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[Note: The 1913/1914 Fantômas serial by Louis Feuillade is actually a collection of five films ranging from 60 to 90 minutes in length, but I’m just posting one review here. For the record the five films I watched were Fantômas I: À l’ombre de la guillotine (Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine) (1913); Fantômas II: Juve contre Fantômas (Juve vs. Fantômas) (1913); Fantômas III: Le Mort Qui Tue (The Murderous Corpse) (1913); Fantômas IV: Fantômas contre Fantômas (Fantômas vs. Fantômas) (1914); and Fantômas V: Le Faux Magistrat (The False Magistrate) (1914). These have recently been restored and re-packaged as a centenary edition by Gaumont. I watched with intertitle cards and other text in the original French, which I just about managed to translate and understand.]

Louis Feuillade’s silent crime film serial – based on a long-running French series of novels – was originally released during 1913 and 1914, and among other things the films offer interesting snapshots of the sets, camerawork, editing and techniques of actors that I presume were typical of the era (though even within this series you can see rapid development in terms of all of those elements, and a clear case of expanding ambition with regard to the filmmaker). The serial details the ongoing game of cat-and-mouse between a criminal mastermind named Fantômas (René Navarre) and the man trying to bring him to justice, Insprector Juve (Edmund Breon), who is often aided by his journalist friend Jérôme Fandor (Georges Melchior); there are a couple of other actors who appear as the same characters in different instalments, such as Renée Carl, who plays Lady Beltham, Fantômas’ mistress, but the core cast is small. The films use intertitles regularly, and they also incorporate an increasing number of letters and newspaper articles to develop and explain the various plots, though they have clearly been made with the understanding that audience members at the time were familiar with the stories from the books. The plots gradually become more complex as the series progresses, and characters adopt alter-egos or wear disguises regularly, so it’s actually quite difficult to follow on occasion (though I dare say watching with English intertitles and translations would have helped). Each film ends with a cliffhanger, much in the way that the other popular serials of the time did; more often than not this involves a character in peril or Fantômas evading the long arm of the law (which he does with comical ease).

Feuillade’s first film In The Shadows Of The Guillotine is much slower, more rudimentary and less expansive than the rest: few locations are used, there aren’t many actors or extras and the glimpses of Paris that one does see do not give an impression of a busy capital city at all. At one point the director films a hotel lift going past each different floor as it moves between the ground floor and the third; today we’re used to seeing a character getting in a lift and then a cut to them getting out, unless the camera stays with the character inside the lift for the duration for some reason. (As David Bordwell notes in his essay on the serial, Feuillade filmed the lift from different angles and simply changed a sign above it to indicate the different floors.) It’s noticable that by the time he made Juve vs Fantômas the director’s style had evolved, and in particular his editing injected a greater sense of urgency, which in turn made the stunts and the action much more exciting. There’s a sense of gleefulness about the choreographed action set pieces in the second film, and it’s notable for the inventive special effects that are used: a house explodes, a shoot-out takes place at a distillery while barrels of alcohol burn, and there’s a train crash (i.e. two model locomotives filmed smashing into each other after rounding a papier mâché mountain). The addition of tense and imaginatively-staged scenes like these are complemented by the inclusion of other thriller staples, such as sudden twists, while there’s also a greater sense of Paris as a living, breathing metropolis, with more actors, more extras and more real people included in the background. Even the casual observer can see a difference between the first and second film in terms of the size and depth of the sets, which are ornately decorated in Juve vs Fantômas and even more impressive as the series wears on, presumably as funding increased.

Feuillade switches his protagonists regularly, so there are some films in which Juve’s pursuit of Fantômas is to the fore and others in which Fandor takes the lead. The villain himself isn’t overused, either; even five films in there’s still a certain frisson felt when the dastardly one appears on screen, and a sense that anything can happen while he is present. This keeps the series fresh, although by the time I’d watched all 337 minutes over the course of three days I was ready for a break. My growing weariness was probably a result of the convoluted plots more than anything else. The Murderous Corpse, for example, involves a long set-up so that Fantômas can commit a crime using a glove that has been made from the skin of a dead man (who he framed for an earlier murder). Still, such outlandish plotting doesn’t cast too much of a shadow over this otherwise bright and entertaining serial, and I’ll reiterate the point that audiences at the time would have been familiar with the source material. The five Fantômas films are entertaining enough in their own right, but today there’s an obvious added historical value: it’s fascinating to see a director and his cast and crew develop so impressively and so rapidly; additionally, for those of us who don’t watch many silent films, it’s always a treat to immerse yourself in that quiet world and pay attention to what you can see, rather than what you can see and hear. Feuillade would go on to make the popular 10-part serial The Vampires a year later – which by all accounts is superior to his clutch of Fantômas features – and his successes helped to establish Gaumont as the second biggest film production company in France after Pathé. Navarre and Breon both worked regularly as actors until the late-1940s, the latter successfully making the transition into talkies before emigrating to the US and working with Howard Hawks. Creators Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre wrote more than 40 Fantômas books between them, while the character has appeared in French crime films and TV serials regularly over the years, including a 1960s trilogy in which Jean Marias played the master criminal and the journalist tailing him. An updated version directed by Christophe Gans is currently in development.

Directed by: Louis Feuillade.
Written by: Marcel Allain, Louis Feuillade, Pierre Souvestre.
Starring: René Navarre, Edmund Breon, Georges Melchior, Renée Carl.
Cinematography: Georges Guérin.
Certificate: N/A.
Running Time: 337 minutes.
Year: 1913.

 

 

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Often referred to as the finest heist movie ever made, Jules Dassin’s Rififi was developed while the American noir director was living in France, having found himself on the Hollywood blacklist a year or so earlier. Dassin came across Auguste Le Breton’s slang-filled crime novel of the same name, and though he was initially skeptical about turning it into a film, it seems as though a lack of viable alternative options forced the director’s hand. It turned out to be a good move: Dassin and René Wheeler wrote a very good screenplay, and Rififi is one of the finest French films blacks (as I believe they’re possibly known) and – yup – as good an example of the heist movie as you’ll see. (If you’re unwilling to take my word for it then perhaps you’ll accept that of François Truffaut, who wrote ‘From the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen’.) Its crowning centrepiece is the scene that depicts the tense robbery, an intricately-planned takedown of a jewellery store which famously unfolds in half an hour of silence. The four thieves (led by Jean Servais’ stern ex-con Tony ‘le Stéphanois’) do not speak because they are wary of tripping a sensitive alarm system, and the tension is increased somewhat by a long sequence just before the robbery in which the men plan the heist; the loud alarm bell sounds throughout as they experiment with ways to shut it off.

The four robbers are generally likeable – particularly family man Jo (Carl Möhner), who proposes the job in the first place – which makes the cold, vicious, plain-living Tony stand out from the pack. Servais is tight-lipped throughout, with Tony refusing to crack a smile or to join in when the others reveal future plans with their ill-gotten gains. It’s easy to get swept along while the other three dare to dream, and Dassin is quite forceful in making you root for the criminals as they set about nabbing a bag full of diamonds, but it remains impossible to completely get behind the main protagonist of the film. Servais – who worked with the director again on 1957’s He Who Must Die – is a key contributor to Rififi‘s nasty edge, and the more he’s on screen the more you sense that the story will end badly for Tony. He may buy toys for Jo’s son, but when we see him viciously beat former flame Mado (Marie Sabouret) for hooking up with gangster and nightclub owner Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) while he’s in prison, he’s effectively signing his own cinematic death warrant. (Though there’s a hint that this beating is a common sado-masochistic practice that the couple have participated in together beforehand, Servais looks like a cold, vicious bastard throughout the scene, as opposed to someone who’s getting any kind of sexual gratification from the lashes he inflicts). So, in that sense it’s no surprise when Tony dishes out the violence as a feud with Grutter and his junkie brother escalates, and few will be blindsided when the film completely ditches its caper-fuelled lightness in favour of tougher, hard-boiled fatalism. It’s a great film to watch for the impeccable blocking – at one point nudity is amusingly covered by actors moving into certain positions in front of the camera, while all four thieves are often in frame during the heist itself – and all the cool trappings of noir are present and correct: fedoras, hats, guns, raincoats, nightclub torch singers, cigarettes dangled at 45 degree angles, and so on. Dassin also stars, under the pseudonym ‘Perlo Vita’, as César, an Italian safecracker.

Directed by: Jules Dassin.
Written by: Jules Dassin, René Wheeler. Based on Rififi by Auguste Le Breton.
Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin, Marcel Lupovici, Marie Sabouret, Magali Noel, Pierre Grasset, Janine Darcey, Dominique Maurin.
Cinematography: Philippe Agostini.
Editing: Roger Dwyre.
Music: Georges Auric.
Certificate: 12.
Running Time: 113 minutes.
Year: 1955.

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Alarm bells start to ring when one of the opening scenes in a modern crime film features a law enforcement agent receiving a dressing down from his superiors (because he’s reckless and insubordinate, of course, and his behaviour endangers the lives of others). Unfortunately this action thriller – directed by James Watkins (Eden Lake) and scripted by Andrew Baldwin – contains several other clichés that no filmmaker or writer should be going near in 2016, as well as corny twists that are delivered so lumpenly they unintentionally induce mirth. In fact – and I take no pleasure in saying this – there’s very little in Bastille Day that can honestly be described as original. Idris Elba is the Paris-based CIA agent whose methods are generally overlooked (he’s unconventional but he gets results, etc. etc.), while Richard Madden (hitherto best known for his role as Robb Stark in Game Of Thrones) plays an American pickpocket helping the CIA after he becomes embroiled in a bizarre criminal operation. Said plan, due to be executed on Bastille Day, involves an unnecessarily-complicated mish-mash of terrorists, bombs, a burgeoning Front Nationale-style right wing party, a bank robbery and a stitch-up of the city’s Muslim community, and it’s up to Elba and Madden’s characters to thwart it. As you can probably deduce the writer has tried very hard to inject currency into (or disguise) a basic, thin genre plot – the kind we’ve recently seen in this year’s Triple 9 – but it’s hard not to let out an exasperated sigh when a band of Anonymous-style activists are also thrown in to the mix. Bastille Day couldn’t be any more 2016 if it tried, though perhaps we should just be thankful that it doesn’t include a news report about a celebrity unexpectedly carking it.

The screenplay’s full of banal expository dialogue, tired exchanges and cardboard cutout bad guys, while the acting is patchy at best: Elba, Madden and Kelly Reilly – who plays a high-ranking CIA official – are all British actors in roles that require American accents, and all three fail to convince (a surprise in Elba’s case, given his earlier consistent performance in The Wire). The supporting actors are generally disappointing, too, with Anatol Yusef and Charlotte Le Bon delivering turns that aren’t quite up to scratch and which make you wonder whether their characters have grasped the importance of the situation at hand. However – and lo, there’s some fresh pickle on the mouldy burger – Watkins proves to be adept at directing action, and there are a couple of scenes here that stand up to a lot of the set pieces you’ll have seen in the past decade’s Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt or James Bond-related films. A breathless chase across the rooftops is an early highlight, with some fine stunt work, while a later fight involving five characters in the back of a van is very well choreographed and superbly stitched together by editor Jon Harris. Unfortunately such moments of quality are few and far between, and they cannot save Bastille Day as it careers into a final act of nonsensical, preposterous twaddle. And I don’t use the ‘T’ word lightly.

Directed by: James Watkins.
Written by: Andrew Baldwin.
Starring: Idris Elba, Richard Madden, Charlotte Le Bon, Eriq Ebouaney, José Garcia, Kelly Reilly, Anatol Yusef.
Cinematography: Tim Maurice-Jones.
Editing: Jon Harris.
Music: Alex Heffes.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 91 minutes.
Year: 2016.

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Light-hearted coming-of-age dramedy La Famille Bélier (released as The Bélier Family in some countries) was a surprise hit in France, picking up a number of award ceremony nominations and wins in 2015, including Most Promising Actress at the Césars for its star, Louane Emera. She plays 16-year-old Paula Bélier, the only hearing person in a family of four, and the story is concerned with a year in her life as she joins the school choir and supports her dad (François Damiens) as he bids to become the town’s mayor. Paula’s parents are farmers who live just outside a small town, and her presence at home is crucial to the family in terms of their ability to communicate with the wider community, most of whom do not understand sign language, as you’d expect. It transpires that the teenager’s a fine singer with untapped talent, who may be able to win a scholarship to an elite Parisian music school, but inevitably her parents and brother do not want her to leave as it will potentially isolate them (or at the very least make life harder). Does she follow her dream or stay to help the family, and further a budding romance with the mop-headed young lad and fellow chorister she has fancied throughout the school year? The film is occasionally funny, and pokes fun at typical reactions to deaf people during a couple of scenes (the incumbent mayor repeatedly uses the term ‘handicapped’ while talking to the Béliers, while one woman buying cheese from the family in a market asks what’s wrong with the mother (Karin Viard) when she doesn’t respond to a question, to which Paula sarcastically replies ‘she likes to smile, I like to talk’). There’s a permanent positivity and palpable sense of warmth to the film that makes it easy to like and – I can only presume – easy to dislike, too. I couldn’t detect anything truly special about it – despite the financial success and the awards it has received – but I can’t quite bring myself to write anything negative either, except that it’s frustrating when some of the sign language hasn’t been subtitled (which I think is a mistake by the captioners, as opposed to a deliberate stylistic choice).

Directed by: Éric Lartigau.
Written by: Victoria Bedos, Stanislas Carré de Malberg, Thomas Bidegain, Éric Lartigau.
Starring: Louane Emera, Karin Viard, François Damiens, Éric Elmosnino, Roxane Duran, Ilian Bergala, Luca Gelberg.
Cinematography: Romain Winding.
Editing: Jennifer Augé.
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine.
Certificate: 12.
Running Time: 103 minutes.
Year: 2015.

 

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Based on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel, Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery is a tragicomic drama (with more emphasis on the tragic than the comic) that plays around with the idea of life imitating art, specifically Gustav Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary. Gemma Arterton stars as Emma, an archetypal English Rose who moves to a small, rural French town with her husband Charlie (Jason Flemyng). The first person they meet is neighbour Martin (Fabrice Luchini), who has moved back to the town himself to take over his father’s bakery with his wife, after many years of life in Paris. Martin takes an interest in the newcomers partly because of his attraction to Gemma, partly through generosity and friendship, and partly because of his own love for Flaubert’s novel, noting the similarities between the English couple’s names and those of Flaubert’s protagonists, Charles and Emma Bovary. Subsequently, as Gemma’s relationship with Charlie goes through a rocky patch, Martin begins to notice that Gemma has more in common with her Flaubert counterpart than just the name, yet the film entertainingly plays with the idea that he’s simply projecting all of this behaviour as he becomes obsessed with the English woman and the idea of her as a literary character made real. The question posed, as Gemma’s love life becomes ever more complicated, is whether he’s a narrow-minded stalker or a concerned, impartial observer .

Gemma is viewed from Martin’s perspective throughout, so Fontaine’s film is quite interesting in the sense that it’s about the male gaze but it has been both written and directed by women (though Fontaine co-adapted the graphic novel for the big screen with a man). For much of the running time, though, it’s quite light and breezy, and a lot of it passes by like a pretty cloud in a field on a warm summer’s day. There are only around 20 minutes to go when Fontaine finally gets to grips with the emotional impact of the scenario on the characters, and even then the rather sad ending has a joke epilogue tacked on, but that’s not to say the film’s lightness isn’t enjoyable, and the comic fayre on offer is charming enough. My two favourite characters here – a boorish and bourgeois Anglo-French couple played by Pip Torrens and Elsa Zylberstein – are largely incidental to the main story and are milked for laughs, but the scenes I enjoyed the most all featured one or both of them. Luchini and Arterton both turn in good performances, and it’s the latter’s second starring role in a Posy Simmonds adaptation, following her appearance in 2010’s Tamara Drewe. There are some nice touches throughout, such as the way the response to a bee sting foreshadows a later tragic incident, and indeed the way that later incident is shown from the perspective of three different men. I guess in summary the film sometimes feels too frothy for its own good, but the acting’s fine and it’s shot well by Christophe Beaucarne, who lets sunlight drift into all the dusty corners of the old farmhouses and stately homes.

Directed by: Anne Fontaine.
Written by: Anne Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer. Based on Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds.
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng, Isabelle Candelier, Mel Raido, Niels Schneider, Pip Torrens, Elsa Zylberstein.
Cinematography: Christophe Beaucarne.
Editing: Annette Dutertre.
Music:
Bruno Coulais.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
97 minutes.
Year:
2015.

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The latest film by Michel Gondry is a typically whimsical affair, and taken at face value it’s concerned with little other than the summer holiday adventures of two uncool 14-year-old French boys, but as you’d expect from this director it has a considerable amount of quirky charm. It helps that the two main characters induce waves of sympathy and are eminently likeable from the off. Daniel (Ange Dargent) is a scrawny, shy kid who struggles to fit in at school and must fight for attention at home, where he tiptoes around two older siblings and a pair of distracted parents. His classmates have cruelly give him the nickname ‘Microbe’, he’s too scared to act on a crush and he regularly gets mistaken for a girl due to his long-ish hair. Also given a nickname is ‘Gasoline’, aka Théo (Théophile Baquet), the new kid in school; he earns the moniker on account of his fondness for engines, motors and the like, but sadly his status as a grease monkey means he’s an instant outcast in the playground. It’s natural, then, that these two misfits should become friends, and soon enough they begin making plans to go on a road trip, building a motorised kart/shed contraption that they can drive on the backroads south-east of Paris.

At times it’s hard to make a case for Microbe & Gasoline being anything other than a standard coming-of-age story, even though it splutters along in the guise of a directionless road movie, but I guess when you’re young and it’s the school holidays plodding aimlessness is something of a pre-requisite. All fine by me: the developing bromance may be a very familiar sight, but it’s also handled sweetly, and I always feel better after watching a Gondry filmfew directors exhibit the same genuine level of warmth towards their characters. The director’s usual playfulness is manifest through Microbe and Gasoline’s shared creativity – the film shares the same appreciation for lo-fi DIY previously seen in Be Kind Rewind – though his penchant for cutesy (or wacky) surrealism can grate at times. A sequence in which a plane takes off with the boys on board is subsequently re-wound, for example, and Microbe comments on the fact that their plane ‘landed backwards’; a second or two later an edit subsequently places the pair on a train, and Microbe is perplexed as to how he got there, claiming to have no memory of anything in-between the plane landing and train departing. (Such self-aware idiosyncracy is a regular feature of Gondry’s films, though, so it’s hardly a surprise that it plays a fairly major part here.) Perhaps aware that the film is so light it’s in danger of floating away, Gondry tries to inject a little grit into proceedings, so we see the remnants of a Roma camp after it has been set alight, while there are sequences featuring an aggressive Korean gang; it’s all a little disjointed, to be honest, and doesn’t really fit with the director’s style. Still, overall it’s a simple, likeable film, daring enough in its depiction of pubescent sexuality to earn a ’15’ rating in the UK, and Gondry confidently implements a bittersweet ending.

Directed by: Michel Gondry.
Written by: Michel Gondry.
Starring: Théophile Baquet, Ange Dargent, Audrey Tautou, Diane Besnier.
Cinematography: Laurent Brunet.
Editing: Elise Fievet.
Music:
Jean-Claude Vannier.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
102 minutes.
Year:
2015.

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This 2013 film is the third entry in  Cédric Klapisch’s ‘Spanish Apartment’ trilogy, following the earlier comedy/dramas Pot Luck (aka The Spanish Apartment) and Russian Dolls, both of which I’ve watched recently. The series has followed the life and loves of Xavier (Romain Duris), a writer who has endured several ups-and-downs during the 16-years depicted, and it’s one that has gradually shed cast members while retaining a few core characters, who all feature again here. It has also served as a celebration of multiculturalism in cities and cross-border and cross-cultural relationships, loosely examining globalisation as the story flits between France, Spain, England, Russia and the United States, where New York’s Chinese community is foregrounded (with individual characters, Chinatown as a location and a Chinese multinational company as an unlikely plot influencer here). In the first film Xavier spent time in a shared house in Barcelona that was filled with students from various European countries; he ditched Parisian girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou), lusted after Belgian roommate Isabelle (Cécile de France) and helped English friend Wendy (Kelly Reilly) out of a sticky situation. The second film jumped back-and-forth between Paris, London and St. Petersburg as Wendy and Xavier fell in love, concentrating partly on Wendy’s brother’s marriage to a Russian ballerina. Chinese Puzzle begins several years later and the characters are all now pushing 40. Xavier’s inner doubts about companionship and his career are still present and causing him considerable unhappiness. We discover at the start that Wendy and Xavier married, had two kids, but are now divorced. She has met someone else and is moving to New York, so the impulsive Xavier follows to be near his children. Coincidentally Isabelle has recently taken a new job on Wall Street, and has set up home with her partner Ju (Sandrine Holt), which initially gives Xavier a place to lay his head. The story leans heavily towards his struggle to establish himself in the US as well as his changing relationships with family and friends: first he works illegally as a bike courier, then he employs a rather dodgy lawyer to thrash out custody issues, and finally he sets about gaining residency. The answer to his problems appears to be an arranged marriage.

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Margot Mansart, Pablo Mugnier-Jacob and Romain Duris in Chinese Puzzle

This is the best film in the trilogy, partly because Klapisch approaches the themes he developed in earlier films in a more mature fashion, which is understandable given that he’s at least 15 years’ older than he was when he began. It’s far superior to the misfiring Russian Dolls; several members of the cast from Pot Luck were briefly and awkwardly shoehorned into that second film, but Klapisch takes the bold step of dispensing with most of them for Chinese Puzzle, refocusing on Xavier and the three women he is closest to. This works wonders and revitalises the series, plus it makes senseit’s common to see less and less of the friends we had fifteen, twenty years ago. The film can be approached in the same way you might approach the later entries in Richard Linklater’s Before series, even though it’s comparitively lighter. It certainly gives you the satisfying feeling when you’re brought up-to-speed on supposed events that took place in the lives of the characters between films.

The comic strand running through the three movies – one that often results in farce with several characters converging on one location at the same time – is present once again, but Klapisch manages to imbue this one with a bittersweet edge, and the story reflects on the effect of divorce on fatherhood as much as it amuses with its Gallic flights of fancy. The screenplay is also quietly perceptive, attempting to debunk the myth that big cities are inherently unfriendly places where goodwill is in short supply, though New Yorkers may find the film romanticises their city. There’s a satisfactory ending that ties the series together neatly, although we leave Xavier and co in the knowledge that the writer has repeatedly woven the theme of temporality into the three films, and that any happiness we may see on screen may be fleeting rather than lasting. I had my doubts after watching the second film as to whether I’d want to recommend the trilogy to people, because it certainly has its faults (as you can imagine from the description above the tone jumps around a lot, and it’s a cheesy old affair at times), but Klapisch deserves credit for getting rid of most of the more problematic elements by the end. It may have a self-obsessed character at its heart, but Duris is a likeable actor, and in each installment he has managed to sell Xavier as a good guy whose instinct is to help out others, whether they’re complete strangers or those he holds dear. No-one will hold these films up as masterpieces, but they’re optimistic and witty, and I’m kinda sad that I’ve finished the trilogy now. Which probably tells you all you need to know.

Directed by: Cédric Klapisch.
Written by: Cédric Klapisch.
Starring: Romain Duris, Kelly Reilly, Audrey Tautou, Cécile de France, Sandrine Holt.
Cinematography: Natasha Braier.
Editing: Anne-Sophie Bion.
Music:
Christophe Minck, Kraked Unit.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
117 minutes.
Year:
2014.

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