2013 ALLIANCE FRANCAISE FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL reviews
LES SAVEURS DU PALAIS/HAUTE CUISINE
Based on the real life story of a country farm-owner and cook, played by Catherine Frot (The Page Turner), who spent over two years being the private chef of French President Francois Mitterand, the film is a lacklustre and relentlessly superficial account of her time there and the year spent in Antarctica cooking for the scientists/researchers.
Constantly intercutting between these two time periods and events, the film focuses on the range of food she prepared to meet the needs of the President, and the workers in Antarctica (with Iceland substituting for the actual location). An Australian film journalist and a cameraman follow her around in Antarctica in an attempt to get her full story, but to no avail. The film is elusive on many counts: Catherine’s character is not well developed and her motivations and encounters are briefly described or glossed over; the widescreen lensing looks beautiful, but there are far too many close-ups of the food preparation and not enough plot exposition. The music score by Gabriel Yared (The English Patient), is lush and rhythmic, but overshadows the narrative at times. The Australian journalist’s inclusion seems unnecessary, while the actual location of the Palace is largely wasted as we only really get to know the kitchens.
By the film’s conclusion I was left wondering where the dramatic aspects of her interesting experiences actually lay, and why the script and direction by Christian Vincent skims the surface most of the time. Indeed, this may have been a more interesting documentary than a narrative. Disappointing. (Peter Krausz)
Xavier Dolan is a young French Canadian filmmaker whose films are both distinctive and steeped in cinematic style. His previous films seen here: Heartbeats and I Killed My Mother, were challenging narratives that explored psychological manipulation and darker human forces. This film, running at around two and a half hours, is a compelling if overlong account of a man who discovers he is in the wrong gender body. Played convincingly by noted actor Melvil Poupaud (Time to Leave), the realization of his gender identity, his relationship with his wife, and the dramatic developments in their lives, culminate in a film with quite extraordinary visual power and melodramatic tone reminiscent of director Douglas Sirk.
As he explores his identity, and transmogrifies into a transvestite, the narrative systematically follows his psychological development over several years, while also revealing the various difficult encounters he has with family and friends. The widescreen lensing is superb, especially the use of a variety of locations (both interior and exterior), and some point of view as well as magical shots, that heighten his developing sense of identity and unresolvable social relationships, without ever being entirely sympathetic. Similarly the music score and sound design play a large part in the effectiveness of this distinctive film. Highly recommended. (Peter Krausz)
DANS LA MAISON/IN THE HOUSE
Francois Ozon’s films cover a rich tapestry of social observation, humour and tantalizing story structures, with films like Swimming Pool, 8 Women and Potiche some good examples. In this case, Ozon has adapted a Spanish play which is actually two stories in one: a teenage boy’s attempts to write keenly observed stories, and the interplay between teacher and student laced with narrative devices, fantasy and psychological manipulation. Reminiscent in tone to Entertaining Mr. Sloane, as well as more literary films about writing like Adaptation, The Words, Naked Lunch, the film concerns a teacher (Fabrice Luchini) despairing of the literary qualities of his students, who discovers a boy who loves to spin tales and engage the reader. Meanwhile the teacher’s wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) has her own issues trying to run a very avant-garde art gallery. The teacher is seduced by the boy’s perverse observations, hinting at sexual innuendo all the time.
The film establishes an intriguing parallel narrative, with the supposed reality of these people’s lives, set against the storytelling by the student, which wanders into fantasy and manipulation. What makes this film so compelling and intriguing is that the audience is never quite certain that what is being written and expressed, as well as what is being depicted on screen, is actually happening or is total supposition bordering on exploitation of a family. With a sly sense of humour, and an obsessive tone, Ozon, weaves a tale that will leave you guessing until the final scene. Ernst Umhauer plays the school student with the right degree of insouciance and naiveté, while the film’s jaunty tone is constantly undermined by a few startling sequences. Highly recommended. (Peter Krausz)
ADIEU BERTHE – L’ENTERREMENT DE MEME/GRANNY’S FUNERAL
An enjoyable, mildly absurdist comedy, about a man torn between his wife, his mistress and his mother-in-law. Then his grandmother dies, and everything becomes a bit too problematic while planning her funeral. The film, as directed by Bruno Podalydes, adopts a humorous tone as some slightly unusual events and incidents occur between him, his various relationships, and the funeral directors. The film also cleverly toys with the notion of death and legacy, and has a lot of fun with contemporary ideas about burial and cremation. Recommended. (Peter Krausz)
VOUS N’AVEZ ENCORE RIEN VU/YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHIN’ YET
Now in his late 80s, Alain Resnais (Last Year in Marienbad) is a master filmmaker whose films are both striking and narratively compelling. Over the last few years, his films have become more theatrical in style, and play on the notion of reality and fantasy within the context of a grounded story. In this case, a group of actors is summoned to an estate to witness a statement from a recently deceased playwright whose work on the Orpheus and Eurydyce story has seen all of them involved in the past. They now all witness a contemporary restaging of the play, while at the same time they all relive their own parts in previous stagings of the play.
The clever concept presented in a theatrical way with clever lighting and set design, highlights the way these older actors relive their earlier roles, informing their own lives today. Prominent actors like Sabine Azema, Lambert Wilson, Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric, and others are transformed from observers to participants in this odd conceit as orchestrated by a “from the grave” playwright. Although a bit overlong and a little repetitive in style and concept, nonetheless Resnais draws out some terrific performances from his cast, to the point that the narrative blurs the point in which theatricality and realism meet, culminating in a somewhat ethereal approach that remains fascinating to the twist resolution. A definite festival highlight, where all the films that are not template romantic comedies prove to be interesting viewing. Highly recommended. (Peter Krausz)
L’ENFANT D’EN HAUT/SISTER
This is a brittle and compelling film about a 12 year old boy and his older sister living a hand to mouth existence around the ski-slopes of Switzerland. Indeed, she is often absent, while the boy, left to his own devices, steals skis and other equipment and sells it to the workers and others who visit the resorts each year. The film’s tone becomes increasingly darker when his thievery leads to some confronting situations, and his sister is revealed to be something he did not expect. Ursula Meier directs this film with a solid understanding of fraught family relationships and the difficulties faced by the poorer members of a supposedly wealthy country. Indeed, the film deals with complex family issues that heighten the audience’s understanding that not all families can be effective or healed. Despite the glimmer of hope that the film’s denouement presents, this is a tough yet sympathetic film, beautifully acted by Lea Seydoux and Kacey Mottet Klein. Recommended. (Peter Krausz)
Reminiscent of the best sequence from Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, where Roberto Begnini for no particular reason finds himself hounded by the media 24 hours a day, this film by Xavier Giannoli uses the same premise. One day, factory worker Kad Merad, finds himself the subject of constant media attention, being hounded by everyone on the street who wants his autograph, or the paparazzi that need to continuously take photos of him. He is befuddled by all this attention as he sees himself as just an ordinary guy. Cecile de France plays a media consultant who becomes involved with his perpetual public harassment, leading to a number of funny and creepy scenes.
What starts off as an interesting satire on the unpredictability of fame and recognition to the point of constant observation, soon becomes both tiresome and repetitive, as if the director didn’t know how to develop the story beyond a continuous re-arcing of the narrative. Kad’s character is never fully explained or given a strong back story, and the media harassment becomes so ludicrous that by the end of the film, which does go on far too long, you don’t really care how the story is resolved. The involvement of a transsexual novelist makes little sense, and just pads out the narrative even further. Hence, a potentially intriguing satire about the inexplicable power of fame, and the manipulation of people by the media or unknown forces (a la The Truman Show, Ed), becomes little more than a superficial rant (not unlike Peter Finch’s speech in Network), without any real substance or resonance. Disappointing. (Peter Krausz)
The consequences of guilt, inaction and individual responsibility, are all explored in this powerful, and at times histrionic, film about an ambitious car salesman whose hit and run of a man spirals out of control. Raphael Personnaz plays the man about to be married, who after a wild night out with his two mates, runs over a pedestrian, and they all decide to run for it and avoid detection. However, the accident was witnessed by Clotilde Hesme who is unsure as to what she should do. She eventually meets the wife of the severely injured man, and discovers they are illegal immigrants from Moldavia, whose tenuous hold on life and existence adds another layer to the mix. The car salesman begins to develop strong guilt feelings and decides to help the stricken family via the witness. This complex triangular situation develops into a compelling narrative that leaves all players in difficult circumstances. Guilt is such a powerful emotion, although one could speculate that if the man had owned up immediately to the accident, none of the fraught situations and consequences would probably have ensued. A film to see and discuss afterwards, despite the occasional unbelievable turns in the plot. Recommended. (Peter Krausz)
LES ADIEUX A LA REINE/FAREWELL MY QUEEN
Set in the days around the French Revolution in 1789, and filmed on location at the Palace of Versailles, Benoit Jacquot’s film focuses on Marie Antoinette and the relationship between her and one of her ladies in waiting. Diane Kruger plays Marie in a wistful manner alluding to the likely outcome of the storming of the Bastille, while Lea Seydoux plays the Queen’s assistant inveigled into a potential lesbian relationship to satisfy the Queen’s needs. The sumptuous production design, as well as the claustrophobic atmosphere of the royal court waiting for the inevitable guillotining of the court, makes for an interesting and quietly moving film, with Marie’s story told from a different perspective. Recommended. (Peter Krausz)
The medical establishment’s patriarchal way of dealing with women’s health issues in the 19th Century is brought to the fore in this strangely compelling tale of a young woman whose seizures, and palsy, become the subject of a doctor’s investigation. The whole notion of mental illness, sexual repression and female health, are all on show in this muted narrative where nothing is ever explicit or thoroughly explained. Whereas the film Hysteria took a satiric view of women’s sexual needs and health issues, this film is much darker and highlights the way men were unable to properly understand women’s health at that time. The film also evokes the exploration into the brain chemistry and how that can lead to a range of bizarre behaviours, as shown by the doctor’s uncertainty as to the cause of Augustine’s behavior especially under hypnosis.
Soko, who also contributes some of the music, plays Augustine as a teenage woman unable to understand her medical dilemma, while Vincent Lindon, plays the doctor who begins to feel an attraction to his patient. Freud’s omnipresent theories subtly abound in the narrative structure. Director Alice Winocour has fashioned a psychological tale of medical discovery and male dominance, with women the unfortunate victims of an inexact science in that time period. Recommended. (Peter Krausz)