February 15, 2013 § 1 Comment
Comedian Louis CK once described marriage as the sort of situation, where, in the best case scenario, one of you is going to die. In fact, every relationship on any level is exactly that. They all end the same. One of you is going to die — it’s the universal constant, the one true thing about reality.
Michael Haneke’s film “Amour,” which opens at tonight Images Cinema in Williamstown, takes this notion to an almost documentarian level. The story is simple. An older married couple get through life the best they can when the wife falls ill and the husband must care for her. Slowly, the wife slips closer to death.
“Amour” is the type of film that makes apparent the situations that the majority of movies do not usually portray — ordinary death. Movies are most at ease with spectacular death, often anonymous, the kind that litter action, horror and science fiction spectacles these days. When it comes to ordinary people on the road to death, movies tend to soften the blow as much as possible through sentiment, which is usually delivered with a spoonful of empowerment
“Amour,” on the other hand, is most upsetting in that there is nothing extraordinary about the experience of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). at all. At least 50 percent of us are going to face our own version of their situation, and so the most depressing part of the film is the point where you see yourself, and that’s after the already depressing point where you’ve recognized your parents.
It also doesn’t help that Haneke presents dying as something that is hard to do with dignity. Part of that comes from being kept alive — some of the steps taken to maintain a person in that situation are, frankly, humiliating. Dying is personal, and the well-meaning intrusions of the medical community and family are breaches in that wall.
And there is nothing pretty or romantic about a person whose body is dying. It’s hard to go through, it’s hard to envision yourself as you are in that situation and it’s mortifying to be the loved one witnessing. Haneke skillfully captures these commonalities.
And, yet, there is something very ungloomy about “Amour.”
Maybe it’s because even though the situation that Georges and Anne find themselves in is obviously sad, it’s also one that they work their way through just like so many of us must.
Their situation is a perfectly normal one, it’s a process that binds us.
Equally, the portrayal of love — the real relationship between two humans who choose to be together for as long as their bodies inhabit this planet — goes beyond romantic notions and sentimentality, and into a realm of connection and selflessness that transcends what the movies often tell us about love.
“Amour” is hard going. It’s difficult to recommend it to anyone, though there are rewards to viewing it.
Technically, it is beautifully filmed and acted, and its honesty as a harsh slice of life is unparalleled.
The question you have to ask yourself before you watch it, though, is if this clear-headed, sober account of the real meaning of love and death is one that you need to see at all. If you decide you do, there will be rewards, though very complicated ones.
March 24, 2012 § Leave a Comment
French filmmaker and novelist Marcel Pagnol is best known in our country for the movie couplet of “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of Spring,” which brought celebrated French actors Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil and Yves Montand together.
Those films, both released in 1986 and shot back-to-back, were historical dramas reminiscent of 19th century novels like “Tess d’Urbervilles” and “Jane Eyre” – romantic, suspenseful, sweeping.
They were, most importantly, not directed by Pagnol at all, but Claude Berri. Berri’s films were based on the 1964 novels of Pagnol’s titled “L’eau des collines,” which was itself based on Pagnol’s 1952 film, “Manon des Sources.”
“The Well-Digger’s Daughter (La Fille du Puisatier)” does not have such a complicated lineage – it’s based on Pagnol’s 1940 romantic comedy of the same name and it brings Auteuil back to the Pagnol fold, fulfilling multiple roles as actor, screenwriter and director. It’s a far cry from the 80s films in tone, but Auteuil works similar themes – how a young girl’s misfortunes in life affects an old man.
Patricia (Astrid Bergès Frisbey, who starred in last year’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”) is the cultured daughter of a common well-digger, Pascal Amoretti (Auteuil).
The tale of her rise and fall in society involves a desperate house of girls and rich woman from Paris, who “borrows” the oldest daughter for a number of years to give her a better life. Returning home at age 14 after the death of her mother, Patricia’s lot in life is to become the keeper of the house and family, attending to her father’s needs and raising her sisters.
Of course, such a creature captures the attention of hopeful men in the village.
One, Félipe (Kad Merad), is the kind-hearted well-digging partner of Pascal, who hints at interest in Patricia’s hand in marriage. The other, Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is the son of the local wealthy shopkeeper. The two men are casual friends and, rather than create animosity, their dual interest in Patricia creates a long-term compassion when World War I intrudes on all their lives and frames everyone’s futures in a way no one expects on deployment day.
At center of the action, though, is Pascal, the feisty father who has supported his family for years on his own and is constantly seeking some value for his tarnished ego. Girls, it is made note, do not pass on the father’s name, and Pascal’s shame is wrapped up in that notion – what has he actually passed onto the world without a son? In this situation, Patricia functions as a silent cypher for her father’s insecurity and rage, but also a healing angel – his words, not mine – who will eventually calm his soul, and also see that other men are not beaten down with the same, old world shame.
This is an old-fashioned story that does not try to retrofit the attitudes of the times or the gender roles it depicts for a modern audience. Though with some bursts, the male ego is at center, the women are catalysts to action that often take a seat to the histrionics of men, and this all gives Auteuil a palette not only for the an examination of male dominance over women’s lives, but a remarkably spirited performance of his own to illustrate the complications and scars of a patriarchal system.
March 24, 2012 § Leave a Comment
To call Louis Mandrin the Robin Hood of France is not inaccurate – as a bonus, Mandrin actually existed – but that is only part of the story as conveyed in Rabah Ameur-ZaÏmeche’s “Smugglers’ Songs (Les Chants de Mandrin),” which turns its back on biography in the name of examining the meticulous effort involved in spontaneous legends.
Mandrin was a renowned highwayman who waged a war against the corrupt tax collectors of the royal government in the mid-18th century, who were allowed to exact any amount from citizens regardless of how much was going to the French government.
Wanted for murder, Mandrin began his legendary war following the executions of his friend and his brother, eventually joining a group of smugglers that he soon became the leader of.
His popularity displeased the French authorities – no surprise there – and it was only through betrayal that they captured and executed Mandrin. Like so many agents of oppression, they seemed to think that squashing the source of the stories was as good as ending the story itself, but “Smugglers’ Songs” traces the efforts of Mandrin’s compatriots and admirers in spreading word of his feats further, even after his body remain dead on a Catherine Wheel following public torture.
Ameur-ZaÏmeche’s film concerns itself with the spread of songs, stories and biography of Mandrin following that execution - what it meant for something to “go viral” in 1755. In order for that to happen, a network needed to forged, and Ameur-ZaÏmeche follows that in the form of soldiers deserting their posts, Marquises devoted to writing the biography of a thief and simple peddlers willing to sell dangerous literature with their other wares. It is the story of propaganda, true, but it’s propaganda against the state, in control of moneyed thieves – admirable, populist propaganda that boasts a direct line to current day dissent.
Whether Ameur-ZaÏmeche could have known it at the time he made the film, the efforts of the Mandrins, as the followers were called, evoke the Occupy movement, as well as the Arab Spring.
Certainly the wave of discontent and rebellion that sparked the beginning of that was in the air, the revolutionary efforts of old are always of interest, anyhow. It’s a timely exploration, and one that understands that an idea – equality – is really bigger than one man, one figurehead, but the result of collective and passionate effort.
What’s striking is that Ameur-ZaÏmeche’s effort is the opposite of the kinetic explosion that the protests last year provided, and that does well to illustrate just how hard rebellion was 250 years ago. It wasn’t just a matter of showing up to a rally, but of living as outlaws under the sky of tyranny, placing your tents, being a presence, infiltrating the localities of the norm in society – and the Mandrins did all that.
It’s still being done today in the name of the same issue – income equality and the unfair influence of money – and “Smugglers’ Songs” is a precise, evocative examination of what it takes to not only keep spirit alive, but nurture it to growth before it is stamped out.
August 19, 2011 § Leave a Comment
“Queen To Play” (Zeitgeist Video) Chess as a metaphor is not so obscure, and in cinema it always goes straight back to “The Seventh Seal” as a struggle for mortality, as a microcosm of the highest stakes.
In “Queen To Play,” chess instead stands for more intimate concerns like empowerment, the ability to control all the parts of one’s own life, as well as some middle ground issues on the cosmic stage, like a woman’s place in a family.
Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a housekeeper and hotel maid who becomes obsessed with not just learning, but mastering the game of chess after witnessing a flirty match during her job. At first making overtures to her oafish husband — aren’t they always — she stumbles into an extracurricular opportunity with an secretive and abruptly mannered doctor (Kevin Kline) who begins to see the appeal of playing a chessmaster Obi-Wan Kenobi to Bonnaire’s appealing Luke Skywalker as French cleaning lady.
With the conflicts set up — both dramatic and metaphorical — the audience watches Helene fight the adversity of small minds in order to master the game of chess, which is treated almost like dancing is in “Footloose.” And that makes for some very bizarre undercurrents in the film, revealing it as a bit of unpretentious French cheese with such an odd core that it can’t help but be appealing.
“Queen To Play” uses the quintessential “underdog triumphs against adversity” trope that makes it seem almost American, and that may be the key to its likability. Even as a look into French sentimentality in regard to empowerment, and a self-examination of societal chauvinism, “Queen To Play” comes off as a hybrid film meant to portray this dialogue to Americans. It is a foreign film that seems to have been made as an explanation of culture to its potential viewers across the sea, and therein lies the secrets of its allure.
April 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In the documentary film “Kings of Pastry,” the trend of revealing heartache competitions you never imagined existed — think about films like “Word Wars,” “Spellbound” and “Hands On A Hard Body” — continues in a more elevated realm: the world of the French pastry chef.
Deservedly, the world of cuisine has become viewed as a swaggering one, with the kitchen replacing both the Wild West and the confines of a gentleman’s club from the 1800s. It’s a world of structures, built on respect and tradition, titles and designations, while still promoting within that system a measured rebellious streak that allows the young upstarts to win the respect of the old guard.
Only in such a world could the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France — translated “Best Craftsmen in France” — competition exist.
Somewhere amidst the manliness, 16 pastry chefs converge each year to earn that title by aggressively concocting delicious and delightful cream puffs and wedding cakes served on ornate — or tacky, depending on your view — sugar sculptures before a jury of previous winners.
The difference between a good documentary of this sort and a bad one is pretty basic. A bad one acts like an outsider and frames the desires
and actions from exactly that viewpoint. In the end, the depiction of an absurd scenario is met with a snickering ridicule that might at times pretend to care but really doesn’t.
A good one — which this film is — draws you into the concerns of the participants despite how you might feel if you encountered such happenings in your own life. High-stakes pastry competitions within the elevated world of cuisine might be something I’d brush aside in my daily life, but as captured here, I was captivated.
The film centers on Chicago-based Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago’s French Pastry School, who travels back to his native France to take a stab at the competition, which his partner at the school has already mastered.
Once in France, the action expands to include two other competitors, including the sincere and humble Philippe Rigollot, in some ways the Everyman of the film who built himself up from days as a little kid spent helping his mom in her bakery job.
You get a perfect sense of what these gentlemen are up against as the film takes you through the pre-competition process, a period of training as intensive as that of Olympians, though maybe a hell of a lot more frustrating. Dishes that look like perfection to someone like me are picked apart by trainers — one curl of cream puff out of place, and the chef goes down for the count.
Equally, the competitors are required to concoct insanely intricate sugar sculptures for cake presentation that play like an edible Jenga. Once assembled, if placed on the table just ever-so-slightly wrong, the concoction crumbles apart, as does the chance of winning the Best Craftsman title.
The emotion throughout is genuine, as is the tension. Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker take you on a journey with the chefs that’s as intense as any athlete’s quest, and maybe even better, because it involves dessert.
At center is the message that everyone has a passion, and the better of us are willing to go beyond the necessary steps, to strip your psyche through sacrifice, in order to achieve the real fruits of it. It’s a lesson any of us can take to heart — especially, like I said, when it involves dessert.
September 29, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Watcha Clan brings the new and old together with diverse influences in order to create the musical sound of unity. The idea is to revive sounds that aren’t actually dead, just in a form of suspended animation.
The Marseilles, France-based band — consisting of singer Sista K, keyboardist Suprem Clem, bass player Matt La Bess and guitarist Nassim — is currently on their first multi-city tour of the United States.
“We found that world music is not something that you put in a museum saying, ‘This is traditional; this is the way that people used to do music,’ ” Clem said during an interview last week. “No, it’s a living music. So for us, it’s very important to show that we can mix this music with modern beats — with hip-hop, with reggae, with drum and bass — so people from all generations, from very young people to older, can dance, so you can have world music in a club and on the radio.”
Clem says the band’s major goal is to make world music something for real people and not just stodgy intellectuals attending museum recitals. It’s a movement that has been sweeping Europe, with bands and DJs providing sounds that audiences flock to.
“When you go to Algeria, for example, you see that young rappers and young MCs sample traditional music and make it live again,” Clem said. “It was incredible because there was a real mix of generations, but we rearrange it in a house beat, and they were all dancing without a problem.”
One of Watcha Clan’s biggest inspirations is its hometown of Marseilles — a port city with the second largest population in France — which has served as the biggest port of entry for the country’s millions of immigrants in the last few decades. Culturally, Marseilles has grown into a melting pot with fragrances that flavor the air for everyone living there.
“When you live in Marseilles, you know a lot of African people, a Spanish guy, [people] from Greece, [people] from Turkey,” Clem said, “So you’re inspired by the city because you hear a lot of music there, and you have a lot of inspiration from the city.”
“When you live in Marseilles, you have to be open-minded and to mix on that, because it’s in your city and your street.” « Read the rest of this entry »
June 12, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Chazelle’s work is currently the main attraction in the NoAma Gallery (in the former Delftee building on Route 2), the result of two summer residencies that had him produce numerous oversized works that benefit from the space of the old mill buildings that now house them.
Chazelle’s paintings mix science with philosophy and poetry into a visual alchemy. With a background in performance, he has fashioned a series of paintings that move as much as any human before a crowd — and change with that movement.
Chazelle’s paintings are huge acrylics on acrylic and Plexiglas, large swashes that transform in a viewer’s perception depending on their placement in the room, the viewer’s vantage point and the direction of the light moving through them. His work changes throughout the day, and the perfect way to view it is through several trips over a 24-hour period. The works are little slices of reality, captured to be viewed by human eyes but still beholden to time.
“I want to work on the retina and the conception of reality,” Chazelle in an interview this week. “First I present something that seems to be abstract, and at last when you’re really into it, you discover the combination of the form. I’m talking about a transparency which is in between all of us but is in fact of the exact same matter as what composes us — and we never imagine it.”
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April 17, 2009 § Leave a Comment
All it took was a momentary lapse in my brain to cause me to forget that “The Class” is a staged film, a work of semi-fiction, adapted from a memoir. For the first two-thirds of the film, I viewed it as a documentary, thanks to the filmmaking cues that presented it in documentary style.
It was only at a certain dramatic point that my mind did the appropriate backtracking — and Internet searches — to ascertain that I had been wrong all along. This mistake on my part only made the film more powerful.
The French film “The Class” is the fictional work of director Laurent Cantet. It concerns one class in an inner-city high school populated by immigrant kids who struggle with their French identity and their futures — Paris as the Hood, a flip side Americans don’t often see.
Francois Bégaudeau plays French teacher Francois Martin in a film based on his memoir of experiences as a classroom teacher — he also wrote the script. As transformed to the screen, Bégaudeau’s memories are within a fictional framework, but one that unfolds through a style that “neo-realist” doesn’t begin to describe — “ultra-realist” might be a better term.
Populated by the multi-ethnic face of new France, Martin’s students are combative to the point that little teaching seems to be going on. The day is mostly taken up by back-and-forth barbs between teacher and students as part of a systemized attempt by the class to deflect any knowledge being hurled their way. Whenever Martin begins an educational point, a student will fling back a question that focuses in on the minutiae of why they have to do it at all. Martin spends so much time deflecting these attempts that it’s a wonder he gets anything done at all.
Martin’s challenges are multiple, from a Chinese immigrant boy with brains and a cocoon to protect him from his harsh classmates to a bossy Algerian girl who ends up abusing her power as a class representative to the faculty. At center among the swirl of chaos is Souleymane (Franck Keita), a young African who spends more time avoiding work than he ever would doing it. A force to be reckoned with in the dynamic of taming the class, Souleymane swaggers and challenges Martin by quizzing him in regard to personal rumors about his life and casually tosses off insults to other class members who seem to understand these are blows born of hurt and fear rather than cruelty.
Martin spends most his time attempting to float above it all, but when he tries to play the game at the students’ level, it all falls apart, and he finds himself in the position of having to sacrifice a student’s future in order for the system to work. It’s a conflict for him — as a brave improviser, he had previously begun to achieve small victories in elevating the situation, only to have them torn down by procedural necessities in response to student naiveté.
The lesson here is that a classroom is certainly made of individual parts, but each part forms one complete organism.
Front and center are the performances by the kids. Using real school kids who took part in a workshop that eventually became the class, Cantet gets some great improvisational work out of them. It’s the care taken with first getting the kids up to the task and then trusting them to live up to their performance potential that gives the film its unique real edge.
At root, “The Class” is a basic tough kids in the classroom movie, but the characters it wields to dissect the workings of a classroom — and the young actors who bring them to life — come together to make a package as complete and jarring as any real class it seeks to portray.
January 23, 2009 § Leave a Comment
The busy hands of shifty priests in proximity to young boys has been a pretty high-profile phenomenon of late — so much so that the cash settlements have busted the Catholic Church pretty badly even as the publicity has squashed some faith.
As a graphic novel entry into the onslaught, “Why I Killed Peter” comes from a different place. It’s a tale of the betrayal of an institution, but it’s not the kind you would expect. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 5, 2008 § Leave a Comment
Pirate tales are all the rage these days, but French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim — along with creative partner Appollo — doesn’t take the ironic, fantasy route that has proved so popular. With “Bourbon Island 1730,” the team has crafted a multi-layered story filled with intellectual depth as it examines the mythologies of pirate life as contrasted with the realities — good and bad.
The story is taken from real history — the sprawling tale of Bourbon Island, passed along through the ages as the property of several nations, here a French territory — and fictionalized. The island was known for its pirate amnesty policy — the local government saw pirates as trade and business opportunities and wanted to encourage such interactions. This meant a great deal of pirate integration into the population and, eventually, lead to pirates giving settling down their upon making their fortunes. Mix these circumstances a thriving coffee business reliant on plantations and slaves — as well as settlements of escaped slaves and some ne’er do well pirates stirring things up — and you have an obscure historical drama begging to be told. « Read the rest of this entry »