Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Great Art Needs Suffering

The Public Woman (1984) - Zulawski
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Ethel (Valerie Kaprisky) does a nude modeling for money. But when she goes in for an audition for a film adaptation production of Dostoesky's Possessed, and catches the eye of Kessling (Francis Huster), the charismatic director/star of the project, everything changes. But soon Kessling realizes that Ethel is not much of an actress. She lacks life experience to portray everything that he wants in the role. His megalomaniacal demands from his cast and crew don't help either. Their tumultuous onset/off set romance also suffers. While being laid off from the project, Ethel starts romancing with a poor Czech immigrant, Milan (Lambert Wilson), whose actress wife might have been murdered by Kessling in some insidious political maneuvering. Milan gets manipulated to kill an archbishop (in order to save his wife) and being pursued by the secret whatever. So in real life, Ethel starts playing the role of Milan's wife.

As usual, Zulawski creates another manic, emotionally charged, over the top melodrama where he pushes his heroine to the brink of insanity. Baby faced Kaprisky bares it all as an actress whose 'acting' bleeds in to reality and vice versa. Huster's amazing as the mad genius and Lambert Wilson's intensity betrays his wispy, melancholic features. The film's energetic, 'revolution is in the air' mood is created by Sacha Vierny's fast moving, virtuosic cinematography.

Zulawski seems to suggest that truly great art (and therefore life) needs suffering. All the hell Ethel goes through, she becomes a better actress at the end. There is no succinct distinction between art and life in his films. We all have roles to play on this stage we call life. It's messy, tragic and full of intrigue. The Public Woman is another dense, heady film. I can't help but admire Zulawski's bravura filmmaking.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Sea of Life

Balaou (2007) - Tocha
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I've been thinking about death a lot lately. And since I don't believe in afterlife, it hurts me to think that I'll lose everything I love eventually and die. But we all do and that's part of life. We deal with our grieving in a personal way. Gonçalo Tocha lost his mom and wanted to get away from earth, he jumps on the opportunity to sail the sea with his family friends, Florence and Baru, an older couple on their sailboat. While on land, Tocha records his large extended family, asking about his mother. Then he zones in on tight lipped, 91 year old great aunt who has basically given up and waiting to die. She doesn't have anything nice to say about life anymore, "91 years is way too much," she says.

Florence and Baru has been sailing since 1985. They quit their jobs and took to the sea ever since. The news on land doesn't interest them anymore, not because they are selfish but it's always too busy, too noisy, too many wars, dead bodies, more of the same all the time. Florence doesn't say much. Baru occasionally spits out some sailor wisdom - "only thing you know for certain is a departure date, everything else is unforeseeable", "have to have a goal that you will land somewhere", and so on. For 8 days, with the couple and their white cat for a company, Tocha sails, while being seasick most of the time. The sea is rough. Gonçalo doesn't really know why he is on Balaou. Is he continuing the agony that her mother felt during her last days? Seeing the land after 8 terrible days making him appreciate life more, at least a little while? Infinitely wise without trying too hard, Balaou turns personal grieving process into a gentle reminder that death is part of life.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Allegorical Algeria

Bloody Beans (2013) - Mari
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I've been wanting to see this one ever since I missed it at Art of the Real this spring. There are no English subs for it but I decided to go for it and I'm glad I did. The general chatter (in about half of the film) of these Algerian kids is pretty much inconsequential. Something about them being tired of eating red beans all the time. The draw is in the gorgeous cinematography and controlled chaos of these almost feral kids being playful, a la Lord of the Flies without murderous intentions.

Narimane Mari is not too subtle about the allegorical nature of the project - a woman beating white man wears a pig mask and kids throws stones at him shouting Dégagé! (clear off!) and Viva Algeria! The kids decide to raid a French military barrack because they've heard there are chocolates and other delicacies. They end up with taking a French soldier hostage. In one stunning scene after another in a span of one day (morning- night- dawn), Bloody Beans is an amazingly visceral experience: the camera is always there in the middle of the kids capturing all their activities. It's beautiful, especially the night time shots, lit by only a flashlight, accompanied by pounding electronic music and great sound design.

Trailer / BLOODY BEANS / Directed by Narimane Mari from DocAlliance Films on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


20,000 Days on Earth (2014) - Forsyth, Pollard
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It was around the same time I discovered Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds when I saw Wings of Desire for the first time in the late 80s. Wenders, a big fan of Cave, put him in the film and he performs two beautiful songs on stage. Dark and moody, his outback gothic music was gripping and electrifying. Cave hasn't changed much. His hairline receded a lot but stopped around mid 90s, his sharp features dulled by age a little bit. But album after album, he remains magnetic as ever and still gives amazing performances on stage.

Forsyth and Pollard records the musician's creative process and documents where those lyrics are coming from. For some, 20,000 Days might come across as self-important, but for fans, it gives a rare, all too brief glimpse of the origins of his brooding narratives in his music. This doc is lyrical and floaty, instead of being a usual talking heads doc. Don't get me wrong, Warren Ellis is a great musician. But I prefer Cave's earlier stuff myself, more so than Ellis era (mid-90s on) Cave. Ellis is very visible here as an important collaborator of his work, exchanging funny anecdotes about how cool and electrifying Nina Simone was (once she apparently demanded cocaine, champagne and sausages all at once before the show). His friend Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue show up for a ride. There are also a lot of songs featured from his latest, Push the Sky Away album. Great stuff.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Men versus The Avalanche: Ruben Östlund on Force Majeure

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Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund's new film Force Majeure, a wickedly funny jab at modern masculinity, garnered a lot of buzz as it made the rounds on festival circuit. It has earned its fair share of love from the Twitch community as well (read Ryland Aldrich's review from Fantastic Fest here).

I had a chance to sit down with the director the day of the New York premiere of the film at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Östlund, in person, was very friendly, easy going and eager to talk about anything from the role of modern men in society, Swedish humor, his influences to Seinfeld.

Your take on Swedish society really fascinates me. Your previous film, PLAY, was such an impactful, divisive film. How did FORCE MAJEURE originate?

Well, Play was very well regarded by critics in Sweden and pretty much all over where it was released. About Force Majeure, I have to go back 20 years. I used to make ski films, so I spent a lot of time in ski resorts. When I was accepted into film school, I left the ski world and went into the cinema industry. So I have been looking for a way to get back into that environment and use my knowledge about it. It's been hard, I mean, Play is raising questions that are existential and it's about human behavior in a wider perspective. To find a topic that takes place in a ski environment is quite hard to make existentially interesting.

But the idea of the avalanche came up in my mind: Tomas running away from his family in survival mode and coming back and facing his crushed self-image. It asks questions about a man's role in the family, expectations on gender roles in society from a behavioral perspective. So at that moment, I felt I could be able to do a feature that takes place in a ski resort, even though the idea of a film taking place in a ski resort is so kitschy- neon colors, people that are in control of their lives, have a lot of money and wear matching underwear and reflective shades and so on. So it all came with the idea of an avalanche.

Is it a normal destination for a Swedish family going on a ski trip in the Alps?

Yeah. A modern ski resort was created in the 50s in the Swiss Alps. They had an economical plan: over 30 year period, they set up 300,000 hotel beds in the mountain regions of Savoy. That changed the lifestyle of the whole of Europe, I would say. There was a growing middle class that had money to go on ski trips. It's quite common to go to the Alps.

Having seen your other films, I am wondering if Swedish society is a constant inspiration for your comedies.

Yeah I guess so. I think it comes across like that because I'm a Swede and the context and situations are reflected in Swedish culture. But in this film, I think that you can use the situation in almost every culture and you will have similar results. I think the expectations of a male is quite similar. I think it would be even stronger in North America because the context of a nuclear family is more pronounced. If you look at cinema history, it's all heroic men. It is so prevalent in Hollywood.

Sure, Bruce Willis, Liam Neeson, it's still very much 'father knows best'.

So it would be even more interesting to see it in an American context.

Yeah I can totally see the Hollywood remake of FORCE MAJEURE at some point.

The statistics of survival rates of major disasters that came with the press notes for this film were very interesting. I was quite surprised that the male survival rate is a lot higher than that of females, and of children. Is it safe to say that we as men, deep down inside, are all cowards? Is that what you are trying to say with this film, Ruben?

I think we all have ability in acting egoistic when it comes to crisis situation. And what happens with women, maybe's hard to say it's biological or cultural, but men are more likely to abandon their kids. [laughs]

But what I really like about this is, if you look at the culture that we live in, we are brought up to think that we should stand up for our family if there was an outside threat. But when it comes to survival instinct, the culture is put away. Even though men have been conditioned to be loyal to their country, to their family, or to their football team or whatever, when it comes to survival instinct, all those things are put to the side. But the idea of men being loyal to something bigger, like a country, of course, we have to raise our young men to go to war and such. We are not looking at the film industry as an ideologue, but it's pretty obvious that it's producing a certain ideology about family, about the kind of politics that are used to make young men to be in the military.

What should we all have learned from the avalanche?

Well, I hope, everyone who saw the film would have a easier time confessing something they did that they are ashamed of. I know it's very very hard to confess because I think one of the things we humans are most scared of is to lose face. For example, if you look at the captain of Costa Concordia [shipwrecked on the coast of Italy in 2012], now dubbed as 'Cpt. Coward', famously said that he 'fell into the lifeboat'. He was trying so hard not to lose face, you know. I think it's very human behavior.

Because outside perspective we have on ourselves, I think that's something that sticks out in humans when compared to other animals. And that outside perspective also makes us very good in cooperating and it makes us very efficient. This is why we are such a successful species. But this fear of losing face is sometimes bigger than survival instinct. I think it's very interesting. You remember the principal who was on the South Korean ferry who abandoned his students in the fit of survival instinct. But then he killed himself to avoid losing face. And I think that's extraordinarily interesting that you decide to kill yourself when your instincts want you to survive.

FORCE MAJEURE is shot quite differently than your previous films. It's less formally vigorous than your other works; there are close ups and camera movements. I wonder how that came about?

Well I think there's a lot of drama that takes place inside the character this time. So I needed to step closer and focus on what's happening on the faces. That was also important when I was choosing the actors, because they had to be able to express what's going on inside on their faces. This is one of the reasons. Both Lisa Loven Kongsli [the wife, Ebba] and Johannes Bah Kuhnke [the husband, Tomas] have very expressive faces. But also, when I made Play, it was very hard to create dynamic scenes when I was editing it. The film consists of 42 static, wide shots, so we cut it after we premiered in Cannes.

Wow, I didn't know about that.

Because we didn't manage to do it in the best sense. This time I wanted to have more opportunity to be more dynamic and able to change the rhythm of the film- going fast to going very slow and deep whenever needed to.

Were you influenced by Roy Andersson? Because I can totally see his influence in your films.

Yeah sure, I mean, if you were brought up in the 70s in Sweden, you have his commercial films in your blood. So I guess he was much more influential to me than Ingmar Bergman was. We have been working with the same producer also [Philippe Bober, whose credit includes Songs from the Second Floor, and Ulrich Seidl's films]. Andersson is an extraordinary filmmaker. He is unique in perspective from all the directors in the world. I really love his kind of humor- his way of taking very trivial situations and treating them as deadly serious, I think it's beautiful.

There was another recent American film that dealt the same theme of male emasculation in the face of disasters called THE LONELIEST PLANET by Julia Loktev. Have you seen it?

No. But when we were preparing this film, people were telling me about that moment from the film, when he was trying to hide behind his girlfriend when threatened by a gunman but I've heard so many funny examples about the same kind of stories when I was talking about the avalanche situation.

A friend of mine told me about his friend who was supposed to have a bachelor party. They were doing a fake kidnapping on him. So, a bunch of them in ski masks and guns knocked on his door and when he opened the door, he was so scared he hid behind his fiancée. And they were supposed to get married like in 2 weeks. And they had a really hard time getting over that. And there is this episode of Seinfeld- when George Costanza is at a children's birthday party and the fire alarm goes off and he pushes away all the children and runs for the exit. [laughs] So there are some moments that remind us of the same kind of conflict and expectations of men.

I know that the avalanche seen from the terrace was shot on green screen. I read somewhere that you used CG in your other films. But I couldn't really place where.

For example when the kid was doing push ups... in Play, how do you say it?

Yeah, push ups.

He does like ten and stays still but in the film he does like 89 push ups or something. That was CG'd.

That's cheating.

[laughs] Oh and the beginning of Play, that surveillance shot with the camera panning? That's also one static shot that we manipulated.

My time is up. But thank you very much and have fun at the NY premiere tonight and LA Tomorrow.

Thank you.

Force Majeure opens Friday, October 24 in NY and LA. The film is Sweden's official Oscar entry this year.

Film Society of Lincoln Center just announced IN CASE OF NO EMERGENCY: THE FILMS OF RUBEN ÖSTLUND, January 14-22, 2015. Östlund will be in attendance to present the series.

Blowing The Whistle

Citizenfour (2014) - Poitras
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In 2013, Filmmaker Laura Poitras along with reporter Glenn Greenwald from the Guardian were chosen to record and represent Edward Snowden as he was blowing the whistle on NSA's sweeping spying program. The short video image of the youthful looking whistle blower talking in some undisclosed location in Hong Kong that played over and over was that of Poitras's. Unlike Alex Gibney's Julian Assange/Brad Manning documentary, Citizenfour is a very straightforward, no nonsense filmmaking. Even though the erosion of civil liberty since 9/11 is no big news anymore, Snowden's whistleblowing reminds us in a big way that Obama broke his campaign promise of transparency in gov. The reason he decided to come out with these frightening facts is because he was so disappointed with Obama. Instead of curtailing these programs, he and his administration have been expanding them ten-folds. It's not only subversive groups and terrorists these agencies are after. They are mining 125 giga bites of data per second (and this was a couple years ago) on ordinary citizens all over the world indiscriminately, with the help of willing companies trying to cash in on information about their competitors. The doc shows Snowden taking every precautions in that Hong Kong hotel room from his computer and mobile devices (and advise others too) to the hotel phone while strategizing what comes next, marooned in there for 8 days. As Greenwald and Snowden exchanges hand written notes in front of Poitras' camera then tearing them up, you can tell there are more revelations in the near future with more whistle blowers on deck. Citizenfour is an explosive documentary. And I can't ever look at Obama the same way ever again.

Act of Cowardice

Force Majeure (2014) - Östlund
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Formally less vigorous, Force Majeure is a departure for Östlund. Gone are the static long takes and distant wideshots, ala Roy Andersson style, it only focuses on one family and their immediate contacts in a luxurious ski resort up in the Alps. A well to do Swedish family, headed by handsome, Clark Kent jawed dad Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), mommy Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and two young blonde kids, is a picture perfect white family straight out of a Banana Republic catalog. The massive resort and ski area is well kept to a tee by daily ground maintenance and subject to 'controlled avalanches' (I'm guessing, to make snow fresh for skiers). On day two of their ski trip, a controlled avalanche comes down to where Thomas and his perfect family are having breakfast on the balcony. In blinding panic, Tomas flees the scene, leaving horrified family behind. But it turns out that the avalanche didn't reach where they were, just blowing some snow over them. It was no big deal. Tomas comes back, as if nothing has happened. But for his family, their inner peace is shattered, forever.

Östlund takes a crack at that concept of impenetrable masculinity. Tomas wouldn't admit the fact that he ran away- it's too unmanly to man up and admit his mistakes, and Ebba can't let go the fact that he is a sort of person who'd leave his family behind in time of disasters. If Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet examines the male's cowardliness on an individual scale, Force Majeure gives it a societal/familial context. The incident and subsequent talk gives Tomas's divorced friend (Kristofer Hivju) who is on the trip with a 20 year old girlfriend, a pause. Up in the mountains, the only choice to vent, for these scrubby and bearded manly men, is to scream from the top of the mountain (and risk another avalanche) or do a stag night with bunch of shirtless meatheads: drink, vomit while yelling at each other/at anything and repeat.

The question is, how does Tomas reclaim and show his family that assurance? Do we keep going with 'Daddy Knows Best' tradition, or go with 'Daddy Doesn't Always Know'? Do we admit that we are all scared shitless child inside, despite our manly exterior? Östlund seems ambivalent about the answer. Not that his other films are laugh out loud comedies, but I found Force Majeure more disturbing than funny.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Force Majeure Actor Johannes Bah Kuhnke on Being a Coward

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Johannes Bah Kuhnke, the hunky lead in Ruben Östlund's biting Swedish comedy Force Majeure, was in town to promote the film along with his director. I had a chance to chat briefly with the actor who plays a character carrying the burdens of all men.

I know you are mainly known as a stage actor. How did you get involved in this project?

Well, a casting agent called me and she wanted to set up a meeting with me and Ruben. So I went in and we started talking and I must've been the last one because we were talking for three hours. He finally looked at the watch and said, "Wow, we have to record something (for audition)". But then I knew I had this connection with him.

Have you seen any of Ruben's other films before you met him?

I've seen Involuntary.

Also very uncomfortable comedy.

Yeah. When I saw it, what I liked about it is that there are so many different ways to see that film. Everyone has a different reaction to his films.

What did you think about FORCE MAJEURE when you first read the script?

I was trying to get at what it was about. We talked a lot about that. In a way I was hungry for playing something more complicated because despite of my age (42), I always get to play young lover types- uncomplicated, good looking. A man that women fall in love with. So I've been longing for this kind of role so much.

Nomally, in acting, you play a better version of yourself - more beautiful, smarter, sexier, more evil, something more attractive. This part was definitely the most unattractive side of yourself or in other people.

Are all Swedish men cowards?

[laugh] The film shows that every man in the world is a coward. If you saw the statistics in disasters, more man survive than women or children, not only because they are stronger, but they can be egoistic. There is the code of honor- 'Women and children first'. But as it turned out in Titanic, it was enforced under threats. There were guards with guns enforcing that.

Why Tomas would deny what happened?

I think that's where I don't agree with Tomas. You can act in such a way but if you face it, you are not weak. But I think it's also got to do with their relationship, their lack of communication.

When Ebba first breaks the silence is when she had a couple of glasses of wine in front of everyone. He then tries to save his ass and makes up lies that comes out of nowhere. He can't step back. He thinks that it will just pass. But it doesn't and he gets deeper into trouble.

You think there is a back story where things weren't going well with the couple even before they took the trip?

Some people who watched the film think they have a dysfunctional marriage but I think they are as normal as they can be. They are married for ten years. There are not many surprises left. You know they need to change the marriage bow - from "'Til the death do us part" to "Til you're bored to death do us part".

JB kuhnke crying.jpgVery true, very true.

The scene where you break down and cry outside the hotel room and Ebba says, "you are not even really crying," and you start crying for real, like a baby, really interests me.

I think in the beginning he's trying to communicate with her. He just cry as a form of communication but it doesn't work. So the pressure is built up so much it just bursts out: that he was unfaithful and everything comes out. But I think that was kind of...catharsis for him. But he doesn't really take good care of the situation. It doesn't really lend very well to the situation. Because we have this idea of men crying in the movies: you usually see a stone faced man and a strand of tears rolling down on his cheeks and straight after that, there is some big decision that needs to be made. But we really want to make the scene really really over the top. I also found an inspirations on youtube- "worst man cry ever" and different daytime TV talkshows.

You did a great job!

I remember in theater school that there is a task when you do a scene in Macbeth where you wash the blood off your hands. You don't start out with freaking out and screaming, "Blood!" but you do it with "oh there is a blood on the tip of my finger, let me get rid of it, then "oh it's not coming off, let me wash it off," to "oh no it's all over my hand and I can't scrub it off!" You can find the right moments and right emotions and  build up until you can push very far to go over the top.

It struck me as a little boy crying.

Why wouldn't you cry like that now? What's the difference? Some social code?


It's this portraiture of male that is engrained in us by films and all.

Right. You don't want anybody see you crying. It's too vulnerable.

So, you are vacationing with your family and there is a catastrophe. What do you do?

Well, I'm not trained for those things so I don't know how I would react. But according to statistics, I would run. But I do hope that I could be strong enough to reveal my weaknesses. The problem with Tomas is that he can't live with the picture of him being like that.

It's one of those movies you take your date to see and make men very uncomfortable. I'm wondering what your wife thought about it and your performance.

Well...she despises Tomas. [laughs] That's funny because women despises male weakness and men gets aggressive on male weakness. There is no place for male weakness in our society, the structure that we built. There are some men who prefer weak women but I never met a woman who wants to be with weak men.

It's true.

I think it's also the problem in this society to be happy all the time. You see face book and instagrams of all these happy smiling faces and perfect life. You want to be a role model for your children but then you stop being a human being. You are in fact, acting in real life to give the expression that you are feeling good.

So at the end, when she asks if he smokes and he says he does, I think it's a kind of happy ending because he lends himself to be more human, that he is not perfect.

Would you work with Ruben again?

Yeah, we've been talking about doing something.

Could you tell me a little bit about it?

We had one project was based on an idea of a monk. There will be 12 actors playing monks, stark naked for three hours but it didn't really happen. There is another one that we've been talking about but I need to catch up with him to see where it is.

Force Majeure opens Friday, October 24 in NY and LA. The film is Sweden's official Oscar entry this year.


Wetlands (2013) - Wnendt
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Carla Juri makes gross look sexy in sex comedy Wetlands. Juri stars as our unreliable narrator Helen, a longboard riding 18 year old who suffers from chronic hemorrhoids. Brought up in a household with extremely hygiene conscious mother, Helen developed a strong tendency to experiment in unclean situations with her body. A shaving accident leaves Helen's cauliflower scarred and sends her to a hospital and much of the film takes place in a hospital ward as she goes in and out of consciousness/surgeries. She has two big reasons to stay in the hospital- to reunite her now divorced parents by calling them in at the same time and to seduce a gentle male nurse Robin. There is a hidden childhood trauma somewhere concerning her unhappy parents and her little brother and she longs for her parents to reunite. Its messy, labyrinthian plot includes Helen's relationship with her naive best friend Corrina, her many sexual encounters and mishaps, drug binge and subsequent wild times in the subways and discos and much more bodily fluids.

Think of Juri as a younger, dirtier, naughtier, uninhibited version of Greta Gerwig. Her sunny disposition and charm largely carries Wetlands. Its flashness doesn't come across as show off-y but playful and joyous. It plays out like a chaotic, x-rated Amelie.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Absurdist Humor

Buffet Froid (1979) - Blier
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Gerard Depardieu plays a lonely unemployed shlob, Alphonse, who stalks a man (Michel Serrault) in the subway station, desperate to talk to someone. He ends up knifing the man in the gut without realizing. He spills his guts out to a police inspector (Bernard Blier) who just moved in to the same, underpopulated highrise apartment. The inspector is completely oblivious about Alphonse's deadly encounter. Then Alphonse's wife gets murdered. Her killer (Jean Carmet) in turn, shows up. He is a lonely, needy man who can't help himself. They become an unlikely trio. More murders, more dames, more absurd situations ensue. Carol Bouquet shows up late as a vengeful beauty.

I love Blier's absurdist, deadpan comedies. It might seem one non-sequitur after another but Buffet Froid abides by its own logic and nothing else. Love the neon colors and architecture. It's pretty awesome.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

By Maguerite Duras at FSLC

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With 4K digital restoration and re-release of Alain Resnais' 1959 classic, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Film Society of Lincoln Center announces a series devoted to the film works of a Nouveau Roman giant Marguerite Duras who provided the screenplay for the film. Duras, along with Alain Robbe-Grillet, was part of the Left Bank film movement and hugely influential for coming of  French New Wave.

Putting a big emphasis on mood and dialogue, Duras' elliptical stories have long been well regarded and respected by the film giants like Resnais and Godard. The film series presents 10 features and 3 shorts, 9 of which she directed - notables include, India Song, Le Camion, Natalie Granger, Madmoiselle (dir. Tony Richardson), Moderato Cantabile (dir. Peter Brook) and Every Man for Himself (dir. Jean-Luc Godard).

The series is a rare opportunity to catch some of these seldom available films anywhere on 35mm prints, written/directed by one of the most influential post-war French writers.

By Marguerite Duras
runs 10/15 - 22 at FSLC. Hiroshima Mon Amour will open at Film Forum and FSLC on Friday, October 17 in and Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal Theatre following its sold out screening at the 2014 New York Film Festival. Long unavailable for exhibition in the US due to rights issues, it will be released nationally in a spectacular new 4K restoration.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center announced today By Marguerite Duras, October 15-22, a weeklong retrospective of the film work by the novelist, essayist, and playwright on the occasion of her centennial, and the re-release of Hiroshima Mon Amour at the Film Society on October 17. Duras directed 19 features and short films, many adapted from her own work, all exceedingly difficult to see in the U.S., until now. The lineup includes a selection of her formally daring films, movies adapted from her writing, short films, and more, all on 35mm.
Best known as a leading literary figure in postwar France with award-winning books, Duras's early novels were considered more conventional in form until Moderato Cantabile (1958), which was more experimental and placed the focus on what was not said. At 45, Duras penned the screenplay for Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), whose nonlinear plot and elliptical editing would greatly impact the burgeoning French New Wave (a movement whose literary analogue, the Nouveau Roman, Duras was tangentially linked to). Its radical use of voiceover anticipated the disjunction of sound and image that would become her calling card.
By Marguerite Duras includes her solo directorial debut, Détruire dit-elle / Destroy, She Said adapted from her own play, and Les Enfants, winner of three prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival, which was Duras's final film as a director. Other highlights include Le Camion / The Truck, which was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes; Moderato Cantabile, for which Jeanne Moreau won Best Actress at Cannes, and Jean-Luc Godard's Sauve qui peut (la vie) / Every Man for Himself, which he introduced as "my second first film," and is characteristically cerebral and peppered with literary allusions, including an unforgettable anti-cameo by Duras.
Special thanks to the Institut Francais for the loan of their prints, and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy for their support.

Films, Descriptions & Schedule
Agatha et les lectures illimitées
Marguerite Duras, France, 1981, 35mm, 85m
French with English subtitles

Hiroshima Mon Amour at the shore. A brother and sister (Yann Andréa and Bulle Ogier) meet at a seaside hotel to confront the nature of their relationship and try to achieve closure with the past. Their love for each other and its manifestations emerge in voiceover, with Duras herself articulating the sister's thoughts. Eschewing traditional approaches to storytelling, Duras keeps the siblings off-screen or obscured for much of the film and never allows them to share the frame. Her camera prowls the deserted hotel lobby and sometimes catches itself in the mirror, analogizing the film's reflective themes.
October 21, 8:30pm

Le Camion / The Truck
Marguerite Duras, France, 1977, 35mm, 80m
French with English subtitles

Initially conceived as the story of an older woman hitching a ride with a trucker, bemoaning the demise of the revolution and the impoverished state of society ("the world has gone to rack and ruin"), Le Camion ("The Truck") is the film that ensued when Duras couldn't find a suitable actress for the lead. Instead, she and Gérard Depardieu sit at a table and read from the script, discussing the film that might have been, with periodic cutaways to a truck driving along the highway at night. Celebrated by figures as disparate as Pauline Kael and John Waters, Le Camion was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes and hailed by Jonathan Rosenbaum as "one of Marguerite Duras's most radically minimalist features . . . [also] one of her best, as well as one of her most accessible."
October 16, 8:30pm
October 22, 2:30pm

Détruire dit-elle / Destroy, She Said
Marguerite Duras, France, 1969, 35mm, 98m
French with English subtitles

Adapted from her own play, Duras's solo directorial debut concerns an isolated hotel surrounded by dense forest, with only four guests in evidence: a professor of "future history" and his young bride (Henri Garcin and Nicole Hiss), a troubled woman (Catherine Sellers) recovering from a miscarriage, and a German would-be writer (Michael Lonsdale) with designs on the professor's wife. Despite the roundelay of attraction, Smiles of a Summer Night this is not; its claustrophobia (the women fear the forest) and convergence of identities (Hiss and Sellers share one of the director's trademark mirror scenes) place it much closer to Persona. In Film as a Subversive Art, Amos Vogel praises its "highly stylized, non-logical dialogue [which] creates enigmatic fear."
October 15, 9:00pm

Les Enfants
Marguerite Duras, France, 1985, 35mm, 94m
French with English subtitles

Seven-year-old Ernesto (played by adult Axel Bogousslavsky) leaves school because he doesn't wish to learn, believing knowledge serves no purpose in a bankrupt world. His parents (Daniel Gélin and Tatiana Moukhine) try to make sense of their son's cynical and inscrutable convictions. Winner of three prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival, Duras's final film as director may have taken inspiration from her own unhappy years in a Saigon boarding school. Her penchant for uninhabited spaces is evident in her shots of the schoolyard--the empty playground pairs with Bogousslavsky's casting to make a comment on vanishing childhood and untimely disillusionment.
October 17, 4:30pm
October 22, 4:30pm

India Song
Marguerite Duras, France, 1975, 35mm, 120m
French with English subtitles

Duras's favorite collaborator Delphine Seyrig ("the greatest actress in France and possibly in the entire world") is hypnotic as Anne-Marie, the wife of a disgraced French diplomat (Michael Lonsdale), suffering from "leprosy of the soul" or what might be more chicly termed ennui. Through a mélange of off-screen gossip (again nearly all sound is nonsynchronous), we learn of Anne-Marie's scandalous conduct in 1930s India and her eventual fate, engendered by boredom, colonial guilt, and a string of meaningless affairs. Duras renders her study of mental torment in elaborate style (Dave Kehr calls her "the Busby Berkeley of structuralism"), and Bruno Nuytten's cinematography captures the glittering emptiness of life in a gilded cage--the feeling that privilege can be its own form of illness.
October 15, 6:30pm
October 17, 2:00pm

Tony Richardson, France/UK, 1966, 35mm, 103m
French, Italian, and Latin with English subtitles

Duras adapted Jean Genet's story of a repressed schoolteacher in rural France (an unflinching turn by Jeanne Moreau) who causes mayhem in her village and allows prejudiced locals to blame an Italian woodcutter (Ettore Manni), with horrific results. Director Tony Richardson renders a one-of-a-kind hybrid of arthouse drama and psychosexual thriller, which even its detractors found too audacious to ignore (Roger Ebert declared Moreau "flawless"). Fraught with Freudian symbols (snakes, felled pine trees) and a scathing vision of corrupt and unknowable humanity, Mademoiselle was nominated for the Palme d'Or and earned a BAFTA for Jocelyn Rickards' costumes.
October 16, 4:30pm
October 18, 9:15pm

Moderato Cantabile
Peter Brook, France/Italy, 1960, 35mm, 91m
French with English subtitles

"Moderate and songlike"--a musical tempo, but also an apt descriptor of this moody, deliberate drama co-scripted by Duras from her novel. Jeanne Moreau won Best Actress at Cannes for her haunting portrayal of a wife and mother whose husband is the chief employer of their steel town near Bordeaux. Her life consists of little more than shuttling their son to piano lessons, until one day, mid-sonata, she hears a scream. Before long she's conducting a murder investigation with one of her husband's workers (Jean-Paul Belmondo), unleashing her own morbid impulses and perhaps a private death wish. Theater giant Peter Brook's restrained direction casts rare moments of intensity in relief, and Armand Thirard's crisp cinematography conveys the desolation of life in a windswept town where "summer never comes."
October 16, 6:30pm
October 21, 5:00pm

Nathalie Granger
Marguerite Duras, France, 1972, 35mm, 83m
French with English subtitles

The woman's picture gets the Duras treatment in this spare account of two female cohabitants and their assorted vexations. One (Lucia Bosé) has a daughter in primary school (Valerie Mascolo in the title role) whose teacher reports violent outbursts despite her passive demeanor at home. The other (Jeanne Moreau) greets news of a killer on the loose with the same indifference she directs at burning trash. Gérard Depardieu shows up as a door-to-door salesman who may in fact be peddling himself. Customarily placid but for surprising dashes of absurdism ("There is no telephone here, madame," Moreau says into the receiver), Nathalie Granger is domestic melodrama as only Duras could pervert it.
October 15, 4:30pm
October 18, 7:00pm

Le Navire Night
Marguerite Duras, France, 1979, 35mm, 95m
French with English subtitles

Ever the iconoclast, Duras proffers two lovers who never meet face to face. Dominique Sanda plays a woman with tragic reasons for keeping her paramour (Mathieu Carrière) at a distance, confining their affair to phone calls initiated by her--a Durasian construct, language detached from images. The director invites us to share their frustrations by limiting our contact with the stars, sequestering them in dark rooms and cutting to empty streets as their words take on lives of their own. Featuring the voices of Duras and protégé Benoît Jacquot.
October 17, 7:00pm

Sauve qui peut (la vie) / Every Man for Himself
Jean-Luc Godard, France/Austria/West Germany/Switzerland, 1980, 35mm, 87m
French with English subtitles

Concluding a decade of experimentation, Godard returns to character-based storytelling with this portrait of restless, intertwining lives, survival in a capitalist state, and the myriad forms self-debasement can take. TV director Jacques Dutronc (playing a character named Paul Godard) has left his wife for a co-worker (Nathalie Baye), who--disenchanted with television and Paul--plans a move to the country. Meanwhile, a country girl (Isabelle Huppert) works nonchalantly as a prostitute in the city. Introduced by Godard as "my second first film," Sauve qui peut (la vie) is characteristically cerebral and peppered with literary allusions, including an unforgettable anti-cameo by Duras. "Breathtakingly beautiful and often very funny ... I trust it will outlive us all."--Vincent Canby, The New York Times
October 17, 9:15pm

Duras Shorts Program:
Marguerite Duras, France, 1978, 35mm, 11m
French with English subtitles

Duras's heartrending narration elegizes Queen Berenice, banished from Rome by Emperor Titus in the First Century. (In typical Duras fashion, the two are referred to only as "Elle" and "Lui.") Footage consists of discarded shots from Le Navire Night, with the Seine and Tuileries Gardens "playing" the title locale, the speculative site of Berenice's exile.
L'Homme atlantique
Marguerite Duras, France, 1981, 35mm, 42m
French with English subtitles

In this avant-garde short, Duras uses outtakes from Agatha et les lectures illimitées, removing Agatha and leaving only the voice and likeness of her brother (Yann Andréa). Duras scholar Leslie Hill contends that for the first time in her work, "the gap between image and sound is now aligned with the fissure of sexual difference itself."
Nuit noire, Calcutta
Marin Karmitz, France, 1964, 35mm, 24m
French with English subtitles

Duras scripted this sketch of Jean (Maurice Garrel), a writer struggling to complete a Calcutta-based novel while battling alcoholism and creative impotence. Most of the text is spoken off-screen, evoking dislocation that's echoed visually in the world beyond Jean's window--could the woman outside be the character he's unable to capture in words?
October 21, 7:00pm

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Politically Incorrect but Correct Nonetheless

Play (2011) - Östlund
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I remember mentioning in my short observations of Östlund's Involuntary (De Ofrivilliga) that there are many moments that only Swedes would find humorous. But in Play, it's more universal because it concerns race. I can totally understand why Play has never come out (and played) in the States. It would've been automatically grilled by the PC dominated left and quickly condemned as racist. This is why daring Northern European filmmakers, Ulrich Seidl, Michael Haneke and now Östlund can tackle the subject of race in their much more homogenized but socially rapidly changing home countries while we Americans, avoid the subject like ebola. At first glance, Play is downright racist and uncomfortably so - two white kids and an Asian boy, probably from a well to do families at the shopping mall are ganged up and mercilessly bullied by 5 black kids who are little older than them. These loud and obnoxious black kids, set up a trap (it seems it's their routine), asking to see their intended victim's phone and claim that phone is the same phone stolen from someone they know. In order to verify this fact, the victims should come with them and eventually being tricked into giving away all their belongings. In fear, the white kids follow them, like sheep.

Östlund's display on the rigid society gripped with fear of being seen as politically incorrect is everywhere - from American Indian culture appropriation by a group of South American street musicians in full getups and their Swedish spectators, mouth agape and don't know what to make of the spectacle, train conductor's extremely polite announcement (and later their decision to make announcement in English) of removing a huge wooden crib that's blocking the doors in between first and second class cars, Cafe owners' hesitation to call the cops against the black kids 'until big things happen' and so on.

Just like Involuntary, Play is a constant cringe fest. It's uncomfortable because he puts up the mirror on our polite selves. Östlund refuses to show the black kids in better light. "Society made them that way," would be a way too simple explanation. They act violent and obnoxious because they can get away with it. They are playing the stereotypical role that white privileged folks put on them. They taunt on white folks' appropriation of 'black' culture as wide-ranging as from dreadlocks to Lion King themed school dance. Ordinary Swedish citizens don't know how to deal with them other than look down at their feet or call law on them. They don't know how to interact face to face with these peeps. Funny but pointed and not all the way successful, Play, just like Seidl's Paradise Trilogy, is an interesting film that needs to be seen widely and being discussed further.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hall of Mirrors

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) - Assayas
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Delicious! Assayas' take on celebrity, acting, time passing is an extremely entertaining hall of mirrors. It concerns an aging movie star Maria (Juliette Binoche) and her personal (very)American assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) heading over to Switzerland to celebrate the life and work of the great stage/film director Wilhelm Melchoir who gave Maria her first big break in Maljora Snake, a mythical tale of two women, only to find out that he just passed on. Now Maria has to improvise an eulogy instead of tribute. Valentine is a very able assistant, always on her mobile devices arranging everything for Maria. She informs her movie star employer that a young hotshot director (Lars Eidinger of Alle Anderen), wants her to be in the stage production of Maljora Snake revival, but this time, he wants her to play the older part. The younger part Sigrid, the part that made her famous, is going to be played by Hollywood's rising star and the center of the gossip world, 19 yr old Jo-ann (Chlöe Moretz). This proposition takes Maria through a whirlwind of emotional turmoil. She hated the character of Helena who commits suicide after getting dumped by Sigrid. Time has passed: no longer young, she has to endure the fate of her predecessors. With much Valentine's urging, she accepts the role and immediately regrets it right afterwards. She googles Jo-ann's latest shenanigans where the little brat assaults police officers, blabbering her mouth off at various talkshows, etc. But nevertheless, she starts rehearsing the play with Valentine in the remote house (Wilhelm's) on the mountains in Switzerland. As they say the lines back and forth, the material strongly resembles their relationship without them noticing it.

This multi-layered reflections on real life situations with all the principals involved is wickedly entertaining. In Assayas hands, these materials are never trash but playful. There is not an ounce of wink-wink sarcasm of typical Hollywood satire. There is no surprise in the great Binoche, showing wide range of emotions of a seasoned actress as she grapples the idea of time passing and celeb-dom but it's Stewart who steals the show. That cocky confidence, that one note delivery is a perfect match for the role. Their back and forth banter is extremely believable and nuanced. Assayas never makes it over-the-top: the sexual tension between the two women are subtly presented, never vulgar. And the storytelling is brimming with intelligence but never feels trickery. One of the most entertaining, engaging films I've seen by Assayas.

Clouds of Sils Maria
plays as part of NYFF on 10/8 and 10/9.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Passion for Greatness

Rendez-vous (1985) - Techiné
Rendezvous1 Rendezvous2 Rendezvous3 Rendezvous4 Young aspiring stage actress Nina (baby Juliette Binoche) walks into a real estate agency, looking for a cheap apartment. She just got to Paris 3 month ago. She makes a big impression on Paulot (Wadeck Stanczak), a lowly young real estate agent there. He follows her, suggesting a dirt cheap dump that just came in. Lovelorn Paulot accompanies to Nina's apartment where she breaks up with her current boyfriend who warns Paulot of her loose morals. Then Paulot brings her to his flat where he shares with charismatic Quentin (Lambert Wilson) who takes an interest in Nina also. After that encounter, Quentin stalks her with ferocious intensity, taunting her for her short comings as an actress and not knowing what true love means. He's an whirlwind of emotions that Nina didn't ask for, but she can't shake him off easily. Paulot's puppy dog love becomes an obsession and acts out his frustrations/jealousy and angrily at Nina. Then Quentin throws himself under the car.

Enter Quentin's mentor Scrutzler (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a theater director. He had worked with Quentin in his theater production of Romeo and Juliette. Since he's gone, there might not be another production. Nina auditions for the part of Juliette. Once she gets the part, she is having a hard time. How would she know to play the role if she's never been in love? Quentin's ghost haunts her.

Rendez-vous, is a beautiful film about passion. It's also about youth. It sounds like bullshit but in order to be great at whatever you do, you need to experience passionate love. Binoche looks so innocent in this great, breakout role. Top tier Techiné for sure.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Surf Noir

Inherent Vice (2014) - Anderson
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P. T. Anderson faithfully adapts Thomas Pynchon's most accessible novel, the zaniest surf noir, Inherent Vice. It is also the first time he's worked with a large ensemble cast since Boogie Nights. The result is often hilarious, a laborious snapshot of the end of the groovy 60s.

The film centers around Larry 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a dope smoking Private Eye, as he helplessly gets mired into what seems to be an unsolvable case. It all begins with the visit from his ex-girl friend Shasta Fay Hapworth (Katherine Waterston) whom he still carries the torch for. She tells him that her new fling, a billionaire construction tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who inexplicably hangs out with Aryan Brotherhood, is about to get kidnapped by his wife and her body building 'spiritual coach' boyfriend and put into a looney bin. But even before Doc has a time to react, Mickey and Shasta go missing.

With the clue "Beware of The Golden Fang!", left by remorseful lesbian masseuse who put him in the hole in the first place, Doc leisurely seeks out people who might have a hand in the disappearance. Is The Golden Fang a rock band? A front for money laundering association of dentists? Is it a schooner? Trained killer dogs with golden teeth perhaps? He digs deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine conspiracies while jotting down (un)helpful words and phrases- "Paranoia Alert!", "Spanish?" on his small notepads along the way.

Doc's biggest obstacle in solving anything, other than his pot fizzled brain and constant paranoia, is famed, hippie hating Lt. detective Christian 'Bigfoot' Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). As far as Doc and his mellow friends are concerned, the civil rights chomping Bigfoot is in cahoots with the environmentally irresponsible, now missing billionaire. To make the case even more complicated, the feds are involved and Doc enlists the help of his one-time girlfriend now a deputy DA Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon). But everybody has his/her own angle on this and everybody preys on Doc.

Dialog, with few exceptions throughout his filmography, hasn't been Anderson's strong suit (nor has he seemed to care). Here Anderson strictly sticks by Pynchon's snappy prose line by line with more than 30 speaking parts. The only big difference from the book is its narration by Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), or Leej, as Doc calls her. She is Doc's spiritual hippie gal pal who has that special touch. The whole time, I was thinking of Newsome as young and hippie version of Thelma Ritter from noir classic Pick Up on South Street. Her nasal, soft voice somehow works in a typical masculine world of Anderson and gives the film its lightness.

There is no shortage on noir references, or should I say noir archetypes here - you can find lineage all the way from The Big Sleep to The Long Goodbye to The Big Lebowski. The concoction of Pynchon's wacky characters with typical long takes that Anderson prefers, provides the actors plenty of room to shine. Its chaotic pace gives way to long monologues and long takes that last up to 5-7 minutes, the flow of the film matches with Pynchon's prose well also.

Phoenix, with messy hairdo and mutton chops, again, is brilliant in another bravura performance as doped up hippie PI. Brolin is a pure comic gold here as Doc's nemesis and also secret confidant. Other outstanding notables are Martin Short as a drug addled Dr. Blatnoyd who goes wild in the funniest scene in the film and Owen Wilson provides perhaps the most poignant moments as a confused sax player in a surfer band who got finagled to be a double/triple agent by various antisubersive groups.

As the drug infused haze/smog lifts from the City of Sinners (with their inherent vices), what's left is Doc and his dignity as the last vestiges of innocence and goodness in the flower child generation. As Leej says, "Doc may not be a do gooder but he's done good." I'd be lying if I like Inherent Vice more than The Master or There Will Be Blood. But it is an enjoyable romp. It definitely solidifies P. T. Anderson as a great chronicler of American psyche though out the decades.

Inherent Vice is the Centerpiece selection at this year's NYFF.  It opens limited on 12/12 in NY and LA, then sees the general release in 1/9/15.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Crazy For You Mr. DJ

Eden (2014) - Hansen-Løve
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The other day, I saw a some college kid wearing a T- shirt that said, "In school now just to be a wage slave later." I seriously considered giving the kid a hug. I could've easily regarded it as some ironic hipster shit. But after watching talented Mia Hansen-Løve's new film Eden, it hit me as extremely poignant. Co-written by her brother Sven, the film is a sprawling and epic look back at the 90s' French electronic dance music scene. And they do an amazing job capturing the look and feel of that decade. But more so, the film is about life.

Eden charts about 20 years of the life of Paul (Félix de Givry), starting in 1992. He is a big raver and into music. He and his friend Stan (Hugo Conzelman) form a garage (Paul affectingly explains - house music with more soul and disco) DJ duo called Cheers, despite his mom (Atom Egoyan regular Arsinée Khanjian)'s disapproval. Their group of friends includes talented graphic artist Cyril (enigmatic Roman Kolinka), a fellow DJ team, Respect (Paul Spera and Laurent Cazanave) and a drugged up, wayward producer Arnaud (comedian Vincent Macaigne in a role that is tailored for him). It's around this time they also acquaint Thomas and Guy-Man, the duo later known as Daft Punk (who provides much of the music for the film). We observe as they all strive for the limelight. Time slips by. Paul has a brief fling with a cute American girl, Julia (Greta Gerwig), then gets involved with a wild but moody tomboy, Louise (Pauline Etienne). Cheers becomes a moderate success in the Paris club scene. It's an exciting thing to follow one's passion and become successful.

The signs of decline appear when the fame takes Cheers to America. They get to perform at P.S. 1-- a former public school turned into one of the hottest New York cultural institutions, and which has been hosting outdoor dance parties since the 2000s. Then they go to Chicago. Paul reunites with Julia who is now married (husband played by Simon Killer's Brady Corbet) and visibly pregnant. She commends him for still pursuing his passion after all these years. Jealous and tired of the scene, Louise has a breakdown. Then Paul gets the news of Cyril's suicide.

Even though they pack the club, night after night, with their music and DJ skills, it's a profession that doesn't make tons of money. To keep up the appearances, Paul gets deeper and deeper into a financial hole and his drug habits gets out of hand. Friendship falters and people around him grow up and get real jobs. Paul and Stan's passion remain, but it's the times and music that are changing.

Eden's scope and ambition are massive. But Hansen-Løve pulls it off with grace. With the beats pumping constantly and large crowd having a good time, you can easily feel that DJ-ing is like an addiction you can't get rid of easily. Sadness of time passing is there, but Hansen-Løve refuses to make it sentimental. This was the part of one's life and passion. There are no regrets for doing something you loved and believed that it was a right path to take.

Every cultural phenomenon eventually fades and falls out of favor. The film follows the typical movie trajectory of the rise and fall of a protagonist. But the film is not a nostalgia trip. What's amazing about Eden, just like her last film, Goodbye First love, is Hansen-Løve's ability to make you aware the poignancy of passing of time in an extraordinarily personal way. Obviously the film is not for everyone. The specificity of the film's setting and subject matter might hinder your interest in seeing it. But for me and many others like me, who lived through the 90s, that culturally bleh decade, as a young adult full of hopes and dreams, Eden will linger in your head and gain its poignancy over the years to come.

Eden plays part of NYFF on 10/5 and 10/7. Please visit FSLC website for more info.

Discovering Solidarity

Two Days, One Night (2014) - Dardenne
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Take it as the Dardenne Bros thriller with the time ticking away. They even put human face in that genre. It's Friday. Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a working class mom struggling with depression, is just told that she is getting laid off from a solar panel manufacturing company. The management framed it so that it's either her job or one thousand euro bonuses each for remaining 16 workers. But her two friends at work asked the manager to get another vote to keep her job on Monday. That means she has two days to convince 7 out of 14 co-workers to give up their bonuses and vote to keep her job.

Dardennes puts the dilemma squarely on us. What would we do if we were in Sandra or co-workers shoes? Unsurprisingly in the beginning, Sandra gives up the fight. For her, there is no dignity in begging for her job back. The bonus is a lot of money and she can't blame her co-workers who are pretty much in the same boat as she is: struggling to make ends meet. She just wants to give up and go to sleep. But it is her supportive husband (Fabrizio Rongione) who keeps pushing her to fight. He will help her to gather everyone's address and drive her to each co-worker's house to make her case.

As usual, the set up here is super simple, but it works like gangbusters. Cotillard is amazing, so as every actor in the film. By the end, without ever being didactic, Sandra learns a thing or two about solidarity. For many North Americans who are opposed to any kind of welfare system and firmly believe in pulling-at-your-bootstraps, Deux Jours is a terrible movie and Sandra a horrible character. It's definitely not a kumbaya kind of movie but I thought singing Van Morrison's Gloria with a newly converted to her cause co-worker in the car was a bit too much.

Two Days, One Night plays part of NYFF 2014 on 10/5, 10/6. Please visit FSLC website.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Hot and Cold: Mathieu Amalric Interview

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Mathieu Amalric, a superstar of French cinema is in town for NYFF, promoting his new film THE BLUE ROOM, which he co-wrote, directed and stars in. It's also co-written by his wife, playwright, Stephanie Cléau who also co-stars. As an admirer, I was relieved for the fact that Amalric was exactly how I imagined him to be - a piercingly bright, yet chaotic little Frenchman who reeks of cigarette smoke, just like many endearing roles that he played over the years. Listening to his all-over-the-map responses with wildly gesticulating hands, I couldn't help but smile. I could've easily listen to him speak all day if I was given time.

This is how my 25 minute went with Amalric:

You are known as an actor more so than as a director at least in the States, even though you've been making films as a director as long as you've been acting.

No even before. Acting came afterwards.

Was being an actor just incidental?

It was (Annaud) Desplechin who saw something that I was in and... as I always say, he invented me as an actor, as a guy who plays a role in films, you know? Acting is not that's just films. Now I act on stage and that's something else. So Stephanie (Stephanie Cléau-- Amalric's wife irl, co-writer and co-star of The Blue Room) is inventing me 'cause we are on stage, on tour, she is inventing me as a stage actor. And woah, that's something else.

Which do you prefer-- directing, acting or stage?

Since I was 17, always shy, always hiding, I've been constructing small films as a 'director' as you call it, to watch and to observe. Acting came as a surprise. And now I don't see the differences in those, really, anymore.... I do it when I am in love or in such an admiration for the directors. I am a construct of all these experiences.

What was the reason for adapting THE BLUE ROOM the book, written by Georges Simenon after doing ON TOUR? It's a very different film altogether.

It's because my great producer (Paulo Branco). A great producer would see and feel where you are in your life. Paulo, I've worked for him since I was 17, as a trainee, AD and Assistant Editor... all different jobs in movies.... He knows me. And he produced one of my films (La Stade Wimbledon) also. It's that I've been trying to adapt this Stendhal's book The Red and the Black for three years. And he says, "stop with that bullshit! Just do a film! You have to shoot now. Stop that and just shoot! " And I thought that he was right. He says, "shoot a film in three weeks". "Ah ok. You are right. But what...."  "Go home and read something, I'll search for something also". So back home, I see La Chambre Bleu/The Blue Room, the book that's been obsessing me for such a long time, not really to do a film about it, but when I read that book, I was so struck by the opening of that book. I remember the sexual description of it was so close to the painting of Corbet, called  Le érogène du monde where you see feminine sex. And there is that exact description, the cunt and the sperm and all that, so you just don't come back empty handed from something like that. And maybe I was at the moment in my's just I....

Yes it was a commission - doing a film in three weeks, I told him, "ok, I can do it in four weeks". And we had some money from Pathé and we were able to shoot in five.

Wow. that's short.

Two weeks in july and 3 weeks in november. But everything went so quickly. So I met Georges Simenon's son, John, a wonderful guy. Immediately in a sort of confidence, he said to go with it. So I called Stephanie and she was in Paris, cause I was shooting the Larrieu Bros film (Love is the Perfect Crime, read my review here) in Switzerland. As her job for stage, she adapted a lot of novels before. So I told her about the book and she had already read it.

Interesting bit of coincidence here: the last scene of On Tour, when after the man and the woman make love and she is very tenderly closing the shutters so the man can sleep. That scene I named it the blue room! It came from the first scene of that book. It's funny eh? There are these sort of links everywhere.

And then I think I was attracted by how it was produced-- with not a lot of money which was fine. But it had to be done quickly. I thought about the old RKO films. Those b-pictures. Tried to be a b-picture and tried to be very honest. So I worked with the real police, real attorneys, real crime lab people so the audience would never ask about their authenticity. And that the plot is not the center, you know. So your mind can go like in great b-pictures, where you think it's one thing but it's really about something hidden behind. This desire, this monster you have to deal with everyday, which is sexuality. How do we manage to live with those horrible moments where you go to bed with your companion without any feelings or thoughts? Many of us do live like that because we have to keep up responsibilities. Simenon was very precise about that in the book: a self made man who worked so much to achieve the dream-- the house, with pretty wife and a daughter, like the perfect world, but the house is terrible and cold. I wanted to give the film both cold and hot. Like Stephanie.

So tell me about Stephanie--

Well, I don't know who she is. I think that's what makes men crazy: something that has to do with illegibility that you can't read someone. There were those descriptions in the book, "Why didn't you kiss her before?" "I wouldn't have thought about it." "Why not?" "Because she was too tall." Well Stephanie is taller than me. And she has this quality. I thought she was this statuette and that she was cold. But the miracle of chemistry between two bodies is that you feel like yourself and feel alive. That doesn't happen that often.

Did she agree to do the movie right away? Did you have to do a lot of convincing?

We've both read the book. And it's been 9-10 years we've been together. She is not an actress and very shy. Then I ran into Paolo. What happened was that I was going to leave for Switzerland for two month to do that Larrieu film. She was in Paris. I don't know why she made this joke: She told me that she can play the unfaithful wife and I can play the lover. I didn't like that because I was leaving Paris for 2 months. I go on a shooting and she knows that the Larrieu's film's about 3 women fighting over me and sexual desire and all that. So after she made that joke, I couldn't concentrate. Then when I was thinking about who could play the roles, if it's me to play the title role, people know my face, then I felt my wife in the film also has to be a face people know. Léa Drucker is a famous actress in France so she is well known. But if the mistress also had been an actress with a well known face, it would have been the usual film. Two actresses fight over a man is too typical. It becomes a competition- Who is more seductive? Who is the best actress? Then I thought if I make Stephanie play the role, I can protect her from all this. This was the fantasy I had. It would be more interesting if I made her 'the threat of the unknown', she would be the face that nobody knows. like ones you see on tv who is suspected of crime and you project the worst thoughts on them. Stephanie has that. You can project terrible thoughts on her face.

That really worked out. Did she say yes right away?

She did. She was rehearsing her own play working with actors and I think she was attracted by the thought of finding out what acting is which you can only know by living it. And that really helped her doing her play in dealing with her actors because she did it herself. Many scenes naked of course! It was a comfortable environment though. I always use the same crew and they are all our friends. We had a lot of laughs on the set.

Also the film has nothing to do with harmony and nothing to do with camera caressing the body or anything warm like that. It had to do with the feeling a bit morbid. It's not about eroticism. It's a battle between sound and the image with voice over and everything. Yo don't know why he is arrested but you know somebody has died. But who? of course in the beginning you think, so, he killed her. So you see the scenes differently with only pieces presented to you bit by bit. So the there is no harmony in Simenon's writing.

That's the reason why we went with 1:33 aspect ratio. Because it has to do with isolation. You get not only the body but...

Yeah I thought your choice of aspect ratio was a psychological choice not an aesthetic one.

Yes. with the plenty of head room you have,  you don't know what's in the head of the other person. It seemed that that aspect ratio is the right one for Simenon's honesty.

The Blue Room.jpgDid you take any big liberties on adapting the book?

No. I've read a lot on other filmmakers adapting simenon because there were quite a lot. It all said that you have to be faithful to Simenon, you can't change it. This one is a peculiar one because it's not linear. because there are a lot of flashbacks and you don't know who's dead. we tried to keep that intact when Stephanie and I wrote the script. In fact when we were writing it there were two colums: on screen and off screen. so they have to fight for our attention. It was as if we were reading two scripts at the same time. And of course the provincial life never change but And we shot it like that. Only thing we had to update was the police procedure, the crime scene investigation with DNA evidence, cell phones and all that. It was a lot of fun to work with the real police. The forensic files were really done by the police. You see it in the courtroom. the file they have on the desk are real ones compiled by the police. the trial was a real trial with real lawyers and real audience. we shot it for 3 hours just for the sound of proceedings.

I can just listen to you all day.

No no no. Just talking to you reminded me all these things we did. We did everything in 11 months-- from the day Stephanie started writing and the film's release in theaters.

One last question is about the music.

Oh yeah.

It reminded me of a Hitchcock film. Very Bernard Herman.

But in fact, it comes from Ravel. 'cause Bernard Herman comes from Ravel. it's the Spanish Rhapsody. Grégoire Hetzel who is a genius did the music for us. Again I told him that I want some cold and some hot. Something that burns and something that is scary. So the ostinato...(starts singing the repetitive melody) that everyone thinks Hitchcock is, indeed, comes from Ravel. And we recorded at Abby Road and it was great. I felt that the film could accept the music. In the beginning I worked with the Stockhausen music box, with that tinkling sound, an obsessive sound that you can't get it out of your head. But I discovered during editing with Francois (editor François Gédigier) that it was cold on cold. Then I thought the music has to provide some warmth. So in that kiss scene that is the only time you see where there is a swooping camera movement and swelling music. we pulled off that scene because of incredible light.

Yeah I remember the sunset in the film.

Yeah it was raining all day and all of a sudden there was this incredible warm sunlight for about 20 minutes. A miracle. so we have light we have kiss we have music.  It's Hollywood I know and we are not  allow to do it. but it works for that scene.

After appearing at various festivals, THE BLUE ROOM opens Friday, October 3rd in New York at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and IFC Center. It will also be available on Cable and On Demand.