Saturday, March 28, 2015

Where is Our Mommy?

Goodnight Mommy (2014) - Franz, Fiala
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As far as creepy twins movies go, Goodnight Mommy tops it all. Impeccably executed and acted, this Austrian chiller rubs shoulders with Funny Games on cringy inducing level. It is no surprise then that the film is directed by the wife and the nephew of Ulrich Seidl. It's quite an achievement what they pulled out from the young real twin brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz.

We are introduced to preteen twins, Lukas and Elias, playing in the corn field, then near the lake. Colors are lush and vibrant you can almost smell the warm Summer surroundings. Something dark and sinister is hiding just around the corner. You can feel it. Then there is mom (brave Susan Wuest), whose face is bandaged like a mummy. She is cold and distant and barks orders at Elias and doesn't seem to acknowledge Lukas's presence. It becomes pretty clear that Lukas doesn't really exist and that something terrible has happened before. But there is scarcely any dialog for the first half of the film. They are in the hiding in the ultra modern house in the country, away from Vienna. Lukas is feeding his brother some unspeakable thoughts: our mother isn't really our mother. We need to find out where our mother is from that woman who is not her. From then on, Goodnight Mommy slowly slips into very dark, dark territory.

Franz and Fiala know to build tension without the help of music or dialog. Goodnight Mommy is quite a feat for visual storytelling. Images, shots and editing matters. Not quite formalist approach of Seidl but the images have power in this film.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sobering Look at India's Judicial System

Court (2014) - Tamhane
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Winner of the two prizes at Venice Film Festival 2014, Chaitanya Tamhane's Court lends an earnest look at India's judicial system. The film is a sobering, eye opening experience.

It starts with an arrest of an old folk singer and tutor of children, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathida) at an outdoor stage in a Mumbai slum, as he sings an incendiary, but deliciously catchy song about government corruption and unjust system. In the court, he is accused of abetting the suicide of a sewer worker who died in a manhole. It was one of his songs that allegedly drove the worker to his death. He was working the same job for 5 years but he was found dead without any protective gear inside the manhole, so says the prosecution.

The charges are obviously absurd and unfounded, but as we soon learn, everything needs to go through the judicial proceedings. Narayan seems to be used to this: he's been a radical activist in the slums since the 70s. When he is asked if he wrote and performed a song, "Manhole workers should suffocate and die," he wryly responds, "I haven't written that one yet, but now I might." 

It's his human rights activist attorney Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber, who also serves as a producer) who is more affected by the arrest because without bail, the possibly lengthy trial and being in the judicial custody will undoubtedly worsen the health of 65 year old defender. The presiding judge, following the procedure by the rules, just orders that.

John Grisham Courtroom thriller it's not, Court has no star witnesses or heart stopping twists and turns. The crowded courtroom is shown in static shots where other cases are waiting one after another. Narayan's case is one of many of that day in front of the same judge. With the rigid caste system, the film paints much more complicated picture of the society than a simple white-trash-been-done-wrong-by-the-big-corporation scenario. Tamhane avoids the film becoming a melodramatic hero/villain story. We don't see Narayan in jail at all. Instead, the film follows the inner lives of Vinay the defense attorney, the public prosecutor (wonderfully played by Geetanjali Kulkani) and the judge (Pradeep Joshi) in succession.

Vinay is the face of India's global elite society: from a wealthy household, he drives an expensive car, listens to jazz and hangs out with his suave friends in chic bars where a musician sings English and Portuguese songs on stage. Still living at home, he is seen throwing tantrums at his nagging parents. Yet he is a compassionate one, trying to do right by his defendant.

We see the prosecutor taking the public transportation, talking to her friends about the latest fashion, picking up her son from a daycare, going home and cooking food for her diabetic husband. Her family time is in front of the small TV set. For entertainment, her family goes to see a comedy play that is extremely jingoistic. For the judge, he goes to a water park with his large extended family for the summer vacation.

For our public prosecutor and judge from the middle class backgrounds, even though they are socially close to the defendants they are persecuting, they process the cases by the book, lacking any kind of sympathy or considerations. The film raises questions about the nature of our society where only wealthy can afford to be compassionate and the within-the box-mentality of the judicial system.

After finding out the prosecution's witness is likely bought by the police and wife of a dead worker testifies that the dead man never wore any protective gear while cleaning the sewer and drank heavily before the job to ease the smell (these facts are revelatory for everyone involved), the case against Narayan is dismissed and the bail's granted. Vinay ends up paying for the bail.

The most powerful and telling scene plays out in a car ride. After testifying, the dead man's wife and her family is chaperoned by Vinay in his white sedan. He instructs her to fasten her seat belt which she doesn't seem to know how to. It's her bewildered expression as the car passes through the streets of Mumbai that tells thousand words. She fled out of fear to her village when her husband died and doing so she lost her job in the city. She tells Vinay that she would take any kind of job so if he knew any, please send them her way. She doesn't want his monetary help, she just wants a job. He drops them off in a slum populated by a murder of crows.

The next scene is Narayan getting picked up by the police again from a printing press factory while supervising his book, A History of Humiliation, getting printed. This time, the charge is using his tutoring place as a breeding ground for terrorist elements who are obviously into seditious activities. The police's persecution of the untouchables continue, packing up the courtrooms, making the procedure an unending cycle.

When Vinay protests that summer recess will put the defendant in judicial custody for a long time, the same judge replies, "We are closed, but you can always take it up to High Court."

All the performances are stellar, considering many of them are non-actors. In the heart of it all is Vira Sathida. A real life activist, his rhythmic, infectious, biting songs come to life whenever he performs. I would love to see him perform for hours.

Tamhane's understated, layered script highlights the lack of understanding among different social strata in a complex society which is still deeply bound in tradition in the 21st century. As the film ends with the judge falling asleep on his chair on his vacation, the audience is left to grapple with the death of a sewer worker who's already forgotten by everyone. It is also chilling to think that there isn't going to be any kind of investigation on the condition of these lowly workers. Biting and devastating, Court is one of the real standouts of this year's ND/NF.

Court plays part of ND/NF 2015 at FSLC on 3/26 and at MoMA on 3/28. Q & A with director Chaitanya Tamhane will follow each screening. For more info, please visit ND/NF website.


Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com

Monday, March 23, 2015

Art Imitating Life Imitating Art Imitating...

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (2014) - Nicloux
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Michel Houellebecq, the énfant terrible of French Literature, is regarded by many as the best European writer to emerge in decades. My first Houellebecq was Elementary Particles in the late 90s- the book was repulsive, depraved, nihilistic and shocking but I couldn't put it down. I gotta admit that I am a big fan. I've read all his books since then. What's great about his work is, however incendiary and miserablist it might sound, there is always much humanism that runs through at its core.

However, he's been accused of being an Islamophobe for some incendiary passages in many of his novels, namely Platform. It was his caricature on the cover of Charlie Hebdo when the place was shot up by Islamic militants, leaving 12 people dead early this year. The cover's title ran: 'Predictions of the future by Houellebecq: in 2015, I lose my teeth, in 2022, I observe ramadan.' It was the satirical paper's take on his new novel, Submission, where fictional France has a Muslim president in 2022 and all of Europe 'submits' to Muslim. He had to fold his book promotion and go into a retreat in an undisclosed location.

The infamous author is keenly aware of his mortality. In his 2010 book, The Map and the Territories (Prix Goncourt winner), a writer named Houellebecq gets brutally murdered, his body splayed in his pad, totally unrecognizable. Yes, he has a very grim sense of humor about himself and very aware of the real danger.

Obviously predating the Charlie Hebdo incident, director Guilloume Nicloux (The Nun) directs a documentary style comedy based on Houellebecq's brief disappearance during a book promotional tour in 2011. With his dislikes for cellphones and computers, no one could locate his whereabouts for several weeks, bringing French media into hysteria, fearing for the worst. He came back as if nothing has happened and being tight-lipped about the absence ever since.

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq stars Houellebecq as himself. It starts slowly, following the very unattractive, cumudgeonly writer- with balding head and a troll-like underbite, as he goes through his normal days - talking to his friends about art, literature and music. He seems to lead a rather quiet existence, for a person who is regarded as 'the most controversial author of our time'. Most of the time he seems docile except when his opinionated crankiness coming to the fore- he chides his old friend in his indecipherable mumble for her terrible piano playing and says things like how Mozart is overrated.

He gets kidnapped from his highrise apartment by three burly men, the brothers Luc, Max and Mathieu who put him in a big metal box with air holes punched in on top. Obviously quite new at this sort of thing, they bring the author to their parent's house and ties his cuffed hands to a bed post with a chain in what appears to have been a little girl's room. Luc, a large man who claims to be a gypsy, has a beef with Houellebecq because apparently the author shat on HP Lovecraft in one of his books. The writer vehemently denies it, saying, "Don't believe everything media tells you".

Houellebecq muses loudly in front of the brothers why they are not masked. Does this mean they will kill him? No no no, they assure him that the captivity will be over as soon as they get paid by their clients, whoever they are. Do they know what they are doing? "Oh, let us worry about that!"

The author starts getting on people's nerves with incessant whining and demands for cigarette and wine. There is a running gag of Houellebecq yelling out for lighter that Luc apparently stole from him. What's he gonna do, start a fire?

There are many hysterical scenes as unwitting brothers asking him questions about literature and reciting poem they wrote in the 8th grade for him to judge. The brothers being into weightlifting (Mathieu) and martial arts (Max is a UFC style fighter, Luc trained in Isreali army), they show off their skills in front of the frail writer. They teach him a move or two to even try out on them. They even get a local young woman named Fatima at his request for his enjoyment. Well first it's Gigette, the boys' old mother who suggests the bored writer porn, in which he responds, "I'd prefer a real thing?"

As his release date gets pushed back further into unknown, a sort of reverse Stockholm syndrome sets in - even though the differences they have, they like this little troll of a man. Wryly funny and surprisingly heartwarming, The Kidnapping successfully puts a human face on the infamous, supposedly hate mongering public persona.

In this day and age, it's difficult to drown out all the noises in the media as to get to the truth of it all. It is a common mistake to assume a fictional character's view on life as his/her creator. Judging Houellebecq's world view by the characters he created would be as absurd as shooting up Charlie Hebdo headquarters because they publish satirical cartoons. Nicloux's film then, is a light satire on a famous public figure and slap in the face for those who can't take a joke. The bottom line is, the film is very funny.

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq has an exclusive 2-week run engagement at Film Forum, NY. Please visit Kino Lorber website for more info

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Preparing for Apocalypse

Parabellum (2015) - Rinner
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It's early morning. It starts with the lush landscape and the camera slowly pans to reveal a tranquil greenery. The opening of Parabellum reminds you of the opening scene of Carlos Reygada's Silent Light, except for imposing beat of electro music. You know something's gonna go down. Then a firebomb strikes down from the sky and the earth shakes, setting up the mood for the rest of the film.

In Lukas Valenta Rinner's Parabellum, the world is in turmoil - there are constant reminder of natural disasters, civil unrest on TV newscast and airwaves- "A tragic situation is developing in Argentina."

We focus on an unnamed man preparing for a journey: he quits his white color office job, drops off his cat at the pet shelter, checks on his old man at the nursing home and cancels his phone service. The whole sequence is briskly and impeccably arranged with much precision. He is going into the jungle to join a training camp designed for survival.

The camp looks like a cross between fancy eco-tourist lodge & military boot camp, equipped with a jacuzzi, pool, shooting range and staff who make beds and serve food. Ordinary looking men and women of all shapes and sizes, go through vigorous physical and theoretical training. Each morning, the compound makes an announcement through the loud speakers. Before their mandatory trainings at a set time, they can choose to take part in gardening, homemade explosives or camouflage classes.

The trainees who populate these compounds are obviously well off to be there, as if money can buy one's survival. But Rinner doesn't really linger on these trifles, for the film is, after initial chuckles, not a black comedy.

Almost free of dialog (other than formal instructions by the trainers) and divided in chapters according to the fictional "Book of Disasters", Parabellum's tone is somber and deadly serious. Nowhere is safe, the seemingly random strikes comes from the sky. Even into their camp grounds.

After the grueling, first initial training - hand to hand combat, weapons training, etc., the people are transferred by boat, to a more remote areas to train more. As the film progresses, it focuses on a handful of trainees.

The real violent act doesn't happen until after the training. After taking over somebody's house, they take up a boat. It becomes quite apparent that they would sail themselves back to the civilization. One of the younger, frail trainees seems to have a mental breakdown and lights himself and the boat on fire. But we have no idea why these people do what they do because the film provides little to no indication of what they think or feel. All we know is, most of the trainees are motivated to be prepared, to be ready for the worst.

It's minimalistic, wideshot approach and emotional muteness, Parabellum plays out like a Gus Van Sant directed post-apocalyptic film. With the spectacular reveal at the end, the film signals the arrival of a major talent emerging from Argentina.

Parabellum plays as part of ND/NF 2015 at MoMA on 3/23 and at FSLC on 3/24. Q&A with director Lukas Valenta Rinner will follow for both screenings. For more info, please visit ND/NF website.


Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com

Friday, March 20, 2015

Kafka in Inner Mongolia

K (2015) - Erdenibulag, Richard
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Here is a thought: what if Kafka's Castle is transposed from the cramped, dreary, dark Eastern European city to the airy, spacious, light Inner Mongolia? It is realized by Mongolian director Darhad Erdenibulag and English born Emyr ap Richard in their simply titled film, K. They put a new twist on Kafka's unfinished, ultimate bureaucratic nightmare story (along with The Trial).

Frizzy haired land surveyor K (Bayin) arrives in a village in the middle of nowhere. He gets a very hostile reception from the locals and can't seem to get an access to either the castle or the governor Klamm who supposedly has assigned him the job. His path crosses with series of beautiful women who string him along and feed him only snippets of information at a time which don't amount to much and often contradict each other.

With his two assigned leather jacket wearing assistants (both of whom he names Jeremiah, for convenience's sake), K tries to wade through local bureaucracy and get to the bottom of the nature of his role.

Then he is told that his service is not needed anymore that there was a miscommunication. Now he has to report to the local school to be a school janitor. It seems that it's a taboo to criticize the castle and its bureaucracy because it's flawless even though it's obviously not. I mean, his whole situation is bungled.

It also seems that all the Castle employees are feared and all the girls are only at their disposal for sexual favors. A beautiful mistress of Klamm, Frieda (Jula) who works as a barmaid, becomes K's companion but ultimately leaves him for another, less important man (is it Jeremiah or Arthur?). But in order to not to piss off all mighty but unseen Klamm, she needs to go back to the being a barmaid.

Directors smartly stick to Kafka's dialog and western names faithfully and through Mongolian actors and their language, the effect is quite otherworldly. Other than K wandering windswept landscape in the opening, the rest of the film takes place exclusively in simple interiors mostly with natural lighting. It has an airy, hazy feeling of eternal morning. Everyone, including K sleeps a lot and conduct their business in their beds. With eternal sunlight seeping through the windows, K has a feeling of lucid dreaming state.

Concerning the film, only comparison I can think of is Erik Skjoldbjærg's neo noir classic, Insomnia. Of course K doesn't really work as a thriller, but with its somnambulist protagonist who finds himself lost in a moral and literal fog and paranoia is very similar to that of the Norwegian film. I didn't think of the Skjoldbjærg's film as Kafkaesque before. Heh.

K is a different, artful interpretation of the source material for sure. But Kafka's writing is usually associated with grim reality and unfathomable pressure associated with living in a certain immobile social stature: life as an entrapment. Not to mention the author being Jewish in an oppressive society.

Bureaucracy can be universal, but compare to the characters in Kafka's original writings, what Mongolian K is experiencing seems not quite hopeless enough. As one of the characters says to K in the film, "Sometimes the smallest thing can become a great irritancy"; for us, irritation seems to describe what K feels, not life-long suffering.

K plays part of ND/NF 2015 on 3/21 at FSLC & 3/22 at MoMA. Co-director Darhad Erdenibulag will be on hand for Q & A. For more info, please visit ND/NF website.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Beyond Beauty and Knowledge

La Sapienza (2014) - Green
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La Sapienza is the latest from Eugène Green, an American born, French filmmaker known for his highly theatrical, Bressonian films. Highly esoteric, the film will undoubtedly turn off many viewers with its intentionally stilted acting where actors often address the audience directly. My first experience with Green film was Le pont des Arts, it concerned with the transcending power of music beyond time and space. I was too, put off by this aesthetic choice at first, but got used to it by the middle and ended up adoring the film.

There are no Altmanesque, overlapping conversations like in real life in the world Green creates. Instead, people talk in their turns, medium shot/reverse medium shot back and forth in dead seriousness, in order to convey the weighty subjects concerning art, and this time, architecture.

The thing is, the emphasis Green puts on dialog is tremendous and the idea he wants to get across is simple but always lofty. Green, from a theater background, saw the direct approach of the theater fit to convey these ideas and have been sticking with it in his filmmaking ever since.

The method, I thought at first pretentious but slowly found less cluttered by the petty human emotions and other 'worldly' things, helps to get to the heart of the matter(s) directly. Ultimately, it's Green's dialog that brings back humanity down to earth and gives his films poignancy.

La Sapienza stars Fabrizio Rongione (Two Days, One Night) as Alexandre Schmidt, a French architect tracing his steps of his idol, a Roman Baroque architect Borromini, starting in his picturesque birthplace Ticino. Alexandre has lost his ways as an architect, mired in corporate city planning which lacks humanity. He is joined by his estranged psychologist wife Aliénor (Christelle Prot) to accompany him at the conference. They grew apart some time even though they love each other.

They run into two young Italian siblings Godfredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) near the picturesque lake promenade. It's Lavinia's mysterious fainting spell that brings them together - kind-hearted Aliénor insists to be by Lavinia's bedside and suggests Alexandre to take Godfredo, a bright eyed aspiring architect, to accompany him for his research trip, instead of her. Alexandre begrudgingly accept the idea out of politeness.

At this point film becomes two distinctive narratives: one in Italian with Alexandre and Godfredo on the road and mostly in French with Aliénor with Lavinia indoors.The guys establish teacher pupil relationship as they tour various Borromini designed, glorious buildings in different cities. But it turns out Godfredo is the teacher, reminding the old man with his youthful idealism that architecture can be one's passion, that purpose for architecture is to fill the space with light and people.

As it turns out, through dialog, we find out Alexandre and Aliénor grew apart after a loss of a child. Young Lavinia's belief that her illness is some sort of sacrifice starts making sense to Aliénor.

Uncharacteristically, Green himself makes a cameo in his own film for the first time as one of the last descendants of a tribe from Iran who spoke Aramaic. Even though their culture's gone and their language lost, he serves as a foreseer who reads stars and shows that there is hope for Aliénor, because she is loved.

These lofty ideas - rekindling passion for life through the reflection on youth, the transcending power of art, the harmony in architecture and in life, the eternal nature of culture and language, things beyond beauty and knowledge, etc. are all delicately explored and examined through these four characters. Their sincere expression of these thoughts rings true and melts away its artificiality in its presentation soon enough. This is the beauty of La Sapienza and Green films in general. As the older couple realize, the source of beauty is love and the source of knowledge is light. I couldn't help but deeply moved by it by the end.

La Sapienza opens in New York on 3/20 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema. National roll out will follow. For more info, please visit Kino Lorber website.

Cinema of Searching: Lisandro Alonso Interview

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Known for his use of non-actors, loose narrative and minimal dialog, Lisandro Alonso's films are at once real and otherworldly. His cinematic explorations are often mysterious and open-ended. He is definitely not into making crowd pleasing blockbusters with big name actors for sure.

Then comes, Jauja, his hallucinatory new film which is garnering a lot of buzz, ever since it won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes and made splashes at TIFF and NYFF last year, stars Viggo Mortensen (who also serves as a producer and provides music) and is a period piece. And for the first time, his characters speak in full sentences. Does this mean Alonso is going mainstream? Or is this just another branch of his explorations in cinematic realm to convey what's unattainable? You will find answers to these questions in this interview below, or maybe not.

Unlike his enigmatic films, Alonso in person (via skype) is very open and engaging, his answers direct yet elusive. 

Jauja opens in New York on 3/20. National roll out will follow. Please visit Cinema Guild website for more info.

JAUJA is a big departure at least in scope from the other 4 features you've made. You have a big Hollywood actor Viggo Mortensen and you also have a co-writer on this for the first time, Argentinian poet Fabian Casas. Then you have Timo Salminen, Aki Kaurismaki's cinematographer as your DP. How did all these come about?

I've been making films since 2001. Every 2-3 years I've made a film. After I made Liverpool in 2008, I wasn't sure I wanted to make films anymore. I went back to my family's farm, I got married and I had a child. 

But I was thinking about doing another film. And I didn't want to repeat what I've done film after film, without any professional actors. There were people I always wanted to work with, like Viggo and Timo. Then I became friends with Fabian Casas. After two or three years, he and I came up with a treatment for Jauja. Since I don't write conventional scripts, I had about 20 pages of this thing that we sent to Viggo. He liked the idea and it took off from there. He produced it and did a music for it too. Now he is promoting the film at festivals all over the world.

Did he know your work before?

I think he'd seen and liked Los Muertos. He told me that he saw something honest in that film. I think he might have seen my other films later on. But that's the film he mentioned. All I can say is that he is a brave man to take on something like this.

Thematically, JAUJA is similar to your second film, LOS MUERTOS. Since you've done 5 films now, do you see the same theme repeating in your body of work?

Yes. But it's just a part of the film. It's a simple premise of father or brother looking for a daughter, son, sister or mother... It's an excuse for me to expand on that thin premise to build up something in that environment. It's like that with all my films.

Going back to the searching for the lost daughter theme, you famously asked "Who's John Ford?" when someone mentioned  his name when comparing a similar shot in one of your films. I think it was from LIVERPOOL. And here we are again with JAUJA.

You know, for the record that I was joking when I asked 'who is John Ford'.

I know I know. But I can't honestly think of any reference when considering your films. They are very unique and original. That said, do you have any filmmakers who influenced you?

Oh yeah, many. I don't know about John Ford, but I watched a lot of Italian neo-realists films when I was in school, you know? I love Tsai Ming-liang, Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, lately I am very fond of Aki Kaurismaki's films.

Do you still go to cinemas and watch a lot of films?

Not as much. But I am very interested in what directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul is up to or what Paul Thomas Anderson is up to.

In your films, there are contrasts between nature, the simple way of life and civilization, realistic depiction of everyday life and fantasy, past and the present in cinematic terms. Is the idea of phantom/illusion something you are interested in exploring with the cinematic medium?

That's a very good question. But as opposed to...?

Like painting, photography, music, literature....

Yes. I wasn't really good at those. I tried to be a musician when I was 20, but I wasn't really good at it. I tried acting but I couldn't really act. Not good in front of camera. I think I feel more comfortable behind the camera, hiding.

The thing is that there are so many things that I don't really know. That is the part of reason why I make films. I don't have a clear idea of what I'm searching for.

JAUJA also explores colonialism in Argentina's history with Dinesen, a Danish engineer serving a Argentine Army to clear the road for settlers. Is it any way based on Argentina's history?

I've read some books. Fabian read many books on history obviously. It happened here like it happened anywhere. But I didn't want to pinpoint exactly what time period Jauja is set. I know those moments in history happened in more or less the same way that happens in the film. I mean, like organizing the city just outside the green area just to exterminate Indians as they construct those big holes that you see in the film.

But other than that, we are trying to put all these little facts in the film in favor of making the film bigger, and grow it out some other directions. We did that so we could get at the main theme: how one survives when someone that you really love is gone. How to keep going with your life and everything around you when that happens.

How was shooting in Patagonian desert? What were some of the challenges you've had?

Well it was not easy. I mean we were living in some tents and had to house camera gears and microphones and things like that. But we were strong group of people. There were about 25-30 of us. They were like a family to me. Many of them I've been working with for the last 10-15 years.

Then there were some new guys like Viggo and Timo and a young Danish actress (Villbjørg Marling Agger) with her parents. They were all around talking Danish, English and Spanish drinking some bottles of wine at night and working hard again the next day. There were no roads there so we all just walked to the next locations for, I don't know, half an hour or so.

If you are in that kind of shooting environment, you need people and they need your energy to keep going. We managed very well I think. It wasn't that long of a shoot, about 4 weeks or something like that.

But It can be strange for some. I was not afraid for Viggo, because I knew him a little. He is a tough guy. But for Villbjørk, who played Ingeborg, I didn't know if she would be comfortable. She came from Denmark and she hadn't acted in her life. It was her first film role. She must've thought, 'What the hell am I doing here?' It's a desert and there isn't even a bathroom you know? But she did very well and we had a good, supportive group.

Now you've done relatively a big movie and expanded your cinematic horizon, whatever that means...
(we laugh)
but it seems that for you the possibilities of what you are searching for in cinema is opened up a little more, I am wondering what you will do next?

That's a good question. I think about that every day. But to be honest with you, I'm not in a hurry. I just feel that I had a good experience making this film, meeting all those great people and traveling a little bit, presenting the film.

I have some ideas. And I would like to work with the same people again, in terms of Viggo and Timo plus all the crew members I've been working with and Fabian. But I'd like to go farther and go to another country. I'd love to shoot in the Amazons in Brazil. I have some ideas shooting in some remote place inside the US also, but just like that Denmark scene in Jauja, as a small element. But, yeah, nobody knows. Tomorrow I might change my mind and shoot the entire film in my house.

But I think the nature is very important character for me. I will feel safe if I'm near a tree. As long as I have nature in my films, I'll be fine.

A Charming, Deftly Surrealistic Slacker Comedy

Tu dors Nicole (2014) - Lafleur
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After making an appearance at The Directors Fortnight section of Cannes Film festival last year, Tu dors Nicole screened at TIFF and was included in Canada's Top Ten feature films of 2014. It's playing as part of New Directors/New Films series at FSLC on 3/20 and at MoMA on 3/22. Please visit ND/NF website for more info.

Quebec based filmmaker Stéphane Lefleur's wry slacker comedy Tu dors Nicole (You are sleeping, Nicole) stars Julianne Côté in the title role of Nicole, a 20 something young woman with one foot still firmly lodged in childhood and the other slightly hovering over somewhere else.

It's the beginning of summer and her parents are away on vacation. She has a big house and an outdoor pool all to herself. Other than working at a local thrift shop, she spends most of her time either in bed or aimlessly walking/biking around town with her best friend, Véronique (Catherine St-Laurent) who works at an office.

Their tranquil existence is shattered when Nicole's moody older brother and his band mates set up shop in their parents' living room to practice. The band's new drummer, JF (Francis La Haye) is kinda cute in that grungy way (like their 90s style music), but it's pretty obvious that he is more interested in pretty blonde Véronique than her.

Nicole's boredom occasionally breaks with surreal moments in everyday life- the neighbor picking up her dog's doo-doo in the yard with a vacuum cleaner, a frail looking neighborhood boy Martin, whom she used to babysit before he made advances on her, now having a svelte baritone voice, for his voice broke way too early for his age (he's like 8), JF's mysterious First-Aid kit turning out to be a best tomato sandwich making kit, perching a giant stuffed toy over a used funiture and a geyser shooting up in her backyard pool, like in Iceland.

Her life gets a little brighter when she gets her first credit card in the mail. But she doesn't really know what to do with it other than paying for ice cream sundaes at the local outdoor ice cream shop. But on a whim, she buys plane tickets to Iceland for herself and Véronique. They learn Icelandic phrases in preparation - vacuum cleaner in Icelandic is ryksuga, for instance. But what's in Iceland? What would they do there? "Nothing. We do nothing somewhere else," Nicole replies wryly.

tu dors nicole poster.jpgBeautifully shot in contrasty black and white by Sara Mishara, Tu dors Nicole is especially gorgeous in exterior night scenes: as an insomniac, Nicole partakes in nighttime baseball game, standing under the park lamp dazed, while the ball drops to the ground near her. She walks around at night in the neighborhood which are only illuminated by street lamps. She hears whale songs in the night winds and hitches a ride, driven by a tired father driving in circles in the hopes of putting his baby in the backseat to sleep.

After getting fired from the thrift shop for stealing donated clothes, she resorts back to babysitting lovesick Martin who tells her he can wait for her. "Take your time, experience the world, then come back to me", he says in his velvety voice. Then they play Cowboys and Indians.

Côté beautifully underplays her character, covering up all the scruples of growing up with a wiry smile. There is glimpse of natural beauty in her when least expected - in front of electric fan or with the Indian war princess make up on.

Tu dors Nicole plays with elasticity of time- everything seems to be in slow-motion when you are young but it accelerates in speed as you grow older. Nicole's somnambulistic life gets a dose of reality check when she runs into her former High School sweetheart who's getting married. And Véronique can't get away from the job to go to Iceland because she has to pay the rent. It's not svelty Martin who's on the verge of adulthood, but it's her and she is not ready to admit that yet.

Lafleur's talent is in his delicate writing aided by droll visual composition. Small things in Nicole's life have a tendency to resurface in physical forms in surrealistic way. I find his deadpan humor and subtle, surrealist touches irresistibly charming.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Colossal Loneliness at the End of the World

Liverpool (2008) - Alonso
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Alonso's 'lonely man trilogy' (as it was termed before Jauja), concludes with Liverpool. Same thin guideline here - a man named Farrel who works on container ship takes a trip to Ushuaia, a southernmost tip of Patagonia, where he was born. He hasn't seen his mother for years, and he wants to visit.

Just like all of Alonso's lone protagonists exhibit basic human needs - eating, sleeping, sex (or release). The colossal loneliness we feel in these characters in unforgiving environments remind me of Herzog's films. But unlike nature fearing protags in the Barbarian filmmaker's films, Alonso's peeps thrive, like ants or seem very comfortable in their surroundings.

Alonso does something different in Liverpool, there is a daring focus shift when Farrel gets to his destination. His frail dying mother doesn't recognize him and he is left with a semi-retarded sister/daughter. Again, there is a memento mori, a Liverpool keychain he leaves with the retarded girl.

Alonso is trying to find something, through each of his films. It might be something transcendental, a reflection of human nature, frailty, loneliness.... I am just mesmerized by all of it.

A Thin Line Between Savage and Civilized

Los Muertos (2003) - Alonso
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The film opens with whirling camera in the lush jungle, trees, leaves goes in and out of frame. Then it reveals dead bodies of two young men on the ground. Los Muertos's superficial plot concerns Argentino, a good looking, fit, middle aged convict getting released from prison after serving time for killing his two younger brothers. He made arrangement to find his now grown up daughter in the pen, now released, he needs to take up the boat to sail into where she lives. The film is shoddy on dialog for expository details and we endure almost ethno-documentary style shot film as Argentino prepares for the journey, getting laid, gathering supplies, some presents (even though he has no idea if his daughter is a grown up or not), water and a jug of wine.

Argentino turns out to be very able man when it comes to getting his resources in the jungle. His swift decisions and confident manners are at first reassuring but rather scary, as in almost animalistic. Then there is violence. Is he some sort of a psycho killer going upstream to wipe out remnants of his family? Alonso reminds us that there is a bridge between this savage man in the jungle and us, as indicated by a child's toy at the end of the film. That nature and civilization is closer than we think. It's a highly adventurous filmmaking and certainly trumps over fake butcheries in the likes of Cannibal Holocaust. Disturbing and thought provoking, Los Muertos proves Alonso to be one of the most adventurous auteur working today.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Tender Side of Charlotte Gainsbourg

3 Hearts (2014) - Jacquot
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Marc (Benoit Poelvoorde), a shlumpy tax investigator, just missed the train back to Paris. He now has to spend the night in a provincial town whether he likes it or not. By chance, he meets and chats up lovely Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The mutual attraction is there. Marc is glad that even though she seems a little anxiety stricken, she's willing to talk to him and show around the town in this sleepless night. Sharing smokes, they end up walking all night talking.

This wasn't like one night passionate tryst of strangers. The tender encounter was some kind of sign from above, as if they were meant to be together (but of course they don't say this out loud, for they are not love stricken teenagers). In the morning, without exchanging their numbers, they promise each other to meet in Paris in one week on Friday, at Eiffel Tower, no that's too corny, at the famous fountain in the park.

The encounter was so special, It becomes a deciding factor for Sylvie not to move to the US with her current boyfriend as she's been hesitant on the matter. But the Friday comes and goes: Marc misses the rendez-vous because he gets delayed by clients and has a mini stroke from stress. Without knowing all these, heartbroken Sylvie leaves for the US with her boyfriend. 



Marc is in town again, looking for Sylvie. He ends up helping out distraught Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni), Sylvie's sister, with her business tax problems without knowing that they are sisters. Sophie is a nervous wreck but very warm and attractive. The romance blooms. She introduces him to her mother (Catherine Deneuve) who cautiously observes him. For some reason, mom's a little hesitant about embracing him fully into the family yet.

Eventually Marc finds out that Sylvie and Sophie are very close siblings but whatever the reason, he decides to avoid contacting Sylvie and telling everyone the truth. Marc and Sophie marry. Marc awkwardly avoids Sylvie at the wedding. And she finds out for the first time, that it's him her beloved sister is marrying.

3 years pass by. 

Marc and Sophie now have an adorable son. For celebrating the 60th birthday of the mother, Sylvie comes home. She and her boyfriend are not doing well and Marc and Sylvie's passion rekindles in secret. Would their secret be discovered?

Benoit Jacquot is revered as 'women's director' for his rapport with many of the France's leading actresses (worked with Anna Karina, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Isabelle Adjani, Sandrine Kiberlain, Sandrine Bonnaire, and catapulted the carreers of Virginie Ledoyen, Isild Le Besco, Judith Godreche, and Lea Seydoux). He comes back to a small scale, light-hearted, character driven adult romance after success of big period costume drama, Farewell My Queen.

3 Hearts, like all Jacquot films, is a showcase for female roles. But in this film, the star is undoubtedly Gainsbourg. Unlike the roles of her late (think her collaborations with Lars von Trier, where she plays against type), with her frail figure and worrisome face, Sylvie is well within her domain. She gives a nuanced, subtle performance as a woman shaken forever by a chance encounter and who's torn between loyalty and desire.

Not quite a 'what if" story but 3 Hearts is full of regret and melancholy. It's a fluff in the vein of old Hollywood romance but with the help of today's gadgets - skype and cell phones, the film works as a tension filled romantic thriller. You don't really believe two of the most alluring actresses of our time would fall for Poelvoorde's Marc, but hey, it's a man's fantasy and it works for me.

Jacquot has been busy. His new film Diary of a Chambermaid, a remake (of Renoir's classic in 1946, then again 1964 by Buñuel), starring Lea Seydoux just debuted at this year's Berlinale.

3 Hearts opens in New York on 3/13. National roll out will follow. Visit Cohen Media website for more info

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Women's Director: Benoit Jacquot Interview

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Benoit Jacquot started his career as Marguerite Duras' assistant director in the 70s and went on to direct many films with strong female characters. In doing so, he catapulted the careers of many actresses into leading ladies of French cinema, among them Judith Godreche (Ridicule), Virginie Ledoyen (The Beach, 8 Women), Isild Le Besco (Sade, A tout de suite), Sandrine Kiberlain (Seventh Heaven, Apres Vous) . Lately, he has been keeping himself busy with two films out right now: 3 Hearts opening night film for this year's Rendez-vous with French Cinema and his Diary of Chambermaid shown in competition at this year's Berlinale, continuing the international success of Marie Antoinette-intrigue Farewell My Queen (starring Léa Seydoux, Diane Kruger and Ledoyen) a couple years back.

Jacquot was in town for Rendez-vous and I had a chance to ask him about having a reputation as go-to director for women's roles, his remake of Diary of Chambermaid and his upcoming adaptation of Don Delillo's The Body Artist (Son Corps).

3 Hearts opens in New York. National roll out to follow.

You've been making films since the 70s and worked with many of the France's leading actresses. In fact, you've made some of these leading ladies where they are right now. What is it that these actresses interests you more than actors?

Well because they are women. (laughs) And as far as I know, I'm not one of them.

When you start a project, do you always start with certain actresses in mind first then build a story around them?

For most of the time, the key or the determining factor in what process I'm going to use depends on my desire to work with certain actresses or actors. They usually fall into two categories: there are actresses who are already very well known - Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, for example, but also actresses who are young and just starting out and who hope to evolve to their level. It's either people who are very new or actresses who are very accomplished. But it also varies depending on economics and financing of a particular project, because they may not be necessarily the same.

What prompted you to make 3 HEARTS in particular? Obviously you haven't worked with Charlotte Gainsbourg or Chiara Mastroiani before. Did you have those actresses in mind?

For me, the first thing that happened here, even before sketching what the silhouette of the film would be, was my wish to work with Charlotte Gainsbourg. The second factor was after making several period films, I wanted to make something contemporary. And of course the third which may contradict the first, in this particular film, the central character to be a male. Because number of my previous films it was the female characters in the center.

Did you have Benoit Poelvoorde in the role of Marc?

Not exactly. Benoit Poelvoorde was somebody I had in mind for a while but really didn't know in advance that Marc would be the role that I would have him in.

So characters are specifically assigned. It's not like Gainsbourg would play Sophie, not Sylvie and Mastroianni would  play Sylvie and not Sophie.

No. But I once suggested Charlotte play both of the characters.

Hmm, that's interesting.

We discussed it but we quickly saw that it's something that wouldn't work in a realistic setting.

In the film, it is Mme. Berger, played by Catherine Deneuve, knows that there is something going on between Sylvie and Marc. How does she know their secret?

I know Catherine pretty well and despite her image of this ultra sophisticated woman, she also has a very animal quality in her. I think what was interesting was to have her play this role of almost an animal mother. In a sense that she intrinsically knows that danger is approaching, as if she smells it. That's really how she plays it, with the way she throws glances and in intonation of her voice.

You seem very busy with two films coming out. As you mentioned, you've done period piece before this and you do something small, but now you are doing another period piece, DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID. I am wondering about the process of choosing your next project. Do you do project after project as it comes your way or do you always prepare for your next project while working on the current one?

More recently it seems the case that I am always planning my next film while working on the current one. Sometimes it happens that I have all these different ideas and I throw out many ideas and some of them will float and some won't. Curiously, at this particular time, all of them seem to float. So it seems like these are all happening at the same time. Sometimes it happens and things don't work. It happened once or twice and I had to stop everything in the middle of it.

Does it mean you are at your prime as an artist, creatively?

I don't tend to think of any time frame as the peak of my career or anything because what I'm trying to do with my career is to continue making films that responds to some inner requirement that I have.

Why DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, since it was made twice before?

I think that in this case, you have a book that was adapted by two very great filmmakers (Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel). What I thought was interesting was why this book had motivated two filmmakers of that stature to make it into a film. So I went back to the novel to see. Also those two films are very different from each other, so making a third film which would be invariably different also, I had no pressure of embarrassing myself. (laughs)

Did you see Léa Seydoux as the main character from the beginning?

Yes. There is not a scene in Diary of a Chambermaid that she isn't in.

Can you tell me about the adaptation of Don Delillo's THE BODY ARTIST?

It was actually the suggestion of producer, Paolo Branco (who also produced David Cronenberg's Delillo adaptation, Cosmopolis) that it would be a good book to adapt. I have an idea on how to approach it and I have the script written already. But at this point I don't know when it will happen. I think perhaps 2016.

If it happens would it be an English language production?

No. Half and half perhaps.

I mean, obviously there's going to be another strong female role.

Yes. And most likely I will make it with an unknown actress. But as much as possible, I'd prefer a well known actor for the male character.

So hopefully another star making role perhaps?

I hope for the actress, yes.

What about THE BODY ARTIST attracted you?

I think what attracted me is an idea of this woman who is a very strong character, who is able to bring back a dead man from her past. And I think in many ways, this is a reflection of what cinema is. It's that evocation of a phantom, a ghost.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Petite-Bourgeoisie

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) - Buñuel
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A pretty Parisienne Celestine (Jeanne Moreau), comes to the county to be a chambermaid for the rich Monteil family, specifically to take care of M. Rabour, old frail father of Mme. Monteil, who is a snobby coldfish. Celestine finds herself the center of attention of sexually frustrated boorish man-child M. Monteil (Michel Piccoli), Rabour, Joseph the man servant, and a nosy retired army captain neighbor.

It being Buñuel film, it's an all out satire where no one is spared - the rich, the army, the religion, our heroine, and above all, the jingoistic whole France.

The old man dies suddenly and a little girl from the neighborhood is found raped and butchered. Celestine, suspecting the killer is Joseph, decides not to go back to Paris and stay with the family until she gets a confession out of him.

Even though Celestine is the only one who mourns the death of the little girl, it is suggested that she might have killed the old man during their foot fetish sessions- he was found dead clutching at the patented leather shoes he made her to wear.

With the use of wide angle lenses, dolly movements and zoom-ins, the film is technically impressive. But the two of the most striking images are static shots - of the dead girl's body obscured by a tree trunk and snails crawling over her lifeless legs and of the face of an old house servant, who's just told by Monteil to be sexually subjugated. Her tearful face says a thousand words.

In a world of Chambermaid, it's always the little ones, the powerless ones suffer and their sufferings go unnoticed and everyone is morally bankrupt swindlers. Celestine would go so far as bedding and marrying Joseph to admit his guilt and even ending up planting a discriminating evidence for the police against him. But being a petite-bourgeoisie, she ends up marrying the petty neighbor and becoming the Mme. of the house, ordering him around in the midst of the rise of national jingoistic fervor everywhere.

It's a great satire and impressively made one. But it's a hard film to like.

Rendez-vous with French Cinema 2015

Rendez-vous with French Cinema, a co-presentation of Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance Films, has become a de facto film festival for francophiles over the years. A showcase of contemporary French cinema, this year's lineup includes 22 features and four short films making their New York, U.S., or North American premieres.

Celebrating its 20th year, Rendez-vous opens with Benoit Jacquot (Farewell My Queen)'s 3 Hearts, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve and closes with Quentin Dupieux (Rubber)'s new film Reality. The returning notable directors include - Jacquot, André Téchiné, Cedric Kahn, Jean-Paul Civeyrac and Christophe Honoré. The ever-diverse lineup includes gritty policiers (The Connection, Next Time I'll Aim for the Heart, SK1), comedies (Gaby Baby Doll, Reality) and several films starring Catherine Deneuve (well, duh!).  Shedding a spotlight on women filmmakers, the festival showcases 4 shorts by emerging women directors as well.

Rendez-vous with French Cinema runs March 6 - 15, in three different venues throughout New York- FSLC, BAM Cinematek and IFC Center. Please click on each venue for details.

Being a francophile myself, the festival is always a treasure trove every year. I always find a couple of gems that end up on my year end top 20 films list from Rendez-vous without fail. These are the films I was able to see this year:

METAMORPHOSES
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What fun! Honoré's interpretation of Roman poet Ovid's Greek mythic tale of gods and demigods starts out with a modern day hunter running into a flame haired nude transgender person who graces him with pixie dust and turns him into a deer. The hunter becomes the hunted. Filled with young nude bodies (usually full frontal), Metamorphoses tells a high school girl Europa being kidnapped by Jupiter in the form of a hunky, bearded truck driver. It's a sexual, spritual awakening for Europa, as she mingles with Jupiter, Bacchus and Orpheus. Story within a story within a story plays out, some funny, some dark but all enjoyable, with emphasis on sexual ambiguity and transformation in human beings. The film is like a dream of a horny teenager who has fallen asleep in literature class.

A couple of years back, I remember Honoré telling me when I interviewed him for his film Beloved, that he is not a type of director who'd want to make nice things to be remembered by his offspring. He'd rather make things his son would be ashamed of. Without any big name actors, he charges on bravely, with lots of raunchy images, tackling on today's rigid, conservative society with an ancient literature and reminds us that things were much more transgressive and transforming in 1 century B.C..

Metamorphoses is also a visual feast, not only because of all the young nudes, but also the under-water scene where Orpheus attempts to retrieve Eurydice from the underworld which is breathtakingly gorgeous. There are many idyllic nature settings, most of them near the water which is the running theme of the film.

Death of skateboarding Narcissus scene is an epitome/origin of many Honoré's love sick characters' demises, you find out. Playful, dirty, edgy and wondrous in its micro-economic way, Metamorphoses works as it is intended to- a beautiful, dreamy poetry in accordance with the spirit of French New Wave. One of my favorites from the festival.

3 HEARTS **Opening Night Film
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Marc (Benoit Poelvoorde), a shlumpy tax investigator, just missed the train back to Paris. He meets and chats up lovely Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who seems a little troubled. They walk all night talking. In the morning, they promise each other, without exchanging the numbers, to meet in Paris in one week on Friday, near a famous fountain near the park. The encounter was so special, Sylvie decides not to move to the US with her current boyfriend as she's been planning. But the Friday comes and goes. Marc misses the rendez-vous because he gets delayed by clients and has a mini stroke from his stressful job. Heartbroken Sylvie leaves for the US with her boyfriend.

Marc is in town again, looking for Sylvie. He ends up helping out distraught Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni), Sylvie's sister, with her business tax problems. The romance blooms. Eventually Marc finds out that they are very close siblings and whatever reason, he decides to avoid contacting Sylvie. Marc and Sophie marry. Marc and Sylvie avoid each other at the wedding. 3 years passes. The couple has an adorable son now. For the 60th birthday of the mother (Catherine Deneuve) of the sisters, Sylvie comes home. She and her boyfriend is not doing well and Marc and Sylvie's passion rekindles.

Not quite 'what if" story but 3 Hearts is full of regret and melancholy. It's a fluff in the vein of old Hollywood but with the help of todays gadgets - skype and cell phones, it works as a tension filled love triangle. You don't really believe two of the most alluring actresses of our time would fall for Poelvoorde's Marc, but whatever. It's a fun movie.

Director Benoit Jacquot has been busy. His new film Diary of a Chambermaid, a remake (of Renoir's classic in 1946, then again 1964 by Buñuel), starring Lea Seydoux just debuted at this year's Berlinale.

MAY ALLAH BLESS FRANCE
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In light of Charlie Hebdo massacre, Congolese born French rap artist Abd Al Malik adapts his own autobiographical book Qu'Allah bénisse la France and shows yet another side of Muslims in France. Charismatic, clear eyed Marc Zinga portrays the rapper who was raised in a housing project of Neuhof, a surburb of Strasbourg. In the film, Al Malik (Zinga), whose given name was Régis before he converted to Sufi Islam, is a gifted student in Literature and destined to become a philosopher/poet. But his real passion is rap music and wants to overcome his underprivileged background and become a big star. With some of his friends, he practices and writes songs 2-3 hours at a time at a local community center where they have limited access to the gear and space. They pickpocket tourists to raise the dough but avoids dealing hard drugs unlike many of his friends and neighbors who are now incarcerated or dead.

It's neighbor's daughter Nawel (Sabrina Ouazani) who introduces him to Sufism, the spiritual side of Islam, and teaches him not to be a foreigner in their own country. Love blooms between them.

In May Allah Bless France, being Muslim is considered as an added responsibility that young people put on themselves. This means no drinking, no drugs, no disrespect towards women. The film's quite different from what you expect from the usual gansta movies. Al Malik restrains himself (to a fault) from going bombastic in style. It's shot in monochrome but the similarity with Mathieu Kasovitz's breakthrough 1995 urban drama La Haine ends there. The film almost too sanitized. The act of drive by shooting is never shown, Nawel and Régis never even kiss or show their affection out in the open until their eventual marriage. Sure some bad things happen to his friends and family members but everything is way too clean to be even a little bit affecting. Music is good though, especially Nina Simone sampled Gibraltar and Soldat de Plomb. Mireille Perrier (Chocolat, Boy Meets Girl) shows up as his school mentor, reminding him the past choice doesn't matter, it's the future ones that counts.

GABY BABY DOLL
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Gaby (Lolita Chammah) is told by her doctor that she needs to learn how to be independent/self-sufficient. That she needs to let her neurosis go and get some much needed rest. So she arrives in a picaresque rural village with a group of friends. It's supposed to be a rustic vacation at a big house that belongs to her doctor. The trouble begins after her friends leave and her boyfriend detects that she doesn't really love him. So he leaves too, declaring that he will come back after the leaves on the tree in the front yard falls. Now left all alone by herself, she needs to find somebody to keep her company. She resort to a group of men in a local tavern every night to walk her home and stay the night, one by one. It's not like she wants to sleep with them, but she can't bear the thought of being alone. The words go around and she is banned from entering the pub ever again.

Then there is Nicolas (Benjamin Biolay), a bearded hermit who lives in an impossibly tiny shack with a friendly dog, outside of an abandoned castle. He is supposed to be the caretaker of the place. He has his set routine - long walks every morning and evening, collecting his thoughts, reflecting on life. He is a total opposite of Gaby. And she clings to him like a leech for company. Soon they are off to walk together and slowly, he teaches her to enjoy the solitude, just a little bit.

Sophie Letourneur's idiosyncratic romantic comedy rides heavily on the charm of baby-faced Chammah and she totally delivers. I get the Greta Gerwig comparisons but Gaby Baby Doll's success also has got to do with Letourneur's writing- nonchalant characters, unusual sense of humor.

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
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Director Bertrand Bonello (House of Tolerance, Saint Laurent) plays Bertrand, a film director who's trying to find one inspirational piece of art for his upcoming film about monstrosity. His supportive producer (Valerie Dreville) introduces him an art historian friend Célia (played alternately by Jeanne Balivar and Geraldine Pailhas) to help out finding an inspiration in various art museum trips. They see the paintings of Bacon, Caravaggio, Baltus, etc. Without any written dialog and clear direction, Bertrand is having a hard time explaining the project to his actors (Pascale Greggory, Sigrid Bouaziz). He also has a lot on his mind - his retrospective is coming up, a young, inarticulate interviewer keeps bothering him to meet up, Bertrand's stage actress/singer wife Barbe (Joanna Preiss of Siberie) is always on the road, mysterious Célia keeps changing her appearances while flirting with him. Then there is large red welts on his back that keeps getting bigger. Is it a sign of psychosomatic symptom or is it some kind of metaphor?

Director Antoine Barraud is not in a hurry to rush us out of the museums. He takes time for us to look at each of the painting Bertrand and Célia are looking at. And we observe them while they observe art in a quiet setting.

Portrait of the Artist is filled with beautifully photographed images and attractive actors (including Bonello, who wears sad, intelligent face very comfortably and has a strong screen presence). The film is not too concerned about one's artistic process or the end game. There is a pervading comfortable nonchalance: not silly but sophisticated and arresting. Even though it's not a puzzle piece, there are hints throughout the film that all the people surrounding Bertrand are reflections of himself - silly, shy, seductive, strange... that these are the overactive imagination of an artist. If a good cinema is nothing but the art of seduction, Portrait of the Artist would be it.

MY FRIEND VICTORIA
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Jean-Paul Civeyrac's adapts Doris Lessing's novella, Victoria and the Staveneys. Narrated by her lifelong friend Fanny, the film chronicles passive life of a black girl.

Victoria, a girl growing up in the project, gets to experience how the wealthy white family (the Savinets) lives for one night when she was 8. The night and the handsome and gentle older son Edouard of the family make a lasting impression on her life. Later, she has a fling with the younger Savinet, Thomas, gets pregnant and decides to keep the child without telling him. She takes various low paying jobs because of lack of education, falls in love, raises two children by herself. Now her mixed daughter Marie is 7. Because Victoria doesn't want her daughter to end up like herself, she decides to contact the Savinets to reveal the truth. The whole Savinets are ecstatic except for Edouard, who asks for paternity test but then immediately regrets his decision. Being ultra liberal, the Savinets are crazy about this 'caramel colored girl' and pours all their affection to her. They even debate about if affection need to be shared by Victoria's other child, Charlie, by another father.

I loved Civeyrac's Through the Forest, part love story, part super-natual thriller, part musical. His light touch and technical daring do (Forest is consisted of 9 uncut, long shots). Here, he skillfully drives the film without making it all a case study for social observation. His filmmaking is fluid and light. Victoria is a beautiful character, trying to do right by her family and herself. Guslagie Malanga is terrific as the older Victoria, so as the narrator Fanny, played by Nadia Moussa and so as the Savinets, especially the warm, artistic dad and mom (Pascal Greggory and Catherine Mouchet).

It's interesting to see a film that shows as much about how well-to-do white liberals deal with minorities as about minorities themselves. It's an interesting window to see the race relations in post-Sarkosy, pre-Charlie Hebdo era France.

IN THE NAME OF MY DAUGHTER
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André Téchiné, the French master of subtle psychological dramas, tackles real life intrigue that took place in the French Riviera in the 70s. It is the esteemed director and Catherine Deneuve's 7th collaboration to date.

Deneuve plays Renée, a widow and owner of the last remaining casino that is not taken over by mafia. She is aided by her loyal lawyer Maurice (Guillaume Canet, respresenting two films at this year's Rendez-vous) to tread the troubling times. It's Maurice's cunning political maneuvering that makes Renée to take total control over the casino. But her daughter Agnes (Adèle Haenel, Water Lilies and this year's Cesar Award winner for Best Actress for Love at First Fight) arrives, expecting to cash in on her inheritance and set up a little business for herself. Athletic, sultry Agnes slowly but surely falls for studious Maurice who is married and also has a string of mistresses.

After getting rejected by Renée for advancement, Maurice, along with Agnes arranges for ousting of Renée from the leadership of the casino. Lovesick Agnes becomes completely dependent on him. But he tells her that he can never reciprocate the love she has for him. She becomes suicidal and one day disappears without a trace. Soon after, Maurice transfers all of Agnes's money to his account. Twenty years later, Maurice is flown back to France from South America where he lives now, to stand for the trial, accused of the murder and disappearance of Agnes, brought on by diligent work of Renée.

Building suspense or clear resolution is not what Téchiné's after. Despite its terrible American title (its original title is L'homme qu'on aimait trop which means 'The Man Who Loved Too Much' which makes much more sense in the film's context), the film is yet another great example of Téchiné's astute examination of unpredictability/duplicity in human nature that he is known for. All three principal actors are terrific against beautiful French Riviera setting, shot energetically by a veteran cinematographer Julien Hirsch (3 Hearts, Bird People, Godard's In Praise of Love and Notre Musique as well as Téchiné's Unforgivable and The Girl on the Train), the film is another strong outing from Téchiné.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Masterful, Lean Film Noir

Phoenix (2014) - Petzold
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Christian Petzold, (Gespenster, Barbara) perhaps one of the most gifted storyteller working in cinema today, strikes gold again with a Hitchcockian postwar noir revenge flick, Phoenix. Clocking at very lean 98 minutes, the film tells about a concentration camp survivor Nelly (beautifully played by Petzold's muse Nina Hoss in her 6th collaboration with the director), coming back to now American GIs occupied Berlin with the aid of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a case worker for the newly established Jewish State, who keeps urging Nelly to leave Germany and go to Palestine and start a new, as soon as her bandages come off. Badly disfigured by a gunshot wound in the camp, Nelly is told by doctors to choose any face for reconstruction or 'recreation' - perhaps a face of a movie siren or to be a different person altogether. Despite the urging of others, Nelly insists to have her old face back if at all possible. Even though she was told that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld of Barbara) gave her up in order to save his own skin, Nelly can't stop searching for him, for she still loves him. They were a famous musical duo before the war (Nelly a chanteuse, Johnny a piano player).

Her search for him leads to Phoenix, a cabaret where Johnny now works as a busboy. She is shattered when he doesn't recognize her. But there is enough of a passing resemblance that triggers Johnny to his scheme: he wants Nelly, now Esther, to pretend to be his wife who miraculously survived the camp and back, to get money from her estate (he secretly divorced her right before her arrest). Still deeply in love with Johnny, she goes along, keeping her emotions in check, pretending to learn old Nelly's behaviors, speech and writing (or just being herself), in order to see if he recognizes her in time. This might need a total suspension of disbelief from the audience. But we do it with Vertigo anyway in order to go along for the ride. In Petzold's assured hands, melodrama is kept to a minimum in this rather hokey premise.

Hoss is superb as a conflicted woman, hiding a terrible secret in front of unusually unsuspecting husband. You can detect her bottled up emotions in her expressions without losing her composure. It's just a marvelous acting. Unlike his kindly doctor in Barbara, Zehrfeld's Johnny is a cold-hearted man whose priority is surviving. Kunzerdorf has a real presence, as a woman deeply scarred by the atrocity. Her Lene is the real tragic figure in the film. Stefan Will's jazzy bass score adds to the era it's portraying and helps setting the mood of the film. Cole Porter and Kurt Weill's music dominate its soundtrack and Hoss's rendition of Speak Low at the end is at its most haunting.

Petzold plays around with the idea of forced forgetfulness. After the atrocious war, many Germans wanted to erase its shameful history from their minds. It's Nelly and Lene who can't let go. She asks Johnny how to answer when the others ask how the camp was, once she reemerges. Johnny simply tells her, "They won't." But it's as if Johnny doesn't want to recognize her even though she is right in front of him - buried and gone. At first, it's very hard to buy that a woman as striking as Hoss, with her penetrating blue eyes and sharp cheekbones, would be unrecognizable to anyone despite the disfigurement. Petzold's regular theme of identity also plays a big role here. Nelly never had to be conscious of being Jewish before, but the Nazi Germany made her to, in a drastic way. She literally loses her face, but she longs for her old self even though she learns along the way that nothing is the same anymore. With these heady ideas in the background, the film moves along in its stunningly economical pace, without sacrificing beautiful period details or complexities of characters. In preparation for Nelly's comeback from the dead (to legitimize the inheritance), Johnny divulges about how his neighbors and friends turned away from them once Nelly was being hunted by the Nazis.

The film perfectly builds up to its emotionally cathartic ending. And what an ending! Phoenix is a deeply moving, deeply satisfying film by an incredibly talented director at the top of his game.