Tag Archive: France


It Has Happened Here

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There are two great myths of World War II. The first says that there was something intrinsic to the national characters of Germany and Italy, a flaw that made them uniquely susceptible to the destructive id of fascism. The second myth evangelizes the existence of a unified, democratic resistance to fascism even amongst the nations occupied by the Nazis.

Marcel Ophüls’ 1969 documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, demolishes both myths and, in the process, serves as a harrowing reminder of the ease with which liberty and human prosperity can fall when they aren’t safeguarded through constant vigilance. Few historical documents of the 20th century offer as intimate a peek into the constant struggle to identify, combat, organize against, and educate others about political oppression.

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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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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

 

(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+

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-

We’re nearing the one-year anniversary of this blog (and I’ll have a major Best of Year One list that covers all of the media I’ve worked on for this blog during that time. Should be fun), and it’s given me some interesting perspective on the many paths my movie-watching has taken me over these last 365 days. The first two French films I watched for this blog (if you don’t count Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress which was French-produced but essentially a Chinese film) were turgid and slow affairs that either didn’t live up to their own thematic potential (Belle de Jour) or nearly incomprehensible for possible cultural reasons (La Ceremonie). I haven’t actually seen many French films for this blog, but the next two I watched proceeded to either completely wow me or at least be very good if not great. Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien remains one of the best WWII films I’ve reviewed thus far, and Monsieur Ibrahim was a quiet and sentimental film that turned out to be quite a tear-jerker. Well, god bless Luc Besson for keeping up the streak of high quality French films (and foreign films in general) that I’ve been on with his marvelous study of violence, loyalty, love, and penance, the remarkable 1990 original version of La Femme Nikita.

La Femme Nikita is the tale of a young, drug-addicted French woman (whose real name may or may not be Nikita played by the marvelous Anne Parillaud) who murders a cop when the robbery of a pharmacy with her junkie friends ends in a shoot-out with the police. Sentenced to life in prison with virtually no possibility of parole, Nikita is forcibly entered into a secret government agency to be trained as a top-level assassin for the French government. Her death in her old prison is faked and all ties with her old world are cut off. Nikita was chosen because of her almost psychotic fieriness and natural toughness and she’s a natural fit for the violent world of espionage and assassinations. Though she initially rebels against the life she’s forced into, she eventually complies and over the course of the film carries out several missions that take increasing tolls on her sanity and happiness. When she is sent on a mission to a remote part of France and falls in love with a local clerk, her newfound love and bliss is instantly put at risk by the dangerous other life she inhabits.

Anne Parrillaud was such a natural and instantly riveting talent that I have trouble believing that she wasn’t the primary influence of all of the other action heroines to come over the last two decades. Before Lisbeth Salander was investigating Nazis and torturing rapists, before the Bride was slicing and dicing her way through hordes of Yakuza, and before Sidney Bristow walked the tight-rope of being a CIA double agent, you had Nikita. Her transformation over the course of this film simply has to be seen to be believed. When we first meet Nikita, she’s a drugged-out junkie without even a hint of femininity or grace. By the time she leaves her assassin training program, she’s a knock-out beauty that knows how to use her wiles to get what she needs. On that same note, Parrillaud is able to flip between an almost feral aggression and anger (that I’ve only ever seen matched by Rooney Mara) to a wrenching vulnerability. This was a complex and dynamic role and Parrillaud stepped up to bat and hit a home run.

What separates La Femme Nikita from other hyper-violent action films (this may seem tame by today’s standards, but when it was released, it was shockingly violent) is the emphasis it places on story and character development. This isn’t a series of action sequences supported by a bare-bones excuse plot and forgettable characters. Rather the action serves to complement and enhance the running narrative which is Nikita’s journey from complete destitution to something akin to an empowered female force (although with plenty of commentaries on how her power is still being manipulated by the state). It is a tragic film and the violence is never glorified but rather shown in some gritty and harsh light. Feeling emotionally connected to characters in an action film is always an impressive feat, and La Femme Nikita is able to achieve that not just with Nikita but also with her fiancee and other smaller characters. Any complaints some people might have that the film runs a tad too long seem to not get how much emphasis this film places on putting the audience squarely in this world and achieving complete empathy with its heroes and villains (and it’s hard to tell who’s who).

This is the thinking man’s action film (along with Besson’s later film The Professional). For every intellectual out there who wants an action movie you can enjoy without feeling guilty, it’s right here. And even for those who don’t feel guilty about their action viewing pleasures, well, I still recommend La Femme Nikita because it’s simply better than 99% of the action films out there. I’ve loved both Besson films I’ve seen now, and I’m really curious to see what the rest of his library of movies feels like because he’s really solidified himself to me as one of the top-tier action directors out there. As long as you can enjoy films with subtitles, La Femme Nikita is must see.

Final Score: A-

French cinema from the 1960’s and 1970’s has a reputation for being erotic and boundary-pushing in terms of its sexuality. When the next film for this list was 1967’s Belle de Jour, a film about a Parisian housewife who won’t have sex with her husband but becomes a prostitute to satisfy her sexual desires, I was mentally preparing myself for my introduction to that type of cinema. Needless to say, this was not the film I thought it was going to be. Instead of a boundary-pushing look at modern sexuality, I got a terribly, terribly slow and fairly prudish film that was saved from utter mediocrity by some creative story-telling touches and the exceptional beauty of its star Catherine Deneuve.

As stated, the film follows the story of Severine (Catherine Deneuve), who is unwilling to sleep in the same bed as her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel), let alone have sexual relations with him. Yet, at the same time, she regularly indulges in sexual fantasies that always seem to involve her being debased and humiliated in some major and traumatic way. One day, she hears about a friend of hers who has become a prostitute, despite being fairly well off. When she finds out the location of a local bordello, she arrives and offers her services as a prostitute. Because she is so beautiful (and Catherine Deneuve may be one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen) and so classy, she becomes an instant hit with the clientele of the bordello. Things become complicated however, when one of her customers falls in love with her and wants her to be his sole possession.

The story of the film sounds really interesting and like it could go to some really interesting places, and in the hand of a better director and writer (like say David Lynch or Charlie Kaufmann or someone else really capable of handling the blurring of reality and fantasy), it probably would have. Unfortunately, director Luis Bunuel doesn’t inject any life into this movie. It’s slow and tepid from start to finish, and even with its richly ironic ending, nothing in the film ever moved my mind or my heart. All it has going for it really is the clever way that the script constantly makes you question whether what is happening is real or one of Severine’s fantasies. Catherine Deneuve probably isn’t that great of an actress either, but like I said, she’s unbelievably beautiful, in the classic and elegant sense of the word.

Final Score: B-

One of my great joys in life is reading a good book. Ever since I was a child and my dad read a couple of pages of The Hobbit to me every night, there has been something just magical about being able to escape into a new world created by someone else, to get lost in their words and descriptions and imaginations. It’s so hard for me to imagine a world where all of the great books have been burned and the only ones that I can read have been selected for me by the government. The joy of literature and a discovering a great writer’s words in a world where it is forbidden is one of the major themes in the beautiful and under-stated 2002 drama, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

The movie is about two best friends in 1971, Luo and Ma, who have been sent to a remote village in the mountains of China to be “re-educated”, that is to say to be purged of any aspects of their life that go against Maoist doctrine. They have been sent there because their family are bourgeois. Luo and Ma know how to read, play foreign musical instruments, and know of far-away lands. In the village, they are forced to do constant and demeaning physical labor so that they learn what it means to be a “revolutionary peasant”. While in the town, they meet a local girl who is only ever called the “Little Seamstress” in the film that both boys fall in love with. They compete with each other for the girl’s affection. The biggest way that they get themselves into her life is by showing her a secret stash of forbidden books that they stole from another boy in the town. Through the forbidden works of foreigners, the boys and the girl learn of a world far removed from their little village in the mountains.

The film was beautifully shot on location and like the last film I reviewed, Black Robe, the scenery is breath-taking. The exotic mountain-side of China is a beautiful and haunting place and much of the beauty and power of the film comes from an interplay between the grand majesty of their surroundings compared against the tragic circumstances of their politics. The performances of the three leads are spot on as well. Their chemistry as a group was fantastic and even while competing for the love of the Little Seamstress, the bonds of their friendship seemed unbreakable thanks to the acting chops of the stars. Not to mention that there were countless little beautiful little scenes that kept you locked in the story of the film such as Luo and Ma narrating a film they saw in town to the villagers to telling the story of The Count of Monte Cristo to a local tailor.

The movie wasn’t perfect. There were pacing problems every now and then. And the camera work was spotty. The picture often looked blurry and out of focus. But, at the end of the day, this was a beautiful love story and look at the history of China’s Cultural Revolution through the eyes of three smart, young people. If you can handle subtitles and under-stated drama, you should give this one a go.

Final Score: B+