Kings of Pastry (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sixteen pastry chefs were invited to compete in a three-day competition called “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France” (translated “Best Craftsmen in France”) in Lyon, France. The winner, or winners, of the contest would be rewarded instant recognition. When they entered a room, they would get noticed and treated as a master chef because their collars were the colors of the French flag. Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, “Kings of Pastry” was very involving because it gave us an exclusive look inside a competition that occurred only once every four years. We followed three contenders: Philippe Rigollot, Jacquy Pfeiffer, and Regis Lazard. The competing chefs were obsessive, to say the least, in getting every detail just right so the judges would be impressed with their craft. I’m not a very talented cook (nor do I have the patience to cook) so I admired the determination and the amount of time the three put into preparing for the competition. Each of them had dreamt of becoming the best in their specialized trade. They were family men and I’m sure they wanted win for reasons other than reaching a lifelong dream. Half of the picture was dedicated to the three chef’s backgrounds. Rigollot was a chef in Maison Pic. He shared with us a cute story, involving a lollipop and his kids, about how he learned that being a pastry chef was something he would like to build a career from. Pfeiffer was a part of the French Pastry School in Chicago. His students respected him and held him in high regard. As for Lazard, this was his second time in the competition. It didn’t work out the first time because his sugar sculpture, an extremely fragile work of art, fell apart. The second half of the film focused on the intense competition. They were graded in three fronts: their work habits, the way the final product looked, and how it tasted. The chefs had to prepare a buffet of confections. I found being in that kitchen to be stressful. The manner in which the camera fixated on certain shots, I had the feeling that something would go wrong. And they did. When a sugar sculpture came crashing down like glass, my jaw dropped and my heart stopped. I think I stopped breathing for about three seconds. I wanted to look away from the disaster. It was so painful to watch a chef’s confidence go out the window when inevitable accidents happened. It was nobody’s fault. Sometimes, as we learned, the humidity had a negative effect in the way the sugars held together. The silence was deafening among whispers of consolations. It was literally watching someone’s dreams get crushed. However, we root for the chef to keep going, to make the best of the parts that weren’t ruined, because having no sculpture to present meant certain loss. Imagine submitting a three-part project and only sending two–an inch away from failure. As the picture went on, “Kings of Pastry” became packed with emotional moments because the standard was so high. Personally, the difference between “winners” and “losers” almost became negligible.
A Very Long Engagement (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) wouldn’t accept that Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), her fiancé, could possibly have died in the trenches during World War I’s Battle of the Somme. So she hired a private investigator (Ticky Holgado) to aid her search for the truth. Based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, “A Very Long Engagement” was romantic, shot in a golden glow, full of hope and optimism, a nice change of tone from most movies about war. While it still featured the violence and chaos in the front lines, the picture had a habit of going back to Mathilde and her tireless quest to prove that her lover was alive. But it wasn’t just Mathilde’s story. During her investigation, she met strong women along the way who were similar to her in terms of their loyalty and the great lengths they were willing to go through to preserve what they had prior to the war. There was Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) who was on a desperate mission to murder the men who mistreated her lover in the trenches. On the other hand, Elodie Gordes (Jodie Foster) tried to keep a secret the fact that her husband, who was infertile, asked her to sleep with another man so they would eventually have a total of six children. When a soldier had half a dozen kids, the soldier was sent back home. The film took a bit of getting used to because it attempted to juggle the brutality of war and the romance between Mathilde and Manech from when they were children up until Manech had been summoned to serve his country. Admittedly, the two conflicting ideas didn’t always work together. Having less scenes in the trenches could have been more effective. However, the lighthouse scenes were beautiful and it was the point where I became convinced that what Mathilde and Manech had was something special. The film came into focus when Mathilde had to endure and sift through other people’s versions of the truth. I sympathized with her for the majority of the time but there were other times when I just felt sorry for her because she only listened to things she wanted to hear. It was as if denial was her only comfort through difficult times. She had the tendency to play a strange game of “if” and “then.” For instance, if the train she was on reached a tunnel within seven seconds, then it would be a sure-fire sign that her lover was alive. Her games often led to unexpected and slightly amusing results, but we had to understand that it was her unique way of coping in order to avoid an emotional meltdown. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Un long dimanche de fiançailles” was touching and uplifting. Equipped with more than a dozen key characters and subplots, one of its downsides was it would most likely require audiences multiple viewings to fully understand how they were all connected.
★★ / ★★★★
“Les égarés” was set in World War II as Germans began to occupy France in 1940. Odile (Emmanuelle Béart) and her children (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet and Clémence Meyer) were caravanning across the provinces when they were targeted by German planes. Pressing forward would most likely lead to death so, along with a seventeen-year-old Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), the four darted into the forest and found refuge in an abandoned home. “Strayed” was a simple film driven by questions. Should we trust Yvan despite the fact that he was a compulsive liar? Since he was so good at lying, how much did he really care about the family of three? Was it possible that Odile suspected that there was something not quite right about him to the point where she found the need to grab the first opportunity to hide the stranger’s gun and grenades? Was she scared of him losing control more than the Germans finding them? There were a plethora of questions and most of them were answered by the end. But the main problem with the film was if the viewers failed to look beyond the obvious and ask questions, they would feel as though the movie was pointless. The majority of the running time followed the characters catching animals for food, having lunch or dinner, discussing what they should do the next day, and reflecting about the lives they left behind. There was sexual friction between Odile and Yvan. The latter wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it. After all why would he when he was a teenager filled with raging hormones? There was no doubt that Odile, highly attractive for her age, was interested in Yvan but she felt like being with him was wrong because he was essentially still a child. Even Yvan admitted that he was more about taking action than taking the time to think things through. His transitory age was a template for his childish and child-like tendencies to collide, reflective of the Freudian id–“If it feels good, do it.” Another interesting part was Odile’s children. There was a strange scene when Cathy, still around seven or eight years old, decided to climb onto Yvan’s bed, who was naked under the covers, and claimed that she wanted to get pregnant. How did she know of such a concept? Less obvious implications consisted of Philippe constantly wanting to gain Yvan’s acceptance. Did Philippe see him as a brother, a father, or something else? Perhaps Odile’s overprotective parenting was successful at keeping the children alive, but the more important question was will they be able to function after the war was over? Again, it was up to us to ask the questions and, in some ways, answer them as well. Based on a novel by Gilles Perrault and directed by André Téchiné, “Les égarés” had a rather simple premise but it was challenging in the most unexpected ways. That challenge could appeal to some while others could be repelled.
Naked Childhood (1968)
★★★★ / ★★★★
François (Michel Terrazon) was a ten-year-old boy whose foster family did not want him anymore. The mother (Linda Gutemberg) was concerned about François always getting into fights, having trouble in school, stealing, and not responding to any sort of discipline she and her husband (Raoul Billerey) had attempted. François also hurt and killed animals yet it seemed like he did not feel bad about his actions. The Social Services had to intervene and placed the child with a kind elderly couple (Marie-Louise Thierry and René Thierry) and with another foster child (Henri Puff) now in his teens. Directed by Maurice Pialat, “L’enfance nue” was an unflinching look at a troubled childhood and the system designed to handle children that were abandoned in the streets or given up for adoption. What I loved about the film most was it never offered easy answers. It was easy to judge our protagonist’s first foster family because we didn’t have a chance to observe their parenting skills for an extended amount of time. We were given information about the way they reacted to the child’s behavior, but we all know–or should know–there’s always a difference between secondhand description and firsthand observation. When the mother described their parenting to the director of Social Services, I was bothered by the fact that not once did she cite one instance where she could have done something differently with François. It wasn’t obvious but it sounded like François was a canister of blame. It gave me the impression that they didn’t want the child because it wasn’t the kind of child they dreamed of. Furthermore, it was obvious that the parents weren’t always on the same page. The father had a soft spot toward François when the mother performed a spice of tough love. The turning point was when François was transferred to his second foster family. We observed his different temperaments, wild tantrums, and the way he seemed to relish watching the people who loved him turn red with fury. With Pialat’s sensitive and astute direction, he showed us that François wasn’t an evil child. He was desperate for attention and his cruel actions were his cry for help. His new family was actually perfect for him because they seemed to have endless amount of patience. During François’ calm moments, he was able to make real connection with them. He enjoyed listening to his grandmother’s story about her huge family, the grandfather’s magical ability to fix just about anything in the house, his foster brother’s collection of weapons, and especially the great grandmother (Marie Marc) who read the morning paper with him. When he regressed to his unkind behavior, like a real family, they welcomed him back. I was moved with their ability to forgive and it made me wish that all families were like them. Written by Arlette Langmann and Maurice Pialat, “Naked Childhood” was a difficult look at the reality of abandoned children. It’s a must-see for those who, including myself, plan to adopt and raise their child as if they were our own flesh and blood. We should love them unconditionally and we just hope that they feel the same way toward us.
★★★ / ★★★★
Bazil (Danny Boon) grew up as an orphan because his father was killed by a bomb. On an unlucky night while working in a video store, he was hit on the head by a stray bullet. However, he wasn’t killed despite the fact that the surgeon left the bullet lodged in his skull. A couple of months later, the unemployed Bazil teamed up with strange individuals with even more unconventional talents to bring down two arms dealers (André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié) by setting up a series of pranks that would drive them out of business. Bazil wanted to avenge his father’s death and what had happened to him by eliminating weapons used to kill. “Micmacs,” covered in sleepy yellow glow, was a droll comedy with spoonfuls of interesting imagery. I have to admit that it took me a little bit of time and effort to get into its story. I found out that the more I tried to figure out the plot and where it was going, the more I ended up feeling confused about why events transpired the way they did. A third into the picture, I decided to sit back and just enjoy the ride. Almost immediately, I found myself entertained with the way the dysfunctional family incorporated their talents to spy on the arms dealers. Each scene had its own level of excitement because the gadgets the characters used were essentially scraps from a junkyard. Imagine kids retelling their version of Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” with objects they found around the house. It was impressive (and amusing) in its own way because the filmmakers wished to showcase their many inspirations, mostly silent films with comedic edge, from under their sleeves. I also enjoyed the way the various characters communicated to each other. Because they were so strange, sometimes a wink during awkward first impressions or a nudge in order to direct attention to a unique invention or a smirk at the dinner table was enough to portray their thoughts and feelings. “Micmacs à tire-larigot,” directed with great imagination by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, wouldn’t fail to put a smile on someone’s face because of its whimsical and bona fide sense of humor and creativity in terms of revealing the illusion between our expectations (what we could hear, see, and feel) and other possibilities which weren’t necessarily transparent to us. Despite its common angle of a dysfunctional family, members of which were unaccepted by society, coming together and working toward a common goal, there were plenty of small twists so the material felt refreshing. I admired the film’s final image of a dress, with a help from a machine, looking like it was dancing with posh and grace. It made me feel like a child again because my eyes were so transfixed at its movements. It was like watching a magic trick.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The wife (Véra Clouzot) of a boarding school principal (Paul Meurisse) and the mistress (Simone Signoret) concocted a plan to murder the man between them. Each had their motives. The wife realized that they were only married because he enjoyed spending her money, while the mistress was tired of being in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. But after the two women went through with their plan, the body mysteriously disappeared. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film was smart and precise. With a relatively simple premise, he was successful with accomplishing so much. Each scene had something to do with the murder and we learned a great deal about the women as they tried to wrestle with their own conscience. I was very curious about what was happening on screen and it did not answer the mystery immediately. With each scene, I found myself not only paying attention to the main characters’ words and mannerisms, but also the people on the background. I thought that perhaps one of them, especially the members of the faculty, had something to do with the missing corpse. While I did not find the picture particularly scary, there were some superbly effective thrills. For instance, days after principal went missing, a little boy claimed that he encountered the man in question and had given him a punishment for breaking a window. Despite being slapped and yelled at, the boy, on the verge of tears, insisted that he was telling the truth. I enjoyed that the material kept itself open to many possible explanations. In this instance, perhaps we were dealing with a ghost story because up until that point, nothing seemed to explain the sudden disappeance of the dead body. “Les diaboliques,” or “The Devils,” was stunningly shot in black-and-white embedded with a spice of great acting from the two leading ladies. I had fun observing their differences and, more importantly, their similarities. The tension between them was palpable and the way in which they transported the body from one place after another was unbearable. It certainly did not help that the wife was in a fragile state due to her heart condition. Even though the ladies committed a crime, I didn’t want them to get caught. How far were they willing to go to keep their dark secret hidden? As the film showed, as far as they possibly could. Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers are not only understandable but highly deserved.
★★★ / ★★★★
Set in a post-apocalyptic world where food was very scarce and selflessness was rare, a former clown named Louison (Dominique Pinon) moved into an apartment complex where the residents depended on a butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) to give them food given that the circumstances were right. That is, every once in a while, an unsuspecting person, like Louison, would move into an empty apartment and later be murdered, chopped up, and served to the residents. Things turned complicated when Louison fell for the butcher’s daughter (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and vice-versa. The daughter knowing the happenings in the apartment complex tried to seek help from people who lived underground that did not eat other humans. I loved the look of this film. In every frame, there was a beautiful yellow tinge that highlighted the desolate existence of the characters. I also noticed the picture’s great attention to sound, not just in terms of soundtrack in the foreground and background but the characters actually creating music to serve as a distraction from their increasingly desperate living conditions. I thought it was creative because it able to take very different sounds and arrange it in such a way that they all complemented each other. As for the story, it was consistently fascinating but it could have been trimmed. While the involvement of the sewer dwellers was necessary, there were far too many scenes that painted them as too goofy, almost infantile. The slapstick did not work because I got the impression that they were supposed to be the moral center (people who did not eat human flesh), thus the savior of Louison and the butcher’s daughter. It would not have hurt the script if the underground people were actually intelligent and strong. Just because they lived underground for, as the film suggested, quite some time, they need not have been cavemen-like. In this case, playing against the obvious would have been far more interesting. Despite its shortcomings, the film was strong. I highly enjoyed its quirks, wit, and irony because the images on screen had double meanings so it kept me on my toes. For example, when the residents tried to break into Louison’s apartment, I thought about George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” with a modern twist: The good guys were inside struggling for survival, while the bad guys (who were not undead) were outside craving for flesh. They, too, were struggling for survival. Directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Delicatessen” was a treat in which the jokes were served in just the right amount of proportions. It always had new jokes peeking at each corner so specific types of comedies did not overstay their welcome. Film lovers who have a penchant for the macabre, satire, cannibalism, and post-apocalypse worlds will most likely find this movie as a delectable gem.