Tag: Film Review

A Taste of French Realism: Reviewing “The Dreamlife of Angels” 18 Years After Film’s Release

Why is it that young people in French movies are so different from their American counterparts? They are more mature and sad. Perhaps, French cinema does a better job at depicting real people.

The young characters of “The Dreamlife of Angels” (La vie rêvée des anges) are just as described above: sad and seasoned. The movie is about a friendship between two 20-year-olds who are both struggling to survive. Unlike young people in American films, they have to work hard to survive.

The movie begins with the introduction of Isa (Elodie Bouchez), a short-haired tough cookie with a scar over one eye. She is a backpacker who tries to make a living off of cutting photos out of magazines, pasting them on cardboards and selling them as “ tourist views.”  The job doesn’t earn her much but helps her to meet a man who offers her a job in his sweatshop.

It is there that she meets Marie (Natacha Regnier). They become friends, and soon Isa moves in with her. They spend their days hanging out in the malls and streets, kidding around, jokingly trying to pick up guys. They are not prostitutes – on the contrary, both are still hopeless romantics. Isa tells Marie about a man she met once she was working with a home remodeling group. She tells her friend about how they slept with each other and how when the job was over she left, and he’d let her go. Isa wonders if she lost a good chance, Marie doesn’t think so.

Marie meets Chris, a wealthy club owner one day when she’s caught stealing a jacket, he pays for it and invites her to his club. Marie and Isa go, they know the club’s bouncers already – Marie is sleeping with one of them. Soon, Marie is obsessed with Chris and his money. She is willing to drop even the most meaningful relationship in her life – her friendship with Isa- to be with this man.  The amount of maturity that Isa is showing in this situation is unbelievable. She has the shrewdness to see how Chris will end up hurting Marie and tells her so. But she refuses to listen.

The movie reveals what American films are so reluctant to demonstrate: not everyone reaches what their hearts long and love does not surmount it all. Marie is still idealistic enough that cannot choose the club’s bouncer – a genuinely honest man with less money- over its owner. The film’s story takes place in Lille, this choice of location suits the theme of the movie as Lille seems to be the least romantic city in France. In this film, we see Lille as a city of dispirited streets whose people seem to be too tired to care.

Eric Zonca made the “Dreamlife of Angels” when he was 43. The Parisian director moved to New York at the age of 20 and worked at various jobs for ten years till he made it as a commercial director. Zonca returned to France eventually to make serious films, and this was his third feature. He does a great job at creating characters that the audience can’t help to feel a strange familiarity with them. You cannot imagine Isa and Marie in Los Angeles or New York. It is almost impossible for an American director to make such film without adding an ugly amount of violence, scenes of drug dealing and nudity to it.  Bouchez and Regnier shared the best actress award at the Cannes film festival in 1999 for their roles in the movie – which they indeed deserved.

“The Dreamlife of Angels” might not be a feel good movie, but it is as real as the life itself.

 

Farewell to Childhood Innocence, a Look Back at Louis Malle’s Goodbye, Children

Perhaps one of the reasons why Louise Malle’s 1987 movie “Au revoir les enfants” (Goodbye Children), is so moving is its believable portrayal of schoolboys.

The story pivots around a friendship between Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), and Jean Bonnet (Raphael Feito), both staying at a French Catholic boarding school in the Nazi occupied France in 1944.  Manesse and Feito the actors behind the main characters had no prior experience in acting.

We never get to see Julien’s wealthy father, his mother a charming Parisian sends him to the boarding school to be away from the Nazi-stricken Paris. One day a new student arrives at the school, his name is Jean Bonnet. At first, Julien joins in the childish custom of picking on the new kid but soon they form a friendship. Both boys love to read.

After a while, Julien discovers that his friend avoids questions about his family. He skips choir practice and doesn’t recite the morning prayers, and the priest avoids giving him the communion wafer when he kneels at the altar.

His suspicions drive him to search Jean’s locker, in there he finds a book with the name Kippelstein on it. For Julien that doesn’t mean much. He doesn’t know anything about Jews. He questions his brother about why everyone hates Jews. “ They’re smarter than us, and they killed Jesus,” replies the older brother. ‘ But it was the Romans who killed Jesus,” says Julien curiously.

Even though Julien doesn’t feel any resentment towards Jews, he is envious of Jean as he is an excellent piano player and his essays get higher scores than his. Nevertheless, Julien keeps his friend’s secret. We see a close-up of him sitting in a bathtub with the sounds of Jean playing the piano as if the boy is making a final decision of keeping Jean’s secret.

The story takes place towards the end of the war, France’s collaborationist government is very disliked, and an American invasion seems to occur at any moment. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Julien and Jean get lost in the woods while included in a treasure hunt with the rest of the boys. “Are there wolves in the forest?” asks Jean. It is way beyond the curfew time, so two German soldiers stop them. By instinct, Jean begins to run. The Germans go after him give the boy a blanket and offer both of them a ride back to the boarding school. “ You see, us Bavarians are Catholics also,” they tell them.

Director Louise Malle himself had lived through a story similar to the story of his movie at the same boarding school (le Petit-College D’avon). The school like many other schools at that time took a few Jewish students in to save them from impending death. According to historian Francis J. Murphy, these schools’ endeavor to save Jewish children from death played a factor in the survival of 75 percent of Jews during the World War II.

Malle had said that he never forgot the day that the Nazis invaded their school and arrested the three Jewish students and their headmaster. According to him, the students lined up, and all said goodbye to their master as he took a final look back and said: “ Au Revoir les enfants” (goodbye, children). Malle’s school headmaster died at Auschwitz three weeks later.

Louis Malle had an undeniable influence on the French New Wave cinema. He made “Elevator to the Gallows” (1958), following his main character of the movie with a camera while riding a bicycle. Malle switched to making conventional movies like “Atlantic City” (1980), “Pretty Baby” (1978) and “Au revoir les enfants” (1980) later in life. Something that lost him the approval of some movie critics who thought he has given in to the pressure of making commercial films. However, he never stopped experimenting in filmmaking, and his later films“ Vanya On 42nd Street” (1994) and “My Dinner with Andre” (1981) testify to that.

We never find out if Julien did play a part in his friend’s capture. Nazis enter their class and demand to know the identity of the Jewish student. Julien involuntarily looks at Jean. We might all make the mistake of looking the wrong way without even realizing it from time to time. Jean doesn’t blame him as he is packing his things to go. “They would have caught me, anyway,” he tells his friends as the duo say their final goodbyes.

The movie ends with a close up of Julien’s face – as was the style of French New Wave Cinema filmmakers. The shot lasts for 25 seconds during which we hear Jean playing the piano in the background.

 

A Knife that Cuts Meat: A Look at Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher

The main characters of Claude Chabrol’s “Le Boucher” or “The Butcher” have very different professions, she is a school headmistress, and he is a butcher; but loneliness brings them together. She triggers dangerous impulses in him, and he seems to have changed her forever when their friendship comes to an end.

The story of “Le Boucher” or ” The Butcher (1970) takes place in a peaceful French village called Tremolat. The film begins with a wedding scene and the only thing that stops the audience from thinking they are going to watch a family drama is the film’s haunting soundtrack.

From the moment the first murder takes place at the village, Popaul the Butcher becomes our primary suspect. We all know it and just waiting for the moment to find the proof. One would wonder if Miss Helene (Stéphane Audran) suspected it too, long before she saw his lighter at the scene of the crime.

The question that we as the audience get to wonder about is that: will he kill her too? It appears that Miss Helene, a woman of an excellent education is amazed by his savagery at times and lets him near her to feel a thrill even though she knows he is dangerous.

During a school trip when Miss Helene takes her students to the Lascaux caves and shows them the wall paintings inside, she speaks of Cro-Magnon Man and his savagery with admiration. Questioned by a child about what Cro-Magnon Man would do if he came back she answers: “Maybe he would adapt and live among us or maybe he would die.” Is she unconsciously thinking of Popaul?

Miss Helene first meets Popaul  (Jeane Yanne) when she is seated next to him at the wedding ceremony of her colleague. The first thing that attracts her attention towards him is his skilled way of carving a roast. She watches him in fascination and starts eating her piece before anyone else. It’s hard not to notice her happiness and her constant awareness of the butcher’s presence.

After the wedding, he walks her back to the school- where she also lives. We have an amusing three minutes and 46 seconds of both of them walking in the village. “ Do you smoke in the street?” The butcher asks her shocked. She says she does and adds an attitude to her smoking as well. Chabrol draws a picture of female domination with this scene and the one at Miss Helene’s place where Popaul sits on a small chair next to her that makes him look like one of her students.

She is not married, neither has any lovers. Questioned by the butcher about it, she speaks of her former bad experience in love, which made her decide to do without men. Popaul doesn’t seem to have much to say except for his rants about his 15 years in the army and the many corpses he has witnessed while being in Algiers and Indochina. During the school trip to the cave, children sit on the ledge to eat their lunches, a drop of blood falls on a little girl, it’s the blood of the new victim – the bride of the opening wedding scene.

Miss Helene goes up and discovers the body and the special lighter she has recently given to the butcher for his birthday. She takes the lighter hides it in her hands and won’t tell the police about it. Not long after the incident,  Popaul comes over; he has brought a jar of brandy marinated cherries. “ They’re the best I’ve ever had,” says Miss Helene before even trying one. The suspense in that scene is very high, what does she thinking? Isn’t she scared to sit with a killer? Finally, she asks for a light to smoke a cigarette, he pulls out the same lighter, she lets out a relieved laughter.

Chabrol makes a theme of smoking in this movie. Smoking becomes the sign of Miss Helene’s power over the butcher. We never see him smoke unless she starts smoking. Her blonde hair is another theme, of which we get two meaningful close-up shots.

The story comes to a crux which will not be described to avoid spoiling the film for those who have not seen it, but at the end when the butcher appears weak, and his eyes are full of need, Miss Helene remains calm and cold. We can’t guess her thoughts. Does she feel satisfied that she has power over this man? Is she afraid? Does she pity him? Or maybe she gets some form of sexual pleasure out of this?

Stephane Audran, who plays Miss Helene in this movie, was married to Chabrol when he made this film. She has very expressive eyes. In fact, her eyes play a major role in this movie. They are hiding all of her secrets in them and add to our suspense. Her character in this film is oddly similar to Catherine Deneuve’s character in “Belle de Jour”  She was married to Chabrol for 16 years, during which they worked together in several movies – “Les Cousins” (1959), “The Champagne Murders” (1966), “Les Biches” (1968) and “Le Femme Infidele” (1969),

Claude Chabrol born in 1930, started his career as a film critic writing for an anti-establishment magazine called Cahiers du Cinema – just like Godard and Truffaut. He died in 2010 and was one of the few survivors of a generation who founded a radical form of filmmaking known as the French New Wave Cinema. He has made numerous movies including “ La Ceremonie” in 1995 which has drawn a lot of admiration. His last movie came out in 2009 – one year before his death.

What some of the reviewers of “ Le Boucher” seemed to have missed is the psychological aspect of the film. Reducing this film to another horror movie about a savage murderer would be unfair. It is true that we have a killer on our hands. But was he always like that or he was hugely traumatized in the army and is a victim himself? He seems to be disgusted by the meats he has to cut every day. Is he appalled by his profession?

Do we have to praise Miss Helene just because she does not commit a crime? “ What would you do if I kiss you?” Popaul  asked her after she told him about her bad luck in love .” Nothing, but I rather you didn’t,” she replies. Couldn’t she stop the murders by sleeping with him? Why does she tease him like that when she has no intention of even granting him a kiss?

She seems to be very nonchalant about the news of the first murder. She remains calm when she discovers the next body. Does she have a fetish of danger? Is Popaul fascinated by her because she is emotionally unavailable?

These are the questions that remain unanswered in the movie. One thing for sure is that this film is not a simple horror about a butcher who killed young women because Claude Chabrol was no ordinary filmmaker.

 

When Jean-Luc Godard Changed Cinema: A Look at the Director’s First Film “Breathless”

Patricia Franchini: Listen. The last sentence is beautiful. “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief”. Which would you choose?

Michel Poiccard: …Grief’s stupid, I’d choose nothing. It’s no better, but grief’s a compromise. l want all or nothing.

Avant-garde filmmaking began with Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” (“A Bout de Souffle”) in 1960. One of the most influential films of French New Wave Cinema “Breathless” was the first movie in which “jump cuts” were debuted. Using jump-cuts means using “cuts within continuous movement or dialogue, with no attempt made to make them match.” This film is unique in showing an unprecedented amount of repulsion towards authority and in portraying young people who absorbed in their self-centered worlds, remain largely oblivious to what is going on in the real world.
Godard’s “Breathless” and Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” directly influenced the youth rebellion of the 1960s. Perhaps, all young killers in Hollywood movies were trying to imitate Michel Poiccard (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
The surprise factor is compelling in “Breathless” as the events taking place in the movie appear very much accidental – as in real life. The two young characters are quite naive and immoral at the same time – as many young real-life criminals are. Michel the leading male character is a car thief who loves Humphrey Bogart and tries to act like a tough gangster that he is not. The young female character of the film is Patricia (played by Jean Seberg) an American in Paris who wants to enroll at the Sorbonne and meanwhile sells Paris editions of the New York Herald-Tribune on the streets. They are both unsure of what they want to become in life. Michel seems to kill just to keep a gangster persona. His tough act appears to be one of the reasons Patricia pursues him- she is also sexually attracted to him.
Michel practices the facial expressions of movie stars in the mirror, dresses like film noir gangsters and never stops smoking. Godard makes fun of chain-smoker leading male characters of movies when Michel takes his last breath, and a cloud of smoke comes out of his mouth. Maybe 26-year-old Jean-Paul Belmondo would appear a bit unattractive to play Michel (a New York Time reviewer called him “hypnotically ugly” at the time). But he plays Michel the way you can’t imagine him to be played by anyone else, and that is how you can tell that an actor is doing a good job. After all, we all know not being dashingly handsome does not stop French actors from becoming huge stars –Gerard Depardieu is one example of that.

Jean Seberg (film’s Patricia) was an American actress who found fame and success in France. Her film debut as St. Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger’s “Joan of Arc” (1957) didn’t go very well in America. In fact, she received terrible reviews for her acting in the movie. Preminger who had discovered her at 18 when she came to his talent search auditioning session made another movie with her the following year (Bonjour Tristesse) to prove the reviewers wrong, but it did not go well either. As a result of that Seberg, immigrated to Europe when she was 21 and was cast by Godard to play Patricia.
Patricia is the most enigmatic character in the movie – unlike Michel. We all know Michel is a young man whom fascinated by movie stars tries to act tough to hide his insecurities. But Patricia’s story is entirely different. She doesn’t find the fact that she might be pregnant to be paramount. She finds out Michel is indeed the cop murderer everyone’s looking for, has a wife and uses various aliases and takes this information with utmost indifference and detachment. One can’t possibly guess her thoughts from her facial expressions either. Her cheating on Michel is also a well-thought test – to find out if she loves him. Her cold-hearted, femme fatale persona is something that many reviewers have failed to point out – except for the late great Roger Ebert.

The film’s process of making was entirely experimental – as it was with most French New Wave Cinema films. Godard and many other New Wave Cinema directors started their careers as critics for an anti-establishment film magazine called Cahiers du Cinema. The whole film is an experiment. Godard wrote the script for each scene the same morning they had to shoot them. Director Claude Chabrol was the movie’s production designer; writer Pierre Boulanger plays the role of the police inspector, director Jean-Pierre Melville plays the writer whom Patricia interviews at a press conference and Godard and Francois Truffaut each play small roles in the film as well – Godard plays the role of the informer. Everyone behind the scene also helped a little in front of the camera– as in a film made by cinema students.
Raul Coutard film’s cinematographer (Godard’s favorite cinematographer) does a magnificent job, especially in the scene where Patricia and Michel are in bed smoking, and the clouds of smoke mingled with the light coming out of the window make it look as if they are sitting on a big cloud. It is the same scene in which Patricia comes home and finds Michel in her bed, they argue, flirt and smoke till she finally lets him make love to her. She presses her face on a painting of a girl by Renoir and asks Michel to judge who’s prettier at the same scene, and Michel sits next to a portrait of a man holding a mask by Picasso.
Godard uses jump-cuts throughout the film. A technique which emerged quite accidentally – Godard took a scissor and just cut everything he thought was boring. Jump-cuts went to become a popular technique amongst filmmakers.
“Breathless” received a spectacular reception from the public and film critics. Filmmakers left the theater questioning all the traditional notions of filmmaking. Godard had changed cinema permanently.