasha has nothing to fear at home. She is unequivocally supported by her father and two older siblings who practically stand up for her at any chance. [She has a younger brother but he is too young to truly understand the drama unfolding before his eyes and mostly gets relegated to being a toddler.]

The conflict of the documentary arises — or has been brewing, even before the tape has begun to roll — in the outside world. Karine has had to contend with a school system that is shockingly intolerant towards trans rights and who will not accept her as a girl. Yet, this is all Sasha wants, and her tiny face contorts into a frown that suddenly explodes with tears at a therapy session with renowned child psychologist Anne Bargiacchi. It is all that one needs to see to realize the conflicts that Sasha has been put through just because her identity doesn’t line up with her physical genitalia. Place that side-by-side to an earlier scene when Karine informs her therapist that the sheer happiness Sasha displayed when wearing her first dress was incomparable. As a viewer, as someone who is extremely sensitive to the delicate psyche of a child, I couldn’t but be furious with a system based on archaic beliefs. It seems to almost parallel the ones transgender people face here in the US — particularly in more conservative parts of the country.

Karine eventually starts to win her battle against the school, but scars and wounds remain. Sasha’s dance teacher forbids her to wear girl’s clothes simply because “in her country such a thing is illegal.” Karine fears, and is justified in feeling so, that Sasha will encounter hatred in this world and worries she may not be around to protect her when that time comes. In the middle of it, we get the more silent shots which are worth every second of their presence in the film. Sasha, simply existing, dancing to her own rhythm, running on the beach in a peach bathing suit, combing her hair which gets longer during the movie — the only indication of the passing of time. These are the snippets that matter, because they present a little girl completely at bliss in her own body and self. Little Girl, without a doubt, is one of the most delicate, sensitive documentaries to emerge in a long time and I hope that it gets the exposure it should here in the US once it hits theaters (and virtual platforms). We could all learn from Karine, but especially, from Sasha.

Little Girl will have its premiere as one of the seven movies included in the Seattle International Film Festival, Main Selection, on April 8. It will arrive later at theaters and virtual cinema. Date of release TBA.

Grade: A