Category: French Cinema

Two Men in Town (Fra-Bel-Algeria-US 2014)

Forest Whitaker as Will Garnett. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

Forest Whitaker as Will Garnett. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

The French Maghrebi filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb made two films in the US following his first film in English (with a fair bit of French) London River (France-Algeria 20o9). This remake followed Just Like a Woman (2012) and has received a similar response in the US to that for Bertrand Tavernier’s In the Electric Mist (France-US 2009) – bafflement at the arthouse approach to what seem like US genre stories. The difference here is that Bouchareb has not adapted an American story but has instead transposed a French original to New Mexico.

Deux hommes dans la ville was a 1973 French film written and directed by José Giovanni. It starred Alain Delon as a man released from prison partly because of the work of a social worker/parole officer (Jean Gabin). The two men develop a relationship outside prison but the ex-convict’s attempts to go straight are caught between a vengeful police inspector (Michel Bouquet) and his former criminal colleagues who want him to rejoin the gang. I haven’t seen this original film so I’m unsure of the details but this sounds like a classic noir/polar. Giovanni was himself an ex-con and he was a highly respected writer of polars, one of which was Classe tous risques (France-Italy 1960). His scripts were also used by leading directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Becker.

Here’s the trailer for the original (out in North America from Cohen Media). Don’t miss the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu:

Rachid Bouchareb adapted Giovanni’s script for the contemporary US with his regular collaborator Olivier Lorelle and a new collaborator Yasmina Khadra (like Giovanni working under a pseudonym – Khadra has political ambitions). In Bouchareb’s version, the convict is William Garnett, a local boy who killed a sheriff’s deputy. Played by Forest Whitaker, he converts to Islam in prison and is released on parole after 18 years. On release he is placed under parole officer Emily Smith, played by Brenda Blethyn (the lead in London River). She is a stern, ‘no nonsense’ but generally fair and progressive officer. Unfortunately Garnett is released locally (as per local custom) where the sheriff, Harvey Keitel, remembers the death of his deputy and is determined to put Garnett back behind bars. Garnett’s criminal connections from his youth are represented by Luis Guzmán‘s ‘Terence’, now a local hood engaged in criminal activities that cross the border.

Brenda Blethyn as Emily Smith, the parole officer. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

Brenda Blethyn as Emily Smith, the parole officer. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

As in Tavernier’s American film, the strong cast and setting (New Mexico desert landscapes) promise something dramatic and spectacular, but here the story – a character study drawn for a polar in France – is perhaps just too alien for American audiences. The assumption must be that Bouchareb is interested in all the problems and the possibilities that arise in border communities. Race, religion and politics all impinge on the central narrative in quite complicated ways. Garnett finds love quite quickly after leaving prison – with a Spanish woman. Keitel’s sheriff is a civic leader welcoming a returning soldier from Afghanistan at a celebration. He’s also quick to stamp down on local vigilantes who have illegally ‘arrested’ Mexican migrants but then intimidates Garnett quite unreasonably and seemingly encourages his deputies to do the same. Bouchareb also throws the audience by introducing Garnett’s mother at one point – played by Ellen Burstyn. We wonder how she met Garnett’s father and what life was like for the family as her son grew up.

Harvey Keitel as the sheriff, berating vigilantes on the border. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

Harvey Keitel as the sheriff, berating vigilantes on the border. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

The strength of the film drama is to be found in the use of landscape. I was interested to find out later that it was photographed by Yves Cape whose credits include several of the French films I admire, including White Material (France 2009) by Claire Denis. It was also an interesting decision to provide Garnett with a second-hand motorbike as his means of travel to work (a Triumph Bonneville?) – the images of him riding to work at a cattle ranch with Éric Neveux‘s excellent score mixed with the ambient sounds of the desert are evocative of a wide range of films.

The film narrative opens with a murder which takes place in extreme long shot much like the celebrated scene in Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014) and it is only later that we realise that this is a flash-forward to the last scene of the film.There is relatively little action in the film, although when it does come it is handled well. Most of the drama comes from the character studies. It is a formidable cast, especially with that fine actor Brenda Blethyn. I’ve no idea where her accent suggests that she comes from, but she is a compelling character. Whitaker is shown with a neatly trimmed hair style, suit and heavy-framed glasses that make him a dead ringer for Malcom X and emphasising that African-Americans have converted to Islam in prison since the 1950s (confirmed by Bouchareb in the French Press Pack). His new Muslim identity is evident throughout and causes some bemusement for his workmates, but this is not an easily typed identity for him – nor for them. At the point of release Garnett is visited in prison by an imam and throughout the film we see him at prayers. Only one person directly insults him. There are stand-offs between Blethyn and Keitel and a sad story about another of the parole cases – both of these incidents point to problems with the parole system. Bouchareb is interested in the psychology of the characters and the pressures of society rather than genre conventions – though he recognises that he is attracted by the Western. He tells us he did a considerable amount of research on the border migration issues and spoke to law enforcement officers and parole officers in New Mexico.

The only real problem I had with the ‘bare bones’ DVD distributed in the UK by Signature Entertainment was the lack of subtitles. Like many modern films, the ‘realist’ dialogue is sometimes hard to follow and I would have appreciated English subs for the hard of hearing. In addition there are a few scenes in which Garnett and his lover (Dolores Heredia) speak in Spanish. Not understanding these lines completely didn’t really spoil the film for me but the lack of subs does indicate the way the film was ‘dumped’ on the UK DVD market (with no cinema release). I think the American Region 1 DVD does have subs.

As a French-Maghrebi director, Rachid Bouchareb offers a possibly unique take on the American border/migrant story, though he does join other European directors such as Tony Richardson (The Border 1982 – also with Keitel) and Louis Malle (Alamo Bay 1985) as well as US ‘independents’ such as John Sayles (Lone Star 1996). I think Two Men in Town (awful title!) deserves to be seen. I think I’ll watch it again. Two Men in Town is one of those films which, if you set out to denigrate it, is a soft target. (See this Variety review which does an effective hatchet job.) But if you give it a chance, it will grow on you through landscape and performances. Yes, it does attempt to be a modern day Western like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (France-US 2005) – but that’s no bad thing.

Here’s the US trailer for the 2014 film. It includes some SPOILERS – but also a nice shot of Brenda Blethyn as John Wayne from The Searchers (or ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ as it was in France):

In the Electric Mist (France-US 2009)

Buddy Guy and Tommy Lee Jones 'In the Electric Mist'

Buddy Guy and Tommy Lee Jones ‘In the Electric Mist’

Here is a good example of what can happen when a respected European director, who appreciates aspects of American culture, makes an American film that is dumped onto DVD by its (independent) US distributor and castigated by fans of US genre films. What’s worse in this case is that the film is an adaptation of one of the best books by a celebrated American writer of genre fiction and that the film features a stellar cast. It’s hard not to feel that a lot of people are not getting the respect they deserve because there are far too many ‘tunnel vision’ Hollywood fans out there. On the other hand, the distributor may have been right to foresee problems – but why did they put up money to help finance the film and agree to a distribution deal then? It’s likely that the film would have done better in a French language version. In fact, I don’t know if it was dubbed in France – where most of the tickets were sold.

In the Electric Mist is an adaptation of James Lee Burke’s novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, first published in 1993. It is the sixth story about Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux. The novel series has recently seen its twentieth entry (and these are not short novels). Shooting began in 2007 and updating the story to a post-Katrina world was just one of the changes to the novel made by co-writers Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski. Bertrand Tavernier initiated the project for his own company, Little Bear, with the American producer Michael Fitzgerald and the backing of the French TV channel TFI. Tavernier directed the film himself and it was shot by Bruno de Keyzer. Tavernier is one of the most ‘outward-looking’ of auteurs in France. He is one of the few French filmmaker-critics to have had kind words for British Cinema and he has made films in both the UK (Death Watch 1980) and the US (Mississippi Blues 1983) earlier in his career. He has a previous US crime fiction adaptation to his credit with Coup de torchon (France 1981), a successful film based on Jim Thompson’s notorious 1964 novel Pop. 1280.

There are two real issues at stake in the reception of In the Electric Mist in the US (and UK). The first concerns James Lee Burke and the second the US audience’s take on Tavernier’s approach. As I’ve indicated Burke is a prolific and celebrated writer. His website is unusually commercial for a writer (it offers ‘JLB’ merchandising!) but also presents his array of publications. As well as the 20 Robicheaux novels there are 9 novels about characters in the Holland family of lawyers and Texas Rangers and a further 5 ‘standalone’ novels plus collections of short stories. Over the years I’ve read many of the novels and I recently read The Wayfaring Stranger (2014), one of the ‘Holland Family’ stories set in the late 1940s. I enjoyed it very much and it was this reading that sent me back to thinking about In the Electric Mist. Burke’s strengths are his detailed descriptions of a range of memorable characters, his deep knowledge of the history of communities in Louisiana, Texas and now Montana and his commitment to what in the US are seen as ‘liberal views’. Each of Burke’s protagonists are ‘decent’ men with fatal flaws (often involving alcohol and a disregard for ‘proper’ procedures). All these protagonists seem to have had  colourful childhoods and to be steeped in those community histories with strong commitment to forms of natural justice – i.e. against bigots, racists, fascists etc. – usually driving the narrative. The US book-buying public is large enough to allow Burke to have developed a significant readership who agree with (or at least tolerate) his politics. But what about the cinema audience? IMDB has comments by some of the right-wing trolls that Burke must recognise he attracts. More of a problem for me is that most of the narratives have a very familiar structure as well as familiar characters. Burke’s heroes often know the villains because they grew up with them. And they are also vulnerable because the villain invariably attacks/abducts the hero’s partner/children/parents etc. I can enjoy the novels as long as I have a big gap between reading them. Even so, like many others, I think they are all filmable and I’m surprised there haven’t been more adaptations. The only others I’m aware of are the 1996 Heaven’s Prisoners with Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux and a TV film of Two for Texas (1998) with Kris Kristofferson, a historical narrative featuring one of the Holland family. (There is also a 2015 short film based on a Burke short story, Winter Light.)

The relative lack of adaptations must have meant some anticipation for In the Electric Mist. Tavernier took a great deal of care in casting the film and in selecting locations. He took what is a broadly European approach and tried to cast actors from the South – and as far as possible from Burke’s ‘narrative territory’. Robicheaux is played by Tommy Lee Jones from Texas, his wife Bootsie by Mary Steenburgen from Arkansas. Other actors include Ned Beattie from Kentucky, John Goodman from Missouri (but living in New Orleans) and blues singer and guitarist Buddy Guy (born in Louisiana). Levon Helm from Arkansas plays the Confederate General Hood. Characters speak in thick accents using cajun French creole and other local speech forms. The music includes several zydeco tracks (the Black version of Cajun music) by Clifton Chenier. I can see this might cause problems and I switched the English subs on to watch the UK TV broadcast.

Allied to the use of language, Tavernier composes several scenes in long shot to create a rather different pacing for what viewers might assume is to be a typical crime fiction film. Most alienating of all, the script doesn’t ‘explain’ much – the audience has to pick up the clues. The plot involves the usual James Lee Burke ingredients. The action takes place in Iberia Parish where the ‘reformed’ alcoholic Robicheaux is a police officer who also runs a local bait shop and fishing operation. Three seemingly separate narratives develop. Robicheaux himself begins to see and then interact with a group of apparitions – a band of Confederate soldiers led by Texan General Hood. This is an example of the historical liberties Burke allows himself. Levon Helm was far too old to play the real Hood, who didn’t move to Louisiana until the Civil War was over. Robicheaux also ‘remembers’ seeing, as a child, a shackled Black man being shot running away from a police officer. This is prompted by the discovery of a skeleton with shackles which is ‘unearthed’ by Katrina’s floodwater. Robicheaux is officially involved in the investigation of the murder of a young bar girl. Finally, the local community is also disrupted by the arrival of a film crew (with John Sayles in a cameo as the director). Robicheaux’s bait shop is attractive to the film’s star (Peter Sarsgard) a frequently drunk young man who rent’s Robicheaux’s boat with his girlfriend (Kelly McDonald). Robicheaux is suspicious because of the involvement of a local gangster Julie Balboni (John Goodman) as an investor in the film. Robicheaux has known Balboni since childhood.

It’s an interesting story with unusual ingredients. The cast are all terrific, the film looks good and the music is great. I wish I could have seen this version in a UK cinema (but I’m grateful for the subs on TV). Many European audiences and filmmakers really love the best of Hollywood. Unfortunately the admiration is not always reciprocated. If you get the chance, try to see the full-length version of this film.

Évolution (France-Belgium-Spain 2015)

Max Brebant as Nicolas

Max Brebant as Nicolas

Lucile Hadzihalilovic, the director and co-writer of Évolution is the partner of Gaspar Noé (who is thanked in the credits of this film). I wonder what they talk about at breakfast? Noé is controversial in terms of treatment of sexuality. Hadzihalilovic has three short/medium length films to her credit plus two full length features. Her previous feature, Innocence in 2004, focused on a mysterious girls’ boarding school. Évolution introduces us to a small community of pre-pubescent boys who live with female carers (not their mothers according to one of the boys) close to the sea in small concrete block houses. There are no men in the community and seemingly no girls.

The film begins with an underwater shot, looking up to one of the boys swimming on the surface. He dives down towards the camera and finds something on the sea-bed which will propel him forward as the protagonist of this tale. We aren’t surprised that as all the heroes of fantasy/horror/science fiction/tales of mystery, Nicolas our hero will investigate to uncover the truth and will risk himself becoming a victim of whatever is happening in this unusual community.

Stella (Roxane Duran) first meets Nicolas when he cuts himself on a rock.

Stella (Roxane Duran) first meets Nicolas when he cuts himself on a rock.

What follows is a triumph of camerawork (Manuel Dacosse), editing, set design, production design, effects, music and, not least, performance. The landscape of Lanzarote with its black volcanic ‘sand’ is matched with the dark interiors of a classic horror hospital – with dingy lighting, peeling paintwork and water running down the walls. As one reviewer has pointed out, the opening shot reminds us that humanity came out of the sea and water remains in our consciousness as connected to ‘birthing’. How can I explain anything about what happens without ‘spoiling’ the narrative? All I’ll say is that Nicolas is a real hero and that he has a ‘helper’ – a nurse in the hospital who is for some reason attracted to this boy. In the final reel, Nicolas calls out her name, ‘Stella’. In the opening sequence, referenced above, Nicolas sees a red starfish. A starfish isn’t actually a fish and is perhaps better considered under its alternative name of ‘sea star’. In Latin this is ‘stella marina’. ‘Stella’ (Roxane Duran) is a red-haired nurse. The sea star is an amazing creature and Lucile Hadzihalilovic must have spent some time thinking about this creature and its habits. I certainly found it interesting to research them. In doing so I found a group of Haitian midwives associated with a project called ‘Stella Marina’ – which aims to provide ‘birthing kits’ for use in poorer communities.

I’m not going to say any more about what actually happens in Évolution. All I would say, to give you a flavour of the film, is that it reminded me at one point of the John Sayles film The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) featuring the myth of the Selkie – the creature that can transform from seal at sea to human on the land. Others, less squeamish than me, refer to David Cronenberg films and the cycle of ‘body horror films’ from the 1980s. I can see those references but Évolution is different in tone with its 10 year-old protagonist. It really is a remarkable performance by Max Brebant. It’s only 82 minutes long, but there is a great deal packed into the narrative and trying to tie together all the elements is intriguing.

Discover Tuesdays

Évolution was the latest screening in the Picturehouses programming slot in the UK. This involves the possibility that any cinema in the Picturehouses chain (or, I think, programmed/booked by Picturehouses) can show a film for a single screening on a Tuesday. These are films presumably deemed by Picturehouses as not commercial enough for a proper release of multiple screenings across a week or so in selected cinemas. I have heard arguments that this is a positive move because it gives the possibility of a specialised film becoming available at cinemas across the UK. That may be so and as a concept it goes back to the beginnings of digital cinema in the UK as something similar was suggested as part of the first round of subsidised digital cinema projectors instigated by the UK Film Council in the 2000s. Even so, it works against the idea of local programming and strategies which attempt to grow a local audience through ‘word of mouth’ screenings. There were 10-12 people in the cinema when I saw this film. Perhaps there would only have been three or four if it was showing two or three times this week, but I’d like to think that with good reports the audience for this and similar films could be grown. Instead, Picturehouses is using those other possible programme slots to show Independence Day and Absolutely Fabulous and if you can’t get to a screening on Tuesday at 18.00, then specialised cinema is not for you. So, I guess you’ll have to look for Évolution online.

La loi du marché (The Measure of a Man, France 2015)

Vincent Lindon as Thierry. In this scene we see him listening to feedback on his performance in a role-play.

Vincent Lindon as Thierry. In this scene we see him listening to feedback on his performance in a role-play.

(Keith reviewed this film last year when it was in the Leeds Film Festival – see the comment below with a link.)

Vincent Lindon is possibly my favourite French actor and for La loi du marché he won the acting prize at Cannes and a César Award in 2015. IMDB informs me that he comes from a wealthy family background and that he has supported a centrist politician in elections – yet he has the star persona of a rather tough, brusque but honest and intelligent working-class man in many films. In his third film with writer-director Stéphane Brizé he takes this familiar star persona a step further. The English translated title makes this film sound personal and rather abstract. I much prefer the French title which I translate as ‘The Law of the Market’. The emphasis is quite different. In this narrative, Lindon’s character  is certainly tested, but the function of the narrative is to expose, in a way that is ‘open’ but also quite subtle, how contemporary working conditions and attitudes towards both employment and unemployment impact on workers and their families.

Thierry and his wife live in a modest house with their teenage son who needs their care and support to progress in his education because of some physical disabilities. Thierry has been made redundant from his job as a skilled machine tool operator. In his early 50s he has been out of work for many months and has suffered humiliation and rejection when he has attended interviews and training courses. When he finally gets another full-time job what kind of work will it be and what will have happened to his dignity and sense of worth?

This bare outline suggests a film comparable to those of Loach-Laverty and the Dardenne Brothers as well as that broader tradition of films about the workplace and industrial relations in French cinema. But in several ways this film is distinctive. Stéphane Brizé describes the kind of production he wanted like this:

Right from the beginning of the writing process, I knew the film would be shot with a tiny crew, and non-professional actors would work with Vincent. I went even further and told Christophe Rossignon (the producer) and Vincent Lindon that I wanted us to co-produce the project by imposing a limited budget and investing the better part of our salaries in the film, while paying the crew the normal rate. Not every film can be made this way, but this one allowed it. Content, style and financing echoed one another, and I liked this coherence. There was also the affirmation that films could be made differently at a time when the industry is seriously questioning how it finances production. I also had to rethink my set design and staging, as well as my themes. This film is the fruit of necessity. (From an interview in the film’s Press Pack.)

The result is a film which is visually quite austere and in which Thierry is clearly the central character. Brizé deliberately chose a young documentary cameraman Eric Dumont with no experience of fiction films and asked him to frame scenes for 2.35:1 CinemaScope. This enables Brizé to focus on Thierry but also to include other characters or décor that provide context for what Thierry is experiencing. Sometimes there is some blurring of the image on one side of the frame. I couldn’t see what was causing this. In much the same way the soundtrack has a visible hum in some scenes set in small functional rooms with harsh lighting. I wondered if this was deliberate or the result of low-budget shooting – such scenes also use hand-held camerawork. I know it’s a cliché but these ‘flaws’ do enhance the sense of realism. The film does indeed feel like a documentary but it is very slowly paced with long takes and sometimes a quite static camera. As far as I can see most of the ‘cast’ are non-professionals who play roles they also perform in ‘real life’.  There is none of sensationalism or voyeurism of ‘reality TV’, nor any of the melodrama or comedy found in Loach-Laverty and slightly different Dardennes forms of social realism. If this makes Brizé’s film sound dull, it only takes a few minutes of a couple of the various well-chosen scenarios to reveal the power of the writing and to engage the viewer in the tragedy of Thierry’s situation and to marvel at his patience and strength. I got very angry very quickly but I also marvelled at the mixture of subtlety and brutality in these scenes.

Thierry finally gets a job as a store detective – watching customers and staff. How does hee feel about this job?

Thierry finally gets a job as a store detective – watching customers and staff. How does he feel about this job?

At the centre of every scene is Vincent Lindon’s performance. Does he deserve all the praise and the awards? Absolutely, I would say. Physically, Vincent Lindon is a strong man – his facial features, his muscular arms – who we are convinced could do most manual jobs, but who would also have the inner strength to tackle other kinds of employment. In interviews in this film, Thierry is routinely humiliated. His interviewers don’t directly insult him, rather they carry out their routine questioning as they have perhaps been trained to do. The effect on Thierry is seen in his eyes and his posture. The brilliance of the performance is in the way Lindon’s body seems to crumble at the edges. This is neatly represented in a sequence in which Tierry and his wife Karine (Karine de Mirbeck – the non-professionals keep their own names?) go to a rock ‘n roll dance class. Everything is fine until the dance teacher tries to show Thierry how to move. The point here is that the non-professional actors are very good at representing themselves – the script sets up a situation that humiliates Thierry rather than their performances. Lindon as the professional has techniques and insight and physical control. The contrast is fascinating.

I should point out that the film does not have a happy ending. Instead, it is ‘open’, but I’m sure most audiences will worry about what will happen to Thierry, Katrine and their son Matthieu. I watched this film in one of my favourite cinemas where it is always a real pleasure to watch a film. Unfortunately, on this occasion I found myself sitting in front of a group of people who talked on and off throughout the film and often cackled or laughed loudly. The film isn’t a comedy although I did smile and laugh quietly once or twice. I fear that the laughter behind me was cruel and responded to the indignities heaped on Thierry, but perhaps it was fear? In one scene I felt so much for him I had to turn away from the screen. La loi du marché won’t be for everyone, but it’s one of my films of the year and a film every actor, scriptwriter and director should watch and learn from.

Congrats to New Wave, one of the most reliable UK distributors who still manage to bring us the best films. If only more exhibitors would be prepared to show them.