Seven by France: Olla, Milla, Deux Moi, On a Magical Night, Fort Buchanan, Playtime, and Gabrielle

Jacques Tati’s 1967 movie Playtime

I’ve tried to keep the pandemic off my site. While the brunt of it is over at least for a while (while spikes are blooming elsewhere like malignant flowers), this is really not the place to discuss it unless the topic is movies that have dealt with pandemics, and yes, I did finally see http://teacherswithoutborders.org/teach/best-case-studyv/21/ scarlet letter essay topics enter site pay for ancient civilizations presentation go to link http://www.safeembrace.org/mdrx/ramipril-et-cialis/68/ domyhomeworkforme com essay on my best friend class 1 schlange viagra geben sample case study interview questions answers essay paragraph types essay road safety 500 words https://heystamford.com/writing/best-dissertation-writing-service/8/ tomar viagra sin necesitar https://recyclesmartma.org/physician/cialis-marrowbone/91/ can you smoke while taking viagra go site see url levitra los lobos source https://www.myrml.org/outreach/online-policy-writer/42/ source site jack london essay levitra moffett essay islamic banking http://teacherswithoutborders.org/teach/good-argumentative-essayv/21/ argumentive essay ideas source url cheap masters masters essay example why college athletes should be paid essay generic valtrex availability essay online business admin Contagion over the past month and boy, does it resonate ten years later. [A review of that will follow this posting.] Now, on a more positive note, and thanks to the pandemic, virtual cinema has basically taken over the space left by physical movie theaters and wouldn’t you know which arena has had a massive surge in rentals and home viewing but independent/arthouse cinema. Thanks to movie distributors banding together with movie theaters to release movies that were either supposed to get their proper release back in March or are showing up for the first time now, it’s been a cornucopia of binging through selections far and wide. In this post, I’m going to review five French movies that if you have MUBI, or Prime, or Distrib Films (among others I fail to recall right now), you can enjoy from the comfort of your home, or maybe do a group view with a discussion later.

On a Magical Night (Chambre 212)

Pay no attention to the way this clever little comedy is being promoted (as reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life) because it does the movie no justice. From the hands of Christoph Honoré, the director who also brought Sorry, Angel in 2018 (a New York Film Festival main slate), comes his follow up, On a Magical Night (original title in French Chambre 212). Chiara Mastroianni, who won the Un Certain Regard award for Best Actress at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, stars as Marie Mortemart, an unhappily married woman who, upon entering into what seems yet another argument with her husband Richard (Benjamin Biolay), decides she’s done with marriage and marches out to the hotel across the street. Once there, the younger Richard (Vincent Lacoste) makes his appearance, much to her mixed annoyance, and a night full of witty repartee and magical appearances including Richard’s teacher Irene (Camille Cottin) with whom he had had an affair with whilst in high school, who asserts she can reclaim the older Richard. As the night grows more unbelievably by the minute, with Marie reigniting her love for the younger Richard while Charles Aznavour and others drop in as her conscience, Irene and the older Richard get reacquainted and the love child they never had comes alive. Comparisons with “A Christmas Carol” and several of Woody Allen’s own movies from his late 70s / 80s period (Annie Hall, Alice, Another Woman come to mind immediately) will be all over the more cinematically acute. However, On a Magical Night is its own late-night sex-capade complete with a roster of former boyfriends and a cool, sophisticated scene in which Irene herself also resolves her unrequited emotions courtesy of a cameo by the cool Carole Bouquet. Watch it as pure escapism, although once the dream is over, you’ll wonder what the fuss was all about and forget it soon later.

Olla

Here we have a 30 minute short that would have fallen through the cracks since shorts rarely get shown on this side of the pond unless there is a film festival involved. Ariane Labed is a name you may recognize from her participation with Yorgos Lanthimos in Attenberg, Alps, and The Lobster. Labed takes her turn behind the camera to explore alienation and feminism with her short Olla, starring Ukrainian actress Romanna Lobach as the title character. When the story starts we see a domestic situation. Olla, a mail-order Russian bride, meets her husband Pierre (George Tachnakian), a plain-looking Frenchman who also has a senile mother who needs constant care. At first, Pierre seems rather meek and not one to assert his power, so he allows Olla to perform house chores and take care of his mother while he is out. Olla and Pierre’s mother wordlessly bond over her care and go-go dancing (which pretty much tell you where the character comes from), and when Olla gives Pierre’s mother a make-over, Pierre suddenly strikes Olla, and then in an awkward moment manages to consummate their union. The scene is rather uncomfortable and is a tipping point that leaves Olla with only one of two options: to stay and submit to future abuse or leave. Olla, as perfumed by Lobach, isn’t in France to be or play a victim of circumstance. Early scenes in which a recurring group of men cat-call at her — making Olla react with defiant disdain — a point at her tough as nails character. A later scene, when she decides to hell with it, she may as well use her looks to attract some desired attention and sexual release through dominance. Labed’s short speaks to the many women who have found themselves lost in a culture that is not theirs and who must use all that they have — or that they own — to survive. Olla, her lead, is such a woman, and her “fuck-you” attitude, represented with her sexy outfits and fire-engine red hair, point to someone who will not succumb easily towards toxic masculinity. This is quite a surprise that is available through MUBI.

Someone, Somewhere (Deux moi)

Almost 25 years ago I was introduced to Krysztoff Kieszlowski’s Three Colors trilogy. While not all of them are perfect — and like many trilogies, it is always the second one that seems to arrive with a sense of incompleteness — the triptych as a whole is masterful in presenting permutations in human behavior and circumstances. In Blue, Julie (Juliette Binoche) sits placidly in a park bench while an older lady attempts to throw a bottle into a large garbage bin. Julie never helps the lady, but this is less out of spite or anger as a sense that she is free from attachments, if at all for this one moment. In White, Karol (Zbigniew) Zamachowski) leers on a similar older person, while in Red, Valentine (Irene Jacob), appropriately named, reaches out and for a moment, connects with that older person.

It is Three Colors: Red that kept lingering on as I saw Cedric Klapisch’s Someone, Somewhere (Deux Moi), a film about two people who haven’t yet met and who live within close proximities. While nothing visual points at Kieszlowski’s palette — as a matter of fact, the entire movie seems a bit gray and muted, perhaps signaling that we are in the emotionally starved and muted world of a young man and a woman who exist as separate islands within Paris — the entire movie, from the first to the last, seems almost like a retread of events that conspire to both keep our leads apart and tentatively connect them until (and this may be a spoiler) the final scene. Throughout the film, we see Rémy (François Civil) and Melanie (Ana Girardot) navigate a world in which every event seems random and parallel. He’s seeing a therapist; so is she. He has had unresolved familial issues; so has she. Both shop at the same supermarket, sometimes at the same time. He gets a cat that eventually lands in Mélanie’s hands. Both try dating with disastrous results. They both witness a street incident, standing right next to each other, and while we hope that one may make even a slight, offhand comment that may segue into a conversation, that never happens. This mirrored parallelism gets pushed even further when we realize that both therapists (played by Camille Cottin and François Berléand) also know each other.

If anything may hurt Someone, Somewhere it is that at times it feels a bit static, and it does run about 15, 20 minutes too long. Nevertheless, the film does manage to engage the viewer into being an observer into the naturalness of two people completing an arc in which their characters move from being singular entities with no chance of ever meeting, to a potential couple.

Milla

Valerie Massadian’s touching movie Milla will fall through the cracks unless someone truly interested in intimate stories like these manages to stumble across is the way I did, through MUBI. This isn’t even a larger, more grandiose French production, nor does it have any marquee stars, young or old. It is because of this that Milla radiates its own inner beauty and must be seen. It is delicate, tender, and drenched in compassion for its central character, a young woman, barely of age, caught in circumstances that accelerate her maturity. If you can’t identify with the struggles that she faces, then you probably don’t have much empathy for the plight of the little people barely standing on their own two feet,

Two teenagers in love, Milla (Severine Jonckere) and Leo (Luc Chessel) wander through desolation and abandoned homes, scraping a living in the way of scavengers, with nothing but their immature love holding them together. When we first see them it is through a haze, and in fact, that very haze seems to be what both shelters them and isolates them from the larger world. [It turns out they are sleeping in a car in the middle of nowhere, which is also a motif Massadian explores here,] We know nothing more about them. Perhaps, Massadian infers, we don’t need to. These are two lost souls, with nothing but the present, building a nest together with love, cheap wine, and the occasional spat.

Some unknown time later, Leo departs for a fishing job and leave Milla behind. It isn’t long before Milla is alone, see adrift on her own. Massadian delivers this with an extremely detached eye and no dialogue: Milla, opening the door to receive Leo’s knapsack; later, her sad, empty gaze as she stares at nothing in particular while patting her belly in a revealing moment of fragility, and finally, an empty nest, made even more so by the sudden, silent crash of reality.

A cut now moves to another present as Milla works at a hotel in an unknown location and makes a tentative female friend who slowly, wordlessly, warms up to her. Life drifts by, Milla gives birth to a baby boy, and now we see her love for Leo blossom into a mother’s love. More snapshot scenes point at Milla, slowly climbing the professional ladder, now living alone in a modest apartment as her little boy starts to acquire his own personality. Milla’s boyfriend returns, but has he, really? A telling, blip-or-miss conversation between Milla and her baby boy reveals that Leo has gone “up into the sky.” The scene is devoid of any sentimentality and works wonderfully. We don’t need to see her an emotional shambles, at some unconscious level I felt as though while some part of Milla does miss Leo, she has a life to live and a little person to raise.

Milla recalls the cinema of The Dardenne Brothers in which we witness an everyday person from the bottom of the social ladder navigate their way in a world that somehow either they have walked away from or that has left them behind. It offers no sentimentality, no promises, but a continuous present, and in every shot, it is clear Massadian is the first to want her tougher than she looks heroine to succeed even when the odds have been planted against her. I loved this film for its simplicity, its filtered emotion, and even its tangential incursions into surrealism.

Milla is available on MUBI, which you can access either directly or via Prime.

Fort Buchanan

Benjamin Crotty’s 2014 movie is a bit of a curio. Just barely long enough to qualify as a feature-length film, it’s 60-minute run manages to scrape the surface of sexual dynamics taking place in a compound somewhere in France. The narrative seems to focus mostly on Roger (Andy Gillet), who is married to Frank (David Baïot), a soldier on the Djiboutian front, and who hopes to make himself attractive for the moment they are reunited. Meanwhile, Roger’s daughter Roxy (Iliana Zabeth, recently seen in Alberto Serra’s Liberté) isn’t keen on having been admitted to a prestigious college, and after she punches Roger in the face, the incident never gets mentioned again. Rather, the focus shifts towards the other wives in the fort. All unnamed, they discover all of a sudden that Roxy has become quite the young woman. They spend time making sexual advances on Roxy who seems not to care (while Roger simply watches or ignores). On the sidelines, another army wife played by Mati Diop (who directed 2019’s Atlantiques, available on Netflix) has a sexually charged moment with a muscular fitness instructor named Guillaume.

Fort Buchanan is all rather silly and inconsequential. It seems to be navigating in its own weird fever dream, disconnected from reality, perhaps as a commentary on sexual politics in which now the women, and Roger (who is mostly shown as a stereotypical gay male), starved for any kind of affection, try to make their presences known without much success. It will be only interesting for anyone seeking movies that are well out of the ordinary and almost never go past the festival circuit rounds. As a narrative, it has an intent, but that gets lost in how shiftless it becomes. At least it has a happy ending, and that’s okay with me.

Gabrielle

Isabelle Huppert in Gabrielle (2006). Image by MintyBlonde

I’ve no idea what would become of French cinema without the presence of actresses such as Juliette Binoche or Isabelle Huppert. Of course, the moment I typed this I realized that those who know me would counter, “Well! What about Catherine Deneuve?” I’d have to shake my head and reply, “For a woman who has coasted her entire career under the aegis of her truly remarkable “Gallic” beauty, it’s that precise look — the slightly vacant eyes, the perpetual blonde hair (Deneuve is a brunette) — that has somewhat rendered her career long, but unremarkable.” [Sorry, haters.] Denueve is too detached and has always played it safer than many of her peers. On the other hand, look at Binoche’s career choices. Look at Huppert’s as well. You will find that both of these actresses may have begun playing the starlet role but soon evolved into complicated, compelling, even flatly repulsive characters. If an actor can make me hate them on screen, they’ve delivered a superb performance.

Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle, an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad story, is a movie that I missed on its first run in New York in 2006. Now I’ve had the chance to view it through MUBI right before it departed from its library and boy, am I glad I did. I stayed away from all reviews, articles either on Film Comment or the New York Times because I have been hearing constant praise from anyone who’s seen it. From its opening scene in which commuters depart from a train, we listen to its narrator, Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory), who makes his way through the crowd as he arrives home. He informs us details about himself, his life, and his married life to a woman he does not love. That woman, Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert, coldly suffering), and we don’t see her enter the frame proper until we’ve read a note she’s left for Jean. The simplicity of the message is so savage that Jean injures his hand before he can take in the depths of what is about to happen.

You see, Gabrielle has decided to leave him for another man. You would think, however, that in a marriage of convenience, this sort of thing would be throwaway. However, this is the Europe of the Belle Epoque and while divorce was a concept, it was still not seen as the way out. Couples made the point to somehow work things out, keep up appearances, preserve the status quo. However, Gabrielle, in one of her increasingly lacerating encounters with Jean, affirms her decision, and sticks the dagger in deeper when she reveals who her lover is. Jean however barrels forth, his grayish blond hair occasionally falling over his left eye whenever emotions threaten to get the better of him. His demeanor shifts between entitled arrogance, embittered narcissism, and lastly, a slobbering idiot who will do what it takes to preserve this woman who he considers his property.

On the flip side, we see Gabrielle open herself to her servants. At first it seems as though she doesn’t even care to notice they are there, attending to her every need, but eventually, she starts to listen to one of them, Yvonne (Claudia Coli). It’s as if years of living in a gilded cage, separated from the real world, has rendered Gabrielle a closed book that has had enough of being closed and could use a non-judgmental ear.

Her encounters with Jean become increasingly hostile, and it’s mainly his narcissistic rage of her attempting to leave him (How dare she!) that instigates it. Gabrielle herself seems perpetually awash in a resigned state of anguish, tears marking her face almost constantly. Chéreau stages each meet with the anticipation of two sworn enemies who have had enough of each other, but can’t seem to stay away from each other. Chéreau renders Gabrielle with a mounting sense of doom and claustrophobia punctuated with lines and words lifted directly from Joseph Conrad’s text, . One would think light and love had never filtered in. One scene in which Yvonne carries a lamp shines a cold blue light that while bold, does not extinguish the looming shadows. One would justify anyone wanting to leave Hervey’s side. This is a man who, like Charles Foster Kane of Citizen Kane, collects. Chéreau’s camera lingers over the many statues and works of art, the bustle of servants, and of course, the prize herself, Gabrielle. If anyone has a responsibility to own up to his own marital failure, it is he, not Gabrielle, although her actions aren’t going to make her wife of the year in her social circles.

If you’re in the mood for some truly ferocious acting by Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert this is the movie to watch. It is not available on MUBI at the time of this article but Netflix has it on DVD, although given its reputation, it is almost always at a wait. I would say keep it on top of your queue: you’ll be glad you did.

Playtime

Whenever I think of Jacques Tati, even if I were in a lousy mood, a smile starts to creep into my face and I start to happily ruminate about Monsieur Hulot, his redoubtable alter-ego who bumbles his way through this comedy called life. I honestly wish my life were played out this way. Sometimes I fantasize about what would it be to be a non-judgmental observer of my Other as he went through scenario after scenario as though he were an Impressionist, experiencing everything through a pure lens, always filled with the wonderment of it all, and resurfacing intact at the end (although none the wiser). If you’ve seen Tati’s magical movies you know where I’m getting at. What a wonder, to be Monsieur Hulot! I met him first in Mon Oncle way back in 2005 as he paid a visit to his family and found himself challenged by how the simple world has changed through “new technology”. Through TCM not a year later I was privileged to see him go on vacation on his first misadventure, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (Les Vacances de M. Hulot), a film that was made several years prior to Mon Oncle (and in gorgeous black and white). Only a few years ago, TCM also featured a restored version of Traffic, the last one to feature M. Hulot, again balancing a tightrope over urban chaos with grace.

I’m sure there will be critics and cinephiles alike that will disagree with me and that’s okay, but Tati’s 1967 feature film Playtime is the one out of the six that he made that essentially defines not just M. Hulot, but Tati’s amusement about humanity and its peccadilloes as it hurdles along through social settings in service to urban living. To achieve such a specific, detailed view, Tati constructed an enormous set to replicate not just Orly Airport and the equivalent of a Jacob Javitz Center but an entire swatch of ultra-modern living. To see M. Hulot weaving in and out of the frame throughout these sets that accurately announce how we occupy office space today with cubicles and ultra-modern decor that is sparse and metallic almost to a fault is to see a man who seemed to have a prescient eye. I couldn’t at times but keep comparing Hulot to Chaplin in Modern Times, but especially Mr. Magoo — less near-sighted, but at a loss at times how to sit on a Knoll chair without it making some strange noise. And what a sound-filled movie this is! People get announced by the sound of their shoes, buttons make strange noises, and an air-vent blows so much air into a sweltering bar that its model airplane, soft and buttery, now regain its form and almost takes off.

It is a pity that this movie never reached the heights that it should have — Tati, for one, practically went bankrupt as his set cost millions. To add insult to injury, Playtime was filmed in 70mm and only played in theaters still showing films in 70mm. Overseas it was released in 1973, and it seems, went largely unnoticed except by fans of Tati. Today, Playtime stands as one of the finest films ever made, and it’s one that anyone interested in pure cinema devoid of the artifice of dialog and the ever-present M. Hulot, this time complimented by Barbara Dennek in her only film role, should watch at least twice. It is beautiful, visually witty, and gentle all at the same time. In essence, it is Jacques Tati, a man who knew cinema at its core.

Unfinished Business, transient lives, the story of BURNING GHOST (VIF-ARGENT)

Timothée Robart in Burning Ghost (Vif-argent) Image by Film Society of Lincoln Center

Some of the most poignant movies coming out of Rendezvous with French Cinema will never see the lights of an American audience enamored with the flash of Deneuve, Binoche, Ozon, Huppert, and Gondry. [Of this group Denueve and Binoche have the lion share of the francophile audience with Hirokazu Koreeda’s English language debut The Truth (which was set to premiere March 20 had COVID-19 not happened), and Who You Think I am, also starring Binoche.]

Burning Ghost (Vif-Argent), a debut film from Stephen Batut, features no known actors (with the possible exception of the films female starJudith Chemla, whom I’d seen earlier in A Woman’s Life in 2017), is a remarkable oddity and a hidden treasure if you can tolerate its lack of marquee names. I was able to catch this wonderful little ghost story via Festival Scope, a site that was hosting some of Rendezvous with French Cinema’s selections a little over a month ago.

Batut’s movie focuses on a young man, Juste (Timothée Robart), seen waking up from what seems to be a fall, wandering the streets of Paris, dazed, confused, and scared. No one who he approaches recognizes him; indeed, it seems that he is invisible to all of them. An older man of the name of Alpha (Djolof Mbengue) takes Juste in and after being unable to recount a single relevant memory to a female doctor (Saadia Bentaïeb), he is tasked with being an angel of death, to walk those who have crossed over to the other side, and guide them to their final destination.

Along the way, Juste will cross paths with a man reuniting with his son, an older Italian lady in her final moments, but none of his encounters will be as poignant as the one he shares with Agatha (Juliet Chemla), a young woman who recognizes him from someplace. Soon, Juste begins a tentative romance with Agatha, against his own mission, and just like that, soon, old memories of a life interrupted, and most importantly, a love cut short, will re-surface, threatening his newfound reconnection and his very sense of self.

Batut’s movie is remarkably poignant and brims with sensitivity to the displaced — both in life and in death — as he treats his characters, all migrants, rootless, with a sense of compassion, as he were an observer, a spirit from above, non-judging, but ultimately good. The movie never falls into missteps that most romantic movies featuring ghosts have fallen into — there is no sequence, for example, that points at Ghost, another movie about star-crossed lovers in which one of them lingers on in spirit. Some of the sequences, for example, where Juste must meet with his doctor, seem to border on the surreal, but it becomes all the more believable in the way the living and the dead seamlessly connect into one tapestry

There is a profound sadness in Burning Ghost, and it’s on Timothée Robert to project a sense that he never had a chance and his entire life, even now as he wanders the world in living death, is a massive black hole of regret. Homeless, rootless, friendless, and with the unwanted task of being the last person one sees in life, or the first that one sees post death, is heartbreaking. The Parisian backdrop makes this for a movie filled with longing and the sense of incompleteness. Highly recommended whenever it comes out digitally as there is still no release date scheduled for Batut’s movie.

A Haunting Love Told in brushstrokes: Celine Sciamma’s Unforgettable PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Imager from Youtube.

Every year the New York Film Festival brings about 30 new World, US, and North American premieres which get shuffled along with retrospectives, documentaries, and a new section, Projections, in which smaller films, usually by new and/or rising directors, also get their own screening, It’s usually a gargantuan task for someone like me to pencil in about one to two movies a day during a 17-day stint and often it’s just nigh impossible. Plus, with some of them colliding with others, and the Film Society’s rather tight schedule of screening a movie at least twice (that is, until demand becomes overwhelming and they are called upon to open more slots for viewers hungry for first dibs, well before the mainstream can get to it), it can sometimes be a losing battle and one has to throw in the towel and catch at least a portion of the festivities and, like in the case of Celine Sciamma’s new movie, wait for its proper release.

I was lucky. Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn’t hit theaters until mid-February, 2020, which is criminal. I don’t know why it couldn’t have just stayed in theaters during December, when it made its one-week appearance for Oscar consideration. The screening I went to at the Angelika was packed to the gills — there was barely a seat left in the house where one could place ones drink and coat. That alone shows the power and allure this movie, Sciamma’s first incursion into period piece and a masterstroke at that, has had on its audience. I arrived about 20 minutes before seating, and already there were audience goers lavishing praise on the film, commenting on this being their second time viewing it to “capture the essence of art rendered on cinema”. It made me jealous; I sat there sipping my espresso thinking had I only made other choices, had I only not seen only wish I had seen it at the Alice Tully, but it conflicted with the screening of Liberté. [Not that I regret it.] Oh, well. Quel dommage.

Up to now, Celine Sciamma had been known almost primarily for her coming of age stories set in today’s time. None of her movies (Tomboy, Girlhood) hinted at the ambition, the sheer scope, that she showcases in her current movie (which is probably why I also may have decided against it). Reader, when Portrait of a Lady on Fire premieres next month you owe it to yourself, if you love movies as much as I do, to skip the graveyard of horror, action, and dull comedies to go see this movie alone. If you don’t even as much as see another one, that’s okay; all is forgiven. What Sciamma does with a deceptively simple story of tragic love goes far, far beyond what Todd Haynes did with his very own Carol (and I loved that movie to the point that it became my favorite for 2015).

Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes place at the end of the 1800s. Marianne (Noémie Berlant), a young Parisian artist, is hired to paint the portrait of Hëloíse, (Adèle Haenel), a young woman living in a remote area off the coast of Brittany who is betrothed to marry an Italian nobleman. The assignment itself isn’t complicated at all as this was the custom of affluent people about to enter into the institution of marriage; however, upon arrival, Marianne is notified that Hëloíse has been notoriously difficult to paint, as she doesn’t want to marry. Her mother (Valerie Golino) informs Marianne that she will then have to paint the portrait by memory alone and act as a companion to Hëloíse who must not be informed by any means that her portrait is being done.

Noémie Berlant as Marianne in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

The story itself could hinge on this premise alone and for a while it does, but Sciamma is more attuned to slowly revealing a narrative in which both Marianne and Hëloíse start to reveal aspects of themselves, which naturally brings them closer together. When it becomes clear that Marianne is now starting to feel a fraud because a) Hëloíse is a woman she has to lie to, constantly, in order to glean as much visual information as she can in order to terminate her assignment, and b) feelings start to develop. How clever, an insightful, of Sciamma, to not only place two women in a time period when even the possibility of a same-sex attraction could be seen as criminal, but one that because of their isolation from glaring eyes starts to become stronger than the symbolic painting itself. Portrait of a Lady on Fire often looks and feels very Bergmanian, with characters talking with pauses, the camera placed at an angle from their faces that express oh-so much.

Image from IMDB.com

It also moves at a deliberate pace of a thriller even though there is really no mystery at all. Even so, Sciamma’s movie is drenched with the aura of portent (and deservedly so) that it will come across as a puzzle, most pointedly because of Hëloíse herself, who first gets introduced from the back, wearing a black hooded cape, and goes from pregnant, moody silences to sudden, jerky movements as when she attempts to rush towards the cliffs in a mock gesture of suicide (her sister, caught in a similar predicament, threw herself off and died). And what could be that brilliant white vision of Hëloíse that Marianne continues to have at regular intervals throughout the picture?

Dear reader, if you enjoy movies that move slowly, but with purpose, who reveal their cards one at a time, who don’t adhere to what you would be guessing should happen and take off into unknown territory which itself grounds the story in a romance steeped in fate, lush sensuality, and the sudden, overwhelming notion that this could all end in a crushing halt, then this is the movie for you to view, digest, and enjoy. The colors are alive in Sciamma’s movie in ways that make it look, itself, as painting in movement (as opposed to the use of hyperrealism to make every color an experience in Giallo). Adèle Haenel, a French actress (and Sciamma’s former girlfriend) has never been better, doing next to nothing but letting her own presence narrate the entire movie. Noémie Berlant carries the heavy dramatic load since she is almost always on screen, silently rendering her work of art with a meticulous delicacy that often seems as though she were “creating” her own vision of Hëloíse. Portrait of a Lady on Fire also contains one of the single most striking final shots –itself a work of art and I don’t mean to sound cliche — I have ever seen committed on film. It is so overwhelming in emotion that I felt as though I would drown in my own tears and choke from the pain I felt in my throat. If love were this deep, and rendered eternal through a clever positioning of a finger in a book… I would live forever.

I will call Portrait of a Lady on Fire one of France’s highest achievements in cinema and a movie that years from now will feature well up there with the movies of Renoir, Truffaut, Demy, and Tourneur. Go, go, go see it, you owe it to yourself to do so. It premieres February 14, 2020, in select cinemas.

GET OUT YOUR HANDKERCHIEFS! – 40 Years Later

Image from YouTube

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.

Marine Francen’s THE SOWER places women in a microcosm of power struggles in which one man is the prize.

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.

Available on Amazon Prime and DVD formats.

55TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: BPM (120 BEATS PER MINUTE)

BPM (120 BATTEMENTS PAR MINUTE)
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.






55TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: LET THE SUNSHINE IN

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 (Beau Travail, 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 Let the 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.






55TH NYFF: MADAME HYDE

MADAME HYDE

France
Director: Serge Bozon
Runtime: 91 minutes
Language: French

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.

For lovers of Huppert, seek her out in Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs, Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love, Bozon’s previous Tip-Top, Francois Ozon’s 8 Femmes, Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, and Claude Chabrol’s Violette.

Madame Hyde has no known US Premiere date, but will premiere in France March 28, 2018.






LOST IN PARIS

LOST IN PARIS (PARIS PIEDS NUS)

France
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.






DANCING WITH THE ENEMY

MY COUSIN RACHEL
UK
Director: Roger MIchell
Runtime: 105 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies grading:

1 out of 5 stars (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.

MOKA
France / Switzerland
Director: Frederic Mermoud
Runtime:  85 minutes
Language: French

Mostlyindies grading:

4 out of 5 stars (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.