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Sunday, 12 March 2017

The French Film Festival (1) - Supercinephile Barrie Pattison spends his hard-earned on some chancy titles

Well Frogfest is with us again.

I’ve previously enthused about the Kerven-Delepine Saint Amour which is as freaky and winning as their other films and Bertrand Tavernier's Voyage á travers le cinéma Français. It will be interesting to find out how much I missed without sub-titles there. Less enthusiasm for Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World/Juste la fin du monde and a definite thumbs down for Bruno Dumont’s grotesque Ma loute/Slack Bay.

On show Rebecca Zlotowski’s Planetarium is an unshaped A feature, an odd choice for A Lister Natalie Portman, speaking French impeccably again for the first time since Léon, and doing a bit of timid nudity. She’s more animated than usual and there’s even a sequence of them trying to work out how to film her beauty mask features. Johnny Depp’s daughter Lily-Rose appears as her psychic sister and Emmanuel Salinger, as in his early Arnaud Desplechin films, gives the stand out performance.

There are some intriguing moments - Depp found in the brightly lit aviary, stunned Salinger emerging from the seance illusion asking “How do you do that?” or Portman similarly intrigued by the mysteries of film making, the studio camera circling her till we see her face reflected on the matte box glass. Amira Casar and Louis Garrel figure briefly as members of  Salinger’s company. The elegant filming becomes the major asset.  It’s hard to see the hand of the Dardenne Brothers as producers.

This one was announced as an account of the meeting between the three Fox Sisters, who were spurious mediums (their act started the Spiritualist movement) and movie studio head Bernard Natan when he headed up Pathé France at the arrival of sound. Here we’ve lost one sister and the Natan character has shed his wife.

Bernard Natan
The departures from fact would not be significant were it not for the background. Bernard Natan put together financing to resurrect the ailing Pathé company when its founder Charles Pathé had lost confidence in the future of movies. Natan restarted the Pathé news, went into the 9.5 home movie business and developed what became Anamorphic (CinemaScope) photography. He supervised a body of work on the scale of the then contemporary Hollywood studios. These were some of the most notable thirties French films with Jean Grémillon, Raimu, Charles Boyer, René Clair, Anatole Litvak and Anabella on board. 

Natan was brought down by unproven allegations of financial irregularities and a dubious claim that he’d been a silent movie pornographer.  He was jailed, stripped of his French nationality, (awarded for his WW1 French military service) and turned over to the Germans, dying in Auschwitz, a Romanian Jew victim of both xenophobia and anti-semitism echoing the Dreyfus case. The final “C’est la haine”, with Salinger shielding himself from the courtroom camera (“Ne me filmez pas!”), is not the illumination of the Natan affair we might have hoped for.


Oddly all the coverage of Planetarium, including the French reviews I’ve been able to access and the Film Festival booklet, omit any reference to Bernard Natan. Despite his importance to film history and extraordinary back story, described in the biographical Paul Duane & David Cairns documentary Natan, (Ireland/UK/USA/France, 2013) he is again “air brushed from history.”


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