Tag: french

Faces Places


Faces Places (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda and muralist JR (a pseudonym) travel across rural France to paste enormous photographic portraits on various surfaces: a brick wall, a passageway of a factory, a water tower, a barn, a bunker, among others. Each portrait is meant to capture and reflect a particular place’s people and way of life. It is a beautiful documentary, so full of life and energy, humor, and truths, occasionally painful, about how we perceive people, how we interpret art, and how our relationship with our own selves change over the years. It is perhaps chance that Varda and JR, co-directors of “Faces Places,” cross paths and decide to work together, but it is no accident that their over fifty-year difference in age serves as the soul of the project.

It is the kind of picture that is certain to make the viewer feel good. For instance, one of the stops involves meeting a woman named Jeanine who is the sole resident along her street. The houses are meant to be destroyed eventually but she insists on staying not only because it is her home, it also her ancestors’. The village is made up of miner families, you see, and its strong history can be felt from the way people of all ages recall their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers coming home from an excruciating day at the mines. At first glance, it looks like any old place. The film has a way of peeling away the metaphorical surface by, ironically, putting photographs on literal surfaces. No word is necessary when members of the community look up to giant pictures and the camera captures their raw thoughts and emotions.

In nearly every destination the picture works like this. We learn about a farmer who owns a 2,000-acre farm… and he works by himself. We go inside of his tractor and appreciate the technology that allows him to accomplish the monumental task of taking care of his farm by himself on top of other contract work. At times the visit lasts only between five to ten minutes and within this time span we not only gather surprising information but also have an appreciation of the subject’s way of life. It is a work that loves people of all ages, not just their portraits. Look at the way the camera transfixes on old people’s faces. It forces us to look at their wrinkles, the bags under their eyes, and the experiences behind them. And then note how it captures the expressions of energetic youths as their giant photographs are printed from a truck. You can tell they have never seen anything like that before; for them it is magical.

The work, too, is not afraid to show truths about its subjects. With Varda, a lifelong photographer of both still and moving images, it shows she has an eye disease. She claims that images are blurry and they tend to move even when they actually aren’t. We observe her getting a check-up. With JR, it acknowledges how he grew up with old people which ties into his attitude toward them. Varda and JR share wonderful chemistry; they are so comfortable with one another that eventually there is a recurring request from Varda for JR to take off his sunglasses. He finds a way to avoid it nearly every time. It is a part of his costume, his disguise. Why is it that he feels the need to hide his name from the world? Is it solely due to an artistic choice or something else?

I found the picture to be most compelling when it deals with the topic of mortality. The recurring theme is memories and how each place is defined by those who inherited it. Yet the residents we meet do not give the impression that they are shackled by traditions or old beliefs. They are simply playing the hands they are given. A lot of them seem to be happy and willing to share their own stories. When asked about death, Varda’s response surprised me. Her quote (which I choose not to include here because I urge you to see the picture, if you’re even remotely interested in it) is my exact attitude about death. Ironically, for some reason, it made me feel less alone.

The Workshop


The Workshop (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

The quietly alluring “The Workshop,” written by Robin Campillo and Laurent Cantent, is courageous because it asks the viewers to empathize with a young man who has the potential to become radicalized by the extreme right. The keyword is “potential” because the material, for the majority of the time, is vague in terms of which path the curious character might take. He shows a number of so-called warning signs of a person who might shoot up a school or a grocery store: He is a loner, he possesses an above average intelligence, he has a proclivity for violence in terms of ideation and media consumption, and he listens to extremist right-wing rhetoric—“so-called” because I do not believe any of these factors, singular or in combination, necessarily lead to violence.

The subject is named Antoine and he is played by newcomer Matthieu Lucci, whose future is so bright should he wish to pursue more challenging roles as he so willingly tackles here. I found that his choices are fresh, particularly in how he portrays Antoine who thinks he is already a man but, in actuality, he is only a boy. Lucci commands great intensity when required and he is readily able to exude warmth at a moment’s notice. Notice how he interacts with adults, especially those who have some sort of power, versus his peers and children. Here is a performer with the potential to make a career of pretending to be someone else. He finds subtleties in his character’s frustration and anger.

The strongest moments in the film involve a successful novelist named Olivia (Marina Foïs) leading a group of diverse teenagers to brainstorm what sort of thriller they should write during the summer. Every single participant commands a distinct personality; even the quieter ones have something important or insightful to say, whether it terms of their group dynamics (sometimes they disagree to the point of physical confrontation about to break out) or the story they attempt to write.

It is so rare, especially in mainstream American films, to show teenagers as they are—flawed, challenging, contradictory, full of vitality—instead of some Hollywood idea, a fantasy of how teenagers ought to think, or act, or talk. Due to the screenplay’s sharply drawn characters, I enjoyed their fierce clashes as well as their unity. Each one has a reason for attending the writing workshop. Most importantly, by sitting in their sessions, we come to understand why the members choose to return for the next meeting even when the previous session may have been awkward, uncomfortable, or downright ugly.

But the main push of the plot involves the instructor’s suspicion that one of her students, Antoine, is a bomb waiting to go off. Although still quite solid, particularly with regards to the author being attracted to fear and threat of violence, I found her investigation to be less interesting than Antoine’s moments of isolation. Lucci communicates so much by simply looking at a distance or the way his body language changes when Antoine senses lies. I think the two would have been more interesting together if the material had further explored the twisted attraction between them. There must be a reason why Antoine follows and spies on his instructor. No, it is not due to a sexual nature. I think it is because, finally, someone recognizes his potential. Look at his family and friends. No one engages him on his ideas.

Some viewers will take one look at Antoine and label him as a young extremist. Although unfair, that’s the kind of world we live in—and I believe that’s the point the film attempts to make, how we are built to judge based on patterns that fit—or at least seem to fit. It has been a while since I have encountered a project that deals so intelligently with a misunderstood young person.

The Unknown Girl


The Unknown Girl (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne craft yet another beautiful portrait of ordinary people who just happen to find themselves in a moral quandary and then must deal with the aftermath of their action or inaction. A deeply humanistic picture that does not ask for anyone’s judgment or sympathy, “The Unknown Girl” urges attentive and intelligent viewers to question what we would have or might have done had we been thrusted in a similar situation. It only asks that we be honest with ourselves. Therein lies its quiet power.

This time around, the focus is on a young physician (Adèle Haenel) who chooses not to answer the door because she and her intern (Olivier Bonnaud) have been in the clinic an hour past closing time. The next day brings tragic news of a dead girl whose body is found at a construction site right across the street. The clinic’s video recording reveals that the doorbell was actually a cry for a help. Clearly distraught and desperate, it appears the girl without a name was being chased.

The material is interested in exploring who Jenny is as a doctor, on and off the clock. It is interesting that Haenel plays the character with a rather stolid surface most of the time, even telling her trainee that in order for him to become a good physician he must always keep his emotions in check. But behavior says paragraphs about a person and the Dardenne brothers observe without appraisal, not even a hint of a score or soundtrack. We hear every footstep, each uncomfortable shuffling, the deafening silence in a room when a person struggles to keep a secret.

Notice the way Jenny looks at her patients, how she injects needles into her patients’ skins, how she touches and moves their limbs as she attempts to examine what might be going wrong in their bodies. Then notice how her patients regard her when they are being cared for, as Jenny supports them up and down the stairs after a consultation, how they say goodbye to one another at the entrance. Unemotional on the surface, observant viewers will detect that Jenny is a physician who cares deeply for the lives around her. Calls from patients are always urgent. Laboratory results are relayed right away.

A movie like this will hardly appeal to the masses, especially those hoping to be entertained by stunning visual effects and loud, busy action. However, works like “La fille inconnue” have a better chance of standing the test of time because just as choices and emotions are raw, repercussions are dire and unflinching. Great dramas build suspense out of reality and we watch spellbound as the protagonist interacts with people who may know a lot more than they let on initially. The material is unafraid to show complex people just as they are, how ugly and beautiful we can be to one another; it allows us to consider being more aware, more present, of our surroundings and how we interact with it.

Vagabond


Vagabond (1985)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Right from the opening frame of “Vagabond,” there is convincing puissance that writer-director Agnès Varda approaches her project from the perspective of a photographer—one that is interested in facts and natural beauty but less so when it comes the reason, or reasons, why such a thing is or was. This is most appropriate because the person we come to follow remains an enigma even though we are provided colorful impressions of her through the various personalities she comes across. Some of them kind, a select few cruel, and the majority, unsurprisingly, indifferent. Even when the subject’s frozen corpse is found in a ditch, it is impersonal, from how the investigation is conducted to how the body is lifted and carried away. It is an effective commentary, should one choose to see it this way, on how we, as a society, treat the homeless like trash.

Within ten minutes we learn that the corpse’s name was Mona. She is portrayed with magnetic energy by Sandrine Bonnaire and it is smart to play her as an individual who says more with silence, how she behaves, the manner in which she stares off into the distance when she is surrounded by literal walls than when she is exchanging words with another character. She may not be entirely likable but she is fascinating. We get the impression that Mona employs lies, especially during car rides, when another wishes to fish into her history or her plans for the future. Mona is someone who lives in the moment—for better or worse—and it is apparent she values her freedom above all else. But at what cost? Through beautiful images of the countryside, we are given opportunities to ponder over what it means to be free from her perspective including our own.

A hitchhiker, a camper, a lazy bum, a thief, a whore, a good lay—these are some of the words used or insinuated by people with whom Mona crosses paths. Adopting almost a documentary style, these folks look directly to camera and describe their initial thoughts of her, how their feelings changed (if they did), and whether they still think about her. It is underlined that these strangers are never provided the fact that Mona is now dead. It is a masterstroke because having done so might have adulterated such strong, polarizing opinions. It is clear that Varda values honesty above all.

One that stuck with me was a man who noticed Mona sitting around a fire but chose not to speak to her. He admits that, for some reason, he regrets not doing so. He recalls that she must have been cold because it is the dead of winter. It took me by surprise by how much I was moved by two people not interacting, especially given the context of how movies tend to move or entertain us through personalities touching each other. Varda captures this man’s regret with such clarity even though the interview takes only about five to ten seconds. Varda is that efficient when it comes to what she wants to communicate that every moment can feel like encountering a tidal wave.

I think the picture’s goal is to make us look at ourselves and how we treat others. Although Mona’s fate could have been changed—had a university professor put more thought into her decisions, or had an elitist agronomist relayed important information to somebody who desperately wanted to find Mona, or had Mona herself chosen to stay in the property of a former vagabond who kindly offered to give her land in exchange for a bit of help around the farm—the work is not interested in placing blame. It is simply interested in showing what was and what we choose to learn from it.

Lacombe, Lucien


Lacombe, Lucien (1974)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I find Louis Malle’s “Lacombe Lucien” to be a particularly brave drama set during 1944 as World War II nears its closing chapters because the material is honest about the number of French people who were actually willing to collaborate with the Nazis. To paint a pretty picture may help to make the viewer feel good, but to tell the truth is patriotic. On the surface, the film parades a series of events as the titular seventeen-year-old country boy joins a French branch of the Gestapo. But look closer and one is bound to recognize the story is a more personal kind; it is about the yearning to belong—somewhere, anywhere, with anyone who would pay even the slightest attention. That group just so happens to be those who hate Jews and are willing to send millions of them to be exterminated.

Lucien Lacombe is portrayed by Pierre Blaise in his first role on film. It is the correct decision to cast a non-actor because, in a way, we must consider the character to be an enigma. You see, more experienced actors tend to employ behavior to sell a thought or an idea—an approach that may not have worked in this role. It is demanded that Lucien be as raw as possible, for the viewer to wonder constantly why he is doing the things he does. Is he even aware that what he is doing is morally wrong? And if he did, does he care? Pay attention to how he kills animals like chicken and rabbits. The look in his eyes does not change as he kills people. The only difference is how he is dressed for the occasion.

Look closely during captured moments when Blaise is simply being himself, perhaps hanging out on set while waiting for his cue to utter lines provided on the script. Malle is wise to include the in-between moments because it is a way to capture’s one’s soul and then manipulate it through the scope of the story being told. But because Malle is a master at creating human portraits, he does not turn Lucien into a monster. We despise the protagonist’s actions but not the protagonist himself. Without Malle’s careful, intelligent, and humanistic direction, the work could have been reduced to a story of a stereotype.

The picture is beautifully photographed, particularly scenes shot outdoors. The grassy villages where animals roam and the majority of people work with their hands put us into a particular headspace—serenity and freedom—before Lucien joins the German police. Images shot indoors, too, are interesting but in a different way. Notice the high ceilings of the Gestapo headquarters, the well-decorated rooms, the expensive figurines and paintings. And yet—listen to what the conversations are composed of: trivialities, hatred, drunken babbling. Interactions are cold, unsafe, driven by the next opportunity to wield power and murder.

Unlike Malle’s other works (“Murmur of the Heart,” “My Dinner with Andre,” “Au revoir les enfants”), “Lacombe Lucien” did not move me emotionally. But perhaps that isn’t the point. So many movies with stories that take place during World War II are designed to get an emotional reaction from the audience. This one, however, is impersonal in that it appears to only be interested in showing reality, specifically one person’s reality, Lucien’s desperation to belong. We wish to understand him rather than to empathize with him. After all, how could we empathize with somebody who is so ignorant that he hasn’t got the slightest awareness—curiosity, even—of what’s being done to the Jews? For him, the Jews, being stripped from their homes and families, are merely going on a train ride.

A Burning Hot Summer


A Burning Hot Summer (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Frédéric (Louis Garrel) crashes his car into a tree on purpose for reasons unknown other than he appears dejected as he speeds through a zig-zag road in the middle of the night. More than a year prior to his suicide attempt, Frédéric is happily married to Angèle (Monica Bellucci), an actress on the verge of receiving her big break. The couple rents a posh apartment in Rome and thinks it would be nice to have Paul (Jérôme Robart) and his girlfriend, Élisabeth (Céline Sallette), both aspiring thespians, stay with them for a couple of weeks. Enamored with such a lavish lifestyle that seems free of earthly worries, Paul quickly grows attached to Frédéric.

Written by Marc Cholodenko, Caroline Deruas-Garrel, and Philippe Garrel, although something seems to be brewing just beneath the topsoil of “Un été brûlant,” it is disappointingly anemic in dramatic surges required in order to give the feeling that the time invested by its audience toward the characters’ differing levels of lamentation is worthwhile.

The narration is partly to blame because it is used as tool, almost as a crutch, to tell what is happening during a scene right in front of us. Worse, at times it informs us of what is going to happen instead of simply giving us a scene, allowing it to unfold, and trusting us to evaluate the reality, including the emotions behind them, contained in its universe. This is a critical misstep because most effective relationship dramas tend to flourish in showing both important and unimportant events in the lives of the people we are supposed to observe. As a result, the film is consistently confusing and the bond between the characters and us is tenuous at best, if any.

Imagine being a math teacher and you give a student a multi-step equation to solve. On the paper that is handed back, although an answer is present, it is incorrect. No work is shown. As an instructor, it is impossible to determine where exactly the student went wrong. The same principle can be applied to this story because, in a way, we are supposed to look closely and gather clues as to how Frédéric and Angèle’s relationship goes sour. We are handed clichés like a person being involved in an extramarital affair but the emotions behind their actions hold very little weight so it takes a great deal of effort to care for them.

I got the impression that the film, like the student, is guessing blindly, reaching in the dark for the pieces of a shattered relationship. The apparent lack of control prevents the picture from becoming more than a mild curiosity. For instance, under Philippe Garrel’s direction, Paul being attracted to Frédéric’s lifestyle of wealth and privilege should feel more vibrant, almost desperate, reflecting Paul’s need to be around his new friend during his stay. There are moments when I speculated about Paul in terms of which element he is really attracted to: the luxury or the man who seems to have it all? Because of the tired and perfunctory distractions in the plot, by the end it can be either way.

“A Burning Hot Summer” fails to focus on envy and jealousy being the driving forces of its subjects. Its tone is so stale at times that I wondered if the camera was simply recording between takes.

Summer Hours


Summer Hours (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Hélène (Edith Scob) invites her three grown children, along with their partners and children, to celebrate her seventy-fifth birthday at the family estate. But that isn’t the only reason for the reunion. Hélène is dying and she feels as though she might pass away at any time so she talks to her eldest, Frédéric (Charles Berling), about the preparations she had made as well as some of her wishes. Also, she informs Frédéric that, after she dies, it is up to him, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) to determine what should be done to the estate, the extremely valuable paintings inside, and other items that museums and collectors from all over the world wish to have.

“L’heure d’été,” written and directed by Olivier Assayas, is a delightful surprise because even though it is about a group of people closing an important chapter in their lives, speckles of positivity and hope radiate amidst the indecisions, resistance, and sadness that the characters go through, from the moment their mother dies until their once regal but intimate home turns into an empty shell ready for its next inhabitants.

Emphasis is placed on the process. I appreciated that the writer-director has the patience to allow a scene to play out without relying on sentimentality to get the script’s point across. For instance, as Hélène reveals to Frédéric her wishes and recommendations involving the items in the house, the camera glides along with her movements instead of focusing on her face. She steps toward an area of the room, points to an object, tells some facts about it, gives her opinion, and finally onto the next area. It all feels very business-like but we empathize with her because we can understand that if she had approached the idea of letting go from a mother or matron’s perspective rather than that of a realtor, she probably wouldn’t have had the strength to finish what she started.

The siblings, too, are required to think and act outside of sentimentality. The material gives us quick but clear ideas about where they are in their lives. Because of their age differences and they live in different parts of the world, it is only natural to expect that they have different wants and needs. Although I expected otherwise, no one is a villain; no one is so unlikable that we wish for them to get the short end of the stick. These are people who are practical enough to look out for themselves and their families but at the same time are sensitive to each other’s thoughts and feelings. It would have been easy to push these characters to be at each other’s throats, possessed by greed and malice especially since a whole lot of money is involved. Instead, it chooses to pursue a more insightful and quiet avenue. It reminds us that although holding onto a piece of land and keeping rare items is smart from an investment point of view, you are eventually forced to give it all up because no one is allowed to live forever.

Even though I don’t own an estate or have a painting I can show off during posh gatherings, I found the story to be relatable. As a person who likes to save his money more than spend it, my dad always asks me, “How is money going to do you any good when you’re dead?” This question echoed in my head as I observed at Hélène’s aging body, imagined her history (she must’ve been quite a gal—refined, intelligent, but not without a sense of humor), and measured how strongly she has allowed her attachment to things to have defined her identity. I wanted to ask her, given that she has lived a life of privilege, if she had managed to live her entire life on her own terms. We are given clues to formulate our own answers.