Here is a French film that has probably achieved a UK release because of the casting of Kristin Scott Thomas. She has a pulling power for specialised cinema audiences in the UK almost unmatched by any other star actor. She’s fine in the film – but she doesn’t appear that much. We’ve had plenty of discussion on this blog about how she is cast in French films and whether or not the script will attempt to explain her accent. In this case she is ‘Iva’, a theatre director in a long term relationship with Damien (Jean-Pierre Bacri) who teaches ‘Asian civilisations’ and specifically a class for French business people attempting to develop projects in China. The couple have a young teenage son and things are not going well. Iva has asked Damien to speak to his father, a senior legal figure, in an attempt to persuade him to intervene in the case of a young Serbian woman who is faced with possible expulsion from France after her residency permit has been withdrawn. (I didn’t quite follow the convoluted relationship between Iva and this woman and therefore I’m not sure about the Scott Thomas character’s background in this script.) Damien has a very poor relationship with his ego-centric father and finds this task very difficult and this will eventually create a further series of problems on top of everything else.
The film is intended as a comedy and, applying the test used by Mark Kermode to evaluate Hollywood comedies, I have to report that I laughed out loud several times. But this is a very Parisian sort of comedy, a comedy of manners and a comedy that requires quite a lot of cultural knowledge – I’m sure that I didn’t get all the references and someone looking for a frothy romcom should stay away. But if you like talky, intelligent films with terrific performances and witty dialogue, it’s very good.
The director is Pascal Bonitzer, who has made several features but is perhaps better known as a veteran scriptwriter – most frequently for Jacques Rivette, but also for André Techine, Raoul Ruiz and several others since the mid 1970s. He says that the character of Damien has some of his own traits (Bonitzer wrote the script with Agnès de Sacy) and Jean-Pierre Bacri does an excellent job. If that name doesn’t ring a bell for UK audiences, the hangdog face surely will. Bacri has appeared in the last three films by his partner Agnès Jaoui. This blog carries very positive responses to Let’s Talk About the Rain (2008) for instance. Like that film, Looking for Hortense combines moments of silliness with quite moving scenes and serious social issues. It takes great skill to mix these ingredients together and produce a coherent film that appeals to the intellect and the funny bone. I think that Pascal Bonitzer manages to do that but I was bemused by the title and only after reading reviews did I understand that ‘Hortense’ is actually the family name of the character who rules on the residency issues that Damien must discuss with his father. I don’t want to spoil the plot but I do want to pick out Isabelle Carré who plays the character who in effect joins all the stories together. She is excellent and like Bacri, an actor I have seen before and whose performances I’ve enjoyed (in Anna M. for example). I just wish it was easier to see French films of this quality on a more regular basis. This week I saw or heard another reference to the ‘difficulties’ subtitled films have in the UK – even when bland Hollywood fare is being dumped into UK multiplexes.
And here is the UK trailer (quite good in not giving too much away):
This film turned out rather differently than I expected from my brief glance at reviews. (The best are by Ginette Vincendeau in April’s Sight & Sound and Philip French in the Observer.) Many of them suggested that the film switched gear or ‘disappointed’ with its closing section, but for me it remained coherent all the way through and the ending fitted perfectly. I think I was expecting the kind of comedy offered in Potiche or 8 Women but this was more a witty satire than a broad comedy. I’ve read a number of reviews each of which seemed to make reasonable points but none of which matched by own response to the film. I think that this is partly explained by the fact that I haven’t attempted to map François Ozon’s filmography in auteurist terms and I’ve simply taken the films I have seen as superior entertainments. Further research reveals that indeed the handful of Ozon’s films that I’ve seen are the most popular and that in France he is situated somewhere between the mainstream and auteur cinema – 8 Women had over 7 million admissions in Europe.
In the House (a dreadful title in English with all kinds of unhelpful connotations – as the cashier on the ticket desk said, it sounds like Queen Latifah should be the star) is a kind of moral tale in the form of a satire on bourgeois conceptions of art and family relationships. (Philip French helpfully informs us that the title is a reference to Henry James’ preface to Portrait of a Lady in which he refers to a ‘house of fiction’.) M. Germain (at one point we do learn his name, but I won’t spoil the moment) and his wife Jeanne are a middle-aged couple in a small town in an unidentifiable part of France. She runs a small art gallery and he teaches French at a lycée. He despairs of his sixteeen year-old students and she struggles to find art to sell (the gallery is now owned via an inheritance by twin sisters with few ideas about art). M. Germain has two surprises. The school is to suffer the fate of too many English schools – a ‘back to the future’ change of direction with a return to uniforms and an emphasis on ‘standards’. But this is offset by a discovery that one of his students, Claude, is a promising writer. The problem is that what Claude writes is a provocative description of how he has explored a friend’s house and spied on the boy’s mother. Germain is caught in a dilemma – does he expose Claude or encourage him to develop his talent? The boy’s writing is compelling and Germain (and Jeanne) are soon hooked. Each writing assignment produces a new ‘instalment’ of Claude’s ‘infiltration’ of the household of Rapha and his parents and each ends with the classic come-on, ‘to be continued’.
It all made me think of Buñuel. Claude, beautifully played by newcomer Ernst Umhauer, is the beautiful boy, seemingly charming but also sly and far too bright for everyone’s good. We are seduced by him just as much as Claude, Jeanne and Rafa and his family. The lycée is named after Gustave Flaubert and the key text here is Madame Bovary. At this point, my knowledge of literary theory and especially of French literature is certainly a bit shaky, but as I remember it, Madame Bovary indulges in adultery to generate some excitement in her tedious marriage. She has some fun, but it all goes wrong in the end. It’s not too difficult to see In the House as a play around the Madame Bovary figure. It works in a number of ways but the key line seems to be when M. Germain reads out Claude’s description of being aroused by the ‘scent of a middle-class woman’. This is shocking in several ways. Claude seems old beyond his years and the intimacy suggested by the phrase seems more in keeping with the later French realists like Zola rather than the Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Kafka, whose novels are lent to Claude by M. Germain. There is more to it than that though and if you know the works you will enjoy thinking about writing styles and about approaches to realism and to ‘moral tales’ – the ending curiously resembles Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari!
I’m not going to spoil the narrative any more – don’t read Philip French until after you’ve seen the film, he gives far too much away as usual. But you should expect the pleasures of a satire on both modern education practices and the ridiculousness of certain forms of avant-garde art. I’ve seen comments that the film is too clever, but I’ll happily watch films like this and I think it’s the most enjoyable film I’ve seen so far in 2013. All the performances are very good. Please go and see it. (A note for Des – in this film Ms Scott Thomas’ accent is explained by reference to her ‘Yorkshire relative’.)
This is an odd little film finally getting a release in the UK, presumably based on the central performance by Kristin Scott Thomas – a major attraction for UK arthouse audiences. However, I’m not sure that word-of-mouth will make this a hit. The English title doesn’t help the film. ‘In Your Hands’, I realise is possibly a play on the phrase describing the responsibilities of a surgeon – ‘Your life in their hands’? Scott-Thomas plays Anna Cooper, a surgeon specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology, who is abducted one evening and kept in a locked room by a rather wild but very pretty young man. My limited French doesn’t run to idioms, but I’m guessing that the French title might translate as something like ‘Against You’. This would be a better title since the main narrative question is “How much ‘against’ her captor will Anna be?” or perhaps how close, literally ‘against’ him, she might become? (I read afterwards that the director did want the English title but its French translation had already been used.)
Writer-director Lola Doillon sets up these questions from the beginning since she first shows a frightened and bewildered Anna escaping from the house where she has been held and a little later sat in a police interview room seemingly telling her story in flashback. So we lose the suspense of whether the captor will murder Anna and instead we wonder about what kind of relationship might develop between the two since we remember the so-called Stockholm syndrome. The narrative does have a twist which I won’t reveal but I suspect many audiences will guess correctly. (The captor’s name, I understand, is the same as the person who first described the Stockholm syndrome.)
The narrative didn’t really work for me. The characters aren’t particularly interesting but it’s possible that some (female?) audiences will identify with Anna. There is an emphasis on her loneliness as a divorcée without children and seemingly few close friends. In terms of the male gaze, this does feel like quite an intimate film with Scott Thomas almost never off the screen. There is something almost erotic about her careful dishevelment. Somehow she still looks elegant and poised even after she has supposedly not washed or changed her clothes for a couple of days. I think the problem is more with her captor played by Pio Marmaï – the narrative would have worked better for me if he had been older and/or less pretty.
I suspect that my main interest in the film was as an example of French cinema’s seeming ease of access to directing for women as writer-directors. I’m not sure that this qualifies as ‘auteur cinema’ but it is a second film by Ms Doillon, whose parents are in the industry – her father is a director and also a teacher at FEMIS. I also read that she is married to the high-profile director Cedric Klapisch (who is thanked in the credits). With those kind of connections perhaps it is not too difficult to put together a budget. There is nothing wrong with the direction of the actors but I don’t think the script offers enough. The film is only 81 minutes long but it felt longer. It did in some ways remind me of a far more interesting film, À la folie… pas du tout (France 2002) with Audrey Tautou, written and directed by Laetitia Colombani – a director of a similar age whose second feature didn’t make it to the UK.
I missed this film when it came out but I remember that the trailer made it look fun. I did enjoy it when I watched it on DVD recently and it struck me that it serves to bring together several representations of ‘Englishness’, questions about modernity and the possibilities for contemporary British films.
The instigator of the project was producer Barnaby Thompson. He’s an intriguing figure who has produced (and directed) a series of popular British films since the late 1990s without making much of an impact on either film academics or general commentators on the British film industry, yet usually making money. His record of successes is remarkable, encompassing several different but familiar British genres, one of which is the broad comedy of the St. Trinians revivals and Kevin and Perry Go Large and another the more sophisticated comedy/satire of Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest, Dorian Gray). He was also responsible for Spice World. Thompson’s ‘go to’ actor/star appears to be Colin Firth and it’s interesting to note Firth’s long list of comic supporting parts in these films at a time when he looks odds-on favourite for Best Actor in this year’s Oscars.
For this project, Thompson switched from Oscar Wilde to Noel Coward. His crucial decision was to approach the Australian director Stephan Elliott (best known for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)). Elliott worked with another Australian filmmaker, Sheridan Jobbins, and between them they adapted the original Coward script. Coward wrote the play in 1924 and it was performed on Broadway in 1925 and in the West End in 1926. The first film version (a ‘silent’ Noel Coward!) was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928.
Coward’s light comedy/romance was intended as an attack on the hypocrisy of the Edwardian values held by upper middle-class women at a time of (limited) sexual liberation for younger women. Elliott claims to have moved away from Coward but the film retains much of the plot of the original play. The Whittakers are from the landed gentry with a large rambling country house falling into decline. Mr Whittaker (Colin Firth) has more or less retired from running the estate, disillusioned by his wartime experiences. The job falls to Mrs Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas), the repressed mother of two marriageable daughters, Marion (the usually sparky Katherine Parkinson playing against type) and her younger sister, Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) – both of whom are to some extent dysfunctional. The ‘inciting incident’ is the return home of John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) with his new bride, an American rally car driver, Larita (Jessica Biel). Mother is not amused.
The main change from the original is to make Larita an American. In some ways this seems to slightly shift the genre repertoire towards the long-running series of stories in which American women come to Europe looking for aristocratic husbands. Larita isn’t one of these however and it is her independence, sporting achievements and general worldliness that makes her a disruptive force.
Elliott has said (in the DVD extras) that a recognisable music score was very important in getting the tone and feel of the film right. Newspaper references to the death of Houdini (1926) and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1929) immediately confuse the period setting and the songs (all performed by the ‘Easy Virtue Orchestra’ and arranged by Marius De Vries) are mainly from the early 1930s. The opening song, ‘Mad About the Boy’ by Noel Coward dates from 1932. There are also arrangements of much more recent songs such as ‘Car Wash’ and ‘Sex Bomb’. Clearly, Elliott is not bothered by notions of historical ‘authenticity’ as such. Any expectations that this will be a straight BBC costume picture approach are dashed immediately (BBC Films did invest in the project however).
I enjoyed the film for precisely the same reason that most broadsheet newspaper reviewers employed to put it down, i.e. the anachronistic use of music, aspects of dialogue and some performance styles. Elliott is clearly not making either a ‘straight’ adaptation or a ‘realist’ romantic drama. He’s attempting to have some fun with the format whilst still keeping Coward’s satirical edge. This involves some interesting camerawork from Martin Kenzie – a veteran usually employed as an assistant or on Second Unit work and here given his head.
There is also an interesting mix of actors in the cast. Three pairs of actors fill the main parts. Firth and Scott Thomas provide the class (and pull in the older audiences) whereas Jessica Biel and Ben Barnes (Narnia films) represent the ‘young’ (both in their late 20s) stars for younger audiences. Kimberley Nixon is another younger British actor who could be seen as performing in the same way. IMDB carries several vitriolic attacks Jessica Biel. I realised that the only time I’ve seen her before was when she was a young teenager in Ulee’s Gold (1997) and I thought she was very well cast here. Barnes was suitably dull but she had the vitality and physicality required. The third pair was the UK TV sitcom actors Kris Marshall as the butler and Katherine Parkinson as the older daughter Marion. I thought that this casting helped Elliott create tensions and disturbances in the household with difference performance styles and different ways for the audience to respond. Marshall seemed to me to steal the film in terms of his comedy performance with a beautiful series of smirks, raised eyebrows etc.
But most obvious (and perhaps most annoying for the critics) was the deliberate oppositional playing of Scott Thomas and Firth. She creates an over-emphasised caricature of nostril flaring whereas Firth appears to be in a 1970s movie with his sunglasses, stubbly beard and general sense of being laid-back. He must have had a ball. He is reported to have been worried by the requirement to dance the tango with Biel but for many in the audience this will have been the highlight of the film.
Stephan Elliott nearly killed himself in a skiing accident in 2004 and it’s good to see him back on form. Easy Virtue did reasonable business around the world (strangely being most popular in Italy and France – perhaps making fun of the English upper middle classes is still appealing). Elliott is working on a new film and Kris Marshall is in the cast.
This was the last film of Alain Corneau, veteran French director of polars – amongst other genres. He died aged 67 soon after the film was released. I watched the film on a long-haul flight – not the best format for critiquing a film. Even so, I could see that this was an interesting idea. Whether Corneau fully pulled it off, I’m not sure, but for a man suffering from cancer it was a brave venture.
Co-written by Corneau and Nathalie Carter, Crime d’amour (‘Love Crime‘ for the Anglophone world) is an intriguing genre mix. I would class it as a polar combined with something of a film noir. I’ve seen it described as a psychological thriller and even compared to La tourneuse de pages but I don’t think that’s really appropriate, although revenge is a central feature of the plot. North American reviewers have suggested a cross between Dangerous Liaisons and Working Girl – quite a neat description, but not very helpful in a French context. In some ways, I was reminded of Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold (1958), partly because of the office setting and partly because of the detailed procedural elements of a crime. It’s quite difficult to give an outline of the plot without ‘spoiling’ the pleasures of the film, so I’ll just offer the film’s premise.
Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a senior executive in a French subsidiary of an American-owned food company. She is highly ambitious and angles for a top post in the US. Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier) is a junior executive in the same company working as Christine’s assistant. Christine seems particularly interested in giving Isabelle a helping hand and offers her a trip to Cairo to promote a new product. In Cairo she works with Phillipe, a young man working for an associate company – and also Christine’s lover. Isabelle turns out to be as driven as Christine and she does well with the Cairo work. How will the two women behave towards each other in future? Christine instigates a war between the two by stealing credit for Isabelle’s triumph in Cairo and using it for her own advancement. The knives are out.
The film is really in two halves. In part one the conflict is set up and developed until it reaches a climax with the ‘crime’ of the title. In the second half there is a criminal investigation by the police, an arrest and imprisonment and a highly contrived defence by the perpetrator. The first half is rather unrealistic in terms of business procedures but gripping because of the playing by the two stars and Corneau’s tight direction. (French office life is presented as extremely glamorous.) I found the second half to be possibly too clever in its plotting and I was slightly irritated by it. The plot hinges on the procedures of French criminal law which allows a good deal of discretion by the ‘examining/investigating judge’ in an inquisitorial judicial system. I think that this is what marks out the plot trajectories of the polar as quite different to those of British or American crime films which end up in the criminal court.
I know that some critics don’t like Ludivine Sagnier and that Kristin Scott Thomas can do no wrong (especially in the UK and US) but I’m rather taken with Ms Sagnier and this is just as much her film. We don’t get enough crime films focusing on women protagonists. Too often they are diverted into comedy, psychological drama or melodrama. In this case, the film is clearly about the women and their descent into criminal activity. The title, I think, is misleading. Philippe is a rather disposable character and Isabelle has a young male acolyte – a role which is perhaps not fully developed. The crime is too much ambition rather than too much love.
I’m not sure if the film will be released in the UK, although it has been released in New Zealand. Kristin Scott Thomas could be used to sell the film, though her role may be something of a shock for her UK/US fans. The image above helps to suggest how creepy she is, asking Isabelle what perfume she is wearing. By coincidence, one of the other new French releases available on my Air France flight was another Kristin Scott Thomas film, Elle s’appelait Sarah. A very different film, this one has just been nominated for a César (the French equivalent of the Oscars). Scott Thomas plays an American magazine journalist investigating the notorious round-up of French Jews in July 1942 in which they were held in a velodrome before being sent to the camps. I watched the first few minutes of this film but I was too tired to continue watching. This film will, I’m sure, get a UK release. We’ve reported on several Kristin Scott Thomas films recently and it’s worth pointing out that in both these French films she gets to speak English.
Here’s the New Zealand trailer for Crime d’amour:
Partir is a superior genre film – the kind of quality film that once inhabited British cinemas in the late 1940s. These days it is what passes as an ‘art film’ because it is in French and aimed at people over 40. Several people in the audience as I left the cinema were raving about Kristin Scott Thomas and her performance. But there’s more to it than that – even if she is very good indeed.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
Suzanne (Scott Thomas) is a French wife and mother who decides to return to work as a physiotherapist/reflexologist. Samuel, her husband (Yvan Attal) is not very gracious about paying for the work on her new workspace. But a new builder is hired and Suzanne falls for Ivan (Sergi Lopez) almost immediately. Samuel is not the kind of man to accept that his wife is in love with someone else, especially when she is so clearly smitten.
There are several intriguing aspects of this short (85 mins) film. Writer-director Catherine Corsini worked with two other women, co-writer Gaëlle Macé and cinematographer Agnès Godard (often associated with Claire Denis) to produce a film which gives Scott-Thomas plenty to get her teeth into, including some believable sex scenes – which as we know are often best directed by women. Given the short running time, I was impressed by how much was crammed into the script and how the genre repertoires were exploited in different ways. Primarily a realist love story/marital drama, there are also elements of melodrama and crime film. I kicked myself at the end for not recognising how much music was in the film. Asking myself “is this a melodrama?” I was aware that I just hadn’t noticed the music until the closing sequence. Yet when the credits came up, I saw that I’d passed over music by Georges Delerue taken from several Truffaut films including Vivement dimanche!(1983) and La femme d’à côté (1981). Now I think about it there is more music including songs sung by Sergi Lopez and the children. If there is any ‘excess’ in the film, it is probably in the sensual overload offered by the scenery – Ivan and Suzanne find a love nest in the hills of Languedoc-Roussillon (the main location is Nîmes) and enjoy a trip to the beaches of Catalunya. I think the overt displays of emotion also push the film towards melodrama, though always ‘realist melodrama’.
In some ways the question to ask is why is French Cinema able to offer these kinds of roles where British Cinema can’t? Why is it seemingly easier for top quality female directors to make films in France? It isn’t just Kristin Scott Thomas either. Brenda Blethyn has just appeared in London River and Tilda Swinton in the Italian film I Am Love. Not only that, but the last French film I saw celebrated another British export to French culture, Jane Birkin, as a character. There is something wrong with British Cinema and whatever it is won’t be helped by scrapping the Film Council.
One last thought – just as in I Loved You So Long, Kristin Scott Thomas is given a back story to justify her English accent. Is this now in her contract? Over to you Des.