Tag Archives: 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.

Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover

If there is a director whose work can’t be called repetitive, that would be Olivier Assayas. He’s been making movies since the mid-Eighties, but only become a cinematic force since the 2000s (purists will also include Irma Vep from 1996, but I haven’t yet seen it, and can’t opine). All of his more well-known films tend to dance a fine line between pop and art, intellect and trash, technology and the bucolic. Dropped in the midst of these narratives (well, many of them) are slices of East Asian glamor which can render an already murky plot even murkier or simply exist for auteur purposes.

Demonlover is, to date, Assayas’ only incursion into New French Intensity and it is a shame because his cinema, always a contrast between the cold and the warm, would be perfectly suited for the genre. You can see it splashed all over the 2002 film, restored to its former glamor and pristine, menacing visuals. He tells a rather Darwinian story of power-hungry execs with no moral compass and a taste for sadism with a coolness bordering on Cronenberg terrain that is fascinating as it is frustrating. There are moments when I knew (or thought I knew) where the plot of Demonlover was headed, and others where I just threw my hands in the air and went “Welp–here goes another one. Just watch the images, dude. Don’t start overthinking.”

So, let’s see. We have an opening sequence of Diana de Monx (frosty Danish actress Connie Nielsen, perfect for her part) coolly performing a company takeover right from under her own boss’ nose in a sequence of legerdemain that has to be seen to be believed. Soon after, once the lady-boss is dispatched and no longer a threat, Diana takes control of her software company, and soon is overseas in the Far East in a bidding war over a 3-D hentai company with another company run by Elaine Si Gibril (Gina Gershon). Floating in the middle is an internal power struggle between a male colleague (Charles Herling) and an assistant (Chloe Sevigny), both of who are not who they seem to be.

Midway through the movie, we realize that it is changing into something else entirely, and this is where Demonlover progresses from a thriller involving cyber-espionage into something even more perverse in which allegiances change at the drop of a hat, or let’s say convenience. Some of it is deserved — we get it — but others are perplexing. However, to disclose what it becomes would be a crime to a movie that is transgressive as it is bold and even repellent at times (and I can’t say that any other Assayas film has affected me this way). Suffice it be to say that power dynamics flip on a switch, and the movie that we were watching is no longer there. A neat hat trick is borne, performed partly to shock, and also to simply fuck up the viewer’s own mind as the viewer looks into an abyss of perversity.

Demonlover is still playing on virtual platforms. If you can, give it a look. Just be warned — the story is murky but ultra-sleek, and completely amoral.

Grade: B+