Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Amazing Grace

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (2017) - Fiennes
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How do you demystify someone without sacrificing all the enigma and mystery around the subject? Sophie Fiennes, documentarian extraordinaire behind two highly entertaining Zizek docs and one on artist Alselm Kiefer just does that with one of the most iconic figure in fashion and music, Grace Jones. Instead of doing typical chronological biography highlighting her hits and movie appearances over the years with bunch of boring sit-down interviews, Fiennes just follows Jones around on stage, behind-stage and hotel rooms as she treads in her stilettos. Bloodlight and Bami shows the cultural icon dealing with musicians and others on the phone herself to make the record. Her phone manners in her booming bariton are sometimes aggressive, sometimes cloying, other times aggressively cloying.

Then we follow her to Jamaica, where her family is. She goes to church where her brother is a pastor and her mother sings, eats jerk chicken, slurp oysters and takes care of her grown up son. At age 69, Jones is still electrifying on stage and still stunning as a bronze statuette. Fiennes just let her be her magnificent self. The result is one of the best documentaries in recent years.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Devotion in Free Form

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017) - Dumont
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It does makes sense that Bruno Dumont's latest is about Joan of Arc. She personifies the religious devotion and spirituality, so it comfortably fits in his filmography - alongside Hedewijch, Outside Satan and Camille Claudel 1915. It also seems like a logical progression that Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc is a musical comedy: as he brazenly makes it clear since his first foray into comedy with Li'l Quinquin that comedy is just a flip side of a coin - that his austere films (dotted with bizarre surrealist moments) can easily be rip-roaringly funny when they go two millimeter off center. So why not venture into a musical genre?

Based on Charles Péguy’s The Mysteries of the Charity of Joan of Arc and heavily borrowing his simple but direct ‘musical verses’, Dumont creates a Bressonian musical that is as emotionally resonant and cinematically daring as his other films.

Young Jeanne(tte) (Lise Leplat Prudhomme, and later played by Jeanne Voisin) is a precocious girl living in Domrémy, North-east France (Dumont's beloved home region). She has been praying to god to save France from English invaders to no avail. She converses (in songs of course) with her best friend Hauviette (Lucile Gautier and later Victoria Lefebvre) who counters sharply to her beliefs. Jeannette seeks wisdom of Madame(s) Gervaise – two identical twin dancing nuns and has a religious epiphany of Ste. Marguerite & Catherine (played by the same twin). They sing to her to lead the French army. They conclude their meeting with a choreographed headbanging with heavy metal music.

Then there is Jeannette’s rapping young uncle, Durand Lassois (played by fresh faced Nicolas Leclaire) who serves as a comic relief character. And he’s uproarious.

You have to keep in mind that this is a Dumont film. Everyone involved are non-actors and not trained singers or dancers. When they sing, their abilities are earnest at best. The choreographed dance numbers come across as completely out of place and therefore often hilarious.

Dumont’s full-framed beautiful composition is there, so as the windswept, soft lit sand hills of Brittany, lensed by Guillaume Deffontaines who worked all of Dumont’s comedies since Li'l Quinquin.

No doubt, Jeannette will draw sharply divisive reactions from audiences. For some, the film would come across as a grade school level musical. For others, deeply moving contemplation on devotion- In Péguy’s words, young Jeannette wanted to be a better savior than the savior.

When you think of Joan of Arc, it's usually the haunting close ups of Renée Falconetti's face in Dreyer's poetic masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc that come up to mind. It might rub some the wrong way to have a b-boy moves and falling off a horse in Joan of Arc movie.

Jeannette is a real gamble of a film. In theory, with everything Dumont is striving for, spiritually and artistically, it should satisfy fans of his work. But intellectually understanding what he is up to and enjoying the actual piece are two different things. As a big fan of Dumont, and was taken aback by his ‘comedies’ and repulsed by Slack Bay (I have to say that I’m not a big fan of seasoned actors playing over-the-top characters or acting like retards), I had a lot of reservations going in. But considering Dumont’s intensions with the project, Jeannette gets a lot better in second viewing. You just have to work a little harder to dig through its genre trappings to see its austere beauty: the beauty in a young girl’s unwavering, sacred devotion to god in free form.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc opens 4/13.

With Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont Charts Yet Another Cinematic Territory

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Full disclosure: I've regarded Bruno Dumont as one of the most exciting figures in current cinema ever since I saw his debut Humanité (1999). His Bressonian approach to human conditions and faith in somber, beautifully tragic stories spoke to me and touched me like no other contemporary filmmaker's work ever have. Then it was his foray into comedies, starting with his TV mini series Li'l Quinquin (2014) that my enthusiasm started to wain a little. I just couldn't buy into his new world filled with odd looking characters and their slapstick antics. Then last year's star studded Slackbay really rubbed me the wrong way. I really had problems with the film's grotesque over-the-topness of its characters.

So when I heard his new project was a musical comedy about Joan of Arc, I was more than skeptical. It was hard for me to bridge the gap between intellectually understanding what the director was doing and actually enjoying his comedies.

I watched Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc early this year and was still on the fence about how I felt about it. I thought talking to Dumont would help me to accept the direction he was going. And it did. Borrowing the texts from Charles Péguy's The Mysteries of the Charity of Joan of Arc, Jeannette is a singular cinematic experience, completely in tune with his rather serious, somber masterpieces. I'd recommend seeing it in theaters to get the full experience of his unique, direct approach to cinema.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc opens 4/13.

I have to tell you that I am a big fan.

He makes a cross with his fingers.

No seriously.

Help! (laughs)

It does make sense that you would tackle Joan of arc story since you have made films about pure faith before. But I never would’ve thought it would be a musical comedy. Did you conceive the film as musical to begin with?

Yes of course. I would never have conceived doing Péguy without music because Péguy without music is inconceivable. I like musical comedies very much. I was looking for a subject that needed that balance, that needed the music. I was looking for a text that would be pertinent to use music.

Some texts don’t need music because they are very clear as they are. Péguy is a complicated, complex writer and my hope was that music would give access to him. That we don’t have to give up on Péguy because he is too hard to get into. It’s like we don’t throw away a rose because it has thorns- the idea is to keep the thorns but somehow pacify things with music.

So in most musical plays, they mostly turn to poets to complete their work so there is nice relationship, one could even call it, a friendship between poetry and music. A companionship.

There is a repetitive rhythmic quality almost like Philip Glass in the text when they sing.

Absolutely you are right.

Why portray the childhood of Joan?

Once I had the music and the rhythm, I needed the subject. Joan of Arc is major French myth. But the fact is the subject is secondary, since we have the music. So the subject should be not too complicated. Joan of Arc is very well known. I needed to combine that with this new kind of experience in cinema. It happens that her childhood is not very well known that Péguy brings us luckily for us. So we have a known element Joan of Arc and not too well known – her childhood. So combining all these things together, I wanted to make something interesting. It’s more like a composer looking for a book for his next opera. But for me the subject herself was not that important.

One could not think of Joan of Arc story without the close ups of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Is there any correlation between your Jeannette and Dreyer’s Jeanne?

Not immediately. The fact that I was dealing with the childhood, it created sharp break. So I didn’t have to deal with this major figure of Dreyer, who is always lurking around. The fact I am dealing with the nine year-old, means that I am, perhaps naively, cutting that influence.

Tell me about the work you’ve done for this movie with the choreographer Philippe Decouflé.

Dance is a way of expressing Péguy’s mysticism- it’s the way of embodying it. So for example, the little girl would say to me, “I don’t understand this part.” Then, I would say, “ Well, then dance.” Dance becomes another way of expressing the inexpressible. There are a lot we don’t understand in Péguy's texts. What we have in there is the rhythm, and that’s where the correspondence is.

Like the headbanging. There is not explanation for that. It’s a form of expressing grace. In a Heavy Metal concert, there is that absolute grace in that energy. So when we came to the part we didn’t understand, we’d go, “Girls, go ahead. Headbang!”

What we are looking for is harmony. It’s the dance, the shots, in the editing… it’s the effigy of harmony, whether it’s in the words, in the movements. It’s the formal thing that is an absolute quest and the meaning doesn’t matter. We are looking for beauty, we are looking for the shots to be happy between themselves.

So it doesn’t really matter to you whether they are real singers or not. Or they sing well.

They shouldn’t be real singers. It mustn’t be sung well. There is something inhuman, something false about perfection. We need the flaws in the little girl. You know she has to go down so she can go up. She has to sing badly, so that when she sings well, it’s something special. It’s not interesting to hear someone sing well all the time.

It’s like listening to the record and listening to the concert. It’s powerful to hear a singer in concert because you hear the flaws in their voices. It has to be a live spectacle, live sound. Records in perfect dolby sound, I don’t listen to them anymore. It’s boring. My cinema is live.

How did you cast the young actresses? What quality were you looking for?

I was looking for the heart of Joan of arc. The part was an effigy of all little girls. I was looking for the process from sowing to blossoming of all the hearts of little girls. It’s an extraordinary thing. If you put a little girl in Péguy’s texts, you just watch her grow. You water her a little bit and she blossoms.

She is intelligent, gracious and peculiar – she was herself. She had her own ways and when you put some Péguy, then you really hear Joan of arc.

It’s the contrary to idealization. It’s not believing in the idea of Joan of Arc but making a regular little girl and it’s the regularity that will take us to the thing I am looking for.

So you didn’t have to convince them about what Joan of Arc has decide to do? That she wanted to save the damned? that she wanted to be more savoir than jesus?

Yes. She did learn the texts. She had questions and we accompanied her. But the real questions were them as a musical interpreter- how they are going to sing. She was more interested in how to sing than what the text means.

Nicolas Leclaire, who plays Jeannette’s uncle, how did you find him? He is hilarious.

One of the main criteria for our casting was looking for someone who could sing, obviously. So I met this young man who’s a rapper. The music composer didn’t want him. He said, “What do I do with him? He’s a rapper.”

We took in what’s beautiful and marvelous about him. He was a bit off. But we accepted that and took that quality in him in. He was touching and also funny which is rare. He is never ridiculous. He has his own poetry and musicality. He couldn’t sing and only rapped. But we took that in and he was extraordinary. There was something very audacious about us taking Nicolas in, who didn’t fit at all in what we were trying to do. He had his own dance practices and our choreographer found a way to integrate him.

He was a counterweight to Peguy’s over seriousness and that’s where we found the balance.

Speaking of overseriousness, I am a big fan of your serious dramas. I haven’t gotten accustomed to your comedies yet. (Dumont laughs)

I think I understand what you are doing with these comedic films since P’tit Quinquin, that these are just a flipside of a coin to your more austere dramas it’s any serious dramas are always on the verge of becoming comedies. Would you plan to do more comedies or are you going back to serious dramas?

I find balance in tragicomedies but not in outright comedies. I needed to go off from tragedy. I wanted to find balance. And I find it in tragicomedy. It’s like the presence of the uncle in Jeannette. Because Jeannette is too heavy. It becomes too pontificating. It’s just like what you find in the paintings of Bosch and Brueghel – you have these grotesque images but inside them there are humorous bits.

I think you can really express deep thoughts and feelings in comedies. You can go really profound in ways you can’t do in dramas. Funny is deep, rich and surprising. What counts is to surprise the viewer.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Lucrecia Martel Retrospective at FSLC 4/10 - 4/15

In conjunction with the theatrical release of Martel's new film Zama, Film Society of Lincoln Center is hosting the retrospective of one of the most important, daring filmmaker working today. My first encounter was with her much celebrated third feature, Headless Woman/La mujer sin cabeza. It didn't make much impact on me then. I thought the satire on upperclass Argentinian society was, if not cinematically daring, maybe too little on-the-nose. I had no point of reference since I've never seen her previous two films.

It was a German director, Christoph Höchhausler (I am Guilty, The City Below, considered as one of the key members of what critics termed as the Berlin School), who told me that Martel is the filmmaker he admires most when I interviewed him while he was in town three years ago. He pointed at the poster of La ciénaga on the wall of Silversalt PR office in midtown Manhattan, when asked what his favorite film was. Indeed, watching La ciénaga changed everything. Its visual/aural examination of dark and complex underbelly of Argentine bourgeoisie was an eye opener. As an adventurous cinema lover, La ciénaga offered everything I was looking for in cinema. Then Holy Girl, holy moly! I can stress enough the greatness of Martel who is quite possibly the greatest living filmmaker of our time.

I can't find what I wrote about Headless Woman, but here are the my reviews of her other three films for your reading pleasure. Watch Zama on the big screen if you can. It will change what you think of cinema once and for all.

La ciénaga (2001) - Martel
Compared to bombastic, unsubtle satires and social commentaries that we are used to, Lucrecia Martel puts some perspectives on how they should be done, masterfully in La Ciénaga (The Swamp). Taking place in the decaying manor in the jungle in one unbearably hot and sticky Summer in Argentina, the film illustrates the murky underbelly of bourgeoisie without delving into surrealism or making caricatures out of characters. Mecha (Graciela Borges) is seen sunbathing while drunk along with the rest of the inebriated grownups of the house by the pool side. After demanding ice cubes for her wine, she slowly rises in her stupor, tries to collect filthy wine glasses, drops them, falls on top of the shards. The rest of the family are not much better. The emasculated, husband keeps dying his hair and staining the sheets, the 15 year old Momi (Sofia Bertoloto) is obsessed with the pretty native housemaid Isabel (Andrea Lopez), the older daughter Vero (Leonora Balcarce) flirts with her ne're-do-well grown up brother José, who's living with a much older family friend, Mercedes in Buenos Aires, visiting after Mecha's fall and doesn't seem to have problem jumping in mother's bed for a cuddle. Young Joaquin lost one of his eyes while horsing around in the jungle with other boys.

Tali (Mecedes Moran), concerned cousin of Mecha shows up with her family (a grumbling husband, 3 girls and one boy who figure largely into the story later on), not only to check on her cousin but also use the pool for kids who are bored out of their minds. The said pool, neglected and not cleaned for years, is filthy, murky grey disease breeding ground. Isabel warns Momi not to go in there- she might catch something terrible. The contempt for native population is totally out in the open from Mecha down to Joaquin, casually calling them savages and accuse Isabel of constantly stealing towels. With TV always in the background, everyone, across the social strata, is drawn in by the news of appearance of Virgin Mary on top of a cement tower.

With amazing array of characters and richly contrasting social stratification not only in a familial but geographical and cultural, La Ciénaga is a complex examination of a society still steeped in colonial legacy and religion.

La niña santa/The Holy Girl (2004) - Martel
Amalia (María Alche), a sullen teen girl, lives with her divorced mom Helena (Mercedes Morán) in an old hotel with a thermal pool where mom works as a representative. She attends bible study group with her catholic school girl friends and recite prayers under her breath obsessively. Lately, she is obsessed with 'vocation'. A ear-nose-throat doctors convention is taking place in the hotel. Amalia finds herself being an interest of Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), a married man with kids, when he rubs against her bottom in the crowd gathered for a theremin player just outside the hotel. On the verge of sexual awakening with the help of a promiscuous, gossipy best friend Jose(fina), the experience leaves her not repulsed but curious.

She soon becomes obsessed with Jano, sneaking into his shared room, smelling his shaving cream, following him and spying on him at the poolside. Whatever this man means to her, her obsession becomes her 'vocation'. Jano's guilty conscience is not helping Amalia's cause. To make matters worse, Helena finds him attractive as well.

Martel proves to be the master of close-ups and shallow focuses. The details of the senses and small moments she captures on screen - touch, smell, whispers make up the film's superbly orchestrated, organic feel. All the connective tissues of the film are all spread out- the fact doctors are ear-nose-throat specialists - whispers and misheard information, smell, singing, but her approach is so subtle and fluid, you can't help but admire her skills. The Holy Girl is about Amalia as much as it isn't. The film's sordid details of the lives of middle class bourgeoisie can be seen as Almodovar-esque melodrama. But as in all Martel's films there is always a it's-barely-there-but-there satire. I can't really think of any director working today who works on Martel's level. The Holy Girl is a true cinematic feat!

Zama (2017) - Martel
Lucrecia Martel suggested in her introduction to her sold-out screening of the much anticipated follow-up to Headless Woman that we audience might want to take in Zama like a whiskey. Indeed, it's a heady, at times bitter, at times sweet hallucinatory trip to the heart of darkness, showing the white man's identity crisis and misguided manifest destiny in the colonial era Latin America.

The film is a historical period piece, based on the much praised Latin American classic literature by Antonio di Benedeto. It's a hugely ambitious undertaking for Martel with just 3 films under her belt. But if anything, Zama confirms Martel one of the greatest directors of our time. Her mastery over the medium both in complex narrative storytelling and technical ingenuity has grown to exceptional height with Zama.

Don Diego de Zama (Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho with an impressive Romanesque nose), a magistrate stuck in some unnamed South American colonial town deep inland in the 18th century, is anxiously awaiting to hear from the Crown (of Spain), his new assignment to the city. Even though he is a man of certain position and been stationed there for a while, he can't ever seem to get ahead or get what he wants - the letter of transfer never materializes, his rival Ventura (Juan Minujín) is much better at kissing asses and the local society lady de Luenga (Lola Dueñas) flirts with him but wouldn't give in.

Zama doesn't fair well with the natives either- seen in the beginning peeping at nude women taking mud bath and getting caught. He also has a nagging native woman he had an invalid child with. And the thought of the existence of this child weighs in his conscience like a brick. His misplaced valor to protect three virginal sisters is always overshadowed by the overhanging threat of a mythical bandit named Vicuña Porto who is notorious for raping and pillaging.

After physically threatening Ventura over de Luenga, Zama is demoted and moved out of his semi-opulent living quarters to a squalor with rotting walls, just outskirts of a city. At the governor's insistence and a promise of recommendation letter to the Crown, he delivers a scathing review of a book written by a well-meaning, trusting young civil servant (the governor can't stand the thought of the young man wrote the book while on the job). But no matter how many favors, how many people he fucks over, Zama realizes that he won't be leaving the backwater town any time soon.

Fallen out of favor and aging, Zama reinvents himself as a guide to the band of soldiers in the late stages of colonization. As they advance inland, they are terrorized by the red body paint natives who populate the land. Fighting with the elements and among themselves (one of the soldiers claims to be the elusive Vicuña- is he really? Does it even matter?), Zama and the men get completely lost in the strange land.

There have been countless other films about the white men's delusion of grandeur- Aguirre, Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now! easily come to mind. With Zama, along with lyrical Jauja few years back, directed by fellow Argentine Lisandro Alonso, Martel captures the existentialist angst in the age of colonialism/ad infinitum in Latin America with astonishing efficiency and grace. Shooting digital for the first time, Martel and her Portuguese DP Rui Poças (Tabu, The Ornithologist, To Die Like a Man), create lush, bright palates that are intoxicating and hallucinatory.

Martel's mastery of the cinema medium as sensory medium first and foremost is nothing short of brilliant. She subjects us to painterly framing and exceptional sound design in every scene. Those of you who followed her trajectory closely through La Cienaga, Holy Girl and Headless Woman and have been admiring her artistry will be richly rewarded here - a carefully measured framing where people's faces are just off the frame, shallow depth of field, soft focus, the full use of background/foreground and the use of dialog fading in and out with internal monologue thrown in, just to name a few.

She also uses the Shepard Tone whenever there is a dramatic moment for Zama. The tone is an illusory aural phenomenon that creates continuously swelling sound which builds tension and suspense. All these are very simple methods and not radical experiments at all, but it's Martel's simple approach that makes everything so fresh and radical. As you watch Zama, you can't help but feeling that you are watching a true cinematic masterpiece.

Finding the Latin American identity, as European settlers and their offspring, has been the continuous source for great literature over 300 years. Throw in the idea of class, masculinity, racism, sense of belonging, you get a very complex picture of what makes up the theme of Zama.

As usual, in Martel's hands, what seems to be an extremely messy affair at first, the sense of cohesiveness emerges from the chaos, then the sense of warm comfort wraps around the whole experience. Even though Zama is a lost character who goes through traumatic experiences, there is sense of catharsis that is reached in the last moments of the film. That he finally found home, that he reached his el dorado, imagined or otherwise. Zama is a utterly brilliant film. See it on the big screen if you can.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Arnaud Desplechin on Ismael's Ghosts

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Arnaud Desplechin was in town for his new film Ismael's Ghosts opening stateside and I jumped on the opportunity to interview him again because I adored the film. Desplechin, as usual, is just as unpredictable and sprawling as his films in person. He loves to talk. And his enthusiasm for his love of cinema and his actors are infectious. Here is how it went this time:

So there are two cuts of the film. I’ve only seen the director’s cut. Can you tell me about the differences of the two? Are you happier that only the director’s cut is released in the States?

The thing which happened in France is that because I’m French, we could afford two versions of the film at the same time. So we had what I called the ‘strange’ version and we had director’s cut. So at the (Cannes) festival we showed the Director’s Cut and in the cinema we released the shortened French version. After that I just remembered that this line from Larry Gross, you know Larry Gross? He is a screenwriter and a film critic. He asked me what the meaning of the short version was, and he told me in a very patronizing way and I loved it: “My dear Arnaud, in terms of storytelling, this French version is a complete non-sense.” (Laughs) I’m not good at cursing. So all I could say was that we don’t have the trapanese in Tel Aviv and that there is no explanation why Ismael saying that his brother’s dead (which is a deeper problem). But he is alive again in the later part of the picture as he makes an appearance on the Skype chat. So you miss all that part. So I can say that French version was more focused on the love triangle. It’s like a popular fiction which is more sentimental and the other, longer version is more cerebral.

It’s the first time you have a protagonist who is a film director. Was this intentional?

I had one character already who was an artist in my films. He was in Kings and Queen. He was a violinist. It was an humble profession. For me, to make someone a violinist was a very transgressive thing to do because I feel much more comfortable with a doctor or a scientist or whatever to give to the character. But this time I told myself, I reached an age where I can say ‘screw it we will see what happens when I give a character a job of film director'. When I said that, my producer was not too happy, “come on, not the film director!” In my defense, film director is a humble one. Ismael never says that he’s a director. He’s just a humble filmmaker. Translated from French, film director is more like Film Builder (realisateur). It’s not really a word, the concept doesn’t exist in terms of filmmaking. The director in the film is Henry Bloom, the…cineaste as we say in French.

Ismael loves his job. You can see him struggling when not directing in the attic. Zwy (played by Hippolyte Giradot), the producer, the number guy, is the real director in that sense.

You are saying it’s not a self-reflexive movie just because the main character is a director?

Like Ismael Vuillard in Kings and Queen, who shares the same name as in this film, they are artists who are going too far. They are overdoing anything they are doing. They are both gross, insulting… ah (laughs) Ismael is the type of the director I would love to be because he allows himself to do everything I forbid to do myself. For Matthieu, he loved to be Ismael, he kept saying, “how can he do that? I’d never dare!” It’s something you think about doing but never dare to do it, like shooting your producer! (Laughs) That’s why we loved this character. He’s our little devil for Mathieu and I.

Thing I’ve wondered about is your fascination with espionage thrillers as they appear in your films.

My first feature Le Sentinelle was already a spy film. Even in My Golden Days, there is a elements of a spy film. I’ve always been interested in that kind of topics. I’m a big fan of Jean Le Carré, Robert Ludlum and even John Grisham. The title Ismael’s Ghosts, not to quote Norman Mailer, but as an homage, Harlot’s Ghost, which is a spy novel.

But I knew at the very beginning that I wanted to depict that this director would escape to the spy world while writing alone in the attic. That you will only have bits and pieces of the life of diplomat. And you will never know if he is a spy or a total idiot. You will never have the answer. It was a tribute to Broadway Danny Rose where you have bits and pieces of life and the agency of Broadway Danny Rose but you won’t have the whole story. So I knew that why he is writing about his brother being a spy because he is daydreaming about a man who disappear to the other part of the world.

But I still didn’t have the character of Ismael and I didn’t have a idea of a proper film. He is escaping but why is he escaping? I finally thought when I realized that his wife being disappeared for twenty years, him being a widower and her appearing again has a lot to do with his escape. Then I had the movie which was a movie in two parts - one part in the island with two women and the other in the attic.

Ismael, the same name as the one in Kings and Queen, and Daedalus again. this time Ivan.

I had to! Come on. What kind of names could I give? One of my character is inventing Daedalus for sure.

Not only three main actors, all of whom are wonderful, but I really enjoyed other great actors in this film - Hippolyte Giradot, Alba Rohrbacher and was good to see Catherine Mouchet. How was the casting process?

It’s a long process. It’s not the same as casting the main actors. But for Alba, it was a piece of cake. Because I had two monsters of French screen - Charlotte and Marion. I was thinking who could survive between these two such huge movie stars. I had to go with someone not French. But Alba is not only an incredible actress, she has such an incredible face, a face in a classical painting. She could be the wife of Louis or she could be the fiancee of Ismael. Ismael doesn’t have to settle with a ‘young newcomer’ you know? So avoiding the cliché of an old director dating a young woman, we have Alba, with her ageless, beautiful face like in a classical Italian painting! I was a huge fan of her work and that’s how I decided on her.

Catherine Mouchet, even the part was small, it was important for me to introduce her in the role because it was a key moment of transition from a comical scene where Ismael is tied to the bed to a pure melodrama. For that I needed to have a strong, well known face to have that jump from two different tones. It was also a tribute to her career. She has such an amazing face so I didn’t want to have just any doctor, but I wanted to have Catherine Mouchet!

And Hippolyte Giradot, I mean, we are good friends and he was great in Kings and Queen as a drug addict. In this film, when Mathieu is madness, Hippolyte is the reason. His character Zwy, is my favorite inside joke. Zwy Schomel - the name is so ultra Jewish. There are so many consonants no one could pronounce or spell his name, it was hilarious. Hippolyte is not Jewish and nor am I. We are both Catholics but we were educated by this Sephardic North African guy the ways of the Jews. We three were very close. So that element was kind of homage to this person, Pierre, we knew. I knew a bit about Ashkenazi community but when I arrived in Paris, I met Pierre and learned a lot about Sephardic Jews. Hippolyte knew the guy all his life, he knew his ways, so he created Zwy in Pierre’s image. It’s nice. Zwy says, ‘we are too old for this shit’, it reflects us, Hippolyte and I, getting old.

There are a lot of moving shots, zooming shots and intense orange colors. Especially the scene with Mathieu and Alba. Your cinematographer’s Irina Lubtchansky.

She is the daughter of William Lubtchansky (DP of countless French New Wave films including films by Agnes Varda, Jean Luc-Godard, Jacques Rivette and Philippe Garrel).

How did you and Irina go about creating the film’s look?

I don’t know how to say in America (talks to the interpreter), oh, a gel, in front of the lamps. It’s commonly known as the 'Storaro gel’. It’s a very specific one and the most expensive one you can have. Producers hate it when you want the Stroraro gel but I wanted to use it in that bedroom scene with Alba and Mathieu. Because you don’t know if its a dream or real. I wanted to add something magical in that scene so Irina and I both decided to go for the ‘Storaro gel’.

We used the same gel for the sunset in the beach house. It’s where Charlotte against the tree asking, “Do I sleep like a nun?” I was not supposed to shoot the scene that way, not at all. I had a totally different plan. We started with the emotion of that scene and i was sitting beside Irina and we had a long lens- it was supposed to be still and the reverse after that. It was pretty elaborate you know. But the performance she was giving to me was so intense that I took the zoom and started to move in without stopping. I was absorbing the scene brought on by Charlotte’s performance. We finished it that close (gesturing about a foot). So we did it. It was not the first take, it was 6th or 7th. I went to Charlotte and said, “This is it. you gave me everything you have. The scene is done.” It was never planned that way. Sometimes your actress and actors, mainly in my case, actresses, give me everything they have in their faces and I can’t stop capturing it. A face is such an amazing landscape, she really swallows the cinema at that moment.

There is a element of lost love and the love triangle that resonate to the romantics in me but the subplot of Jewish guilt/the survivor’s guilt, portrayed here by the great Laszlo Szabo really touched me. I’ve recently watched Memoir of War/La douleur by Emmanuel Finkel, based on the writing of Marguerite Duras. The pain of losing someone is so great that you lose the sense of self. Is it something you were exploring?

First of all, I love La douleur, I love the book and I love the film. All the actors are astonishing, every part of the film is astonishing. That is a very specific loss when you don't have the body to bury. It’s an endless one. I can mention a chapter in Sabbath’s Theater, the Philip Roth novel where the main character, when he was young marries this woman. Then she disappears. Its the war and you don't know if she is dead or not. She could be dead.

You have this father who is unable to moan her. So the suffering is always vivid. It is starting to be not as vivid as before for Ismael, because he just met Charlotte. Suddenly there is a second chance. For her dad, he is too old for that. There is guilt. If someone dies, someone dies. If someone disappears, it’s because of you. As Carlotta was saying, “You were too heavy,” She had a heavy father, so she had to escape to her fate. So there is a guilt in the character of Henry Bloom.

Carlotta comes back to her father on his deathbed. But there is no chance for her and Ismael getting back together is there?

I don't think so. Marion and I were discussing the script and trying different things. I think I just discovered something in the editing room, something Marion did without warning me and perhaps without knowing what she was doing: is that Carlotta the character is back on the island where she used to go with Ismael when she was young, she thinks, “I want my husband back.” It’s that simple. She is devilish, She is deliciously devilish with the dance scene with Bob Dylan song and everything. Then Ismael disappears. You realize that the second part of the movie, she doesn’t come back to get her husband, she goes back to her father. It seems to me that Marion plays a little devil in the first movement and she plays the second movement as a saint. I remember Pascal the producer saying to me after the first screening of a rough cut, “It’s strange that Marion has two faces,” and I thought that was the definition of great performance. I didn’t realized that when I was writing it, but Marion offered me that with her performance. I am really overwhelmed when I think about it.

Tell me if I am wrong but how I see the film is that in order to move on when you are in a rut artistically, you need a push from the ghost of the past.

Yeah yeah in a way. How can you run if you are stuck between Gainsbourg and Cotillard? But he does. He is running to his hometown and daydreaming about his film rather than actually making it. As he buys live hens to get eggs for breakfast, he has no love life any longer. (laughs) So he can just focus on his work.

Tell me a little about Roubaix, your hometown. You are very harsh on describing the town in the film. Is it as ugly as you say?

It’s the worst. My next film will be totally different. It will be about Roubaix. It’s about the social tolls of the town. It’s the poorest town in France. Where you have the most immigration population, mainly Algerians. One third of the population is wearing the veil, as you’ve seen that funny scene with Hippolyte in town. The first terrorist attack was in Roubaix during the Yugoslavian War. There was a riot and police was storming the houses with firehoses. It was really ugly. It's a really violent city.

The way I am painting it- more sweet and gentle, I’m trying to see the beauty of this ancient city. But it’s a nightmare as I’ve shown in that train ride scene. It’s my… what is that wonderful Canadian movie called...

My Winnipeg?

Yes, it’s like My Winnipeg. But the town is less richer than Winnipeg. 60 percent of the population is unemployed which creates violence. And there is no solution. All these people there are trapped in the merciless system. But I still have great tenderness for the city. I think it’s still beautiful and there are beautiful people living there. I have absolute anger and love for the city at the same time.

I’d love to see that movie. Very much looking forward to it.

Ismael's Ghosts is playing in New York's Quad Cinema and FSLC. The film will open in Los Angeles on 4/6. Please visit Magnolia Pictures Website for info on national rollout.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Creative Process Can Use Some Help from Ghosts of the Past

Ismael's Ghosts (2017) - Desplechin
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Could Ismael's Ghosts be seen as Desplechin's 8 1/2? is the question that kept coming up in my head while watching the film. At 58, Arnaud Desplechin lends a deeply personal, metaphysical insight to inner struggles of a creative mind, even more so than in My Golden Days. In his usual sprawling ways, Desplechin goes on explaining the difficulties of filmmaking process and throws in the Jewish guilt/survivor's remorse: What do you do when your loved one, long presumed dead but never forgotten, comes back to your life? This quandary is one of the ghosts that our protagonist has to reckon with.

With multiple flashbacks and movie within a movie, Ismael's Ghosts tells a story of Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), a boorish movie director. While struggling with his The Man Who Knew Too Much style, Hitchcockian cold war spy movie project based on his suave (but estranged) diplomat brother Ivan (Louis Garrel), starring Garrel, Ismael falls for timid but supportive, loving Astrophysicist Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). He has been maintaining a good relationship with Henri Bloom (Laszlo Szabo) the father of his missing wife Carlotta (Marion Cortillard) as they share the same grief and loss.

The movie is narrated by Sylvia. Intimidated by this charismatic movie director at first, but charmed by his broken 'widower' side of him, she falls in love. But the reappearance of Carlotta (Marion Cortillard), a long declared absent wife of a Ismael, tests their relationship. Walked out of her marriage at 20, Carlotta manifests herself some twenty years later at the Ismael's childhood beach house where he comes to write. No explanation is good enough for Ismael, furious with Carlotta for sabotaging his life, first by disappearing and now coming back, he resents her greatly. Unable to compete with magnetic Carlotta, Sylvia calls it quits and goes back to her telescope at an observatory up in the mountains.

After sleeping with Carlotta, Ismael flees to his home town of Robaix. All broken up and melancholy, with mixed up memories and emotions brought on by Carlotta, he becomes a hermit. With the production of his spy movie's future uncertain, the company sends in his friend/line producer (Hippolyte Giradot) to convince Ismael to finish the movie. In that chaos, the director finds his inspiration flowing once again, helped by the ghosts of his pasts so to speak.

In the meantime, Carlotta visits Henri and her presence freaks him out and sends him to a hospital. For everyone who loved her, the impact of her disappearing was too great and deep, her presence is not welcome but painful reminder of their loss. As similarly themed recent movie A Memoir of War based on Marguerite Duras' book tells us, the pain of losing someone and no sense of closure is too great that even the eventual return can't remedy its wounds.

Desplechin deals with a lot of complicated thoughts and emotions on screen, acted out by three very good actors on the top of their game. And as usual, his writing is excellent. His preoccupation with an international spy in the name of Dedalus is still there, this time Ivan, not his alter ego, Paul. Deliciously self-reflexive and touching, Ismael's Ghosts is another great testament of Desplechin's unique talent as a film enthusiast and a great writer.

Ismael's Ghosts opens theatrically at The Quad and Film Society of Lincoln Center on March 23rd in New York

Monday, March 19, 2018

Youthful Melancholy

Primrose Hill (2007) - Hers
Primrose Hill
Twenty something friends talk about music, friendship while walking up the hill overlooking Paris. There was some kind of tragedy there, Sylvia, the sister of Stephane, whose voice over recites the dream she had about the hill, had gone missing some time ago. That tragedy lingers around the rest of them. This sets apart Hers films from other twenty something walking-and-talking films. Melancholic yet still romantic, Primrose Hill observes youth(fulness) with a sigh- a fleeting moment in time- there is shot of a white haired old man, standing still, watching them playing soccer. In grainy film shot images, we find comfort and familiarity, the joy of being young preceded by sadness. This is my second Mikhaël Hers, I guess I will need to see Memory Lane.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Direct Cinema

Nawet nie wiesz, jak bardzo cie kocham/You Have No Idea How Much I Love You (2016) - Lozinski
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I've seen some excellent documentaries coming out of Poland recently. You Have No Idea How Much I Love You is one of them. The set up is simple: it's a recording of family therapy sessions - mother (Ewa Szymczyk), daughter (Hanna Maciag) and the therapist (Bogdan de Barbaro). With close ups of these three people, sometimes the camera panning, sometimes over the shoulder, are as direct cinema as you can get. It's not their bad complexions we notice, but their eyes, catching the lights as they speak that lend the film's hypnotic power. Lozinski focuses on these three and nothing else and we are held captive audience, holding on to every word spoken.

Even though they grew apart, these two women got together in the hopes of solving their differences - abandonment issue, loneliness both stemming from Ewa's divorce when Hanna was still young. Blames, waterworks, breakthrough. It's truly captivating stuff.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2018 Preview

There are different ways to celebrate the arrival of Spring. But if you are in New York, there is only one way to do it, in style- you go see some great new French films at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It's a proud tradition around this neck of the woods.

The 23rd edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema is here with array of films by established filmmakers and first timers alike, including Bruno Dumont (Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc), Mathieu Amalric (Barbara), Raymond Depardon (12 Days), Toni Marshall (Number One), Léonor Serraille (Montparnasse Bienvenüe), Léa Mysius (Ava), just to name a few.

FSLC is partnering again with UniFrance this year, putting emphasis on presenting emerging women directors. To quote Executive Director of UniFrance Isabelle Giordano:

French cinema today is unafraid to delve into the issues at the forefront of our collective consciousness, which is reflected throughout this year’s selection. In particular, we’re extremely proud to showcase a wide variety of women’s stories—films about women’s resilience during times of war, millennial women trying to find their place in the world, the glass ceiling, and even the childhood of a young girl destined to become a legend. As ever, we are thrilled to introduce American audiences to bold newFrench voices, this year including Léa Mysius, Léonor Serraille, Maryam Goormaghtigh, and Marine Francen.
The series runs 3/8 -3/18. For tickets and more info, please visit FSLC website.

Here are the films I was able to sample:

Jeannette, The Childhood of Joan of Arc - Bruno Dumont
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It does makes sense that Bruno Dumont's latest is about Joan of Arc. She personifies the Christian devotion and spirituality, so it comfortably fits in his filmography. It also makes sense that Jeanette is a musical comedy: as he brazenly made it clear since his first foray into comedy with L'il Quinquin and last year's Slack Bay that comedy is just a flip side of a coin- that his austere films (dotted with bizarre surrealist moments) can easily be rip-roaringly funny when they go two millimeter off the path.

Young Jeanne (Lise Leplat Prudhomme, and later played by Jeanne Voisin) is a precocious girl living in Domrémy, north-east France (Dumont's beloved home region). She and her friend have been praying to god to save France from English invaders to no avail. She encounters a twin dancing nuns or, has a religious epiphany of Ste. Marguerite & Catherine, telling her to lead the French army. They conclude their meeting with a choreographed headbanging with Heavy Metal music.

I get what Dumont is trying to do and Jeannette should work in theory. His Bressonian approach, using non-professionals to convey the serious subject such as faith and purity of Joan of Arc is a noble attempt and should be praised. But when you think of Joan of Arc, it's usually the haunting close ups of Renée Jeanne Falconetti's face in Dreyer's poetic masterpiece Passion of Joan of Arc that come up to mind. In comparison, Jeanette can come across as a bad high school musical, complete with b-boy moves and falling off a horse for laughs.

Dumont's full framed beautiful composition highlighting the big sky country is there, so as the picturesque, windswept, soft lit sand hills of Brittany. But can it offset the silliness? You will be the judge.

Barbara - Mathieu Amalric *Opening Night Film
Mathieu Amalric's continues to show his impressive directing chops with Barbara, starring his ex, the immensely talented singer and actress, Jeanne Balibar. As the case with his award winning On Tour, Amalric's kaleidoscopic reverie on show business is a Fellini-esque controlled madness. Still, his deep love for performers is always palpable. And it's Balibar front and center here. She plays Brigitte, an actress interpreting the details from the legendary french singer's life, being directed by aimless, but passionate film director Yves (Amalric). As the film moves along, it becomes hard to distinguish Brigitte from Barbara and vice versa.

The title sequence accentuates the importance of Barbara's dictation of each word as she speaks, title appearing in intervals as she pronounces words rhythmically. It's all about mannerisms and gestures and the heavy make-up and her singing style, which Balibar tackles confidently. Added is movie within a movie meta-ness. But it doesn't take away the spotlight from its star.

Born Monique Andrée Serf in a Russian Jewish immigrant household, the singer took her grandmother's name as her stage name and became Barbara. Her melancholic love songs which were all written by her, touched a generation of listeners and helped her to become a national treasure. She also had a very pronounced nose which Brigitte lacks. There is a scene where Brigitte gets her face cast for the nose. In some scenes she wears it and in others she doesn't. Amalric is interested in recreating those details up to a point but leaves it to the flow of the film. He uses archival footage of the real singer in the beginning and back to Brigitte faithfully studying and practicing her every gesture and singing style. But as the film progresses, he cuts rapidly back and forth between Barbara and Brigitte, with added grainy footage of Balibar reenacting Barbara on stage, blurring the line among all three.

Amalric is an astute student of cinema. He is keenly aware of the medium and knows how to benefit from its possibilities but not in a showy way. His aimlessness is also his best asset. The film is rhythmic, fluid and free. One of the year's best.

A Memoir of War - Emmanuel Finkel
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Emmanuel Finkel tackles on semi-autobiographical book by writer & film director Marguerite Duras. And it's an ambitious one. The film starts with Marguerite (Mélanie Thierry) in German occupied Paris at the tip end of WWII. She had found her own journal which is essentially the book the film is based on, but she doesn't recall if it was she who wrote it. She is waiting for her husband Robert's return. He has been in custody for his resistance activities. Robert's prolonged absence has been a disorienting, unraveling experience for her.

We roll back to 1944, just before the scale tipped for the Allied forces. Marguerite was approached by Rabier (Benoit Magmiel, becoming more and more like young Gerard Depardieu), a collaborator, working for the Vichy regime, offering help to find where Robert is. He is a working class bloke who dreams of opening up a bookstore and thus fancies Margueritte because she's a writer. Her circle of friends in the resistance first think it's too dangerous for her, then admit that it might be a good opportunity for her to play Rabier to get important information.

First, fear and intimidation grip her but she plays along as Rabier leads her on to the promise of Robert's well being. It is clear that he wants something in return - ratting on her resistance friends. A dangerous game of cat and mouse play out.

Not unlike Duras scripted Hiroshima mon amour, A Memoir of War concerns the effect of war has on people- the guilt that survivors have to carry around weighs so heavily on them that they lose their sense of self. Marguerite often sees her surroundings in a third person perspective. She also sees herself from a distance as if she is experiencing an out of body experience. Duras doesn't put blames on a collaborator alone. Holocaust happened. As a human being, we all have to wrestle with the fact that it happened. Using shallow depth of field, Finkel makes sure there that there is a distance between people at all times. There is a striking scene of empty Paris just before its liberation where Marguerite rides her bicycle. But she will never be free from that guilt. And it won't stop even if she has Robert back finally.

Thierry is a revelation as Marguerite, a learned, intellectual woman who slowly gets broken emotionally. A Memoir of War is a great film.

12 Days - Raymond Depardon
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The French law requires 12 days of involuntary hospitalization in a psychic ward for anyone deemed danger to him/herself and others. Nearly 92,000 people are placed under psychiatric care each year. After those initial 12 days, a judge makes fateful decisions based on doctor's observations on these cases in the courtroom.

The famed filmmaker/photographer Raymond Depardon gets an access to these court hearings for the first time and gives voices to the voiceless for better or worse. The result is a fascinating documentation of the unseen, underexposed mental problems the modern society faces.

The courtroom cases with 3 camera setups, we witness these hearing sessions to determine if the involuntarily hospitalized persons will continue to be involuntarily hospitalized or not. Many of them are obviously disturbed and suffering from mental disorder- a girl who was repeatedly raped thinks only way to get the bad sexual energy out of her body is to slit her wrist, a man who killed his father 10 years ago longs to go home to his father, etc. Some are comparatively mild encounters with the law- an office worker who brandished a knife in front of her boss and co-workers, a man in a violent outdoor brawl. All of them don't want to be locked up. All they do is medicate. Judges listen, they can be compassionate, but the results are always the same - ruling for involuntary hospitalization beyond 12 initial days. The film is a startling and chilling document of real life unfolding because we see these kind of cases all the time on our streets, in our subway stations and homeless shelters. 12 Days remind you of our complicated, psychologically fragile society where we are not equipped with dealing with the massive flow of mental illness.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight - Nobuhiro Suwa
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Jean-Pierre Léaud plays an aging actor Jean, starring in a movie in southern France. He is having a hard time how to play death. The director (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) insists it being played like him quietly falling asleep. Jean prefers it as an 'encounter', something more impactful, at least on camera.

The project is getting delayed because of his young co-star refuses to come out of her trailer because her heart is broken after an affair with a dancer. "It will pass soon", Jean says. So he has an unintended mini vacation and free to roam around a picturesque, sun drenched town.

He encounters the ghost of his long lost love Juliette (Pauline Etienne) in an abandoned mansion where he once lived. He abandoned her 40 some years ago and she committed suicide by throwing herself in the lake. As he starts to living in that abandoned house, the local kids armed with amateur movie making equipment, barges in and starts following him around.

Along with last year's Death of Louis XIV, Léaud plays a role that deals with aging and mortality. As the face of French New Wave, he is an embodiment of living legend. But he's not really considered as a great actor. At 73, with his leathery, sagging face, he is rather the testament of ravaging flow of time. Nobuhiro Suwa, a Japanese director who's been making films in France, like Albert Serra and Tsai Ming-Liang before him, uses this walking icon for a subtle contemplation on lost love, the joy of cinema and passage of time. Falling somewhere between The Great Beauty and Cinema Paradiso but very very muted in tone, The Lion Sleeps Tonight might be a little too sentimental for some.

Custody - Xavier Legrand
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Xavier Legrand's debut feature Custody is about a domestic violence case that plays out like a thriller. Going for detached, observational documentary style of Dardennes brothers, his mastery in getting an amazingly natural performance out of his talented cast must be commended.

Custody starts out with the custody mediation hearing which lays out the typical situation - abusive husband (Denis Ménochet) who has an upper hand financially gets the joint custody of their 11 year old son (Thomas Gioria) on weekends, even though the kid wrote a statement that dad has been abusive and threatening to his mother (Léa Drucker). Because there is a little evidence of physical abuse.

It's really painful to watch as physically imposing, threatening dad manipulating the kid to get at mom and into their lives again against their wishes. Custody slowly builds up to an explosive conclusion and it's unbearably tense.

It says a lot about the inadequate system in terms of domestic abuse and how things are stacked up against women to prove that abuse can take many different forms.

Montparnasse Bienvenue - Léonor Serraille
montparnasse bienvenue
Paula (Laetitia Dosch) just got dumped by her professor boyfriend of 10 years. She makes a scene outside his flat by screaming and banging her head against the door and ends up in a hospital getting stitches on her forehead. With a fluffy cat in tow, homeless, aimless Paula drifts from one place to another, trying to score a place to spend a night while cursing out Paris, the most unfriendly city in the world.

While on the metro, Paula meets exotic Yuki (Léonie Simaga) who mistakes her for her elementary school classmate (it's her Heterochromia iridium - one brown and one green). Yuki invites her to stay at her flat and even gives her a lead for a job - babysitting for a wealthy woman in exchange for a maid's room in the attic. Paula also gets a job at a lingerie shop in a department store after many failed interviews. Naturally chatty, she makes friends everywhere she goes.

At first, Dosch's Paula strikes as a typical 'crazy girlfriend' but after a while, we ease into her quirks and get charmed by her personality. Dosch makes her character endlessly endearing and relatable. First time writer/director Serraille does a great job painting a complicated young woman trying to navigate the world.

'Nothing is that black and white', one of the characters says to her. This resonates throughout the whole film. Montparnasse Bienvenüe is not really about post-college syndrome (think of Francise Ha!)- Paula is 31 but always lies that she is 29 as if that makes a huge difference. But as the film's original title (Jeune Femme - young woman), suggests, it paints a general picture of a modern woman who charges through life with 'fake it till you make it' spirit. Constantly hilarious and immensely watchable, Montparnasse Bienvenüe is a comedy gem.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Film Comment Selects 2018

Curated by its esteemed editors, Film Comment magazine's 18th edition of Film Comment Selects returns to Lincoln Center.

A great mix of old and new cinematic gold, this year's lineup includes Ildikó Enyedi’s Berlinale Golden Bear-winner On Body and Soul; Mrs. Fang, Wang Bing’s unflinching document of an elderly woman in her final days, which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno; the North American premiere of Katharina Wyss’s powerful debut feature Sarah Plays a Werewolf, about a woman who channels her fears into theater; Govinda Van Maele’s fiction feature debut Gutland, featuring Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps; the U.S. premiere of Slovenian director Rok Biček‘s The Family, a compassionate portrait of a young man’s life over the course of 10 years; and experimental artist Bertrand Mandico’s exhilarating, gender-bending Wild Boys.

The series opens with US premiere of Life and Nothing More, a moving docu/fiction hybrid by Antonio Méndez Esparza.

The Series runs Friday, February 23 through Tuesday, February 27. Please visit FSLC's website for tickets and more info.

Here are six films I was able to sample:

Wild Boys/Les garçons sauvages
- Bertrand Mandico
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Five handsome boys from an exclusive boarding school go a little too far with their sexual desire with their literature teacher, reaching a state called 'Tresór,' symbolized by a jewel-crusted skull. As a punishment, they are cast away by a greasy, bearded ship captain (Sam Louwick) with a gigantic tattooed penis. Chained and fed only a fruit that resembles hairy balls, the boys go through a harrowing sea voyage under the ruthless captain. The ship is headed toward a mysterious island where men turn into the fairer sex. The idea is, taking a short trip to the island might make these wild lusty boys a little more even tempered, a little less testosterone filled.

Bertrand Mandico makes a feature debut after many fantastical, colorful, playful shorts with the crazy beautiful The Wild Boys. He flips gender roles, having the roles of the boys played by female actors (Vimala Pons, Pauline Lorillard, Diane Rouxel, Anaël Snoek and Mathilde Warnier) in ties and suspenders with short hair. After they get to the seemingly wild and unkempt island full of weird vegetation that resembles secreting penises and hairy balls (their only means of sustenance), they meet Dr. Séverin(e) (Mandico's muse Elina Löwensohn), a zoologist who became a woman after he landed on the island. One of the boys, Hubert (Rouxel) gets left behind with Séverine and the rest go back to the ship due to the captain's urging. But soon the boys revolt against the captain because they want to go back to the weirdly seductive island. The boat capsizes in the storm, and the boys end back up on the island.

A gaudy, sensual, daring and inventive take on both Goto: Island of Love by Polish master Animator/filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk and Lord of the Flies, The Wild Boys is a lot of fun. It plays out like a prettier, sexier Guy Maddin film. And its pan-sexual theme is not without a dash of humor. The beach fight/orgy scene complete with flying feathers and sand alone is worth the price of admission.

The Family
- Rok Biček
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Rok Biček's non-judgmental, uncompromising Slovenian documentary follows young Matej's troubled life for a decade. It shows that the life is very complicated and not at all black and white.

In a jumbled timeline, we first see the graphic moments of Nia, Matej and his girlfriend Barbara's daughter, being born. They both are teenagers at this point. They move in with Barbara's parents'. It seems Matej has a strong bond with Barbara's dad. But their domestic bliss is very short-lived. We see teary Matej moving out and back into his parents'. It is quite easy to see why Matej seeks his parental love elsewhere- with a mentally challenged brother at home, his parents are not quite the nurturing types- uneducated and lost control over Matej long ago, their communication is limited to slurring words, yells and insults. But it's not like his parents are monsters. Dealing with a teenage son who is glued to his computer screen and completely shut out of his world, his parents deal with issues like any other parents of teenagers in the world.

A session with the with a school councilor reveals this dilemma. The councilor points out to Matej's dad that his son is quite bright, yet his has learning disabilities and has some behavioral issues. Dad tells her that he is doing all he can to help him. And the councilor reminds Matej that his parents 'doing all they can' might seem not enough under their circumstances, but that doesn't mean they don't love him.

As the custody battle over Nia ensues, Matej seeks vasectomy. He doesn't want to get a girl pregnant. And the sensation is not the same with condoms, he explains to the doctor. His application is denied because he's only 23. He gets involved with a 14 year old school girl and gets heavily dependent on her kindly mother.

With titling the film, The Family, Biček deliberately provokes us to examine what it means in the current complicated, messy world we are living in. There are numerous gaps in the timeline and important events in Matej's life we are missing out- his father died, how? What happened to his front teeth? It's that truncated history that gives the film its punch. Life goes on, whether we are watching or not. The film ends with young Matej snarkily asking, looking directly into the camera "Isn't my life interesting?" Yet the film's theme goes way beyond its mere subject.

- Govinda Van Maele
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Starring pre-Phantom Thread Vicky Krieps, Gutland is a solid first feature from Luxembourgian director Govinda Van Maele. It's a slow burner that ultimately doesn't really pay off. It doesn't have a moral lesson or big revelatory ending. But it's all about maintaining that below-the-surface tension all throughout- Van Maele and co. do it very well with the help of effective dream/fantasy sequences and uneasy score.

It tells a story of a brusque German bank robber Jens (Frederick Lau) with a bag full of cash rolling into a rural farming community in Luxembourg. In order to lay low, Jens looks for a job as a farmhand for the harvest season. At first suspicious, the townsfolk warm up to the caveman-like Jens, especially Lucy (Krieps), the daughter of the towns mayor. A town's elder, the pillar of the community takes a liking to him. He warns him ominously of one thing though - do not get involved with any of the wives here.

Jens settles in with Lucy, making his stay semi-permanent, having a tranquil life. All the while, he has to deal with dirty secrets of the village, his own past and the bag full of money he buried in woods nearby. Is Jens a different man now he cut his caveman hair and beard off and plays in the town's orchestra? Is his second chance in life voluntarily asked for or forcibly given?

Gutland is an expertly crafted noir where you can't shake off that ominous feeling from beginning to end.

Life and Nothing More
- Antonio Méndez Esparza *Opening Night Film
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Falling somewhere between Roberto Minervini films and Florida Project, Life and Nothing More, directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza (Aqui y allá), brims with authenticity and empathy. If you were going in cold feet like me, the film is an extremely intimate documentary about a troubled teenager Andrew (Andrew Bleechington) and his overworked, but tough single mom Gina (Regina Williams). But a halfway through, you notice improvable, almost impossible camera placements in public places without being noticed and hear voice overs when they read letters. Then you realize that this isn't a documentary.

First, the focus is on Andrew, a quiet high school kid trying to stay out of trouble and taking care of his little sister while mom is at a diner working. He is bombarded from all sides (community groups and churches) that he needs to be good. Yet he is still a teen, trudging through a rough school and crime ridden neighborhood. With his dad incarcerated, he builds up his anger inside him. Then we shifts focus on to Gina and her budding romance with one of her customers, Robert (Robert Williams). She's done with men and doesn't have time for any bullshit. But very insistent Robert seems like a genuinely nice guy. What Andrew thinks of him is another matter though.

As it develops into a courtroom drama, the film charts a familiar territory - poverty, absent fathers, the inadequate, racist justice system, etc. But perhaps this uninspired story arc is the point - with little choices these characters have under the circumstances, this is how it plays out, just like in real life.

Quietly moving and beautifully portrayed by non-actors, Life and Nothing More is another moving, very human docufiction experiment about marginalized Americana.

*The California Film Institute's CFI releasing will theatrically distribute the two-time Spirit Awards nominee nationally this spring (TBA date). Award-winning filmmaker Antonio Méndez Esparza who is also a Guggenheim Fellow and professor at Florida State University will be in New York this week for the NY premiere screening and also participate in a Film Comment Free Talk on Race and Representation on 2/24.

On Body and Soul - Ildikó Enyedi

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A handicapped, lonely and aging financial director, Endre (Géza Morcsányi) at an industrial slaughterhouse is intrigued by Maria (Alexandra Borbély), a new quality inspector who lacks any social niceties. It happens that they dream the same dream every night - that they are a deer couple, roaming the snowy forests, enjoying each other's company in silence. But even though they share the serendipitous events, unlike a regular romance, they have some big huddles to leap through - Endre has given up his love life a long while ago and Maria suffers from haphephobia for whatever reasons.

Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi (My Twentieth Century) does whimsy right while contemplating all animals as sentient beings. On Body and Soul is a grown-up fairytale (as opposed to grown-up's fairytale). I liked that Enyedi doesn't rely on cuteness of the premise. It's mature and beautifully realized. I hate when a film makes sex as a clutch that solves every problem its characters have. Even though Maria's characterization is shorthanded, I loved the idea of her ethereal being coming down to earth by her elopment with Endre, realizing the love is accepting breadcrumbs on the table.

Sarah Plays a Werewolf - Katharina Wyss

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Sarah Plays a Werewolf paints a complex picture of what being a teenage girl is like. Sarah (Loane Balthasar) is a High School drama student in a picturesque Swiss town. She has a nice, well adjusted family - parents are well educated, cultured intellectuals & siblings are normal. Sarah has a penchant for dramatics - loving tragic figures in plays and opera, telling classmates that her imagined boyfriend is dead and Ben, her older brother who recently moved out to attend college, committed suicide even though he's alive and well. She doesn't have any friends or someone to talk to. It doesn't help that her parents are way too liberal with their parenting, encouraging her freedom in every which way, even condoning the thought of suicide. She and her Georges Batalle reading classmate Alice stage dramatic scene where Sarah plays a victim to Alice's torturer. Everyone, except for the drama teacher (Sabine Timoteo), is nonplussed and soon after Sarah loses Alice to a boy. She tries to make out with some of the boys but that doesn't work out either.

Sarah becomes more and more withdrawn and have schizophrenic episodes, until she attacks one of the student on stage. But her father refuses to medicate her or send her to therapy. "No one understands me," she keeps on saying.

Moody and melancholic, Sarah Plays a Werewolf is a clear eyed examination of being a teenage girl that reminds me of Bresson's films, especially Four Nights and a Dreamer and A Gentle Woman. Loane Balthasar's fearless performance is remarkable.

Mrs. Fang - Wang Bing

Mrs. Fang - Wang Bing

Death, the inevitable. It comes to everyone. It is part of life. We experience it more as we get older. But it never gets any easier. Wang Bing, the master chronicler of the shadowy side of Chinese economic boom, unflinchingly move forward with documenting an elderly woman's process of dying. Think of Mrs. Fang as real life version of Haneke's Amour, only less dignified and less poetic, just like death in real life.

We see Mrs. Fang, a plump, elderly lady silently looking in a dingy room. Six month later, she is skin and bones, unrecognizable, her teeth exposed, dying of Alzheimer's in the bed in a room she once looked in. Her family and friends flood the room looking in her condition. They argue loudly about the cost of her care, the funeral arrangement and her state of mind. As usual, through the series of long takes, we are confronted with a person dying in close up - her eyes staring nowhere, no voice and almost no mobility. People around her don't know about death, less about the Alzheimer's. They speculate endlessly in front of the dying woman.

Just like his other films, Wang depicts the rural, poor community. They are small fishing community. But there is no romanticism portrayed - they go off on their small metal fishing boat, cast the nets which makes buzzing sound, pull them in and come home.

Just who Mrs. Fang was is not Wang's concern to show. What she did, whom she loved is beside the point. The banality of death is. It's difficult to watch. Wang faces it head on. I admire that.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Steamy Psychological Thriller Done Right: François Ozon's Double Lover

L'Amant Double/Double Lover (2017) - Ozon
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Based on Joyce Carol Oates' short novel Lives of The Twins, François Ozon concocts yet another sly, sexy psychological thriller starring Marine Vacth and Jérémie Renier. Vacth plays Chloe, a young woman suffering from intense stomach pain. Unable to find the cause of her symptoms, her doctor suggests seeing a therapist. So she becomes a patient of Paul Meyer (Renier), a mild mannered, handsome psychologist. At first, Chloe is skeptical to open herself up to a stranger, but the mutual attraction is palpable. With the help of compassionate Paul, she pours out her soul, appointment after appointment. And soon enough they fall in love. After Paul declares his love for her, they move in together.

While unpacking Paul's belongings, Chloe finds his old passport with a different sir name, Delord. He has a simple explanation - he took in his mother's maiden name when he went into practice, since Paul Meyer sounds better. She drops the subject, but a seed of distrust is planted: 'He knows everything about me. But I know nothing of him.' The stomach pain returns soon after.

On the way home from her museum watchmen job (she was a former model who lost interests after seeing the sleazy side of the industry), Chloe sees Paul or someone who looks exactly like him on the street talking to another woman. Paul denies that it was him, saying it must have been her job related stress. He recommends seeing another therapist for her stomach pain. She finds out that the man who looks just like Paul is his estranged twin brother Louis (also played by Renier), who's also a practicing therapist. Under the false pretense, she starts seeing Louis.

Louis turns out to be the opposite of Paul. He is cold, brutish and calculating. And naturally, Chloe can't help but being sexually attracted to him. Chloe starts wondering why Paul has been hiding the fact that he has a twin brother. And why Louis doesn't want her to tell Paul about their encounters. After experiencing aggressive sexual advances from Louis, Chloe gives in to her desires, and they become lovers.

Like many of his films, Double Lover is an absorbing ride. Carefully crafted with its twists and turns, the narrative pulls you in right from the beginning and never let you go. Visually, Hitchcockian elements are everywhere from the spiral staircases to the wall of mirrors. Vacth, working with Ozon for the second time after Young and Beautiful, shows her great emotional range as a woman who struggles with doubts, jealousy and desire. There is a darker dimension to her than Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby or Chatherine Deneuve in Repulsion. She is definitely not some damsel in distress. Renier, a Belgian actor who's been a Dardenne Bros regular. It's interesting to see the scrawny working class kid from La Promisse, ascending to one of the hottest romantic male leads in French cinema. He shines in a dual role, basically playing the good and the darker side of the same person.

There have been many great psychological, erotic thrillers involving twins both real and imagined - Dead Ringers, Sisters, The Dark Half come to mind when considering Double Lover. But it being an Ozon film, it's all about its protagonist creating a great, compelling narrative. Like Ozon himself, they are master storytellers, who is taking us for a ride. It's a highly seductive film with great many effortlessly sensual sequences.

I find it funny that the film is being released on Valentines Day against another Fifty Shades series. Let me put it simply - French does it better, effortlessly. Steamy and seductive, Double Lover will make an infinitely better choice for a date movie.

Double Lover opens on Valentines day 2/14 nationwide in US.

Love and Its Complications, Truthfully

Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble/We Won't Grow Old Together (1972) - Pialat
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Jean (Jean Yanne) and Catherine (Marlène Jobert) are on the verge of breaking up after 6 years. But it's always been tumultuous between them. Love works in a mysterious ways and they both can't get away from each other no matter how unhappy they both are. I've seen this in relationships and in families before- they've known each other for long enough time that they can be extremely mean to each other. Brutish Jean who works as a cameraman, says very hurtful things to Catherine. But he half expects that she will come back to him and they will get together since they love each other. After such one make up session, Catherine says that she loves him less now. However miserable Jean is, he doesn't see that he is losing her because he is still in love with her. And she being a little more adult of the two, breaks up with him. You fall out of love. Love fades. But it's never gone gone.

As usual, Pialat brings out virtuosic performances from his actors. We Won't Grow Old Together is an unsentimentalized grownup love story that rings true however painful.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Life in 24 Frames

24 Frames (2017) - Kiarostami
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Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami's passing in 2016 was very unexpected. Among all the cultural luminaries who passed on recently, personally Kiarostami's death really saddened me the most. His deeply humanistic, genre and form transcending cinema has been truly unique and inspirational to my cinematic education, so his death was a devastating blow. So when I heard the news of 24 Frames, the film he's been working for 3 years, unfinished at the time of his death, is going to be released with the help of his son Ahmad, I was more than eager to see the late master's final work. And it's as usual, infinitely wise and achingly beautiful unlike anything.

Kiarostami's idea for 24 Frames is simple - try to bridge the gap between painting, photograph and moving pictures: we go great length to capture one still moment. That instant is frozen in time forever. But what about before and after that moment? They are usually easily discarded from and forgotten in our memories. Cinema as we know it, can prolong that moment for a little longer, to help us in imagining the narrative, in contextualizing the content within the frame a little more. Comprised of 24 4 1/2 minute static shots, the film most resembles his 2001 film, Five, where he held his camera to 5 static scenes in various length. And it's the same minimalistic approach without human presence (except for two scenes) he applies here.

24 Frames is, in large part, a collaboration of Kiarostami and visual effects artist Ali Kamali. Based on Kiarostami's photographs and videos, Kamali was responsible for digitally creating the multilayered images. Frame 1 is the famous winter landscape painting: The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel. Accompanied by the sound of hounds, wind, footsteps, and people playing on the frozen lake below, we see subtle animated movements - smoke billowing out of chimneys from down below, birds flying across the frame, one of the hounds coming alive and trots and pees on the tree, etc. while certain elements stay frozen, like the hunters themselves and the pheasant flying across the sky. Once again, Kiarostami offers us the chance to contemplate on various things - the power of our imagination, fleeting nature of time, immortality of art...all in one single frame.

Kiarostami's love of nature and landscapes comes to the fore - deer, cows, various birds, dogs, horses, cats, snow, rain, wind, ocean, forest, mountains. Each scene is quiet and static, just held long enough to have something happening within the frame. Windows figure heavily into the film as well- constantly framing the frame. If it's not windows, it is fences or columns. He wrote in 2009 about his photography:

I've often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us unless it's inside a frame.

As he championed shooting from the moving car throughout his films, one scene is dedicated to the snowy landscape outside the car window: a couple of horses run parallel to the moving car, we lose the sight of the horse as it lags behind. The car stops, the automatic window rolls down, the horses reappear. Now we are presented with two horses playing around in the blizzard through the car window. After a while, the car moves on.

Humans are not in the frame most of the times but with the sound of gun fire of hunters in many of these scenes, you can feel their presence. I don't think Kiarostami necessarily makes a nuisance out of humans or a threat to nature, he seems to say that this is the life as is, with us in it. But as always the case with Kiarostami's films, 24 Frames is only deceptively simple- there are a lot more layers than what meets the eye. These animals' behaviors, whether playing, fighting, cheating, waiting or moaning, resemble our behaviors closely. And they provide a lot of humor because of that.

There is a funny frame of a group of Iranian family looking at the Eiffel Tower from a distance, with their backs toward us. At first we don't know if this frame is a photograph or not. The voices from the crowd, then people working by in the foreground follows. It's another intoxicating concoction by the master: mixing the idea of 'the window to Paris' and current climate of immigration in the first world since it's hard to determine where this scene takes place.

The whole film closes with the powerful and one of the most striking images in cinema. Image can't move people is a lie. Accompanied by Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Love Never Dies", the last 'frame' will go down in cinema history as perhaps one of the most iconic and most beautiful imagery in history. It's even more sublime than the last scene of his film Taste of Cherry which ends with Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary". His son Ahmad did an admirable job choosing these 24 out of 30 'frames' or so Kiarostami considered using in the film.

Kiarostami was a true polymath. For those who are familiar with his artistry - his haiku inspired poetry, his minimalist landscape photography as well as his enigmatic films, 24 Frames represents the culmination of all his artistic practices. What make it so sad to me at least, is that there is no finality to the film. It's as if it can go on forever, completely consistent with what he had been doing all his artistic life. Nothing is comparable to his artistry. As Asghar Fahadi told me last year about his death:

This was the bitterest occurrence that happened in the cinema past year, because he was one and only. There was no one like him. There is no one like him. Many people tried to be like him or copy him but because their personalities are different from his, their films didn’t come out the way his films did.

The film is a great testament to his being as an artist and as a person. It's easily the best film I've seen this year so far.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Light It Up

In The Intense Now (2017) - Salles
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Brazilian documentary filmmaker João Moreira Salles looks back at the year 1968 where everything seemed possible. He concentrates on four different events and places - Cultural Revolution in China, the student uprising/general strike across France, Soviet Invasion of Prague and March of the One Hundred Thousands against military regime in Brazil, all in that fateful year. Culling from images of homemade movies, newsreels and documentaries, Salles examines what it's like to take it to the street for something you believe in in that fateful year.

It starts out with the tourist footage in China in 1966. Salles' mother was there, taking in a foreign land where everything was opposite of what she was accustomed to. As many picturesque scenes play out - farmers, children, on-lookers, other tourists in the sunny, happy settings, Mao Zedong's China in the beginning of Cultural Revolution seemed like an idealist utopia (except for incessant insistence on singing of songs praising the Chairman) that gloomy French students only dreamed of in the streets of cities across France in 1968. In his mom's words, the trip to China gave her "ineffable emotion that follows the shock of the unlooked-for encounter." This seeming spontaneity, unfettered enthusiasm are the themes Salles visits again and again when he talks of taking it to the streets.

The May 68 first started as demonstrating students occupying college administration buildings. I do not want to generalize this nation-wide civil unrest or make light of it, but the gist of it was this: their opposition of American Imperialism in Indo-China and traditional social hierarchy with their Marxist, Maoist ideology struck a core with the factory workers, resulting in a largest general strike in France's history. School administrations and police's violent reaction just inflamed the situation even further. Armed with wealth of footage around that time, Salles examines the short-lived unity forged between students and striking workers against the status quo of de Gaulle regime and how quickly it dissipated.

He spends quite a substantial time on Daniel Cohn Bendit, who was one of the key figures in the student movement. Through several interviews and Salles' voice-overs, we get the impression that the decentralized student movement of 68 didn't actually have an end goal. And his road trip to Berlin accompanied by a photographer and funded by a magazine was seen as a sell-out. Even one of the famous slogans on the wall, 'Sous les pavés, la plage'/'under the bricks, a beach' can be read as extremely bourgeois.

But does it matter though when you talk about the spirit of 68? You believed in something so strong you had to take it to the street. These protests weren't without casualty though. Gilles Tautin, an 18 year old High School student died near car factory. The self-immolation of Jan Palach to protest Soviet occupation in Prague put the nation in moaning. Then there was Edson Luís who as shot to death by the police in Brazil.

The footage that stands out is a young woman factory worker interviewed by the news crew outside a car factory. She is crying and refuses to go back. She protests that nothing has changed, that everything is going back to status quo. The factory management made some concessions but the thought of revolution showed a glimpse of a more just world.

As the history that unfolded after that period, we know that Mao might have succeeded in building a cult for himself and solidified his political power with Cultural Revolution, but it also did irreparable damage and brought misery and death to millions of people. de Gaulle regime's grip got stronger and Communist and Socialist party lost support.

The smell of teargas and horse manure in the air, a street protest can be an exhilarating experience. A full-on revolution might not be possible in our heavily capitalist conditioned society, and we put too much emphasis on ends over means, failure over efforts. Neither Salles glorifies the May 68 nor dismisses it as naive. He doesn't spoon-feed the audience. What Salles is showing with his documentary is that a shock to the system, albeit minuscule in the grand scheme of things (May 68' movement didn't even last 6 months), is a necessity to keep the world in check. The legacy of 68 is that it made people 'woke'. Its impact still felt from Occupy Movement to more recent the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements. Anyone who took to the street for one cause or another can deeply relate to In the Intense Now. With the disparity between haves and have-nots is greater than ever, the spirit of 68 is more relevant than ever before.