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The Lookout (Le Guetteur, France 2012)

Posted by des1967 on 20 July 2014


Le guetteur is a ‘polar‘ or crime film (see Roy’s post on the French polar). The benefit of this term is that it covers all varieties and sub-genres of crime films, eg, police procedural, gangster film, noir, heist film, etc). It has long been one of the staples of the French film industry and, as Roy’s piece argues, they do it pretty well. How does The Lookout stack up against this rich tradition? Well, fair to middling. The cast is mainly French but it is directed by an Italian, Michele Placido (I’m only familiar with his 2005 film, Romanzo Criminale (2005), which shows at least that he can handle action sequences pretty well).

Although a good translation of the word ‘guetteur‘, ‘lookout’ is a bit misleading, suggesting a fairly passive role. In fact, the lookout in question is a ruthless, highly skilled and enterprising criminal. The opening scene takes a typical bank heist gone wrong, and then gives it a fresh twist. Chief Inspector Mattei has received a tip-off that a major heist that is set to go down in Paris and assembles a large team of armed police. However, the police operation is disrupted when a sniper, who is perched some distance away on a rooftop, opens fire on the squad of arresting officers, killing and badly wounding several of them. Mattei’s connections lead him to discover that he is a former soldier and is high on Interpol’s wanted list but there is also a hint of undercover work for the French security services which might make it more difficult to track him down. But Mattei does discover his identity, Kaminski, the heist being shown in flashback as the film actually begins with Mattei interrogating a prisoner in custody. Kaminski refuses at first to answer Mattei’s questions, holding his gaze impassively, but eventually he asks to see his lawyer (with whom he has had a relationship in the past and who is willing to renege on her professional scruples to help her ex for whom she still holds a candle). The fact that Kaminski is played by the co-star and is in custody early in the first act (the film does seem to follow a three-act structure) suggests that he won’t be inside for long. In the initial heist, one of the robbers is badly wounded and (a nod to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) and many other examples of the genre) must be attended by a defrocked doctor. Usually in the genre, this is a minor character but in The Lookout the doctor, Franck, at first a marginal character, turns out to be by far the nastiest criminal in the film and who takes the narrative in the direction of misogynistic horror.

One of film’s main strengths is the terrific set pieces like the one described above which lasts about seven minutes (and another one which ends the film) which rival Heat which it also resembles in terms of plot in the way that it is structured around a central conflict between the leading cop and the leading criminal. In the second act, Mattei is marginalised as the focus of the plot shifts to the criminals falling out with each other and here the screenplay (by Denis Brusseaux and Cédric Melon) seems to have an attention deficit disorder. It wants to do too much and the film becomes overwhelmed for a while. The number of characters – including the thieves, Kaminski’s lawyer, prisoners on detention, a (slightly stereotypical) gypsy, the hard-nosed wife of the wounded gangster – means that there are too many sub-plots (of short duration) and obfuscate the film’s central conflict between Mattei and Kaminski. There is a late-stage revelation (no spoilers) which functions to complicate the backstory between the two key conflicted protagonists which I thought worked quite well.

Casting is one of the film’s strengths, Mattei being played by Daniel Auteuil. He can sometimes seem as if he plays each role in the same register, that of angst-ridden gruffness (except when he plays parts requiring him to speak in his native Southern accent such as in Jean de Florette  Jean de Florette or The Well-Digger’s Daughter/Le Puisatier), or even in comedies like Le Placard. But it’s a register he does better than any of his contemporaries. Mathieu Kassovitz, whose career alternates between directing (La haine/Hatred (1995) is his best-known film) and acting, shows that he can hold his own as a downbeat action star.

The creepy Franck is played by Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet whom I have seen mainly as a regular of the Dardenne Brothers (such as Le Fils/The Son in 2002) but he is beginning to have prominent parts in French films and played the leading role in L’exercice de l’État/The Minister (2011). The director has a brief cameo as garage owner with a sideline in supplying crooked passports to the criminal underworld and Fanny Ardant, one of the leading French actors of the last 35 years (she played, for example, in Truffaut’s La femme d’à côté/The Woman Next Door in 1979 and Marion Vernoux’s Les beaux jours/Better Days Ahead this year – who says women over 60 don’t get sexy roles!), has an even briefer one with about 20 seconds of screen time. I wasn’t sure if it was her as the part is uncredited but confirms her presence.

Fanny Ardant cameo

Fanny Ardant cameo

Here’s a trailer (no English subs):


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Nobody Else But You/Poupoupidou (France 2011)

Posted by des1967 on 11 January 2014

I never quite understand why some French films (and foreign-language films in general) get a UK release and some don’t. OK, there’s something of a star system in operation (though not necessarily the same one that works for French audiences – where Danny Boon, relatively unknown in the UK, is currently the highest paid French actor). I suppose we’re looking at actors such as Audrey Tautou, Marillon Cotillard, Kristin Scott Thomas, Romain Duris, Cécile De France, as well as those of an older generation such as Isabelle Huppert, Isabelle Adjani and Danielle Auteuil – not to mention veterans such as Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu. In most French films I see, even when I can’t name the actors I usually recognise someone, even if its from the recent TV series exported successfully to the UK, Engreneges (Spiral) or the more mundane stuff to be found on TV5 . With Poupoupidou, the only actor I recognized was the one who played the small part of a teenage delinquent, Dylan (Finnegan Oldfield) who tries to blackmail the lawyer Clément over an alleged sexual assault in Season 3 of Engrenages/Spiral and plays an equally small part here. It’s a pity that some interesting French films don’t make it across the Channel or even onto DVD for lack of familiar actors, even with films nominated for or even winning the Césars (French equivalent of the Oscars).

All the more interesting then that I happened on Poupoupidou when I was aimlessly checking out the foreign films on offer from Netflix – and not even the UK version but the US one. The DVD cover shown on Netflix – based on a famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe – clued me in and the English title, Nobody Else But You, wrapped it up. It was a reference to Marilyn Monroe’s song on Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. And indeed, the Monroe persona is at the centre of the film, a sort of MM reincarnation in rural France.

Marilyn Munroe, Playboy photograph 1953, and Poupoupidou DVD cover

Marilyn Monroe, Playboy photograph 1953, and Poupoupidou DVD cover

A few spoilers but not on the fundamental “whodunnit” question

David Rousseau (Jean-Paul Rouve) is a ‘polar’ (crime) novelist who arrives at Mouthe, the coldest town in France, on the border between the Jura region and Switzerland, on family business. Before he leaves he stumbles on a mysterious death – a young woman has been found dead in the snow with sleeping pills by her side. The dead woman is Candice Lecoeur (Sophie Quinton), a small-town beauty and minor celebrity, mainly due to her sexy and quirky news weather forecasts for the local TV station and erotic advertisements for a local brand of cheese. Her death is ruled as suicide although Rousseau realizes that no real investigation has taken place – partly because the crime scene is (conveniently) in a no-mans-land between France and Switzerland – and he thinks that investigating this case may end his writer’s block. The more he investigates, the more he is sure that there is something fishy going on. Candice (real name Martine Langevin just as Marilyn Monroe’s was Norma-Jean Baker) was a Monroe-obsessive and her life has parallels that of Monroe which helps Rouseau to get to the bottom of the mystery as well as providing him with the raw material for his most successful novel.


It’s enjoyable seeing the similarities with Monroe take shape. She, like Monroe, is blond (peroxide), beautiful and good-natured but also desperately depressed. And Candice’s love affairs shadow Monroe’s. Her ex-husband Gus (Lyes Salem) is an Italian winter sports champion who is devoted to her and also beats her up from time to time (cf. Joe DiMaggio). Next there is the ‘intellectual’, Simon Denner (Eric Ruf), book reviewer or the local paper (cf. Arthur Miller). By this time we’re cued for the arrival of a JFK character but we actually get a JFB (B rhymes with K in French), Jean-Francois Burdeau (Ken Samuels), and of course he is also a president, but the regional president of the area. And of course she sings “Happy Birthday Mr President” but in an even more provocative way than Marilyn’s famous birthday wishes for John F Kennedy. And JFB’s little brother (whose initials are BOB) comes to warn her that the affair is over. And so on.

Now the problem I had with the film, at least at first, is that of tone. From the above it points to comedy or spoof with the string of coincidences making Candice’s story seem superficial rather than something substantial. And there is a lot of cinephilic fun to be had. From the start, sly little intertexts such as the brand of the cheese she advertises is ‘Belle de Jura’, cf. Belle de Jour, Bunuel’s provocative 1967 film, about a young bourgeois housewife who spends her midweek afternoons as a prostitute while her husband is at work. The lead role is played by another iconic blonde, Catherine Deneuve, and in one of the weather forecasts Candice is dressed up in a donkey skin, surely a reference to another Deneuve film, Peau d’Ane, directed by Jacques Demy in 1967.

Candice as Deneuve in Peau d'Anne; Deneuve in Peau d'Ane

Candice as Deneuve in Peau d’Anne; Deneuve in Peau d’Ane

The Coen Brothers’ Fargo is another intertextual allusion, dealing with, as it does, with ear-flapped cops investigating a murder in a snowy terrain in a whimsical mood. And when Rousset goes home having written his most successful best seller, he has changed his pen name to Magnus Hørn, no doubt a reference to recently-successful ‘scandi-noir’ writers such as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.

Right at the start of the film there is another clear intertextual allusion, to David Lynch’s television series, Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-91), particularly the similarity between Candice lying dead in the snow and the murdered Laura Palmer.

Laura Palmer (Twin Peaks); Candice (Poupoupidou)

Laura Palmer (Twin Peaks); Candice (Poupoupidou)

Now Twin-Peaks was one of the earliest examples of postmodern television, heavily laden with such ‘spot-the-reference’ diversion. However, I eventually tired of this and gave up on the show, as did many others, as a third season wasn’t commissioned. I no longer cared about who killed Laura Palmer. One of the problems of this relentless quoting and the barrier that it can put between audience and story is the failure to engage emotionally with the audience.

But, paradoxically, in Poupoupidou I actually found myself becoming more and more involved in the story and the characters and eventually found it quite poignant, just like the tragedy of the real Marilyn. There’s a melancholy in the deep structure of this film that helps anchor its sometimes-manic ingenuity.

Candice narrates her own story, as written in the diaries Rousset discovers as he frequently camps in her flat. The most recent (and ultimately incriminating) volume has gone missing. She seems to have continued writing the diary after her death, Sunset Boulevard style. Again I found this a little uncomfortable at first but eventually accepted as a valid way of telling the story.

Part of the attraction of the film for me were the performance of Rouve as a mopey sad sack of a character with a downbeat demeanor and sardonic sense of humour. Rousset is an archetypal character, the outsider who stirs up trouble and causes resentment from some of the locals. (And the ‘writer’s block’ plot device shows that the old ones are sometimes the best). Quinton’s small-town reincarnation of Marilyn lets us glimpse the parochial banality behind sex-kitten exterior and allows the film to considerthe advantages and disadvantages of fame.

And their relationship (even allowing for the fact that she is dead by the time he comes across her) is fascinating. He falls in love with her based on her diaries; dreams that she comes to his hotel room; and he is enchanted to discover it is in a sense ‘reciprocated’ – as he is leaving Mouthe receives a fan letter she sent before her death. (Or is this another intertextual allusion? To Otto Preminger’s Laura in which a character finds himself falling in love with a dead woman?)

And it looks pretty good, director Gerald Hustache-Mathieu and his cinematographer Pierre Cottreaux making best use of the stunning snow-filled location.

Here’s the trailer.

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Sunshine on Leith (UK 2013)

Posted by des1967 on 9 October 2013

Sunshine on Leith is a “jukebox musical” (a stage or film musical that uses previously released popular songs as its musical score) based on the songs of The Proclaimers (Craig and Charlie Reid who do a Hitchcockian-style walk-on early in the film). As a sub-genre the jukebox musical has been around for a long time and has produced some pretty mixed results. Often, I feel, the filmmakers try to squeeze too many numbers into the allotted time or else the narrative is shaped crudely to the demands of the best-known songs. Both dangers were largely avoided in Sunshine on Leith and, while I have a few quibbles (see below), I enjoyed the film very much.

Spoilers– but no more than in the UK Trailer (see below)

The film was based on a 2007 stage play by Stephen Greenhorn for the Dundee Rep which toured successfully throughout the UK. I saw it and, as far as I can remember, the film script, also by Stephen Greenhorn, sticks pretty closely to the original. The story is shaped around six characters (grouped into three couples). Davy (George McKay) and Ally  (Kevin Guthrie) are two squaddies making the difficult return to civilian life after a tour of duty in Afghanistan (where the film begins). Davy’s parents, Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Joan Horrocks) are about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. They live in the eponymous Leith (the port area of Edinburgh) with their daughter Liz (Freya Mavor), a nurse who resumes her relationship with Ally when he comes back home.  She arranges a date with her brother and her best friend Yvonne (Antonia Thomas), a fellow nurse.  Ally does not have parents to go back to and his sister allows him (reluctantly) to share a bunk in the bedroom of her young son, Brendan (John Spencer).

At first, all three relationships seem to be going swimmingly but problems emerge. Rab learns that he has a daughter he didn’t know about, conceived in the early stages of his marriage to Jean with an ex-girlfriend, now deceased. Liz is fond of Ally but has ambitions to travel rather than settling down, while Ally is desperate to establish the family he never had as soon as possible. The problems all come to a head at the mid-point of the film at Rab and Jean’s 25th wedding anniversary celebration (held at Leith Dockers Social Club, a venue that will be familiar to readers of Irvine Welsh’s fiction). Jean discovers about Rab’s daughter. And Ally makes a cringe-making public proposal of marriage which doesn’t go down too well with Liz. The rest of the film is given over to resolving the problems of the three couples.

While the plot is hardly original, I thought it worked well as a whole – apart from the strand involving Davy and Yvonne which I felt was awkwardly contrived. For the sake of symmetry, their relationship had to be confronted with difficulties like the other two couples. Yvonne is given a backstory explaining how she ended up in Edinburgh. She was in a relation with a Scotsman who sounds as if he was from the ready-made stock of Scottish stereotypes, a boozer who could only talk about feelings when sufficiently inebriated. This sets in motion a doubt that the (ultra-sensitive) Davy could, despite appearances, be from the same stock. A fight breaks out at the anniversary party as someone makes a joke at Ally’s expense, Davy tries to stop it but ends up defending his pal and almost hits Yvonne by mistake, making her doubt his true nature. They get over this hurdle but it is when she questions his commitment to her, asking if he would leave Edinburgh with her if she had to go back to England. He is annoyed that he is being manipulated and he says he wouldn’t and she heads for the station for the London train. (London is, of course, about 500 miles – give or take – from Edinburgh so it’s one of the few occasions, when a song is “telegraphed”). On the plus side, it does pave the way for one of the most enjoyable sequences of the film.

Another aspect of this plot strand that I felt was weak was Davy’s reaction when, before the blind date with Yvonne, Ally tells him “this one’s different . . . She’s English”. “English!” he responds with a mixture of shock and disgust. This is played for laughs (see the trailer) but let’s try a little commutation test. Yvonne is played by a black woman and if we substitute “Black” for “English”, we get a very different tone. This is especially unfortunate as, while Craig and Charlie Reid (the Proclaimers) have long campaigned for independence (and many other causes), they are not known for their Anglo- (or any other) phobia. Being English, Yvonne is automatically referred to as “posh” and of course lives in the “select” district of Morningside. It’s all so passé. I don’t recall if these aspects come from the original stage production; if so, it should have been dropped from the film.

Any musical will live or die by the music and the performances of it. I’m more of a “greatest hits” person than a hardcore Proclaimers fan but I felt that the music worked very well, both as sung and as orchestrated on the instrumental sound track. The songs rarely feel crowbarred into the narrative bur arise naturally out of it. The film starts off strongly as a group of soldiers in an armoured personnel vehicle in Afghanistan do a visceral a capella version of “Sky Takes the Soul”, the music and the words fitting the scene perfectly:

It could be tomorrow or it could be today

When the sky takes the soul

The earth takes the clay

The scene ends in a roadside explosion which deprives one of the soldiers of his legs and another of his life.

Next, Ally and Davy arrive back home in Edinburgh (“I’m On My Way”). A double date at the pub showcases “Over and Done With”, a jaunty number I wasn’t familiar with (and which also serves as the background to the end credits). I felt “Let’s Get Married” was one of the weaker numbers but was given a raucous rendition in a pub with the Hibs-Hearts derby on TV in the background. One of the most familiar Proclaimers songs is “Letter From America”, a song linking the Highland Clearances of the nineteenth century with the industrial sabotage by the Thatcher regime in the industrial heartlands of twentieth century Scotland. However, in the context of the film, it had a more personal approach with one of the characters considering emigration. (Despite the film’s contemporary setting, the song was, of course, written before the days of text, Skype and email).

Of course the performance of the songs is of paramount importance and there is the perennial problem of singer-who-can-act or actor-who-can sing. I thought Les Miserables was spoiled by too many of its leading roles going to non-singers (as well as the decision to record the singers as they were actually acting as opposed to playback) but Sunshine  on Leith works extremely well with the former. Sometimes (I’m thinking in particular of Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You), non-singers who are good actors and can convey honest and simple emotion do the most effective renditions of songs and this is largely the case with Sunshine on Leith. (The exception is Antonia Thomas who plays Yvonne; she comes from a musical theatre background and has an excellent singing voice). Perhaps the biggest revelation was Peter Mullan who, with Jane Horrocks, was no doubt taken on to give the cast of largely unknowns extra acting heft. In his rendition of “Oh Jean” he growls his way through the song and convinces through sheer determination and he is ok in the ensemble pieces. I don’t really like Jane Horrocks as an actor. She oozes with tweeness, and overdoes the cute little comic “faces” she makes. However, her performance became stronger as the film becomes sadder and more serious and her rendition of “Sunshine on Leith” was quite excellent. It is a song we tend to associate with hordes of football fans on the Easter Road terraces but she invests it with a plaintive dignity.

This blog has occasionally referred to British actors in French films being given (Kirsten Scott-Thomas) or not (Charlotte Rampling) a narrative rationale for the fact that their (rather good) French accents are not exactly like a native speaker’s. Of the six central characters in Sunshine on Leith, three are played by English actors, although one plays an English character. (George McKay, despite his name, is a Londoner). So how are the accents of the two who are playing Scots? George McKay managed quite well and although his accent wasn’t Edinburgh working class but vaguely middle-class and non-geographically specific, it was at least as authentic as Ewan McGregor’s in Trainspotting. The only character given narrative support for a non-Edinburgh accent was Peter Mullan and his character comes from Glasgow. Jane Horrocks’ accent, although you could tell it was meant to be Scottish, didn’t come from any recognisable location in the actually existing Scotland (think Willie the janitor in “The Simpsons”). Some actors can do it and some can’t (Sean Connery!) It would have been better if she had used her own Lancashire accent. It’s not as if Scots don’t marry English women – half of Glasgow used to decamp to Blackpool in July when I was young. But I doubt if these matters will cause too many problems for audiences furth of the British Isles where the producers hope to sell the film, hence the premier at the Toronto Film Festival.

The film was directed by Dexter Fletcher, well known for his work as an actor in such productions as Bugsy Malone, Caravaggio, Lock Stock and Two  Smoking Barrels and Band of Brothers. Sunshine on Leith is his second film as a director, the first being Wild Bill in 2011 (which I haven’t seen).  I have seen some criticism of his direction. Variety, for example, referred to it as “televisual”, which I find a lazy criticism unless it is justified by specific shots and sequences. I wasn’t aware of excessive use of the close-up, for example, and his fondness for the use of rack-focus in shot/reverse shots is not particularly televisual. He drives a relentless pace and gets his actors to derive the maximum juice from each song (and occasionally dance) routine.  Fletcher (with his cinematographer George Richmond) shows Edinburgh at its best – strikingly picturesque and not just the posh bits but Leith as well (although must of it was actually shot in Glasgow which has a better studio set-up and is apparently 20% cheaper). “Auld Reekie” with her skirts on is a wondrous site – especially as the mess they’ve made of the city centre in the ludicrous trams enterprise is kept from view.  Suitably edited, Sunshine on Leith would make a very effective commercial for the Scottish Tourist Board.

The film ended on a high note with, inevitably, “I’m Gonna Be (500 miles). The song is so ubiquitous now in Scotland that if the independence referendum opts for a ‘yes’ vote and they need a new national anthem, there’s a ready-made one (and preferable to songs about mists, hills, heather and tattie scones or battles long ago). Its very familiarity presented Fletcher and his colleagues (particularly choreographer Rosie Grey) with a problem of how to stage it. It was done as a reconciliation song of the estranged lovers in the open air, on the Mound, outside the National Gallery of Scotland. The scene starts off as an argument between the couple with an audience listening in judgment, a trope familiar in American rom-coms (not to mention Richard Curtis nearer home). And after using the song by cutting back and force between the other four characters in a sort of pre-finale, it leads to one of the few all-out song and dance numbers, with Davie and Yvonne making up. Half of Edinburgh seems to be part of the number, including some joyful police officers, on the Mound. (I’ve seen cops in musical before, eg Singing in the Rain, Une Chambre En Ville, but this is the first time I’ve seen them cavorting ecstatically). The choreography is a bit on the primitive side but I’ve always felt that the camera  (with the editing suite) is the most important element in film (as opposed to stage) choreography.  If not all the actors are natural singers, the same can be said for dancers – and  George McKay gamely does his best. The film got round this problem by skilfully mixing ‘real’ dancers with baffled actors who were neither wholly in nor wholly out of the dance routine. One of the actors said in an interview that it was impossible to completely block off the area to passers-by but I think that this works in the film’s favour. There is a short extract below.

I would have liked a bit more reflection on some of the social issues which could have arisen in the film. The Peter Mullan character says that Scots have always had to leave to find work, “always have and always will”. And the effects of the war (at least on the British soldiers) are shown by the soldier – played by Paul Brennan, star of Loach’s The Angels Share – having no legs. Certainly, on of the saddest moments in the film occurs when Ally decides to sign up again. When Davy reminds him how close to death they were, he admits that he’s going back “because they wanted me” – he is not only unhappy in love but unable to get a decent job and a place of his own to stay. But such references are few. Perhaps I expect too much of what is after all a feel-good musical and in that category it certainly delivers.

Now for Filth, representing the ‘other’ Edinburgh.

Posted in British Cinema | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

Renoir (France 2012)

Posted by des1967 on 9 July 2013

Renoir (directed by Gilles Bourdos) was released at Cannes in 2012 but is only now getting a UK release. I didn’t have too-high expectations of the film, not only because of the fairly negative reviews (Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, for example, called it a “cloying movie” covered by “a syrupy drizzle of tasteful prettiness”) but because it is a biopic, a genre I’m not usually very fond of, especially those of famous artists. Moreover, films about art raise the problem of how the practice of the art is represented and often find it difficult to get it right. But I was intrigued to see whether it offered any insights into the connection between one of the greatest painters of his era, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) and his son, Jean, (Vincent Rottiers) one of the greatest exponents of the art of cinema, then still in its infancy. In the end I’m glad I saw it. It’s not a great film but I found it neither “cloying” nor “tastefully pretty” and I enjoyed it a lot despite weaknesses in plot and dramatic tension. The film, a meditation on art, love, war, life and death, is adapted from Le tableau amoureux, a biography of his great-grandfather by Jacques Renoir, grandson of Renoir’s oldest son, the actor Pierre. It takes place on Renoir’s farm near Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Cote d’Azur in 1915, four years before he died. The First World War is in its second year and although the front line is hundreds of miles away, Renoir’s two older sons, Pierre and Jean, have both been seriously wounded.

Here’s the UK trailer.

Spoilers – but it’s not really the kind of film which is spoiled by knowing the plot. 

The film opens with a young woman riding a bike into Renoir’s farm. She is greeted by a sullen urchin who we later discover is Claude (Coco), Renoir’s youngest son (played by Thomas Doret, the kid in the Dardennes Brothers’ Le gamin au vélo (Kid on a Bike) (2011)). She is 16-year-old actress and model Andrée Heuschling (though played by 22-year-old Christa Théret) who has been recommended to Renoir by his friend, the painter Matisse. Andrée (nicknamed Dédé) enters Renoir’s employment as a replacement for Renoir’s lead model, Gabrielle, whom Aline, Renoir’s wife, who has recently passed away, had got rid of, fearing Renoir was becoming “too fond” of her. Andrée, a voluptuous red-haired beauty, soon reinvigorates his painting, leading to a late resurgence of creativity in a series of nudes and landscapes. When Renoir’s son Jean returns from the war to recuperate from his leg wound, he too finds inspiration through Andrée. They become lovers and talk about their dreams for the future. She wants to be a film actress and wants him to direct her. However, Jean feels a sense of duty to the comrades he left behind and re-enlists, this time as a reconnaissance pilot, and returns to the front. The end-captions tell us that Renoir-père dies in 1919, having completed his great work, “Les Baigneuses” (Women Bathing). Jean survives the war and he and Andrée marry. He starts on a film career and she becomes his leading actress (under the name of Catherine Hessling) until they separate in 1931. They die in the same year, 1979, he a celebrated filmmaker, she all but forgotten.

The heart of this gentle film is a very convincing and detailed portrait of the artist as an old man, of a decrepit painter’s passion for the naked body of a beautiful woman. There is much nudity as Andrée poses for several canvases from Renoir’s “Bagneuses” series but they never feel exploitative. I don’t think Laura Mulvey’s theory of the “male gaze” comes into play here (ie the conventional device which presents the exposed female body as titillation to the male audience through which the female audience is also positioned to adopt the this gaze). Here we see the woman not as objectified in bits and pieces (as Godard does with Bardot’ body in the opening scene in Le Mépris (Contempt) (1963) either an exemplification of the practice or a satire on it, I’m never quite sure) but as a glorification of beauty which the aging artist uses to combat the forces of mortality. I think that when we see so much of her naked we begin too see her as pure form, reflecting the soft light of the Mediterranean sky. (Interestingly, for a French film, in the love scenes Andrée is fully clothed or else the action takes place off-screen). Christa Théret, whose father is a painter and her mother a model, has interesting things to say about painting, nudity, eroticism and sex in an interview here, where she also tells us she had to put on weight for the part, suggesting a shift in body-shape norms since Renoir’s time:

If you are looking for sexual politics, it might be more fruitful to look at the role of the female staff of his household, mostly maids who become models and then maids once again. There are five or six of them who tend to his needs, cooking for him, nursing him, bathing him, putting him to bed, carrying him in his wheelchair up to his studio on the farm and outings down to the river. They refer to him as “patron” (boss). It is a demanding patriarchal order but a benevolent one: they seem to regard their work as a vocation, playing a part, however humble, in a successful artistic career.

The strongest feature of the film is not character but beauty – of the model, of the painting, of the cinematography (shot by the Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee who also worked on Wong Kar Wei’s In the Mood for Love) and mise en scene (not to forget the sound and the music), with several instances of stunning circular tracking shots and pans. Bourdos alternates scenes of Renoir painting joyously in luxuriant nature under the Mediterranean sun and with dark interiors where we see him struggling with his infirmities, especially his dreadfully deformed hands, forcing him to cry out in pain at night and have his helpers, including Andrée, bathe his inflamed joints.

(This clip doesn’t have subtitles. Andrée asks if it would bother him if she moved. He replis that if it bothered him he would paint apples. He goes on: “What interests me is skin – the velvety texture of a young girl’s skin.”

The look and feel of the film made me almost – but not quite – ignore the weaknesses in the narrative, its lack of dramatic tension, the pace that is just a little too languorous. There’s not much real conflict, even when Jean returns from the war on crutches and falls under Andrée’s spell. Renoir does ask him if he is “behaving like a gentleman” with her and if there is just a tinge of jealousy, it is as much a general awareness of youth and age than the tortures of individual possessiveness. And despite potentially Oedipal elements, it is clear that Jean loves and admires his father.

What there is of conflict in the film (apart from the 14-year old Claude’s resentment at his father who he feels only speaks to him to reprimand him) comes from Andrée’s self-assertiveness. She may be a muse (to son as well as father) but she is not a passive one. After her first session posing for Renoir, he tells one of his assistants to pay her 5 francs but she tells him her fee is 10 francs. When he remarks that for an actor she is rather “pudique” (modest), she retorts that actresses aren’t whores. She is outspoken, a feminist without necessarily being conscious of the concept, who knows what she wants – and it it’s not to be remain an artist’s model, much less a kitchen maid. She resents being treated as such (by the other maids) and in a temper smashes a number of plates. Not any old plates but hand-painted by Renoir and no doubt worth a fortune. (A bit of a cliché, I suppose, using the smashing plate routine as an index of female stroppiness. It goes with the red hair.).

The film is helped by a strong cast. Renoir is played 87-year-old Michel Bouquet, mainly a theatre actor. Apart from a couple of Chabrols a few decades ago, the only film I remember Bouquet being in is Robert Guédiguian’s Le Promeneur des Champs de Mars (The Last Mitterand) where he was a completely convincing President Mitterand. His performance as Renoir is excellent, gruff and terse one moment (not when he’s painting, he tells Andrée), genial and tender the next. He manages to resemble the older Renoir, as shown in Sasha Guitry’s film which can be seen here:  (The actual footage of Renoir begins two minutes into the clip):

I thought Christa Théret’s performance was pretty good on the whole, especially given that her role was limiting from a dramatic point of view. (A sequence near the end where she escapes both Renoirs to spend time in a strange brothel-come-Weimar avant-garde theatre club is the least convincing in the film). Vincent Rottiers plays Jean as passive and lacking in focus. When he tells Andrée that he has neither dreams nor ambitions, she tells him not to say that to the woman he loves or she’ll have contempt for him. His passivity perhaps reflects the state of mind of much of the youth of Europe at that time, coming of age in the slaughterhouse of the First World War.

Renoir belongs to a substantial sub-genre of the biopic dealing with the life of painters and sculptors. Creative genius of any kind is difficult to capture on film but I thought the film did a pretty good job on the representation of the act of painting. It made quite a contrast with another French film dealing with the relationship between painter and model, Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse (1991), which made the whole act of creation seem incredibly violent and painful, for the painter (Michel Picolli) and , especially, for the model (Emmanuelle Béart) as the demonic artist twists and stretches her limbs as he hacks away at his painting. By contrast, Renoir presents the process as almost serene. When Andrée asks Renoir if he minded if she moved a bit, he tells her of course not, otherwise he would just paint apples. Bourdos recreates the act of painting very effectively with the aid of Guy Ribe, a master forger who had just completed a three-year stretch in prison for selling works ‘by’ Picasso, Chagal and Renoir. Ribe (whose own story would make a great screenplay) didn’t copy known works but created work that simulated the style of paintings that might have been done by these artists, paintings that had languished (he would tell naïve collectors) in private collections for years. There is an interesting piece in the New York Times on Ribe which can be accessed at . In the film Michel Bouquet is shown outdoors, a brush in Renoir’s bandaged, arthritic hands dabbing paint onto the canvas and when the camera cuts to the painting, it is Guy Ribes’s hand applying the paint. Dozens of false Renoirs appear in the film which I assume was cleared with the Renoir estate. Here are a couple of clips of this process.

As for the film prefiguring Jean Renoir’s career as a filmmaker, it does show him focused on repairing a film projector which looked to me like an early cinématographe, which functioned both as projector and camera though we don’t see him filming. And, the film implies, it takes Andrée to galvanise him in that direction. He buys a one-reel film from a traveling peddler and shows it to friends and members of the household, including his father whose only comments on this new form – which he would never have called an ‘art’ – were disparaging. And there is a nice piece of dramatic irony from the his brother, Jacques, who tells Jean that the cinema is for the ignorant mob and the French will never be good at filmmaking – it’s an American skill. We see a clip from the film they are watching – it’s DW Grifiths’ Intolerance (1916) projected onto a large Renoir painting covered by a sheet but I resisted the urge to read anything into this. The audience seems totally absorbed by the huge close-ups. This clip begins just after Jean has calmed Andrée down from the plate-throwing incident. He tells he arranged the film show for her, for which she thanks him at the end. It’s what unites them and will unite them further in the future. Here’s the clip.

And so a film which is weak in narrative and a little nebulous in character development which (almost) succeeds because of its aesthetic and performative qualities.

Posted in Biopic, French Cinema | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

That was 2012 in film – Des 1967’s lists

Posted by des1967 on 5 January 2013

Happy New year to everyone and apologies for the delay in my contribution. Just recovering from chaos of Hogmanay.

I didn’t find 2012 as good as the previous few years but I managed to miss some films which I was very keen to see, including Holy Motors, The Master (I thought Anderson’s Magnolia one of the best films of the 1990s), About Elly, This is Not a Film, Berberian Sound Studio, Shadow Dancer. Some of these will no doubt appear on my 2013 DVD list.

I’ve chosen ten on the UK cinema release list because I can’t find an obvious five which are far better than the next five and these are not necessarily in any order:

Rust and Bone (France/Belgium)

I usually have to psyche myself up to watch films featuring severe physical injury but the performance of Cotillard in particular made me overcome my squeamishness. Also a fine performance by Matthias Schoenaerts whose character’s lack of emotion at the beginning helped Stephanie to get beyond self-pity and rebuild her life. Alain couldn’t stay frozen forever and his transformation was incredibly well done.

Le Havre (Finland/France/Germany)

A Chaplinesque good-hearted fairy-tale about a group of ‘small people’ in the port area of Le Havre conspiring to help an immigrant boy on his way to join his mother in London keep out of the hands of the police. A sort of Finnish hommage to French poetic realism.

Goodbye First Love (France/Germany)

I’ve never been a fan of Rohmer but this film has the qualities fans of Rohmer often describe.

Anna Karenina (UK)

Costume drama needs a rethink and this is one of the most radical.

The Hunt (Jagten, Denmark/Sweden 2012)

Seems to be a common denominator among contributors so it must have something special going for it.

Liberal Arts (USA)

34-year-old Nat visits his old university and falls for Zibby, the bright 19-year-old daughter of his former professor’s friends. Could be classed as a romcom but the term doesn’t quite catch the mood and tone of the film. Terrific performances, especially by minor characters and by Elizabeth Olsen who threatens to put in the shade  her more famous sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley. Something  endearingly old-fashioned about the contact of the two protagonists – by letter. Here’s a clip of the couple’s correspondence rendered by voice-over which catches the flavour of the film.:

Your Sister’s Sister (USA)

Another American indy production. Interesting relationship triangle between a man and two sisters, witty and engaging. A bit of a rough diamond of a romcom.

Untouchable (France)

An uplifting comedy about the friendship that develops between a wealthy quadriplegic and his carer, Driss, an ex-convict. Has become the most seen film in French history and already doing better abroad than The Artist.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (France 2012)

A union official made redundant and his wife struggle to apply their long-held socialist principles faced with adversity.

Monsieur  Lazhar (Canada)

There seems to be a real flourishing of film in Quebec in recent years and this is a fine example.

An honourable mention to The Angels Share and a dishonourable mention to two American comedies which were both immature and very funny: Ted and 21 Jump Street.


DVD/TV/Festivals etc.

Once Upon a Time The Revolution/Duck You Sucker (Italy 1971)

Tends to be overlooked in comparison to the other two “Once Upon a Time” Leone films (The West and America) but still great, ebullient film making.

The Minister  (France/Belgium, 2011) (TOTAL French Film Festival)

Terrific performance by Olivier Gourmet (whom I’d only seen in Dardennes Brothers films such as The Son) in which he plays a government minister under pressure.

Sarah’s Key   (France, 2010)

Two time periods, Paris in 1942, during the notorious round-ups of the Jews by the Paris police, and present-day Paris and New York. A journalist (Kristin Scott-Thomas) suspects her in-laws may have benefitted from the Jews’ misfortune over 60 years before. In some way more effective in portraying these events than La Rafle.

The First Day of the Rest of Your Life (France, 2008)

Family melodrama which follows the story of a tumultuous family over five important days in their lives.

C.R.A.Z.Y. (Canada, 2005)

Another family melodrama, this time set in Canada. It tells the story of conservative father (a great country fan – which will explain the title) and his relationship with his five sons, in 1960s and 1970s Quebec and in particular Zac, a young gay man dealing with homophobia. 

Café de Flor (Canada/France, 2011)

Another Quebec film (also written and directed by Jean-Mark Vallé) which cuts between two seemingly unrelated stories. One set in Montréal dealing with the relationship between a successful DJ, his new, younger girlfriend and his still-complicated relationship with his ex-wife who can’t let go. The other, set in 1960s Paris, stars Vanessa Paradis as a fiercely protective single mother of a child with Down syndrome

Even the Rain  (Spain, 2010)

While a director and his crew shoot a controversial film about Christopher Columbus in Cochabamba, Bolivia, local people rise up against plans to privatize the water supply.


The final two are Spanish films directed by Fernando Trueba, a Christmas gift from Madrid. Probably on my list as seen most recently but they refuted the common claim that in Spain there is only Almodóvar.

Belle Époque (Spain/Portugal, 1992)

Set in Spain in 1931 Fernando, a young soldier, deserts from the army and is welcomed by the owner of a farm due to his libertarian political ideas. The man has four daughters, all of whom Fernando is attracted to and they to him , so he has to decide which one to love. Despite the subtext consisting of the issues that lead to the Civil War 5 years later, this is really a fairy-tale. I  think I would have hated it back in 1992 when it first came out, when Spanish film (and Spanish political culture generally) avoided any real issues to do with the Civil War (the so-called “pact of forgetting”). But seeing it now,  really enjoyed it and its utopian aspirations.

Chico and Rita (Spain/UK, 2010)

An animated feature-length film, the story of Chico, a pianist, and Rita, a singer, is set against backdrops of Havana, New York City, Las Vegas, Hollywood and Paris in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Strange having such a sexy animated film (outside Japan!). I probably still associate, subconsciously, animation with kids’ films. Good story, excellent animation, wonderful music.


What of 2013? Looking forward to seeing the films mentioned by other contributors, and want to fill a lacuna in my viewing experience by getting to grips with Kenji Mizoguchi. As for telly, looking forward to Season 4 of Engrenages/Spiral and the final half season of  Breaking Bad, one of the best US series but almost invisible in the UK.

And a New Year Resolution – not to go and see blockbusters because influential reviewers tell me how good and original they are – such as Skyfall, the latest Bond film, which bored me to tears after half an hour.

Posted in Film awards lists | 2 Comments »

Free Men (Les hommes libres, France 2011)

Posted by des1967 on 30 December 2012

Les Hommes Libres
There have been a number of French films over the last few years about World War Two which, even if they are not particularly good examples of the cinematic art, at least draw attention to important aspects of history which would otherwise not be known or not known particularly well. Days of Glory (Indigènes, Rachid Bouchareb2006) deals with the treatment of African colonial troops fighting in the Free French forces in the Second World War. The Army of Crime (L’armée du crimeRobert Guédiguian, 2009) – perhaps one of the more successful – looks at the events of the” l’affiche rouge” (“red poster”) affair in which the Nazis sought to present prominent resistance fighters in Paris as foreign criminals. The title was taken from the caption on a Nazi propaganda poster, which reads “Liberators? Liberation by the army of crime”.

The Round-up (La rafle, Roselyne Bosch, 2010) is a faithful retelling of the 1942 “Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup” and the events surrounding it where the Vichy authorities in Paris, going beyond what their Nazi masters demanded, rounded up 13,000 French Jews, including 4,000 children, and kept them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver (winter cycling track) until they were transported to French concentration camps and thence to their death in the camps in the East. (Some of the publicity suggested that this film was the first to bring this knowledge to a wide audience. In fact there were at least two French films portraying this event: Les Guichets du Louvre (The Gateways to the Louvre) (Michel Mitrani, 1974), and Mr. Klein (David Losey, 1976).

Free Men (Les hommes libres, Ismaël Ferroukhi, 2011) joins this list. It is set in and around Paris’s Muslim community and in particular the city’s Central Mosque. Jews and resistance members were being hidden in the Mosque’s cellars while, up above, this place of worship was frequently visited by German occupiers.

There are two prominent real-life characters in this little-known story. Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit is Rector of the Mosque, (played by  Anglo-French veteran, Michael Lonsdale); and Salim Halali, the gifted Algerian Jewish singer, passing as an Arab to escape deportation and living under the protection of the Mosque, (played by Israeli Palestinian actor, Mahmoud Shalaby). Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit is played as a courageous man but also a subtle diplomat, leading on the Wehrmacht officers with promises of an alliance with the Moroccan monarchy.

At the centre of the film is Younes, played by Tahar Rahim (who starred in Un prophète (Jacques Audiard, 2009)), whose character is based on a composite of several real-life individuals. Younes is a young apolitical Algerian black-marketeer, concerned only with himself and his family back home. He is forced to become an informer for the collaborationist police but, under the influence of his politicised cousin, he is gradually drawn into taking sides against the Nazis.

Younes’s metamorphosis into a militant in the resistance is slow and gradual. His first act of resistance is to deliver false identity papers to Jews living in hiding. He is too late to help the parents but he leads the two young children to the Mosque where they are taken in and given papers saying they are Muslims. The Germans begin to suspect the Mosque of both harbouring Jews and Resistance members and providing Jews with false paperwork saying they are Muslims.

So does it work as a film? Unfortunately good intentions don’t always make good films. The weak script and mise en scène undermine the humanist project of the film. In terms of genre, Free Men is perhaps a thriller but the moments of suspense and intrigue are few and far between. It’s probably best to think of it as a psychological drama, but without the tension you would expect from that genre.

One of the problems with the film is that it frequently initiates potentially interesting plot strands only to seemingly leave those ideas as non-sequiturs, with the result that the film wastes several opportunities for emotional impact. For example, Younes sees a young man coming out of Salim’s room. He is shocked and reacts badly but when he sees Salim again he apologises for his reaction. But that is it. It was hardly worthwhile to raise the question of Younes’s gayness if nothing was going to be done with it in the film. Likewise, Younes is attracted to Leila, a young woman in the mosque. We discover that far from being the submissive Muslim female, she is a leading member of the Algerian Communist Party who sees the resistance against the Nazis as a stage in the liberation of Algeria. She is arrested and Younes witnesses her being taken away. It’s not as if we’re expecting an all-guns-blazing rescue à la John Wayne but it’s frustrating that this narrative strand, once raised, is frittered away.

The film also suffers from its low budget (around €8 million) for a period piece. For example, the liberation of Paris – which many cinemagoers will be familiar with both from documentary footage as well as a number of fiction films – is evoked as well as it could be with a few dozen extras, lots of flags and, I think, three vehicles, one of which looked vaguely military.

My overall impression of the film is that it felt like an earnest TV movie. It is bland and inoffensive, qualities you wouldn’t normally associate with Resistance films. Usually when I watch such films (and I’m thinking in particular of Jean-Pierre Melville’s marvellous Army of Shadows (L’armée de l’ombre, 1969)), I have a kind of trepidation at the likely scenes of torture and degradation. We were spared these on the whole but at the expense of involvement in the drama. The only real suspense I recall in the film is the scene of the evacuation of those in hiding being led down through the tunnels to a boat on the Seine which leads them to relative safety in Algeria.

One of the strong points of the film was performance. Lonsdale is as good as he was in Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, Xavier Beauvois, 2010). And Tahir showed he is a subtle and intense actor who is capable of demonstrating a range of emotions. The progression he makes from barely literate factory worker to full-fledged revolutionary is by far the most captivating aspect in an otherwise plodding screenplay

I should add that, despite a good familiarity with the Occupation and Resistance in World War 2 France, I was completely unaware of the role of the Paris Central Mosque and I have the film to thank for that. And I liked the North African music a lot.

Posted in French Cinema | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Argo (US 2012)

Posted by des1967 on 11 December 2012

Argo is based on declassified information about a little-known episode during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980. A group of Islamist students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took its staff hostage for 444 days. The Iranians wanted the terminally ill Shah returned for trial from the US where he had been given asylum. US diplomats were ill-prepared for the waves of popular rage that crashed over the embassy walls, and which led to all US nationals inside being taken hostage. However, on the day of the occupation, six members of the staff managed to slip out unnoticed and found shelter in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Argo tells the story of the CIA operation to smuggle these six diplomats out of Iran.

CIA ‘exfiltration’ expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan for the group to pose as members of a Canadian film unit scouting locations for a science fiction film to be shot in Iran. In order to make the scheme convincing, it’s necessary to select an actual script (hence “Argo”), assemble a Hollywood production team and promote the planned film to the trade press. They generate documentation, storyboards and sundry media paraphernalia to convince the Iranian authorities that all is as it seems. Mendez enters Iran, posing as the film’s producer, and has to lead the group in their escape.

The film works fairly well as a thriller. One effective method of ratcheting up the tension was to have Iranian kids employed to sift through the paperwork the CIA had shredded before the embassy fell to see if they could find anything useful. We see at various stages the jigsaw coming together so that by the time the diplomats are heading to the airport, the authorities have a photograph of one of them. (I recall a similar technique used in an earlier political thriller from the 1980s – I can’t recall the name of the film but it may or may not have starred Robert Redford and if anyone is familiar with it please put me out of my misery! – which showed the a photograph of the hero, who was in danger, gradually crystallising from the pixels on the computer screen).

In terms of the drama, it would have been better had the film ended as the plane was leaving Iranian airspace and we would have been spared the sentimental backstory of the FBI agent and the commentaries at the end with the originals the characters are based on bringing us up to date with the characters’ stories – a dubious kind of plea for authenticity. (As often is the case in such films, there is a caption, “Based on a true story”, a special pleading that I find annoying). But as a genre piece, a hybrid of thriller, heist and caper movie, I found it quite successful. The cloak-and-dagger operation mounted by the CIA does make for an exciting film.

Another generic strand (or tone) in the film is comedy. Mendez recruits two Hollywood veterans, the affable makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), designer of Mr Spock’s ears for Star Trek, and the grizzled old-school producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Their cynical humour (“You could teach a rhesus monkey to direct a film in a day,” Siegel states – a line which reminds me of Orson Welles’ daft statement about Citizen Kane that anyone could learn how to direct a film in a week) lightens the tension. Another such put-down of the Hollywood system occurs when Chambers asks Mendez when he first explains his plan. “You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in.” The conspirators take to greeting each other with the catch-phrase, based on the title, “Argofuckyourself”

And so I found that the film worked fairly effectively on these levels. However, what I found somewhat far more problematic was the film’s overall portrayal of the hostage crisis. It fails to convey the idea that the USA in general and the CIA in particular were hated by wide layers of the population and for good reason. The success of the Shah’s brutal dictatorial regime depended upon its support by Washington. Now It’s true that the film opens with a brief summary of Britain and America’s role in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Dr Mosaddeq whose policy was to nationalise the oil. We are also shown footage of the Shah in a TV interview denying knowledge of the torture carried out by Savak, his secret police. And a CIA operative tells Mendez that when they were evacuating the Shah, the plane struggled to take off, such was the volume of stolen gold the Shah had taken onto the plane.

These serve to provide a veneer of objectivity to the film but what dominates throughout the rest of the film is something quite different. While the film invites us to empathise with the CIA hero and the diplomats and laugh at Hollywood’s antics, it also urges us view Iranians as the enemy. What struck me in particular was how the Iranian characters are not individualised in the film: they are seen just as “the mob”. We hear none of the debates taking place between different factions (including the secular left) that were taking place throughout the hostage crisis. The Iranian characters lack any real subjectivity.  In a couple of key scenes where we see Iranians on screen, we are not given sub-titles. This first occurs in the market where Mendez takes the group to meet the Culture Ministry officials and they run into some local people who shout at them aggressively. We can probably guess what they’re on about but it would be useful to hear what they had to say. Another occasion was while the Americans were facing the final terrifying hurdle of  the airport guards. While their officer does not play the clown  à la Sacha Baron-Cohen like so many middle-eastern villains in Hollywood films, most of the little he has been given to say remains untranslated.

Coming out at a time when Israel is openly threatening to bomb Iran, and the American media have ramped up their campaign of fear-mongering, the film can’t help but seem to play into the hands of the most reactionary elements in the US ruling class. And given its box-office success, it has already had millions of viewers flocking to theatres to hear the story of how innocent Americans were victimized by the jihad-crazed Iranians and the CIA came in to save the day.

This despite the fact that Ben Affleck and, in particular, George Clooney, who initiated the project and is co-producer, have campaigned for liberal, even leftist causes. They supported radical historian Howard Zinn and before his death they campaigned to get a TV series adapted from his major work off the ground.  (In Affleck and Matt Damon’s script for Good Will Hunting, they have the arrogant young genius played by Damon sneer at his Boston psychiatrist for “surrounding yourself with all the wrong fuckin’ books. You wanna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll fuckin’ knock you on your ass”). Clooney and Affleck seem oblivious to the fact that the film, whether they like it or not, has become part of the effort by the most reactionary elements in the American ruling class to drag the US into a war with Iran.

Is Affleck so desperate for a box office hit and a return to his star status which has been frittered away over the years in mediocre work that he blinds himself to the possible political effects of the film? Or is there something about the culture of Hollywood that makes so many artists vulnerable to pressures and moods and social forces that they may only be partially aware of?

The extract below takes place near the end of the film as the American diplomats have to negotiate the hurdle of the airport guards:

Posted in American Independents | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Les neiges du Kilimandjaro: A second opinion

Posted by des1967 on 4 November 2012

The extended family of Michel and Marie-Claire

Des has had difficulty trying to post this comment on our initial review of The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Since it is such a detailed response, we thought it merited a separate posting. (Roy Stafford)

I really enjoyed this film, as did the other ten or so people at the early-evening  screening in Aberdeen who burst into spontaneous applause at the end. And if you know Aberdeen audiences, this is not to be sniffed at. But this was the one and only screening which is a great pity. Since seeing the four late 90s/early 2000s films – Marius et Jeanette (1997), A la place du coeur /In place of the heart (1998), and La ville est tranquille/The town is quiet (2000) and A l’attaque/Attack (2000), I’ve managed to miss a few Guédiguian films, such as Marie Jo et ses deux amours (2002) and Lady Jane (2007). And his early films don’t seem to be available on DVD. I don’t quite understand how distribution of French films to the UK works. It’s partly star-driven (Depardieu, Binoche, Huppert, Tautou, Duris, Scott-Thomas etc) but many star-free French films manage to get a UK run. e.g. two films by Fred Cavayé: Pour elle (Anything for Her, 2008) and À bout portant (Point Blank, 2010)

These early films  seem to conform to Guédiguian’s stated attitude (in an interview I haven’t been able to find, but which he touches on in this Senses of Cinema interview), that he alternates ‘dark’ films with ‘light’ ones; dark to open people’s eyes to the real situation and light ones to give the audience some hope. Marius et Jeanette certainly has a knockabout comedy flavor. La ville est tranquille, however, is a very bleak (despite occasional touches of comedy) and A l’attaque was very light and (once the basic gimmick of the film was established – we see the scriptwriters writing the screenplay which is then dramatised including alternative lines of narrative which are then rejected, the screen crumpling like the sheet of the discarded paper of the script) not completely successful. But what I think is his best film, A la place du coeur, managed to keep the dark and the light in balance, as does Les neiges de Kilimanjaro which I think is Guéguidian’s best since then, at least of those I’ve managed to see.

Of the subsequent films I have seen, Le Promeneur du Champs de Mars /The Last Mitterand) is interesting mainly for Michel Bouuquet’s portrayal of the President but for me, Guéguidian really pulled his punches when dealing with the shady political past of the old fraud. The other is L’Armée du crime (The Army of Crime) about a group of foreign Resistance workers in Paris during the Occupation led by the Armenian poet, Missak Manouchian. Not a great film but a worthy (I hope this doesn’t sound too patronising) addition to those films that are important primarily for the story they tell, such as La Rafle (The Roundup, 2010) about the rounding up of Jews by the French police in 1942 to be sent to the death camps; La Nuit noire -17 Octobre 1961 (Alain Tasma, 2005), about the massacre and subsequent cover up of the death of over 200 North African demonstrators at the hands of the Paris police; and Indigènes (Days of Glory, Rachid Bouchareb 2006) which shows the role of French colonial troups in the liberation of Europe. (Le voyage en Arménie, 2006, which I saw in The Barbican followed by  a Q and A with Guédiguian and Ariane Ascaride, is perhaps best forgotten.)

I know what Roy means about the film’s politics and lack of analysis but I’ve never really felt that Guédiguian was a particularly political director – despite the film’s political concerns and the explicit political discussion among the characters. He is, ultimately, more interested in the bonds between people than their social or economic stations. In that respect he might be better considered a humanist director. He is frequently compared to Marcel Pagnol (eg The Marius/ Fanny/Cesar (1931–36)) but a better comparison might be with Jean Renoir, especially in Renoir’s Popular Front period. Though to focus most of his films on working class characters might be considered a political act. As for “Marseilles isn’t quite like a wet Wednesday in Greenock or Salford”, I felt exactly the same at the very tragic ending of La ville est tranquille  when there is a wide shot taking in the clear blue sky and the Mediterranean and the sun-drenched white buildings of Marseille.

Incidentally, when I visited Marseilles a few years ago, after seeking out the bar which is the main location for Pagnol’s Marius trilogy (and being surprised to find there wasn’t even a photo or a poster on the wall connecting it to the film), I took a bus out to the Estaque district where Guédiguan sets many of his films. It looked a totally gentrified district with house prices to match. I suspect that Michel and Marie-Claire’s flat with the terrace where film ends would cost a pretty penny or eurocent!

Useful discussion on Guédiguian at Senses of Cinema

Posted in French Cinema | Leave a Comment »


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