Saturday, October 7, 2017

Claire Denis Does Hong Sang-soo?

Un beau soleil intérieur (2017) - Denis
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I think Claire Denis has been hanging out with Hong Sang-soo a little too much because I never expected her to do a wordy romantic comedy! And the result is delightful! It boasts the best rolling end credit of any movie ever.

Let the Sun Shine In concerns middle aged divorcée painter Isabelle (radiant Juliette Binoche). The film starts with her having sex with her regular lover, Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), a portly, pompous banker with terrible bedside manner. Some off-handed comment he says makes her cry. In fact, our disheveled heroine cries a lot, out of loneliness, in bed at night alone. Vincent is a married man and constantly says he won't ever leave his wife and family. He just want to bang her regularly is all.

Then there is a brooding stage actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) Isabelle hits up on at the bar. They are about to work professionally together. But she is very anxious to know if he's interested in her as much as she is in him. But he rambles on about his acting, his identity whatev, finishing what seems to be his 15th beer. After hilarious and super awkward exchange in the car, Isabelle pretty much passive-aggressively makes him to 'come up for coffee' and stay the night. The next day, she is super happy about what happened but he's not. He's full of regret.

Then there is François (Laurent Grévill), Isabelle's ex, whom she has a 10 year old daughter with. She constantly regrets that she left him. He sometimes comes over and they screw. But they say some hurtful things to each other. They go their separate ways unhappy.

Always on the verge of tears, she confesses to her friend that she is deathly afraid that she'd pass the age to meet the love of her life, that she'd live the rest of her life alone and die alone. Easily swayed by other's opinions, whoever she meets, she asks for advice and second guess herself if she's doing the right thing.

Frustrated with her current relationship arrangement, Isabelle takes a trip to the countryside with her art circle acquaintances where they are invited to a little art festival. While taking a walk with the group, their pompousity and forced social niceties become too much for her and she blows up on everyone. Yet she finds herself in the arms of a soulful country bumpkin on the dance floor. Would that fling last?

We've all been there. The relationship is a fickle business and there are no easy answers. As you grow older, the need for companionship grows. Loneliness is a terrible thing. In a rom-com setting, Isabelle embodies a middle aged woman in the city dealing with these issues perfectly. With co-writer Christine Angot, Denis wrote a very funny script and created a very funny character that is unlike anything she created previously. The only comparable film she made would be Friday Night (2002). But that was a mood piece more than anything else with little dialog.

Since it's shot by the great Agnes Godard, Let the Sun Shine In is filled with gorgeous close-ups. As the arresting images unfold with jazzy soundtrack (by Stuart Staples of Tindersticks), you are safely in Denis territory. And the familiar faces show up - Alex Descas plays one of Isabelle's lover to be (there is a lot of potential), Valeria Bruni Tedeschi briefly shows up too.

The biggest suprise, figuratively and literally, is the appearance of Gerard Depardieu as a fortune teller who's motives are suspect. His long, meandering exchange with Isabelle got hearty laugh from me.

After a couple of very dark films (White Material and Bastards), Denis is trying something different. Let the Sun Shine In feels much looser and lighter than her other films but it still retains all of her visual language and style. With her announced English Sci-fi project with Robert Pattison, I welcome this change. Someone please give this woman a best director prize already!

Let the Sun Shine In plays as part of NYFF 2017 at Film Society of Lincoln Center on 10/7 and 10/8. Please visit FSLC website for tickets and more information.

Agnès Varda's Faces Places is a Perfect Antidote for This Ugly, Ugly World

Faces Places (2017) - Varda
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You really gotta give it to Agnes Varda: at 89, our pint sized grand dame of French New Wave is still incredibly open, generous and always searching (into both past and present). In doing so she inadvertently raises some interesting questions when it comes to what constitutes public art and what's personal without bombarding us with schoolmaster rhetoric. There are also a lot of reflections in Faces Places on impermanence of human existence, art and mortality.

Varda, always keen on meeting new people and discover new things, pairs up with a 33 year old wheat pasting street artist known as JR. Together, they take a road trip to the northern French coastal towns. There they meet various working class people and their families - a postman, cafe owners, butchers, factory workers,miners, longshoremen, goat farmers and they take their pictures, print them out from the side of JR's portable printer/van and wheat paste them on the large public spaces, relate to the subject's environment.

The conversation is not always one sided- Varda doesn't have to exert herself into every story. She's fucking Agnes Varda. Things naturally come out. She's visited many many places and full of memories and mementos. In turn, JR is a jovial and energetic, and very good with dealing with elderly people (he lives with his grandma). Lanky with sunglasses glued to his face, JR reminds her of Godard and this train of thoughts plays out near the end, for better or worse.

It's not a typical light and fluffy travelogue of the rich and famous that would end up in travel channel. It's more about ordinary people. In this day and age, Varda believes in face to face human contact and genuine friendship. Except for some corny intros, Faces and Places feels very improvised and light and ultimately very touching and beautiful without trying so hard.

So they arranged the meeting with Godard. When they get there, the reclusive director and long time friend is not home. He scribbled a cryptic message with a marker on the window that upset's Varda almost to her tears. "If he tried to hurt me, he succeeded. That rat bastard!" One sentence is about the death of Jacques Demy, her husband, the other is a jab at the very same film she is making now, suggesting Faces Places is a fluffy travelogue of the bourgeoisie.

So there you have it. Godard has always been an innovative, genius filmmaker, brilliant researcher and historian, but an extremely cynical one who has long lost the ability to see the brighter side of humanity. Varda is totally opposite - completely open, transparent in what she sees and does and incredibly giving and sharing with her being. Which do we need more in this ugly world right now?

Faces and Places is a perfect antidote for the grim reports on the news these days. Please go see it.