Director: Francois Ozon
Runtime: 112 minutes
Language: French, German
There is a point in every director’s career when the need to veer into unknown territory, whether to expand a technique, try something new, or simply tell the same story under the guise of the same themes, becomes almost a siren call. Francois Ozon, a director with a distinct body of work that almost always veers on the queer — whether in light-hearted fare like In The House or more somber stories such as 5 X 2, takes a detour into a historic drama with his remake of the 1932 movie Broken Lullaby, itself directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
In 1919, Anna (German actress Paula Beer in an intimate performance) lives with her husband’s parents in the small town of Quedlinberg, Germany. Germany, as we know, has been defeated in the war and has experienced the loss of an entire generation of boys sent to a war from which they’d never return. [Anna’s fiancee Frantz Hoffmeister, a musician, was one of them.] While delivering flowers to Frantz’s grave she notices a tall, young man also paying his respects to Frantz’s grave. The man turns out to be a former French soldier, Adrien (Pierre Niney). A conversation arises, Anna introduces Adrien to the Hoffmeisters despite the animosity that was palpable between the French and the German, here symbolized between the Hoffmeisters and Adrien, but it’s not long when Adrien reveals his story with Frantz, changing the entire turn of the story.
The lingering thought however, arises: being an Ozon movie, is this a film about two gay men who somehow found each other and then fought on enemy lines? Adrien seems to know a lot about Frantz, and in winning over his parents, he seems to also be allowing the approval of the ghost in the house and it’s not long before Mrs Hoffmeister is already pondering that Anna could potentially marry Adrien. The fact that Anna seems to be falling for Adrien also adds to the film’s already complex story: could she be that deluded, not knowing that there may have been a clearly homosexual relationship between her fiancee and Adrien, or would she rather forgo this, a life of loneliness and lost memories, if not for this man who knows so much of the man she loved?
Ozon’s first movie in black and white occasionally lapses into color whenever the spirit of Frantz comes alive be it in narration or flashbacks, and it’s a gorgeous move for a movie that is already saturated with austere blacks and whites. It’s perhaps a little too overlong for its own good, and the last 30 – 40 minutes get the Hitchcock treatment as Adrien departs, unexpectedly, to France and goes MIA and Anna, wanting — needing — to get to the bottom of the secrets still lingering behind the veil, goes in search of him. Out of this year’s entries which I saw at the Rendezvous with French Cinema, this one was one of the strongest, but it still comes off as somewhat too restrained even for Ozon himself, too tame, almost as if though he’d decided to play it safe rather than go risque (a thing that he’s not above from doing). In short, Frantz the film, while a solid entry, is somewhat too muted, its characters not terribly alive, and its pacing as slow as paint drying.
Frantz is currently playing at the Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York.
Director: Julia Ducournau
Runtime: 99 min
One of the best things about attending film festivals and premieres is meeting the director and the movie’s main cast who, at the end of the screening, have a sit-down with the audience to discuss their film and answer any questions. This year, the 22nd Annual Rendezvous with French Cinema ended its first week with the premiere of Julia Durcounau’s debut feature film Raw which arrives in theaters March 10 in New York City. When the film ended, she came out and presented her view of the events of the story which itself takes several twists and turns, and I was solidly impressed at her command of the stage, how she managed to recreate to us the entire film through her own speech, from its initial concept, selection of the actors and what they represented as symbols, and ending to what was the running themes in her film. This is a woman who we should pay attention to because not only is her first work a bold manifestation of the horror genre, it’s a complex, and sometimes perverse take on the blood ties that bind people, for better or worse, and what can happen when one gives into the baser forms if instinct and forgets to either control it, or aim for a higher sense of self.
If it all sounds a bit metaphysical, it’s because it is. Raw is a difficult film to classify although technically it remains firmly rooted in the style and themes of both David Croneberg and David Lynch with Croneberg the dominating force. It has a short prologue involving someone running (or throwing themselves) in front of a speeding car that in a last ditch attempt not to hit the person crashes into a tree. We then see the person slowly get up and walk towards the car with potentially sinister purposes. It’s a shocking scene which will form a neat parenthetical narrative later on in the film neatly in the same way Sam Raimi’s pre-credits scene in last year’s Don’t Breathe did.
The story of Justine (Garrance Marrilier), a young teenage girl who enters veterinary school at a college where it seems there is no order and a hierarchy of hazers and bullies, it seems that Raw will go that route. And, for a few scenes, it does, but first, let me go to the beginning, when we meet her proper, post prologue. We come into Justine’s story at a restaurant with her parents as they’re on their way to drop her off at the college where she will be staying. She’s a vegan, and we come to know this when she bites on a piece of meat and has a bad reaction to it. Once she arrives to the college proper, the parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) also make a stop at both the hospital and the morgue, It’s almost inconsequential and even dismissive (I certainly thought none of it) until we realize why.
No sooner is Justine at her dorm (and barely has time to meet her new dorm partner, the gay Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) that the vicious hazings begin, leading to an alcohol-fueled party that seems to go on forever. It’s there where Justine runs into her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) who shows her around. The following day, however, the freshmen — Justine included — get splashed with seemingly endless amounts of blood in a sequence somewhat reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s Carrie. They are then forced to eat raw meat and Alexia instead of helping Justine wing this one, denies she’s a vegan, tells her to get over it, and forces her to eat the piece of meat. Soon after, Justine develops a horrific, cringe-inducing allergic reaction and has to go to the infirmary where a kind nurse advises her to lay low for the first year. That she does . . . except that something has changed. At lunch, she sneaks in a meat patty (that Adrien has to pay for). At night, she goes on the prowl in the dorm room kitchen for a chicken breast, which she eats raw. It’s not long before Justine’s attraction to meat intensifies and translates over to people.
Could Justine be some kind of mutant zombie? Not really, she’s far from undead and is clearly aware something is wrong with her. [Plus, the movie, while referenced by The Girl With All the Gifts, another story of a girl trying to overcome her base instincts, is less concerned about this aspect even when it presents it as episodes of mounting body-horror.] The urge to consume meat (and blood) becomes the thing she can’t control when a waxing mishap (grotesque in its own right) morphs into something unspeakable. It’s then when the film does one of a couple of neat twists, and now we’re in completely unfamiliar territory. Where a more conventional horror movie would have hinged on Justine’s secret being discovered by Adrien, or Alexia, or anyone else, Raw throws caution to the wind and attempts to merge a coming of age, a girl discovering her sexuality, and a girl becoming a higher human being instead of reverting to the lowest of passions — cannibalism.
Sisterhood is also a strong theme in Raw: one could say the movie is precisely about sisters and how their relation can swing from blissfully perfect to terrifically violent in a matter of seconds. Alexia seems to be in total control from the start — she’s older, knows the ropes, is popular. However, as the movie progresses, her character experiences a progressive dissolution. She loves Justine, but she can also be fantastically cruel for cruelty’s sake and that, I think, is the crucial difference between her and Justine. Justine is the character we project goodness even when she’s trying to figure it out, even when she reverts at times to truly bizarre behavior. The love-hate relationship between the two is something straight out of Dead Ringers and culminates in a fight sequence so vicious, I recall people walking out of the movie and not returning.
As lean as the meat that Justine finds herself attracted to, Raw is muscular and fluid and bears not an ounce of extraneous material. On the contrary, to be able to pack so much into little more than 90 minutes of screen time and still come out with a deeply disturbing tale tells of a director (Ducournau) who has a sharp eye for striking visuals, precise camera work, and who is unafraid to provoke her audience into strong reaction.
When I wrote the first post a little over a month ago I wasn’t intending to make this more than a two-parter, only because I felt that all the movies coming out of France that I had seen and enjoyed (or not) would have come out by now. Considering this is August, it seems that ever since Rendezvous with French Cinema ended in mid-March there’s been a new French production getting its release in the US week after week, often in groups such as when there were five of them playing at once in several different theaters in NYC during the early part of July: among them, Cosmos, Diary of a Chambermaid, The Innocents, Microbe et Gasoil, and Les Cowboys while Dheepan and Tale of Tales still enjoyed a screening each at IFC Center. Since then, Summertime and Phantom Boy have also been released, and coming this Friday, Disorder, also known as Maryland, which I saw and reviewed in March, makes its debut, followed later on by Fatima (also seen and reviewed) and Mon Roi. [These last three, the aforementioned Dheepan, and Summertime are all part of this year’s excellent Rendezvous with French Cinema collection for 2016.]
From its trailer, The Innocents, which at one time was also known as Agnus Dei, would give the idea that this is France’s version of the well-known Agnes of God (and there is a strong debt to John Pielmeier’s famous play, or maybe it’s the other way around? Food for topic for another discussion. There is also a nod to the recent conflicted-nun story Ida, winner of the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture.). It’s actually the true but little known story of Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laage), a Frenchwoman working with the Red Cross in 1945 war-torn Poland. Mathilde receives the visit of a young nun who has left her convent where seven nuns lie pregnant amidst the murmur or prayers, asking for assistance. Beaulieu cooly brushes her off since it would be out of protocol, but a glimpse of the praying nun in the middle of the snow changes her mind. Beaulieu travels to the convent where she assists a nun who is about to give birth. It’s here where she meets Sister Maria (Agata Buzek and the even sterner Mother Superior (Agata Buleska, the disgraced judge of Ida), who are trying to maintain a sense of order within the convent while hopefully delivering these babies without scandal.
What is a wonder is that when Beaulieu examines some of the nuns they reveal themselves completely unable to understand their predicament, some girlishly innocent and under the belief that they may have been impregnated by an act of God. In conversations, the French-speaking Sister Maria, at first as forbidding as the Mother Superior, forms a friendship with Beaulieu that grows stronger as both expose their personal views on society. Because the nuns were raped by Soviet soldiers (who attempt early on to gain access to the convent and threaten to return when Mother Superior orders them to leave in a tense scene), Sister Maria’s faith is in conflict. Beaulieu’s own stance in a career that doesn’t smile at women comes into the forefront, and oddly dovetails with Sister Maria’s own. However, while both Sister Maria and Beaulieu find a common ground, Mother Superior, blind with religion and acts of what she sees as merciful, does the unthinkable at one point, which gives The Innocents a much darker tone than even Ida (already rather dark to begin with).
The Innocents is a deeply compassionate movie that features three strong female perspectives who face a horror the nuns in the background — and we, the viewer — can’t quite fathom. While truly innocent in every way, each nun slowly emerges as a person and leaves her imprint in the narrative. A short vignette towards the latter part of the story features a nun leaving the convent, now knowing she has a life outside where she can find her faith in a different way — a complete opposite decision from the one Sister Anna takes in Ida. This, and the ending coda, bring in a sliver of hope that was possibly not an option for Poland right after the war.
Lou de Laage is rapidly becoming France’s next must-see actress. I knew nothing of her before her breakthrough movie Breathe which played in the US in both VOD platforms and theaters during 2014 and the uneven L’Attesa opposite Juliette Binoche. She displays a stoic hardness that slowly peels away a deeply sensitive person committed at all costs to doing right by the nuns she has decided to protect. Agata Busek and Agata Buleska play off each other in terms of power — Busek’s Sister Maria at first merely a follower of Mother Superior, who later morphs into a defender of these nuns. Vincent Macaigne, usually an intense actor, downplays his part as Beaulieu’s colleague and lover. [A}
Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (La Belle Saison) is a more typical “French” movie in the line of Olivier Assayas’ Apres Mai (After May) and Mia Hansen-Love’s Goodbye, First Love, and if it weren’t for its two female leads (Cecile de France and Izia Higelin) would probably remain one of the pile, undistinguished and almost predictable. Two women meet in the summer of 1971 as the women’s rights movement was happening.
Delphine (Higelin) is the more assertive of the two despite being much younger and having lived all her life working and living in her family’s farm. Her father wishes that she would find a good man to settle with and is unaware that she’s been seeing a young woman for some time who’s decided to marry. Meanwhile, Carole, who is older, is a Spanish language teacher and staunch feminist living in Paris with her boyfriend. Both meet in the middle of a street riot, but things don’t happen immediately: Delphine is not out (not yet), but adapts to the feminist group rather quickly and easily while eyeballing Carole from the sidelines. An outing brings forth Delphine’s lesbianism, which results in a kiss between Carole that turns awkward (Carole has as of yet been unaware of her own sexuality despite being a liberal city woman of the post-60s revolution). Eventually, a surprise move from Delphine brings it all out, and soon enough both women are tangled in each other’s arms, breathing into each other’s faces, unable to get enough of each other, a thing that costs Carole her relationship and her interest in feminism for pure romance.
The turning point of Summertime, however, comes when Delphine receives news that her father has fallen gravely ill and can’t tend the farm anymore. A separation is inevitable, but that doesn’t last long as Carole follows Delphine into the French countryside to be with her even when they can’t express who they truly are to each other to a more provincial mentality, particularly to Delphine’s mother who hopes for a marriage. Summertime, free of its Parisian constraints, glows with the natural pastoral settings, letting both actresses breathe in their respective roles. It’s a bit of a shame, then, when Corsini’s camera starts to chop the story up into odd edits that don’t quite do the movie justice the way, for example, that Todd Haynes lit Carol for its exterior and interior scenes. I would have preferred a more vintage palette even in outside settings, if at all to enhance the situation of repressed passions among the thick green of the countryside as well as the dimly lit interiors of the farm. Even so, Summertime works because of its two leads and simple, blatantly romantic story that finds its own way in a time when gay rights was still at its own dawn. [B]
This year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema has featured some of the most diverse films coming out of France and it’s hit two home runs by bringing to US audiences the Cesar Award winner for Best Picture, Fatima, and Dheepan, the Palm D’Or winner at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, both which I saw back to back at the Walter Reade. Thematically, both are strikingly similar films dealing with the issue of cultural differences and a language barrier that immigrants experience when coming into France. However, those similarities end there: while Fatima grapples with a less than veiled racism and two conflicted daughters. Dheepan contains elements of the mythical warrior pushed to his limits.
Having lost everything to war, Sivadhassan, a Sri Lankan soldier, Yalini, a young woman on the verge of womanhood, and an orphaned young girl, Illayaal, procure false IDs to leave Sri Lanka for a better life. In a striking, near wordless montage, Dheepan (as Sivadhasaan is now known) walks the streets of Paris covered in cheap glow lights trying to sell them to anyone who will buy for pennies. When Immigration reels him (and the other two) in, a sympathetic Sri Lankan translator helps his case out, grants the three of them temp visas, and relocates them to the Parisian projects where they can start anew.
The problem is that these like your typical projects are rife with drug dealing and with that vicious shoot-outs. Dheepan gets work as a caretaker, Yalini lands a job taking care of a largely mute older man (which comes with its own set of complications), and Illayaal attends school for kids with special needs, which in Paris is aimed at children who cannot speak the language but nevertheless need education.
For a while, everything is going well except for a couple minor ruffles: Illayaal getting into a school brawl over being rejected at recess and Yalini confusing the mail is the worst of their problems. Relations are at a rocky, unstable start — Yalini would rather continue to London and leave Dheepan and Illayaal behind. However, a gradual sense of comfort starts to come into the picture and it’s not long when the three of them have formed a new sense of family, and Dheepan has begun to fall a little for Yalini.
Just outside the picture, another drama is about to explode. Brahim, a drug-dealer and leader of a vicious gang often visits the man Yalini is taking care of, and while there is a certain, tentative attraction between the two, that comes to a crashing halt one day when a shoot-out takes place and almost hits Yalini and Illayaal on the way home from school. It proves to be a little too much for her to bear, because didn’t she leave a war-ravaged country already?
This is where the second half of Dheepan smashes this false sense of security: as he was considering an engagement ring to make his life with Yalini legal, she’s panicked and taken off. At about the same time a character from his past, another Sri Lankan soldier, wants his help in the war, but Dheepan has moved on and is on another plane. These two events rip the ground off his feet and define the more violent second half, where Brahim’s own out of control violence will intersect with Dheepan’s self-contained warrior. Director Jacques Audiard ratches up the tension as rival gangs threaten not just themselves but Dheepan himself, and at times the ferocity of how characters clash seems out of context with the slow buildup that has preceeded, but seems fitting due to the story’s location.
Dheepan is carried out almost entirely by newcomer Jesusthasan Anthonythasan who plays a character not too dissimilar from his life as a child soldier in Sri Lanka. From the first scene to the last, he is the one character your attention focuses on, going through the motions of tragedy of a past he can’t go back to, to the insecurity of the future, to the anguish of having to dig back into his past to make sure that future, faint at first but burgeoning, doesn’t die before it has a chance. Equally as good are the newcomes playing Yalini and Illayaal and Vincent Rottiers as Brahim, a bad guy who has a soft spot for Yalini.
Human survival gets tested all the way in this often touching, but never over-dramatic film. I highly recommend it.
She’s a divorced Moroccan immigrant barely making ends meet to support her two daughters in a country who’s language she can hardly speak. Her two daughters seem to harbor a resentment towards their own heritage for different reasons that stem to the fact that they’re in a white-intensive country, with white values, and would like to have what’s called a “normal family.” Such a rift, visible to her Moroccan neighbors, causes a sense of anger: how dare these two young women reject their own?
To that, Fatima (Soria Zeroual) offers no clear answers because there are none. All she can do is toil ahead in menial jobs to pay for her daughters Nesrine’s and Souad’s college and high school, respectively (although she does get some help from her former husband). Most of the conflict lies in the language barrier between Fatima and her own daughters, her employers, and the unspoken racism that permeates the story with every encounter. One early example is when Fatima mentions to the woman who’s house she cleans that Nesrine is studying to be a doctor. The woman, a stately, patrician redhead, has just had an argument with her son who’s throwing his future away. Upon Fatima’s revelation, again, spoken in terrible French, there’s a clear stiffening in the woman’s pose. It’s almost as if this challenged her own sense of privilege, her own status: her cleaning lady also having a daughter who will one day become a doctor.
Another example is when Nesrine goes looking for an apartment to move into: there is a tension between the very white blond landlady and these three dark-skinned women that ends on a negative note. If you’ve read how minorities are treated here in the US when seeking apartments in nicer areas, Fatima lays it out pretty plainly. Later on in the movie Fatima reveals in conversation with Nesrine that her employer has been leaving money out carelessly in places where she will clean. It’s almost as if her employer would want her to steal it to self-fulfill her own prejudice that all foreigners not of Anglo origin are thieves.
To top this off, Fatima has begun to have increasing problems with Souad, her youngest daughter. While Nesrine’s conflicts arise from her own need to succeed and pass her exams (and that she doesn’t feel the need to wear a scarf around her head which angers her neighbors), Souad’s problems are much deeper.There is a sense of something missing from her life. Her grades are dropping, her relation with both her parents is deteriorating, and she seems to be hanging with “the wrong crowd,” she mocks Fatima’s French (which Fatima countermocks Souad’s own poor Arabic). It’s a situation that brings argument after argument with Fatima and one wonders whether there can be a middle ground between the two.
The only action sequence is a tumble down the stairs that renders Fatima with severe shoulder pain and in need of therapy. It’s a shocking development that comes out of nowhere but as a hidden blessings it allows Fatima to writer her innermost thoughts which she shares with her therapist and (offscreen) learn French to communicate better, on her own terms
Fatima is a brief, yet wonderfully warm slice of life that manages to draw a complete portrait of an otherwise invisible woman that a privileged section of society would rather tend to forget due to her African origins. I loved how lived in, how real the entire story felt and how this could appropriate itself to many foreigners who now live in a country that, while giving them limited resources, often tries to stamp out their identity by turning the other cheek. That this unassuming woman slowly comes to her own after a time spent in the shadows makes it a must-see.
As of yet there is no US release date for Fatima although Kino-Lorber has acquired it for distribution.
Having been seen in period dramas (and art-house heavies, female crowd-pleasers) like Far from the Madding Crowd and A Little Chaos last year it’s a return for Matthias Schoenaerts to the more brooding characters such as the ones he essayed in Rust and Bone. In Alice Winocour’s newest movie, a drama turned thriller about a man suffereing from PTSD, Schoenaerts plays his Vincent, an ex-soldier, as a man who’s all reaction and little communication, hyper alert and ready for even the slightest attack, but also in pain from his own inner torment. This is a man who, because of having fought to protect his country, has been rendered so damaged he might as well be untrustworthy. So the fact that he moonlights as a security guy is an odd choice, but not uncommon for men accustomed to protect. The problem then becomes, can they be trusted with the well-being of those in charge when he himself suffers from moments of crippling panic attacks and loss of judgement?
Disorder opens to a series of scenes that showcase the brutality of discipline, followed by finding himself not just abandoned by that life, but now, thanklessly serving as a security guy for a party hosted by a Lebanese magnate in a luxurious mansion where he is all but invisible. After walking into a meeting not meant for his ears, he’s asked by the Lebanese to go in search of the host’s wife Jessica (Diane Kruger). At first meeting, there is a palpable animosity between Jessica and Vincent, but as fate would have it, Denis has to bow out of a weekend assignment to guard her and the household while her husband is out on business. Vincent steps in . . . and starts to see danger at every turn.
Winocour plays her cards somewhat close to her chest during a large portion of the movie. We’re not totally sure that Vincent may be unraveling — he’s too quick to spot danger even in the most innocuous details — but a drive to the beach terminates all that. It’s here that Disorder changes gears and becomes a high-intensity thriller where no one is safe at any moment and threats are lying in wait in the shadows as the mansion becomes a battleground of heart-thumping, escalating violence. Even moments of stillness where Jessica and Vincent start to get to know each other doesn’t offer much respite. It just shows that true to its title, while VIncent may have PTSD, it’s actually Jessica who living a life of bliss and, aware of it or not, reaping the benefits of illegal dealings, at the center of a much different chaos: the chaos of the ugliness tucked under the carpet in order to preserve status.
Disorder will most likely get a release proper in the US later this year. I suggest to go see it: this is a powerful thriller with a thumping, masculine score set to techno music that starts out strong and becomes nearly unbearable towards its explosive finale. Winocour is a director to take notice of. I wouldn’t be surprised the day she crosses over and lets her talent loose this side of the pond.
For two weeks in March (from the 3rd to the 13th) New York and the Film Society of Lincoln Center comes alive with two film festivals. The first of them is Rendezvous with French Cinema, an event that brings some of the best movies from France that one can get to sample before they get properly released either theatrically or on DVD. The second is New Directors – New Films, later in the month, which serves as a warm up for the Tribeca Film Festival that hits the city in April.
This year Rendezvous with French Cinema will show case new pictures from Julie Delpy (Lolo), Emmanuelle Bercot (Standing Tall, featuring Rendezvous perennial Catherine Deneuve), Maiwenn (Mon Roi), Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi (Three Sisters). On opening night, Guillaume Nicloux, who directed The Nun (2013) and The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (2014) introduces his latest film Valley of Love, starring French giants Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert. Cannes Palm D’Or winner for Best Picture in 2015 (and an early contender for France’s entry for Best Foreign Oscar) Dheepan closes the festival.
This is a festival you should not miss. For more information (and tickets), visit the Lincoln Center‘s site.