Tag: french

Sans toi ni loi

Sans toi ni loi (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.

Un été brûlant

Été brûlant, Un (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.

L’heure d’été

Heure d’été, L’ (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.


Rosetta (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Shot without distraction or decoration, it is critical that “Rosetta” shows only the truth because its aim is to show a stark portrait of poverty. Its style is so bare, so skeletal and realistic that a handheld shooting style is employed in order for viewers to be placed right in the action as a desperate teenage girl, having just been let go from a temporary position without warning, hunts for a new job. Rosetta is played by Émilie Dequenne and she dominates every frame and devastating moment in the film—an astounding achievement because not only is it her first starring role, it is her first role ever on film.

Writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are masters of showing rather than telling. Instead of relying on dialogue as a tool to explain or acknowledge the hardships of Rosetta’s life, the camera simply follows her day-to-day activities, the frame in focus from the waist up, often shot from behind. We observe the state of her trailer home. The interiors are drained of color and excitement. We notice her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux), panic-stricken at the sight of her daughter coming home because she knows that Rosetta is like a bloodhound, always searching for evidence that mother has been drinking yet again.

Lesser filmmakers would likely have made the parent a target of ridicule, someone to judge and blame. Instead, the Dardenne brothers, so focused in their objective of showing a specific lifestyle of a specific life, use the matriarch as a figure of Rosetta’s possible future. Rosetta regards her mother not necessarily with love or pity but a wilting thing that needs to be cared for because she is helpless. She fears she will become her mother if she fails to get “a real job” and live “a normal life.” The dialogue is scant but when utilized, we are made to remember what is expressed and how.

We note Rosetta is always drinking tap water. She rarely eats because there is nothing to eat. But she must quench the hunger somehow. She is prone to abdominal pains so crippling, it is one of the rare moments when we see her react intensely. Despite her discomfort and exhaustion—in body, mind, and spirit—someone in their two-person household must land a job so bills can be paid. The campground manager (Bernard Marbaix) shuts things off without warning when payments are late.

And so off Rosetta goes to ask around if anyone is looking to hire. Many of those she encounters never bother to look her in the eye. But looks or judgment, or lack thereof, do not defeat her. She is used to it, inured by people’s apathy. And when a rare person comes along who appears to genuinely care for her, who likes her in all of her simplicity, this individual (Fabrizio Rongione) is tested. Why should they care for trash like her? We look in Rosetta’s eyes and realize that perhaps trash is exactly how she sees herself sometimes. Still, she remains to have the will to fight, refusing to accept welfare or handouts. She’d rather sell clothes off her back.

Notice how “Rosetta” does not employ soundtrack or score. Nor does it need to. Its music can be heard all around, from the way people move, like during a scuffle with security guards because someone would not leave the premises when asked, and how they feel when they are struck with a discovery, such as coming across one’s unconscious mother exposed outdoors for all the neighbors to see or a when a friend offers a helping hand. The music is ingrained in the every day happenings for the viewers to absorb raw, unfiltered.

La jalousie

Jalousie, La (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Louis (Louis Garrel) tells Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant) that he will be leaving her for Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), a stage actress with a lot of talent. Clothilde is devastated by the announcement especially since the two of them have a little girl. Meanwhile, Claudia becomes increasingly unhappy because she cannot seem to snag a role despite her best efforts. This puts a strain on her relationship with Louis, the man who used to give her so much joy and excitement.

Directed by Philippe Garrel, “La jalousie” is tonally flat, shot in black-and-white, and has an unconventional, at times inaccessible, story arc. What results is a boring, soporific movie that feels more than two hours long despite the fact that it is barely an hour and fifteen minutes. For the most part, the picture comes across unripe and underwritten, its dramatic occurrences more histrionic and vapid than genuine or truly worthy of our time to try and understand what makes each person tick.

The screenplay by Marc Cholodenko and Caroline Deruas-Garrel fails to discern between the two women in Louis’ life. Since we do not completely understand why Louis decided to leave Clothilde or why Claudia is special to Louis outside of her talent as a performer, the women function more like coat hangers rather than real people with real thoughts and feelings, to be displayed only whenever the camera needs to fill up space. I guess credit should be given for not taking the most obvious route: making one highly detestable and the other completely lovable.

The adult characters are moody, hollow shells. The material only truly comes alive whenever Louis and Clotilde’s daughter is on screen. She is lively, the tone of her voice changes, there is a certain presence in her eyes. Claudia, Clothilde, and Louis come across whiny, privileged people with no big problem that is worthy of their feelings of depression. I was amused when, at one point, Claudia considers taking on a job outside of theater. She and Louis act as though this decision is tantamount to facing the end of the world. A side job? How gauche!

“Jealousy” lacks soul which is problematic because we are supposed to empathize with its characters even though we may not necessarily agree with their actions. The malaise is laid pretty thick and it is most disappointing that the writing fails to mold such emotion into something that is complex and constantly evolving. Drama is rooted in highs and lows. This picture offers only lows and so we wonder why we should care what is eventually going to happen.


Tomboy (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Right from the beginning, “Tomboy” establishes itself as a movie that demands observation and comparison. There is a scene that takes place in a bedroom where two siblings are roughhousing, laughing, and talking. One is very feminine: long, frizzy hair bouncing about, expressive facial expressions, and the voice is very high. The other is masculine: short haircut, more relaxed in personality, and a competitiveness surfaces when playing gets physical. The film is composed of showing a scenario and moving onto the next one. In that way, it feels like we are conducting a social research.

Laure (Zoé Héran) and her family have just moved into an apartment. She sees a group of neighborhood kids over the balcony so she rushes downstairs with hopes of befriending them. However, once she gets there, all have gone except for one. Lisa (Jeanne Disson) remains and introduces herself to the new girl. When asked what her name is, Laure responds that she is Mickäel. Lisa accepts that Laure is a boy. After all, she looks, walks, talks, and stands like a boy. Soon, there is even an attraction that grows between them.

It is not a story about being gay, straight, or anything in the middle: it is less about sexual preference and more about gender identity. Héran does an excellent job in conveying the frustration of looking in the mirror and recognizing that something feels and looks wrong. Since she cannot change what is there, she tries her best to emulate. She looks at the guys playing basketball without a shirt; she goes home and examines the frame of her body, to check to see if it “looks” right or is similar to others. Behavior is also important. She notes that they tend to spit. She tries this, too. Whatever has to be done in order to maintain the illusion, she does it. The camera watches with captivating stillness.

The parents are equally fascinating to watch. They know that their child acts like a boy but they do not make a big deal out of it. That is, until they do. Not so much the father (Mathieu Demy)—he seems to accept Laure unconditionally. I did not expect their relationship to have much tenderness. I was a bit surprised because in movies, the father is often portrayed as the one having a problem when his child does not turn out as he imagined or expected in the gender or sexuality department. This time, the mother (Sophie Cattani) is the one worth watching very closely. Notice that when Laure acts like a boy, the mother does not seem to mind. However, when Laure acts like a girl or does “girly” things, her mother gives her positive reinforcement through kind words or physical contact.

Céline Sciamma’s direction and screenplay do touch upon the possibility of the neighborhood children finding out about Laure’s secret. However, it is not formulaic. Because the topic is dealt with intelligence, sensitivity, and insight, if her gender is in fact made known, the central concern is whether Laure will be able to continue living her life the way she wants to, not so much the kids being accepting or cruel to her. Movies that focus on the latter are dime a dozen. Since “Tomboy” is able to maintain focus on its subject despite the pitfalls that inevitably lead to clichés, it offers something special.

To those who have a problem with the frontal nudity involving the lead performer, I have something to say to you: Grow up. It is not meant to titillate or excite; it is meant to show a fact. It is relevant to the story that we know, with absolute certainty, that the person before us is a girl despite her looking so much like a boy. Having this knowledge gives us a compass on how the topic of gender fluidity is relevant to this specific character. There is a difference between art and pornography. Please educate yourselves before you make venomous claims that the film supports or advertises pedophilia. More films should aspire to deliver searing insight and honesty at this level.