Wednesday 31 March 2021

Filmic Postcard: Janice Tong Reports from the 32nd Alliance Française French Film Festival 2021 (Part 4) - EIFFEL (Martin Bourbolon) and NIGHT SHIFT (Anne Fontaine)

Gustave Eiffel

Is the mark of an actor-on-the rise realised when they make slight but noticeable cosmetic changes to their appearances? Does that outer ‘shell’ and the way they look pave the way for a more masterly artist? I do not claim to have answers to these questions, but I’ve been thinking about these concerns over the years as I encounter, with interest, the range of diverse faces across European and UK cinemas vs the more homogeneous faces of Hollywood. 


Romain Duris as Gustave Eiffel (centre) Eiffel

Romain Duris has an incredibly handsome face; and in aging, he really grew into his looks; however, I did notice that, at some point, he had his teeth whitened and straightened, and as such, conforming to Hollywood’s ideal star status. His thick hair is somewhat tamed in his latest film, Eiffel (2020) directed by Martin Bourboulon, where he plays the eponymous turn of the 19th Century civil engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, who achieved world-wide fame from his enormous feat, a structure that stands at exactly 300 metres tall, made solely of metal that, to this day, 132 years after it was built still attracts tourists from all over the world today. It is of course, the Eiffel Tower in Paris. 


Eiffel   the film, however asks of us to disregard anything we already know about the man, (and I must admit, I knew very little) to instead be swept away by the grandeur of Paris at the turn of the 19th Century; and to discover that at the heart of the story, a secret love affair from his youth. It is now years later, and he as the successful and determined working-class engineer, a father of five children to his late wife, is to suddenly be reminded of his irreconcilable love affair with the bourgeois Mayor of Bourdeau’s, only daughter - Adrienne Bourgès, played by Emma Mackey (you may know her as Maeve from the TV series Sex Education). This affair serves as the impetus for the story that is told in flashbacks. Now in 1887, it is years later, he has the unfortunate pleasure to rekindle this acquaintance, but she is now his friend’s wife. 

Emma Mackey, Romain Duris, Eiffel


Is this fill-fated romance one that has been reimagined? Perhaps so, but the film is set at the cusp of the 1887 World Fair competition, and Eiffel, with the memory of his dissolute affair opening up fresh wounds, is spurred on to make a mark for himself by winning the World Fair; and to show to his colleagues once and for all his true mantel.


I asked the question of appearance at the start of this article because that is the question that comes to mind when watching Duris in this particular film. Whilst I’m not one for historic accuracies in a romanticised filmic view or filmic-universe of a notable figure in history; it is however interesting that Martin Bourboulon casted him in the title role, considering he bore little to no resemblance to Eiffel himself. Other films such as Bonello’s Saint Laurent (2014) or Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent (2014) both had lead actors with a passing resemblance to Laurent. The whole film seemed to be about a ‘show of success’ or the appearance of triumph over adversity - as it culminated in the closing segments of the film. 


What we have here, as a result, is that we are treated with a film that is a Hollywoodised fairytale. Although it is still good to see Paris in the turn of the century, and better still, to learn from this film the untold brilliance of Eiffel - he must have been a genius to invent the compressed-air caissons system that stablised the base of the Eiffel Tower; and the way this is calibrated to allow the machined parts (all manufactured in his studio) to meet up. This is despite the many outrages felt at the time, especially the intelligentsia’s response to the ‘monstrosity’ of this structure.  Guy de Maupassant famously said he had to leave Paris because of it. I found that there is immeasurable beauty in the lace-work, at the bottom tier, the lattice frame is delicate, or as delicate as metal structure can be; and shows refinement in its design. But of course, what triumphed for Gustave Eiffel was actually his audacity to make a permanent home for this structure at the heart of Paris. 


I preferred Duris in more subtle roles, such as in Christophe Honoré’s Dans Paris (2006), or as the love-lorn and anti-hero / concert-pianist-wanna-be in The Beat That My Heart Skipped(2005) or even as the person who is running away from his own identity in The Big Picture (2010) which I reviewedl ast year. 


I guess I like these kinds of characters because they seem to be closer to posing those moral questions that are at the heart of humanity.


And this kind of moral dilemma is the topic of Anne Fontaine’s latest offering Night Shift / Police (2020).

Night Shift  asks us to question our moral code
Virginie Efira, Payman Maadi


I’m still wondering about the words ECILOP - that was shown at the start of the film…why this mirror image? It bothers me not knowing what this signifies.


I don’t want to give anything away in terms of storyline, but this is a film that is a lot slower paced than you would expect from a police-style narrative. And there’s a reason for this… and why it is called Night Shift. Is it a night that will change the lives of the three policemen who were involved in the narrative? No, I don’t think so.  Their lives carry on as per usual in the cold light of day, and that perhaps is the crux of what the film is trying to get at. 


What changes when justice is served, but not the kind of justice that you believe is morally right. 

Omar Sy, Virginie Efira and Grégory Gadebois


Whilst I have admired Fontaine’s previous works, I found Reinventing Marvin (2017), a film that I had the good fortune to see at the French Film Festival a couple of years back, where she was both writer and director, to be a mature and really well-told story. As was The Innocents (2016). 

Virginie Efira, Night Shift


But I found Night Shift to be a little too slow for my liking, it was partly let down by the cast, Omar Sy was just Omar Sy, and Virginie Efira was not great in her role here. Coupled with that, certain elements, like the slow-motion shots of the horse that is meant to be a poignant moment, meaning our relationship with animals trumps our relationship with other human beings; that there is always a barrier or code which we go by. Well it’s just a bit formulaic. I get that these revelations are just that… banal, and there’s the sting - we no longer flinch from the violence that has become inherent in our societies. But I think it can be told differently.


I once read somewhere that they played Handel’s Dixit Dominus over the radio to mark the end of WWII, so it is with the grace of Bach’s Sonata No. 5 in F minor BWV 1015 - the Adagio movement  played by Glenn Gould and Jaime Laredo, that Anne Fontaine closes the sequence of events of the night. The inescapable moral horror of the night is transcended through the contemplative beauty of this piece of music. I thank her for introducing me to this recording - this is a piece of music that I have been playing every day since I left the theatre. You can find the exact piece here, or it can be downloaded as a single track from iTunes from the Glenn Gould Remastered: The Complete Columbia Album Collection, which is my preferred recording of the piece.

Note that Alliance Française has extended their Sydney French Film Festival season until the 5th April

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