Category Archives: France

Something In The Air (Apres Mai)

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France (2012). Dir: Olivier Assayas; Scr: Olivier Assayas

It is 1971 in the Paris suburbs and the zeitgeist of May 1968 – the student occupations, wildcat strikes and street violence – is felt strongly by a group of restless, creative high-school friends. In a perfectly composed recreation of the early seventies Assayas, unashamed but with some confessional humility, presents a (self) portrait of the artist as a late teen passing into a twenty-something: middle-class, rebellious, searching but rather more self-centred and just “afraid to miss out on his youth”. It’s a film so rich in atmosphere, so evocative of place and time, so immaculate in detail that story becomes subordinated to the feeling that we are drawn into Assayas’ memory. It’s less nostalgia than a shared experience: the terrible adrenalin thrill of running from crowd violence, the hopeless love for a (more) sophisticated free-spirit and the comfort of drifting. Time passes, chapters open and close, often in flames.  It envelops you.

We first see Gilles, played by Clement Metayer, scratching the anarchy symbol into his desk in class.  He distributes leaflets by the school and argues – angry, self-contained – at smokey meetings.  We see his breathless and terrifying escape from the Police after he and his friends join a demonstration in the city. Early on we also see Gilles’ muse, Laure (Carol Combes), an ethereal child of nature (they meet on a woodland pathway). She reads lesser-known beat poets and is unselfconscious about her body and sex. She tells him she is moving to London because her dad is going to work with Soft Machine.

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Gilles’ group step up their nocturnal activism (against their school buildings) and Gilles gets closer to Christine, played by Lola Creton. But their lives change when a night raid goes badly wrong and one of the group faces charges, so Gilles, Christine and another friend, Alain (Felix Armand), travel to Italy to lie low.  There they they hook up with beautiful itinerant young people on a higher plane of grooviness. Alain heads off to Afganistan with Leslie, an American who wants to study spiritual dance and Christine drives off in the campervan of a group of political film-makers.  Eventually they each drift homeward, Gilles first.

The film steers clear of developing a coherent political argument, because Gilles can’t – the filmmakers in Italy deride his reading material and don’t take him seriously enough to help his film project,“We do agitprop, we don’t lend for fiction”. In fact, Assayas doesn’t want us to like Gilles: he is always “outside the real struggle”, wealth cushions any risks he takes (he’s happy to rely on nepotism back in France) and he is selfish. But while we feel more sympathy for the committed Christine, whose (hopeless) love for Gilles endures, and the idealistic and supportive Alain, Gilles is no less real.

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The cinematography is exquisite. It glows. The music of the time is selected with a passion: Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart and Tangerine Dream.  Assayas is also particularly in tune with a kind of asymmetric young love – the disappointments are poignant and quietly dramatic. And around this he reminds us of a communication that we may have lost: when she leaves for London, Christine gives Gilles a copy of Corso’s book of poems, Gasoline, and, most moving, Alain gently urges Leslie to go to see two paintings on display near to where she will be.  At the time it is the most loving, thoughtful present he can give.

In The House (Dans La Maison)

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France (2012). Dir: Francois Ozon, Scr: Francois Ozon

I came out of this film with an uneasy feeling that it was worth quickly checking that my wife really was my wife and my friends really were, well, friends.  But it didn’t last long.  It was just Ozon, full of mischief.  He was being more mischievous than usual.  I’d enjoyed a film that was imaginative, very funny, poignant, satirical (of course), well-acted and with music that enhanced each scene. I’d also been carried off to a place where it wasn’t clear what was fact and what was fiction and where longing seeded betrayal but guilt and innocence weren’t pinned down.  Consequences were unintended and in a spiral. And it was all possible when, and because, we write stories.

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Fabrice Luchini plays Germain, a disaffected school literature teacher who wishes he was a writer.  His wife, played by Kristin Scott-Thomas, is the curator of a commercially precarious art gallery.  He is aloof in his scorn for her choices for the gallery and insensitive to the pressure she feels at work. But they engage, albeit in slightly distracted language. He is marking the first assignment of the term, deriding the lazy efforts of  “the worst class he has ever taught” when he stumbles on something by one of his students, Claude, that he reads out to his wife. Claude, who lives at home with his disabled unemployed father, records how he puts into action his desire to be in the idyllic family house of his friend, Rafa, closing sensually with how he was struck by “the singular scent of a middle class woman”.  It feels voyeuristic, manipulative and calculating but it’s a fabulous read.  It is also “To be continued…”.  Both Germain and his wife take the moral high ground immediately, “He’s making fun of his friend and his mother” she says and he gives it a B+.  But the story has them hooked and, in Claude’s inchoate talent, Germain rediscovers his purpose.  The film then charts Germain’s deepening involvement with the development of the story and, as the sequence of decisions, actions and consequences progresses, the lines between fantasy and reality become increasingly blurred.

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When it comes to the bourgeoisie, Ozon loves picking the wings and legs off the comfy insect. He encourages ridicule at the modern art in the gallery.  He makes Rafa’s benevolent father suitably alpha, with mid-level manager anxieties.  Both of Rafa’s parents hold dear aspirations that are both pointless and shallow.  Ozon also loves the idea of an intruder disturbing the stable protected harmony of the bourgeois unit.  He loves kicking off that unpredictable chain of events.  And in this film they are kicked off by the young but arrestingly talented Ernst Umhauer, who can perfectly reflect moral ambiguity in an otherwise beautiful face.  So, there is much to enjoy in the film’s dark playfulness – in Ozon’s particular take on life imitating art and art imitating life.  Some will spot literary references in the title and elsewhere (how bourgeois is that?) and, I think, we forgive a slight messiness towards the end as a moving, optimistic final scene reminds us that there really are a million stories.

Also by Francois Ozon (selection):

Potiche (2010)

Swimming Pool (2003)

8 Women (2002)

Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000)

Reality

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Italy-France (2012).  Dir: Matteo Garrone, Scr: Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso

It was many years ago, in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  I saw the tiny frail old lady standing alone, completely transfixed on a painting of the Madonna, lit by a beam of sunlight. Oblivious to everything around her, she was staring upward, lost in audible, feverish supplication.  Now, in the cinema, Garrone shows me Luciano, the fish-stall trader from Naples, sitting alone in a broom-cupboard staring upward, transfixed on a tv screen, oblivious, lost. Giggling feverishly, he watches Grande Fratello, the Italian Big Brother. Of course, the idea that celebrity is the new religion isn’t new nor are we unaware that the basis of celebrity is becoming more random. But, from its fairytale opening sequence to final pathos, this film feels deeply for those who scrape a living among the beautiful buildings of old Naples and it worries about how they need desperately to make life feel more complete.  Slightly sentimental?  Possibly, but these things are worth worrying about.

Luciano is a canny, popular member of his local community and a loving husband and father.  We first see him at a fantasy wedding reception, at which a short appearance by Enzo, a previous winner of Grande Fratello, is the highlight for the couple.  Luciano causes hilarity when, in drag as one of his party pieces “The Bag Lady”, he accosts Enzo as he is leaving.  Up close, Enzo and Luciano are very similar.

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Luciano is too busy with the fish-stall and a credit scam to care much about Grande Fratello, but to keep his daughter happy he agrees to audition for the programme in the local shopping mall, “Just point the camera at me, it doesn’t matter if it’s on”. But sometime later, he receives a call asking him to attend a second audition in Rome. The community is buzzing and he returns to a hero’s welcome.  But time passes and he hears nothing. Gradually he starts losing touch: he sees signs, feels that he is being watched, being tested, for selection. In a sadly comic but  significant moment at a crematorium, he seeks advice from two old ladies paying their respects, “Be patient. You only need faith and hope to get into the ‘House’”.  The worse his quasi-religious obsession becomes – he gives away all his worldy goods and loses his family – the more he seems to achieve a state of bliss.

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The film is rich with ideas and contains stunning cinematic flourishes: aerial, sweeping shots of beautiful settings; at one point an elegant, single take of simultaneous scenes playing out in different rooms of a gothic mansion, and images of the destitute carrying off ornaments from Luciano’s house.  It burst with empathy for the ordinary folk of Naples – Luciano is played by Aniello Arena, who was permitted day-release from prison to take part – and their lives. Rather obviously, it is a tragi-comic morality tale about the pursuit of celebrity and fame. But Garrone wants to say a little more.  He delicately handles the importance of religion in the lives of the people he cares about – he makes Luciano’s most loyal friend the most religious. But when the priest says that “God understands the difference between being and seeming” (we can’t be sure), if Garrone is not adding religion to his list of hoaxes he is, at least, cautioning that no opiate should be allowed to take over.

Reality won the Grand Prix at last year’s (2012) Cannes Film Festival.

Also by Matteo Garrone:

Gomorrah (2009)

Amour

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France-Germany-Austria 2012.  Dir: Michael Haneke, Scr: Michael Haneke

 

It’s a rare thing to see respect for the old.  It’s rarer for a western film to be so respectful of how certain lessons about life can only be taught by the old.  And it is difficult not to learn something from this film.  It opens with uniformed men breaking into a beautiful, wood-paneled French apartment to discover the body of an old woman, carefully laid out on a bed, surrounded by flower petals.  It then flashes back to some time earlier, a concert, after which the central characters, octogenarians Anne and Georges, return home to signs of an attempted break-in.  They seem to take this in their stride, but we feel a sense of foreboding at the intrusion into their comfortable stability.  And they are a couple very comfortable with each other.  Of course, their love is not the lust-coloured or artful love of our modern movies, but a companionable symbiosis.  They enjoy each other’s stories: Georges tells of how he still remembers only the emotions evoked by a film he saw as a boy.   Both were musicians and, for many years, they have had a cultured and ordered life together.  After a worrying episode, when Anne loses time for a few moments, we discover she needs a risky operation to try to remove a blockage in her carotid artery.  “Promise me never to take me back to the hospital”, she says when she returns to the apartment in a wheelchair.  But her condition does not improve, we watch as it deteriorates inexorably.

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Haneke’s handling of the complexities of the last phases of a life together, in which one partner gradually loses every part of themselves, is sensitive and precisely measured.  Georges continues with dignity.  We see the strain in his eyes as he talks in a matter of fact way to their only daughter about his daily and nightly routine.  He does not want her help.  This is his life and he sees only misunderstanding in how she is dipping in.  We share his despair the only time he lose his temper with Anne, when she refuses to take food.  He is devoted to her, angrily dismissing a carer for her selfish indifference and, in case we ever doubted it, a tender and symbolic scene in which a pigeon finds itself trapped in the apartment reminds us of the depth of his compassion.

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Part of the appeal of the film is its ease on the eye.  It is very deliberate in what is and isn’t shown.  It is neatly stylish and moves along smoothly.  But its elegance and tidiness fails those in the audience who have cared for a fading loved one.  The more difficult Volcano, made by the Icelandic director Runar Runarsson only a year earlier on a very similar theme, will perhaps deliver more authenticity to that part of the audience.   Nevertheless, the acting, particularly Emmanualle Riva as Anne, is extraordinary and brave.  So, in the end, what’s left?  Here Haneke helps us as he fixes on the paintings in the apartment: beautiful, heartbreaking symbols of a shared, past life.  Love is what’s left.

Also by Michael Haneke (Selection):

The White Ribbon (2009)

Funny Games US (2007)

Hidden (Cache) (2005)

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Funny Games (1997)