Category: French Cinema

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France 1961)

History activated

History activated

Chronicle of a Summer is one of the most significant documentaries ever made; as stated at the start of the film:

‘This film was not played by actors, but lived by men and women who have given a few moments of their lives to a new experiment in cinema truth.”

The last two words in their original French, cinéma vérité, became emblematic of the type of film they created. Although, like Direct Cinema which was being developed for television in North America at the time, cinéma vérité used developments in lightweight equipment to shoot events as they happened, filmmaker Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin (an anthropologist), were not suggesting that they were passive bystanders merely relaying the action. They didn’t try to disguise the fact that audiences were watching a film and both directors appear onscreen talking to the participants about a range of contemporary issues such as the Algerian war and racism.

The film begins with a conversation with Marceline Loridan about her feelings of being involved in the documentary. Initially her role is as a vox pop interviewer asking passers-by if they are happy. These early scenes are shot candidly with poorly composed framing. After this the film focuses on six participants: three students, an African, an Italian, a car worker and a union man. Rouch and Morin are trying to gauge what ‘France’ thinks about the world in the summer of 1960.

The film’s ability to capture these spontaneous conversations was no doubt extremely impressive at the time. From the perspective of now the technical brilliance is somewhat lost however the snapshot of the time ensures that the film remains vital viewing.

For example, Marceline, it transpires, is a survivor from Auschwitz and in a harrowing monologue she recounts her time there. This is shot at a deserted Place du Concorde apparently with her talking to herself (her lips are clearly moving some of the time) whilst the camera moves backwards in front of her. It could be coincidental, but when she talks of being a little girl the camera noticeably recedes from her, making her look relatively small (see above). This image bridges the moment with the past when she was separated from her father in the concentration camp; it is an emotionally devastating sequence.

Later when Mary Lou is talking about her fears of being alone, the close up of her visibly distressed face, though she is trying to smile (put on a ‘brave’ face), portrays the raw emotion she is feeling. It may seem to be exploitative however Morin, who’s talking to her, says we shouldn’t talk about it and the scene cuts immediately. An African student, Landry talks about how he’d like Africans to be appreciated for more than their dancing; he is portrayed as an African explorer in France, a brilliant post-colonial characterisation.

The film concludes with reflections on itself, first from the participants and then Morin and Rouch in conversation. The participants’ views are fascinating as, after they have seen a rough cut, they appear to disagree with the meaning of what they have seen (I say ‘appear’ because we are obviously seeing what Morin and Rouch decided to include in the final version though I don’t doubt the veracity). Sam Di Iorio’s excellent Criterion essay (here) quotes Morin’s reaction to this:

Morin eventually saw the contradictory reactions it generated as proof of its strength: “My dream that this film would end with mutual understanding failed,” he wrote in 2010, “but its ultimate success lay in showing how difficult it is to understand others.”

And this is part of the film’s greatness, showing that truth is a dialogic concept and not absolute. Clearly, I’m strongly recommending this great film.

Lucy (France/Taiwan/Canada 2014)

Scarlett Johansson as 'Lucy' in superhero mode sorting through thousands of phone conversations on a Paris street

Scarlett Johansson as ‘Lucy’ in superhero mode sorting through thousands of phone conversations on a Paris street

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.

The Korean gangsters headed by Choi Min-sik

The Korean gangsters headed by Choi Min-sik

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:

Welcome to New York (France-US 2014)

Sex part for M. Devereaux

Sex party for M. Devereaux

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.

Devereaux and Simone (Jacqueline Bisset)

Devereaux and Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) in the town house where he is kept under ‘house arrest’

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:

Blood Ties (France-US 2013)

Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as ? and ?

Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as Chris and Frank

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: