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]