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.
Words and Pictures (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
The romantic comedy genre is easy to dismiss because somewhere between selling a fantasy and trying to make the viewers feel good about themselves, it is also often willing to throw logic and real emotions out the window. And so when a movie like “Words and Pictures,” written by Gerald Di Pego and directed by Fred Schepisi, comes along, ready to offer enjoyment without sacrificing brain, a sharp sense of humor, and a level of character complexity, most audiences do not know how to respond to it properly. That is how we know that when it comes to the romantic comedy genre, people are jaded.
Jack (Clive Owen) is an Honors English teacher at a prep school whose job is threatened by an upcoming evaluation. He is an alcoholic. It has affected his work and personal life so severely that even his son is keeping his distance. After he hears from his students that the new art teacher, Dina (Juliette Binoche), expressed in her class that words are nothing but lies and that emotions are raw and real, Jack starts a playful war—a battle between words and pictures. His intention is three-fold: To inspire his students to participate in their education, to get in the good graces of his evaluators, and to capture the heart and attention of the renowned artist who happens to be suffering from a disease.
We get a solid grasp of Jack and Dina’s fierce intelligence. When the camera is in the classroom, it reminded me of times when I was actually excited to learn from someone who not only know what they are doing but are very passionate about teaching. While it is obvious that their styles of interacting with their students are vastly different, it is unexpected that the students are able to connect with them both. In a way, the students are the audience in that when it is the instructor’s turn to speak, our eyes and ears focus on him or her and we are engaged.
A subplot that does not quite mesh well with the material involves an incident between two students. While still connected to the picture’s roots, the conflict comes across forced and artificial. It is so heightened and urgent that it takes attention away from the two so-called warring factions. The subplot of interest does not last for very long but it does leave quite an impression.
The romance between the art and English instructors have validity. Binoche and Owen are so good at expressing themselves—whether it be through words or body language—that they provide us something new about their characters in just about every scene. Such is a rarity in modern romantic comedies and so it must be highlighted. Although there are no flashbacks, I enjoyed that I was able to imagine their characters when they were young, how they might have been like then. The screenplay is also not shy in providing hints that Jack and Dina are growing older. Given their imperfections, will they be able to sustain a meaningful and fruitful relationship?
Though it has a few formulaic elements embedded in the marrow of its genre, “Words and Pictures” engages because it abstains from spelling everything out for the audience. Some people will claim that this film is for smart adults. I do not agree completely. I think this movie is for anybody who has substance, anybody who can appreciate conflicting details about a person. It is a character study, in a way, of opposite personalities and perspectives with a common thread: one’s yearning to understand others outside their own.
★★★ / ★★★★
Stephen (Jeremy Irons) locks eyes with Anna (Juliette Binoche) at a party. Stuck in an increasingly passionless marriage with his nonetheless loving wife, Ingrid (Miranda Richardson), Stephen yearns to have Anna. She wants to have him, too. However, the ravishing woman across the room turns out to be the girlfriend of Martyn (Rupert Graves), Stephen’s son, and the two have plans of creating a future together.
Based on the novel by Josephine Hart, I watched “Damage” in complete fascination because of its directness in dealing with needs and wants. While it could have been too easy and cheap to show only the man wanting to have sex with another woman outside of his marriage, I liked that Anna is given scenes in which she brazenly makes the first move. After all, breathing life into an affair usually involves two people.
The scenes involving sex are titillating but never exploitative. In order to understand Stephen’s need to possess and Anna’s need to be wanted, we are required to see them in various carnal situations and what they wish to do to each other to quench their hunger.
We observe their ritual. They are always only a phone call away. An invitation to meet is consistently met with acceptance. For Stephen, putting his hands around Anna is an uncontrollable itch that needs to be scratched. His obsession is passionate but can be scary at times. For instance, being a member of the Parliament, he has a meeting in Brussels. Just as it adjourns, despite not getting any sleep, he takes earliest available train to Paris to see Anna, all the while knowing that she is with Martyn on a getaway. We are made to wonder if deep inside he hopes to get caught in order to save himself the trouble of having to explain that what he and Ingrid have is no longer viable.
For Anna, being wanted by Stephen is like reliving a time in her life when she feels truly loved, but the love was considered wrong and immoral. One of the darkest and most intriguing scenes involves Anna talking about her past and how the tragedy she experienced has found a way to reside and lay dormant within her. The mysterious sadness she exudes is what attracts Stephen—and his son—to her.
While the nature of Anna and Stephen’s relationship is open to interpretation, not for a second was I convinced that what they share is love—at least not the kind that can last. In my eyes, love is between Stephen and Ingrid: dealing with the routine of the every day and learning to be content and see the bright side even if things may go wrong slightly. Despite Stephen and Ingrid not having one sex scene, the combination of David Hare’s screenplay along with Irons and Richardson’s nuanced acting suggest a long and loving history between the husband and wife.
Directed with a critical eye by Louis Malle, “Damage” is a fascinating portrait of a man willing to risk it all, crossing lines as if he were a blind man without a cane. We keep watching because we know that the risk is not worth the reward and he does not. Or perhaps he does but he is unwilling to accept it because any change when it comes to his marriage—even crushing it completely—serves as a reminder that he is still alive.
Copie conforme (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
While James Miller (William Shimell) delivers a lecture for his new book about art, a woman (Juliette Binoche), unnamed throughout the film, gives her telephone number to one of James’ friends, to be given to him after the lecture, on the off chance he wants to grab coffee and discuss his novel one-on-one. Later, James meets up with the mysterious woman in her underground gallery and they eventually decide to take a walk around the Southern Tuscany village.
Written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami, the thesis of a “Certified Copy,” the same as the message in our male protagonist’s book, is that a copy is as good as the original. As the strangers discuss the subject of art through nature and manmade architecture, while driving and walking, respectively, the writer-director throws in clues that hint at the possibility that the two of figures on screen, who we naturally assume to be strangers, have known each other for years.
A key scene involves a coffee shop owner (Gianna Giachetti) identifying the strangers as a couple going through deeply-rooted marital problems. There are research studies that support the idea that some people who do not know us personally, especially those of a certain age, have the ability to read strangers with enough clarity through body language. While it is easy to jump to the conclusion that James and the stranger are husband and wife, I think doing so does the writing a disservice.
They are written smart and self-aware. During their first moments of interaction, it appears as though the woman yearns for meaning, almost obsessively, though we do not know exactly of what nature. Casting Binoche is a excellent decision because she has the gift of communicating her characters’ interior lives through only her eyes. Here, she hides her character’s sadness just a little–but more than enough for us to ask questions. She feels detached from her son and wishes to remedy it. However, when they walk toward the same destination, why does she choose to walk several feet ahead instead next to him and making an active attempt to make a connection through conversation?
The woman takes comfort in the book, buying at least six–supposedly for her sister and friends, and James takes notice of it. Despite the fact that, during the second half, the woman and the author discuss the many challenges in their marriage, like he not noticing her efforts of primping herself up even for just a simple dinner, it is very possible that it is all a game of pretend. It is important to consider that James is acting like a reporter by engaging with his subject through her sadness. One can make an argument that by pretending to be different people in public, the man and the woman feel a sense of freedom.
Furthermore, the movie is interested in rules. For example, the characters’ upper bodies are consistently in front of frames. The windows and doors have certain shapes, usually a square or a rectangle, and there are rules that define such shapes. The script also mentions the characters’ habits like how James only shaves every other day.
Also known as “Copie conforme,” the film is intriguing and challenging because it is not so much about the answers than it is about possibilities. Not only does it dare us to gauge our ability when it comes to reading other persons it also measures our patience toward people we do not know or might not want to know.
★★ / ★★★★
This second part of the trilogy confused me. It started off with promise because it focuses on the ugly divorce between Julie Delpy and Zbigniew Zamachowski. Even though I thought the story would revolve around Delpy, Zamachowski is interesting because he’s vulnerable but he’s not above not taking revenge for the hateful things that Delpy did to him. After the divorce, Zamachowski ended up back in Poland and began acquiring wealth. He then hatched a plan to answer the questions that have been bothering him and decided to return to Delpy’s life. The first and last part of this picture were effective because it embraced its atypical way of telling the story. One moment it’s a marriage drama but the next it’s a well-told dark comedy. However, the middle portion was too aimless for my liking. I constantly found myself trying to figure out where the story was going or if it was even planning on going anywhere. Zamachowski’s character who has been kicked around like a homeless puppy by a handful of individuals spent too much time feeling sorry for himself. It works in some segments of the film because it makes the audiences root for him, but spending too much time in a depressed state can lead to audiences’ ambivalence. Even as he started to gain wealth and power, he still felt sorry for himself. Whatever happened to a depressed but strong protagonist like from its predecessor (played with such craft by Juliette Binoche)? I also missed the astute use of music and color in order to reveal certain layers of a character. This one barely had any and that frustrated me. If one is looking for an unconventional film that straddles the line between drama and dark comedy, this is the one to see. But if one is looking for something that’s rich in implications and technical ways of revealing certain aspects of characters without using words, avoid this one because it will disappoint.
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.