Crack 6T (Ma 6-T va crack-er, France, 1997)

Revolutionary ‘La Haine’

This was my final film in the Myfrenchfilmfestival festival and an outlier as it isn’t contemporary. Its subject matter, however, remains vital: young peope living in poverty in the banlieues of Paris. Co-writer (with Arco Descat C. who also starred) and director Jean-François Richet’s film came out two year’s after the seminal La Haine (France), which is about to be re-released, and is even more incendiary. At La Haine‘s Cannes screening the police turned their backs on the filmmakers in protest, however Richet’s call to arms is more direct: the film’s bookended by a young woman (not a character) seen above toting firearms with calls for revolution on the soundtrack. As both films show, such a conclusion is entirely reasonable as the underclass are downtrodden by society and kept in their (shitty) place by the police.

I haven’t found much written about the film but as most of the actors are playing characters with the same names as themselves, and the film is their only credit, they are non-professionals and the narrative is wrenched from the streets with an authenticity that’s matched by the handheld camera (cinematography by Valérie Le Gurun) and editing (Richet). Some of the cast are professionals: the schoolteacher, for instance, whose difficulty in dealing with delinquents is superbly realised, is played by Joanna Pavlis.

While the film doesn’t aspire to the mythological heights of La Haine it is, in some ways, more effective than its feted ‘brother’. The charisma of Vincent Cassel, for instance, roots the earlier film in fiction whereas Crack 6T has a more documentary feel. The latter film, by the way, is better at representing women who are mostly absent in both films. In a scene where one of the protagonists tries to chat up a friend from school she determinedly rejects him by pointing out that he has nothing to offer her because of his ‘gangsta’ lifestyle; she knows that simply ‘not fancying’ him would not be enough to stop him bothering her.

Hip hop music is important and the ‘girl with a gun’ framing shots are a music video ‘call to arms’. Richet went on to do the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 (France-US, 2005) and the two Mesrine films (L’instinct de mort and L’ennemi public n°1, France-Canada-Italy, 2008).

Most of the films I saw in the festival were enjoyable; the winner of the Jury Award was School’s Out (which I had already seen) but I thought Escape from Raqqa was the best on show though I wouldn’t argue with the Audience and International Press awards to The Swallows of KabulMeteorites got a Special Mention, no doubt for Zéa Duprez’s sensational performance.

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.

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).

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.

Mothers’ Instinct (Duelles, Belgium-France, 2018)

Like sisters

Director Olivier Masset-Depasse, who co-scripted with Giordano Gederlini and François Verjans (based on the novel Derrière la haine by Barbara Abel), delivers a delicious thriller that at least one review suggests is Hitchcockian. It certainly opens with a master class in misdirection as Alice (Veerle Baetens, who was also excellent in Broken Circle Breakdown), prepares a surprise for her close friend and neighbour Céline (Anne Coesens). The film’s set in early ’60s Brussels and the milieux can’t help referencing (for me at least) the television series Mad Men (US, 2007-15), particularly as there’s a passing resemblance between Baetens and January Jones, who played Betty. The set decoration (by Séverine Closset) is as  immaculate as the bourgeois lifestyle of the two couples as are Thierry Delettre’s costumes. The period is further mimicked with the gorgeous cinematography, by Hichame Alouie, which could be mistaken for the Technicolor of the era.

It’s a thriller so a disruption of some violence is necessary but I won’t spoil that. Suffice to say the relationship between the two, who at the start are like loving sisters, changes. The film is impressive in how it presents the psychological pressures and responses to the situation; it is entirely convincing on how two people, who are very close, can suddenly become suspicious of each other. Jessica Kiang, in her Variety review, nails it when she describe the protagonists as ‘expressive but unreadable’: ideal performers to keep the audience guessing.

Where the film trumps Hitchcock is the focus is entirely on the women; the husbands are little more than marginal. While Hitchcock used his ‘ice cool’ blondes to investigate his idea of female sexuality, here the women as mothers have agency. The men spend their time failing to acknowledge difficulty or, in the case of one, abnegating all responsibility.

I’m surprised the film wasn’t released, as far as I can tell it was restricted to festival screenings, in the UK as the Mad Men-setting could have offered a cultural handhold for those reluctant to try out difference. Then again, UK’s insularity seems to be peaking (I won’t mention Brexit); one block of flats in Norwich had messages posted on doors demanding only English be spoken. Typically, there was a grammatical error in the message emphasising the poor education of the idiot who seems to think Britain is, and was, a great country.

The Swallows of Kabul (Les hirondelles de Kaboul, France-Luxembourg-Switzerland, 2018)

Patriarchy conflicted and repressive

I’m unfamiliar with the novel, written by Yasmina Khadra (a pseudonyn for a male army officer who was in the Algerian military when the book was published), but the animated rendition is a powerful indictment of repression against women. Strikingly, it also shows the damage done to men by the violent patriarchy enacted by the Taliban in Afghanistan at the turn of the century. While the film, unlike the book I understand, gives us little of the backstories of the protagonists (the feminist Zunaira who refuses to wear a burkha and so can’t go out was a magistrate for example) the effect is to give it a mythological quality. This is enhanced by the beautiful watercolour animation and, particularly, the fleeting appearance of the swallows of the title; they, unlike women in Kabul, can go where they like.

The narrative, realised by directors Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec, concerns two couples: Zunaira and her disillusioned husband (who to his horror finds himself taking part in a stoning of a prostitute), Atiq, and jailer, Mohsen, whose wife, Mussarat, is terminally ill. The couples’ paths cross, eventually, with the early part of the film outlining the quotidian existence of the oppressed in Kabul. The nihililsm of the fundamentalist strictures against music and dance are soul destroying examples of the joylessness of life under autocratic rule where the personal no longer matters unless you are a member of the elite (who are men and shown enjoying prostitutes). The Taliban were an invention of the CIA who were used (no doubt willingly) to fight back against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan during the 1980s; the blowback from which has, of course, been spectacular.

I’m trying to imagine how the film would be different if it were ‘live action’. Maybe it’s my association with animation as being for children (which tends to be the case in the west) gives it connotations of ‘fairy tale’. This is striking as the Kabul of the film is hell on earth and so the disjuncture between the expectation of animation presenting a world that is, in the end, reassuring, and the reality of the setting works to show how evil the repression of the Taliban is. That said, I’ve no doubt the film would work equally well with actors. Apparently the film was first shot with their cast and the filmed scenes formed the basis of the animation.

Of course animation isn’t ‘just’ for children; Grave of the Fireflies,Takahata Isao’s devastating portrait of post-war Tokyo, springs to mind. As for another film that deals with the same issues as The Swallows of KabulOsama (Afghanistan-Ireland-Japan-Iran-Netherlands, 2003), written and directed by Saddiq Barmak, is even more devastating.

Savage (Les fauves, France, 2018)

Savage? Really?

My second instalment of Myfrenchfilmfestival2020 fared no better than my first, however Savage is more coherant than Jessica Forever. Lilly-Rose Depp (celebrity royalty but she performs well) plays Laura who, it transpires, is a troubled teen spending time at a camping site with her cousins and aunt. I say ‘transpires’ as the ‘set-up’ doesn’t make it clear she is the protagonist; her cousin Anne (Aloïse Sauvage) seems to be equally important at first. This isn’t an issue but in a conventional (would-be) thriller, narrative economy is to be expected and the rather diffuse opeing suggests the script (written by director Vincent Mariette and Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq) isn’t quite up to the task.

It appears the campsite is being plagued by leopard attacks (police presence is pretty minimal for some reason) but Laura discovers through casual burglary (which Anne joins in) the truth. It’s not clear why the cousins like breaking in to their neighbours on the site and it seems more of a plot device (leading to Laura’s discovery) rather than a psychological insight into character. This lack of clarity infects the film as a whole and shows how difficult it is to write scripts that nail the plot devices to a film’s theme in a convincing way. It’s a film with possibilities but they never coalesce into a convincing whole.

Comédie Française’s Laurent Lafitte, seen in School’s Out, adds a brooding presence but his motivation is unclear. It’s apparently about him wanted people to reconnect with wild myths but this is undercooked. This is potentially a very interesting thread for a thriller; the attraction of the genre may be about feeling a primitive fear that cosseted folk of today miss. But the potential is never articulated, it’s one idea that’s mixed with genre tropes in the hope that a palatable result follows.

Camille Cottin brings charisma to the role of Inspector Camus (a name laden with philosophical potential completely missing from the script) but I wasn’t even convinced she was actually a flic until Anne refers to her as such. There seems to be a point about gender being made through her character but…

Enough moaning. I’m not saying I’m worrying about my €7.99 investment in the festival (yet) but I’m hoping for more of a buzz from my next screening. The picture quality, incidentally, is excellent and apparently you can access the festival through YouTube but I haven’t worked out how so I’ve been streaming the films on television through my phone.

Jessica Forever (France, 2018)

Sort of super hero

Writer-directors Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel won an award for their short As Long as Shotguns Remain (Tant qu’il nous reste des fusils à pompe, France, 2014) at the Berlin film festival and hence this, their feature debut, was greeted with interest. And the first part of the film is interesting, a dystopian future where orphans are treated like, and actually seem to be, homicidal maniacs and hunted down by the state. ‘Fortunately’ Jessica (Aomi Muyock, who starred in Gaspar Noé’s Love) is on hand to maternally protect them. If my summary sounds a bit facetious that’s probably due to my annoyance at the film’s failure to be convincing. Dystopias tend to be warnings about the present and the treatment of orphans, particularly those housed in institutions, can be highly problematic; in the UK many girls, in particular, find themselves in abusive situations. However Poggi and Vinel never convince me their society is a metaphor for anything.

Jessica’s orphans are all male and she is barely older than them (they are probably in their 20s) making her maternal role problematic at best. The boys are clearly hormonal and it’s barely convincing that none of the men would fancy her, and given their behaviour, not try to act upon their desire. It’s not until toward the end of the film that sex is treated as a key aspect of being young. Psychologically it’s simply not convincing and the ending doesn’t solve any of the narrative issues.

It’s also the first feature of cinematographer Marine Atlan and she comes out of the film with a lot of credit. Altan gives the settings, often middle class suburbia, a slightly ethereal feel which creates a sense of uncanny suitable to the dystopia. Muyock is adequate in the virtually silent main role but she isn’t given much material to work with. Sally Potter, speaking recently on Radio 3, stated that the script is the key element of film, the architecture on which everything is hung, and in the case of Jessica Forever, its lack of coherence meant the film was almost certain to fail.

I saw it as my first screening of Myfrenchfilmfestival which runs online for a month from 16 January and includes 31 films (19 shorts available for free) for a nominal €7.99. Although Jessica Forever hasn’t been a good start the festival is certainly worth a punt and hopefully other national cinemas follow suit and sponsor cheap online distribution as most/all of these films won’t be seen outside festivals in the UK.