I watched Bastards twice when it came to the UK in early 2014. I even introduced the film for an audience but I knew that I needed to see it again at a later date and when it appeared on MUBI this month I watched it again. Some films by Claire Denis make, for me, an instant impact (Beau Travail, 35 rhums). But Bastards is more like L’intrus in demanding long retrospection. My notes from 2014 reveal that I wasn’t sure whether Bastards was a film or an installation – a work of art, a dissection of genre, mood, style, ideology and much more. But I’d done my homework, I knew where the ideas came from and now I think I see how they come together.
In the film’s Press Pack, Denis tells us that she needed to find a story idea quickly to exploit a production opportunity that suddenly arose. Whereas in 35 rhums she turned to Ozu to help her tell a personal family story, in this case she turned to Kurosawa and his noirish take on Hamlet, The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Kurosawa’s tale of a man (Mifune Toshiro), who marries an industrialist’s daughter as part of a strategy to avenge his father’s suicide, provided her with a protagonist, an outline story and a title (the Kurosawa film was titled Les salauds se portent bien in France). But Denis and her co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau needed another character as well:
In the film, all seems normal, everyone has a family, children are collected from school, they are given afternoon snacks – even the divorced couple manages to handle their relationship pretty well. But there’s the young woman. She’s from another state of the world.
She comes from another character who has always been with me: Temple, the female character in William Faulkner’s [1931 novel] Sanctuary. When I was myself an adolescent, that book transformed me. I wasn’t frightened at all, on the contrary, the last chapter between father and daughter in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris gave me a rush, and a certainty that girls must deal with their sexual misfortunes by themselves. Temple takes out her compact and looks at herself. (Claire Denis interviewed in the Press Notes)
I confess that I tried to read Sanctuary but struggled to finish it. But I can see how Denis used the ‘Temple’ character in her script. Let me try to outline Bastards without spoiling the narrative. The brilliant Vincent Lindon (up there with the very best in global cinema) is Marco Silvestri, a ship’s captain on an oil tanker who is forced to abandon his ship in an unnamed port and head home for Paris where he finds disaster has struck the family of his sister Sandra (Julie Bataille) and brother-in-law, his buddy from training school. His next action is to investigate what or who is behind the tragedy that he finds on arrival. The camerawork and editing by Denis regular Agnès Godard and new recruit to the Denis team, Annette Dutertre presents the ellipses in the script so the timing is not clear, but we see Marco moving into an apartment where one of his neighbours is Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni) with her young son. Only later do we realise that Raphaëlle is the mistress of Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor) and that Marco has identified Laporte as the cause of the collapse of the Silvestri family shoe factory business. A telling line of dialogue in these opening scenes comes from the nephew of the concièrge of the apartments who when challenged by Raphaëlle explains that he is filling in for his aunt – “It’s normal, it’s family business”. Marco is about to threaten one family, unaware of some of the secrets within his own family. But later we we will understand that he had withdrawn from the family business to go to sea and that his own marriage has ended with his two daughters living with their mother. This is certainly a film noir and a very dark and very disturbing noir, something emphasised by shot compositions and Stuart Staples’ music. The ‘Temple’ character is Marco’s niece Justine (Lola Créton) who he finds in a psychiatric hospital. What has put her there?
For a production put together quickly, Bastards is a complex work, finely detailed with numerous clues and narrative links that don’t immediately register. It helps that most of the cast and creative collaborators like Godard and Staples are Denis regulars. Alongside Michel Subor we get to see Alex Descas and Grégoire Colin as familiar Denis performers. Vincent Lindon was the protagonist of Vendredi Soir (France 2002) and Nicole Dogué from 35 rhums has a minor role as a Police Inspector. The three central women in the story are all Denis first timers and she said that she wanted them to be dark-haired ‘Mediterranean types’. They are all very good and very much part of the noir narrative. Bastards is a brutal film – ‘dangerous’ or even ‘deranged’ as one blogger has put it – and misogyny is suggested by the presence of a ‘Temple’ character. However, as is usual with Denis, the women are not passive victims, even when violence of different sorts is directed towards them. Nor are they simply ‘good’. The men are wretched and all tainted in some way but the women are also implicated or even directly involved. Which one is the femme fatale? Perhaps they all are?
I’ve read a number of reviews of the film and interviews with Claire Denis. One of the best is on the cinema scope online website by Jose Teodoro. He suggests something that I also experienced. On a first viewing the film sees dreamlike and floating. The one or two short sequences that might be dreams or flashbacks are disorientating. The ellipses confuse the sense of a narrative drive. But on later viewings we realise that the story-line has a strong narrative drive. As Denis explain, we only gain an insight into the narrative data as Marco himself discovers things. Marco is the key character and he defines the noir narrative as much as the formal elements of cinematography, mise en scène and music. Teodoro suggests he is like a Robert Ryan figure who might be in a film noir or a Western. That’s a good call I think. Bastards made me think of a 1950s film noir, something as cold and brutal as The Big Combo (1955) or neo-noirs based on the novels of Jim Thompson. Vincent Lindon’s star persona is ideal. He looks like the hard man who could sort out any mess, but there is both an ‘ordinariness’ and ‘working stiff’ quality that makes him vulnerable. In Bastards, he has all the accoutrements, including a vintage Alfa-Romeo and a taste in expensive shorts but he is also flawed. There is a strong erotic spark between him and Chiara Mastroianni’s Raphaëlle but Marco is also the most naïve character and we know that he is the doomed man of the noir.
I’m so pleased that I watched Bastards again. I realise I saw things much more clearly this time. Significantly, perhaps, I remembered most scenes but I’d repressed the detail of the harrowing closing scenes. How did I feel at the end? The film is so dark that I might have despaired but it is so beautifully crafted and intelligent that somehow I felt uplifted by a beautiful work of art. That’s Claire Denis for you. I know many people don’t get her films, but for me they define what cinema can be. One final point, the film was shot digitally which both created problems with lighting but also allowed more flexibility. In interviews Denis explains this in some detail.
The Toronto festival trailer:
L’apparition is a film with a UK cinema release by MUBI. No doubt it will eventually appear on MUBI’s streaming service. I’m surprised that the film did get a release in cinemas given the present hostile environment for foreign language films in the UK. It has several good points to recommend but at 137 minutes and relatively little ‘action’ it’s quite a difficult sell I would think. Some of the reviews have compared it with aspects of The Exorcist or a Dan Brown adaptation. I can see the connections but I’m not sure that they are helpful references.
The ‘apparition’ of the title refers to an event as understood by Roman Catholic ecclesiastical practice to involve a vision of the Virgin Mary – a ‘Marian apparition’. There have been many such events in history such as those of Saint Bernadette in the mid-19th century and more recently in Fatima, Garabandal and Medjugorje. At the beginning of the narrative the protagonist Jacques Mayano (Vincent Lindon) is returning from a journalistic assignment in the Middle-East (for the French newspaper with the largest circulation, Ouest-France), during which things have gone badly wrong with the death of his photographer partner. Jacques has PTSD and an injury affecting his hearing. He takes sick leave but is approached by the Vatican to become part of a ‘canonical investigation commission’ looking into this new apparition which has created considerable public interest in the French Alps. Jacques is an agnostic and his role is simply to ask questions of the young woman who has made the claim to have seen the Virgin. The remainder of the team will make observations based on their own specialisms.
After the opening scenes and Jacques’ summons to Rome, the next section of the film becomes ‘procedural’ as the newly-formed commission travels to the Alpine region of South East France where the site of the apparition seen by Anna Ferron (Galatéa Bellugi) has become ‘commercialised’ and a big attraction for pilgrims from around the world. 18 year-old Anna lives in a convent (where she operates a machine that blows the feathers into convent-branded duvets). She has two ‘protectors’ (beside the nuns). Her local priest has defied the Vatican to be her spiritual guide and there is a multi-lingual character who seems to represent a congregation in the US. He organises TV coverage of Anna’s appearances.
The film’s writer-director Xavier Giannoli had some success with his previous film Marguerite (France 2015) with Catherine Frot. In fact L’apparition is his seventh feature and several of his films have featured major French stars or well-known character actors. Giannoli wrote the film for Vincent Lindon and as one of the most reliable figures in French cinema he is expected to carry the whole film. Lindon often looks serious and sombre, as he does here. We trust him. We feel his pain. We also know there is an inner strength and the possibility that he could explode into violent action. But it is still a tall order to keep it going – and hold onto the audience – for over two hours without much support. That said, Galatéa Bellugi is always watchable as Anna.
But is it interesting you ask? Well it might depend on your own religious/spiritual beliefs. Like Jacques, I’m an agnostic and once Jacques has performed his role as a disinterested interviewer I did wonder how the narrative would develop. It fairly soon turns into a familiar crime investigation – at least in terms of procedural conventions. Jacques meets Anna outside the formal proceedings, he visits the apparition site and tracks down Anna’s past. He even has a wall full of photographs and maps etc. in his room. As a journalist he wants to find the facts and he suspects that he hasn’t been offered the truth. I’m guessing that the concept of ‘truth’ is what Giannoli sees as the philosophical question. The Vatican and the other commission members follow practices that have their own internal logic about how claimed apparations and miracles should be evaluated. They are concerned to be seen to treat the claimants with compassion, but not to undermine the authority of the church. They have established criteria to use in a ‘canonical investigation’ so this is a carefully negotiated application of faith/belief and institutional values. It’s difficult for the rest of us to get engaged in this which is perhaps why we prefer the familiar excitement of Jacques’ investigation which tends to put human feelings at the top of the agenda. But perhaps this belief in journalistic investigation is just as constructed as the Vatican’s faith in its actions? In the Press Notes, Xavier Giannoli makes the point that:
. . . one should not imagine that the Church hopes for and encourages the authentication of apparitions. On the contrary, I think they are a hindrance to them . . . Faith doesn’t need proof or it’s no longer faith.
The ‘chase’ for Jacques and the fate of Anna and the tourist attraction that her vision has created involve the kind of narrative twists commonly found in crime fiction. There is also a coda in which Jacques finds a different kind of resolution, symbolically located in the desert. I was still with Jacques by the end of the narrative and I was moved by his relationship with Anna. I didn’t find the canonical investigation as interesting as I thought I might. There is a music score for the film in which Giannoli sees Arvö Part’s music which:
. . . doesn’t predispose you to accept the possibility of the supernatural. His music leaves room for silence, doubt, profound humanity and the poetry of doubt.
I’m afraid it didn’t do that for me or at least it did some of that but mainly seemed too relentlessly mournful. I’d have liked more of the visual expression offered by the feather-blowing machine. Overall, the presentation of the commercialisation of the apparition site and the pilgrimage industry is very good. In terms of religious belief it would be interesting to compare this film with Stations of the Cross (Germany 2014).
(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.
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.
Welcome attracted over 1 million admissions in France in 2009 and was also successful in Italy for writer-director Philippe Lioret. It received won awards at festivals and prizes at competitions around Europe. However, in the UK, where part of the story is set, interest was negligible with only a few thousand admissions. Perhaps this was because the small distributor Cinefile had difficulty getting bookings – but was this in turn because of a reluctance to deal with narratives like this? The ‘Welcome’ of the title is deeply ironic and refers to the (presumably British?) doormat in a block of flats/apartments in Calais where the common greeting extended towards migrants attempting to reach the UK by crossing the Channel is anything but ‘welcoming’.
The narrative concerns two couples. Marion (Audrey Dana) and Simon (Vincent Lindon) are a French couple living in Calais. She is a teacher and an activist helping to run a support centre for asylum seekers. He is an ex-swimming champion now working as an instructor at a local pool. Their marriage has broken up, partly because he doesn’t share his wife’s commitment to helping asylum seekers. The other couple are also separated. Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) is a young Iraqi Kurd (17-18) trapped in Calais while his girlfriend Mina (Derya Ayverdi) is now living with her family in London where her father is a restaurant manager. Bilal makes one abortive (and traumatic) attempt to get to England using a people-smuggling gang and then seeks another way. He is a strong athlete who wants to become a professional footballer but now decides to attempt to swim the channel. Searching for a trainer to help him prepare he comes across Simon. Reluctant at first, Simon gradually takes to the boy and realises that by helping him he might have a chance of getting back with his wife. (Simon and Bilal communicate in English – the lingua franca of migrants in Europe.) This unlikely story is apparently based on something Lioret heard about in Calais and his meeting with a young man like Bilal when he spent time living with migrants and supporters. (See this interview with Philippe Lioret.)
Without these two love stories I wouldn’t have had a movie but a documentary about immigrants. I’ve seen many of these documentaries – and they have all been very good – but unfortunately I don’t think people are necessarily moved by them. If people are interested in my film, it’s because it speaks to them emotionally. (Philippe Lioret in the interview above.)
What Lioret says makes sense and I thought the film worked very well. I don’t want to spoil the storytelling by revealing the ending but I did find the central idea difficult. Swimming the Channel is challenging for the most experienced swimmers with full support and seemingly impossible to achieve ‘under cover’. Is this attempt meant to be ‘real’ or symbolic in terms of storytelling? While we are concerned that Bilal might undertake the journey, we are also made aware of the French law (L622-1) that makes it an offence to help illegal immigrants in France. Marion and her co-workers have to work carefully in relation to this law. Simon is more cavalier and risks imprisonment because of the way he acts.
Overall I think the film works in terms of the writing and performances, although I think it is sometimes difficult to have a well-known actor like Lindon alongside much less experienced young actors like Ayverdi. It works in terms of ‘trainer’ and ‘trainee’ but in other scenes it is difficult not to look at Lindon’s performance differently. (As I write this, Lindon’s performance in 2015’s The Measure of a Man which won the Cannes Acting Prize is being lauded on the film’s UK release.) I’m also now conscious of spotting actors like Thierry Godard, prominent in the TV cop show Engrenages shown on BBC4.
The subject matter of the film is now arguably even more compelling since the camp, ‘The Jungle’, in Calais is still there even though its profile in the UK news media is being eclipsed by the tragedy of migrant flows across the Mediterranean and by the furore about immigration deliberately inflamed by the ‘Leave’ campaign in the UK European Referendum. If this kind of story was to appear in the UK it would most likely be in the form of a documentary, possibly for television. The equivalent of a production like Welcome has not, as far as I can remember, happened in the UK since a trio of films by ‘name’ directors in the 2000s. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort (UK 2000), Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (UK 2002) and Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (UK 2006). Any one of these would make a good choice for a comparative study with Welcome. It’s also worth noting that it took another French director, Rachid Bouchareb to make a film about the personal stories associated with an international tragedy in London River (France-Algeria 2009), which deals with the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London.
Philippe Lioret’s film perhaps focuses on the French couple too much for audiences whose first concern is the fate of the migrants. But the fate of both couples is important. Migrants, whether they are asylum seekers or simply ambitious people wanting the chance for what they perceive as a better life are not necessarily ‘victims’ or ‘heroes’ and those who attempt to help them do so for a range of reasons. The point of a humanist film is to represent all the characters in a story as who they are rather than as characters with specific narrative roles. Welcome is a film well worth seeing in the contemporary climate and it’s still available on DVD.
The import of French films into the UK still remains a mystery to me. Mademoiselle Chambon was a sizeable hit in France in 2009 (over 500,000 admissions) but it took two years before the small specialised cinema distributor Axiom released it in the UK in September 2011. The initial release was on just 6 screens and, despite some very good reviews, subsequent bookings seem to have been limited. A little research reveals that director Stéphane Brizé’s previous film, Not Here to be Loved (2005) also took two years to reach the UK via Artificial Eye, who released just 3 prints in June 2007. I missed that release altogether but I’m tempted now to seek out the DVD.
My first reaction to Mademoiselle Chambon was that it was what British arthouse audiences think of as a ‘typical French film’ – beautifully mounted with excellent cinematography and wonderful performances by two familiar stars, Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain. Of course, there are many kinds of French Cinema but this film appeals directly to a specific demographic of older British audiences. There is nothing specifically ‘arty’ about the film, but it falls out of the mainstream because it offers a romance which is subtle and gentle but still powerful. The film is based on a novel by Eric Holder, but director Brizé changed the story significantly.
Jean is a self-employed builder in a small town in the South of France. He is happily married to the beautiful Anne Marie (well played by the striking Aure Atika, best-known to UK audiences for The Beat That My Heart Skipped). The couple have a small son and when Anne Marie injures her back at work in a local print factory, Jean has to pick up his son from school. Here he meets his son’s teacher Véronique. A few days later she asks him to talk to the class about his job as a builder. Hesitant, he accepts and is well received by the children but then Véronique asks him to look at a damaged window in her apartment and he is persuaded to replace it for her. This encounter will eventually lead to a recognition that there is an attraction between them. What follows is certainly a romance but one in which very little happens by the standards of entertainment cinema. Instead we get beautifully composed CinemaScope framings that enable us to feel the emotional pull. There is a minimalist score and this is directly linked, as non-diegetic music, with the diegetic music which Veronique plays on her violin – playing which then becomes an important focus for Jean’s feelings about her. It’s the way that music is used that distinguishes this film from the expressive qualities of a melodrama. This is one of those seemingly ‘anti-melodramas’ in which music, colour, cinematography and mise en scène signify meanings in a subdued rather than expressionistic way.
A very useful review in Cineaste by Megan Ratner offers a detailed reading of the film which I urge you to read and I’ll attempt to expand it. The slow pace of the film and the minimal amount of plotting allows the audience to really think deeply about the two central characters and how they are feeling. As Ratner suggests both characters are seeking something that they need and the classic ‘opposites attract’ observation seems fitting in that Véronique is rootless, moving to a new school in a new town each year, whereas Jean is perhaps too rooted in family and community. But the potential couple also share something – their skill and knowledge represented by intelligence and craft knowledge and expressed through music and building. It’s important that we see Anne Marie at work where she is engaged in routine tasks (though of course she is also a mother and housekeeper). Jean’s father is a key character in this respect. We see Jean tenderly washing his father’s feet and taking him to a funeral home to plan his eventual departure and he becomes an important conduit for the feelings between Jean and Véronique when Jean persuades her to play her violin at his father’s 80th birthday party.
However, I think that there are other ways to think about the narrative. I was struck by a scene towards the end of the film when Véronique speaks to her mother on the phone. We get the sense that in her family she is a ‘failure’ of some kind, certainly in comparison with her sister. Véronique is middle-class by background and though she never makes anything of this, it is her cultural status that partly attracts Jean – her apartment with its sparse but attractive decoration, her knowledge of music and her skill with the violin. Does she seduce Jean consciously or unconsciously via her invitations to the school and then to her apartment? I won’t spoil the pleasure of seeing how the romance runs its course, but I do agree with Megan Ratner that when it comes, the first subtle sign of intimacy between the couple is highly erotic and comparable to the moment in The Age of Innocence when Daniel Day-Lewis eases the buttons of Michelle Pfeiffer’s kid glove. Do we want the physical love between the two to go much further? You’ll have to see the film to make up your own mind. (I wasn’t aware when I watched the film that Kiberlain and Lindon had previously been in a relationship – but perhaps this helped them produce such moving scenes.)
So, if you get the chance to watch this film, I recommend it highly – but do get yourself in the mood for something slow and gentle. Lindon and Kiberlain are wonderful actors who look more like the rest of us than glamorous stars, but under direction of this high standard their performances are mesmerising.
Press Pack downloadable from this US distributor.
Two French thrillers were released in the UK by Metrodome without too much fanfare in May and June and I managed to see both in the same week on digital prints at the National Media Museum. My first reaction, much like last Summer’s when a swathe of French films appeared, was why don’t we get British films like this on a regular basis – interesting genre films with star names presented in ‘Scope? What’s not to like? Well quite a lot if you are certain British critics, but I was engrossed.
The two films are actually quite different. Of the two, I think Pour elle (Anything for Her, France 2008) worked best. It reminded me of classic crime thrillers – what the French call polars. The set-up is very simple. A young mother, Lisa (Diane Kruger) is arrested and convicted for murder on seemingly incontrovertible evidence. Her husband, Julien (Vincent Lindon) believes she didn’t do it and determines to spring her and reunite the family (Oscar is their young son). And that’s it. In some ways, the situation is pure Hitchcock with an innocent man forced into dangerous and criminal acts because he loves his wife. The difference is that Hitchcock would cast Cary Grant. The woman would be Grace Kelly and it would all take place in a glamorous fantasy world. But Julien is a teacher in a nameless Paris suburb (much like the teacher in Entre les murs). This time, however, we learn little about his classroom, except that his students seem rather docile and the writer/director Fred Cavayé has a little joke when one of Julien’s students gives a short talk about George Simenon and Maigret – as Julien looks out of the window pondering his next move.
Vincent Lindon is terrific – he could easily be a character in a polar by Jean-Pierre Melville with his gravelly voice, lugubrious expression and ‘bashed in’ face giving him the look of Belmondo crossed with Lino Ventura. The main criticism of the film appears to be that it is implausible – in other words that ‘ordinary people’ like this don’t do extraordinary things such as springing the partners from prison. Teachers can’t be ‘extraordinary’. Pah! I’ve known several extraordinary teachers, at least one of whom was an ex-paratrooper. But that’s not the point. If this was a Hitchcock film, nobody would worry about plausibility – and nobody criticises Batman for not being plausible. Pour elle is a genre movie and it includes several genre tropes related to getting hold of money and prison breaks. As long as the characters are plausible and the plotting shows intelligence, I don’t have problems.
Cavayé has the neat device of Julien pretending to write a book about a famous prison escapee (played by Olivier Marchal, director of 36, Quai des orfèvres). Julien gets all the pointers he needs, but can he carry them through? Much depends on whether we believe that he loves his wife and son and that he would do anything to keep them together. I think the script is generally pretty good. Everything is held together by Lindon and the action sequences are genuinely exciting and convincing. If you’ve seen 36, the ending is in some ways similar.
I hope that this does as well as Tell No One from 2007. It’s not as glamorous as that film and doesn’t have the same central Paris chic. It’s more noirish in every way. In France the film made around $5 million and in the UK it opened in the Top 20 from only 43 screens and with a healthy screen average of over $3,400. This bodes well, but the film probably won’t make it to North America as Paul Haggis and Lionsgate have already announced an American remake. That’s a shame, I think. Lindon is terrific and for much of the film, I idly wondered where I’d seen him before. He’s a prolific actor in French cinema and TV, but a little research soon answered my question – he’s the drunk who helps the three lads escape from the police when they try to steal a car in La haine (a film I must have watched a dozen times).
The other recent thriller is Mark of an Angel (L’empreinte de l’ange, France 2008) – a more problematic proposition for me. I was drawn to the film as it was produced by the same team responsible for La tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner, France 2006) and features the same star, Catherine Frot. La tourneuse de pages is terrific and I hoped for more of the same. The two films are both psychological thrillers/melodramas which again have a Hitchcockian feel and Mark of an Angel also has something in common with Claude Miller’s Ruth Rendell adaptation Betty Fisher and Other Stories (France 2001). The narrative set-up is that Elsa (Catherine Frot) sees a small girl at a children’s party attended by her son. She becomes obsessed with the child, convincing herself that the girl is her own daughter who she had been told had died soon after she was born. Elsa is separated from her husband and struggling to work and look after her son. Her obsession leads her to inveigle her way into a tentative friendship with the girl’s mother Claire (Sandrine Bonnaire) in order to observe the child more closely.
The criticism of this film has also been based on ‘implausibility’, but this time it is complicated by the opening title that informs us that the film is based on a true story. I certainly fell into the trap of pursuing the implausibility argument, but only because I had the nagging feeling that Catherine Frot was too old to play the role of Elsa. I’m a bit ashamed of this reaction. Ms Frot is an excellent actor and I’m all in favour of starring roles for older women. There is no real reason why she shouldn’t play characters a few years younger than herself, although film is a pretty unforgiving medium. I’ve since revised my initial reaction for two reasons. First, I happily accepted Vincent Lindon as an older father in Pour elle, so why not Catherine Frot in this film? Secondly, children born to mothers in their mid-forties are now more common and in narrative terms it actually helps the film since it makes Elsa seem more ‘other’ in comparison with the younger Claire as the supposedly ‘natural mother’. It seems to me that Elsa also dresses younger at times.
Lots about the film worked very well for me. In fact it worked too well. I watched several scenes through my fingers because I found them painful and excruciating (i.e. extremely effective). There are some pure Hitchcockian moments in the film, including a wonderful sequence in a theatre where the girl is performing in a school ballet and both women are watching her. On my first viewing I found the ending of the film very hard to take. For some other viewers this was because they deemed it implausible. For me it just wasn’t ‘enough’ – I was hoping for more of a melodrama ending. I think it retrospect, I was too harsh on the film and I suspect that on a second viewing I would be more favourable. I don’t know anything about writer/director Safy Nebbou but he seems to have made several films that sound interesting – I’ll certainly look out for them.
Postscript (11 October 2009)
In her review of the film in Sight and Sound (June 2009), Catherine Wheatley suggests that Pour elle might be the first ‘Sarkozy-era thriller’. Her argument is that aesthetically the film is a slick, Hollywood-style action thriller, but with a production design that emphasises the cold unsympathetic state. She casts Julien as a conservative symbol ( a teacher of French) and specifically a representative of a traditional French community under siege. The police and the criminals are, she argues, predominantly Arab whereas Lisa and Oscar are almost ‘angelic’.
I’m not averse to this reading and indeed I did feel a sense of Julien almost like a Michael Winner style ‘ordinary man’ against the ‘filth on the street’. But I think that’s pushing it. On the whole, I still think that the script justifies Julien’s move to taking enormous risks. He is a driven man with an obsessive love for wife and child. The charge of racial typing does make me think again, but I’m not sure that the effect is quite what Wheatley argues. I will continue to reflect on this.