Tag: World Cinema

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.

 

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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.

 

This Appalling Life: a Review of Luis Buñuel’s Tristana

“It is a poetic principle that the freedom of the individual must fight against the restrictions of reality… I am still, thank God, an atheist.”
– Luis Buñuel
Luis Buñuel was hugely interested in depicting the complexities of human relationships and his 1970 film Tristana is the most explicit example of that.

The movie is the story of Don Lope (Fernando Rey) a middle-aged atheist/Marxist who becomes the orphan Tristana’s (Catherine Deneuve) guardian after the death of her mother. While determined to only treat her as his daughter he becomes tempted and forces her into a sexual relationship. He rationalizes this and argues that she’d do worse than that being left on the street.

The girl is disgusted by his sexual advances and is holding a grudge against the old man over it. She secretly goes out of Don Lope’s house and meets a handsome young painter (Franco Nero) with whom he runs away. However, she falls ill and develops a tumor in her leg, under this impression that she doesn’t have much time to live she goes back to Done Lope’s household. Don Lope calls a doctor who suggests that her life can be saved by the amputation of her leg. Thus she survives and stays with the man whom she wants to avenge for taking her virginity as a young girl. Don Lope’s much older and weaker now, reduced to playing cards with priests just to have some company even though he is an atheist.

This movie never becomes a melodrama about a poor young girl taken advantage of by a father figure and disabled by the hands of fate, though it could easily be. The whole situation is appalling and that is exactly what Buñuel wanted it to be – exploring the complexities of human nature and the sadomasochism of human beings.
There are some recurring dream scenes in the movie. One is Tristina’s dream about the severed head of Don Lope’s on a church ball. According to some, that was one of Buñuel’s own recurring dreams: Buñuel was a lifelong atheist just like Don Lope.

To make the situation more disgusting than it already is Buñuel gets the deaf-mute boy of Don Lope’s servant involved in the story as well. He desires Tristana, but the girl who is bitter and cold after the amputation of her leg rejects him but mercilessly tortures him at the same time (revealing her naked body to him from the balcony).

Not many directors can take us to their own private world of nightmares and dreams and show us the ugly side of human nature and still be able to make an excellent movie. That is why Luis Buñuel is still considered to be one of the best directors of all time.

 

 

Fetishes we can’t Resist: a Look at Luis Buñuel’s Most Erotic Film “Belle De Jour”

Long before Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut, there was Luis Buñuel’s “Belle De Jour”: the story of a refined young wife of a reputable surgeon whom out of boredom secretly works at a brothel once or twice a week.
Some critics, including the late great Roger Ebert, believe this film to be the best erotic movie of all times. Buñuel never saw eroticism as something that only exists in nudity and the act of sexual intercourse but rather delved into human imaginations and strange fetishes and shamelessly depicted them in his movies. The audience follows the story of “Belle de Jour” through the eyes of Severine (played by Catherine Deneuve). For Severine sex is a dull act unless she is subjected to a vast amount of attention over it – even violence.

She finds her marriage with a seemingly perfect young surgeon Pierre (played by Jean Sorel) whose response to her refusal of sex is a single good night, to be terribly tedious. Pierre, on the other hand, sees her frequent avoidance of intercourse as a sign of virtue and adores her for that. They have a family friend Henri (played by Michel Piccoli) who is also in love with her seemingly moral character and proper mannerism – annoyed by it Severine always dismisses his compliments and resents him.
In Severine’s fantasies, Pierre demands sex or orders others to rape her, and she loves him for it. Her main fetish is to be dominated and humiliated by her lovers. She dreams about being tied to a tree while Pierre and Henri throw mud at her. She also has other small turn-ons and fetishes to which Buñuel hints throughout the movie – the sound of carriage bells and cats’ meows.

Severine’s fantasies find a way of realization when Henri accidentally tells her about a high-class brothel in which housewives work part time to earn an extra income.
Memorized the address of the brothel mentioned by Henri in their conversation Severine walks in there a few days later and is admitted in by Madame Anais (Genevieve Page)- the owner of the brothel. She gets scared at first and runs away, but the curiosity and temptation bring her back. As she tries to avoid sleeping with a fat middle aged man, Madame Anais pushes her and orders her to do so, surprisingly she promptly obeys her, something that compels her to conclude:” I see you need a firm hand.”
It can be very shocking for today’s audience to find out that there are no explicit sex scenes in one of the most erotic movies ever made. Buñuel’s interest was to show us the weirdest human fetishes and sexual “ fantasies” thus the camera always shies away when it comes to the real act of sexual intercourse. Buñuel masterfully toys with our minds and leaves us intrigued in the scene where an Asian client of the brothel who cannot speak French properly keeps showing the girls an object that looks like a music box. We never find out about the content of the box the only thing we get to see is a bloody bed sheet and Severine’s playful smile – insinuating the client’s fetish with the mysterious box.
One day, two gangsters come to Madame Anais’s brothel. One of them is Marcel (played by Pierre Clementi). He is very young, wears a leather cape, carries a sword -stick and has several unsightly steel teeth. Severine is especially impressed by his bad manners, his taunts, and his gangster persona. Marcel falls in love with her, not knowing that he’s a puppet in her hands, a toy with which she satisfies her sexual fantasies and fetishes – the best one.

Luis Buñuel who is undoubtedly one of the greatest directors of all time was a surrealist who collaborated with Salvador Dali as a young man in “ Un Chien Andalou.” He was very amused by the vast and diverse world of human fantasies and intended to depict that in his movies. He believed that most of us are hard-wired into sexual patterns from an early age and there is no escape from that – Severine also says that it is out of her hands and she’s lost.
Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and Luis Buñuel’s “Belle De Jour” are both about women whose marriages do not satisfy their uncontrollable hard-wired sexual patterns, and their husbands, suffering from the same fate remain clueless. It is all human nature.