Category: French Cinema

J’accuse (France 1919)

JAccuse3web
This is one of the films from the Silent Era noted in the earlier preview of Leeds International Film Festival. Now the Festival Catalogue is available and it notes the film will be screened from a DCP. This means we will get a theatrical standard presentation together with a live accompaniment on the Town Hall Organ. This will be the sort of event for which the Concert Auditorium provides a perfect setting.

The film was directed and partly scripted by Abel Gance for the Pathé Company: he is the French filmmaker who is most famous for his epic Napoléon, a film restored with loving care by Kevin Brownlow. This version of J’accuse was restored by the Nederland Filmmuseum and Lobster Films. The latter are one of the most skilled companies involved in researching, restoring and presenting early film. One of their earlier projects was the restoration in 2011 of a long-lost colour version of the Méliès masterpiece Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902).

Gance and his team started on the film in the latter stages of the World War I. Large-scale scenes of the war used French soldiers on leave from the front: some of them were to return and die in the bloody battles at Verdun. Another view of this is the recently re-released Paths of Glory (USA, 1957) by Stanley Kubrick: one of the many films influenced by the earlier masterwork. Strictly speaking both films are anti-military rather than anti-war: World War I was a text-book example of a military leadership lagging well behind technology and strategy.

Especially notable is the cinematography by L. H. Burel. There is striking use of low-key lighting. The film was a pioneer in the use of superimposition and it has some remarkable [for the period] tracking shots. Moreover, Gance and the editor Marguerite Beaugé produced striking uses of montage in the climactic battle scene.

The central plot of the film is familiar melodrama; romance and rivalry in love, but descending into chaos, loss and death. The film ends with a still powerful set of images that dramatise the devastation that resulted from the conflict.

The film was originally released in four parts over four weeks. As with many early films it suffered cuts and depredations. Gance actually produced a sound version in the 1930s. Now the epic drama can be seen in one sitting, though this is nearly three hours in length. It remains one of the great achievements of French cinema. It was also the first in a series of silent epics that dramatised what has become known as the First World War. And as in 1919 the audience will find the drama and emotion of the film heightened by the live musical accompaniment.

Tomboy (France 2011)

Lisa (Jeanne Disson, left) and Laure/Mikael (Zoé Héran)

Lisa (Jeanne Disson, left) and Laure/Mikael (Zoé Héran)

Céline Sciamma is about to become much better known as her new film Bande de filles (Girlhood) is currently drawing enthusiastic audiences and critical attention in Paris. Before I review that film, after it appeared at the London Film Festival, I thought it might be useful to look at Sciamma’s second feature, Tomboy.

All three of Sciamma’s features involve questions about gender roles – the first, Water Babies (France 2007) focused on 15 year-old girls at a swimming pool. The ‘tomboy’ of the title in her second film is Laure (Zoé Héran) a skinny 10 year-old whose family is moving to a new flat somewhere in the Île-de-France region. It’s summer and the area is a fantastic playground for the local children with woods and a lake as well as a tarmac football pitch. Laure quickly meets Lisa – a girl possibly a year or two older but certainly much more developed in her progress through puberty. Laure tells Lisa that her name is Mikael and allows her to think that her new friend is a boy. At home, Laure’s mother is heavily pregnant with her third child (a boy) and Laure’s younger sister, 6 year-old Jeanne, wants to join the gang of children playing outside. At first Laure refuses to take her along – she might accidentally reveal the deception about Laure’s gender identity. But of course Laure will be ‘exposed’ at some point anyway . . .

I spent an interesting time on IMDB and other sites looking at reactions to the film. Although most were very positive, there were one or two angry commentators from LGBTQ communities who accuse Sciamma of not knowing what she is doing or misrepresenting transgendered people. I don’t know anything about Ms Sciamma’s gender orientation but I do think that she’s been extremely careful not to present a polemic or a campaign or to take a moral stance on anything in particular. (As an aside, Tomboy was distributed in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures which specialises in LGBT films and ‘World Cinema’ more generally.) Audiences are entitled to ‘read’ Laure/Mikael’s behaviour in whatever way they wish. My take is that the reaction of Laure to Lisa’s opening question (implying that Laure is a boy) is to simply run with the mistake because it gives her a chance to experience being a boy as a gender role.

There are a couple of interesting observations to make, however. The imminent arrival of a baby brother, who will be able to do the things that Laure thinks she is prevented from doing (e.g. playing football) must cause her some distress/pressure. As one of the IMDB users points out, it might be that Laure has been encouraged by her father to do ‘masculine’ things like drink beer and steer the family car. The scenes that seem to have caused the most offence refer to the actions of the mother (who is faced with the consequences of Laure’s actions and worries what will happen when she starts at her new school at the end of the holidays). Earlier in the film there is a gnomic reference to the family always being on the move. Has Laure done this before? There is no explanation (unless I missed it) as to why they have moved so often.

Whatever we make of these controversies, it is clear that Céline Sciamma is a talented filmmaker. Tomboy is a short feature (82 mins) but it is beautifully-paced. The children’s play is handled very well and they all perform in a natural way. The little sister is perhaps a tad precocious, but such children exist and she is actually quite charming. This is an example of using a small budget wisely and with good imagination, taking a simple story idea and following it through with wit and humour and compassion. I’ve got to go and find Water Lilies now. If you haven’t seen Tomboy it has been on BBC4 (so may reappear) and it is available on DVD/Blu-ray from Peccadillo.

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: