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.

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