Thursday, 7 March 2019

French Film Festival - Barrie Pattison embarks on the long journey through a thousand Sydney sessions of new French movies with THE EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY OF THE FAKIR and PROMESSE A L'AUBE

Well it's my busy season again with a month of French Film Festival lapping Dendy's Czech and Slovak event.

What more suitable way to celebrate a French Film event than with a France, United States, Belgium, Singapore India co-production filmed in Mumbai, Brussels, Rome and Paris in what appears to be 100 percent re-voiced English - one nice gag of the star’s narration laid over his not quite matching lip movements telling the same story on screen? With The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Canadian director Ken Scott has delivered what is a re-worked feel good Bollywood film - exotic location, songs, chases, weepy plot developments.

As it rolled on I found myself continuously delighted, even charmed, by its parade of farfetched surprise events. Yes it does have a sub-continent structure where the crew travel the planet in nice plane on map graphics passing by the Eiffel Tower and the Trevi Fountain and they break out in song a couple of times. The first one with clipboard carrying customs men doing fake Twyler Tharp is OK but the one when its Tamil super star Dhanush shows his moves is a wow moment topped almost immediately when Berenice Bejo joins in keeping up with him impeccably.

The opening has Dhanush as a school master confronting three hard case kids in jail. He narrates the story of his past. It wasn’t till he got to school that he asked his laundress single mum “Are we poor?” and started alternating home life with her and a sacred cow with one as a trickster using a street fakir’s stolen levitation gear - setting up one of the film's nicest moments at the end. He inherits his mother’s ambition to go to a Paris represented by an Ikea catalogue.  

Making it to the French capital with a genuine passport and a fake hundred Euro note he's met by cab driver Gerard Jugnot speaking English, who runs a con on the taxi meter only to have our hero pick his pocket for the bank note. After a beeline for Ikea he starts acting out married couple scenarios in the show room displays with fresh faced Erin Moriarty whose previous work I'm sorry to have missed.

The plot gallops away when the wardrobe he sleeps in is packed for London on a truck with Barkhad (Captain Phillips) Abdi's Somali refugees intercepted by British bobbies. Immigration officer Ben Miller doesn’t buy his story that he’s a tourist and shreds his genuine passport and fake bank note. It’s the plot of Farewell Saigon or Lamerica where the traveler finds himself having to use the methods of an illegal immigrant which works as well here as it did in those.

Plot complications put our hero among a load of Africans who swear they are Spanish flown off to Madrid from which our hero gets himself delivered to the Rome luxury hotel where glamorous Bérénice Bejo greets him with a leveled pistol and cons an Italian producer into buying Dharushs' inscribed shirt, leading to him commandeer a wedding balloon to get back to Paris, only to have it deposit him on a freighter whose whose mean crew take his money. Abdi and his refugee chums aid the cash's recovery and our hero gets a lesson in real hardship from them. 

Love triumphs with applause from the passersby and we get back to the linking story we’d forgotten.

Great insets like the elaborated shots of the plane and arrow or the talking photo of our hero’s mum. You may have gathered I'm recommending this one

Well La Promesse de l’aube was a must see because of the Ivan Mozjoukine connection. It’s actually the second film I’ve watched this year in which onscreen people go to see him in movies and the idea that Romain Gary, whose quasi autobiography is the source, was Mozjoukine’s son gets some support from the references here - Charlotte Gainsbourg saying she acted with him and the end title photos of the real Gary who does have a considerable resemblance to the Russian star. 

Charlotte is shown training the boy in the famous Mozjoukine stare and turning him out in a replica of his Le Diable Blanc costume. In Jules Dassin’s 1970 film of Promise at Dawn the director himself plays Mozjoukine under the credit “Perlo Vita”, his Rififi alias.

Gary had a life as or more extraordinary than his presumed dad - growing up as a Jew in anti-Semitic Vilnius and scenic Nice, studying in Paris where his first stories are published and joining the WWII French Air force being the last person without a promotion in the six hundred trainee passing out parade because the selection committee doesn’t want to cut him loose or promote a Jew. He’s transferred to Africa where he fights a duel before he flies in a bombing raid where he talks down a blinded pilot, going on to author novels including a slew that were filmed (from Roots of Heaven to White Dog), wins the Prix Goncourt, (which is only awarded to anyone once),  twice (shown in Laurent Heynemann’s Faux et l’usage de faux) and marry Jean Seberg with whom he made two weird movies. 

I don’t know what drove Eric Barbier to re-make La Promesse de l'aube.Gary is certainly an extraordinary subject but I’m not convinced that his “Je m’etouffle” relationship with his failed actress, couturier, hotel proprietor mum is its most interesting aspect. 

We do see the scene with the residents of the Polish tenement courtyard laughing when she says that he will grow up to become ambassador to Poland with Gainsbourg instructing the kid that a man must never be ridiculed. But this never seems to motivate any of his subsequent actions. The scam with the local drunk passed off as a Parisian designer who she will represent is fun though. Similarly the Day of the Dead framing story also doesn’t seem to contribute anything beyond some more production design and the guacamole gag.

Transitions where young Pawel Puchalski dives into the sea to emerge teenage Némo Schiffman or Schiffman at the typewriter panning to Pierre Niney’s reflection stepping into in the framed picture glass are ingenious and the umber toned design and fake actuality where Legion of Honor winner Niney mixes with De Gaulle look like a lot of work went into them but we never get the feeling that Niney’s actions are the result of Gainsbourg’s instruction or foreshadow Gary’s achievements.

The film is pretty heavy sledding despite being one where the lead is continually encountering topless young women. The admired aerial combat climax is more a display of David Danesi’s design than it’s exciting.

I wonder how I'll feel about French film after twenty of these.

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