Conte d’été (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) arrives at a seaside resort with the hope that his sort-of girlfriend, Lena (Aurelia Nolin), will show up and they can spend some time together. Days go by and Gaspard explores the area, visiting the shore, cafes, and restaurants without really interacting with anyone. We learn simply through a series of short scenes that he is comfortable with solitude. Such is the magic of “Conte d’été,” also known as “A Summer’s Tale.” It shows rather than tells and so we are invited to look closer at a scene.
Writer-director Eric Rohmer executes the picture with gentle power. On the surface, the acting and the script come off naturalistic but underneath is a machinery that builds toward unexpected encounters and outcomes. Some may reduce the film as a “summer fling” story. It is more than that. It is about chances and choices. A recurring theme involves opportunity being evanescent. The ending feels right because the main character is finally able to make a choice and he has a good reason to make that choice.
Gaspard meets two women during his vacation. First is Margot (Amanda Langet), a waitress with a doctorate in ethnology. Gaspard and Margot are interesting together because their relationship is constantly evolving. Their conversations are never about one thing. They are allowed to touch, clash, relate, and lament. Initially, there is a spark of romance. And yet the more they speak with one another, we consider that perhaps they might be better off as friends. We hope that they can be both. But the movie is about making one choice.
Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon) is, arguably, the most beautiful physically. The camera loves Simon’s face and the lines of her body. We recognize right away why Gaspard would be attracted to her. Like with Margot, at first it feels like a potential romance is on the horizon. But the more they get to know each other, we get the feeling that they might be better off as music collaborators. Gaspard is passionate about songwriting while Solene has a talent for singing. They are a perfect fit under these circumstances.
The third woman introduced is almost like an afterthought. Lena is easily the least likable of the trio and I think it is meant to be that way. I wished, however, that the script had given her qualities that the two lack because when Gaspard says that he feels she is the right choice for him, a big question mark appeared on my face. I scoured for a hint of sarcasm but there is none. The material should have given us a good reason why she is saved for last. Perhaps an instantly recognizable quality about her that convinces us why Gaspard insists on waiting for her.
Poupaud commands a presence. His presence is not dominant as one might expect from a leading man. It is mysterious. He plays his character in such a way that we can imagine a younger Gaspard not having very many friends, who likes to read rather than go out, one who values his privacy. Adult Gaspard wants to let people in but at the same time he has readily set up defenses just in case he gets hurt. We wish for him to make the right choice. The challenge is dissecting which choice is right for himself versus what seems right to us, as observers and viewers who hope to see a certain outcome.
Broken English (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Nora (Parker Posey) imagined that by the time she was thirty, she would be married, have kids, and flourishing in a career she wanted. Now that she is several years past thirty, Nora has grown weary and accustomed to the routine. Her friends and family think she does not go out enough to meet new people yet she complains about how everyone else is in a relationship. After two promising yet ultimately unfulfilling dates, Nora meets a guy at a co-worker’s party. His name is Julien (Melvil Poupaud) and he is from Paris. Initially, the Manhattanite is slightly put off by how intense he was. Slowly, however, she is won over. Will what they have last?
Written and directed by Zoe R. Cassavetes, “Broken English” is a romantic comedy that manages to entertain despite the fact that it is uncommon for the protagonist to get exactly what she wants. Part of the reason why it is so watchable is because of its honesty. Like life, nothing that is of value comes too easily. There is always a trade-off. Take a look at the men in Nora’s life: Although what they share may appear to work on the surface, upon closer examination, she discovers that there is always a catch. The question is whether the drawbacks are worth the investment.
For a character who whines a lot, Nora remains to be someone worth rooting for. Credit to the casting director for choosing Posey to play the miserable subject because she has a way of coming off very needy and annoying yet balancing such qualities with sarcasm and sense of humor. We get the impression that she knows she is not at her best—and that it is likely that everyone else is tired of her complaining—but it is better than internalizing unhappiness and eventually attempting to overdose on pills. If the lead character had been played with a one-dimensional performer, the result would have been catastrophic.
There is chemistry between Posey and Poupaud. From the moment the characters they play meet at the party, we are convinced that the two will get together. What I did not expect was in how their friendship, relationship, or whatever is that they have, is going to be challenged. Like the other men in her life, Julien is not perfect. But neither is Nora. I liked that the screenplay is able to create sudden shifts in tone which allow us to wonder whether Julien will remain attracted to Nora.
There is also love in terms of friendship. Audrey (Drea de Matteo), Nora’s best friend, gets a subplot about being an unhappy wife which is not completely effective because it is rather undercooked, but she and Nora share a few nice scenes. For instance, Audrey is not afraid to tell her friend when the self-pity has reached an unhealthy point or whether an idea is crazy or just plain stupid. In a way, Audrey is the audience’s conduit. Their relationship is sweet, with unacknowledged complications, funny, and genuine. I kept waiting for their relationship to devolve into someone sitcom-like duo but the material never makes that mistake.
I read a review claiming that there is nothing particularly funny about the film because the character is so sad, so desperate, verging on depression. I disagree. I was amused and entertained by “Broken English” because the writer-director is not blind to small ironies. Every so often it requires the audience to look closely at a situation and what the character expects out of it. When it works out, we feel glad for our protagonist. But it is far more interesting when it doesn’t. We anticipate her reaction. We feel her humiliation. Then we watch how she tries to pick herself up.
Laurence Anyways (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) bravely, almost casually, confesses to his girlfriend, Fred (Suzanne Clément), that for thirty-five years, he has pretended–and still pretending–to be someone he is not and he has had it. He claims to have been born in the wrong body and so he is going to start living as a woman: dressing like one, acting like one, completely being one. In 1989, a transgender person is a foreign concept to many and getting judgmental looks from strangers, friends, and family is going to be the least of his worries.
Most of the time when a director dares to release a movie that is over two-and-a-half hours long, I think of three things: he (or she) has something important to say, it must be blockbuster season, or he has a really big ego. And since “Laurence Anyways” is neither a big budget summer flick nor a serious work of art with anything groundbreaking to show à la Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot” or Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” it leaves us the third option and that is almost always not a good thing.
The film, written and directed by Xavier Dolan, has no reason to run for so long. While the subject is extremely relevant and, in my opinion, will continue to be an issue worth addressing for years to come, the characters are never made particularly interesting. We wish to invest in the story emotionally but it is lazy in that it is plagued with repetition: an argument ensues, a period of time passes by, a moment of reconnection, rinse and repeat. The story begins in 1989 and ends a decade later. I salute anyone who can sit through the entire picture without tuning out.
As expected, it is beautiful to look at. If the writer-director has proven anything with his past work, it is that he has an almost Almodóvar-ian knack for choosing color and texture palettes that work extremely well together. Though not as ironic or in control as the Spanish master, when Dolan gets it right, the images he shows make a lasting impact. However, here, the images are beautiful but often empty, almost self-indulgent.
For instance, there is a scene set in a living room in which one of the characters becomes drenched by a waterfall that comes from the ceiling. Of course it is meant to be symbolic but I did not process it that way. I thought it was comedic and pretentious. It was like watching a commercial for a new brand of water bottle that is about to hit the stores in a couple of months. Though the character might be going through heavy emotions during that scene, it does not work because there is no bridge between us and the person on screen who is supposed to be suffering or is in a state of shock.
I like to look at faces and I expected to get plenty of close-ups. As in Dolan’s “J’ai tué ma mère” and “Les amours imaginaires,” when the camera focuses on a face, it communicates plenty. A most memorable sequences involves Laurence, her first day of dressing up as a woman in public, walking down the hallway and students–male and female–check her out. One cannot help but wonder if the material might have worked better as a cheeky comedy-drama than a straight-faced attempt at a magnus opus.
Refuge, Le (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Louis (Melvil Poupaud) and Mousse (Isabelle Carré), drug addicts, crash in a posh apartment. The next day, when the owner (Claire Vernet) enters the place to give a tour for a potential renter, she sees her dead son, Louis, on the floor with foam around his mouth. Mousse wakes up in a hospital, limbs tied to the bed. The doctor comes in and informs her that not only is her boyfriend dead, she has been in a coma and is carrying a child.
Based on the screenplay by François Ozon and Mathieu Hippeau, “Le refuge” is at times difficult to watch, especially its first few minutes, because of its unflinching honesty about people making very bad decisions and the consequences they must face.
I was fascinated in the way the camera is unblinking toward Mousse and Paul’s heroin addiction. Watching the two of them crave for the drug is like observing mice scavenging for food because they have not eaten in days. I watched in horror and curiosity as they search for veins in their arms, ankles, and necks that can serve as entry points for the needle. Even though the scene is disturbing, the camera is unafraid to look closely at a bruised arm. I felt like there is a story to each pinkish purple spot and it made me wonder if the characters are at all afraid that something might eventually go very wrong.
I admired that the material is brave enough to allow the audience to feel uncomfortable. Mousse’s pregnancy is handled with coldness when Louis’ mother finds out about it. She says, with arrogance, that Mousse should just abort the fetus because pregnant women who have a drug addiction compromises the child being born healthy. While there is truth in her reasoning, I found it distasteful that she uses Mousse’s addiction to hide what really bothers her about the predicament. Louis’ mother is a successful and proud woman. I gathered, at least from the little time we are given to get to know her, she is most concerned about her family’s reputation more than her potential grandchild who, by the way, is a direct link to her deceased son.
As our judgments toward the characters begin to accumulate, the picture jumps forward two months when Paul (Louis-Ronan Coisy), Louis’ brother, moves into the seaside home where Mousse plans to stay until she has delivered the baby. Paul is to spend two days with her before heading to Spain.
Paul and Mousse wanting to know more about each other is the heart of the picture and their relationship is dealt with clarity. Paul is a symbol of what Mousse can no longer have. No matter how much he reminds her of Louis, Paul is not and will never be his brother. Further, there is one detail about her guest that ensures Mousse can never be with him.
For Paul, Mousse is a symbol of what he has lost forever. Later, it is revealed that the brothers were never close, that all Paul recalls about Louis is that his sibling was an angry person. Through Paul and Mousse’s interactions, it becomes clear to us how much they, in their own ways, are still grieving.
“Hideaway,” directed by François Ozon, is a high caliber drama because it unfolds in a natural, beautiful, and intimate way with conclusions that are difficult to absorb and accept. I felt closer to the characters somehow and I was convinced that their story is based on someone else’s real circumstances, feelings, and choices.