Category Archives: France

La graine et le mulet (Couscous) (2007)

Director: Abdel Kechiche

Screenplay: Abdel Kechiche

Though born in Tunisia in 1960, writer-director-actor Abdel Kechiche immigrated with his family to France in 1966, setting up residence in Nice.  Kechiche made his debut as an actor in 1984 and it wasn’t until 2000, at the age of 40 and after numerous acting roles, that he followed his desire to direct.  His first feature film, La faute à Voltaire (Blame it on Voltaire), did well at several European film festivals, receiving a total of seven awards, including the CinemAvvenire and Luigi De Laurentiis awards at the 2000 Venice Film Festival.  La graine et le mulet marks his third directorial effort and is undoubtedly his most critically acclaimed work to date.

In La graine et le mulet, newcomer Habib Boufares plays Slimane Beiji, a sixty-one-year-old dockhand who finds himself laid off after 35 years of service.  With two families to support and very little money to speak of, Slimane decides to open his own restaurant – an old ship transformed into a floating dining experience in which his ex-wife’s (Bouraouïa Marzouk) legendary fish couscous is served.  Opening a restaurant proves to be no simple task and as Slimane’s pockets do not run very deep, he is forced to apply for a loan and create business proposals which are all very much out of his realm of experience.  Fortunately for him, he’s both encouraged and aided by Rym (Hafsia Herzi), his daughter from his current relationship.

Undoubtedly, Kechiche’s greatest accomplishment with La graine et le mulet is the manner by which he allows his characters the onscreen room that they need to breathe.  Scenes are somewhat lengthy, allowing for the characters to reveal their personalities in a natural and uncompromising manner.  This is especially beneficial given the fact that most of the actors in the film are untrained, first time actors.  There’s a very genuine, almost documentarian feel to all of this.  As a result, the moments when the family are arguing feel awkward to watch, as if we the audience are intruding on one private family matter after another.

La graine et le mulet‘s central story isn’t particularly fascinating, but it works solely because of the personal manner in which we’re drawn into the affairs of Slimane and his family.  In addition to this, the performances of Habib Boufares and Hafsia Herzi are particularly powerful, though they both play on opposite ends of the scale.  Boufares is capable of saying everything with a single morose glance, making him a pitiable and empathetic character all at once.  Herzi is outright explosive as Rym, a young woman filled with pride and unwavering determination and devotion.  The relationship between her and her father Slimane, as well as how she interacts with her half-brothers and sisters is simply mesmerizing to watch.

As the family dynamic intensifies throughout the film, Kechiche keeps his focus on Slimane.  This is the family that he’s built and these are the sacrifices that he’s made.  Everyone it seems, is talking about Slimane, whether to his face or behind his back, and he weathers it all with an unwavering mixture of calm and helplessness.  It’s the film’s third act that really devours the heart, amounting to 50 minutes of what I can only describe as heartbreaking cinema.  It’s honestly been quite a while since a film moved me in the way that La graine et le mulet did.  This is not an uplifting film, but it is a wonderfully orchestrated look into the complexities, the help and the outright hinderance of family life.

-Mike

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Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks) (2008)

Director: Dany Boon

Screenplay: Dany Boon, Alexandre Charlot, Franck Manier

Actor-writer-director Dany Boon’s gentle comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis ruled the French box-office in 2008.  I’m not just talking about it being a hit, I’m talking about it being a monster hit in France, on par with monster hits like Titanic or The Dark Knight or the Lord of the Rings films.  As a matter of fact, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis has the distinction of being the most successful French film in France of all time.  Not bad at all considering that the film was made on the relatively tiny budget of 11 million euros.

Bievenue chez les Ch’tis’ success lies in its ability to follow a simple yet universally understood and experienced phenomenon: the regional bias.  Kad Merad is Phillipe Abrams, a rather weasly postal official whose desperation to gain a work transfer to one of southern France’s gorgeous cities causes him to pretend that he’s handicapped (a guaranteed advantage for such promotions).  It isn’t long before Phillipe is found out by the powers that be within the Postal Service.  As punishment, he’s transferred to the dreaded north of France: the Nord-Pas de Calais region, to the town Bergues, for a minimum of two years.  Phillipe timidly reveals this news to his wife Julie (Zoé Félix) and is at once chewed out something fierce.  The Nord-Pas de Calais, it seems, is worse than hell itself, with temperatures dropping to inhumane levels, populated by an army of beer swilling, troglodytic rubes.  She absolutely refuses to move to such a place and Phillipe is left with no other alternative than to leave Julie and their young son Raphaël behind, returning home for weekend visits.

Upon arrival in Bergues, Phillipe meets Antoine (Dany Boon), a local postal worker who introduces him to the rest of the staff at the town’s tiny post office.  Phillipe is less than thrilled by any of this and makes little to no initial effort to make the best of his new position.  But as time passes, Phillipe begins to see things in a new light – one which slowly whittles away his preconceived notions about the places and people that he doesn’t know.

There are moments in Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis when it all feels a little melodramatic.  The build up to Phillipe leaving for Bergues, for example, is somewhat over the top, going out of its way to convince us that this silly man’s banishment to the north is nothing short of a death sentence.  Still, there’s a reason for this sort of melodrama and rather than have it feel as though we’re being hit over the head by the notion of how horrid Bergues is meant to be, Boon seems to be taking the piss out of those who would so disdainfully condemn a place which they’ve never bothered to visit.  It’s melodrama at the expense of melodrama, if you will.

Bievenue chez les Ch’tis isn’t high art, but it doesn’t try to be, either.  It’s a film that’s obviously been able to resonate with audiences by pointing out the regional stereotyping and foolishness we’re all guilty of, and by laughing at the sheer silliness of it all.  Speaking as someone who originally comes from a place that is treated with equal disdain as was Bergues,  I can honestly say that it’s entirely pleasing seeing ill-informed, preconceived notions dashed.  For what it’s worth, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis relays the message loud and clear: it isn’t where you come from that makes you who you are, but who you are that makes you who are, and that happiness can be found wherever you want it to be.

-Mike

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Eldorado (2008)

Director: Bouli Lanners

Screenplay: Bouli Lanners

Touted by many as the best Belgian film of 2008, writer-director-actor Bouli Lanners’ Eldorado had me laughing within the film’s initial opening minutes.  When Yvan (Bouli Lanners) returns home from a business trip to find a burglar hiding under his bed, he demands that the intruder come out.  The burglar promptly refuses.  Yvan’s anger escalates: he stomps, he shouts, he argues with the intruder beneath the bed, but all to no effect.  The man just won’t budge.  Fast forward to the morning, and Yvan has fallen asleep in a chair, still waiting for the burglar to show himself.  Assuming that the coast is clear, the burglar scurries out from beneath the bed, but Yvan awakes and throws a heavy steel pipe at the man as he flees.  The pipe strikes the man, knocking him down the stairs and injuring him. From this point on, Yvan takes on a sweet yet humorous sympathy for the young burglar called Didier (played to a T by Fabrice Adde), feeling guilty no doubt for throwing the heavy pipe at him in the first place.  The relationship between Didier and Yvan quickly progresses and soon Didier has talked Yvan into driving him to see his parents, who live near the French border.

As far as feature films go, Eldorado is a short one, clocking in at a mere 80 minutes.  Yet for what it manages to accomplish in those 80 minutes, the film certainly deserves all the praise it has received.  For his part, Lanners had his work cut out for him: creating a credible bond between Yvan and Didier, who in addition to being a burglar is also a junkie, is no easy task.  But Lanners pulls it off with effortless aplomb, mostly because the idea that Yvan is befriending a burglar/junkie; giving him food, money and driving him to see his parents, quickly evolves in to an understanding that Yvan needs Didier just as much as Didier seems to need Yvan.  As a result, that bond between the two is so enjoyable and flecked with such an understated innocence ,that becoming lost in its genuine nature is quite effortless.

Eldorado carries with it the notion of salvation and as the film progresses, this subtext gains in weight and importance.  It’s rather crucial to take this in to consideration throughout the course of the film, though Lanners keeps the concept just low key enough as to avoid crowding out the humor of the central story line.  The film does end rather abruptly (albeit suitably abrupt for this type of story), leaving the viewer to reflect on what they’ve just seen.  If the salvation subtext is ignored, I can see why the ending could potentially annoy viewers, making them feel that no real resolution has been achieved.  This simply isn’t the case however, and the ending should be chalked up to yet another powerfully minimalistic aspect of Lanners’ superbly sweet and melancholic filmmaking.

-Mike

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L’avventura (The Adventure) (1960)

HAPPY 50th 1960-2010

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra

In May of 1960, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 143 minute L’avventura was booed at the Cannes Film Festival.  Despite this less than stellar reception to his film, Antonioni went on to have the last laugh: L’avventura took home the festival’s Jury Prize and is today regarded by many as a cinematic masterpiece.  That’s certainly not to say that the film is everyone’s cup of tea, but with a little patience on the part of the viewer, L’avventura can indeed cast a very magical spell.

As far as narrative structure is concerned, L’avventura was unconventional at the time of its release and even today it defies established and pre-conceived notions of exactly what narrative can and should do.  Lea Massari is Anna, a wealthy, selfish and somewhat contemptible woman involved in a relationship with the similarly attributed Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti).  Together with Anna’s friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), the trio set off on a Mediterranean boat trip with another group of friends.  During an early afternoon stop at a particularly rocky island, Anna disappears.  A police search follows, but Anna seems to have vanished without a trace.  Though she initially resists, Claudia soon joins Sandro on a search for Anna and along the way, the two find themselves drawn to one another, ultimately giving in to their desires and falling in love.  That may sound simple enough, but the film is really so much more than its deceptively basic plot hints at.

Control and the desire for control play heavily amongst the characters of L’avventura, particularly within Anna and Sandro.  The emptiness of their material wealth seems to have accelerated their subconscious belief that lasting physical control over their lives and environments is impossible, and that the only manner by which any sort of control can be experienced is to strike out at beauty whenever such an opportunity presents itself.  This is evidenced early on during the boating trip when the friends all go swimming and Anna creates a mass exodus back to the boat after she pretends to spot a shark swimming nearby.  She revels in the pleasure of ruining the day of swimming, just as some time later in the film, Sandro purposely knocks a bottle of ink on to a young artists sketchpad, ruining the work in progress.

Throughout all this, it would seem inevitable that the world Antonioni creates is grim and void of any sort of  beauty.  Yet somehow, Antonioni manages to completely turn such a notion on its head and by creating characters who live by such nihilistic means, the beauty and richness of life and its surroundings are enhanced rather than diminished.  Make no mistake about it, L’avventura is a gorgeous film from beginning to end; brimming with symbolism, rich in metaphor and depth and powerfully evoking the fragility and magnificence of all that is fleeting about life.

-Mike

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Electroma (2006)

Director: Thomas Bangalter, Guy Manuel De Homem-Christo

Screenplay: Thomas Bangalter, Guy Manuel De Homem-Christo, Cédric Hervet, Paul Hahn

French techno duo Daft Punk have long since maintained that they are not in fact human beings making deep groove house music and performing elaborate live shows, but robots.  Silly and a bit gimmicky perhaps, but whether robot or human, when Daft Punk’s music begins, no one really cares either way because everyone’s far too busy shaking their asses.

The truth is, Daft Punk are not robots (sorry to piss on your strawberries, kids), but two exceptionally talented and creative musicians by the names of Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter.  Together they decided to take the whole We-are-robots thing yet another step further by writing and directing a 74-minute, dialogue-free film about two automatons on a quest to become human.

For the most part, reviews and opinions of Electroma often seem to reiterate the words “pretentious” and “bullshit” – which are also very often put together for a more comprehensive analysis of “pretentious bullshit”.  That’s not to say however, that such an analysis is in fact fair or for that matter, accurate.  Yes, Electroma is exceptionally long for what is essentially (and barely) a single concept film and yes, Electroma could have achieved everything it achieves in 20 minutes or less instead of 74; and yes it is more than a little surprising that it took four writers to write a film that has no real story to speak of.  BUT!  De Homem-Christo and Bangalter should be commended for a few things:

First of all, kudos for not using any Daft Punk music in the film’s soundtrack.  This is a potentially contentious point as I’m sure many of the Daft Punk fans who watched this film and subsequently complained about it were expecting a concert video of sorts.  As much as I love Daft Punk’s music, it wouldn’t have fit in with the feel or context of the film.  In fact, it would have taken away from what little substance there is to Electroma, transforming the entire production instead into little more than a 74-minute music video.

There are very few plot points in this film and the build up to these relatively feeble points are long, drawn out affairs.  Still these build ups do manage to create the intended tension, despite the payoffs being rather slim pickings.  That tension slowly translates into a sort of creepy sympathy for these two robots in their leather sequined Daft Punk jackets, who want so badly to be human.  I have to honestly say that I felt sorry for them, even though I was repeatedly hit over the head with the notion that I should feel precisely that.  Note to aspiring filmmakers: just because you omit dialogue from your film doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily going to avoid being obvious with the themes and emotions you’re intending to get across.

And that is exactly what hurt Electroma: had the length been cut in half, it all wouldn’t have seemed so obvious.  After 30 minutes of sulky robots, we get it.  Loud and clear. Je comprend tout.  I can’t deny that I did like some of the particularly lengthy scenes like the opening, where the two robots drive their car through the desert to a droning soundtrack.  Unfortunately, that kind of imagery isn’t for everyone and will often elicit cries of “pretentious bullshit”.  For me, Electroma wasn’t so much about being pretentious as it was about not knowing how much is too much.  De Homem-Christo and Bangalter certainly know where that line lies with regards to their music; maybe if there are to be any further attempts at cinema they’ll better utilize that knowledge.

-Mike

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The Duchess of Langeais (2007)

Director: Jacques Rivette

Screenplay: Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Jacques Rivette

Novel: Honoré de Balzac (1834)

Jacques Rivette is famous among the French New Wave directors for making very long, very talky films, as well as for habitually disregarding narrative flow. As Saul Austerlitz (in a Great Directors entry for sensesofcinema.com) writes: “Rivette has expressed his belief in the ideal cinema being one of ordeal, namely a cinema that challenges its viewers to break through mainstream, middlebrow notions of narrative and cinematic technique, into a wider view of acceptable filmic topics.” Some of Rivette’s more famous “ordeals” include his impossible-to-see, thirteen-hour serial Out 1 (1971) (and its abridged 255-minute version, Out 1: Spectre [1972]), on the expansive topic of ‘60s radicalism and conspiracy-think, as well as his critically celebrated, four-hour La belle noiseuse (1991), on the topic of the intensive labour that goes into an artist and model’s creation of a painting.

While I haven’t seen much of Rivette’s work yet, I can attest, from what little I have seen (including the spooky-lovely line and Julie Go Boating [1974], and the delectable comedy Va savoir [2001]), that his “ordeals” are very much worth undergoing, and have afforded me some of the most rewarding, long-lingering viewing experiences of the last few years. Having just watched his 2007 film The Duchess of Langeais, however, I’m not sure I’m ready to place it among Rivette’s better works.

Duchess, based (as several Rivette films are) on an Honoré de Balzac novel, concerns the calamitous, unconsummated “romance” between a wealthy Parisian noblewoman (the Duchess of the title, played by Jeanne Balibar) and a decorated general of the French Army (Guillaume Depardieu), mostly set in 1820s Paris. At the beginning of the film, the General has travelled to a Spanish convent in search of his lost beloved, the Duchess, and discovers she has cloistered herself there as a nun. Confronting each other in a startling scene from either side of prison bars in the cloister, their dialogue hints at the great course of events that has led these two apparent lovers to such a literal divide from each other (each imprisoned by her/his thwarted desires). The film then flashes back to recount the (anti-)romantic history between the two, detailing over the course of two hours the various games of courtship, denial, and possession that comprised their strange relationship and attraction.

Without getting into the specifics of the narrative, I will say that I found the romance between the Duchess and the General incredibly difficult to cotton to. A kind of malaise set in for me about mid-way through the rather repetitious account of their early courtship, when the Duchess excuses herself from consummating the relationship with the General by arguing at length that her civil manners (she is married to a Duke we never see), and her religious beliefs compel her to act with “prudence.” By the time the General kidnaps the Duchess, and threatens her with a red hot branding iron (which finally inflames the Duchess’s own desires, and puts in motion the events that will lead her to the cloister), you may struggle to understand why the two lovers should be so obsessed with each other: after all that dry talk of the first half, the passion seems forced, rote (but maybe I missed the nuances of the slow build-up–Rivette’s “ordeal”).

This is not to say that The Duchess of Langeais doesn’t contain much to recommend it, even if you lose interest in the machinations of the love plot, as I did. In one sense, the film demands to be seen and appreciated simply as a sensual experience. Its mise-en-scène—camera placement and movement; orchestration of all elements of production design in the frame—is as luxurious as any I can recall from films of the last decade. The stills I’m posting here highlight rather well, I think, the richness of Rivette’s colour palette; often the saturated greens, reds, and blues of the characters’ costumes, especially remarkable in dusky night scenes, seem like something out of a fantastical dream: what Cocteau’s La belle et la bête (1946) might have looked like, had it been filmed in colour. And the sound design, as many critics have noted before me, is simply superb; the soft crackling of a fireplace in several scenes was enough to make my head go warm with pleasure.

The acting is top-notch, as well; the late Guillaume Depardieu (who died in 2008 of complications from pneumonia) is an endlessly fascinating screen presence—tortured, intense, vulnerable (in his review of the film, critic Owen Gleiberman likens Depardieu’s General to “an angry, crestfallen lion”). If you haven’t seen Guillaume Depardieu (son of Gerard) in a film before, do yourself a favour and rent this (or Leos Carax’s great Pola X [1999]); I’m sure you’ll understand then what a huge loss to film acting his death occasioned.

-Cam

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