Luc Besson signalled his desire to make films in English for the international market as long ago as 1994 with Léon (known in the US as The Professional). In the mid 1990s he was loosely partnered with Matthieu Kassovitz, both striving to make big budget films as French productions with partners in Europe or Canada. Kassovitz couldn’t sustain the production role and mostly turned to his acting career but Besson has been prolific as writer, producer and director. His company EuropaCorp (set up in 1999) has become a major international integrated studio.
Lucy is bonkers – but it is entertaining and it is clever. It also indicates how alive Besson is to the potential market in East Asia. His co-production/funding partners here comprise Teléfilm Canada because of the visual effects work by Rodeo FX in Montreal and the Tapei Film Office for the location work in Taiwan. The story and casting scream ‘international’. There are two Hollywood stars, Scarlett Johansson as Lucy and Morgan Freeman (basically playing himself a ‘professor with gravitas’). The film begins with a cameo by Pilou Asbæk (star of Danish hit series Borgen) and there are secondary roles for the British actor Julian Rhind-Tutt and the Egyptian-French Amr Waked. The film’s villain is played by the South Korean star Choi Min-sik.
The narrative begins in Taipei where Lucy (Johansson), an American expat student in the city is persuaded (against her will) to make a ‘delivery’ for a friend. She is correct in suspecting that it might not be a good idea and she becomes an unwilling ‘drug mule’ for a Korean gangster. This is no ordinary drug and when a large quantity is inadvertently forced into her bloodstream she becomes possessed of superhero powers. Intercut with these events is a lecture being given in Paris by Freeman’s professor about brain capacity and the potential for expanding human brain power. Lucy then attempts to escape the gangsters and head for a meeting with the professor. The three other carriers of the remainder of the drug consignment are also bound for Europe (Paris, Rome and Berlin) hotly pursued by the gangsters. Car chases and gun battles await us as well as all kinds of CGI wizardry to represent the turmoil in Lucy’s head.
Hollywood seems to have been slightly surprised by the success of Lucy. Diehard science fiction fans have been very sniffy and reviewers have generally laughed at the film’s pretentiousness. But writer-director Besson is no mug. They laughed at The Fifth Element (1997) which made more than $250 million worldwide and Besson/EuropaCorp’s lucrative franchises Taxi, Transporter and and Taken may have many detractors but they make good profits in international markets. Lucy is one of the few films from the EuroCorp slate that Besson has written and directed himself. As well as the high quality cast, the film also features the cinematography of Thierry Arbogast and the music of Eric Serra, both long-time associates of Besson.
Putting aside, for the moment, Scarlett Johansson’s controversial decision to continue her work with the Israeli company SodaStream (with its factory in the West Bank) as its celebrity face in advertisements, there have been other controversies about Lucy. The film has been accused of racism in its representation of East Asian characters. I’m not sure this is valid. The Korean gangsters are not that dissimilar to those I have seen in Korean films. More problematic are the low level criminals in Taiwan who Lucy encounters when she first wakens after the drug takes hold. One of the main points is that she shoots a man seemingly because he can’t speak English. It’s worth remembering however that the plot suggests that at this point her ‘selfish gene’ has the upper hand and is propelling her towards ‘survival’ at any cost. She actually shoots the man in the leg to get him out of the way. As she gradually comes to realise what her new powers enable her to do, she becomes calmer and uses her powers more carefully. Having said that, the car chase she initiates causes quite a few accidents.
Lucy is entertaining, partly because Besson doesn’t take himself too seriously and there are several comic touches I enjoyed. Scarlett Johansson is very good as the student transformed into ‘action woman with a superbrain’ – a worthy successor to Anne Parillaud as Nikita and Nathalie Portman as Mathilda in Léon. And actually, Besson has been restrained in his presentation of Johansson who isn’t dressed in revealing outfits (or at least, I don’t remember any!). Given her other three action/SF roles of 2013/4 in Captain America: Winter Soldier, Her and Under the Skin, she is developing an interesting star profile. But she’s wrong about SodaStream and its factory in a settlement on the West Bank.
Here’s the EuropaCorp trailer:
Few directors divide audiences quite like Abel Ferrara. I can remember having seen Ms 45 (US 1981) and Bad Lieutenant (US 1992). I think I might have seen at least one more. I wasn’t repulsed by these films as many critics have recorded. I was intrigued by this new film as I did follow the news story about Dominique Strauss-Kahn which provides the story details – although I didn’t follow every aspect of the coverage. That’s quite important because Ferrara provides no context or ‘back story’ to what we see and there were several references that I didn’t recognise until I researched the story after the screening.
The film opens with the usual disclaimers about being fictitious but ‘inspired by’ etc. What then follows is an interview with Gerard Depardieu, something like the pre-credits sequence of Godard’s Tout Va Bien, in which he says he doesn’t like politicians and that as an actor he doesn’t ‘feel’ for the characters he plays. All this is directed towards journalists – and at one point, I think, delivered straight to camera, something which happens again later in the film proper. This device leads to suggestions that Ferrara has created some kind of ‘meta text’ – a view supported by the inclusion at various points of video footage from the ‘real’ Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) news story. At another point later in the film the lawyer for the Depardieu character tells us that the whole trial in which his client is appearing is not happening in the ‘real world’ but, á la Baudrillard, is playing out as a media text/construction in which the real people involved are ‘playing’ roles. Add to this the very presence of Depardieu as a ‘tax exile’ and reviled superstar of French cinema, sometimes seen as prostituting his talent in unworthy projects, and we have a very interesting set of representations.
Depardieu plays ‘M. Devereaux’, a French banker of international standing who is passing through New York on his way back to Paris. He is introduced as the kind of man who employs young women to offer sexual favours to anyone who visits his office and who finds a sex party ready for him when he registers at his Manhattan hotel. We are then offered around twenty minutes of sexual activity in which the grossly overweight Depardieu satisfies himself with various call girls and then later assaults the woman from housekeeping who comes to clean his room – the crime for which DSK was arrested. There aren’t many ’18’ films around these days and the sex here seemed fairly explicit (much bearing of breasts and buttocks but no genitals) and it was only later that I realised it wasn’t anywhere near as explicit as Nymphomaniac. I’m not sure what I make of that observation. I’ve seen reviews that express disgust and others that see Ferrara as offering ‘soft porn’. I suppose that the latter is technically correct. My own reaction was to note that Ferrara and his regular DoP Ken Kelsch film the sex action in a very ‘matter of fact’ way. There is no attempt to make it ‘erotic’ – instead, it is left to the audience to create their own eroticism from what is shown. There is ‘violence’ in terms of spankings but I think that Ferrara distinguishes between the prostitutes who laugh and giggle after the event and the two women who are later shown to be very upset after assaults by Devereaux. The women playing the call girls (‘real’ prostitutes?) are treated as sex objects, but the amount of female flesh is almost matched by the acreage of Depardieu’s paunch (we would get more of a full frontal if the paunch wasn’t in the way). I’m not sure if this stops the film being sexist. The film also suggests that M. Devereaux has a sex addiction, or at least believes himself that he does.
I can’t really ‘spoil’ the narrative because the film follows the ‘real’ story – DSK was arrested and kept in prison on remand before being released on bail. Charges were then dropped. Clearly there is an opportunity for satire here – on the American legal system, the ‘equality’ of the law as it pertains to international bankers etc. What actually follows, I think, is a film which holds attention mainly through the performances of Depardieu and then Jacqueline Bisset as his wife who arrives from Paris, furious that she has to rescue him again. Bisset looks very good (is it really 46 years since I saw her in Bullitt?) and plays her role very well. (Her character has the inherited wealth and is concerned for her own status/public profile.)
Whatever critics might think about Depardieu he commands the screen and he exerts a certain kind of charm even as his flesh billows out all around him. The key scene here is when he is strip-searched in prison. The whole prison sequence is riveting. I read that Ferrara employed ‘real’ prison warders. It’s hilarious but somehow Depardieu keeps his dignity. The other prisoners, real hard guys, look bemused but respectful.
The ‘real’ DSK case fizzled out (the prosecutor decided that the victim would not be a reliable witness in court) with suggestions in the media that both DSK was being stitched up in the way the case was constructed but also that he was probably guilty. Either way he wasn’t able to pursue a political career and is now (according to Wikipedia) facing further charges in France. What does Ferrara’s film offer in response? Well, I enjoyed the film on several levels without condoning the behaviour of M. Devereaux. The audience I was with also seemed to enjoy it and one man on the front row laughed uproariously at regular intervals. Ferrara also showed that the story could be told without resorting to tabloid sensationalism. I’m not sure I learned too much about international banking or the US legal system but I do feel that some questions were raised and some positions/arguments exposed. Overall a good thing I think.
The film is released in the UK by Altitude Films:
There is no reason why Blood Ties shouldn’t make perfect sense. The crime film or polar is a popular form in France and one of its principal features is an interest in American culture. many polars have been based on hardboiled American pulp fiction, published in France alongside the French variety in ‘Serie Noire’ novels. French films – and indeed French crime fiction novels – have been re-imagined for the US market by Hollywood filmmakers and there is a history of French directors going to North America to make films in both French and English. The most recent high profile examples include the first of the Mesrine films about the French gangster (set mostly in Canada) and Bertrand Tavernier’s problematic production of the James Burke adaptation, In the Electric Mist (US 2009). (Blood Ties reminds me of Mesrine.) Why then does Blood Ties feel so odd? It might be because I’d read one negative review by Leslie Felperin in the Guardian and I was unconsciously looking for faults. But I kicked myself after the screening when I realised that this project of the actor-director Guillaume Canet was actually a re-make of the French film Les liens du sang (2008) which I’d not only seen but also written about. Doh!
The original film, based on a novel, Deux freres, un flic, un truand by Bruno and Michel Papet was based in Lyons in the early 1970s. That film was directed by Jacques Maillot and starred François Cluzet and Canet as the two brothers of the title, one a cop (Canet) and one a criminal (Cluzet). Canet and Cluzet had previously worked together on the very successful Tell No One (France 2006) based on a Harlan Coben novel. Canet decided on the remake to be made in English with the same story but set in New York in 1974. However this would still be a mainly French production. The main American creative input came from the writer-director James Gray, a friend of Canet, who was hired to co-write the script. Canet is clearly interested in American culture – and American popular music – so an English language film in America is not surprising. But why go for a period shoot with the resultant expense? IMDB suggests a budget of $25.5 million which is nearly up to Hollywood levels for this type of production. I suspect it was only viable because of the interest from various French TV channels. I can only assume that Canet wanted to get the feel of those New York policiers of the 1970s such as Serpico (1973). Certainly he searches for locations carefully. One film I was reminded of was Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco, not a 1970s movie (it was made in 1997) but an evocation of the era.
The main problem in the film is the casting of Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as the criminal and the cop. They have no fraternal resemblance at all (nor to their father played by James Caan). Crudup looks like a perfect 1970s stereotype with a trim moustache and shaggy hair, whereas Owen looks like a leftover rocker from Coventry complete with leather jacket and tattoos. But the real problem is when they open their mouths. I’m no expert on New York accents but several critics have fingered Crudup for missing the mark. I don’t need any help to know that Clive Owen slides about all over the place. Now this isn’t to suggest that either actor puts in a bad performance. In fact they are both very good and after the first 30 minutes or so I began to enjoy the film quite a lot. My comment is really about Canet and his producers not having the nous to consider casting and script together. I suspect that Canet just doesn’t have the ‘ear’ for the nuances of English. That may be unfair, but something is amiss. Marion Cotillard (Canet’s partner) is cast as an Italian (I think that is right, but she might be Spanish – Monica seems the wrong name in any case) and her co-star from Rust and Bone, Matthias Schoenaerts plays the real bad guy in the narrative – with as far as I could hear, a very acceptable accent. (I should explain that ‘bad guy’ is a plot statement – the ‘good guys’ are actually horrific in terms of wiping out any opposition.) This is an excellent cast, with the further addition of Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis, Noah Emmerich and a rather wasted Lili Taylor.
The idea of two brothers on different sides of the law is a familiar trope of crime films from the Hollywood studio era and from the polar. What is more unusual is the time devoted to the relationship between brothers and general family and police team background. The film has been criticised in North America because there is less ‘action’ and more melodrama and the action is supposedly not well choreographed or doesn’t use the correct CGI. It looked fine to me but my gripe would be that given potentially important roles for the four women in the cast, only Marion Cotillard really gets the chance to shine.
So, not perfect by any means but better than most Hollywood crime films of the same type and very much better than American Hustle in recreating the 1970s. It will probably disappear after the first week and come out on DVD pretty quickly, but if it comes to a screen near you it’s worth 125 minutes of your time.
The US trailer:
First a confession. I found this a puzzling film. It was difficult to watch for various reasons but it made me think and there are many good things about it. I first wrote a blog post asking questions and making guesses about what it all might mean. Then I discovered the Press Notes and most of the answers. I turned out to be more or less correct on several points but there were some things I didn’t know and I certainly hadn’t picked out all the ideas behind the film. I think you need the notes to ‘read’ the film successfully and I’m not sure that is a good thing. Here are my revised notes informed by the Press Pack.
During the screening I thought of an important but little-known film by Jean Renoir, Toni (France 1934). Often quoted as the film that provided the spark for neo-realism, Toni tells the story of Italian migrant workers in South-Eastern France filmed mostly on location. Grand Central is set in the lower Rhone Valley where there are three nuclear plants. The central characters are two experienced workers at one of these plants (one of whom is called Toni) and they accept the responsibility to take into their team three young workers who are marginal characters with backgrounds in petty crime. The older and younger workers live together in a caravan park by the river. One of the trio of young men, ‘Garry Manda’ (Tahar Rahim) then becomes involved with Toni’s young fiancée Karole (Léa Seydoux) who also works in the plant.
The Renoir connection is strengthened by a sequence in which Gary and Karole have a midnight tryst which takes them in a boat down the river and Toni is cuckolded just like the innkeeper in Renoir’s Une partie de campagne (France 1936). I’m not suggesting that the film’s aesthetic approach matches Renoir, but there is certainly a shared sense of seeing the narrative from the point of view of the working-class characters. A second connection to Francophone cinema’s realist wing is the casting of Olivier Gourmet (from the Dardenne Brothers’ films) as Gilles, the senior figure on the works team. Toni is played by Denis Ménochet, best known from Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. (These observations are matched by comments from the film’s director in the Press Pack when she says that she consciously drew on the 1930s films with working-class characters. As well as the naming of Toni, ‘Manda’ is a reference to the lead male character in Jacques Becker’s 1952 film Casque d’or. Denis Ménochet reminds the director of Robert Mitchum.)
The visual and aural style of the film does not necessarily relate to realism. Co-writer and director Rebecca Zlotowski employs shallow focus shots with ‘pulled’ focus transitions and a distinctive mix of interiors, seemingly shot inside a real nuclear power station, contrasted with pastoral scenes by the river. The interiors were shot on digital cameras to capture the detail of the harshly illuminated scenes but the ‘warm’ exteriors were shot on 35mm film. The music is often menacing from an electronic score involving various collaborations – most of the music was composed specifically for the film. The menace in the plant comes from the threat of contamination while outside it hangs heavily in the mainly outdoor scenes of a kind of communal life around the caravans and on the river bank creating a nervous tension between the men and relatively few women. I’m kicking myself now for not making the connections with stories about other kinds of industrial life with ‘workers camps’ – fruit-pickers, road-builders, railway-builders etc. The director refers to the bar and the camp found in certain kinds of Hollywood Western. These kinds of narratives all work with the combination of dangerous occupations and strong emotions amongst the camps’ inhabitants.
We learn about the procedures required inside the nuclear plant but very little about the backgrounds to any of the characters themselves. What is clear is that Gilles and Toni see themselves as skilled workers with an informed perspective on the inequalities of the working conditions in the plant whereas the the younger men (and possibly younger women) have no political awareness and are reckless in terms of the dangers posed by contamination. In this divide is the basis of an interesting film about collective v. individualistic behaviour and a critique of labour relations in the nuclear industry. (The scenes inside the plant – and some outside – were shot in a mothballed plant in Austria.) However, Ms Zlotowski presents the ‘worker’s story’ through the prism of the sexual relationship between Gary and Karole, her two attractive leads. There is an emphasis across the film on the bodies of the workers. We see them dressing and undressing and being examined for evidence of possible contamination from radioactive materials. After possible contamination they are hosed down and scrubbed. Outside the plant it is Karole who is clearly ‘exposed’. She wears an extraordinary outfit – a tight, close fitting ‘body’ garment of soft white cotton emphasising her breasts with similarly tight and short cut-off denims. This provocative outfit is both revealing and constraining – and clearly far too much for Gary. Léa Seydoux appeared in Zlotowski’s previous film Belle Épine and she was one of the twin stars of the controversial film Blue is the Warmest Colour. Her ‘exposure’ raises some questions about the intentions of her female director.
In the Press Pack Zlotowski suggests that she deliberately presented Seydoux as an erotic figure and that she had in mind something like the appearance of Marilyn Monroe in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (US 1952) in which Robert Ryan pursues Barbara Stanwyck in a small fishing community. Tahar Rahim is a star actor who can suggest both vulnerability and fortitude but here it is quite difficult to understand what might be going on in his head. We do learn something about his difficult family background and there is the suggestion that he might have found a new family with Gilles and Toni like surrogate father/uncle/mentor. But he appears determined to ‘prove himself’ – partly by taking great risks with his own health. This threatens to break up his working group and the relationships in the caravan park. The two young lovers are not a conventional heroic couple.
The mixture of ‘romance’ and the Western helps to explain the focus on the saloon bar (with its mechanical bull, reminiscent of John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy of 1980) as the focal point for the ‘showing off’ of the ‘strangers’ who come into town. Rebecca Zlotowski tells us that she also admires the Hollywood films featuring strong and tough working men and she quotes Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (yet another 1952 film) with Robert Mitchum as one of the rodeo riders.
I can now see how the film narrative is supposed to work. I’m not sure it quite does for me and the politics of labour conditions isn’t explored enough for my taste, but this is a much more interesting film than most out there, so please give it a go. The original story comes from a novel titled La Centrale by Elisabeth Filhol and was then developed by Gaëlle Macé, Zlotowski’s screenwriter. So, three women as creative forces behind a film about men at work and the possibly disruptive eroticism of a woman in their midst.
The helpful UK trailer: