Sometimes you need someone like director Bertrand Blier to give French romantic comedies a surprise jolt of energy and his 1978 outing, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs!, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture in 1979, doesn’t just do that — it basically spits out its contempt in large, bold letters over a neon-lit billboard. Reader, this is not your typical movie in any way shape or form.
From the word go, where we get introduced to a married couple in a Parisian restaurant. The husband (Gerard Depardieu) is afraid he cannot make his wife happy. She (Carole Laure), meanwhile, sits there, bland and next to comatose, barely even uttering a line, as passive as a houseplant. Husband, determined to make her happy, practically dives into the deep of what seems to be madness and uncontrollable delirium, bringing in outsiders more than happy to help. Sounds nutty? Nope, this is barely the start. Enter the man (Patrick Dewaere, who died too soon) who will become the wife’s paramour with the complete, absurd blessings of Depardieu. Meanwhile, the wife? Still silent, knitting her grey turtleneck sweaters which every cast member will at one point use, a sly wink to their interchangeability. What we don’t expect is that, through Dewaere’s school, she will meet the man who will finally make her happy. And that man, dear readers, is none other than one of Dewaere’s students, a young 13 year old boy played to precocious perfection by Riton Liebman.
It’s quite a surprise to me that nowadays movies have to age their underaged characters to meet approval requirements when in the 70s having a character like Christian (Riton) fall in love with Laure’s character and establish a true connection was more or less okay. Perhaps because Blier’s movie often skirts the edges of farce and pure surrealism, audiences then seemed to accept its premise without question. The movie is not without its flaws; at times it seems Laure is there to be desired, since she has barely any lines and merely remains a passive player in the ludicrous dreamed that is her life amongst the men who navigate her spectrum. However, as a whole, this is one of France’s crazier productions, one that is not devoid of the message of what it is for a person to find a romantic connection in the unusual while everyone around them screams and acts like chicken who have lost their heads.
SYNONYMS (Synonymes). Country: France, Israel, Germany. Director: Nadav Lapid. Screenwriter: Nadav Lapid. Cast: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte, Yehuda Almagor. Language: French, Hebrew, English. Runtime: 122 minutes. A New York Film Festival Main Slate. Release Date: October 25, 2019 at the Quad Cinema in NYC.
Mostly Indies rating: A
It seems that every year there is that one movie that manages to somehow polarize people and emit hisses and boos from the audience. I’ve now seen not one but two of them, the first being Albert Serra’s Liberte (last night at the Walter Reade) and Nadav Lapid’s film Synonyms at the Alice Tully. Mind you, I didn’t think that this film would prompt such a reaction from the audience once credits rolled — I’ve seen other films that have garnered even more intense reactions, like 2016’s Elle and Raw, or earlier this year when I saw Midsommar, which despite gleaning glowing reviews from critics and Yours Truly, did not exactly find itself loved by the crowd I sat with on preview night that giggled and cackled in scenes that well… you know.
Synonyms is a difficult film to digest, It will polarize moviegoers who will either understand its meaning or feel completely repelled by the anti-hero’s sheer stubbornness and negation of self which near the end reaches a level of almost hysterical blindness. I almost don’t even want to give it a “rating” per se because I fear that in doing so I am somehow being unfair to the story itself, which is just as important and poignant as the tragic story of Edmund in Roberto Rosselini’s Germany Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero). How can I judge a director who is attempting to retell is own life experience into a two hour movie? It would be rather lofty of me to say that perhaps this was a misfire, that I liked The Kindergarten Teacher better, that perhaps some closure at the end would have made more sense, and on, and on, amen.
When we begin the film, we see Yoav (Tom Mercier) from behind, through the lens of a camera that follows him urgently as he makes his way across a busy Parisian street and into the empty apartment where he is squatting. Soon later, he is naked, emerging from the sleeping bag he uses, and going into the shower to take a bath. The second he is done and ventures back out he realizes someone somehow snuck into his apartment and stole all of his items, leaving him basically destitute. Yoav frantically runs out of his place, going from door to door, pleading, screaming for help. No one comes out, He almost–almost!–ventures out into the street but instinct kicks in, and he goes back to his place, into the tub, into the cold water, and seemingly, decides to let fate take care of him.
It is here when two neighbors, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louuise Chevillotte) emerge from their places to provide succor. [Why they didn’t open the door earlier remains a mystery, but then, the final shot somehow will repeat the same indifference to the cries of help from neighbors if this might be an inconvenience.] The first thing that Emile notices is that Yoav is circumcized (which is one of the several comedic observations that happen throughout the film). They debate taking Yoav to the hospital but he regains consciousness, and Emile in an act of kindness (laced with a transparent homoeroticism) donates him some of his clothes and also gives him some Euros to survive on.
In a way, Yoav becomes “born again”. He recounts to Emile, with whom he bonds with, his life in Israel, a country Yoav describes using some choice words, not one of them good. Emile, skeptical, refuses to believe a country could be that bad, but Emile is your stereotypical entitled young man with a trust fund living in the city, pursuing his dreams. Yoav, on the other hand, is a damaged soul, one that was once molded by the Israeli military and who left in search ion a better life.
The irony of his appearance in Paris can’t be denied: in a time when there has been a rise in anti-Semitism in France, Yoav has arrived there ostensibly to erase any trace of his former life in Israel, obsessively learning French from a Larousse he carries with him at all times, Strangely, he works for Israeli Embassy, where he makes the acquaintance of some Israeli guys who seem to behave as if they belonged to some fight club. These acquaintances, who only appear during the middle portion of the movie, serve only to paint a clear picture of anti-Semitism; in one scene, while Yoav observes, one of his friends heckles passengers while humming the Israeli national anthem and proclaiming “I’m Jewish.” It’s an uncomfortable sight, for both the passengers and the Israelis who Yoav is acquainted to, because it is a sad reality that the immigrant is always seen as “the other”, “the invader”, and someone to basically, ignore at all costs, perpetuating the cycle of us versus them.
It’s in the final act when Synonyms starts to reveal the impasse between cultures, and cultural alienation. Yoav has begun, it seems, to date Caroline (complete with Emile’s blessing, which again, seems to be happening with some unspoken, ulterior motives). Caroline states at one point, “When I saw you naked in the bathtub I knew we’d end up together,” which makes me believe she does not see Yoav as a person she’d like to be with but a fetishized version of a man. Her motives to approach and resolve why Yoav found himself in the predicament at the start of the film seems to cement the fact that she does not and will not get to know him. Yoav, sadly, is already too damaged and too “macho” a character to fully explore his own self. He almost gives into Emile early on, but think that too would have ended badly.
Adding to the mix is that Yoav has found work on the side as a model, which in this case is synonymous with some shady work for a pervert with an iPad who subjects Yoav to undress, lie down, touch himself, and then reach orgasm but speaking in Hebrew. The scene is painful to watch because not only is Yoav being degraded, he’s also being forced to look into his own heritage and debase himself with it, which in a way, could be seen as the ultimate act of self-loathing and the denial of self. His cries in Hebrew of “What am I doing here?” which the videographer takes as ecstatic are particularly hard to watch, and then, to close it all, Yoav meets the videographer’s girlfriend, who happens to be from Palestine, and who flatly tells him she will not speak to him, point blank, because as we know… Israel and Palestine do not mix.
Synonyms does bring the past full circle with the appearance of Yoav’s father (Yehuda Almagar), who only wants to make sure that his son is well. However, by now, it has become clear that while Hoav is taking classes to become “assimilated” into French society, his own identity has become blurred. Nadav Lapid brings this disassociation to a painful head when Yoav basically loses it when attending Caroline’s concert, and now finds himself painfully locked out of his own apartment, That Lapid ends his movie in this way speaks volumes to the message he wants to convey. More often than not, those who emigrate to other nations and don’t conform to that nation’s expectation usually find themselves shut out, pariahs, trying desperately to fit in while being rejected just the same.
Tom Mercier gives an electric performance as Yoav, a man who is obsessively tries to blend in with a society that does not accept him (or at one point, sees him as a curiosity, when he ventures into a club to play Techotronic’s 1988 hit Pump Up the Jam). His mannerisms and body language suggest someone lost but who is all reflexes, closed off, suffering in silence, The rest of the cast seem to be a bit stale, perhaps a bit predictable version of entitled individuals who for reasons tilting towards curiosity and fetichism help an immigrant out, but don’t or can’t provide any real support. As I said earlier, this is a very difficult film that presents a harsh reality for anyone not fitting the norm and should be watched right up to its exclamation point ending.
LIBERTE, Country: France, Portugal, Spain. Director: Albert Serra. Screenwriter: Albert Serra. Cast: Helmut Berger, Marc Susini, Iliana Zabeth, Theodore Marcade, Baptiste Pinteaux. Languages: French, German, Italian. Runtime: 130 minutes. A New York Film Festival Main Slate and US Premiere. Release Date: TBA.
Mostly Indies Rating: A
Caveat emptor: this film may provoke walkouts. Venture forth with an open mind.
Not since discovering Pasolini ages ago while in college have I come across a film so unabashedly transgressive and willing to push the limits of eroticism to a point when it blurs the line between the imagined and the real, and then the real and the pornographic, and finally, the pornographic that seeks to titillate and the one that verges on the grotesque as Albert Serra’s Liberté. However, for someone like yours truly who at one time was actively involved in the leather scene (minus wigs and makeup), I could say upon viewing his movie, with an arched eyebrow and an expression of worldly cynicism, “Alrighty! That just happened. So much ado for naught. In my world this would be just another regular Saturday night at the dungeon. Not as messy as going outside into the woods and getting dirty, and that is exactly how I prefer it.”
However, in 1774, the time when the events of Liberté takes place, dungeons didn’t exist for consensual purposes and if you were sent to one, it was usually against your will and you pretty much died there, forgotten among the rats and other undesirables of France right before the Revolution of 1789. Just ask Sade, who mastered the art of writing his own brand of transgressive fiction, and who saw the life of day and freedom, oh, never, for most of his life, and until his death in 1814. Forgotten until the 1940s when his work was discovered tucked away, which is probably how he liked it anyway.
So, let’s go to the aforementioned events. You could summarize them in one sentence: One evening, libertines expelled from the court of King Louis the XVI gather in the depths of the forest with a German noble (played by Helmut Berger, the only marquee name of the cast of mostly unknowns) and engage in consensual debauchery.
And that’s it. The entire two and a quarter hours of Liberté is a series of vignettes taking place deep in the countryside (which could offer a sense equal parts privacy and transgression as they could be discovered at any time by a passerby). Some are light, merely verbal exchanges pregnant with a heavy Sadean influence.
In one particular scene somewhat in the middle of the movie two women engage in a discussion, mostly off-screen and in voiceover, about what to do with a weak man. One of them states how she would go by humiliating him over and over because she detests weakness in a man. When the other asks how would she present her affront to God, she replies that she wouldn’t care, and would love to receive “his perversion.” It is a highly erotic exchange, because while you don’t see anything happen and most of the scene is in the dark, your mind is on overdrive, imagining not just the act of humiliation, but that of possible retribution and the woman on the receiving end in ecstatic bliss as she receives her comeuppance. I’m pretty sure Sade would have chuckled at the very idea of not just perverting the divine, but also receiving bliss from it.
Other exchanges, however, are increasingly graphic in content. Here is where you either stay to the end (Albert Serra did ask the audience to stay until the final shot, because there have been walkouts in Cannes and other venues where Liberte has been screened), or decide you just can’t and throw in the towel, never to see Serra’s chosen ending. I wouldn’t go and classify any of these scenes as particularly erotic, but three are a standout; the humiliation of a blonde virgin tied to a tree and doused in buckets of milk. [At least I hope it was milk.] The scene involves only the images of the actress, restrained, her body glistening. The second involves one of the French Duc’s (Marc Susani) getting flogged until he shrieks in pain and ecstasy, and then the same Duc as he gets berated by the Madame de Dumeval (Theodore Marcade).
Now, for the crucial part: is this film recommendable? I would say yes if you dare, once it gets released in cinemas. [It has been acquired for distribution; its release date unknown at the time of this writing.] Nothing happens that is not so awful you can’t see it — and frankly, I have seen war movies and thrillers with more bloody content than anything that transpires here. Much of Serra’s film is strictly auditory as it is, so while two characters (or more) may be involved in a scene of consensual sex, we may hear loud shrieks and moans from a distance and wonder what the hell could be happening. The setting, strictly nocturnal, is perfect for Liberté, and only until the rather weird final scene in which daylight happens (yes, that is all), does light filter onto the trees while the sky remains dark. Liberte is an unclassifiable, but strangely beautiful, abstract exercise in nihilism and freedom posing as a period film indeed.
There is an undercurrent of similarities between Anne, the grieving mother in Piero Messina’s debut feature film L’Attesa (The Wait) and the grieving mother and widow she played a little under a quarter of a century ago in Krzystof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue). Both women start off losing a loved one, but where Julie retreats into her inner world and virtually disappears into the streets of Paris only to find herself through her dead husband’s last musical composition for the Unification of Europe, Anne remains a mystery only unto herself and the loss that pains her. I’m perfectly okay with that–I tend to gravitate to stories where characters move within their own little psychodramas that may or not have a perfect resolution. However, L’Attesa suffers from too much pretension and too little substance and fails to bring any closure on any level, and that to me is a problem.
We know from the start that Anne has lost her son Giuseppe. We don’t know how, but that it seems, doesn’t matter. We next see his girlfriend Jeanne (Lou de Laage, previously seen on this side of the pond in the excellent movie Breathe [Respire], which debuted here at the 2015 Rendezvous with French Cinema) arriving for a visit. It seems Giuseppe had invited Jeanne to visit him at his mother’s house before the events that start the movie. When she arrives, she’s greeted with a silence that is frankly, unsettling — almost Gothic. It doesn’t help that the house is darker than the mansion in The Others save for some dim blue lights coming from the stained glass windows. It also doesn’t help that the hostess (Anne) is so out of sorts it’s a wonder she can even speak. That no one in the house informs Jeanne what has transpired is an oddity in itself, and makes me wonder, am I in the middle of a thriller? Is something else amiss that I’m going to eventually find out? Is Giuseppe a male version of Rochester’s wife, in Jane Eyre, locked in a dungeon or an attic and perhaps Anne is deranged? And if she is, what mess has Jeanne gotten herself into?
No. L’Attesa plays its cards firmly against its chest and reveals rien. We are left with two women continuously circling each other, attempting to make conversation, observing, yet never totally giving in. Why Anne makes the choice she makes is beyond any comprehension unless there’s that “verbalizing would eventually make something unthinkable real”, but even then — it just strains credibility and turns a story that had enormous potential into images in chiaroscuro that really don’t amount to much. L’Attesa only saves itself from being a terrible mess by the performances of Juliette Binoche and Lou de Laage who foil each other perfectly. Other than that, it’s an okay debut for Piero Messina (who has worked as assistant director for Paolo Sorrentino and it shows), but not much else.
In about 50 years, we’ll regard the events that shaped Hollywood during the Second Red Scare (also known as The McCarthy Years) and threw a bulk of its industry down the blacklist drain with pentimento. How many actors, screenwriters, directors, producers, et cetera, lost their careers, we’ll most likely never know. That others who stood accused but narrowly escaped ignominy were able to continue was nothing short of a miracle; others still would have to travel abroad or wait until the Seventies to re-establish their careers.
And then you have a group of screenwriters who resorted to the unthinkable: having to write screenplays under pseudonyms and get paid in cash in order to survive. One of them, Dalton Trumbo, already an established, Oscar-nominated screenwriter and novelist with a career dating back to the mid-thirties, was blacklisted and denied employment in 1947 after appearing before the HUAC and refusing to name names. He spent a year in Ashland jail. Once out, everyone was anyone in Hollywood shunned Trumbo. He couldn’t find employment anywhere. He was forced at one point to write a screenplay but receive no payment for it. Basically, Dalton Trumbo was ruined goods.
As a movie, Trumbo doesn’t go the typical biopic (and follows a recent trend of biopics that instead of telling a color-by-numbers chronology of events decide to focus more on the essence of a man, what his main conflict was, and the eventual outcome of it — see Steve Jobs, Born to be Blue, and Miles Ahead for other examples). Instead it focuses on his progressive struggle with the HUAC, his decision to survive in a world post-imprisonment by literally erasing his own credit from his screenplays, and his slow rise to retribution by the hands of Kirk Douglas who demanded that his name appear on the credits of the Stanley Kubrick movie Spartacus, a film that would glean Trumbo of a second Academy Award win for Best Screenplay. [His first was for Roman Holiday, a movie he wrote under a ghost name.]
One of the elements that I admired the most of the picture aside from the flawless acting from Oscar-nominated Bryan Cranston who captures the flippant and indomitable spirit of a man is the archetype of the victimized hero that refuses to let his injuries define him. His decision to go into ghost writing is crucial to his character: he writes movies because he loves them, even when they’re essentially garbage. Writing, as opposed to performing, is self-effacing. A writer can be anyone and Trumbo knew that — and used it to his advantage. The fictional Arlen Hird (Louis C. K.), on the other hand, seems to represent the opposite — the writer who believes in greatness and ideologies and can’t remove that from his own self. To be reduced to working in King Films — basically a schlock studio churning grade-Z movies — was an insult. It’s probably why eventually, Hird seems to give up and give into his disease, while Trumbo barrels ahead, even when it almost destroys his family.
Trumbo is a powerful slice of visual history that presents a slice of history where our own need to protect our freedom, ironically, curtailed it, until one man stood up and refused to be silenced.
A movie that passes a different sort of judgement is Stephen Frears’ The Program. Named for the doping program that Lance Armstrong put himself under in order to produce the stream of victories that virtually made him an unstoppable force, this is a muscular chronicle that presents Lance Armstrong as a man who starts out a competitor in a world of competitors and sees him, after a bout with testicular cancer at age 25, evolve into a superhuman monster without a conscience. Moving at a rapid-fire pace, Frears creates a frenetic, nearly ripped from the headlines retelling of Armstrong’s life, barely stopping to rest as it rushes at breakneck speed to the scandal that rocked the cycling world. Ben Foster channels Lance Armstrong to a chilling degree and is one of the principal reasons to see this movie. His Armstrong is a sociopath, a congenial monster who becomes enamored with the power of victories and his own lies. One chilling scene may reveal just how much he was driven by the need to win — as he practices the lie he will be telling the inquiring public, posing, repeating it over and over, revealing a hint of dramatic tension. It’s as shocking as, for example, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, asking us, the viewer, “You talkin’ to me? Are you talkin’ to me? ‘Cause I’m the only one here.”
I saw The Measure of a Man (La loi du marche) last year at the New York Film Festival on the heels that it was being presented as something that the Dardennes Brothers may have done. Having seen Two Days, One Night, and The Child already I jumped on the chance. The story of a man who becomes unemployed (and has to endure humiliating video interviews with younger employers who see him as either unemployable or overqualified), the slice-of-life story is almost documentary in its approach. Seeing Vincent Lindon as our Everyman going through the motions of hanging out with his wife, trying to sell their mobile summer home, and landing a job in a supermarket where he oversees attempts at theft is a treat in itself as the man acts ever so subtly, barely releasing any emotion. It’s when he realizes that his job is putting others at risk to getting fired in order to save the company money that one realizes the hypocrisy that his character is up against. It’s a cruel society, it seems, in France, and there is nothing one can do about it.