Beau Travail (1999)
★ / ★★★★
This movie about French soldiers stationed in Djibouti left a big question mark in my head. At first I thought Claire Denis, the director, was trying to establish the characters via showing us the ennui of military life: from ironing clothes, making the perfect creases to the every day physical and mental training the soldiers had to endure. But half-way through the picture, nothing much changed and I felt myself becoming more and more frustrated with it. I wanted to know more about what made the characters tick. Instead, by the end of the picture, I couldn’t tell them apart (especially since they all have the same haircuts but that’s beside the point), I didn’t know anything about their motivations, and I didn’t know anything about their lives outside of the military. In a nutshell, it felt very one-dimensional. That feeling of detachment made me not care and watching the film was like pulling teeth. I’ve read some summaries from other reviews and they somehow found a story that the film tried to tell. Upon reading those reviews, I really felt like I watched a completely different movie because none of those descriptions matched what I saw (which was pretty much half-naked guys runnning around all over the desert). Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy movies that are stripped down with minimal dialogue but they have to have sort of emotional resonance. I didn’t find that in this picture despite my best efforts to look underneath the surface. The only scene that I genuinely enjoyed was the last when Denis Lavant broke into a dance. It felt like a huge sigh of relief because the rest of the movie felt so controlled, cold and tough. If they had more scenes like that, this train-wreck would’ve been saved. Unfortunately, it was too little too late.
Love Songs (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although the ending is abrupt, it impressed me because of its implications. Deceptively simple on the outside, this French film has something to say about young love/lust and it is executed in just the right way without being too heavy-handed with its messages. Even though the template of the picture is the three-way romantic relationship between Louis Garrel, Ludivine Sagnier, and Clotilde Hesme, I thought the relationship between Garrel and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet–how Leprince-Ringuet brought Garrel back to life, more aware than ever, after a certain tragedy was the best part of the film. I love how this movie uses musical numbers when a certain character cannot put his or her thoughts into the right words. It’s true to life because relationships (romantic or otherwise) get complex and sometimes we can’t say what we want to say in order for others to understand our point of view. It’s very honest and the singing voices reflected that honesty–the actors actually sang without attempting to make the voices polished or grand (like in most American musicals). Written and directed by Christophe Honoré, one can tell that this movie had a low budget but that doesn’t stop it from trying to achieve something great. The only quibble I have with “Les Chansons d’amour” (“Love Songs”) is it didn’t explore Garrel’s relationship with Leprince-Ringuet enough. They are really opposite and it would’ve been beneficial if they had a little more conflict while at the same time learning from each other.
The Man of My Life (2006)
★ / ★★★★
This movie is all over the place. I gave up trying to figure out its purpose about half-way through. This film is like an unnecessary overextended vacation–we get shots of adults talking and children playing, but all of them don’t seem to amount to anything. I get the idea that Bernard Campan does not have a sense of self and he tries to find it by interacting with Charles Berling, whose character happens to be gay. But at the same time, I feel like they can’t really learn from each other–at least not in a meaningful way–because their relationship is only by means of utlity. Their conversations are shallow and choppy; maybe I’m lost in translation but a great movie resonates through language barriers. Partly written and directed by Zabou Breitman, I thought he could’ve done a much better job with the pacing (cutting off thirty minutes or so) and escalating the drama a bit more (why can’t some of the adults notice that Campan and Berling are around each other a little too much?). In the end, I felt like nothing great is at stake so I couldn’t feel for the protagonist. I couldn’t relate with any of the characters, especially Berling’s because he sees life in such a negative light. The filmmakers tried to justify Berling’s pessimism by introducing a story regarding his relationship with his father. It felt contrived, if not forced, so I didn’t buy it at all. Although some people have strained relationships with their father, they learn to rise above it and be strong people. So it begs the question: how can Campan learn something about his life from Berling if Berling doesn’t even know himself? Avoid this one especially if you’re a person of logic.
Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’ll just come right out and say it: I think this film is a masterpiece. Hsiao-hsien Hou did an amazing job in directing and shaping this homage to “The Red Balloon.” I can’t really make comparisons with that classic children’s film because I haven’t yet seen it while writing this review. However, from what I read from people’s blogs who have seen both, they claim that it captured the original’s main themes. All of the actors were impressive in their own way. Juliette Binoche is still electric even though she’s a bit more broken down here than in her other movies. I liked the pluckiness of her character but didn’t like the fact that she pays more attention to her career than her son. Simon Iteanu, who plays Binoche’s son, is sublime as a lonely boy but doesn’t make us feel too sorry for him. He shows that he’s strong in some ways, whether it comes to distracting himself with pinball machines or playing a role in his nanny’s movies. Fang Song plays the nanny who I think made the movie that much more interesting. Her style of acting is so nonchalant but there’s something about her that’s caring and welcoming. I wanted to be her friend by the end of the movie. Several other plot elements include Binoche’s conflict with her tenant (Hippolyte Girardot) and, of course, the mesmerizing observation of the red balloon, which symbolizes youth, friendship, and loss. The classical piano music that accompanies some of the scenes and the use of bright colors made the picture that much more poetic. Most people will say that “nothing much happened” but that’s the point: to watch a slice of life. Watching this homage is like eating and savoring my favorite kind of cake–pretty much everything about it worked and I have nothing negative to say about it, which is very rare.