Category: French Cinema

The Vanishing (Spoorloos, Netherlands-France-West Germany 1988)

Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) and Rex (Gene Bervoets) when they first arrive at the rest-stop

Confession time – when I booked for this film at the Leeds International Film Festival, I thought it was Vanishing Point (US 1971)! It’s all part of the fun of festivals. Sometimes you go to a screening just because you are already at the cinema and you don’t have to be anywhere else. In this case, I’m glad I made the mistake as I enjoyed the film which I didn’t see on its release. I did eventually remember something about both this film and its Hollywood remake by the same Dutch director – but with a stupid change to the film’s resolution.

The Vanishing is a psychological thriller built around an initial frightening occurrence and then a mystery with a psychological underpinning. I’ve seen comments that this is a very scary/frightening film. I’m not sure it is ‘scary’ but it is disturbing, entertaining and intriguing and the ending is definitely not to be revealed in case there are others like me who haven’t already seen it. The Vanishing has been re-released in the UK as part of the BFI Thriller touring season and there is a little mystery attached to the release. In 1990, the first UK release was given a ’12’ certificate. A year later the video was certificated as ’15’ and all subsequent releases have been ’15’s. The new DCP release for cinemas is 13 seconds longer than the 1990 release (the video timings have all differed by a minute or two). Is there something in those 13 seconds of real significance? It is unusual for a film to be re-classified upwards in this way.

The film narrative begins with a young couple looking forward to cycling in France during the time of the Tour de France. They drive down from Amsterdam with their bikes on the roof. They seem deeply in love but soon have a tiff before quickly making up. At a rest-stop near the city of Nîmes in Languedoc they become separated when Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) goes to the shop to buy drinks and doesn’t return. Rex (Gene Bervoets) soon becomes frantic but he can’t get the police to do anything immediately and Saskia seems to have just disappeared.

Raymonde (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu)

In the second part of the film the narrative seemingly moves forward and Rex has moved into a new relationship. But he can’t forget Saskia and he still makes visits back to Nîmes looking for traces of her. During this period we are introduced to Raymonde (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) who we suspect might be the cause of Saskia’s disappearance or might at least know something about it. Much of the narrative information we get comes from what appear to be flashbacks. Eventually Raymonde and Rex will meet but I won’t reveal any more if you are going to watch the film for the first time.

The Vanishing sets up several interesting psychological challenges. The original novel by Tim Krabbé had the title The Golden Egg and this seems to refer to a dream that Rex has some time after Saskia’s disappearance and which he tells an interviewer is the same dream that Saskia had the night before she disappeared. In the dream the couple are together in outer space inside a golden egg. Rex has an obsession about finding Saskia which mirrors Raymonde’s darker obsession. Cycling and chess are two of Tim Krabbé’s interests and both feature in the film, the first as background and the second symbolically in the psychological struggle between Rex and Raymonde. Many films are said to draw on Hitchcock but I think The Vanishing has a real claim to do so effectively. Strangers on a Train and Marnie are two different titles that seem to share some elements with Krabbé’s novel and the film by George Sluizer.

Rex and Raymonde are playing a game which feeds both their obsessions – but Raymonde knows more than Rex

Sluizer was born in France but as far as I can see spent his working life in the Netherlands. I was struck by this co-production which indeed did seem both French and Dutch with an interesting language exchange involving Saskia trying to speak French. The two locations feel different and so do the actors. Raymonde reminded me of characters in several French films, not just with his mysterious obsession, but also because of the insights into his childhood and his relationship with his family. We learn a lot less about Rex’s background. This means there are ‘holes’ in the plot. For instance, why is no one concerned about Saskia’s disappearance – doesn’t she have parents, siblings? That would complicate things of course. Raymonde’s family (two daughters) serves a double function. First, it enables him to develop some techniques and test out ideas on his wife and daughters in a seemingly innocent way and secondly his status as a loving family man to some extent diverts suspicion from him as a sociopath. All three lead actors are very good but I was fascinated by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu and surprised that I haven’t seen him in other films.

Jeff Bridges as the Raymonde character and Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock as the couple feature in the remake which flopped. When will they ever learn? Never of course, because on some occasions it works (The Ring/Ringu?) and makes a lot of money. Keeping the same director means nothing if the producers have specific ideas for the American market. The Dutch original seems like a valid re-release for the UK and I hope a lot of young people are disturbed by the film (and have fun with it too).

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Un flic (A Cop, France-Italy 1972)

Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon) and Cathy (Catherine Deneuve)

Jean-Pierre Melville was one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation and a major influence on those who followed. A retrospective of much of his work was shown in New York earlier this year where Keith was able to see three films and in a BFI touring season in the UK a few months later. I couldn’t get to any of these screenings in Melville’s centenary year but I have finally managed to get hold of his last film, Un flic from 1972 (he died in 1973).

The Optimum PAL DVD released in 2007 delivers a screen image that seemed a little ‘blue’ and washed out to me. DVD Beaver’s report suggests that this is likely to be an accurate presentation and certainly the tone of the film is suited to a ‘cold’ aesthetic. Melville’s crime films – polars in France – had a chequered history in UK distribution. Researching Un flic, I discovered that it was given a BBFC ‘X’ certificate as The Cop in July 1971 after unspecified cuts. The certificate went to Gala, yet the film wasn’t released in the UK until 1974 – in a dubbed version distributed by Columbia-Warner. There is a review by Tony Rayns in the September 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. The DVD offers a print in 1.85:1 ratio but IMDb suggests the original was 1.66.1. An alternative English title Dirty Money appeared on UK dubbed cinema prints and US DVD releases at a later date. Melville’s polars appeared in the UK when ‘popular’ European films were often dubbed and released through commercial ‘chain’ cinemas. What is now considered a ‘specialised film’ (or still ‘arthouse’ by some) like Un flic, in the 1960s and 1970s appeared in Odeons and ABCs alongside spaghetti Westerns, Italian horror and Scandinavian soft porn.

Simon (Richard Crenna) left, with Michael Conrad and Riccardo Cucciolla

Dirty Money is not a bad title for the film whereas Un flic is arguably misleading. Alain Delon (who featured as the criminal in Le samouraï (1967) and Le cercle rouge (1970)  for Melville) is this time the cop. His adversary is played by the American actor Richard Crenna (dubbed into French for the accent despite being able to speak French) and Cathy, the woman who has a relationship with both men, is played by Catherine Deneuve. Delon gets top billing but I suspect that Crenna has more screen time and it often feels like he is the focus of the narrative. Simon (Crenna) runs a Parisian night club but is planning two major robberies – the first to raise money to finance the second.

The narrative structure of the film is unusual. Melville offers us not one but two long robbery sequences and between them these take up a significant amount of the film’s running time. Neither of the two sequences could be described as ‘action-packed’ but they are both very well thought out and, by including every painstaking stage in the procedure, Melville is able to make them gripping. The opening bank robbery is being set up as the credits appear on screen. It’s set on the windswept promenade of a town in La Vendée on the Atlantic coast. Not a soul is in sight (it’s December and raining heavily) but when the robbers in coats and fedoras enter the BNP building on the corner there are several customers already being served just before the bank closes. The getaway from the robbery is quite novel. The cut from the deserted beachfront into the inviting bank interior signals the ‘artificial’ nature of the mise en scène. During the robbery Melville cuts away to central Paris where Commissaire Coleman is setting out on his evening shift and he gives a voiceover from his car about the tedium of his work. Meanwhile the robbers in an American Plymouth car exchange cars for a Mercedes during a clever getaway procedure.

The robbers approach the bank along the beachfront in Vendée

This artificiality is present in many of the scenes that follow. In one, Simon and Cathy leave the club in a car driving towards what looks suspiciously like a painted backdrop of a Paris street ahead. A cut then takes us into a Van Gogh street scene with the camera pulling back to reveal that the painting is in a gallery (the Louvre?) where three of the robbers are meeting. The gallery too appears to have a painted backdrop to represent an extension to the gallery space. I was amazed to realise that this Melville film made in 1971 vies with Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) as a cause celèbre of matte painting – and model work. When the second robbery occurs on a train, Simon is lowered onto the moving train from a helicopter and this is accomplished with a studio mock-up of the flying ‘chopper and models used extensively for the train and chopper shown in long shot. It is so obvious that you feel it must be deliberate and the crudity of the presentation clashes with sophistication of the script. (The sequence lasts around 20 minutes.) I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to sleep on a train again given the way that Crenna breaks into a locked apartment.

The same artificiality manifests itself differently in the performances of Delon and Deneuve in particular. Delon is almost expressionless in his scenes, a cold and deliberate law enforcer. Deneuve is in her immaculately coiffured ice maiden mode. Perhaps it is Crenna’s Hollywood background that makes him appear slightly warmer. One of the strongest elements of Melville’s polars is the relationship between the investigating lawman and the principal criminal. In Un flic the two characters are mirror images of each other – a situation compounded by their shared interest in Cathy.

The film begins with the quote above from Vidocq (1775-1857), the founder of the French national police force. The subtitles translate this as “Man has only ever inspired ambiguity and ridicule in a police officer”. So Coleman is shown as peremptory in his treatment of the routine cases brought to his attention and shows little emotion even when faced with the murder of an attractive young woman. Coleman seemingly treats everyone coldly (and this seems also true of his relationship with Cathy). The other two contacts that he makes are with a gay couple, an older man and an under-age youth who has attempted to steal a valuable sculpture, and with his own informer, a transgender character who is beautifully dressed and carefully made up. This person is treated badly by Coleman. Because Simon is a mirror image of Coleman, does this mean the flic is ambiguous about himself? Melville doesn’t give us any clues. It’s as if he wants to explore the terrain of the polar, drawing on its American cultural links, primarily in terms of its locales and mise en scène as well as its usual scenarios – the carefully planned crimes, the police procedures and the wordless communications about friendship and betrayal. Significantly, the key scene between Simon and Coleman is mainly about the eyes.

I need now to rewatch the earlier films, but for the moment I’ll be investigating other 1970s thrillers, political thrillers, as part of a new major season at HOME. Before I leave Un flic, however, I want to comment on the reviews and synopses for the film in the archives and on the web. When I found David Overby’s review in Sight & Sound Autumn 1974 I was amazed to see that he transposed the two central characters and also situates the bank raid at the beginning in the Paris suburbs! I respect Overby’s work and I know how difficult it was in the days before internet resources to check cast lists and locations, but these mistakes seem extreme. Tony Rayns in his review gets the train robbery wrong thinking the train is going to Italy via Marseilles. Even HOME’s programme notes (presumably using BFI notes) sets the bank robbery on the ‘Riviera’. There seems to be an almost pathological desire to misrepresent what is actually on the screen. I doubt this is deliberate but it must mean something – perhaps the dubbed print is the problem? In reality, Melville’s script is finely detailed. So the train heist is planned for a stretch of railway line, “the oldest electric line in France, dating back to 1963”, which is being upgraded and therefore diesel-hauled. The robbers have twenty minutes to complete their task before they run the risk of being entangled in overhead lines when the helicopter attempts to retrieve Simon from the train. Whatever one might think about the strange triangle at the centre of the film, the robberies are presented in incredible detail. I think film students could learn a great deal from Melville’s work on this film narrative. He remains for me the past master of the crime film.

LFF2017 #8: A Season in France (France 2017)

Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney) with Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire) and the children Asma (Aalayna Lys) and Yacine (Ibrahim Burama Darboe)

My short visit to LFF2017 ended with a journey across town to the Hackney Picturehouse. I first visited this cinema a couple of years ago and again we were in the mammoth Screen 1. I was disappointed by the size of the audience since this was the new film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, one of just two major international auteurs whose films from francophone Central and West Africa have kept alive the strong reputation of the region over the last ten years. (The other one is Abderrahmane Sissako whose film Timbuktu made a big splash in the UK in 2015.)

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Haroun has previously set his films in his native Chad. I missed his 2013 film Gris-Gris which showed at LFF but I don’t think was released in the UK. Gris-Gris and his earlier features Abouna (2002), Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010) were all set in the Central African country. Prior to A Season in France, he directed a documentary, Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy (2016) about the dictatorship and its fall-out in his own country that led to his exile. His new film, as the title suggests, is set in France – though I’m not sure yet what the reference to a ‘season’ means, unless it’s a satirical reference to a hunting season? Haroun himself is based in France so he knows the issues likely to be faced by asylum seekers such as Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney).

Abbas is an asylum seeker in France after fleeing his home Bangui (capital of the Central African Republic). He has with him his two children, Asma and Yacine, but his wife was killed during the family’s flight from CAR. Abbas was a French teacher in CAR and so was Etienne (a philosophy teacher), who I think might be Abbas’ brother-in-law, another who is seeking asylum. The children call Etienne ‘uncle’ but I did wonder if this was just the common usage of ‘uncle’ for any older male known to the family. Abbas and his children move constantly from one rented or borrowed room to another. Etienne has even less to call home and survives as a doorman/security guard outside a pharmacy. Abbas works on a stall in the market and develops a relationship with Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire) who has a floristry business linked to the market stall and whose family is Polish from a different wave of migration. The strain of the asylum application process is very heavy. Haroun presents the waiting room and the security guards at the office dealing with asylum seekers – but we never see the bureaucrats. Instead the asylum seekers receive official letters. If the strain is too great, the asylum seekers can all too easily ‘fail’ in their attempt to achieve permanent status.

A family with no permanent base and no security while they apply for refugee status

In several ways, A Season in France resembles I, Daniel Blake and other Loachian dramas in which individuals without money or status have to deal with a state bureaucracy. (But it also includes dream sequences, which I can’t recall in a Loach film.) I don’t want to give out spoilers, so I’ll just suggest that the film presents a stark moment of tragedy and a gradual loss of hope but has an ‘open’ ending that in a couple of ways is heart-breaking. This is a tough film and an angry film told in a straightforward way. It needs to be seen and I hope it moves audiences to think again about how Europe treats asylum seekers. In some ways, especially to do with the involvement of the French citizen Carole, the film is similar to Welcome (France 2009). French citizens face severe punishment for helping ‘illegal’ migrants. Like Welcome with Vincent Lindon, A Season in France has the presence of Sandrine Bonnaire, one of the best actors in France. I hope this will attract audiences in Europe. Eriq Ebouaney is very good as Abbas and I was interested to see his very long list of acting roles in French and international cinema. I had thought of Claire Denis’ 35 rhums (2009) because of the presentation of an African family in the grey suburbs of Paris, and especially the railway bridges and rail journeys. Ebouaney has a small part in that film and several others I’ve seen. It’s good to see him now in a lead role. A Season in France opens in France in February 2018. Somebody please pick it up for the UK.

You can download a Press Pack with excellent interviews and background from: http://mk2films.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2016/08/pressbook-a-season-in-france.pdf

LFF2017 #6: Razzia (Morocco-France-Belgium 2017)

I enjoyed Razzia and found it a thought-provoking as well as entertaining film. The director Nabil Ayouch thought that its Toronto screenings went well and the film has been selected as Morocco’s Oscar entry in 2018 (not without some controversy). It will be released in Morocco, France and presumably other francophone countries early in 2018. It’s a shame that the director wasn’t at this London screening as he sounds an interesting character.

It’s a long time since I’ve been to Morocco but I remember thinking that it was a country which could explode, simply because of the lack of employment possibilities for the growing population of young people. The film’s title refers to the disturbances on the streets of Casablanca mainly by youths in 2012-13. I think ‘razzia‘ has the connotation of ‘raid’ in the Maghreb. (Researching the title I discovered an interesting polar, Razzia sur la chnouf (France 1955) starring Gabin and Ventura.) The narrative actually begins in a village in the Atlas mountains where a charismatic school teacher becomes friendly with a young widow whose son attends the school. The villagers gossip about the couple’s relationship but the children adore the teacher. This is 1983 and the progressive teacher comes to the notice of the authorities introducing educational ‘reforms’. Soon he is ousted when he refuses to shift to rote learning in Arabic instead of his more Socratic teaching in the local Berber language. He sets off for Casablanca and is barely seen again in the narrative which then moves forward to life in Casablanca some 30 years later. We do see the woman from the mountains again, and her son Yto, now a man of around forty working in a restaurant. The restaurateur, Joe (Arieh Worthalter) is Jewish and he will become another of the main characters whose lives in the city we will explore.

Salima (Maryam Touzani)

There are three other central characters who are not directly connected to the four already mentioned. One is Hakim (Abdelilah Rachid), a young man who is attempting to become a pop singer following the example of his idol Freddie Mercury. The second is Salima (Maryam Touzani, the co-writer on the film), a woman who has become ‘westernised’ and has started to be criticised for the clothes she wears and the way she presents herself. She is in a rather dismal relationship with a businessman who doesn’t respect her freedom. Finally, and introduced only in the last part of the film, is Inès (Dounia Binebine) a young middle-class girl, a 15 year-old who is left to her own devices by her parents and who is determined to lose her virginity.

Hakim (Abdelilah Rachid)

These characters are connected only loosely in most cases, though in some ways the restaurant provides a kind of focal point. Don’t expect a single linear narrative. I think Joe and Salima have the most developed stories/scenarios but all the characters contribute something. Think of the film more as a kind of illustrated essay about what is happening in Casablanca.  Most audiences will also home in on the symbolic or metaphorical use of the film Casablanca (US 1942). The Yto is proud of the film, imagining it to have been shot in ‘his’ city and his boss doesn’t know whether to break it to him that the film was entirely shot on a Hollywood sound stage. On the same level of symbolism, we are also offered a similar shot at the beginning and end of the film – a traditional high-backed chair is placed at a full-length open window looking out onto an indistinct vista. Here is a society that seemingly doesn’t know where it is going. The young are angry, the unemployed attack the rich, the Islamists turn against the secularists, minorities like gay men and women or the Jewish community struggle to feel secure. Yet Casablanca is a vibrant city with a long history and rich culture and the film appears to be a cry of pain about the lack of direction and the indifference towards inequalities.

I fear that Razzia won’t get a UK release (I can’t remember the last Maghrebi film I saw on release), but perhaps because this is a French co-production handled by Unifrance we’ll have a slightly better than usual chance of seeing it. Nabil Ayouch is a controversial director and here he does seem to be offering a more complex view of his country than the two usual images we have in the UK of either tourism/music/food or young migrants crossing over to Europe. The music in the film, which looks very good, is very good but there is so much going on I would need more viewings to take it all in. I enjoyed all the performances. Here’s the 33 second teaser – enjoy.

L’odyssée (The Odyssey, France-Belgium 2016)

Jacques-Yves Cousteau (Lambert Wilson) and his two young sons in 1949. Simone (Audrey Tautou) is operating the tiller in the background.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997) was one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century. Even at just over two hours, L’odyssée struggles to cover only the middle stretch of a career that lasted over fifty years. The film focuses on the highlights of the most productive period of the life of Cousteau when he gained international fame through his undersea exploits, television programmes and eventual turn to environmental concerns. I think it will be difficult for younger audiences in the UK to comprehend what kind of international following Cousteau was able to attract – he won major civil honours in several countries and only David Attenborough has ever reached the same profile as a celebrity associated with the natural world. The surprising omission for me was any mention of Louis Malle who as a young man co-directed the Academy award-winning The Silent World (1956) with Cousteau. Fans of Wes Anderson and Bill Murray will however recognise that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) is based on the exploits of Cousteau and his crew.

The Cousteau family using the aqualungs that Cousteau developed.

L’odyssée is a major production with an estimated budget of €20 million – large by European standards, even if France is the major European film production centre. Director Jérôme Salle seems to specialise in large-scale productions with major stars but as far as I can see his films have not previously appeared in UK cinemas (though two have been released on DVD). According to IMDb, L’odyssée is being screened in a 2.66 : 1 ratio and it was shot digitally on a 6K Red camera. I’m not sure about the ratio at the screening I attended, but you’d expect an epic presentation for Cousteau’s story of exploration and overall the film doesn’t disappoint. There are three major stars (perhaps two of them are ‘star actors’). Lambert Wilson has the trickiest job as ‘JYC’ (Cousteau) and since the action begins around 1949 when Cousteau was approaching 40 and finishes when he is approaching 70. Wilson himself is in his late 50s. Audrey Tautou faces a similar long haul but she has the advantage of being nearer in age to Cousteau’s wife Simone in 1949 and with make-up and wigs she approaches 60 more easily. She also doesn’t appear on screen as frequently (one of the major minuses of the film for me). The third major character is Cousteau’s younger son Philippe played as an adult by Pierre Niney, highly praised on this blog for his role in Frantz (France-Germany 2016). Sporting very fetching 70s facial hair, Niney is a strong presence in the second half of the film.

Pierre Niney as Philippe Cousteau in the 1970s.

As I’ve indicated, this is a partial biopic, but that is only one of the genre repertoires that Salle draws on. Perhaps just as important is the mix of epic adventure/exploration and natural history film/environmental polemic. I was struck with the similarity in parts to the Norwegian film Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) with Cousteau seeking funding for his expeditions and then risking everything in physical encounters with seas, storms and sharks. The underwater scenes in the film are definitely one of its attractions and the budget was partly spent on location shooting in the Bahamas, Croatia, South Africa and Antarctica. The weakness of the narrative is the final genre repertoire, the family or personal drama. Perhaps not surprisingly, ‘JYC’ was unable to be the father and husband that his wife and sons expected. The narrative also suggests that his desire to succeed in his ambitious ventures led him to become too interested in the money that could be earned and that he exploited his family and loyal crew members. (At the same time, he is unaware just how expensive his ambitious plans have become.) There isn’t time to explore this and there is quite a telling moment when Cousteau is in the US for his television commitments and his elder son phones to tell him that his father has died. JYC refuses to return to France immediately. This feels like an insertion of a little shorthand scene to stand in for a whole sub-narrative. The film’s script was written by Salle and Laurent Turner and is based on two books, one by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the surviving older son who has carried on the family business and the other by the captain of the Cousteau ship, the Calypso. On this basis, there must be a strong factual starting point to what appears on screen. I think I would argue that despite its flaws, there is a great deal to commend about L’odyssée. It boasts wonderful cinematography by Matias Boucard and a music score by the celebrated Alexandre Desplat. You should seek out the biggest screen you can find.

We watched the film at the new arts centre in Halifax, the Square Chapel, in the smaller ‘Copper’ auditorium which is also used for theatrical productions. It’s good to be in a new cinema space and we were impressed to see how busy it was for a Friday morning screening. The downside is that films are presented without masking – the CinemaScope film was shown on a standard widescreen ratio screen so there were visible white bars above and below the image. Someone once tried to tell me that nobody notices this, but sitting two rows from the front they were clearly visible to us. Please, cinemas – bring back masking!

Scribe (La mécanique de l’ombre, France-Belgium 2016)

The poster’s graphics convey the attempt at stylisation

This is an unusual political/paranoia thriller with a star name and a downbeat, almost abstract setting. It seems to have wrong-footed some reviewers but is certainly worth catching. Thomas Kruithof makes his directorial début with plenty of ideas but struggles a little with a script he has co-written with Yann Gozlan and two other collaborators. There seems to be a flaw in the last third of the narrative, leading to a rushed ending. The star of the film is French actor François Cluzet. He must command a very high fee because the €5 million budget doesn’t necessarily appear on the screen in what is an imaginative but minimalist presentation. The film is set in France but filmed entirely in Belgium, mostly in Brussels, and this gives a strange sense of anonymity to the images. There is funding from Wallonia as well as France. As well as Cluzet, most of the cast are French – apart from the Italian-German Alba Rohrwacher, sister of director Alice.

A night of frustration at work leaves Duval in a strange place

One issue is the genre categorisation of the film. It begins almost as a Wellesian mystery like The Trial (1962). Cluzet is Duval, an accountant/accounts clerk in his late 50s who has a breakdown at work and two years later is unemployed and divorced, a former alcoholic who has successfully managed a year of abstention. He meets Sara (Alba Rohrwacher) at AA and around the same time receives a job offer which he accepts, needing something to occupy himself. It takes him to an unfurnished and drab apartment in a tower block where he has to transcribe telephone conversations recorded on a series of cassette tapes. His employer, ‘Clément’, distrusts digital technology and Duval is required to use a typewriter and to follow a set of strict rules in his work practice. Clément makes clear that he is conducting surveillance and that he is engaged in ‘protecting France’. Duval says he is non-political – but affirms that he is a patriot. The audience isn’t clear how much Duval understands but we know that he needs, and wants, this job. Some reviewers have likened his situation to that of the Gene Hackman character in Coppola’s The Conversation (1974).

As Duval works conscientiously from 9 to 6 each day in his solitary workspace, it becomes obvious that the material he is transcribing is a phone-tap involving people connected to hostage-taking in Mauritania, the former French colonial possession in West Africa. The plot appears to draw on the real kidnappings in Lebanon in 1986 and the questions surrounding the actions of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac about their release, but places it in the context of a contemporary election campaign by a right-wing French politician that brings it back up to date. Director Kruithof  has said that he understands that contemporary spy networks are returning to analogue methods to keep their work secure from cyber attacks and it seems a logical step.

The narrative suggests the possibility of romance with Sara

Duval is either slow to realise the import of what he is doing or genuinely engaged in a form of ‘automatic writing’ – which is the intimation of the French title of the film. He simply transcribes the conversations without thinking about what they mean. Inevitably, something goes wrong and Duval finds himself trapped between his boss, French ‘domestic intelligence’ and a third party. By chance, Sara is also involved. It is this predicament which triggers the concluding segment of the narrative – and which some reviewers have claimed is ‘sub-Bourne/Bond’. I think this is an exaggeration. What does happen is that at key moments the seemingly placid Duval acts, decisively but effectively without turning into a superhero.

Denis Podalydès as Clément

Cluzet is always worth watching. Here he seems to have put on weight and he inhabits his character effectively. The whole cast is very good and Denis Podalydès as Clément is particularly interesting as the rather unusual employer with the very strict rules. In an interview with Variety, the director describes how he shot scenes in such a way as to involve the audience as much as possible in Duval’s sense of becoming trapped by his task. The cinematography by Alex Lamarque and the score by Grégoire Auger definitely work in this respect. The film in its early stages was known in English as ‘The Eavesdropper’ – which I think would suggest something rather different from the final French title. It’s disappointing that Alba Rohrwacher’s role is simply to allow a variation on Duval’s paranoia by first ‘normalising’ his emotional isolation and then making him vulnerable. She seems to disappear towards the end of the narrative but I may have missed something in the closing scenes.

Duval is questioned about his actions

If you enjoy suspense and mystery, Scribe will entertain you. In the Variety piece above and in other reviews there is a sense that this kind of genre cinema is returning in France. As I was watching it I did wonder whether this could be categorised as a polar the broad generic classification which has in the past included this kind of political thriller. The UK distributor is Arrow who tend to release titles for short cinema runs and then focus on DVD and online. It should be available online now if you’ve missed it in cinemas.

My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette, France-Switzerland 2016)

A film about orphans (or more generally, ‘children in care’) immediately evokes memories of Oliver Twist (1948), Annie (1982), Holes (2003) etc. But I felt that this French-Swiss stop-motion animation brought me closer to the experience of such children than these or the many other live-action films in the same mould. Director Claude Barras called it “Ken Loach for kids” and that is not so far-fetched, with its mixture of realism, melodrama and indeed comedy.

There was a lot of interest in the film after it premiered at Cannes in 2016, and was nominated for both the Oscar and Golden Globe and won Best Animated Film and Best Adaptation at the 2017 Césars, but I was also interested in it because I had seen a short animation by Barras, The Genie in the Ravioli Can (2006), in a collection of French shorts put together by the BFI. His first full-length feature indicates the progress he has made in the decade that has followed.

The protagonist is a nine-year-old boy whose name is Icare but he insists on being called by the nickname his mother gave him – Courgette. His father abandoned the family when he was little and he lives with his mother, a violent alcoholic who spends her time drinking beer and watching TV soaps, and from time to time she administers a thrashing to her child. He mostly plays alone in his attic bedroom, his toys being self-made: a kite with a drawing of his imagined father as a superhero; and his mother’s empty beer cans. It was these which cause a dramatic change in his life as the pyramid which he was building with them fell down, causing his mother to angrily ascend to the attic with threats of a severe beating. When he slams closed the attic door to protect himself his mother falls down the stairs to her death.

A kindly policeman, Raymond, questions him gently, then takes him to an orphanage; the boy’s only possessions are the aforementioned kite and empty bear can – and his nickname which he is stubbornly determined to hold onto. Raymond comes to visit him in the orphanage, not because it’s his job as Courgette at first thinks but because Raymond likes him, and they exchange letters, Courgette’s being accompanied by colourful sketches – he is gifted in drawing – which chronicle his life in the orphanage.

Here Courgette meets his fellow residents, all with problems as serious or more serious than his. Simon, who has a tell-tale scar on his forehead and whose parents are drug addicts, is the self-appointed leader and bullies Courgette at first but when Courgette fights back they become best of friends. (The character of Simon is a good example of how the film avoids stereotypes and provides complex well-rounded characters). Simon catalogues the reasons the other children are in the home. Alice is victim of paternal sexual abuse and is subject to obsessive. Bea’s mother was deported back to Africa while her daughter was at school and every time she hears a car she rushes out shouting “maman”. Ahmed’s father is in jail for armed robbery of a service station and Ahmed wets the bed while Jujube’s mother is afflicted with OCD and endlessly opens and closes the fridge and cleans the toilet non-stop for weeks end. Simon wearily sums it up matter-of-factly: “We are all the same. We have no-one to love us.”

The outlook for Courgette lights up when 10-year-old, football loving, Kafka-reading Camille arrives by court order. When she arrives at the orphanage she immediately puts Simon in his place, showing that physical confrontation isn’t the only way to deal with a bully, and she helps the almost mute Alice to come out from behind her fringe and join the others. And Courgette immediately falls head over heels for her, which is reciprocated. But she has been sent to the orphanage after she has witnessed her father killing her mother for infidelity before turning the gun on himself.

A French film about an orphanage and children in care is bound to evoke Francois Truffaut’s 1959 film, The 400 Blows/Les 400 coups but My Life as a Courgette is in contrast with these films in that the pattern is reversed as abuse is suffered from the outside world while the orphanage is a place of safety and recovery. The small staff couldn’t be less Dickensian – the wise and calm and compassionate principal Mme Papineau, the children’s teacher Mr Paul, and his partner Rosie, the children’s carer, are dedicated and compassionate, a representation which is in contrast with the frequently negative portrayal of the “caring professions” (and the policeman Raymond would be included in this description).

If the mood is frequently dark, the saddest scenes are often alternate with comic ones: the children speculate on what adults get up to in bed, a trip to a ski resort, a snowball fight, a disco. This is a major contribution by Céline Sciamma who has adapted Gilles Paris’ s source novel, “Autobiography of a Courgette”. As a film director herself, her own films (Water Lilies/ Naissance des pieuvres, Tom Boy, Girlhood/Bande de filles), are coming of age stories which explore the difficult world of childhood and adolescence. There is little in the way of plot, just an accumulation of scenes from the daily life at the orphanage, until Camille’s aunt, who mistreated her when she had short-term custody, arrives wanting to make it permanent to get her hands on the state benefit which would accrue if she were Camille’s foster parent. This causes to children to band together to thwart her.

As for the film’s target audiences, in France and Switzerland Courgette is deemed to be suitable for 8-year-olds and it does have the cutesy angle which is a staple for children’s films. However (and notwithstanding the Bambi experience) not many 8-year-olds would cope with the characters’ backstories, and they would perhaps be mystified by the sex references and not be very familiar with Kafka. But Barras said in an interview that it’s more of a childhood film than a children’s film. This is true but it seems that the film is “double-encoded” for two separate audiences. This is reflected in the exhibition policy (at least in Aberdeen’s Belmont Cinema, and no doubt others,) of using a dubbed version for daytime screenings and subtitles for evening ones. Sub-titling could be problematic for a very young audience in relation to reading age.

The film’s emotional realism is all the more remarkable as the characters are 9-inch high plasticine puppets with enormous heads, extra-long arms, multi-coloured hair (blue for the protagonist, Courgette), red noses and ping-pong-ball-like eyes. It is hardly naturalistic and there is no danger of the characters travelling in the “uncanny valley” (a term used in animation to refer to the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.)

We sometimes forget to attribute the cinematic aspects of animation films – and not just the incredibly labour-and-time-intensive work involved in stop-motion – which we take for granted in non-animated films, but I think I would need at least another viewing to fully explore this. What I would look at in particular would be the editing (the long takes allowing the film to ‘breathe’); the lighting which was very effective in bringing the puppets to life, particularly the use of “catch-lights” on the puppets’ eyes which helps to intensify emotional engagement. I should also mention the acting, the children’s parts being voiced by children of the appropriate age. And Sophie Hunger’s excellent musical score.

Finally, the film runs to only 66 minutes (of which 5 are end credits), a commercially-awkward running time but it would have been a mistake if it had been padded out and I was perfectly fine with that running time.

Here is the trailer with English sub-titles. If you want to see the dubbed version you’ll find it on YouTube under the title, My Life as a Zucchini.

Frantz (France-Germany 2016)

Adrien (Pierre Niney) at the Hoffmeisters’ house with Anna (Paula Beer), Frau Hoffmeister (Marie Gruber) and Doktor Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner)

Frantz is a very beautiful and deeply moving film that is likely to be one of my films of the year. It’s another film that doesn’t seem to be destined for a long run in cinemas in the UK. That’s a shame because the film demands a big screen in a cinema rather than a TV set at home. Director François Ozon is remarkably prolific in the context of contemporary cinema. Frantz was screened at Venice in September 2016 and his new film is in competition at Cannes later this week. I didn’t follow his early work in the 1980s and 1990s but since 2000 he has managed just less than one film a year on average. He has ranged across genres and film aesthetics and featured an array of interesting European stars, so in one sense it isn’t surprising to discover that Frantz is something different.

Frantz is an ‘extension’ of a story (a play?) written in 1925 by Maurice Rostand. The title of this work gives away a crucial plot point of Frantz which could spoil the film narrative for some viewers so I won’t reveal it. Rostand’s work was then adapted for a film by Ernst Lubitsch in 1932, titled Broken Lullaby and featuring Lionel Barrymore and Nancy Carroll. Ozon and his writing collaborator, Philippe Piazzo, have extended the story and, I think, significantly altered its perspective by making the woman and not the man the central character. The film begins in the small town of Quedlinburg in the centre of Germany in 1919. (The ‘old town’ I now learn is a World Heritage site.) Anna (Paula Beer) is a young woman tending the grave of Frantz, her fiancé killed in 1918 during the fighting on the Western Front. She is surprised to discover fresh flowers on the grave. Meanwhile her would be father-in-law Doktor Hoffmeister turns away a young man from his surgery when he learns that he is French – the old man can’t deal with a meeting so soon after his son’s death. Anna now lives with the Hoffmeisters and eventually she and the couple she refers to as her ‘parents’ will finally meet the young man who is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney). He tells them that he and Frantz were friends in Paris before the war and after their initial caution the Hoffmeisters are pleased to hear his stories. Adrien and Anna begin a delicate relationship based on their mutual affection for Frantz. All this takes place amidst the mutterings of many of the townsfolk, including the group of men with whom Doktor Hoffmeister used to meet in the local inn (where Adrien is staying). Eventually, the truth must out. Frantz tells Anna the truth but there are also lies in this difficult dialogue. Ozon and Piazzo then extend the story by sending Adrien back to Paris and exploring what happens when Anna follows him several months later.

It sounds a very simple story that in the 1920s would have had great resonance. It still raises questions about war and reconciliation in 2017 but also now has the added sense of a message about European unity. The new French President Emmanuel Macron met Angela Merkel just a few days ago expressing the co-operation of the two countries as leaders of the EU while the UK undergoes a ‘Brexit election’. Unfortunately, I don’t suppose many Brexiteers will be in the audience for the film. However, it’s also possible to remove the discourse about war and focus just on the central set of relationships and the age-old problem of telling lies (even for the best of intentions) when those involved are in fragile emotional states. Frantz is a very particular kind of melodrama that is expressed through music, camerawork and mise en scène as well as sensational performances. Ozon decided that the camerawork of Pascal Marti should be presented mainly in black and white with brief passages in colour. I’m not sure if there is a consistent logic to when the changes to colour happen but some of the transitions are truly magical. I suppose the most likely reason is to enhance the moments of great emotion. Philippe Rombi looks after the music (both he and Marti have worked with Ozon before) providing an extensive score and there are also moments of Chopin and Tchaikovsky.

Anna and Adrien outside town

The combination of music and the well-chosen locations creates the perfect backdrop for the difficult conversations between Anna and Adrien. It’s difficult to describe how everything fits together, except to say that it’s perfect. If it wasn’t for the fact that it is presented in 2.39:1 with the clarity of modern lenses, it would closely resemble the melodramas of early 1930s Germany. For Lubitsch the original film was something of an anomaly (most of his films were comedies) so I think my point of reference is Max Ophuls. Because of Pierre Niney’s pencil moustache, however, I did also think of Truffaut’s black and white ‘Scope presentation of the same period in Jules et Jim (in which Henri Serre wears the ‘tache). The narrative of Jules et Jim does have some similarities as well. The small German town with its old centre and the hills and lakes just outside  occupies the first part of a narrative that is contrasted with the modernity and sophistication of Paris. I was impressed by the preserved railways on show.

This ‘portrait’ of Paula Beer as Anna takes my breath away – it seems to convey the period, the sadness of the situation and the constrained vision of youth all in a single facial expression.

But, finally I have to confess that what really engaged me was Paula Beer’s performance. For such a young actor (21 when she made Frantz) with relatively little experience, this must have been a very difficult role, requiring fluent French.  Yet she remains calm and still without being wooden or passive, exuding intelligence and also hinting at the passion beneath the exterior. I had seen the excellent trailer for Frantz and was determined to see the film. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. As the final credits rolled I saw that in the acknowledgements, François Ozon thanked the German director Christian Petzold. Petzold is my favourite current German director and I immediately wondered whether he would want to use Paula Beer in a future project. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Ms Beer has two ‘forthcoming projects’, the first for Florian Henckel von Donnersmark and then in 2018 for Christian Petzold. I’m looking forward to them already. I should also say that I enjoyed Pierre Niney’s performance very much too – Frantz is blessed by excellent casting all round.

Here’s the UK trailer from Curzon (quite mischievous in not showing any colour scenes and the way it plays with the possibilities of the narrative):