THE SOWER, France. Director: Marie Francen. Cast: Pauline Burlet, Geraldine Pailhas, Alban Lenoir, Francoise Lebrun. Screenwriters: Jacqueline Surchat, Jacques Fieschi. Based on the book by Violette Ailhaud.Language: French. Runtime 98 minutes. US Release date: March 1, 2019. Venue: Gene Siskel Theater, Cbicago, IL. Rating B.
You probably have never heard of Marine Francen, and barely remember French actress Francoise Lebrun, who made her mark in the 1973 film The Mother and the Whore (a movie that gets an ample discussion scene in Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale) and who has a small part in The Sower. This is because Francen’s movie, which premiered at San Sebastian in 2017 and won the New Director’s award, features no marquee names, and is as obscure as the source material from which it emerges from. Based on the book by Violette Ailhaud, which did not see the light of day until almost 100 yeats after her death in 1925, this amazingly real story of women left to their own devices is based on real events.
It turns out, and I am recounting from historical events, in 1851, President Louis Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France following a coup-d’etat to ensure he could remain in power. In doing so, he decimated the male population, sending Republican sympathizers either to their deaths or to exile, leaving the countryside a place devoid of men. One could see where following so much unrest, women would despair and feel as though the walls had closed in and they now had next to no protection, no guidance, and in essence, nothing to live for.
Into this world we get introduced to 16 year old Violette Ailhaud (Pauline Burlet), a wide-eyed innocent girl who takes refuge with other townswomen in a village. One afternoon, as they sit about and ponder their fates, Violette posits the question: what to do if a man comes into their world? It seems almost child’s play, what they come up with in a pastoral equivalent of the conjuring of the Witches of Eastwick, but all of the women decide — and make a pact — that they will all share this man, equally, no hierarchy, he will belong to all of them.
If this were a story of fiction I would have then labeled what happens next as shamelessly contrived for dramatic effect. Into their world walks in a man — Jean (Alban Lenoir, looking rugged and mysterious while displaying a wiry sexuality about him). No reason as to why, he just appears, and gets welcomed into the makeshift village where the women live in wait. Jean takes to Violette almost naturally, and while the women allow them to play boyfriend snd girlfriend, it’s clear that their relationship has an expiration date. Jean, unbeknownst to him, will have to be told that he is to be a man and husband for the rest of the women.
Again, that this story even occurred seems a slight bit of fantasy in itself, but in Ailhaud’s book, these events did transpire. Francen and her team of screenwriters don’t delve too much into a scenario that veers out of the aspects of the story and into proto-feminist warfare. In essence, the narration is kept lean, pastoral, sensual, but focused on the cards at hand. The Sower is not a loud debut picture, but a quiet little attempt at painting a picture of a society governed by uncertainty and fear, and in that, and in its ensemble cast, it succeeds.
France Director: Robin Campillo Runtime: 143 minutes Language: French
Mostlyindies.com grading: A+
[Seen October 9th at the New York Film Festival, where it received the second of two standing ovations, and that is rare.]
They say that the closer the drama is to one’s real life experience the stronger the story that comes out of it. Nothing could be closer to the truth than the viewing of Robin Campillo’s aggressive yet tender drama BPM (120 Beats Per Minute) that makes its bow at the Angelika and the Lincoln Center October 20th and is France’s strongest submission to the Oscars in decades. Campillo, in discussing his film during the Q & A, spoke about being an Act-Up activist in the Paris Chapter during the 80s and 90s and literally seeing his then lover die of AIDs while no cure was visible in sight; his and the actions of this force of nature that was gay activism eventually led to the release of the medicine that would curb the corrosive effect of the AIDs virus and at least allow those who were positive to live (and love) if at all for a little while more than if they had not been given anything at all.
From the moment it starts, BPM is two hours of a literal battle not for equality, but for the very right to simply exist. Much like its title implicates there are no pauses for contemplation for contemplation’s sake; Campillo’s film is, without machine guns, a war movie that involves a rather broad spectrum of people at the bottom of society: gays, lesbians, and those infected with the blood of HIV-positive people. Anyone who either witnessed or survived the 80s and 90s can and will tell you that to even be gay during that period was tantamount to already have the ‘cancer’, and thus, be not just an undesirable, but also be unworthy to life itself. In short, it was a period where gay men and women would have to slip back into the dark, remain silent, and let AIDs do its infernal work.
So what was one to do then? Once it was made clear that those in the bottom could never aspire to have their voices heard, the only thing that anyone then had left was becoming the cry in the dark. BPM illustrates this effect in a chilling sequence where the members of Act-Up Paris infiltrate a pharmaceutical corporation and start throwing bags of fake blood everywhere and unto their executives. The intent is to shock, of course, and it makes its mark, but it’s also to sling back the blood corporate France had on their hands. It’s hard not to see a clear correlation between these events and the many that transpired here in the US when Act-Up protested, how one can view this and not be reminded of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and David France’s searing documentary How to Survive a Plague. [Side note: David France’s newest documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson is currently in cinemas and on Netflix.]
Robin Campillo moves between the documentary — Act-Up meetings and protests — and the personal, inserting smaller yet more poignant stories that stand out from the mass of activists that occupy the large tapestry of participants. First in line we get Nathan (Arnaud Valois, standing in for Campillo), a twenty-something young man who’s joined Act-Up and is seen as a bit of an outsider since he’s negative (most aren’t). There he meets the very vocal Sean Dalmazo (Argentinean actor Nathan Perez Viscayart in a compelling, riveting performance) who’s passion for life is as big as his need for action from those at the top to deliver the drugs he needs to live a bit longer. There is the hemophiliac kid who’s mother unwittingly gave infected blood to for months, effectively infecting him. Also shown are Sophie (Adele Haenel, a tremedous presence, but underused — also the only marquee name in the movie) and Thibaut (Antoine Reinartz), an activist with whom Sean clashes often.
The brilliance of this ferocious movie is that it never pauses for maudlin and I loved that. Too often, AIDs-related movies treated its characters’ deaths like over-long operas to be played out in slow motion as if somewhat fascinated at the fact that yes, gay men did die dramatic deaths, disfigured, weighing less than their clothes, listening to some campy classical music. [And as a side note, I noted the conspicuous absence of sex in AIDs movies made in our own soil raises the question, do we still, even now in 2017, still have issues with gay sex represented on film?] This movie uses house — the music of the time — to express its defiance at the face of death. Even the central romance that becomes born under the threat of death — that of Sean and Nathan — is played with a vibrancy I have not seen in any American film about the same topic. It’s probably what will make this stand out from its American counterparts, that it knows death (for many) is looming, but embraces life, the ultimate spectacular now, as its own affirmation. And the sex? Confessional, revealing, and ultimately, a means to mourn those who have passed on, who were loved.
BPM opens at the Angelika and the Film Society of Lincoln Center October 20.
LET THE SUNSHINE IN France Director: Claire Denis Runtime: 92 minutes Language: French
Mostlyindies.com grading: C+
If there is something one can state about acclaimed French film director Claire Denis is that she definitely is unpredictable. Most directors tend to have a connected style in their storytelling, and that, one can say, defines the director’s body of work. With Denis, you can’t really say her pictures have a theme, a sense that one story somehow flows right into the other even when some of her greatest films (BeauTravail, 35 Shots of Rum, and White Material) have taken place in Africa. Her 2013 film Bastards (Les salauds) was a compelling black hole masquerading as film-noir; the movie reeked of pure, conscious evil that lay within its characters. It was almost a horror movie by way of the human exploitation (and particularly the subjugation of women to their masculine counterparts).
Her latest entry couldn’t be more divorced from the underbelly of society and is even more removed by anything she has done before. The poorly titled Letthe Sunshine In (technically, the title should read Bright Sunshine Inside) is a light as a feather character study of Isabelle (luminously played by Juliette Binoche), an artist going from one relationship to the next, each one ending in what seems to be an ellipsis. When we first see her, she’s in the middle of having sex with a married banker, That doesn’t end well, predictably so. She moves right into the arms of an actor, and then into yet an unnamed man who sweeps her off of her feet in a club to the sounds of Etta James’ “At Last“. [I sensed some perverse irony in the selection of this title, and Denis of course, delivered.]
My one problem with the movie stems from the fact that other than a leisurely paced portrait of a woman who’s basically clueless about herself and what she wants, Let the Sunshine In never quite manages to intrigue you about Isabelle’s misadventures in a way that Woody Allen’s female-centric studies do. It takes the very late entrance of a certain French actor posing as one thing, but being something completely different, to neatly explain Isabelle to us, even when she herself remains totally and tonally blind. Perhaps this is what Denis’ movie is meant to be: a snapshot of a ridiculous woman, on a love treadmill, going nowhere. Maybe I need to see this odd little film again when it reaches US cinemas (a thing that seems meant for next year). Directors love to play games on their audiences and remain one step ahead. For now, my impression is that of a movie that didn’t quite deliver despite having a brilliant star on scene for 90 minutes, living, breathing, and failing to love.
Director: Serge Bozon
Runtime: 91 minutes
Mostlyindies’ grading: A–
I doubt that Isabelle Huppert will ever repeat the same kind of powerhouse performance like the one she turned in a year ago in Paul Verhoeven’s rape-comedy-mystery Elle (a movie that was one of my top five of last year). That picture gave Huppert a role actresses unafraid to push the boundaries of their own selves would die for: a woman who, despite having gone through a horrific assault, still managed to come out on top and assert her dominance in the most unusual way possible. She returns to the 55th New York Film Festival with a completely different performance altogether.
In Serge Bozon’s newest film, a novel approach to the Robert Louis Stevenson horror novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Huppert plays Mme. Gequil, a woman that is basically living in abject fear (of what, we don’t know). Her home life is a quiet shambles as her husband (Jose Garcia) treats her with a certain condescension while he focuses on his composing. Her school life fares no better as students openly dismiss and mock her while she teaches and a colleague (Romain Duris), decked in outfits that resemble rejects from Miami Vice) basically finds any way to diminish her. One night, while working in her lab to prepare materials for her next class she gets struck by an enormous power surge caused by a lightning storm. Soon after, she’s showing signs of not being all there . . . displaying a ravenous appetite (until then she would secretly deliver half her food to neighboring dogs), a sudden desire for sex with her husband . . . and walks at night, where, glowing, she sets things on fire.
She also takes an approach to a disabled student, Malik, and by nurture alone she cracks the shell that Malik up until then had kept intact, turning him into her most prized student. Problems arise when the other part of her, the one that acts out at night, starts to manifest its own presence. It’s only time before things will get slightly out of hand. Will Mme. Gequil be able to control the Mme. Hyde she is slowly morphing into?
Huppert, as usual, delivers strong acting in a part that requires her to be basically two different personalities. For the most part Madame Hyde is fairly comedic — a class project based on the Faraday Cage serves as a perfect tool to enact a certain revenge filled with a restrained “fuck you” approach. It’s in the final act when Mme Gequi’s alter ego takes over, that Huppert sinks into what she does best, which is finding the pathos and tragedy within.
Director: Dominic Abel and Fiona Gordon
Runtime: 82 minutes
Language: French, English
If it were any more lightweight Lost in Paris would probably just float away like the balloons in Up. The husband and wife team of Dominic Abel and Fiona Gordon have created this completely unexpected surprise, a wispy little trip to escapism. This is the type of filmmaking that no one makes anymore because it’s been considered either out of fashion or just a bit too outre for the type of audiences who go see comedies, even French ones. It feels completely fresh and yet outside of its own time, an oddity that somehow works solely due to the rubbery physiques of Gordon and Abel who push their bodies to the very limit with stunts in the same vein as Harold Lloyd, circa Safety Last!, The Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and even very early Looney Tunes.
Bespectacled Fiona works in the Canadian mountains as a librarian and longs to see Paris. Fortunately, a letter sent to her by her elderly aunt Marthe (Emmanuelle Riva) sends Fiona off to Paris for a visit. Seems simple, right? Not really. Getting there becomes the longest path from point A to B as Fiona, on arriving to Paris, suffers pratfall after pratfall, finds her aunt missing, and having nowhere to go, sets off to find Marthe with a love-struck vagabond trailing (Dominic Abel) trailing after her. Ethereal as it is, Lost in Paris gets grounded by Gordon and Abel who make a great sparring, comedic couple. Watching Riva clearly have a ball and even hoofing it a bit in a park scene with veteran actor Pierre Richard is a delight,and made me think — considering Riva has two more films as-yet unreleased — this may be the final time I would see her on film, in this gentle, sweet comedy.
MY COUSIN RACHEL
Director: Roger MIchell
Runtime: 105 minutes
(1 / 5)
Does anyone remember those haunting opening lines of Rebecca? Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It’s enough to send shivers down your back whether you’ve read the Daphne DuMaurier novel, allegedly plagiarized from Carolina Nabucco’s 1934 novel A Sucessora, or seen the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece in Gothic suspense. It also shows that perhaps this dreamy ambiguity was good for only one novel and nothing else; as a writer, DuMaurier may have had her inspirations, but she was not exactly what I would call a good writer.
Perhaps then this is the reason that Roger MIchell’s version manages to colossally misfire and land in a puddle of mud before it even has time to tell its tale. Picture this, a story in which another ambiguous line starts the wheels of the plot in motion– “Did she? Didn’t she?” — reeks of phoning in a sense of dread, the kind that by its presence and atmosphere alone should grab a hold of your stomach and apply some unsavory pressure little by little until you can’t even breathe. The person who utters that question is our hero Philip (Sam Claflin, previously seen in Their Finest), who plays the male version of Rebecca‘s X — basically a non person who tells of a childhood living wile and free with his cousin Ambrose, who then went off to Italy, and while there met and fell in love with the titular Rachel only to suddenly fall ill and die soon after the two of them were married.
So much build up is placed on these events that we feel that after Ambrose kicks the bucket, Philip will turn into some kind of raving Byronic hero of the kind fo leave even Heathcliff in the dust. He does vow revenge on Rachel, whom he suspects of murdering Ambrose, but once she arrives at Plymouth all that falls by the wayside and Philip is practically giving Rachel the benefits of the doubt and the keys to his entire estate faster than you can see 45 tweet covfefe. Once I saw this happen with frightening speed my eyebrow arched, and I went “What just happened? Can we refresh this scene, please, and play it slowly? No? Okay. ” That, my friends, just doesn’t quite gel in a story that should be less about what is said, shown, or spoken, and more about insinuations, side glances, and especially emotions just waiting to be released, at least, for a little. It doesn’t help that Rachel Weisz is completely wrong for this film — an actress who could be more enigmatic could have been a better choice — and Sam Claflin, like I said earlier, is written rather blandly. It’s hard to care for any of this movie’s people when they themselves don’t give their own moments on screen any life. My Cousin Rachel isn’t deadly; shes just plain dullsville. Perhaps I’ll wait for Lady Macbeth — that looks like it’s got teeth.
My Cousin Rachel is still playing in theaters and arrives on DVD at the end of August.
France / Switzerland
Director: Frederic Mermoud
Runtime: 85 minutes
(4 / 5)
Emmanuelle Devos is a French actress that I’ve been seeing on film for the past 15 years now, and while she’s a good performer for the most part, that little girl voice of hers and that look of perpetually helpless wait begging to be rescued somewhat puts me off. It’s the sole reason I didn’t go to see Moka at the Film Forum when it premiered and waited a couple of days until it was extended for a third and final week there. I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to sit in a theater listening to a woman just over 50 talking like a sex-kitten filled with angst and vulnerabilities plod her way through an intellectual thriller that someone like Isabelle Huppert could handle in her sleep without the slightest effort.
Well, dear reader, I have to say I was blown away with Devos in this little Swiss-French thriller that also paired her with acting giant Nathalie Baye. [As an interesting little note, Baye’s previous role was another barely seen French thriller in which she played the Devos role.] Moka starts with the image of Devos (who plays a woman named Diane) silently banging her head against a window. We don’t know where she is, until the camera pans away and we realize she’s in some sort of mental facility. And then the cards that plant the seeds of the plot get revealed: Diane has lost her son Luc in a freak accident where he was fatally involved in a hit-and-run. Since then, time and basically everything has stopped for Diane. Because the perpetrators were never brought to justice, Diane has hired a private investigator to find out about the vehicle that killed her son. She learns that it was a mocha-colored car registered to a woman who lives in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The woman happens to be Marlene (Baye). Marlene is the owner of a beauty salon, and from the moment both women meet there is a sense of uneasiness in the air. But Diane has other plans, and so does the story: while she is befriending (and getting to know Marlene), she’s also flirting with Marlene’s boyfriend Michel who is selling the mocha vehicle, and at the same time, she also establishes a tentative friendship with Marlene’s daughter from a previous relationship. To add to the whole situation, Diane has met a guy who does deals on the darkside and produces a gun for her, and as a final nail, Diane’s husband eventually appears on stage wondering what has happened to her. Sounds complicated? It’s because it is, and director Mermoud wastes no time in getting into the meat of the action while allowing it to breathe and develop on its own. We wonder where is all this going and how long can Diane keep her charade alive without recurring to cheap solutions. Devos plays Diane as a relentless avenger, but with enough frailty and vulnerability that we wonder if she will carry out her affairs in Lausanne until the end. Baye, her hair bleached a cheap, older woman peroxide blonde, is prickly, suspicious from the get-go, but all reception. She’s a beautician, so she hears stories from her clients, and Diane’s doesn’t ring totally true. Even so, she lets her slowly in and we wonder if there isn’t some agenda . . . or is she being set up for something terrible.
It’s not often that movies feature strong women in leading roles playing complicated characters that dance around each other like samurais waiting to strike. Moka is a complex psycho drama that touches on the topics of grief and loss and the need to mete out personal justice without turning it into exploitation and offers enough twists and turns and even an emotional finale to out-guess aficionados of the thriller genre and leave them satisfied.
CEZANNE ET MOI (CEZANNE AND I)
Director: Daniele Thompson
Runtime: 116 minutes
(3.5 / 5)
It was only appropriate that the French do their own adaptation of the life of Emile Zola and instead of making Paul Cezanne, Zola’s life-long friend and brother from another mother, a supporting player, elevate him as well into the stature he rightfully deserves. Cezanne and I is a by the numbers biopic that focuses on the intense, often turbulent relationship between the two men.
Zola, borne in poverty, gets befriended by a young (and wealthy) Cezanne in the 1850s and the two become practically inseparable, soon hobnobbing with Impressionists in cafes, many who were doing much better than Cezanne, who continually would get rebuffed. Zola has no artistic aspirations — he can practically paint with words in a decidedly modern prose. As Cezanne languishes as a struggling artist barely able to make ends meet, Zola rises to become the great French writer that he is today acknowledged as.
One book, however, brought that solid friendship to a screeching halt,and it’s not hard to see why. When Zola published The Masterpiece, it depicted Cezanne in an unflattering light as a failed artist who eventually commits suicide. Cezanne took this none too lightly and severed all ties with Zola, later retreating into his own world where he produced some of the greatest masterpieces of early Modern Art.
As a movie, Cezanne and I is appropriately impressionistic and surface-level but somewhat austere at the same time. Because it has to cover so many periods in under two hours, we only get slivers of scenes, and while some do involve other artists and intellectuals of their time — Pissarro, Renoir, Guy de Maupassant, and Manet have small parts — and while both men fall for the same woman, Alexandrine (whom Zola would eventually marry), this is basically a two-character movie with both Guillaume Canet and Guillaume Galienne de la Comedie Francaise dominating every screen their in as Zola and Cezanne, respectively. This is a gorgeous production with an exacting attention to detail, mood, and lighting, and often itself looks like a lovely painting in motion. It’s will be a visual treat for art-buffs and Francophiles in general; others might not be as enthusiastic to go see.
Cezanne and I is currently playing at both the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
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.
One of the more delicate surprises I’ve seen in animated films — and particularly animated films from France — is Ma Vie de Courgette, a little gem of an animated feature that says more about human acceptance than other big studio animated features. Icare is a little French boy living with his alcoholic mother in squalor. As he plays with the cans of beer she leaves behind, they wind up making a mess. When she comes after him in a fury, something pretty horrific happens, and it lands Icare, dejected and withdrawn, in an orphanage by a kindly policeman named Raymond who often visits.
Once at the orphanage Courgette meets the ginger-haired alpha-boy who leads a pack of seven orphans, Simon. Simon taunts him mercilessly and calls him “potato”. [Although, to be fair, little Courgette does resemble a large potato-head with eyes filled with wonder,] Courgette also meets the other six. As it turns out, all of them — Courgette included are victims of horrific family abuse or unjust circumstances. As it turns out, Simon is actually rather insecure and on the constant defensive; it is this position that allows him to distance himself from any real contact and assert his own persona. The arrival of another girl signifies a subtle change in the story’s dynamics, but one that cements the nascent friendships between the kids in the orphanage.
This is a very short movie rooted in minimalism, and that in a way may be somewhat of a detriment because once one finds out where the children come from, the story seems to drop the topic entirely and veer into a totally different direction, which comes across as either incomplete or schizophrenic, two stories mashed into one. On the other hand, this may never have been its intent; viewing it another way, I felt as though the true basis of this little movie was to focus more on the way these kids began to open to each other and to Courgette as well. Perhaps it’s become all-too common to see the darker side of children’s traumas in stories — somehow the Stephen King novel It comes to mind, with its seven children, each from a broken home, having to face their symbolic demons. I was just floored to see how a film with little murmurs and earthquakes of emotion had grown on me, affecting me at a level that I’d rarely experienced before, and how once the inevitable ending came, I was awash in tears of sadness and joy. I would say then that on that basis, this lovely picture, thematically, resonates, and I doubt there will be anyone who isn’t moved by how deep its roots go and how wonderful its gifts are.
Ma Vie de Courgette is playing at the Landmark Sunshine on 2nd Avenue in NYC.
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]