Category: French Cinema

Amanda (France 2018)

David (Vincent Lacoste) and Amanda (Isaure Multrier)

This enjoyable and gently moving film first appeared at Venice in 2018 and the UK is one of the last major territories to receive it. The title refers to the 7 year-old daughter of single mother Sandrine, a high school English teacher. The narrative, however, focuses on Amanda’s young uncle David, a young man in his early 20s with two jobs and and a small flat. He helps out his sister by occasionally picking up Amanda from school and joining in days out. Sandrine and David have long since ‘lost’ their own mother who left to live in London when David was a small child. This has perhaps helped to create stronger bonds between uncle and niece.

Spoiler warning: It’s impossible to discuss the film without revealing the major disruptive incident in the narrative, so don’t read on if you want to approach the film cold – but please come back after you’ve seen it!

David with Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb) – a happy scene in her kitchen. But is she a little precarious in front of that open window?

Having established the daily routines of this trio and introducing the possibility of a romance for David with the arrival in Paris of Léna, a musician and piano teacher from the Dordogne, co-writer and director Mikhaël Hers then introduces tragedy when Sandrine goes to an early evening picnic in the park after arranging a sitter for Amanda. David is late as usual because of his job meeting new tenants for his seemingly dubious landlord boss. As he cycles to meet Sandrine, Hers brilliantly introduces a sense of something uncanny, something not quite right – the streets suddenly become deserted and the traffic melts away. In the park, David comes across the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Sandrine is dead and Léna is injured.

Stacy Martin as Léna

As several reviewers have pointed out, Hers doesn’t attempt to recreate the horror of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice in 2015 and 2016. Instead he focuses on the impact on David and how he must struggle not only with loss but also with his role in the future for Amanda and possibly for Léna. It takes time for David to realise the predicament he faces. He does have an aunt, his mother’s sister lives not far away, and she is supportive but not perhaps the long-term guardian for Amanda. David is a ‘man-child’ and now he must grow up. Should he finally try to find his mother in London? He had vowed not to but he had agreed to go with Sandrine and Amanda to to watch the tennis at Wimbledon in the June. And what of Léna who he has just got to know?

The script, co-written with Maud Ameline, works well to convey the process of grieving and coming to terms with both loss and the need to keep going and look forward. The performances are very good, especially by Vincent Lacoste as David and Isaure Multrier as Amanda. He is already an experienced actor with a strong presence. I was convinced I’d seen him before, but I don’t recognise any titles in his filmography. He has a screen presence that somehow seems familiar. Isaure Multrier had not acted professionally in a feature before yet she gives a naturalistic performance which, to repeat an old cliché, demonstrates how much better most child performers in Europe are compared to those in Hollywood. Stacy Martin and Ophélia Kolb have less to do as Léna and Sandrine but they are very well cast and make the most of their opportunities. The real surprise for me was Great Scacchi as David’s mother in London. At first I didn’t recognise her, but her vitality and spirit soon identified her. Perhaps she will now be the ‘go to’ English actor who can speak fluent French, allowing her to take over from Charlotte Rampling or Kristin Scott-Thomas? Having said that, I found her French easier to follow so perhaps it was important that the script introduced her as teaching French in London?

Doesn’t need a caption?

I would agree with several other reviewers that one of the strengths of the film is the cinematography by Sébastien Buchmann and location scouting. In the Press Pack, Hers is asked about this:

In your film, Paris is very luminous but never touristy . . .

That was important to me. I wanted to avoid any neighborhood too closely associated with a particular social group. I wanted to film cross-cultural Paris, regular Paris, daily Paris—a city everyone can relate to. It’s fabulous to weave fictional characters into the fabric of reality, to immerse that tiny bubble of fiction in an environment that just gets on with daily life. I would have liked to go even further but, unfortunately, it’s increasingly difficult to film in Paris and blend in with the crowd. 

I think Hers is successful in doing this and Amanda becomes one of those films that capture a form of street life in Paris very well, much like some of the early New Wave directors such as Truffaut and Rohmer. The Press Pack also includes a discussion about melodrama and Hers says that he felt that he pushed it towards “the cusp of melodrama”:

There is this prism of a tragedy that is both personal and collective. I wanted to make a film that is restrained while also taking risks and trying to make it as shareable as possible.

Many commentators have clearly been very moved by the film. Emotional responses to films are personal and though I was certainly engaged and moved by the events and the portrayal of the characters, I didn’t feel as overwhelmed as some. A little distance is by no means a bad thing in thinking about how someone might deal with the tragedy that faces David, especially given his circumstances. Everything in this film worked for me except perhaps the closing scenes at the tennis match. But then I don’t judge a film on how it ends but rather on what it explores and uncovers over 90 minutes. I would recommend Amanda as a film to see – if you can find it (it’s a Curzon release so should be online). I should also mention the music by Anton Sanko – and do stay for the Jarvis Cocker song over the final credits.

La belle époque (France 2019)

Victor and Marianne – the mise en scène makes the contrast clear

There was a time when French films were released in the UK on a regular basis, sometimes as often as one a fortnight. Now they are much rarer and when they do get a release it is only for a few single screenings. I made sure I caught this one on one of its four Bradford appearances last week. La belle époque is a starry romantic comedy that ought to draw healthy audiences. It opened on in the UK on 22nd November on just 23 screens. We did try to see it in London on the second weekend but the cinema was so small (the 2nd screen at the Lumière in South Kensington) that it was sold out. No problems for an afternoon screening in Bradford.

Written and directed by Nicolas Bedos, this is a film which brings together elements of quite a few well-known films and genres. The central idea is that for a large sum of money an individual could be offered the opportunity to relive a particular event in his or her past (or an earlier historical event if they want to be present at an important moment in history). It isn’t an offer of time travel. Instead a company will build an authentic set and cast actors carefully to play the roles of significant characters. The whole event is then ‘directed’ live.

Victor shaves his beard and wears a 70s outfit to get into role

Margot (Doria Tillier) plays Marianne in the reconstruction

Daniel Auteuil plays Victor, a man in his late 60s seemingly ‘left behind’ by his wife Marianne, a leading psychiatrist (played by Fanny Ardant), and now generally at odds with the contemporary world of social media and high tech gadgetry. Victor is a graphic artist who seems to have almost given up the prospect of getting published again even though his son runs a publishing company. As a birthday present, Victor’s son wants to give his father a treat and he arranges an event to be re-created by his childhood friend Antoine (Guillaume Canet) the owner-director of the company. Victor decides to accept the offer (he once helped Antoine when he was a boy) and selects his first meeting with Marianne at a small café bar in Lyon in 1974. He even provides sketches of what happened on the day. The ‘re-enactment’ company then build a set in a Paris studio space and Victor takes the plunge. What happens next ‘on set’ and ‘behind the scenes’ then provides the entertainment for a narrative of nearly two hours. We (a couple who met at the roughly the same time in the 1970s) certainly found it an engaging and enjoyable ride. I should point out, however, that the opening scene of the film plunges the audience straight into a re-enactment and a violent incident that isn’t really in tune with the rest of the film. But it soon becomes clear what is happening.

Antoine directs the re-enactment

The film pivots around ideas drawn from both romantic comedy and science fiction/fantasy. The scenario is reminiscent of both The Truman Show (US 1998) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (US 2004). Both of these films have elements of comedy and romance. They also both star Jim Carrey but I’m not sure if that is relevant. Victor isn’t unaware like Truman that he is ‘playing’ in a re-creation and he doesn’t need his memories to be messed about by technology like Carrey’s character in Eternal Sunshine – though I need to think about that a bit more. The third film that sprang to mind was the rather different Ghost World (2001). The connection here is the idea of the graphic novel. In Ghost World the central character played by Thora Birch is a would be graphic artist whose sketches lead her to meet a man in a bar-restaurant played by Steve Buscemi. Ghost World is written by Daniel Clowes, a graphic novelist who has provided scripts for several films. Although these connections are all American, Sunshine was directed by Michel Gondry and graphic novels are as important in France (as bandes dessinées) as they are in the US. I thought I hadn’t come across writer-director Nicolas Bedos before but now I realise I have seen him as an actor (e.g. in Populaire, France-Belgium 2012). Populaire now seems an interesting touchstone for this new film. Bedos has also been a TV comedy/satire star and his first film as writer-director was Mrs Adelman (France 2017). It wasn’t released in the UK as far as I can see. He starred in it with his partner Doria Tillier and she is also in this new film as Margo, the actor playing Marianne in the reconstruction and the real ex-partner of Antoine the director. I don’t need to spoil the plot, I’m sure you can see that we have two relationships and that they will get entangled in some way.

Doria Tillier and Fanny Ardant promoting the film

Bedos is clearly interested in ‘intertextuality’ – i.e. referencing specific films as well as broader genres. But he also has sub-texts he wants to explore such as critiquing a nostalgia for the 1970s that has developed under Macron (from the Press Notes). On the other hand, he does want to explore the visual images of the 1970s which he clearly finds appealing in various ways. There is quite a lot of 1970s (American) pop music in the film as well. We certainly enjoyed the film but it may be that my knowledge of 1970s France gained via movies of the time is not very accurate – I wasn’t aware that the drug-taking, ‘free love’ and hippiedom was as pronounced in France as it was in the US. In the UK outside parts of Central London it seemed more subdued to me. The four principals are all very good and I was especially impressed by Doria Tillier who has real presence. But I also enjoyed another chance to see Fanny Ardant, an actor I’ve come to appreciate more over the last few years. Daniel Auteil still has his star power and La belle époque de-throned The Joker at the French box office earlier in November. I’m not sure what younger audiences will make of it, but it entertained us and did make us think of a time when nobody had phones to stare into and had to talk to their partners in restaurants. There are still a few UK dates for the film and it will be on VOD soon.

LFF 2019 #13: Zombi Child (France 2019)

Fanny (left) and Mélissa wearing their sashes during the school day

This film was in the LFF programme but I watched it at home on MUBI. The streaming service is making three titles from LFF available for streaming. Zombi Child appeared in the festival’s ‘Dare’ section, a decision I find completely baffling. The French auteur Bertrand Bonello is a director whose name I recognise but whose films have had a relatively low profile in UK distribution. I remember the releases of a couple of his earlier films but I didn’t get to see them. I’m not sure if Zombi Child is typical of his work but it is certainly an interesting and intriguing film which I enjoyed. MUBI also has an earlier title from him which I will consider watching.

Clairvius on the mountains in Haiti

The film’s title uses a mixture of English and Haitian French. This is because Bonello wished to go back to the original meaning of ‘zombi’ and to try to avoid the American conception of ‘zombie’. The difference as I understand it is that ‘zombification’ is the process by which a person can be put into a trance-like state, losing any sense of personal will and therefore proving an effective slave worker in the plantation fields. In this instance a man in Haiti in 1962 (the character ‘Clairvius Narcisse‘ is based on a real person whose case was discussed in the 1980s) is zombified using dangerous toxins and buried alive but unconscious. Later he emerges from his grave and joins the workers in the cane fields. What happens to this figure becomes one of the two parallel narratives in the film. The other one deals with a teenage girl from Haiti who is a new arrival at a girls boarding school in Saint-Denis near Paris. Mélissa (Wislanda Louimatis the daughter of a woman who died in the Haitian earthquake of 2010. The school (the real school was used for 12 days of location shooting) was set up by Napoleon Bonaparte and opened in 1812 as a Maison d’éducation de la Légion d’honneur, educating the children of holders of the award. Mélissa’s mother was a recipient of la Légion d’honneur for civil duties in Haiti. Mélissa makes friends with a small group of her fellow students, all studying for the Baccalauréat. The girls have a form of secret society and Mélissa is initiated when she tells the group a ‘personal secret’ about life in Haiti. Mélissa has an aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort), her mother’s sister, who lives in Paris.

Eventually it becomes clear that a second girl is also important. This is Fanny (Louise Labeque). She was the one who invited Mélissa to join the group. She has, or perhaps had, a boyfriend who she sees in her dreams, a beautiful bare-chested, long haired young man called Pablo (Sayyid El Alami). His name suggests a Spanish young man or possibly a Roma. The actor’s name suggests a Maghrebi. Either way it doesn’t matter, he is an ‘exotic other’ as a partner for Fanny. Fanny is an adventurous young woman and her actions will lead to an overwrought conclusion to the narrative.

The key to the narrative enigma – who is Mélissa and what does she represent? – comes, according to critics, when the first cross-cut comes from Haiti in the 1960s to the school ‘today’ (Bonello helpfully provides dates on screen). The girls are in a beautiful spacious classroom listening to a history lecture. The lecturer is actually a well-known French historian, Patrick Boucheron, and his lecture discusses the image of France from the end of the 18th century, associated with ‘Revolution’, the subsequent history of ‘liberalism’ in the 19th century and the way that France would be accused by its colonised peoples. I confess that I didn’t read the subtitles very carefully so this scene didn’t stay with me as perhaps the director intended. What I saw was a very traditional pedagogy, lecturing a group of 15-16 year-old girls, some of whom were attentive, some bored and some like Fanny, obviously distracted. Something similar happened in a later scene in a Literature class – no engagement by the teacher with the students. But still, I did get the connection because I knew that Haiti was the first French colony and the first slave colony anywhere to rebel in the 12 year war which saw Toussaint Louverture deliver the first ‘Black Republic’ in 1804.

Bertrand Bonello (far right) next to Yves Cape on set for a night-time shoot in the school

In the Press Notes, Bonello discusses several aspects of the production, revealing that the budget was €1.5 million which is low for a French production, especially given the several trips for preparing and shooting in Haiti. Shooting was completed in four weeks, three in the school and Paris suburbs and a week in Haiti with no extra lighting and a skeleton crew. I think the results are remarkable and this certainly doesn’t look like a low budget film. I was particularly impressed by the Haitian footage. I don’t know Haiti at all, but the imagery was evocative of other parts of the Caribbean that are more familiar. The Haiti images also provide a link to Claire Denis, whose White Material (2009) was also shot by Yves Cape. I made this connection while watching the film and confirmed it later. There is a fascinating piece on the website of the French cinematographers’ website AFC in which Cape explains how he shot the film using “a RED Monstro with a set of Summilux lenses”. He explains how he coped with the lack of artificial lighting, trying to produce the most detailed 5K or 6K image which could then be cropped and manipulated in post-production. We often have debates on this blog about projection prints of digital film. I’m not sure if what I saw on MUBI was 2K or 4K but it looked very good. The possible supernatural aspects of the film and the overall theme also linked the film to Mati Diop’s Atlantique, also in the festival with review to come.

The washroom scene

One of the intriguing aspects of the film is the mixture of different genre forms. The two parallel narrative might be seen as informed by the specific sub-genre of the girls’ boarding school (Yves Cape comments that this was very much in mind for the scene in the washroom) and the Haitian narrative draws on the history of both colonial melodramas and supernatural/horror stories. Bonello tells us that he did indeed re-watch Jacques Tourneur’s fabulous I Walked With a Zombie, the Val Lewton production from 1943. In his AFC piece, Yves Cape suggests that Bonello also moves between “ethnological documentary, historical recreation and fiction”. I think it is an achievement to meld all these different forms in such a way as to produce a coherent single narrative. The last part of the film is a challenge, when the two separate narratives come together. I’m still not sure exactly what happens and what the resolution actually means. Bonello himself suggests that the whole Haitian narrative might simply be how Mélissa imagines how the memories and stories from her childhood might be put together. But that doesn’t explain what might be in Fanny’s head!

As well as the cinematography and imaginative use of locations, the film stands or falls on the performances of the four leads. The two young women were both found through open casting for five moths and Wislanda Louimat actually came to France from Haiti when she was 7. Katiana Milfort was found in Haiti and so was Mackenson Bijou, who plays Clairvius. All the Haitians had some kind of experience of performance, singing or dancing on stage. The music in the film is also important. I hadn’t heard of Damso, who I understand is a Belgian-Congolese rapper but what truly knocked me back was to have Liverpool’s football anthem, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by Gerry and the Pacemakers, close the narrative. But then I thought about the song’s original role in Carousel (1954) and it made a certain sort of sense. If you have access to MUBI in the UK, do try and watch Zombi Child. 

Here’s the trailer. Beware it delivers SPOILERS that I’ve been careful not to divulge. You have been warned!

LFF 2019 #3: The Valley (Italy-France 2019)

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Doing the right thing

lfflogo2019 Portuguese director Nuno Escudeiro has made an affecting documentary set in the Roya and Durance Valleys on the France-Italy border. It’s primarily an observational work so we learn about the situation through characters’ interactions and occasionally their explanation of the situation to the director (but not directly the camera). For instance, one explains that the valleys, though in France, were part of Italy before World War II and the inhabitants don’t feel they belong to either country. It’s a sort of liminal space into which Eritrean refugees try to seek asylum.

Legally, of course, they should be able to do so but the authorities also perceive the area to be a liminal space otherwise why would they suspend due legal process? This is a naive question as police are often happy to contravene the law especially when told to do so. We learn most from Cedric, one of the leaders of local people who try to right the wrong done to the refugees who are often plonked back over the border into Italy without due process. Children often find, on official paperwork, that their birthdate is 1st January 2000 meaning they have suddenly become adult so can be dealt with particularly poorly. Such cynical corruption is indicative of the way those portrayed as Other are often treated.

As to the refugees themselves, there’s only one scene when we get to hear their voices directly. Even then we don’t get to know who they are, or from what they are fleeing, rather we are informed about their generalised sense of trauma. Whilst the absence of their voices is an obvious omission, it would be unfair to be too critical as Escudeiro’s purpose is clearly to tell the local heroes’ stories and he does this successfully. These people bear witness to the wrong and do what they can to set it right.

In recent news Turkey’s president Erdoğan threatened to allow 3.5 million Syrian refugees into Europe if there was any attempt to interfere with his restarted, courtesy of Trump, war on the Kurds. The morality of using people as a bargaining chip, never mind the fact they are desperate, is unspeakable. So Escudeiro’s film is important in reminding us human’s humanity to humans in a world where examples of inhumanity are too numerous to mention. Bearing witness to the terrible treatment of refugees is necessary so we don’t feel that such behaviour can be normalised.