Category: France


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Life is as much defined by loss as it is by growth and experience. We lose relationships, our youth, our hair, and, if we get old enough, our memories which are the very nature of our existence begin to fade. Learning to deal with these losses is a defining element of the life experience, and the most successful lives are charted by facing these troubles and persevering. But there are the losses that we can move past: losing a girlfriend, the death of an elderly parent, getting fired from a job; and then there are the losses that create black holes at the center of our very being. The emptiness consumes our entirety and we are broken possibly for the rest of our lives. No film has explored that type of loss with such raw precision as 1993’s Blue from Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski as part of his French “Three Colors” trilogy.

There are few fears more intense than the death of a child. Even for the childless, the safety and well-being of children is paramount, and when children die of cancer or in school shootings or at the hands of a serial predator, it sparks our deepest existential fears. If children, particularly those too young to yet be corrupted by the world, can suffer the pains and cruelties of this world, then the idea of a benign and caring creator seems laughably unlikely. And if you lose both your child and your husband at once, what reason could you have for continuing in a world intent on taking those things which matter above all else? By the end of Blue, it’s impossible to avoid that question ever again.

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A few years back, comedian Louis C.K. released a stand-up special for HBO, and one of the first bits of his set was an extended rant about the inherent misery of life. His initial metaphor was that anytime you buy a child a dog, you’re actually setting everyone up for misery sooner or later when said dog dies. He then took it further by saying that all human relationships are predicated on inevitable tragedy. Either you date and you break up, you date and you get married, or you date, get married, and then one of you dies. Louis C.K. was taking human mortality for somewhat deep comedic laughs, but the newest film from Austrian director Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) is an extended dramatic meditation on the untold tragedy and suffering of what happens if you’re a married couple that’s “fortunate” enough to make it to old age together. And, Amour, the 2012 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language film is nearly as emotional an experience as it gets.

Considering the film’s subject matter (an elderly couple’s battle with Alzheimer’s), it was somewhat ironic that this was the film I watched right now for this blog because my best friend and I had a fairly in-depth conversation on the topic just the other day. Amour wrestles with the question “Is it worth keeping someone alive who is no longer themselves in any sense of the word?” It would be easy to misinterpret this film as a chronicle of one husband’s almost selfless devotion to his wife, but that would be the wrong way to look at the film. The film wonders (in a vein more similar to The Road than one might think) whether the notion that human existence is sacrosanct is really true and if there are, in fact, moments when it would just be better if we were dead. And, if my interpretation of Haneke’s thesis is correct, I would be hard-pressed to name a film that handles these topics with more care or brutal insight.

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An elderly French couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne Laurent (Academy Award nominee Emmanuelle Riva), wile away their few remaining years in their well-kept but antiquated Paris apartment. Anne is in her 80s but in her youth, she was a much-respected piano instructor and one of her star pupils, Alexandre, is now a famous concert pianist, and the film opens on Georges and Anne at one of his concerts. Sadly, for this otherwise happily married pair of octogenarians, this will be their last night resembling happiness as Anne is on the verge of manifesting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (though it’s never stated as such in the film) and she’s not long away from the first of a series of strokes. And though, Anne is somewhat functional at first, it isn’t long before she loses any semblance of her former self and Georges, with occasional help from his daughter Eva (La Ceremonie‘s Isabella Huppert), is forced to spend every waking moment caring for the shell of a person that used to be his wife.

If you couldn’t tell from that description, Amour is a sad film. It reaches Synecdoche, New York/Rachel, Rachel levels of misery. In fact, it’s safe to say that it exceeds both of those films in terms of brutal heart-ache. Yet, it accomplishes all of this without falling into the trappings of melodrama. There were a million ways that writer and director Michael Haneke could have spun this tale, but he went for horrific honesty. There are few possibles fates in life more terrifying than to succumb to a degenerative mental illness like Alzheimer’s and Haneke captures it without sentiment or embellishment or any possible silver-lining. For those who have seen The Notebook, this film comes off as the antithesis of the big reveal of that film. With haunting realism, Amour stares suffering at its purest in the face and doesn’t blink.

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Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards this year for her performance in this film, and now, I honestly don’t know whether or not she or Jennifer Lawrence should have won. I can’t begin to fathom the amount of research Riva put in to nailing all of the physical symptoms of not just Alzheimer’s but also the multiple strokes her character suffered. It is a commitment to a realistic portrayal of a type of mental illness that’s nearly on par with Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. My family had a close friend when I was a child who ultimately succumbed to Alzheimer’s so I’ve seen the torment the illness wreaks on a human being. And Emmanuelle Riva channeled the bewilderment and constant terror that Anne was feeling any second she wasn’t in a state of merciful lucidity.

However, in a vein similar to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (though at least Anne has an arc, but it’s an arc towards stasis), the real emotional core of Amour was carried by Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges. One can not belittle the suffering that Anne goes through. By the end of the film, she exists as a barely conscious being. But, it is through Georges’s eyes that we experience Anne’s suffering. And slowly throughout the film, Jean-Louis transforms what appears to be a selfless devotion to his wife into an entirely selfish desire to keep her alive because he couldn’t bear to be alone. And Georges is cognizant of his own suffering and has to deal with knowing every day and every night that the woman he’s been with decades is gone and he’s clinging to mere memories and her corporeal existence. And, as a portrait of the malignant reality of getting old and facing the end of everything you’ve ever cared about, Jean-Louis Trintignant is just as good as Emmanuelle Riva. He (along with several other performers) impressed me more than the theatrics of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Day-Lewis is my favorite living actor.

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The cinematography from Darius Khondji paired with Haneke’s direction is uniformly excellent. The camera captures in rich detail every inch of Georges and Anne’s apartment and the quiet life that Georges wants to live versus the tribulations that have been forced upon him and his wife. And, Haneke’s decision to consistently incorporate lengthy takes only adds to the heightened realism of the picture. The takes in Amour become uncomfortably long, but by refusing to turn away from a brutal moment with cuts that alleviate the tension, Haneke forces the viewer directly into the suffering of Amour‘s world. There’s a moment towards the end of the film that I don’t want to spoil for anyone that involves Georges reciting a tale from his childhood to his essentially catatonic wife that ranks among the most effectively shot, written, and acted sequences of modern memory.

Amour is so singular in its dedication to heartbreak that by the end of the film, one may (though it seems mostly doubtful) find themselves inured to the misery. I am a crier. It does not take much to make me cry in a film. And, although Amour is without question one of the most distressing and gut-wrenching films I’ve ever sat through, it did not make me cry. And, I think that was intentional on Haneke’s part. Eventually, Amour begins to leave the realm of sad and enters existentialist horror. You become too overwhelmed with the notion that this could easily happen to you or someone you care about to be able to process the film in typical emotional ways. Or at least, that was my response. By Amour‘s end, I began to experience a physical sense of dread. The misery of this film manifested itself in me as a sense of being physically ill. That’s powerful film-making.

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Watching Amour is a commitment. It’s not entertaining in any traditional sense, and there were moments where the film’s unwavering artistic vision bordered on torturous (in the good sense). You are volunteering yourself to two hours of heart-ache and suffering without any hope of a gilded edge to soften the pain. But, Amour is an edifying experience of truly exceptional power and uncompromising respect for the viewer’s intelligence as well as the plight of its protagonists. For those with an interest in powerful cinema and for film-making that has something to say, Amour was easily one of the best films of last year. However, if you are already depressed or sad about something, hold off on watching Amour until you can come in with a more even-keel because, otherwise, I fear that this film could ruin you.

Final Score: A

(One final note. I have now finally seen all of last year’s Best Picture nominees. This was the last one to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray. And, boy did the Academy really FUBAR what won. For those curious, this is my list of the order of the films nominated for Best Picture [This disqualifies my top two films of the year which weren’t nominated, The Master and To the Wonder]:

1. Life of Pi

2. Amour

3. Silver Linings Playbook

4. Django Unchained

5. Zero Dark Thirty

6. Lincoln

7. Argo

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

9. Les Miserables

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review. Yes, I know there’s supposed to be an accent mark over the “e” in “Léon” in the title of this piece but I have no idea how to add it. Also, it feels like it’s ten million degrees in my room right now so I apologize if any of my writing is unintelligible. My brain is totally fried.)

The poetic action film is the Great White Whale of film-making for men that don’t want to feel guilty about testosterone-fueled entertainment. We want to believe it’s out there somewhere, but despite all of that, 99% of the time we’re chasing a myth. 1994’s Léon: The Professional from French director Luc Besson (1990’s La Femme Nikita) is likely the closest cinema’s ever come to the truly poetic action film. Though the film is not without its flaws, its devotion to story, mood, and characters alongside a hyperviolent tale of both revenge and love marked Luc Besson as one of the rare purveyors of action cinema that is also a true auteur. The Professional is the sort of film that early period Tarantino could have been proud of, and thanks to an electric big screen debut from Natalie Portman (Black Swan), The Professional is the definition of a flawed masterpiece.

Léon (Margaret‘s Jean Reno) is a cleaner. But, he’s a cleaner for the Italian mob which means he’s a hitman. And he’s a damn good one though his code of “No women. No kids,” means he has a moral system he operates by. And besides the fact that he’s an almost mind-bogglingly efficient killer, Léon is almost a child at heart. He can not read English. He cares for a single potted plant like it were his own child. And he goes to watch old Gene Kelly movies at the theatre with the pure adulation of only the most innocent at heart. He barely even spends the money he earns which mostly just sits in the “bank” of his mobster boss, Tony (Moonstruck‘s Danny Aiello). But, when he crosses path with Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a 12 year old girl living in his apartment building, his simple life is thrown violently off track.

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The chain-smoking, frequently-cursing Mathilda is the emotionally and physically abused daughter of a local hood who gets himself in over his head with a corrupt and borderline psychotic D.E.A. Agent, Stansfield (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Gary Oldman). When Mathilda’s father and the rest of her family is murdered by Stansfield and other corrupt cops, Mathilda’s life is only spared because she was out buying milk at the time the hit went down. And, against his better judgment, Léon welcomes Mathilda into his home to protect her. Though Mathilda could care less about her abusive father, Stansfield’s men killed her four year old brother, and she desperately wants revenge against the men that killed her family. And so, she forces her way even more into Léon’s life and makes him teach her how to be a cleaner so that she can get the revenge she so desperately craves.

Out of the three principal leads in the film (Portman, Reno, and Goldman), you have one simply jaw-dropping performance, one deliciously hammy performance, and one “meh” performance that works within the context of the character. Natalie Portman’s ferocious turn as Mathilda is easily one of the top 10 child performances of all time, and it should be no surprise that she would later go on to win an Academy Award for Black Swan. She should have been nominated for this. There’s a scene midway through the film where Mathilda puts a gun to her head to force Léon to teach her to be a cleaner where the sadness and desperation that is consuming Mathilda is painfully apparent. Most adult actresses would have struggled with the part. Portman blew it out of the water as a 13 year old.

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Gary Oldman’s performance is the one that I refer to as being deliciously hammy. There is no question that it’s over-the-top. It is insanely over the top, but Stansfield is a villain of monstrous, pure evil, and Luc Besson gave Goldman the freedom to run crazy with the performance. There are two moments in particular that stand out. One is him sashaying to Mozart as he massacres Mathilda’s family. And the other is the infamous “EVERYONE!” quip during the climactic action sequence. Jean Reno is, unfortunately, not the world’s greatest actor. His English wasn’t very good in the 90s, and it shows in this film. But, Léon is a man of quiet contemplation and few words, and so, though Reno doesn’t deliver one of the most exciting performances of the film, he certainly delivers what is needed for his character.

As I’ve said earlier, beyond Portman’s star-making performance (had she never made another film, this would have been legacy-cementing in its own right), The Professional soars because of its singular commitment to character-development and genuine emotional pay-offs over typical action pyrotechnics. Let their be no mistake. The climax of the film is as thrilling as it gets, but its power rests in the fact that two hours into the film, we are now incredibly invested into the outcome of Léon and Mathilda’s lives. They are fully rounded, three dimensional characters, and just like in La Femme Nikita, the psychological aspect of these characters throws off more sparks than action scenes ever could. As a warped coming-of-age tale as well as an equally warped romance, The Professional finds the poetry in its carnage.

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When The Professional was first released in 1994, it generated a fair bit of controversy for the seemingly Lolita-esque nature of the relationship between Mathilda and Léon. And while I think Mathilda’s attraction to her mentor and savior was decidedly one-way (and based mostly around the lack of a reasonable father figure in her life), I have an entirely new set of contentions with the film’s handling of a thirteen year old heroine. The Professional sexualizes Mathilda. That’s just a fact. From the many angles that the film shoots her, it’s clear that Besson’s camera views Portman as a sexual object. Though it’s clearly not to the level of exploitation of Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, I lost track of the number of times that the film shot Portman from the ass down. It was weird and it made me incredibly uncomfortable. I think the controversy surrounding Mathilda’s love for Léon was mostly misplaced because this is why people should have been upset.

When the film was released in America (where it was called The Professional as opposed to Léon in Europe), we were given a massively pared down version of the film, and though I’ve fallen in love with the European cut of the movie, I would be interested in seeing the edited version of the film because besides the sexualization of Natalie Portman, my most substantive complaint about The Professional is that it drags a little towards the end. I understand that I love this film because of the character development and commitment to building these characters up, but at times, certain elements felt like filler. Also, there’s one scene during the climactic action sequence where Jean Reno bellows (there really isn’t a better word to use here) that is the bad kind of hammy.

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If you’ve not seen The Professional, you need to drop whatever you’re doing and watch it immediately. I’m not exaggerating when I say that outside of the confines of particular war films, it’s arguably one of the greatest action films ever made. It has its flaws, and its particularly French (i.e. Louis Malle committed the same sins in Pretty Baby) with the sexuality of a young girl struck me as heartily disturbing. However, I can forgive Luc Besson his trespasses when the rest of his storytelling and character-building are so strong. From the first time I watched this film more than ten years ago, I fell in love with The Professional. And with each viewing, I find something new to appreciate and notice. Luc Besson is an auteur, and in a world where seemingly every action film (outliers like Looper the glorious exception) feels like a Michael Bay debacle, one must take the time to appreciate the art of a movie like Léon: The Professional.

Final Score: A-

 

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Understanding that documentaries rarely make an impact with mainstream audiences outside of Michael Moore films and sports stories like Undefeated or Hoop Dreams, I consider myself to be a fan. Hell, the very first movie I reviewed for this blog was the Oscar-winning opera documentary, In the Shadow of the Stars, and it’s been a love affair with great documentaries ever since (Children Underground, Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Road to Guantanamo just to name a few). The chance to see into another life and another world in a truthful way is something that you don’t often get from fiction (except for anything David Simon makes). However, the key to a great documentary is more often than not (I’ve realized over these last two years) great editing. You can have a fascinating concept, but if you don’t capture the right material (or aren’t choosy enough about what material to present), your film will not succeed to its fullest, and a lack of decent editing is the only thing keeping 2010’s Sweetgrass from reaching the ranks of the great documentaries of this decade.

Because conceptually, Sweetgrass taps into something that few other documentaries really attempt to find. Rather than utilizing subject interviews or voice-over narration or any type of conventional expository structure, Sweetgrass is instead just an hour and forty four minute series of images (with often excruciatingly long shots but more on that shortly) and it expects the viewer to follow along and relate to the trials and tribulations of its protagonists  without being led by the hand in any way whatsoever. And I respect the film for that decision. By removing any sort of barrier between the audience and the subject matter, Sweetgrass becomes a documentary in its purest form by simply documenting. And through this structural decision, Sweetgrass becomes one of the most intimate documentaries I’ve ever watched. Sadly, it is not always one of the most interesting or compelling.

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Sweetgrass follows the very last summer pasture sheep-herding of a massive herd of sheep in a particular Montana mountain range. I actually don’t remember the names of the two main men in the film (and I’ve been taking fairly extensive notes for my reviews again) because they are so often secondary to the images and quest of the film. In fact, the movies goes nearly 20 minutes before there’s any actual spoken dialogue (unless you count the yipping of one of the herders on the ranch). The sheep (as an entire unit) are just as important characters in this film as are the men that are stuck herding them for their summer pasture. And whether it’s the birthing of a new litter, the shearing of the herd before their pasture, young lambs running for the first time, or the inevitable death of sheep at the hands of natural predators, you get sucked into the world of Sweetgrass on the power of image alone.

However, and this is important, Sweetgrass can be slower and more deliberately paced than Eeyore after he’s smoked some barbiturates (I’ve think I’ve made this joke before). There are countless shots in this film that test the patience of even the most patient movie-goers. The film overflows with gorgeous shots of the Montana landscape and memorable images of the sheep herd, but nine times out of ten, the directors/editors chose to just let the scene last at least twice or even three times as long as it should have. I started trying to keep track of the number of times in the film where they just let the camera linger on a scene for what felt like an eternity when nothing was happening (and the shot didn’t progress the themes of the film any more), and I lost count. I’m not sure if I’ve ever watched a documentary that was this hell-bent on ruining a great premise and some great moments with absurdly awful editing.

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For a film that only runs an hour and forty four minutes, Sweetgrass felt like it lasted an eternity. And longtime readers know that I have an endless lover for deliberately-paced, slower films, but the incessant lack of something happening in this film always kept me from fully immersing myself in the world of these ranchhands and sheep in the way that I’m sure the filmmakers intended me to. If you like documentaries, Sweetgrass attempts to do something really interesting, and despite my complaints about the occasional moments of total agony this film put me through, I still enjoyed it and it had enough truly memorable moments to make it worth your while. But if you don’t have any interest in the documentary genre, you should avoid this film like the plague because it will bore the holy hell out of you.

Final Score: B

 

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(A quick note before I write up this review. This movie was as heady of an intellectual head trip as I’ve had for a while. I wanted to wait til tomorrow to give this movie the full review it deserves because… Jesus… it’s a doozy. But we’re watching a movie in my film studies class tomorrow and I’d like to actually write that review tomorrow and not have to wait half a week to finally do it like I did for The Public Enemy. So, I spent about two and a half hours or so working on my screenplay [the psychological horror one. not Aftertaste which I’ve written 6 drafts of], and now I feel semi-prepared to jump into a review of what I can easily describe as one of the most absolutely bat-shit insane films I’ve ever watched.)

In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or David Lynch’s Inland Empire, notions of time, perspective, and the reliable continuity of point of view are decimated in at attempt by each auteur to deconstruct their specific field of work. Pynchon’s sprawling, schizophrenic narrative was a giant “f*** you” to the literary establishment and the conventions of the structure of a novel while Lynch’s surrealist and emotionally disturbing imagery similarly bucked any idea of traditional cinematic content. Although both are essentially fantasies (Gravity’s Rainbow a dystopian delusion of World War II’s horrors as sheer paranoia; Inland Empire the frenzied breakdown of a star on the verge of madness), they capture inherent truths of their chosen medium by obliterating the traditional molds from which they are usually drawn. From a purely technical standpoint, Gaspar Noé’s 2009 indie drama Enter the Void nearly matches both of those works although it ultimately lacks the beating core at the center of those two other masterpieces.

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Much like Gravity’s Rainbow or Inland Empire, trying to explain the plot of Enter the Void is a little bit of an exercise in futility as well as missing the actual point of the film. But here goes. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is an American living in Japan with his sister Linda (Choke‘s Paz de la Huerta). Oscar loves psychedelic drugs and makes his living dealing ecstasy at local Japanese night clubs. When Oscar is betrayed by a friend and killed by police in a raid at the Void nightclub, his spirit exits his body and wanders the Japanese skyline as he sees bits and pieces of his sister’s and friends’ lives after his death as well as a traumatic non-linear hodgepodge of incidences from his past. Taken as a loose, psychedelic interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Enter the Void is Gaspar Noé’s attempt to paint a hallucinatory picture of what our spirit perceives right after we die.

Ignoring for the moment that I’m a “teapot agnostic” who doesn’t believe in an afterlife or that anything Oscar perceives in this film after his death would actually happen, let me just open with the fact that Enter the Void is unquestionably one of the most visually striking films ever made. I am more than willing to put it in the same league as Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life in terms of its raw visual beauty. There is not a single wasted frame in this film that isn’t either Gaspar Noé conjuring up some ethereal, beautiful, Electric  Kool-Aid Acid Test bit of psychedelic imagery or blowing your mind with imaginative shot after imaginative shot. I don’t care how many films you’ve seen. Even if you’re a dedicated movie fanatic such as myself, you’ve never watched a movie that looks like this before.

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And much like Todd Solondz’s Happiness, Gaspar Noé isn’t afraid to disturb the hell out of his viewers with depraved and sordid subject matter while still speaking to something essentially true about darker sides of human nature. As an intentional contrast against the film’s hauntingly beautiful visuals (I seriously can’t stress enough how good-looking this film is), Enter the Void tackles some downright transgressive issues in an open and honest way. From incestual attraction to rampant drug use to rape to explicit (bordering on pornographic) sexuality, Enter the Void is one of the toughest films to sit through that I’ve watched in ages simply for the brutality of its subject matter. Death and violence and sex intermingle with the Noé’s masterful visual techniques to the point that you find yourself torn for being visually stunned by a scene while simultaneously being sickened by its content.

When the film is firing on all of the right cylinders storywise, it is almost too intimate to watch. Alongside Todd Solondz or Todd Haynes, this film tackles taboo subject matter without making judgments or presenting a side. It simply observes and the picture never turns away. Part of that functions from the film’s point of view which is told more or less entirely either through Oscar’s eyes or from over his shoulder. We never lose the sense of being right in the heart of the depravity of the film. And there are moments where you want to look away. Where you want Gaspar Noé to take us out of the horror of these disintegrating personal lives (and his imagery would often turn as hellish as the scenes they were portraying), but he wisely knows to force you to confront these issues and it makes for a wildly emotional experience.

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And all of the various ways in which the film is a stunning, resounding success makes the film’s monumental flaws all the more frustrating. First and foremost, the performances are an almost universal trainwreck. Not only is Paz de la Huerta aggressively unattractive, she is an awful actress. She is completely devoid of emotion, intonation, and suggestive expression. You see more of Linda than you actually do of Oscar (who is simply a passive observer in many scenes) and the role deserved a more dynamic When Oscar is still alive, you can hardly hear or understand any of Nathaniel Brown’s monotone dialogue. The Frenchman playing Oscar’s friend Alex is no more understandable. Though at least he is somewhat expressive. And none of the other, smaller bit parts impress in this film chock full of nonprofessional actors.

And, sadly, at the end of the day, while the film may be a technical masterpiece, it is also one of the most self-indulgent and pretentious movies you will ever watch. For every moment of inspired brilliance (Oscar’s pre-death DMT trip, the various flashbacks to his parents’ death, the nonlinear gamesmanship), the film will throw in at least one or two moments that make the film drag to eternity. There was absolutely no reason why needed a view from inside a vagine of a penis thrusting in and out of said vagina and then ejaculating. Unnecessary and gross. While many of the sex scenes are intentionally uncomfortable and depraved, I’m not sure if the unsimulated sex scenes were actually necessary. For a good ten minutes or so, Enter the Void becomes a really artsy porno. I’m sure there would have been a way to maintain the veracity of the film without including actual sex.

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Never have I watched a film that is simultaneously an almost peerless masterpiece while also being somewhat juvenile and deeply, deeply flawed. Despite the movie’s major shortcomings, if you’re into the post-modernist, mindscrew genre of cinema (think David Lynch or Darren Aranofsky), not only must you watch Enter the Void. You must watch it right now. It is powerful, provocative film-making and if Noé can learn to tamper just a bit of his excesses, he could jump to the forefront of international filmmakers. He is that talented. As it is, Enter the Void should enter the canon of visually triumphant cinema even if it ultimately buckles under the weight of its own ambitions and the deficiencies of its principal cast.

Final Score: B+

 

(Side note before my actual review. Man, I’d started to forget what it was like to watch a foreign art house film. It’d been a while. Specifically, I think I haven’t watched one since 8 1/2 in the middle of May back in New York. And it’s been even longer since I’ve taken a journey into the strange and perverse mind of art house film icon Luis Buñuel with Viridiana in July of last year. Nothing like a good foreign film to remind you of how conventional even the most groundbreaking American films can seem)

Subtle political commentary is the most effective when a film is first released and the most incomprehensible commentary decades after the film’s release. Throw in a transatlantic cultural barrier and you have the makings of a movie whose actual message should be completely lost on future foreign generations (unless they do their homework on the film’s subject matter). Luis Buñuel’s (Belle de Jour) 1964 classic Diary of a Chambermaid seems destined to some day suffer that sad fate. However, thanks to my political science upbringing (and a healthy love of foreign history), I was able to peer into the subtle depths of his political satire of the growing French nationalism and neo-fascism of the 1960s to find a wonderfully understated film filled to the brim with Buñuel’s love of shocking and subversive sexuality.

When cultured and haute couture Parisian maid Celestine (Jeanne Moreau) moves to the countryside of 1930s Paris, she is quickly drawn into the political and sexual games of the Rabour/Monteil family. The family’s patriarch, the elderly Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne) never sleeps with the maids but gets his sexual kicks by having them wear racy shoes and reading erotic literature to him. His daughter, Madame Monteil, is frigid and takes her frustrations out on the help by being an overly critical shrew. Her husband, Monsieur Monteil (Michel Piccoli), has a voracious sexual appetite, but since his wife won’t sleep with him, he tries to sleep with all of the women (including the help) in sight. Throw in the family valet, Joseph (Georges Geret), a racist French nationalist, and walking the landmine known as the Rabour household is as much a full-time job for the beautiful Celestine as her actual maid duties. Although Celestine quickly decides that the Rabour household is too much for her to handle, the murder and rape of a 12 year old girl causes her to decide to stay as she attempts to suss out the mystery of who could commit such an atrocity.

While I’m not necessarily as consistently impressed with Luis Buñuel’s output as the rest of the cinema world (Viridiana was brilliant but Belle de Jour was relatively mediocre), if there’s one thing the man can do well, it’s cast sexually vivacious women as his leads, and much like Catherine Deneuve and Sylvia Pinel, Jeanne Moreau is a refreshing slice of sexual liberation. Sexual politics are a recurring theme of Buñuel’s work, and the dominant and playful Celestine is a classic example of a woman in charge of her sexuality without being overly whorish (is there a way to say that without me sounding incredibly sexist?), and her openly liberated lifestyle is often compared to the repressed but no less lustful lifestyle of her bourgeois benefactors. There’s an honesty present in Celestine’s character and Moreau’s performance lacking in the hidden desires of the less aware individuals around her.

Similar to Viridiana, the film’s black and white photography is simply stunning. Although Buñuel, a Spaniard who often worked in France, is not officially associated with the French New Wave, he was similarly ahead of the pack in terms of unorthodox cuts, handheld camera shots, and a willingness to regularly cross the borders of the sacred and profane. His juxtaposition of the enlightened eroticism of Celestine (and to a lesser extent the almost innocent fetishism of Monsieur Rabour) with the dark and violent desires of virtually everyone else around her creates for consistently startling image. Throw in the visual lushness of the film and it’s no wonder that Buñuel developed a reputation as one of cinema’s most exciting visual directors even accounting for the lack of some of his more overt surrealist imagery in The Diary of a Chambermaid (which is markedly straightforward by Buñuel standards).

Where the film really shines is the way that Buñuel eviscerates the rapidly growing fascism of the 1960s in France (which would come to be defined in the 1970s by men like Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front party) by drawing the obvious parallels to pre-Vichy France. Nearly all of the men in the film are some form of fascist and are without fail racists (except for Monsieur Rabour who displays no real politics) and xenophobes. By showing their avarice and sexual perversions, Buñuel paints his political opponents (who had essentially ran him out of France for being a subversive during the era where the film takes place) as everything wrong with the French character and as warnings to future French generations. In the same vein to Viridiana however, the proletariat aren’t spared Buñuel’s critical eye any more than their potential oppressors as men like Joseph and his comrades are simply proles waiting for their opportunity to oppress those they don’t like.

Like the entirety of the art house niche, Diary of a Chambermaid isn’t going to be for everyone. Sexual satire and scathing political commentary don’t seem like they go hand in hand, and either one is enough to turn off vast swaths of the common audience. Yet, if you have an appetite for Buñuel’s mercurial wit and can place the film within the context of French history and Buñuel’s leftist politics (which let’s face it, one has to do their homework to discover), it’s a rewarding ride into one of foreign cinema’s most famous subversives. Ultimately, the film lacks the same bite as Viridiana (which remains one of the greatest religious satires I’ve ever seen) but it makes up for it with a stellar visual identity and unerring look at the hypocrisy of the far right.

Final Score: B+

Much like last year, it took me until the middle of the summer (with last year’s True Grit remake being the film with the very late DVD release), but I’ve finally finished all of 2011’s Best Picture Academy Award nominees. Yesterday, I finally got around to watching The Artist. I would have had my review up sooner but I haven’t been feeling well ever since I had Chinese food with my family for dinner. I hate the way that I’m ultimately going to approach this film critically, but at this point, it’s the only way I can do it. I’ll do my best to talk about The Artist on its own terms, but as the film that won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, I feel obligated to discuss how I feel about the awards that it won. I have a history of not agreeing with the film’s the Academy picks for Best Picture. As in, I haven’t agreed with the Academy on a Best Picture since Return of the King back in 2003. Unfortunately, 2011 is no different. Let there be no confusion. I think The Artist is a good film. I thought The King’s Speech was good last year. I just don’t think it’s a great movie and that the Academy was more impressed with the gimmicky nature of a well-made (as opposed to student) silent film than the ultimately simple and innocent nature of Michel Hazanvicius’ story. The fact that this film (especially in the direction department) beat The Tree of Life is one of the most egregious Academy fuck-ups since Danny Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire beat Paul Thomas Anderson and There Will Be Blood.

The Artist is a tragic spin on a story familiar to any fans of Singin’ in the Rain. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of Hollywood’s biggest leading men at the height of the silent film era. His films are smash hits and just accidentally being photographed with George helps to catapult aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) to stardom. However, it isn’t all premieres and glamour for George (and his adorable Jack Russell Terrier, Uggy). He’s in a loveless marriage with his wife (which isn’t helped by his rakish ways) and his ego and pride isolate him from his colleagues in Hollywoodland (the original name of Hollywood in the 20s). Though it isn’t mentioned by name (unlike Singin’ in the Rain), the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 and the following rise of “talkies” destroys George’s career while Peppy finds fame as a “talkie” starlet. Out of pride, George refuses to make the transition to speaking roles, and he invests all of his money in one last great silent film. However, the movie flops at the box office at the same time that the stock market crashes to ring in the Great Depression. George is forced to sell off all of his belongings and watch his world (including his marriage) fall apart around him.

My feelings about the acting in this film are complicated. If we were judging the film on just how well Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo were able to ape the style of silent film stars like Lillian Gish or Rudolph Valentino, then they were a smash success. Particularly in the scenes where they are showing fictional films in the movie, Jean Dujardin nails the over-the-top (and let’s face it, ham-fisted) style that was the only way to get across emotion and/or exposition (in a weird sense of that word) when you couldn’t speak. However, both stars are guilty of the same kind of “mugging” for the camera that Peppy complains about in an interview once she’s a “talkie” star. There isn’t a lot of subtlety to Jean Dujardin’s performance when we see him going about his daily life. I understand that since he can’t speak, he has to emote a little bit, but when you compare his performance to far more subtle and nuanced roles like Woody Harrelson in Rampart or Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus, it’s sort of outrageous to realize that he won. Berenice Bejo’s performance was  much more subtle but she was still guilty of more than her fair share of over-acting. Jean Dujardin was capable of delivering some truly great emotional moments (especially when he was in the throes of his depression), but it would only be especially impressive if we hadn’t had 80 years of more mature acting techniques since the “talkies” took over.

While I certainly believe that Terrence Malick’s direction/cinematography/genius with The Tree of Life is one of the greatest film achievements of the 2000s, I must concede that Michel Hazanavicius guided The Artist with a brilliant hand (even if the script wasn’t as perfect). Shot in a gorgeous and crisp black & white, The Artist is one of the better looking films of the year (though yet again, Tree of Life is one of the most beautifully shot films ever), and the movie does an excellent job of shooting a more modern, Manhattan-style black and white for the regular sequences and then adopting the more antiquated style for the movies within the film. There’s a nightmare sequence that was one of the most inspired moments of the film (and of 2011) where George is having a nightmare about his inability to transition to the “talkie” world and so everything else in the world can make noise except for him. It was very brilliant. The shadow and contrast work in the film was second to none as was the attention to period detail, and for fans of old films, you can revel in all of the little historical details that the film tries to get right from the costumes to the cars to the Hollywoodland sign (instead of Hollywood). Also, I will say that there is one Oscar the film totally earned which was for Best Score. I can’t remember the last movie I watched on here where I wanted to go out and buy the orchestral score, but The Artist inspired that reaction. It was a perfect recreation of the scores of yesteryear but honestly, it was better and more stirring than the scores of the past.

At the end of the day though, The Artist is the sort of congratulatory celebration of Hollywood’s past that the Academy eats up like candy lately. Much like the L.A. centric-Crash (which beat the far superior Brokeback Mountain), it’s a film that hits home to the L.A. voting bloc that decides the Oscars. It’s not the best film of the year, and if you’ve seen all of the nominees, I’m not sure how you could disagree with that statement. Of course, I’ve long suspected that the films that most often win at the Academy Awards contain at least some semblance of a mass-appeal factor. Perhaps, I can’t blame them for not always choosing the artsy films that I enjoy. That’s my preference. Other people have theirs. And like I said, The Artist is a good movie. It contains flashes of brilliance and I enjoyed it, but much like Forrest Gump (and the way it fucked over Pulp Fiction) or Titanic (and the way it screwed over Good Will Hunting and/or L.A. Confidential), I’ll always think of it as the movie that stopped Woody Allen or Terrence Malick from more deserving wins. It’s sad but true.

Final Score: B+

It’s been almost exactly one month since I’ve written a movie review for this blog (and it was likely nearly a month before that review). I saw The Hunger Games with a friend here in NYC, but for the last month and a half, the movies I’ve had at home from Netflix have been gathering dust in my living room. That changes today. I’ve got three films at home (Cyrano de Bergerac, The Butcher Boy, and 1776). By this evening’s end, I will have watched all of them. I’m going to get work done tonight. If the initial film in the series is any indication, it should be a great night. The 1990 adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s play,Cyrano de Bergerac, starring French film icon Gerard Depardieu was an enchanting and faithful adaptation of its source material with a mesmerizing performance from Depardieu as the legendary warrior/poet/philosopher/lover. While the film certainly dragged at moments, the lavish production values kept their hooks in me from start to finish and as my formal introduction to the story, I couldn’t have asked for a better way too see this tragic tale for the first time.

In 17th century France, Cyrano de Bergerac (Gerard Depardieu) longs for the love of his beautiful cousin Roxane (Anne Brochet). Cyrano is more intelligent and eloquent than any man in France, and at the beginning of the film, he fights off nearly a hundred men all by himself. He can afford to throw his money away to appease a theatre when he threatens to disembowel a play’s star for ruining the good name of thespians everywhere. But Cyrano’s enormous nose (which makes Nicole Kidman’s nose in The Hours look relatively modest) has crippled his self-esteem and he believes that he will never be able to win the heart of his beloved cousin. When Cyrano has finally worked up the courage to tell Roxane how he feels, she confesses her love for a local soldier, Christian (Vincent Perez), and because Cyrano wishes to put the happiness of hisamour ahead of his own desires, he secretly helps the dim-witted Christian woo Roxanne. Ghost-writing all of Christian’s letters to Roxanne, Cyrano helps his cousin fall in love with his words but another man all as our star-crossed trio hurtle towards a tragic end.

I’m not generally a huge fan of period costume dramas. They tend to put too much focus on the “costume” and “period” parts of that equation rather than the actual drama, and while Cyrano de Bergerac might suffer from this a little bit, it’s only because of how exquisitely detailed the period material is. The film is gorgeously shot. It wasn’t until half-way through that I realized this film was made in the 1990s because it had an ephemeral air of classical film technique that I would have placed in the 1970s. While I realize I just complained about people paying too much attention to the period production, it was so engrossing in this film that you couldn’t help but revel in it. Whether it was the seemingly endless array of expertly constructed costumes which represented the diverse beauty of 17th century French fashion or the elaborately orchestrated action sequences, it was obvious that this film was given the budget to truly be a spectacle, but it used these moments to enhance the tragic love story at the center of the film rather than distract. My only complaint about the film’s technical aspects is that Cyrano’s nose might have in fact been too large because it was almost at the point of parody when Depardieu’s naturally large nose could have nearly done the trick.

I’ve only reviewed one other Gerard Depardieu film for this blog (La Chevre), and I’ve only seen one other Depardieu film outside of the context of this blog (The Man in the Iron Mask). After watching Cyrano de Bergerac, I finally understand why he’s one of the premier stars of the French screen. His performance was incendiary, deeply funny, surprisingly vulnerable, and ultimately human. There’s a lot of talking in this movie. It’s based off a play so that shouldn’t be shocking, but even by drama standards, the people in this film never shut up. Yet, I could listen to Depardieu sputter line after line of Cyrano’s triumphant wit if he’s going to make it all seem so fun while doing it. With the exception of his vanity over his looks, Cyrano is such a powerhouse of a character that it would be easy for an actor to overplay his wit, valor, or charisma or on the other hand to make him too much of a pitiable figure. Depardieu tapped right into the perfect balance of all of Cyrano’s characteristics to make a hero that you wanto root for but at the same time, he plays him with just the right amount of being a jack-ass that is so clearly written into the character. The beautiful Anne Brochet was also a gem as Roxane who was the only person mentally equipped to go toe-to-toe with Cyrano.

If I have a major complaint with the film, it ultimately goes back to the source material. For a play written in the late 1800s, the story seems to beholden to the tragic drama archetype of Shakespearean plays like Romeo & Juliet or Hamlet. It’s not that I’m not a fan of tragedies (King Lear is probably my favorite story of all time), but drama was finally starting to become a little more complicated and ambitious by the time that Rostand wrote the play. I was able to foresee virtually every single plot point from the moment that Roxane attempted to beguile Comte DeGuiche with her womanly ways in order to keep Cyrano and Christian from being sent away to war. Being predictable isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but all in all, there was a considerable feeling of having seen some variation of the tragic romance at the core of the story many, many times before. There were certainly plenty of great scenes though. When Cyrano tries to feed lines to Christian to woo Roxane from her terrace and he suddenly has to speak to her himself under the cover of darkness, my heart was legitimately moved at the heartbreak of Cyrano’s unrequited love and the doom I knew was going to fall before long. However, the film’s (and the play’s) biggest problem is its ending which drags on at least ten minutes longer than it should have and robs the otherwise touching moment of any meaning because it ends up so absurd and unbelievable.

I was telling a friend of mine from work about my movie blog last night a concert I was covering and that fact along with the simple truth that I hadn’t watched one of my movies from Netflix in two months has inspired this little resurgence of the movies in my blog. Considering the fact that the first 5o posts or so were only movies, it’s kind of absurd that I ever go long stretches like this without reviewing a film. Yet it manages to happen every so often. The next two movies are a musical (starring Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World) and a very, very dark Irish comedy (directed by Neil Jordan so I hope it’s as good as Michael Collins). I’m just hoping that this little spurt of inspiration will get me back on track to start reviewing all of the films that were nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. I was halfway done when my initiative and drive died on me. Let’s hope I get back on that wagon again.

Final Score: B+

Here’s some strange irony for you. This will be my 200th film I’ve reviewed for this blog (out of 500 total posts/reviews of other media). It’s a proto-French New Wave film with elements of both film noir and classic heist films. Yet, despite this, I have still yet to watch a proper French New Wave film on here. The closest I came to this was Lacombe, Lucien by director Louis Malle but he was more inspired  by the French New Wave rather than an actual progenitor of the form like Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut. 1956’s Bob Le Flambeur (translates to “Bob the Gambler”) by director Jean Pierre Melville is considered one of the preludes to the French New Wave for some of its revolutionary film techniques (which I’ll get to later) and is an endlessly entertaining and ambitious take on the classic gangster movie that subverts the audience’s expectations at every point with one of the best film endings that I’ve seen in recent memory. It wouldn’t seem unfair to say that films like Heat or the Ocean’s Eleven franchise wouldn’t have been able to exist had it not been for the artistic re-imagining of the heist film in Melville’s well-deserved classic.

Bob Montagne (Roger Duchesne) is a gambling addict with more class in his cuff-links than most film stars have in their whole body. Even when he’s down on his luck (which is all of the time), he still has a nearly palatial hotel room and enough money to spread around to his friends or even offer food and shelter to a down on her luck working girl, the breathtaking Anne (Isabelle Corey). A professional thief in his past, Bob has retired from his life of crime to simply gamble his days away, but when he loses his entire bankroll in one day (on tilt after Anne leaves him for another of his proteges, the young Paolo [Daniel Cauchy]), he has to come up with money quick. When he hears about 800 million francs sitting in a safe in the Deauville casino, the opportunity to strike it rich is too much to turn down. As his crew’s loose lips and greed threaten to tear the entire operation apart, Bob is forced to make the biggest gamble of his career in order to make one last score.

Easily the most remarkable aspect of this film is Jean Pierre Melville’s love of the iconic film noir greats. With obvious allusions to nearly every Bogart film ever made as well as the sheer visual imagery of the smoke-filled room, the layers and layers of shadows, the well-dressed immaculately masculine men, or the rain-soaked streets, this film exudes the vibes of classic American cinema but with a winking self-confidence and playfulness that American movies are too serious to ever incorporate. The film distinguishes itself in terms of cinematography from its beloved predecessors by incorporating several innovations of its own that would go on to revolutionize French cinema forever. Melville uses a hand-held camera (essentially unheard of at the time) and regularly generates unconventional and interesting camera angles that were just light years ahead of their time. That is classic French New Wave before it began and when you throw in the fact that Melville’s editing and cuts were as frenetic and seemingly random (though not really random) as a Godard picture, you can’t begin to overstate how influential his camerawork would be.

I watched this movie earlier and took an unplanned break between putting up this review so I’m going to draw things to a close (also because I have to write a review for the last disc of Season 5 of Doctor Who plus make my best of films 151-200 list since this was movie 200). Needless to say though, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It was an ode to film noir while simultaneously allowing itself to be a little cooler and classier than American film noir ever was. Film noir is one of my favorite genres, and there was always something about the smoky stylized atmosphere of movies like Maltese Falcon and Casablanca that made me fall in love with the movies. The film also stands out by being a heist film in name only because it is simultaneously so much more and so much less stripping the genre down to its bare essential and then replacing the parts with something fresh and exciting. For fans of French cinema, film noir, and gangster movies, Bob Le Flambeur is an easy sell.

Final Score: A-

La Chevre

When I think of French cinema, I think of the stylistic boundary-pushing of Jean-Luc Godard, the action films of Luc Besson, and films with sexual content that toes the line between artistic and pornography. I don’t usually think of slapstick buddy comedies. Well, leave it to my French roommate to show me that there is more to French cinema than high-brow arthouse films. I have two foreign roommates (one French, a guy, and one Japanese, a girl) that are both in their early 30’s. My French roommate and I had already bonded over Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, and since I often feel like I hog the TV in the living room of our apartment (even though it’s my television, I still like to share), I let my roommate pick a movie for us to watch last night, and he picked the French comedy La Chevre (which translates to The Goat), starring French film icon, Gerard Depardieu. It wasn’t the best comedy I’ve ever seen but if you’re a fan of slapstick and buddy cop films, you may find yourself enjoying quite a few chuckles thanks to La Chevre.

When the daughter of a wealthy industrialist is kidnapped (this is beginning to sound like the intro to either of my Girl With the Dragon Tattoo reviews), her father hires private investigator Campana (Gerard Depardieu) to find her. The daughter is catastrophically unlucky, and the industrialist believes that the only way they’ll be able to find her (since Campana spent 42 days in Mexico searching for her to no avail) is to pair Campana with someone as unlucky as the industrialist’s daughter. Thus, they find Francois Perrin (Pierre Richard), an accountant working in the financial department of the company, and the only person on the planet who may be as clumsy and accident prone as the industrialist’s daughter. So, Campana and Francois set off to Mexico to find the daughter while Francois causes a tornado’s worth of damage and injury to himself and everyone around him as the slowly inch closer and closer to finding the daughter.

I had never seen a Gerard Depardieu film before this (unless you count his smaller English speaking role in The Man in the Iron Mask), and while I’m not really sure what the big deal about him is other than his massive nose, he was a well-cast straight man to the more obvious comic relief of Pierre Richard. Pierre Richard reminded me of what Peter Seller’s Inspector Clousseau would have been like had Peter Sellers actually been French, and I can easily see where The Pink Panther films had an influence on this movie. Pierre Richard was quite skilled at more physical humor and despite the broad nature of most of the physical humor in the film, he also had a great deadpan delivery for most of his jokes. The movie didn’t always make me laugh, and at times, it felt like it was just meant to be a vehicle for promoting Gerard Depardieu’s tough-guy image that is his thing in France, but when it did hit the right notes, it was a great example of foreign slapstick.

La Chevre is far from the best French film I’ve seen, but it’s not the worst, and it certainly isn’t the most boring, but if you liked the buddy cop movies of the 1980’s like 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, and Beverly Hills Cop, you’ll probably find something to like about La Chevre. Gerard Depardieu is a French film legend, and while I don’t yet understand why that’s the case and I wish that my first exposure to his acting had been in one of his more iconic roles/films, he did a good job and Pierre Richard was an underappreciated comic delight. My roommate tells me that the two were in a series of movies like this during the 80’s so maybe at some point I’ll watch a couple more of them. Anyways, if you only ever thought the French made serious movies, check out La Chevre to see that they can tickle your funny bone just as much as your artsy sides.

Final Score: B-