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Posts tagged ‘France’

There’s a scene in Faces, Places, the new documentary film Agnès Varda has made in collaboration with photographer and mural artist JR, in which this ostensibly odd couple – a 65-year age gap exists between them – chat with a group of male French dock workers. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Varda’s work that she instinctively asks the men if she can meet their wives, and before long the two artists are introduced to the three relevant women, two of whom – like their husbands – work on the docks.

The basic premise of the film is that Varda and JR travel around France meeting people (generally those who live and/or work in rural or smaller communities), before taking their pictures and then printing large images that are subsequently flyposted onto buildings or large objects. Having met the three women, and feeling suitably inspired by them, Varda and JR ask them to pose for portraits and then decide to plaster the larger-than-life pictures onto a huge stack of cargo containers, with the women themselves eventually emerging from behind the doors of container stacked high at the very top. It’s an extremely powerful visual statement – made in conjunction with a small group of people who appear to work for JR – in a film that’s littered with them, and yet it’s also completely indicative of the film’s humanism, the makers’ genuine interest in ordinary working class people and the rather likeable way that they are lionised in ways that also brings attention to their surroundings and the histories of certain places.

For most of the film Varda and JR travel around in his van, which has a large-scale printer adapted to fit in the back. They meet farmers, people from former mining communities, retirees and young children along the way. As they do, the documentary slowly evolves into a work that’s also about the power of images, as well as society, the influence of political decisions taken elsewhere, mortality and the act of seeing. One thread that’s weaved throughout pertains to Varda’s deteriorating eyesight, while in another Varda regularly chastises the younger man for his desire to ‘hide’ behind his sunglasses at all times, something that occasionally causes a small degree of friction between the two. (JR, like the English artist Banksy, places much value on his own anonymity.)

Despite the odd minor clash between Varda and JR – she quickly puts him in his place when he patronises her – Faces, Places is very much a feelgood film: the two artists make for an extremely sympathetic, likeable duo, and the obvious differences between them – age, height, etc – soon become irrelevant in the face of their shared respect for and interest in others. As well as their time together talking to people – which sometimes recalls Varda’s earlier The Gleaners & I – we’re treated to lots of footage of the pair travelling together, hanging out in Paris and even dashing across the Louvre in a light-hearted homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part.

It comes as a surprise, then, when Godard himself casts a rather unfortunate shadow on the film late on. JR arranges a surprise visit to the house of the notoriously reclusive director, who was one of Varda’s New Wave colleagues and someone who she considers a long-term friend, even though she hasn’t seen him in years, but the meeting and the trip becomes something of a non-event — grinding uncomfortably to a halt as a result of what appears to be mean-spirited pettiness on the part of Godard, perhaps driven by a rather unfortunate mixture of insecurity and thoughtlessness. Given what we’ve seen before it seems like a particularly cruel act to reduce Varda to tears, but her positive, forward-thinking outlook is irrepressible, and the male director’s actions ultimately seem like an irrelevance as she figuratively picks herself up, dusts herself down and gets on with her life. The simple fact is that nobody can stop the positivity that radiates from Varda and from this wonderful film, surely one of 2018’s finest. (4.5/5)

My Blind Spot choice for May was an excellent one, and as I write this a couple of weeks after watching Jacques Demy’s 1964 film The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg for the first time, I feel relatively confident in saying that it is now one of my favourite musicals – a vivid, colourful and bittersweet melodrama containing wonderful performances from Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo and an insistent, memorable score from Michel Legrand. Despite the film’s stellar reputation among amateur and professional critics – not to mention musical aficionados – I had wondered beforehand whether I was going to like the recicative dialogue; it’s not something I tend to enjoy and I thought it might be a stumbling block preventing me from connecting with Demy’s work. However, it’s so well-done here that I stopped noticing the device for a while, and at times it even seemed completely natural that the actors were singing their lines throughout. And bravo to cinematographer Jean Rabier, whose vibrant vision of the French port town makes the bad weather seem oddly warm and appealing. This is a masterpiece. (*****)

The first of five semi-autobiographical François Truffaut films – also his debut – that star Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel, a young Parisian boy whose journey from neglected, mis-treated youth to juvenile petty criminal is profoundly moving and wonderfully acted. The opening sequence sets 1950s Paris up as a kind of playground, and it remains as much for most of the rest of the film, with Henri Decaë’s camera wandering the streets in tandem with the latchkey lead. I first watched Les Quatre Cents Coups (sorry, I’ve always hated the badly-translated and comparatively clumsy English languate title) when I was a teenager, but I identify with and have way more sympathy for Antoine now than I did back then. It’s a film that’s ostensibly about a child, yes, but really Truffaut is holding up a mirror to adults, requesting them to think about their own actions and the society they have created. (*****)

The narrative in this excellent new film by Katell Quillévéré, written by Quillévéré and Gilles Taurand, drifts from one character to another, all of whom are linked together in some way by a dying patient in a hospital and his heart. You could argue that there are three specific threads: a teenager is left brain-dead after a car accident and his parents must decide whether to donate his valuable organs; the staff at the hospital are tasked with persuading the parents and must successfully transplant, if they are allowed to proceed – an ordinary day’s work, amazingly; and a woman on a waiting list for a new heart remains hopeful despite her faltering condition. Quillévéré never settles on a lead character, following at various times incidental figures as well as those we may see as being conventionally ‘important’, and offering us brief glimpses into all of their lives: time is spent with the boy’s shell-shocked parents, as you would expect, but also with a nurse on her first day in the brain injury ward, the girlfriend of the boy injured in the accident and a couple of people who I assume are medical students, who are tasked with safely transporting organs from Lyon to Paris. The film never has to rely on any strange circumstances or chance encounters to tie all the characters together – instead we see how they all relate to one another and nothing unusual is fabricated in order to link them or bring them into the same space. There are excellent performances and some very persuasive sequences that indicate the strange state that exists between dreams and reality, which are beautifully shot by Tom Harari, and a really lovely soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat that contemplates the images and the delicate nature of the film. All-round excellent performances, too, that ensure Heal The Living is a moving, well-considered, subtle study of life, death, grief and hope. (****½)

The second collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí – who had fallen out with each other by the time of production – is another surreal film, this time a series of vignettes that seem to mock the absurdity of modern life, as it was in France in 1930. The main link throughout is a couple (Lya Lys and Gaston Modot) who are trying to have sex but are constantly thwarted by others, such as religious figures, family members, etc. There are some typically strong images: the woman fellates the toe of a statue, apparently to ease her sexual frustration; a crucifix has scalps hanging from it that blow in the wind; a young boy is shot in a chillingly cold fashion; an old man at the side of the road is needlessly attacked. All very shocking at the time, no doubt, and some of it still surprising to see today. Buñuel’s gift for editing by associating similar objects and shapes or by linking ideas is clear for all to see, and it’s one of the very first sound films made in France, though you wouldn’t describe it as un talkie, exactly. (***)

[Note: this is the sixth film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]

When Jean-Luc Godard decided to make his feature-length debut Breathless in 1960, he famously turned to two of his fellow Cahiers du Cinéma colleagues for help. François Truffaut had already made one successful film – The 400 Blows – a year earlier, and would write the outline of a story for Godard that was based on a real life murder: in November 1952 Michel Portail, a Parisian dating an American journalist named Beverly Lynette, stole a car so he could visit his sick mother in Le Havre and shot a motorcycle cop named Grimberg. Claude Chabrol – who had three films of his own under his belt by the end of 1959 – was brought on as an ‘artistic supervisor’. These were two men with their own clearly-defined ideas about cinema, and storytelling, but this film is unmistakably Godard’s, from the way that it embraces a hip, French take on American pulp imagery to the film’s most obvious structural quirks, including the large number of jump cuts that were made when trimming down a five hour rough-cut to the released version of 87 minutes (90 unrated). This skittish, stuttering style would go on to become something of a calling card for Godard in the 1960s, but it’s not only utilised as a means of reducing the running time. It gives a sense of busy, young lives in perpetual (caffeine- and nicotine-fuelled) motion, while it also serves to highlight – through the lack of an expected smoothness – the awkwardness (or indeed the fractious nature) of the relationship between Jean Seberg’s American in Paris Patricia and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel, a man on the lam who seems to care more about adopting the mannerisms of Humphrey Bogart than he does about the net that’s closing in on him.

The chemistry between the two is, of course, key to the film’s success. Seberg’s fee accounted for a hefty portion of the film’s budget and she is as cool as they come, her style in this film – short, cropped hair, striped Breton top, skirt, overcoat – as influential today as it has ever been. Belmondo’s shady crook is a walking chimney, perennially lighting up cigarettes, stubbing them out, flicking matches away with no concern about potential fires and generally not giving much of a fuck about anything other than Bogey. He calls her a louse repeatedly during the film (or ‘a scumbag’, depending on the version you watch), and most famously of all he says it to her during the final scene, when all that smoking catches up with Michel and he finally runs out of breath. Does he mean it as an insult? Is it a playful in-joke that acknowledges that her French isn’t perfect? Or is it just a defence mechanism? I’m inclined to go with the latter suggestion; he really does love her but is afraid of rejection, and anyway…it simply isn’t cool to show commitment. How many times do you ever see Bogart do that, after all? As for Patricia…does she love him? Maybe. Was she really going to go to Italy with him? Maybe. Does she believe he would be a good father? Maybe…weirdly. Both actors deliver very enigmatic performances, and both characters are hard to figure out as a result, as playful and flirtatious with each other as they are distant. Seberg and Belmondo improvised a lot with dialogue that Godard often came up with on the day.

Godard’s adoption of the fledgling cinéma vérité style for Breathless helped to popularise it among cinephiles, despite it being a term more readily associated with documentary filmmaking. Raoul Coutard’s hand-held camera moves freely and loosely around the characters as we experience the minutae of their quotidien life, be it buying newspapers, selling newspapers, lounging around indoors talking about their bodies, eating in cafes and more. Coutard was the choice of producer Georges de Beauregard, and he would become an important collaborator with Godard during the rest of the decade, as well as being an important figure in the careers of Truffaut and others. You can’t underestimate his contribution to the mood of this film, or indeed that of pianist Martial Solal’s insistent jazz soundtrack, which lingers in the memory long after the film has finished. Their importance has often been stated, though one could argue that the two women Godard edited with, Cécile Decugis and Lila Herman, have been overlooked. Both will have been key contributors to the rhythm of Breathless, and that – along with the look and the feel of the film – is everything; by contrast the plot is really so slight as to be almost – almost! – irrelevant. It’s not a surprise that this jittery black-and-white portrait of Paris – and Godard’s infatuated take on the city’s young, chain-smoking inhabitants – caused such a stir in the early ’60s; the director flings the door open here to usher in the new decade. Breathless is an experimental, era-defining masterpiece and it hasn’t lost any of its hipness during the ensuing years.

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard. Based on an initial treatment by François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (uncredited).
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg.
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard.
Editing: Cécile Decugis, Lila Herman.
Music:
Martial Solal.
Certificate:
PG.
Running Time:
86 minutes.
Year:
1960.

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I suppose some people will be shocked by this French drama, given that it’s about a group of high school teenagers in Biarritz who – mainly due to sheer boredom – hold increasingly-popular and debauched sex parties, some of which are depicted in a fairly explicit manner by first-time director Eva Husson (well, there’s lots of nudity, anyway). The afternoon soirées are attended by impossibly cool French kids who take drugs, project porn onto the walls of an adult-free house and – after a spot of age-old favourite spin the bottle – film one another during the ensuing orgies. (This being a film about teenagers, somewhat predictably it’s not long before a boy uploads one of these videos to YouTube, resulting in the public shaming of a female character.) Husson presents her disaffected youth stylishly enough: there’s a cool techno soundtrack, the film seems to be set during the magic hour more often than not, there’s some subtle breaking of the fourth wall, and her DoP Mattias Troelstrup uses dreamy depth of field throughout. There’s a certain degree of complicity and vaguely-pervy viewer participation suggested by Troelstrup’s loose camera movement during the parties that brings to mind Larry Clark’s Kids, too, a film that’s also linked to Bang Gang by way of its subject matter. Additionally, and on more than one occasion, I also thought of Sofia Coppola’s pronounced visual style, as well as her beguiling predilection for mixing ice-cool detatchment with sudden bursts of empathetic warmth towards her young female characters.

There are several problems, though. Husson never quite seems to have the courage or conviction to let the film develop into the shocking portrait of teen lust and drug-taking that it clearly wishes to be. It promises to be frank and confrontational but oddly seems coy about certain issues: the decision by one of the main characters to abort an unplanned pregnancy is dealt with by a voiceover that’s less than twenty seconds long, while the sex here is relatively tame in an era containing explicit films by the likes of Gaspar Noé and Michael Winterbottom. It ends limply – apt given all the preceding rumpy pumpy, he fnarr-fnarred to no-one in particular – and at times it lacks depth, offering little in the way of fresh insight into modern teenage life in France; in fact at times it’s merely a glossy reimagining of the UK’s tabloid-baiting TV show Skins, with added glimpses of porn and writhing teenage flesh. Also, given how free and supposedly-accepting the teenagers are here, it’s perplexing that there are no party invites for any classmates who do not conform to a certain lithe body type. Lastly, the use of radio broadcasts about trains being de-railed – an obvious metaphor for the changes in the lives of these teenagers – induces weariness due to over-use. Still, Bang Gang isn’t a dud. Husson clearly has a pronounced sense of style, and there are some interesting elements to her story: I found it to be non-judgmental despite the various punishments – STDs, unwanted pregnancies, public shaming, etc. – the screenplay dishes out to the orgy participants, I liked the all-too-brief explorations of the relationships some of these teens have with their parents, who are either overbearing authoritarians or absent travellers, and a couple of characters are compelling, such as Marilyn Lima’s George and Lorenzo Lefebvre’s introverted Gabriel.

Directed by: Eva Husson.
Written by: Eva Husson.
Starring: Marilyn Lima, Finnegan Oldfield, Daisy Broom, Fred Hotier, Lorenzo Lefebvre.
Cinematography: Mattias Troelstrup.
Editing: Emilie Orsini.
Music: White Sea.
Certificate: 18.
Running Time: 98 minutes.
Year: 2016.

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