Category: French Cinema

Les innocentes (France-Poland 2015)

les-innocentes

Les innocentes (previously titled ‘Agnus Dei’) proved to be a rather different film than I expected. I didn’t really have any expectations other than having enjoyed director Anne Fontaine’s earlier films such as Gemma Bovery (France 2014) and Coco avant Chanel (France 2009) and I wasn’t expecting such a powerful and deeply moving film. I found it harrowing but also deeply humanist as well as sensitive in dealing with issues of faith. It’s based on the experiences of a historical character – a French doctor who had worked with the Resistance in Paris in 1944 and risen to the rank of ‘Lieutenant Doctor’. In 1945 she became the chief doctor in the French Hospital in Warsaw, in charge of repatriation of French citizens who had been prisoners of war or wounded in Poland and the Soviet Union. Madeleine Pauliac led a team of female ambulance drivers, the ‘Blue Squadron’, searching for the soldiers who would her patients and this is how she came across the incidents developed in the film. In 1946 she died accidentally during her work. Her nephew, Philippe Maynial, was the source of this historical account which was then developed by a team of writers including Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial as well as the director Anne Fontaine and Pascal Bonitzer.

A baby delivered by Mathilde (Lou de Laage)

A baby delivered by Mathilde (Lou de Laâge)

The film narrative focuses on Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who is younger than Madeleine and an assistant rather than the doctor in charge (and therefore more vulnerable). One day in December 1945 she is working in the hospital when a Benedictine nun is brought to her by one of the street children. The novice wants a doctor to visit the convent but Mathilde tries to shoo her away because she is only supposed to treat French citizens. When she reflects on her decision she decides to go to the convent anyway and is shocked to discover a nun in the last stages of labour and a difficult birth. Eventually she will realise that several of the nuns are pregnant following repeated rapes by Red Army soldiers. She has entered the convent secretly because the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) would not approve of her presence but once inside she meets Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) who speaks French fluently and acts as her interpreter and guide. Mathilde now finds herself doubly ‘disobedient’ – absenting herself from the hospital and entering the convent. She will later also find herself confronted with a group of Red Army soldiers on the dark road out to the convent in the by the forest outside the town. But there is no way back once Mathilde is committed. She can’t allow women and children to die in the circumstances she discovers.

Mathilde with Maria (Agneta Buzek) and the Mother Superior (Agneta

Mathilde with Maria (Agata Buzek, left) and the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza, centre)

Mathilde with Samuel (Vincent Macaigne)

Mathilde with Samuel (Vincent Macaigne)

What follows is a drama that develops the conflict between faith, humanity and practicality that underpins Mathilde’s battle with the Mother Superior and individual pregnant nuns in the face of further contact with the Russians and Mathilde’s issues with her superiors. A parallel narrative follows Mathilde’s growing relationship with another doctor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne) – a Jewish man who lost his parents in the camps while he was overseas with the Free French. At first, I thought this might be a step too far in adding another layer to the complexity of the central story but it won me over.

One of the painterly compositions

One of the painterly compositions

There is an excellent Press Kit for the film available from Films Distribution and some of the following comments are drawn from it.

The look of the film and the overall tone of the story is measured and astutely handled. Veteran cinematographer Caroline Champetier does an excellent job. She also shot the similarly themed but very differently located Of Gods and Men (France 2010). The setting is very distinctive with the isolated convent (a ‘real’ abandoned convent) set close to woods and snow-covered fields, the nuns in their blue and white habits and the shadows inside the convent. Anne Fontaine describes the look in these terms:

We wanted to give the impression of being in a painting – we were thinking, naturally, of the Quattrocentro period Madonna with Child paintings – while breathing life and movement into the scenes. The air had to be palpable.

This is a setting little changed from the Middle Ages suddenly disrupted by the arrival of khaki-clad men and women in jeeps and trucks. Anne Fontaine has constructed a narrative that moves effortlessly through dramatic confrontations, intimate scenes births and deaths and scenes of contemplation and prayer. I found the film’s 115 minutes sped by and I was reluctant to let it go when the credits rolled.

Praise must go to Anne Fontaine and her collaborators in a genuinely successful co-production. In must have been difficult to work for much of the time in a foreign language (and I note that quite a few discussions on set were conducted in English as a shared language for many actors and crew). She chose very well in casting two of Polish cinema’s most accomplished performers in Agata Buzek and Agata Kulesza. I always find convent-set stories slightly problematic since so many distinguishing features (hair, neck and shoulders) are covered. Both the lead actresses were familiar to me but couldn’t place them. Later I realised that Agata Kulesza gave a stellar performance as the judge and aunt of the novice nun in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) and that Agata Buzek was the lead in Rewers (Poland 2009), both great films. Lou de Laâge as Mathilde is one of the rising stars of French (and European) Cinema. In one or two scenes I wondered if she looked impossibly beautiful for a doctor under stress but Anne Fontaine comments about her:

She is graced with a strong, distinctive beauty. I sensed that this grace, combined with her slightly stubborn side, along with her freshness and a fragility that lie just beneath the surface, would well serve the film.

That seems a good call. I’d finally add that the music in the film which included Handel and Rossini alongside chants by Hildegard von Bingen is beautifully integrated with a score by Grégoire Hetzel which as, Anne Fontaine suggests, is minimal and never overwhelms a film that feels intimate and natural.

Les valseuses (France 1974)

Depardieu et Dewaere

Depardieu et Dewaere

Watching this film more than 40 years after it was made was a strange experience. I sought it out because it features an early appearance by Isabelle Huppert – but she has only a small part and it occurs in the last section of the film. After the first 20 minutes or so I was wondering whether I could stand watching it all the way through, but gradually it became easier to watch.

Les valseuses was written and directed by Bertrand Blier (born 1939) who had also written the novel from which the script was adapted. It tells the story of two ‘ne’er do wells’ who turn to stealing cars and whatever cash they can find in their travels around France. They are young men in their 20s played by Gérard Depardieu (‘Jean-Claude’) and Patrick Dewaere (‘Pierrot’) and worse than their crime spree is their treatment of women – sexual assault, violence and a complete lack of respect. The film is explicit in depictions of their behaviour with a succession of women but it is Miou-Miou as Marie-Ange who bears the brunt of it, playing a seemingly submissive woman prepared to put up with virtually any treatment in the first half of the film when she is revealed as unable to orgasm despite the best efforts of the two would be studs. She seems to accept her treatment as in some way ‘normal’ and that’s almost more shocking than the violence of their assaults on her. The film’s title has been variously translated as ‘Making It‘ (UK) or ‘Going Places‘ (US) – neither of which make much sense. The slang meaning of the title is ‘testicles’ or in plain Anglo-Saxon, ‘balls’. This might refer to the first action in the film when Pierrot is shot with the bullet grazing his groin and requiring stitches – or it could simply refer to the two men.

It’s worth remembering that in the mid-1970s French cinema was heading towards the domination of the local industry by sex films and there is plenty of nudity (female and male) and explicit sexual activity. In fact, the film was not granted a certificate by the BBFC in the UK in 1975 and was only seen in London where it had a GLC (Greater London Council) viewing licence. (It was re-released in the 1990s as an ’18’). In the US this might have been one of the films which gave French films the dubious reputation of excessive nudity and explicit sex. Roger Ebert suggested it was:

” . . . the most misogynistic movie I can remember; its hatred of women is palpable and embarrassing. There are laughs in it, yes, but how could anyone take this as a comedy?

Its story involves two loutish, brutal and unclean young men . . . I guess they’re supposed to come off as pathetic anti-heroes, driven to their cretinism out of terminal ennui.”

Several critics followed this line and sought to align the film (not necessarily favourably) with earlier films like The Wild One (US 1953) as devised to shock the bourgeoisie. I’m not sure that this is the case. I suspect that Blier was trying to make something ‘counter-cultural’ but that he was too heavily ‘marked’ at the time by sexist ideologies. I certainly didn’t mind the nudity or the sex in the film, though I flinched at the sexual violence. And I have to admit that despite their actions the two young men do have a certain kind of charm – which is perhaps even more disturbing. Depardieu in particular is young (25) and slim and has ‘dangerous charisma’. In fact this is the film that made him a star. It registered 5.5 million admissions in France and was a big hit. It’s worth reflecting that films in which men mistreat women have historically sometimes been popular with female audiences (James Mason’s films in the UK in the late 1940s offer examples).

Miou-Miou and Isabelle Huppert

Miou-Miou and Isabelle Huppert

What is to me extraordinary is the way in which the film begins to change halfway through when the two men wait outside a women’s prison and offer a ride to a woman being released (on the grounds that she will be looking for some kind of sexual release). She’s played by Jeanne Moreau, a major star of French cinema. An earlier sequence on a train sees an unusual form of sexual assault on a woman played by Brigitte Fossey, another leading actor of the time. It does seem strange that alongside Miou-Miou and Huppert, Blier could attract actresses to roles like these. However, as I’ve suggested, Moreau’s appearance seems to change the men’s behaviour, if only in the sense that they begin to allow the women to take more of the initiative. Jean-Claude is particularly gentle with her. Later when the men return to Marie-Ange she appears to have a change in self-awareness. Towards the end of the film the trio meet Isabelle Huppert’s Jacqueline who is a 16 year-old on holiday with her parents (Huppert was actually 20 – Miou-Miou was 22). Jacqueline is desperate to get away from her bourgeois family and to lose her virginity. The trio treat her almost tenderly. So, sexist thugs are human too.

To go back to Ebert, is this film a comedy? There are certainly comedic moments and as per the change of tone in the second half, when Jean-Claude and Pierrot throw Marie-Ange in the canal it is more in celebration than an act of violence towards her. But two people die in the film – and not in a way to imply ‘black comedy’. Miou-Miou and Patrick Dawaere had begun their careers as founding members of a Paris acting troupe at Café de la Gare in 1968 and became lovers. (Depardieu also worked there at some point.) All three leads received a boost from the success of Les valseuses, but I find Miou-Miou’s ‘bravery’ (‘recklessness’) the most striking feature of the film. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ the film but I think I learned a lot about a period of French cinema that I know less well than I should.

Cézanne et moi (France 2016)

cezanne-et-moi

Guillaume Gallienne (left) as Paul Cézanne and Guillaume Canet as Émile Zola

This biopic about the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and the novelist Émile Zola is part of the ’24th French Film Festival’ with screenings across a range of venues in Scotland and England between November 3rd and December 7th. Primarily a Scottish affair, this festival makes us in England very envious, but also grateful for the opportunity to catch one or two titles. Cézanne et moi played at Hebden Bridge Picture House which also screened The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge).

French cinema deals with ‘heritage’ topics much like British cinema with adaptations of literary texts and historical dramas and this biopic fits the pattern of 19th century dramas – strong on surface realism and ‘authenticity’. It is beautifully photographed by the experienced Jean-Marie Dreujou and writer-director Danièle Thompson has assembled a mainly female creative team who do an excellent job on set design, costumes, make-up etc. Thompson herself has a long track record as a scriptwriter and this is her sixth directing role after some fifty years in the industry. Her earlier scripts for historical dramas include La reine Margot (1994) and a well-received TV adaptation of Stendahl’s Le rouge et le noir (1997). My overall impression is that this latest film is a conventional biopic in terms of its structure.

I went into the screening with relatively little knowledge of the details of the lives of either Cézanne or Zola and though I recognised the names of many of the other characters, I could not claim any real knowledge of the ‘community’ of artists or writers in 19th century France. As a result, I was engaged by the film mainly because I was learning about these interesting artists (and as far as I can see the film is historically accurate, though some manipulation of dates her and there may have been necessary to create a satisfactory narrative structure). On the other hand, I did struggle to recognise characters and with more prior knowledge I might have got more out of the ways in which the differences between the two men are presented. In the simplest terms, Zola suffered from the early death of his engineer father and struggled for money as a young man but eventually became a best-selling writer and a wealthy man. By contrast, Cézanne’s family was wealthy and he received an allowance as a young man before inheriting the family fortune in later life, yet he struggled to sell his paintings during his lifetime and it was not until after his death that his genius was fully recognised by the artists of the early 20th century.

The casting decision about the two leads intrigued me. Cézanne is played by Guillaume Gallienne who is billed as a member of the Comédie-Française. Although I have seen him before in some of his many film roles, this still makes me think of him as first a theatre player. Guillaume Canet who plays Zola is, I would argue, a French film star (and director). In this film, though both players were very good, I did feel that Gallienne ‘inhabited’ Cézanne as a character, whereas Canet did seem to ‘acting’ in his performance. These were just my impressions and they may have more to do with the nature of Cézanne and Zola as characters. The film’s title implies that the narrative offers Zola’s view of Cézanne. I’m not sure the narration has that emphasis, though it is certainly Cézanne who is the principal focus in the latter stages. But then, it often seems that the process of painting is more amenable to representation on screen than that of writing. But it does mean that we learn more about Cézanne’s attempts to capture the landscapes of Provence, portraits and still life compositions – whereas we see little of Zola’s inspiration for his realist/naturalist novels.

Zola and Cézanne first met as boys in Provence in the early 1850s when Zola’s father was an engineer on a large dam. They were re-united in Paris as young men and remained friends until the late 1880s and the publication of Zola’s novel L’œuvre in 1886 which tells the story of an artist who struggles to paint the great picture which will be seen as worthy of his genius. The suggestion is that Cézanne found the character to be too close to his own experience and that it implied he had failed as an artist. Thompson moves between the various periods of the relationship between the two men and I do wonder if a tighter focus would have made for a more effective narrative (with possibly more about Zola’s work).

Despite its focus on the two men, Danièle Thompson also develops the roles for the women in their lives and I enjoyed the performances of Déborah François as Hortense, Sabine Azéma as Cézanne’s mother and Alice Pol as Zola’s wife Alexandrine. As yet there isn’t a trailer with English subs, but you can get some sense of the visual style of the film and the central performances in this bande annonce:

Mercenary (Mercenaire, France 2016)

Soane (Toki Pilioko) and his younger brother on his home island

Soane (Toki Pilioko) and his younger brother on his home island

Mercenaire is the first fiction feature by writer-director Sacha Wolff. While it isn’t anything very unusual in terms of narrative structure or presentation, it scores heavily in introducing a new world for many filmgoers. This is a family drama and sports drama set in the context of post-colonial/neo-colonial French society. The central character Soane is an 18 year-old living in the Wallis Islands, an ‘overseas collectivity’ of France often considered to be part of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. One day he is spotted playing rugby (union) by ‘Abraham’, an agent who plans to ‘sell’ him to a French semi-pro rugby team and thence to take 10% of what he earns. Soane isn’t sure about this arrangement but he needs to escape from his abusive father and he duly sets off for France. But when he arrives the French ‘collecting’ club decide he is too small (though to most of us, like many players from the islands, he seems like a colossus). All Soane can do is to seek out a cousin and join a more desperate club who pay him peanuts but also find him a part-time job. Now he has his father and Abraham (who paid for his airline ticket) as enemies while he struggles to make a new life. How will it all be resolved?

The two generic repertoires provide the narrative with some familiar elements, but there is enough different/unusual material to make this a worthwhile watch and the central performance by Toki Pilioko, a genuine Wallis Islander, is a standout. As the director points out in a Cineuropa interview, most people in France have little or no knowledge of New Caledonia. Soane is therefore treated as an immigrant and his teammates assume he is a Maori and call him an ‘All Black’ (a New Zealand international rugby player). Because of French colonial policy, New Caledonia is part of Metropolitan France and Soane speaks French. He does find himself in a multinational team however. One of the pros is a 35 year-old Georgian, forced to keep playing in the fourth tier (?) of French rugby in order to send money home. These ‘imports’ are treated very badly – paid little and forced to take illegal supplements to add weight and muscle. In a sense they are treated like cattle, similarly pumped with drugs. One ironic consequence of bringing in islanders to act as beefy props is that Soane appreciates one of the local young women who hangs round the team. She sees herself as a ‘fatty’, but Soane thinks she’s beautiful.

I think the family drama is there to broaden the appeal of the sports drama. It is interesting as a narrative but I would have liked a bit more about semi-pro rugby as a business and a culture. The hot bed for rugby in France is the South-West and that’s where the film seems to be set. There is also a semi-pro rugby league structure in the region and I wonder whether this has the same problems with exploitation of islanders. Rugby league in the UK has recruited players from the islands (Fiji, Samoa, Tonga) and I don’t know if they are subject to the same kinds of racist colonialist attitudes. Most Pacific Islanders join teams in Australia or New Zealand and that is another story, beyond my knowledge. Sacha Wolff in his interview says he doesn’t know any other rugby films. Someone should introduce him to This Sporting Life (UK 1963), Lindsay Anderson’s classic British film in which a young miner (Richard Harris) is recruited by the owner of a professional rugby league team precisely because he demonstrates ‘spirit and aggression’ – something Soane has to learn both on the field and off it. More sporting dramas around these kinds of stories would be welcome. I’m not sure if Mercenaire will get any kind of international distribution, but I would recommend it.

Original French trailer:

Excerpt dealing with Soane’s arrival in France (with English subs):

French TV clip with a report on the whole issue of recruiting Polynesians into French rugby.