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Thursday, 21 March 2019

French Film Festival (7) - Barrie Pattison reviews I FEEL GOOD (Benoît Delépine & Gustave Kervern) and gives LE DOULEUR (Emmanuel Finkiel ) and Marguerite Duras a going over.

I Feel Good (title in English) was always going to be a highlight - Jean Dujardin & Yolanda Moreau in a new Benoît Delépine/Gustave Kervern Grands Boulevards release. The makers of Mammuth, Saint Amour and Louise Michel have extended their uncomfortable take on the French scene to include super star Jean Dujardin, here first seen marching down the highway in spray tan and white towling bathrobe to village Emmaüs de Lescar-Pau, a recycling centre with a mural of its founder Henri Grouès L'Abbé Pierre that acts as a sheltered workshop. For the purposes of the story it’s run by Dujardin's bedraggled sister Moreau.

Parallel with her attempts to integrate him into the activities, we get back stories - their old Communist parents played by real life couple Jeanne Goupil and director Joël Séria, Jean’s career as a granny gigolo, his meeting with a school mate who slimmed down and cashed in on a business that earned him a beauty queen spouse still wearing her sash in their tiny backyard pool, Moreau carrying round the parent’s ashes in the family's old Simca, Dujardin detailing his own car to sell on e-bay and finance his wannabe playboy life style or a visit to their now senile childhood medico still prescribing useless downer dope.

As he avoids work and chats up the operators, Dujardin formulates a business plan. He will run “I Feel Good” tours where takers travel to a Bulgarian clinic for cosmetic surgery. Among his customers is nearly unrecognisable Lou Castel (I pugni in tasca) who stomps on a robot vacuum cleaner and with whom Jean engages in a catch the other’s spit training session for his career as a soccer star.

Travel in a truck with airline seats takes them on cultural side trips to the Ceauçescu palace in Rumania and an isolated, decaying Soviet-era modernist ruin stadium which is a bit much for Moreau still remembering her parent’s leftist ideals. The last leg is in a car made over to stretch limo by second hand door panels which the owner is in the process of painting up for weddings as he waits for the group.

The surprise ending is in character with the grotesque body of the film.

Not unlike  Le Grand Bain/Sink or Swim   the film is uneasy watching in the early stages. Dujardin’s character is a hundred percent free of winning traits which makes the sympathy he generates a tribute to the actor and the makers. As much as the performers it is the Emmaüs village which generates fascination, piled second hand articles stacked under the titles, swarms of eager customers pouring in as the gate chain is lowered, a row of out of tune pianos or the wide shot showing them housed in a building tipped over on its side. We haven’t seen anything like this since Edward Scissorhands which also used A-feature production values on it’s unreal subject. 

This one deserves a wide release and applauding audiences.

Film makers have not lost their fascination with Marguerite Duras despite the awful movies she made in person. I once saw a paying audience become a potential lynch mob at a screening of her dreadful Détruire dit-elle. She was very brave to front up afterwards. I prefer John Waters' Polyester gag where low life Tab Hunter's epicure Drive-in offers a Duras triple feature. That's the most relevant comment movies have come up with. She was someone who had an absolute contempt for film form, convinced that audiences would watch anything which had her narration running over it - bits of her old movies, a shot of lawn roller.

Hiroshima mon amour gave her cred though it was not her first flirtation with film. Before that with This Angry Age/The Sea Wall René Clement had Irwin Shaw adapt her autobiographical novel and got a film which was more resonant than a lot of the admired subsequent efforts. I couldn't find a reference to it in the reviews of L'Amant a later adaptation which also in turn has been forgotten.

Undeterred writer director Emmanuel Finkiel has now made a movie out of Duras' decades-lost diary of her years in wartime Paris. As in Hiroshima mon amourwe get passion erased by time and relations with the other lot though no one gets their head shaved in this one ... and we get lots of narration. Finkiel has come up with the innovation of having Duras the narrator appearing in the same shot as Mélanie Thierry, her character - once defocused in a mirror which shares the frame. Thierry was Tavernier’s 2010 La princesse de Montpensier. In the best Duras manner watching her helps me forget  Le Camion. Thank you Mélanie!

The plot has Thierry and her husband Emmanuel Bourdieu part of a WW2 Paris resistance cell. Understandably terrified of being penetrated, they discuss disbanding and are divided over the fact that German operative Benoît Magimel  has taken an interest in Mélanie/Marguerite. Half are afraid and half speculate on whether they can play him. The most distinctive scene, which attempts Duras ambivalence, occurs in a cafe used by collaborators desperate for any news as the city’s fall to the Allies becomes anticipated. Mangimel who still believes that a coming German victory will mean he opens a library in Paris reads to Mélanie a passage of one of her books that he has copied trying to be winning, while her narrator voice is speculating on whether she should deliver him to his death at the hands of the resistance.

The later part of the film, from which Mangimel disappears, is dominated by
speculation about the return of Bourdieu from the camps where Thierry and her resistance man lover Benjamin Biolay must attempt to save him. Their ambivalence echoes Duras’ Un aussie long absence  script.

There's a strong cast and high seriousness go with WW2 drab design (charcoal burning automobiles, dirty glasses in the collaborator cafe, period scanties) reproduced with desaturated colour where the reds of the gas flame or Thierry’s dress stand out in the greys and blue blacks of the colour scheme. They do produce an attention getting surface but they can’t make La Douleur hold attention past the Armistice.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

CINEMA REBORN - Another title NEAPOLITAN CAROUSEL (Ettore Giannini, Italy, 1954)

Editor's Note: Here are the first couple of paragraphs of Peter Hourigan's elegant program notes now posted on the Cinema Reborn website. Click here to go direct to them 

Sophia Loren, Neapolitan Carousel
"Neapolitan Carousel could be called a history of Naples over several hundred years. But this Naples belongs to the same world as the Venice we see in Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), a place of studio sets, streets smooth enough and wide enough for large dances, and colours as vivid as the imagination.  When an iterant storyteller (Paolo Stoppa) sees his sheet music blown around by a wind those songs become the heart and motor of the film.
In 1954 a number of Italian films were released that became classics – Rossellini’s Journey to Italy and Fear, Fellini’s La Strada, Visconti’s  Senso – and a large number of films directed at the domestic audience with actors like Toto, Alberto Sordi and Gina Lollobrigida. Many  of the names are now largely forgotten but not a then 20 year old Sophia Loren.  In that year’s output Neapolitan Carousel stands out because it is so hard to classify. It is as lush and as musical and as fantastic as an MGM musical (think, for example, of Minnelli’s The Pirate). ....."

Monday, 18 March 2019

On Blu-ray - David Hare recommends DADDY LONG LEGS (Jean Negulesco, USA, 1955)

These two screens (above and following this paragraph) from the 12 minute "Nightmare Ballet" choreographed by Roland Petit hopefully give some hint of the extremely high voltage sexuality on display. The film is Daddy Long Legs directed in 1955 in Scope by Jean Negulesco for Fox and shot by Leon Shamroy in their proprietary Deluxe Eastmancolor. The slamdunk Johnny Mercer score is a doozy, perhaps the biggest number musically from the show is "Something's Gotta Give." Fox's great Lionel Newman oversaw the entire musical treatment for the picture. 
And we have Fred to thank for casting Leslie Caron, then 24 in her last dance movie musical - in 1958's Gigi she doesn't dance and I frankly find the film one of Minnelli's absolute worst. Daddy Long Leg's provenance goes back to the early 20th century and a 1912 novella adapted for the movie by Henry and Phoebe Ephron.
It's one of three ingenue/older man tropes to star Caron, beginning with Minnelli’s An American in Paris in 1952, and ending with Gigi in 1958. Donen's sublime Funny Facein 1957 with Audrey Hepburn replacing Caron completes this trilogy-rondelay of older-younger narratives that was a staple for so many 50s screenplays, like BIlly Wilder's two movies with Audrey, Sabrina (1954) and Love in the Afternoon (1956)
But one decade's PC nightmare is another decade's lollipop and in any case the ongoing performance genius of artists like Kelly and Astaire generates a base and an audience for these movies. To say nothing of the old world-new world theme of dance Astaire incorporated into his 50s movies, with Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon(with a nod to Kidd). And this neglected treat from the much maligned post-Scope Negulesco, with triple choreographic credits for Roland Petit (ballet), Astaire himself and superb chorus work, from Dave Robel. 
Negulesco is not taken seriously these days but one ongoing feature of his movies is his own interest and skill in 20th century art and design. There's an office scene here with Mondrianesque walls composed of blocks of color which harks forward to the superb sets he designed for the Office girls' workplace inside the newly opened Seagram building in Manhattan for the 1959 adult soap, The Best of Everything
The sexual politics of that movie, including a hinted abortion, are a testing point for a movie made the year before Preminger busted the Code. As for the 12 minute Roland Petit work for the "Nightmare Ballet", maligned as ever by critics across the globe, it is in fact textually infused with a hugely Freudian visualization of Caron's own adult sexuality, and that of the men young and old dancing around her. One doesn't often think of Petit's work as particularly butch, but here it's redolent with fleshy legs-astraddled, crotch bulging sailors and other specimens of male debauchery and priapic horniness. Negulesco drags the testosterone and sweat out of Petit here in spades. I think the ballet is one of Petit's best works on film. 
The movie is impeccably staged and directed, and while the longer numbers may incline some to sign it off to Minnelli's influence, that is surely a good thing in what was one of the first Scope musicals, with its fantastic opportunities for large scale chorus staging, blocking and fluid cameras. And a musical not made by the Freed Unit. 
The new Kino Lorber Blu-ray of this movie presents a slightly cool but very beautiful color print, true to Negulesco's fantastic palette. The audio appears also to replicate the wowza original Magnetic four channel track. 
A real doozy of a picture.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

French Film Festival (6) - Ken Wallin reports on a screening of THE SISTERS BROTHERS (Jacques Audiard) attended by the director

The French Film Festival screening at the Cremorne Orpheum of The Sisters Brothers  was followed by a Q&A that David Stratton held with director Jacques Audiard. The Orpheum's second largest theatre, the Walsh, was full and the audience very appreciative of what seems an odd inclusion for the French Film Festival, but for the prestige of the director. 

For me, this Western shot in Spain and Romania with four brilliant actors in top form, Joachim Phoenix, John C Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed, has to be the most interesting of its genre in ages. 

But will The Sisters Brothers be more widely shown? The advertising had suggested it would not be getting a general release in Australia, bizarre given the cast, its accessibility, and the appealing blend of humour and drama. Here's hoping it does get taken up.

The Q&A was  an insightful one as Audiard responded at length in French through an interpreter to very pertinent questions from David and the audience.
Jacques Audiard
We learned that:  

1. John C Reilly brought the book to Audiard and enthused him for the project.

2. Audiard filmed it on European locations rather than existing North American ones with their standing Western town sets because he wanted his own look rather than a borrowed one seen in other productions.

3. Stylized visuals such as the depiction of the gunfights, and I suggest, the discovery of the river gold as it is induced to glow in the darkness, are due to Audiard wanting a certain storybook illustration feel to his film.

4. When asked about his interest in the genre, Audiard professed that the Westerns he admired were the American (but not the Italian) ones of the 60s and 70s. However, the model for his film had not been a Western, but Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter.

The connection here I feel is not so much the narrative of relentless pursuit as  Audiard's interest  in that storybook feel Laughton created through an episodic journey and powerful, singular imagery.

Altogether a rewarding afternoon.

French Film Festival (5) - Barrie Pattison reviews SINK OR SWIM (Gilles Lellouche)

Le grand bain/Sink or Swim is directed & co-written by actor by Gilles Lellouche. I've been looking for this one since I saw Lellouche spruik it on French TV's Vingt Heures which SBS broadcasts in its early World Watch programs. This program has regular movie segments which S.B.S. never translates and runs in the news programs they buy it for. See what I mean about the French. 

It's a film about a misfit team who go in for men's synchronized swimming ("Women play soccer now") which has been compared to The Full Monty (which Lellouche points out he's never seen all the way through). He's not an Esther Williams fan either. Really Le Grand bain is closer to Jon Turtelaub's 1993 Cool Runnings,the Jamaican bobsled team movie. It arrives the same time as Oliver Parker's British Swimming With Men both apparently derived from the Swedish entry in the event championships.

Hangdog Mathieu Amalric is in a depression. He hasn't worked for two years and the only job prospect is in his awful brother-in-law's awful furniture warehouse. On impulse he tears off the phone number for a men's synchronised swimming training at the local pool. This ("Women play soccer now") ingeniously eliminates most of the set up and lands us smack into the middle of the stories of his equally dysfunctional team members being lackadaisically coached by Virginie Efira between her AA meetings.

Guillaume Canet's marriage is tottering under mummy issues. Benoît Poelvoorde is found sitting in one of the up-ended pools he can't sell. Jean-Hugues Anglade is raising his school age daughter out of a camper van the cops keep on moving out of supermart parking lots. She has to sit him down and tell him his hopes of rock stardom have long since evaporated. Pool man Philippe Katerine is a podgy loser and their token black member Balasingham Thamilchelvan gets curiously short time.

This is not a film offering the sunny chic of Paris. The setting is closer to the ugly backblocks that Benoît Delépin and Gustave Kerven show us in Le Grand Soir, Mamuth and the rest. Lellouche seems to have called on every French movie star who wasn't working that week. Marina Foïs registers particularly nicely even before her super market gossip sequence which must have attracted her to the part.

So far Le grand bain held my attention before I realised how much I was enjoying it. It sneaks up on you. 

We've seen the boys do their shonky routine at a local event, then one of them points out that all they have to do is register to become Team France at the newly established world championships. Then Efira drops out and they fall into the hands of Arab martinet, wheel chair bound Leïla Bekhti (Une prophete), who slaps them and abuses ("forty three seconds - I have little girls who can do forty three seconds") them into exhausting training routines. They have to carry her on their runs. A cheer goes up when Cantet snaps and hurls her, wheel chair and all, into the pool - political correctness takes one for the team. It is a surprise measure of the film's skill that everyone becomes more sympathetic after this.

The always admirable Poelvoorde asserts his presence without needing star treatment (he stands behind the others partly obscured for the poster) He hits on a plan B to equip themselves from a hypermarket with a shoplifting raid - cut to the guys humbled in the manager's office and Almaric crashing the getaway car not knowing they've had to empty Katerine's bank account to get out.

The parallel development of the personal stories, a great routine cross cut to "Physical" as they each work out in their office settings, the camper van trip to Norway, the daunting spectacle of the other national teams, the dawn celebration and the reaction of their tormentors are made to pile on top of one another to provide an irresistible buzz.

It's a great night at the movies even if it doesn't really come together. The film deliberately withholds our views of the guys in action till the end which seems a bit of an ask after the "We were a crap warmup act and now you want to put us into the world championships" set up.

The actors trained with Olympic swimming coaches and can be spotted participating in the final routine. It would be interesting to know how much of that was doubled. 

In his first full feature, Lellouche has pulled off a coup. The film is coining it in its home market and deserves to do the same thing here. Pierre (The Trouble with You Salvadori should take notes.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

French Film Festival (4) - Barrie Pattison reports on the Opening Night attraction THE TROUBLE WITH YOU (Pierre Salvadori)

En liberté!/The Trouble with You was the French Film Festival’s Opening Night and is clearly the kind of undemanding, glossy lightweight that you can expect Palace to pick up for a local run. It even has the standard bearer for popular sub-titled fare - Mlle Audrey Tatou, now edging out of her jeune première leads.

So what’s not to like? Well actually quite a bit.

The film has an ingenious highly structured plot which starts under the titles in a gung ho sadistic action scene where cop Vincent Elbaz smashes the motif door with the picture of the kittens on it to rough up the drug gang (breaking the miscreant's finger with his trigger guard is particularly cringe worthy). 

Turns out this is a story his fellow cop widow, ex-Dardennes star Adèle Haenel, is telling the pair's hero worshiping young son Octave Bossuet. The over the top reverence continues with the French Riviera mayor unveiling of a statue of the late Elbaz in Dirty Harry pose. We never do discover the circumstances of his death on duty.

Haenel has been benched and her associate Damien Bonnard (briefly in Dunkirk) won’t let her join in the raid on the house of bondage that fills up the station with customers in fetish gear. Haenel however discovers from a witness testimony that her heroic ex was a ripoux, a bent copper, and even the engagement ring she promptly flings in the loo was the product of crooked deals like all the high price home comforts that surround her. The kitten door fables she makes up for Bossuet become disturbingly less heroic.

Turns out that Pio Marmaï (Ce qui nous lie/Back to Burgundy) the employee given eight years for a jewellery store heist was actually fall guy in her cop husband’s insurance scam. He’s emerging from the cooler that day, a confirmed hard case. 

Best of the film’s many running gags is his habit of pushing eye holes in the nearest bag to cover his face for convenience store stick ups. Haenel follows the trail of bags to find him with cigarette smoke pouring from the improvised mask he’s wearing as she tries to stop him re-offending back into the Joint. Difficult when he’s into biting off ears in confrontations.

She and the jailbird are attracted, adding to the frustration of Bonnard, and Marmaï interprets Haenel’s advice as “mieux un truand qu’une victime.” This involves Haenel in a call out to the blazing restaurant where they were to have their trist and her joining the line of hookers he sees at the station.

The climax has the video surveillance team unable to interpret the action on their video screens as they watch the brothel properties pressed into service in the up market jewel robbery. (“Is it performance art?”) Like the rest of the film, it's occasionally laugh out loud funny but mainly unsatisfying as Salvadori’s rom com sensibility fails to exploit the material’s outrageousness.

On Blu-ray - Post-Christchurch NZ citizen David Hare takes solace in the magic of Josef von Sternberg's BLONDE VENUS

"You don't look anything like these other women."
"Give me time."
Dialogue unquestionably written by the master of the mordant, Jules Furthmann for Blonde Venus, read by Dietrich and PI Robert O'Connor (below) in a highly veiled Alabama bar cum bordello.
I mention it because in an exercise to insulate myself from the horrors of yesterday's news in Christchurch, and an encroachingly savage depression, I have, as I usually do in these moments, resorted to burying myself in Sternberg and Jean Gabin movies.
So I finally got around to reading the three terrific essays in the booklet for Criterion's great Jo boxset (cover below). The last by Farran Smith Nehme is a miracle of a piece, tackling perhaps the most neglected aspect of Jo's movies, the crew other than him who worked on them and gave them so much of their lustre. 
After giving honor to supreme artists like Hans Dreier and Travis Banton (Set Design and Wardrobe respectively) and how much the two contributed to defining Paramount house style for the thirties, and with it Jo's own series of fantasmagoria as poetic geographical worlds with Dietrich. 
When Farran gets around to the inimitable and totally mysterious screenwriter Jules Furthmann who worked with or without credit on most of Jo's pictures, she describes a moment when an early script idea by Jo and Dietrich for Blonde Venus was passed on to former Broadway writer Sam Lauren. Lauren comments on having to attend to Jo later in his office which he describes as "three times the size of Hitler's."
I needed that today.