Tag Archives: french cinema

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.

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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.






CEZANNE AND I

CEZANNE ET MOI (CEZANNE AND I)
France
Director: Daniele Thompson
Runtime: 116 minutes
Language: French

Movie:

3.5 out of 5 stars (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.






RAW

RAW (2016)
France/Belgium
Director: Julia Ducournau
Runtime: 99 min
Language: French

5/5

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.

Raw opens March 10 at the Angelika Film Center.