Meteorites (Les météorites, France, 2018)

Defying inertia

Zéa Duprez, who plays the protagonist Nina, is what makes this film, Romain Laguna’s directorial feature debut, worth seeing. Laguna’s co-credited for the screenplay with Salavatore Lista (and two other ‘collaborators’), and marshals a cast of non professionals brilliantly. However, whilst it’s not quite a ‘by-the-numbers’ ‘summer of love’ ‘coming of age’ story, it knowingly veers close to it. The symbolism of the meteorite, that only Nina seems to have noticed landed in the nearby mountains at the start of the film, is a little heavy handed but Duprez’s performance is anything but.

Nina is a bored 16-year-old falling for a young Muslim lad, Morad (Billal Agab), who we suspect is a ‘player’. The Muslim angle is both significant and irrelevant as religion isn’t important but the portrayal of the ‘everydayness’ of characters of that faith is rare enough to be significant. Morad’s sister, Djamilla (Oumaima Lyamouri), in particular, comes over as typical teen girl and she wears a hijab. The film knowingly plays with the genre by following a conventional narrative trajectory but then veering away from what appears to an inevitable consequence of actions. However, for me, it doesn’t quite veer far enough from convention to be a vital view.

Duprez hasn’t appeared in any other films since and reminded me of Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank (Netherlands-UK, 2009), written and directed by Andrea Arnold, both of whom were probably playing ‘themselves’ to some extent. What’s refreshing, about both films, is the female perspective as well as avoiding any sense of victimhood.

Cinematographer Aurelien Marra captures the slightly austere beauty of the Herault and Aude districts, near Bezier. The humdrum lives of the protagonists in the midst of the landscape is a striking contrast. Inevitably, if you’re brought up in an area then you don’t notice where you are. The film got a ‘Special Mention – International Press Jury’ award as part of the Myfrenchfilmfestival, it’s not clear what that means but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t connected to Duprez’s performance.

To the Ends of the World (Les confins du monde, France, 2018)

Retuning from the end of the world

Overall this in a impressive Vietnam film all the better for offering a French perspective albeit one infected by Orientalism that, you’d hope, would be critiqued in the 21st century. It was shown at the Cannes Director’s Fortnight suggesting artistic worth and writers Jérôme Beaujour and Guillaume Nicloux (who also directed) have produced a thoughtful consideration of the ‘hell on Earth’ the French occupation caused post-World War II.

Apparently the lead actor, Gaspard Ulliel, is the ‘face’ of the perfume Bleu de Chanel; it’s interesting that the role he plays here couldn’t be further from such frippery. We meet his Robert Tassen digging himself out of a pile of dismembered corpses and he remains traumatised throughout the film. If being embedded in fragments of bodies wasn’t enough, his brother and his sister-in-law were amongst the victims so he spends the film seeking revenge against the North Vietnamese ‘general’ (I can’t remember the actual rank) responsible. The man clearly needs to be sent home for treatment but he refuses.

He seeks solace in drink and then is enraptured by mysterious prostitute Maï (Lang Khê Tran) which is where the Oriental cliche appears. To be fair there is a little more to her character than a cipher; we do get a sense that though she cares for Robert she knows that the reality of her situation means affection is meaningless. Throughout we do not have any sense of what the Vietnamese thought about the colonial power and the civil war; they seem mostly to be shown as an untrustworthy bunch. In this it was bit like watching a film from the 1970s, such as The Deer Hunter (US, 1978). Incidentally both the violence and sex scenes are explicit and I would have expected it to have been certified an 18 if it had been released in the UK (erect penises feature). However, the Myfrenchfilmfestival suggests 16+, which shows the difference between French and UK regulation, and I have no problem with that. I do wonder, though, at the suggestion 13+ on Amazon Prime.

Ulliel is excellent as the morally emptied soldier and I enjoyed Gérard Depardieu’s ex-pat who occasionally rumbles into the soldier’s life to offer advice. I’m not sure what his character, Saintonge, represents; the first part of his name suggests ‘holy’ but I didn’t get that. I also didn’t understand why one character had to ‘come out’ as gay just before dying.

Escape from Raqqa (Exfiltrés, France-Turkey, 2019)

Into hell

Scriptwriters Benjamin Dupas and Emmanuel Haman (who also directed) based their film on a true story of a French woman, Faustine (Jisca Kalvanda), who took her child to Syria intending to help the victims of Assad’s government but ends up imprisoned, and working for, ISIS. The is Haman’s first fictional feature and his documentary background ensures we get a clear sense of place (the non-French locations were shot in Jordan) and it works very effectively as a thriller as Faustine’s husband, Sylvain (Swann Arlaud, miles away from the whimsy of The Bare Necessity), tries to facilitate his family’s exfiltration. There’s excellent support from Finnegan Oldfield, as the aid worker with expertise in the area, and Charles Berling as Patrice, Sylvain’s boss, who has connections to the French government.

What the film lacks is backstories, particularly for Faustine; why does she take her child into Syria? There’s a perfunctory suggestion that she wants to do ‘good’ but, unlike the case in the UK of Shamima Begum who was 15 when she went to join ISIS, we need more explanation why the older woman thought it was a viable plan. We have a sense of her disillusionment with aid efforts, but little of whether she is disgruntled with her husband, so more was needed for us to see her other than stupid. The UK government’s decision to strip Begum of her citizenship is disgraceful and the film shows the French authorities to be little better as Sylvain’s attempts hit a brick wall. To be honest suspicion of those who aid ISIS is warranted but the French officials are shown simply to be uncaring bureaucrats. Similarly, Oldfield’s aid worker, Gabriel, is unhappy with his role as a translator to an NGO in Turkey; why isn’t made clear.

However, these are relatively minor points as films that deal with the realpolitik should be celebrated, particularly if they are done so well. The portrayal of life under ISIS shows a dysfunctional world where women are slaves; though the sexual element, perhaps fortunately, is not shown. As in The Swallows of Kabul, male dominated, militaristic society approximates, at the very least,  ‘hell on earth’. The film doesn’t delve into how this came about (the US-UK invasion of Iraq) but it’s unfair to presume a fiction entertainment, for it is essentially a thriller, should give us all the details; though more would have been welcome.

Of the films I saw in the Myfrenchfilmfestival2020 this was certainly the most entertaining.

The Bare Necessity (Perdrix, France, 2019)

Channeling Wes Anderson. Aaaaaagh!

I probably shouldn’t be blogging about this film as its self-satisfied quirkiness channels Wes Anderson whose films, like his namesake’s P.T.’s, I don’t appreciate. Swan Arlaud plays a gendarmerie captain of a small town in the Vosges whose settled lifestyle, with his brother, niece and mother, is a cover for stifling boredom. Into his world lands Maud Wyler’s Juliette (Arlaud is Pierrot): Juliette the girl who inadvertently transforms the film’s ‘Romeo’ who – hence Pierrot – is a clown (because of his cloistered life).

Pierrot’s gendarmerie are a fairly inept and lazy group who are trying to deal with a nudist ‘terrorist’ group who steal things they think we don’t need. The ‘inciting incident’ is the theft of Juliette’s car thus becalming her in the town.

It’s writer-director Erwan le Duc’s first film and suffers for using the mysterious woman as a character who will save our good-hearted hero. Juliette’s backstory is somewhat obscure. There’s a subplot involving one of Pierrot’s troubled lieutenants who declares his love for Pierrot but this seems to happen only to fill time (and be quirky) rather than add to the narrative. Similarly, a World War II enactment is going on and the potential for satire appears: the only black person in the gendarmerie finds himself disturbed by the alacrity those playing the Nazis grasp their role. Only to be immediately lost as it’s forgotten the moment it’s mentioned.

Wasted amongst all is is Fanny Ardant as Thérèse, the family’s mum who has a Lonely Hearts radio show that only her sons listen to and phone in pretending to be someone else to keep her happy. It seems to me we have ordinary (and quirky) people who are not normally represented on screen, which is good, but then, the film suggests, we should laugh at them. We’re meant to side with the niece who fakes an application to college in order, understandably, to get away from the ‘madness’. Why are people who are different meant to be funny?

I’ve now seen all the films in the festival and three out of 12 disappointed; that’s not a bad ratio. Incidentally, Perdrix is ‘partridge’ in French; so it’s the Partridge Family without David Cassidy (reference for the 50+s only).

Mr Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine, 2019)

Witnessing history

The last film directed by Agnieszka Holland that I’ve seen was In Darkness, a brilliant rendition of life under the Nazis in Warsaw. Since then she’s (co-)directed Spoor (Pokot, Poland-Germany-Czech Republic-Sweden-Slovakia-France, 2017) which wasn’t released in the UK and isn’t available on DVD here, and done a lot of television. I can’t comment on the latter but Holland’s cinematic eye deserves the big screen and, above everything else, Mr Jones is a visual treat. I don’t mean that it seduces with a beautiful mise en scene, as many of the scenes are hellish, but the vistas presented to the spectator are often eye-popping.

The film is the true story of Gareth Jones, a journalist who interviewed Hitler and the film portrays him trying to do the same with Stalin in the mid-1930s. In doing so he discovers what’s happening in Ukraine and the second part of the film, after establishing the milieux in Moscow, concerns his journey there and the aftermath. I’d never heard of Mr Jones and his story is compelling; it’s also entirely modern in the importance of speaking truth to power which corporate journalism has largely forgotten how to do. James Norton is excellent in the role of the somewhat diffident Welshman (are the Welsh always protrayed as such?) who doesn’t waver from his principles. If the film has a weakness, it’s the script by newcomer Andrea Chalupa, whose grandfather witnessed the events. There are occasions where it doesn’t quite gel, although to be fair it could be caused by the problem with biopics which are inevitably compromised by squeezing a life into narrative. That said, although it is about Jones, it’s not a conventional biopic, he’s more the witness through which history is portrayed.

Chalupa fictionalises a meeting with George Orwell (it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that the meeting took place) who was writing Animal Farm at the time; I read somewhere that the character in the novel may have been named after Gareth Jones. It’s a useful device as it reminds us how Stalin was, for a time, a hero of the left before disillusionment set in.

The main strengths of the film (apart from the performances) are Holland’s direction, Tomasz Naumiuk’s cinematography and the editing by Michal Czarnecki. At least three sequences of travel are characterised by editing influenced by Soviet theorist and filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein: the montage is non realist and dynamic. During Jones’ first train journey it seemed as if there were shots interpolated from documentaries made at the time, such as Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. The editing was so rapid that I couldn’t see them clearly but even if it wasn’t old footage, the allusion is clear. However, using similar techniques for a rushed journey on a bicycle comes across only as comic.

The cinematography of Jones’ journey into the Ukraine becomes almost, suitably, monochromatic. Fabulous widescreen extreme long shots show Jones as a small black coated figure ploughing his way through a field of snow in the bottom right of the screen. Although the acting is naturalistic throughout, the characters’ faces are sometimes caught (at the start or end of a shot) in an unusual expression. This creates a stylisation to the acting which Holland emphasises through editing; an early shot of a secretary cuts to her open-mouthed. This is particularly true of Peter Sarsgaard’s Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer winning journalist; he epitomises ‘slimy’ and Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’ springs to mind.

Vanessa Kirby is effective as Jone’s ‘love interest’ and the sexist characterisation is just about all we get of female characters. It was probably a strain on reality to make her role so big anyway, as the ’30s were obviously more male-dominated than today. And I was amused to see William Randolph Hearst being shown as a hero of press freedom.

The film’s already available on DVD and online but catch in cinemas if you can as Holland’s films deserve to be seen there.

Holy Tour (La Grand-Messe, Belgium-France, 2018)

Nearly at the end of the road

The British (or is it the English?) like to think they have a distinct quirky humour (Monty Python for instance) which is probably a result of the fact that humour tends to be culture specific (unless it’s slapstick) and appreciation of other others’ funny bones is difficult. Certainly Holy Mountain counts as quirky: retired cycling fans spend a week waiting for the Tour de France (the 2017 edition) to whirl past them on the Col d’Izoard; 4km, or so, shy of the summit and finish line.

Such is the engagement of directors (Valéry Rosier and Méryl Fortunat-Rossi) with their subject that I spent the first few minutes unsure whether the film was fiction or documentary. The naturalness of the characters is such that the presence of the camera is almost certainly barely an impediment to their behaviour. This might be because the protagonists, to the extent they can be called as such, are old – at least 70s old I think – and really don’t care to make a positive impression. Maybe they were flattered that two young men wanted to film their lives. Of course, I’m not suggested that we are viewing unadulterated reality; that can never be the case in texts as they are, by necessity, mediated. In addition, the directors are credited as scriptwriters and they have moulded their footage as highly entertaining slices of lives.

The camera gets everywhere: the foot of an old couple’s bed as they say ‘goodnight’ to each other to a comically shot farmer cutting his field (all we can see is his bare torso moving through long grass). Rosier and Fortunat-Rossi have an eye for composition and often frame the characters in long shot so we see they’re simply lounging around waiting against the often stunningly beautiful landscape.

And when the tour does arrive, one of the characters watches the television to see if she can be seen on it rather than the race speeding past. She’s disappointed and concludes they should park on the other side of the road next year! There’s humour from the grumbling of the old folk as the young ‘drunken idiots’ arrive on the day of the race. When they crowd around a television in a mobile home to see the finish, minutes after the leaders have passed them, the broadcast signal – in true absurdist fashion – drops only to return after the race has ended.

Old folk are under represented in the media (at my age that’s starting to rankle!) and it’s good to see, even with all their ailments (bad knees and so on), a group of wrinklies having good natured good times.

The Wind Turns (Le Vent tourne, Switzerland-France, 2018)

The good life?

The Good Life (UK, 1975-8) was a sitcom posited on a middle class couple trying to be self sufficient in suburbia as an antidote to the rat race. Nearly 50 years later, managing the soil and food supplies is not something for comedy as climate catastrophe starts to envelope us. That’s, roughly, the premise of Swiss director Bettina Oberli’s (she co-wrote with Antoine Jaccoud) French language debut, without the suburbia and the comedy. Set in the beautiful Jura mountains, Pauline (Mélanie Thierry) and Alex (Pierre Deladonchamps) farm in isolation, taking on a Ukrainian girl, Galina (Anastasia Shevtsova), for the summer as part of a project to help victims of Chernobyl. They work really hard. In an attempt to avoid using the electricity grid, Samuel (Nuno Lopes) is hired to erect a wind turbine and suddenly Pauline is not so sure that life with Alex is all dreamboat.

Although I enjoyed the film, performances and cinematography (by Stéphane Kuthy) are all excellent, I wondered where its sympathies lay. Alex is something of a fundamentalist in that he rejects vaccines for the cattle on the grounds they are interfering with nature. Pauline’s sister is a vet, and co-owns the farm, and so there was interesting possibilities regarding the degree to which science should be used in farming. At one extreme, factory farming has turned animal husbandry into animal cruelty and caused a degradation in both the food supply and ecological footprints. Alex becomes something of a villain as it becomes clear in that his stubborn-headed insistence on a pure way of living is doomed to failure; and he’s in danger of losing his wife. However, the film doesn’t suggest that there is much benefit in the couple’s lifestyle, to themselves or the planet. It’s true that Galina’s health benefits, and comes to love the place after initially being bored with no wifi and little mobile reception, but there’s no suggestion that there is a ‘happy medium’ between scientific intervention (vaccination is not bad) and organic living. Surely humankind needs to find this balance or the way forward is backwards. Overall, the melodrama of the love affair overtakes the ecological theme.

The film is resolutely from Pauline’s perspective and Thierry is great at portraying the ‘animal’ lust that leads her to Samuel. It’s not a pull that’s easy to resist but she shows that, had Alex been less in his own bubble, she might well have done so.