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.
Amant double, L’ (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although its resolution is somewhat pedestrian for my taste, especially considering that it is directed by François Ozon, a filmmaker who makes intelligent and daring choices, “Double Lover,” adapted from the novel “Lives of the Twins” by Joyce Carol Oates, grips the viewer by the throat with a mystery so potent, it is required that we feel that every scene is tantamount to taking one step closer toward an answer we may or may not be ready for. I watched the picture with great interest and was impressed that even though it is a dramatic work first and foremost, it commands strong tension commonly found in memorable thrillers.
The plot is as ordinary as it is sinister: a client falls in love with her psychoanalyst. Most of us have come across this template before. It is curious, sort of taboo, and a solid stepping stone toward a more interesting avenue. After Chloé (Marine Vacth) and Paul (Jérémie Renier) move in together, the former, who has a history of crippling stomach pains especially when her life gets stressful, comes across her beau’s look-alike (also played by Renier). The men look so similar that she becomes convinced that they must be twins. However, Paul insists he does not have a brother, let alone a twin. Chloé, following her nagging intuition, decides to investigate by contacting the double.
Here is a film that requires carefully calibrated performances. Vacth and Renier—each—must deliver at least two convincing performances—but in different ways. Renier’s is the more obvious task because he plays two characters who look the same but everything else about them are different—almost polar opposites. Vacth, arguably, has the more difficult role depending on which man she is facing. In addition, we follow how she is when she is with strangers and when alone in a room where she must confront her thoughts and longings.
Despite the plot machinations and acrobatics, I believe this is a story of a woman whose deepest desire is to be seen. Pay close attention to the incredibly intimate opening scenes—the first taking place in a clinic where one’s body is completely exposed and the second in an office in which deeply personal information must be divulged to a complete stranger. We learn of the protagonist’s body, mind, and soul through the scope of a standard dramatic parabola. And yet—except for the ending—there is nearly nothing standard about its approach to telling its story.
I admire Ozon’s work, including this one, because he is not afraid to use the camera as more than a camera. Take the opening shot, for instance, as he employs the camera like a microscope. He is not ashamed to show a woman’s sex because the intention is not to provide sleazy titillation or to shock the viewer. Instead, the matter-of-fact manner of showing a body part, which just so happens to be a sexual organ, ties into the bigger, more elegant themes of the material. Here is a film for the most mature audiences, those who enjoy digging throughly into novels and studying every connection and symbolism. (Pay attention on how the film shows and uses glass and mirrors.)
This is not to suggest that “L’amant double” is inaccessible or opaque. It simply requires an open mind in order to become hypnotized by its wonderful control of tone, foreboding atmosphere, and pacing so assured—at times melodramatic—that clocking in at less than two hours is almost miraculous considering the thicker details of its central mystery.
Silence de Lorna, Le (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), originally from Albania, makes a deal with a local mobster, Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), in order to gain citizenship in Belgium. Her dream, once she has the proper identifications, is to move in with her boyfriend (Alban Ukaj) and open a snack bar.
Lorna is assigned by Fabio to marry a drug addict named Claudy (Jérémie Renier). A couple of days after she gains citizenship, Claudy is to be killed. This causes Lorna anxiety but, according to the men around her, it does not matter anyway because Claudy is just a drug addict. Finally, she is to marry a wealthy Russian, Andrei (Anton Yakovlev), who also needs Belgian citizenship. Once Andrei has what he wants, Lorna is free to go on with her life. Naturally, things go wrong.
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, “Le silence de Lorna” is a great exercise in mood. I found it curious because we do not start off necessarily liking our protagonist. The way she treats Claudy as he struggles through his addiction is selfish and ugly. She is so detached from him, she cannot even hand him a glass of water when he begs her for one. She feels the need to put the water in a bowl, place it on the floor, and watches him drink it like a dog. As the pattern of their spurious relationship begins to crystallize, I became convinced that I knew exactly where it is headed.
The story takes another direction completely. This is the trickiest and most brilliant part of the screenplay. Because I assumed that I knew where the story is going to go, I was not as vigilant to the signs that hint at the important changes about to unravel. Before I knew it, the Dardennes have led me to a trap and I was suddenly uncertain as to how the characters might deal with the new cards they have been given.
While becoming a Belgian citizen remains to be Lorna’s primary motivation, she begins to consider other possibilities—options that are different from what Fabio has planned for her. Lorna’s inner turmoil between doing the right thing and taking what she wants is compelling to watch. Dobroshi’s androgynous face urges us to look closer because there is an interesting inconsistency between her actions and what is really going on in her mind.
The film is appropriately titled “Lorna’s Silence” because whenever our protagonist is silent in a car, in her apartment, or at work, she is thinking—thinking how she can outsmart Fabio, who seems to be an expert in the business of fake marriages, thinking about her dreams becoming reality, thinking that happiness is only an arm’s length away, and thinking of ways to make everyone happy without taking the life of just another junkie.
Lorna is willing to play dirty with the law but she hopes to come out of the fray unblemished. She may not be likable in the beginning, but the Dardennes have found a way for us to see ourselves in her without a typical character arc. Like Lorna, sometimes we think that if we only strategize a little smarter, we can get away with the repercussions. Life is strange in that it has a funny way of catching up with us eventually.
Gamin au vélo, Le (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Cyril (Thomas Doret), currently staying in a children’s home, runs away from school to go to his dad’s place to get his bike. Although the counselors have told him that his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier) no longer lives there, he is convinced that this is a lie. He sees for himself that the flat is empty and along with it the bike he values greatly. Some time passed and Cyril is most surprised when Samantha (Cécile De France), one of the women who has seen him cause pandemonium at his father’s apartment complex, brings him the bike he has been searching for. As the kind woman drives away, Cyril stops her and asks if he can spend every weekend with her. She thinks it is a good idea but tells him she must speak with the one in charge first. Cyril is not convinced, but maybe he ought to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Sometimes the simplest films hold the most meaning. Such is the case in “The Kid with a Bike,” written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, completely enveloping in putting us into the mindset of a child who discovers that he is not wanted by his own father and uncompromising in showing the very real dangers of a young person not having anyone to look up to, a role model who is there when needed and, perhaps more importantly, when not.
The scenes that make up the picture are short and to the point. The early sequences involve Cyril visiting all sorts of places he can think of that his father used to frequent like a store or a gas station. Watching him run around should tip us to the fact that the boy in red is smart and determined. When he is faced with a dead end, he does not allow the situation to get to him or slow him down. There is an optimism to our protagonist’s approach that is very painful to experience at times because even though our he does not let the sadness seep in, most of us already have a full understanding of what is going on. For him, it is simple: a dead end is an opportunity to turn around and find another avenue. In essence, the resilience we observe is the reason why we root for this child to find his way.
The film hinges on Doret’s performance. I admired how his anger is communicated in obvious and subtle ways. When he gets into a physical altercation, notably with an older boy who attempts to steal his beloved bike, his movement is brisk and full of purpose. Although the aim is not to maim, it looks like watching a person who has nothing to lose. The other kid, though larger in stature, appears limp in comparison. On the other hand, Cyril’s anger is communicated in the way he interacts with objects like a car, a sink, or a door. Notice the way he cuts bread with a knife. It is messy, inefficient, and out of control.
There is no explicit information provided to us about Samantha other than she is a hairdresser, but we like her. It is not because she is a saint-like figure. No, we like her because she is the only one who is willing to go out of her way to give Cyril a chance. (The counselors in the children’s home do not count because it is their job to look out for him.) The way Samantha looks at him suggests that maybe she comes from a similar background. We do not know for sure. What is certain is that she cares about the kid like he is her own, that by showing him that there is good in the world, he can choose to do good and not be like his absent father or the drug dealer (Egon Di Mateo) who recruits kids around the neighborhood to become budding criminals. In that way, the picture is suspenseful because we are curious about how the boy in red will turn out.
“Le gamin au vélo” touched me deeply for two reasons. First, it is a hopeful but an unsentimental case study of youth that is mostly either largely ignored or falsely represented. Second, the film is a true definition of art because it inspires us to think about what is being said, whether it be via images or dialogues, as well as what we think of our reactions to what we are experiencing. So many movies get away with being so loud and empty. This one dares to be quiet and gently reminds us that we have the power to change lives.
Enfant, L’ (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
I believe “L’enfant” is another one of those movies where audiences will be quick to judge and label it as the kind of movie where “nothing happened.” Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, the film told the story of a couple (Jérémie Renier and Déborah François) who recently had baby. However, both of them were very young and the first few scenes of the picture established them as parents who were far from ready to raise a child. What’s even worse is that the father actively doesn’t want to get a job. He would rather steal from people and sell the objects he stole for a quick buck. Faced with the responsibility of raising a child, he saw the child as another means of making money. There’s a certain sadness about this picture that fascinated and angered me at the same time. I was very angry with the characters’ decisions, especially the father’s, but I could not help but wonder how the consequences of their actions would change (or not change) them in the long run. While the movie did not have a lot of dialogue, the silent moments and body movements were enough to let the audiences feel the gravity of certain situations and the desperation of the two leads. I also enjoyed the brilliant symbolism regarding the father and his way of constantly selling things. I thought it was very fitting considering that he was the kind of person who did not want to get attached in fear of finally being responsible for something. Lastly, the use of bright colors for a somewhat grim story provided a nice contrast. This is a small movie but I found it to be quite powerful because it had a certain insight without really judging its characters. It simply shows what is and sometimes that’s enough to make us question ourselves how we would have done things differently if placed in similar situations. Strangely enough, even though I did not agree with more than half of the characters’ choices, I still felt for them and ultimately wanted them to succeed or maybe even lead a better life, especially for the newborn. If one is up for an honest experience via a cinematic medium, one should consider to watch this movie.