Tag: France

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.

 

Advertisements

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.