Monday, February 25, 2019

Preview: Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2019

The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Uni France again team up for the 24th edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center this year, 2/28 through 3/10.

This year, the series puts an empasis on showcasing new and up and coming voices across French cinema and includes Romain Laguna (Meteorites), Sébastien Marnier (School's Out), Virgil Vernier (Sophia Antipolis), Gaël Lépingle (Time of the Pirates) and Judith Davis (Whatever Happened to My Revolution). Also represented here are seasoned Rendez-Vous alums such as Bruno Dumont (Coin Coin and Extra Humans), Mia Hansen-Løve (Maya) and Gilles Lelouche (Sink or Swim).

The series also highlights number of French comedies this year, opening the series with the multiple César Award nominated The Trouble with You, starring comedian Pio Mamaï and two of the top leading actresses in French cinema - Adele Haenel and Audrey Tatou, directed by Pierre Salvadori.

It might be less star studded year without the presence of Deneuve, Huppert or Binoche for the first time in a long while, but there are plenty of little gems to be found as usual if you knew where to look.

So here's my guide to this year's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. Enjoy:

TROUBLE WITH YOU - Pierre Salvadori *Opening Night Film
After police Lieutenant Yvonne (Adele Haenel) finds out that Santi, her decorated dead cop husband was a bent cop, that everything she owns is from dirty money, she actively tries to make things right. She especially feels bad for Antoine (Pio Marmai), a young man who was wrongly accused and went to jail for 8 years because of Santi's fake bust at a jeweler, which was a insurance scam. After Antoine is released, she obsessively stalks him. Antoine, traumatized by the incarceration, can't stop acting out his bad impulses and commit violent crimes. Ever so guilt stricken, Yvonne helps him in his endeavors and tells him that she understands what he is going through while hiding the secret of who she is.

Thinking Yvonne is a salvation to all his anger and resentment, a person who finally frees him from being 'innocent', Antoine decides to leave his long suffering girlfriend (Audrey Tautou) and get freaky with Yvonne in a S&M den (a vacated crime scene where she took him after he burned down a restaurant) and keep committing crimes.

Trouble with You is a mad cap comedy. It has its moments but the jokes are stale and gags can be seen too easy and regressive- high heels = a prostitute, S&M body suit and sex toys oh-so-funny, etc. But affecting performances by Haenel, Mamaï, Tautou and Damien Bonnard make up for it.

MAYA - Mia Hansen-Løve
Mia Hansen-Løve's new film starts with a French war journalist, Gabriel (Roman Kolinka) being released from captivity with a fellow journalist Frederic (Alex Descas) by the ISIS in Syria. He gets a hero's welcome in Paris. The year is 2012. Even though he was beaten and tortured, he refuses to be treated by psychologists or take pills for his trauma. Only thing he feels is guilt because the third journalist is still not released. He decides to take off to Goa, India, just to get away from everything for a while. He knows that only thing he knows is being a war journalist and will need to go back. But for now, he will take some time off and travel India. Goa is where he spent his childhood with his mom (Johanna ter Steege) who now lives in Mumbai.

In Goa, Gabriel meets Maya (Aarshi Banerjee) a young woman who is a daughter of his Indian godfather, Monty (Pathy Aiyar), who runs a hotel business. But touristy Goa is in transformation and people are being forced out by land developers and Monty doesn't see the future for Maya to stay in Goa forever. Gabriel is an intense, brooding man and the news of the fellow captive's beheading doesn't help the matter.

At first, Gabriel refuses Maya's advances, waving off her as still too young. But they hook up and she is left heart broken. Gabriel can't reciprocate her love and he will go back to the war zone.

The film could easily be called Gabriel since it's mostly about him. We get his back story, his family and love life and Maya is just a young girl who falls in love with a hunky, intense French guy. She is just starting out her life. So this is why the film is an interesting narrative departure for Hansen-Løve, who's been making thoughtful observations on people in transitional period. Maya is not unlike Camile character in her Goodbye First Love, except she is not the main character. Or is she? Maya is a movie about that special person who had made a big impact on your life. He or she pretty much made what kind of a person you are now.

Again, beautifully scripted and ambitious in its scale, Hansen-Løve keeps expanding her territories while not losing sight on where her priorities are - portraying melancholy of growing up and acknowledging that there is a price to pay for following your passions. Kolinka's hunkiness almost derails the film. But what can you do? He's French.

METEORITES - Romain Laguna
A young girl's search for her place in the universe is the theme of Meteorites, Romain Laguna's sensual debut feature. Nina (Zéa Duprez) is a High School dropout working at a dinosaur theme park in the south of France. One night, she witnesses a meteor charting across the sky and crashing over the rugged mountain. It seems only she saw the celestial event and no one else. She starts hanging around with Morad (Billal Agab), a good looking Algerian boy from a nearby project, who happens to be her co-worker Djamila's brother. Djamila warns her that she will get dumped. But their sexual attraction is palpable. She thinks the meteorite was the sign of their encounter.

It's a rocky relationship. Morad's aloofness and Nina's stubbornness clash in every turn. After Morad leaves for Algeria without notice and her old friend Alex declares joining the military and Nina finding out that she's not pregnant, she falls into a case of melancholy. Only searching and finding the meteorite that crashed will give her a peace of mind.

Shot in full frame with vibrant colors, lush sun drenched surroundings and with Duprez's sultry presence, Meteorites is an affecting, lyrical coming of age film.

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 2.31.11 PM
Sophia Antipolis is a name of a southwestern French industrial park in French Riviera, known for its tech industry complexes and low lying office buildings and chain stores. It's a back drop of Filmmaker Virgil Vernier's new film of the same name. It starts with a plastic surgeon talking to several young women about the their breast argumentation options. An impatient young woman tells the reluctant surgeon that she needs to have them done fast before her job interview. The surgeon drily tells her the ethical implication of him letting her walking around without proper healing time, even with her own consent. Then there's a young black navy man trying to get a job at a security firm in town. The combat training they go through is grueling, conducted by drill sergeant types who yell at you racist things in your face if you were people of color or threatening rape if you were a woman to get you riled up. The young man befriends with an older man who introduces a group of vigilante security force believing in doing the jobs police wouldn't do, like raiding and destroying illegal camps or makeshift shacks by slashing and burning their tents down. The older guard tells him a story of him and his old partner finding a charred body in one of the empty office space. During a bust of a suspected child molester, it becomes too much and the young navy man who runs away.

Police gets involved in the burned body case and determines it's the body of a young woman who had breast implants. That she might have been killed and set on fire by some shady characters whom she owed money to. The story then pivots to a girl who was a High School friend of the dead girl. She is found holding a candle lit vigil where the girl had died.

Just like his previous film Mercuriales, Vernier's elliptical, loosely connected stories, Sophia Antipolis examines the seedy underbelly of a shallow modern society, urban isolation and loneliness and human connection. Daring, cerebral and playful with some lyrical 16mm shot images, it's one of the most invigorating film experience I've had in a while.

AMANDA - Mikhaël Hers
Reading only the plotline of Mikhaël Hers new film Amanda might not entice you because it is extremely conventional, lifetime channel movie material. But knowing the film is his, you know you are in good hands.

David (Vincent Lacoste) is a young Parisian scraping by doing menial jobs - as a middle man for the landlords, arranging pickup and introduction to places for travelers and as a seasonal park employee, trimming tree branches around the city. He has a loving older sister Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb) and an adorable 7 year old niece Amanda (Isaure Multrier) whom he picks up at the school when single mom Sandrine is busy. David meets Lena (Stacy Martin), a newly transplant from the countryside through his job and falls in love. Other than their father not in the picture and their estranged English mother (Greta Scacchi) reaching out to reconnect, they live in quiet, relatively uneventful life.

A sudden death of Sandrine and many others in a terrorist attack in the park shatters David's tranquil existence and affects Amanda greatly. Young and short on resources, David has to decide the fate of his young niece.

It might draw some flags for its non-political stance in the time of the extreme polarization, hate and fear for portraying the post-Islamic terrorism France, but Amanda is not about that. It's not about a young man's journey through adulthood either. Nor is it Doillon or Pialat-esque acting/directomg genius extravaganza. Just like Hers's other films, Amanda is all about human connections. And it's drawn beautifully. And also like his other films, loss and grief figure greatly in to it. But if they were on the periphery and overhanging cloud in films like Memory Lane and Montpanasse, they take the center stage in Amanda. Lacoste (seen in films of Mia Hansen-Løve and Christoph Honoré), a cross between Jean-Pierre Léaud and Andrew Garfield, has a great range and has a bright future ahead of him. He is also representing Freshman in this year's series.

It's Orleans suburbs where city officials are planning a new housing development. They hold town hall meetings and try to gather up the support. But this means Géro (Ludovic Douare), an aging, eccentric theater actor/director who lost his voice due to cancer and only whispers, will get evicted from his cluttered house and from his theater space too. So starts Gaël Lépingle's humanistic characters study Time of the Pirates. Géro gladly invites Leo, his fresh faced 18 year old nephew who wants to learn the theater craft and write, to live with him. Then there is a lonely city clerk who is fighting for the custody of her kid whom Géro has a hots for.

Leo turns out to be a young man who is politically aware and doesn't buy into Géro's romantic notion of "pirates are origins of revolutionary anarchists." The film takes a sly turn as one of Géro's 'associates' gets into trouble and flees to the country and Leo accompanies him. On the run and tall and handsome, for Leo, the fugitive is an ideal model for his writing. Then he finds out the man makes money off of smuggling refugees in. The boy is learning.

With finely tuned, naturalistic performances that don't resort to stereotypes and it's tone just pitched right - not too serious and not too silly, Time of the Pirates occupies a specific place in French cinema by portraying middle-class people and their lives with humor and warmth. I am definitely going to check out Lépingle's Julien next.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Sexual Politics

À ma Soeur! (2001) - Breillat
More of a statement than a movie in line with Catherine Breillat's rest of the filmography yet it raises some interesting questions from young women's point of view. Sisters Elena (Roxane Mesquina) and Anais (Anais Reboux) are vacationing with their parents in a small town near the sea. The archetypes are set - Elena, a 15 year old is a slutty, pretty one and Anais, a chubby jealous younger sister. But when it comes to boys, Anais turns out to have a more pragmatic view on things. When Elena is contemplating going all the way with a good looking twenty something Italian boy, Anais declares that she will only have sex with someone she isn't in love with. But naturally, Elena gets all the attention and sharing the room with her sister, Anais tearfully gets to witness her sister banging and all. Is she crying because of jealousy or is she crying for all the girls being coerced to give in even though they didn't want to?

À ma soeur presents a bleak view of male/female relationship. Sexual coercion and pressure tactics are painfully demonstrated by the Italian boy. Sibling dynamics are also examined - disturbing since Breillat has expressed her relationship with her older sister in her other films. The worst possible scenario that could possibly happen to a little girl happens, out of nowhere. It's too cartoon-ish to be taken seriously. I can only take it as a big middle finger to anyone who was expecting anything other than that ending.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Preview: Film Comment Selects 2019

In its 19th edition, Film Comment Selects provides various films around the world, deemed their contributions to cinema as important and vital by Film Comment Magazine's esteemed editors. This year's lineup includes Steven Soderbergh's another iphone shot non-sport sport movie High Flying Bird, László Nemes' Sunset, his follow up to Son of Saul, Flight of a Bullet, a one-take docu into the heart of Russia-Ukraine conflict, Up the Mountain, Zhang Yang's formally daring portrait of the Bai people in Western China and The Hidden City, an audio-visual sensory tour of Madrid underground.

Most of these films in the selection are not masterpieces, but each brings a spark, its unique colors to cinema. This is the reason why I love the series. It keeps me on my toes and makes me giddy with joy because it reminds me time and again that cinema is indeed an great art form, not because of its consistency but rather its fluidity.

Film Comment Selects runs Feb 6 thru 10th at Film Society of Lincoln Center. Please visit their website for tickets and more info.

I had a privilege to sample the following:

- László Nemes
László Nemes' follow up to a haunting holocaust drama Son of Saul, Sunset is yet another period film that is equally brilliant and challenging. It tells a story of Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young heiress to the famous hat maker parents who perished in a fire. She came to Budapest, to her parents' hat making showroom/shop to get a job as a milliner. But the manager of the shop Oszkár (played by great Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Police Adjective and Snow Piercer) doesn't want her there, saying the city is not for a country girl like her. But Írisz is determined to stay and find a brother she never knew she had.

The time is the height of Austro-Hungarian empire in the early twentieth century, on the eve of World War I. Soon Írisz finds herself in chaotic social upheaval where dangers and mysteries are around every corner where nothing is what it seems and everything is layered. Nemes keeps his Son of Saul subjective perspective - focusing closely on Írisz on steadicam, following her exclusively. It's a startlingly absorbing theater experience. As well as the visuals, Nemes put an emphasis creating soundscapes that reflects the tumultuous times with off the frame whispers, conversations and ominous soundtrack.

Sunset juxtaposes a society on the brink of self-destruction with setting the film around something trivial and decadent as a designer hat shop. There is something creepy about all the beautiful, young women hat makers preparing for the dance party for the crown prince and princess and be chosen as a personal milliner and move to Vienna. Is Írisz's brother an anarchist bent on toppling Oszkár and the ruling class? Nemes doesn't give an easy answer to any of these intrigue. Instead, he makes us work for it and it's great.

Flight of a Bullet - Beata Bubenec
Screen Shot 2019-02-02 at 10.15.54 AM
Flight of a Bullet, an uncut 80 minute footage of a village and its soldiers in Ukraine starts out like a typical political thriller where a innocent civilian gets caught between two factions - in this case Russia backed separatists and pro Ukraine forces, then eases into a glimpse of the effects of war on people, especially on young macho military men in the army barracks where director Beata Bubenec is embedded with.

We see a man taping a partially collapsed bridge. Some bystanders are making jokes and hitting on Bubenec who is behind the camera. The ski masked soldier takes a man into custody with Bubenec in tow, starts interrogating him to see whether he's a separatist or not. It's tense and realistic since it's real. After the intense scene dissipates, Bubenec moves outside and tracks a shirtless soldier on the phone with his girlfriend. He keeps on accusing his girlfriend, threatening violence once he gets home. The banal conversations that goes on through the rest of the film always carries tinge of violence. Flight of a Bullet is an interesting case study of the effects of the war.

Los Reyes
- Iván Osnovikoff, Bettina Perut
Los Reyes is an oldest skate park in Santiago, Chile. Kids come and go with their skates and hang out. But the documentary focuses on two mangy dogs (Football and Chola) who live in the park and spend most of the time there, chasing tennis balls, napping, barking at cyclists, howling at the passing police sirens. Skaters are only present in voice overs here and there, mostly talking about smoking and selling pot.

Iván Osnovikov and Bettina Perut's documentary is an ode to street dogs. In extreme close ups, we see Football's aging features - matted shaggy hair, bloodshot eyes, teeth ground to the base, fly ridden ears, jagged paws, limping. But Football and Chola are energetic pair and owns the park as their territory. The filmmakers juxtaposes passing of time of dog days with aimless youth growing up and realizing that they have to face the real world in voice overs. Gentle, contemplative and beautiful.

Jessica Forever
- Bettina Poggi, Jonathan Vinel
A young man is being chased in the suburban neighborhood. He suddenly lunges into the window of one of the houses. The glass shatters and the man motionless. So starts ultra slick Jessica Forever, a sort of a gamer's answer to all YA dystopia novel adaptations. Jessica (Aomi Muyock, last seen in Gaspar Noë's Love), is a surrogate mother of a pack of orphans all of whom are violent young man. We gather from various brief narrations that these baby faced non-emotive orphans have committed horrible deeds and hunted by the oppressive government forces (in the form of a swarm of armed drones). Jessica is apparently the only one who can calm them down and trying to build a makeshift family out of them by hugging them and whispering to them that everything will be okay.

There are some very nice visually orchestrated scenes and visual effects. But I don't know whether I need to take these hunky boys in kevlar vests and hockey pads, listening to Deathmetal ballads seriously or is Jessica Forever some sort of Verehoven-esque parody and I'm not getting it.

Up the Mountain - Zhang Yang
Up the Mountain
Gorgeous. Master painter Shen (Shen Jianhua) and his family relocated from Shanghai to Shuanglang, a lakeside village in Yunan Province, Southwest China, some time ago. His modern, airy residence is up on the hill overlooking the stunning view of the lake and the mountains. His art studio is always open to local grannies in their colorful traditional Bai clothes who flock to paint colorful scenes from their daily lives. Painting in his studio for the grannies has been sort of a communal retreat, away from their daily grind and a chance to express themselves creatively. Framed in the same manner as the square canvases used by these painting pupils, Up the Mountain unhurriedly observes the daily routines of the villagers. They tend to their barnyard animals, harvest their crops, cook, paint and chat about their lives.

In that static square with gorgeous nature backdrop, every frame is a work of art. Births, a funeral, a new year's celebration, a wedding occur in this documentary. Master Shen's studio is always busy - there are always people coming and going: they paint, they chatter, they cook and eat communally. You get used to the quiet rhythm of life. Master Shen and his family, even though thoroughly modern, cosmopolitan, somehow fit right in the region where modernization just has begun - many roads are still not paved, ancient traditions still performed. Up the Mountain also reflects on the harmonious side of changing China.

The Hidden City
- Victor Moreno
Darkness, then blinking stars slowly appear and fill the screen. Is this another lyrical film that makes you contemplate on our place in the universe? No. It turns out to be an underground system below the streets of Madrid. The stars turn out to be the reflection of the lights on the centuries of filth on the grimy tunnels. The Hidden City starts out with abstract images with familiar sounds of clink-clank of man made machines. And it's oh so dark. It's disorienting at first, the same way human eyes take some time to get used to in the complete darkness. It gets familiar - workers communicating through walkies, subway trains, grainy surveillance camera footage of rats, cockroaches and stray cats, commuters both above and below.

The Hidden City
charts somewhere between a sensory experimental art film and documentary. Darkness underground often provides truly cinematic shots - a single light source illuminates particles swirling around in the wild air flows, welding flames dance around like a Disney animation. Both beautiful and unreal.

Los Silencios
- Beatriz Seigner
Beatriz Seigner's somber refugee drama takes place in an island shanty town community bordering Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Amparo (Marleyda Soto), a mother fleeing Colombian civil war with her two young children, Nuria and Fabio, after her husband disappeared, arrives the Fantasia island by boat at night. It's a small fishing village with wooden shacks on stilts connected by wooden planks. There, Amparo needs to navigate through the system to get her refugee status, provide school supplies for kids, find a job. Her old auntie tells a story that the island is full of ghosts, living among the grieved. Amparo's husband's ghost appear - eating and communicating with the family.

Los Silencios
plays out lyrically in making its case for violence stricken community, where they are semi-permanently in limbo stage, where nothing is certain. Mixing professional actors and its real inhabitants in a improvised script, Beatriz Seigner achieves rare authenticity in real life situations and makes a deeper impact.