‘Downhill’: Faux Majeure

Here’s a quote I’ll use again and again, from South-Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s acceptance speech for Parasite winning Golden Globe’s Best Foreign Language Film award in January:

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Downhill

Downhill is a case in point. If one is willing to overcome the one-inch tall barrier called subtitles (they are in English, mind you), one will be amazed how true and powerful and entertaining the Swedish film Force Majeure (2014) is, and that watching the Ruben Östlund directed original would likely reap the most enjoyment and provoke some deep thoughts. Maybe an American version isn’t needed to begin with.

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, with the Oscar nominated Jesse Armstrong as co-writer, if they’re to make an American version, there could have been potential for a fresh take. Force Majeure‘s literal meaning is a superior force, an unavoidable, overtaking power. Here’s the premise of the movie, which in itself is an interesting case for discussion:

A well-intentioned family holiday at a ski resort for bonding is shattered as the result of an instinctive reaction on the part of the husband/father. It happens when a controlled avalanche strikes a little too close to his family sitting at an outdoor dining table, he runs for his life while his wife huddles and protects their two boys. What follows is the underlying current of discontent and anger of the wife’s surfacing like a geyser. 

The producers must have seen the potential comedy in such a scenario. One of them is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the Emmy and Golden Globe winning comedy actor, and a fan of the original Swedish film. Playing the wife Billie, Dreyfus shows she has her heart in it. In several scenes, she’s effective in bringing out Billie’s frustration. However, the issues of the movie are beyond her control, a real case of force majeure?

First is the casting of the husband Pete with Will Ferrell. Surely, for a comedy, Ferrell would be a natural choice. Call it irony, the indifferent demeanor Ferrell gives out as an actor in this movie actually parallels the husband Pete’s attitude, as if he’s being dragged up the ski hill. Have cell, will travel. His phone is what he’s resorted to as companion on a family holiday that he’s not ready to go on.

Pete’s work friend Zach (Zach Woods) and his girl friend Rosie (Zoe Chao) happen to be near where they vacation, so Pete secretly texts them to come over to their hotel in the guise that it’s their initiative to drop in. Here’s a pair of supporting roles if given more to play can add substance and context to the thin storyline, but they don’t have the chance. In the original Force Majeure, this couple plays a crucial part, especially with Kristofer Hivju’s performance as Mats, who’s full of humor. Hivju is also in Downhill, but only with a very minor role as the ski hill manager.

Other issues pervade, the script could well be a major one. As a comedy, there’s not much for laughs. It presents a problem but doesn’t delve into it; a comedy doesn’t mean superficial treatments. As a film that’s supposed to capture a sporting vacation, it lacks energy. No wonder the kids are so bored. The title is prophetic; I’m sure that’s unintentional. 

If an American version is the intent, then make it truly American, tell an American marriage story with this scenario. With Downhill, however, the European location, the ski resort surroundings, the actual scene of the controlled avalanche mishap, the set design, even the teeth-brushing moments in the hotel bathroom look almost the same as the Swedish original, other than the fact that the actors speak English. With its loose editing and scattered thematic matters, Downhill looks more like a parody of Force Majeure than a stand-alone comedy on its own.

 

~ ~ Ripples 

 

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CLICK HERE to read my review of Force Majeure

 

‘A Hidden Life’: A Film for the Season

For over 10 years at Ripple Effects around this time, I’ve a Christmas post entitled Reading the Season. That’s when I post a book or collection of poetry that I find relevant for Christmas. This year I’ve something different. It’s a film that could offer some quietude among the cacophony of the season.

I first saw A Hidden Life at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It’s now showing in selective cities.

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Written and directed by Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life is the story of an unsung hero, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector who refused to take the oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler to fight for the Nazis in World War II, for he saw Hitler’s war unjust and evil.

A Hidden Life
Valerie Pachner and August Diehl in the film A HIDDEN LIFE. Photo Courtesy of TIFF.

The title alludes to George Eliot’s ending of Middlemarch:

…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

A quest for spiritual meaning is the signature of the reclusive director’s works. They are often expressed in whispered voiceovers from the characters, revealing their doubts and questions, anguish and insights.

Days of Heaven (1978) establishes Malick’s aesthetic style of using natural light to shoot his films, every frame exudes cinematic poetry. The Thin Red Line (1998) begins his signature whispering voiceovers to express inner thoughts and spiritual quests. But it’s The Tree of Life (2011) that makes such whispers monumental as Malick situates the microcosm of a Texan family within the cosmos, and asks questions of the Creator the problem of pain and death, the struggle with human nature, with love and hate, and despite all human failings, the presence of grace.

Since The Tree of Life, Malick has produced several ‘misses’, films that are not well received as they are elliptical and experimental but visionary no less. To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017) all point to one common quest: in the materialistic world of the rich and famous, what makes life meaningful? And, can true love be found?

A Hidden Life is Terrence Malick back to his form in a more traditional style of filmmaking, and more explicitly spiritual as he tells the story of a faithful, historic figure, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter of St. Radegund, a village in Upper Austria. Before Germany’s ‘annexation’ (Anschluss) of his country, family life is blissful and easy for Franz. He farms the land among natural vistas, stays rooted in a close-knit community, happily fathers three young daughters, and is deeply in love with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). The arrival of a conscription letter in 1943 changes everything.

Franz knows he cannot join Hitler’s military, but the refusal to do so means certain death and the risk of endangering his family. He struggles hard to deal with the dilemma and seeks guidance from his Catholic church, but his priest tells him patriotism is what’s demanded of him. His village folks ostracize him; the mayor urges him to comply with Hitler’s demand, for one traitor among them can endanger them all. But Franz stands his ground even with the consequence of execution, a stance reminiscent of the Christian pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died under Nazis hands for refusing to let Hitler’s doctrine to supplant his church.

In this way, A Hidden Life offers an opposite stance different from Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016), adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel. Here we have a courageous conscientious objector willing to suffer the loss of everything and the risk of harm to his family and kinsfolks in defying a ruthless ruler. A Hidden Life is a real-life testimonial of a believer while in the face of persecution, still refuses to step on the Nazi fumie to renounce his faith.

After incarcerated in the German military prison near Linz then transferred to Berlin to await trial, Franz is allowed to write one letter to Fani every month. The love the couple share in the film has its basis on these poignant letters which have since been compiled and published by Orbis Books. Franz’s absence from home brings Fani back-breaking hardships on top of social ostracizing. Her mother and sister come to live with her to offer whatever support they can give.

Capturing mainly natural light for his filming, Malick contrasts the idyllic family life in the beauty of the natural landscape of Franz’s home setting with the harshness of his imprisoned existence. What’s more tortuous though is his internal struggle. While in prison, his captor Captain Herder (Matthias Schoenaerts) says to him: “What purpose does your defiance serve? No one knows about you.” Yet Franz is convinced that his action isn’t to please others or to glorify himself, but to do what’s right in the eyes of his God. Franz’s own hidden spiritual life empowers him to stay strong.

In his trial, again he is being challenged: “Will anyone outside this court hear you? No one will be changed.” Yet he says nothing in his own defence, an allusion to the One who had stood trial in front of a ruler and said nothing in the face of death.

In a voiceover we hear these inner thoughts, Franz’s words to Fani:

“Time will come when we’ll know what all this is for, and why we live.”

There are plenty of quiet moments, long takes and slow pacing for viewers to think and ponder. The 174 minutes of screen time offers an opportune respite from the hustle and bustle of the Season, a quietude to evaluate, if you will, now that we’re at the end of another decade and in a time of tumultuous change.

The soul-stirring music is another reason to sit down in the theatre and quietly let the story unfold. Film composer James Newton Howard has created a full orchestral score complementing the cinematography, not only in capturing the beauty of the vistas but in his own words: “… to focus on the emotional journeys and crises of conscience of the characters—writing music to reflect their story.” Listen for the solo violin representing the sentiments of Franz and Fani, masterfully played by the Canadian violin virtuoso James Ehnes.

What’s hidden could be more precious, like treasure in jars of clay. And these words came to mind as I give A Hidden Life further thoughts:

… we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Reading the Season Posts:

2018: Madeleine L’Engle’s Poem The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

For my review of The Tree of Life and Silence, click on the links embedded in the titles.

 

‘Faces Places’ with Agnès Varda and JR

From high art in the gallery (my last post) to street art, here catching the last chance for a Paris in July entry, I’m presenting the fascinating documentary, a road movie of making art in the open milieu of villages and among the working populace. Faces Places (2017) is an account of the venerable auteur of the Nouvelle Vague (The French New Wave: Goddard, Truffaut…) Agnès Varda (1928-2019), then at 89, going on a road trip with photographer and artist JR to scout for ordinary people to photograph in various obscure locales in France.

the world's longest baguette .jpg

Their larger than life photo prints are then pasted onto buildings or open places for everyone to view, evoking the shared joy of living, working, and the collective memory of a meaningful past. Like this one with photos of pioneer miners pasted on a row of dilapidated homes slated for demolition in a miners’ community. The one remaining homeowner who refused to vacate her house was moved to tears upon seeing the completion of the project.

Miners from days past.jpg

Art undefined and unconfined, once pasted onto these surfaces, JR’s black-and-white photographic images convert the whole building or structure into an art form. The world is his canvas. Unlike Banksy, JR is transparent with his creative process, and lets the public view his work in progress. A TED Prize winner (2011), his large-scale, participatory art projects are installed all over the world, albeit sometimes illegally according to local laws, but the people welcomed him.

At age 89, Agnès Varda became the oldest nominee in Oscar history when Faces Places was nominated for Best Documentary for the 2018 Academy Awards. It’s now on DVD and Blu-ray. Her numerous older works may not be accessible for us so readily. Check your streaming or on demand services. I was able to watch two of her excellent films Vagabond (1985) and Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962, click on link to my review). Don’t miss this short clip on IMDb “Agnès Varda in Memoriam”.

The soul-stirring original music by Matthieu Chedid complement the meaningful duo collaboration. At the beginning, JR talks with Varda to organize the making of their joint project. We see them exchange the following dialogues:

AV:  What I like was meeting amazing people by chance.

JR:  So you want to carry on that way, with no plan or itinerary?

AV:  Yes. Chance has always been my best assistant.

JR:  Do you think chance will work for both of us?

AV:  Maybe.

From the film, we can see chance had worked for both of them marvellously.

 

AVJR-Chairs-on-the-beach-Normandy (2).jpg

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Paris in July is hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea

PIJ2019 Tamara

Other Paris in July 2019 Posts on Ripples:

Pictures at an Exhibition 

‘Coco Before Chanel’ directed by Anne Fontaine

‘Gemma Bovery’ to cool your summer day

‘A Sunday in the Country’ is an Impressionist Cinematic Painting

‘Coco Before Chanel’ directed by Anne Fontaine

According to the French Ministry of Culture department that produces and promotes French cinema, 27 percent of French movies were directed or co-directed by women in 2017 compared to 20.8 percent in 2008. (source article here) An improvement, but they are still not pleased with the disparity and working towards a more equal representation.

For comparison, in Hollywood, according to the annual USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study (Jan. 2018), the figure is 4%, after examining 1,100 popular films. Now this result is found in the midst of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. For those interested to find out more, here’s a comprehensive report from Annenberg (July, 2018) comparing many more aspects of the film industry.

I just find these stats alarming. This is not a post to present an analysis of the issue, that warrants a thesis, but these figures just need to be shared. For Paris in July this week, I’ve chosen a film that showcases a woman succeeding in a man’s world, overcoming what looked to be insurmountable odds. Among its many accolades, I find this one notable: Best Movie About Women, given by the Women Film Critics Circle Awards (2009).

Another film from French director Anne Fontaine. Unlike Gemma Bovery in last week’s movie, this is a real-life heroine.

Coco Before Chanel (2009)

I’ve appreciated filmmaker Fontaine not doing a whole life biopic on the fashion icon, but focuses on her early years. What was her background? How did she overcome life’s obstacles to create a path for herself?  The intermingling of fate and choice is one important theme Fontaine had touched on in this cinematic account.

 

Coco Before Chanel

 

Gabrielle Chanel’s life is an extraordinary story, and Fontaine respects that. Before she became the world famous icon Coco Chanel, she was Gabrielle Chanel born on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France.

The film opens with the camera following two young girls being driven to an orphanage. We soon find out they are sisters Gabrielle and Adrienne. What makes the scene sadder is that the driver of the horse-drawn cart in which the sisters are transported is their father. We never see his face. He doesn’t turn to say goodbye. He never visits.

That’s a short beginning. The next scene Fontaine shows us is fifteen years later in a cabaret where the sisters sing and dance. In there, Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou) meets Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), an older military man, paying passing interest in Coco, a name he’s created for her. Fontaine is effective to show us what Coco is like within just a few minutes of the cabaret scene. She’s a calm, self-assured woman, won’t sell herself to appease the guests; as a consequence, she and her sisters are fired. Looks like they’re happy to leave the place too.

They keep their day job as seamstresses but soon part as Adrienne is leaving with a man to live in Paris. Coco decides to go to Compiègne to look for Balsan. Balsan agrees to let her stay there in his country mansion temporarily but Coco has her resourcefulness to change Balsan’s mind. She learns to ride a horse on her own in a day, and soon breaks into the social circle of Balsan’s by distinguishing herself as a woman with style, talent and skills.

A raiser of race horses, Balsan’s social milieu and the horse races where members of the fashionable class exhibit their haute attires inspire the ingenuity of Coco. She begins to design hats for the ladies, and establishes herself as a unique contrarian. She wears a simple straw hat, alters a vest, a white shirt and a tie from Balsan’s closet to suit herself. Her style is “dresses without corsets, shoes with no heels, and hats with no feathers.”

Among Balsan’s business acquaintances is Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a young Englishman. Coco’s short, intimate relationship with him soon changes her outlook in love and life. After a sad incidence, Coco becomes more independent, confident with herself and her skills, and determined to move to Paris to open a hat boutique. With the financial help from Balsan, she begins that first step, and the rest is history.

Tautou has come a long way from her role as Amelie. She is suitably cast as Coco, reflecting the character of the self-made persona. The signature suits she tailors for herself exude elegance devoid of adornments; the simple hats she designs for herself well-match her cool subtlety. Fontaine captures Coco with meticulous care, from nuanced expressions to her confident posture. Of course, kudos goes to costume designer Catherine Leterrier who won, deservedly, a César Award for Best Costume Design and garnered an Oscar nom.

Composer Alexandre Desplat’s score adds to the enjoyment. Not an epic of extraordinary stature, but like the hat Coco wears, the film is stylish without overstating, composed and effective.

~ ~ ~ Ripples 

Coco Before Chanel is on Netflix.

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This is a review for Paris In July hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea.

PIJ2019 Tamara

Some Other Related Ripple Reviews of French Films:

Cleo from 5 to 7

Things to Come

I’ve Loved You So Long

 

‘Working Woman’ is yet another voice of the #MeToo Movement

Israeli director Michal Aviad’s “Working Woman” is a good reminder that even though the momentum of the #MeToo Movement might seem to have quieted down, there are still voices that need to be heard. Screened at international film festivals since last fall, the feature is now being released in selective theatres.

At the start of the movie, the roving camera follows Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush) as she walks briskly to a car her husband is waiting in. She has just come out of a job interview, exciting to be offered an opportunity to assist a real estate developer, Benny (Menashe Noy). There will be attractive financial rewards and career opportunities ahead.

As the husband parks the car on the road and we get to see the couple in their apartment in the next scene, a stationary camera captures all that is important, an establishing shot if you will. In one frame, we see the husband cooking, Orna clearing the table beside him, and not too far away but still within the frame, their children playing at a computer. We soon learn that the computer isn’t working properly, the kids want a new one, and Orna telling them not until the fridge has been paid off. Husband and wife then go on to talk about this new job she really wants to take, he not too sure about the irregular working hours.

In less than five minutes from the opening, we see Orna’s situation. A mother with young children to care for, a husband who is starting a new restaurant and a household that is cash-scrapped. Aviad’s camera work and succinct dialogues prime us with expectations.

Orna starts working as a personal assistant to real estate developer Benny on his flagship project, a skyscraper apartment by the seaside. He needs someone to organize his meetings, see the project through to completion and sell the luxury units. Being Benny’s protégé includes following him around, even waiting while he has a haircut. Orna has no experience in real estate but is a quick study; she has a knack for gaining trust from potential customers and the instinct for a fresh approach to getting things done.

A scene from WORKING WOMAN. A film by Michal Aviad. A Zeigeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber. Photo courtesy Zeigeist Films. 

Benny finds the ideal assistant in Orna. He soon promotes her to sales manager, noting her resourcefulness and creative thinking. His project by the seaside is now in good hands. But reaching that position and gaining her boss’s trust isn’t as smooth as Orna had first thought; it is becoming obvious that Benny appreciates not just her work skills but eyes her as a woman.

It first starts with commenting about her hair and telling her what to wear, then a kiss, for which he apologies. Other kinds of harassment follow, much like juvenile pranks. But a trip to Paris escalates his advances into a sexual assault. Orna’s pushback and outright ‘no’ means nothing to Benny. Aviad’s camera captures the scene matter-of-factly. The realism is disturbing to watch, not that Benny is violent but that it is obvious that the act is not consensual, his brute force the only means to subdue her in gratifying himself.

After coming back home from Paris, Orna is a different person. She is traumatized naturally, but when her suspecting mother asks what happened in Paris, she replies, “I made a mistake.”

That is a crucial statement. Such a mentality could well explain why she isn’t forthright with her husband, fearing his speculation on her part in the event, or maybe fearing his avenging Benny, making the matter worse. But we as viewers are witnesses to the scene. The ‘mistake’ definitely is not hers to shoulder.

Aviad’s storytelling is realistic and engrossing. Her handheld camera follows Orna like a shadow, the slightly roving movement accentuating the tension. Ben-Shlush’s acting is sensitive and nuanced. The screenplay spare and succinct. The 93-minute narrative feature is an effective and clear voice in stating a case of sexual harassment in the workplace, a powerful boss getting his way and taking advantage of a subordinate who needs her job for financial reason.

Fortunately, Aviad leads us towards a positive ending. We get to see Orna rise up from her challenging situation as she gains new strength to open for herself a way out.

Exclusive engagement of “Working Woman” will be screened at Landmark Lagoon Theatre in Minneapolis St. Paul beginning Friday, May 10th, 2019. Hebrew with English subtitles, 93 mins.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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‘Claire’s Camera’ is a Whimsical Look at Communication

A Korean director shooting a film while attending the Cannes Film Festival, with two prominent Korean and French actors in his cast, taking just days in shooting to make what seems like a spontaneous gig had resulted in this whimsical 69-minute dramedy. Looks like something only the prolific, Cannes-honored director Hong Sangsoo can pull off. The versatile Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come, Elle) in one of her interviews said it took her only five days to do Claire’s Camera with Hong, with no script, except a daily run-through of the day’s story and lines.

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Kim Minhee and Isabelle Huppert in Hong Sangsoo’s Claire’s Camera. Photo courtesy of Cinema Guild.

This is Huppert’s second time collaborating with Hong. The parallels in Claire’s Camera with real life are the very elements that lends to the film’s subtle humour. Claire (Huppert) is a school teacher from Paris visiting Cannes for the first time, accompanying a friend to the Film Festival. While wandering alone in this seaside resort taking pictures with her camera, Claire bumps into a triangle entanglement: a Korean director So (Jung Jinyoung), his film’s sales rep Yanghye (Chang Mihee) who has more than just a business relationship with So, and separately, her sales assistant Manhee (played by Hong’s muse Kim Minhee, On the Beach at Night Alone), whom she fires as she finds out Manhee’s one-night stand with the director.

Claire makes fast friends with Manhee after they meet on the beach. Here we see two actors from different countries using English to communicate, a language that’s not their own mother tongue. The verbal limitations may be a bother for some watching the film, but apparently not a hindrance for the two of them striking up an instant, equal friendship. They seem to know what the other is trying to say, and they care to ask each other questions, some quite personal, in order to know the other more.

Contrast that to a conversation where Manhee has with her boss Yanghye over coffee when she gets the message that she’s fired. They share the same Korean language, yet their interlocution is marked by unspoken sentiments and the boss’s minimal attempt to make it a two-way flow. Here’s a realistic depiction of a lopsided communication, one that’s not exclusive to the Korean culture. Those in authority hold the key to conversations.

In another scene, the lack of communication is what makes the naturalistic, deadpan humor work. When Claire first meets director So, the two are sitting at adjacent tables outside a café. As conversation begins, So asks Claire if he can sit with her at her table. She agrees and he stands up and moves to sit by her. But then the two have nothing more to say to each other, maybe due to language limitations. Claire then goes on to Google him on her phone to find out more about this director who’s sitting beside her. One has to take this as a comedic scene to appreciate the irony.

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Jung Jinyoung and Isabelle Huppert in Claire’s Camera. Photo courtesy of Cinema Guild. 

The film is breezy and leisurely as the Cannes seaside, refreshing as the yellow jacket Claire is wearing; incidentally, her ‘costume’ is the actual wardrobe Huppert had brought when she was attending Cannes at that time. The setting is scenic and pleasant, whether it’s the pounding waves or the small lanes winding along cafes. No, we don’t get to see the red carpet or any of the glamour of the Cannes Film Festival, but we’re led into the side streets of storytelling.

The pitfall for those not familiar with Hong’s eccentric style could be the naturalistic, seemingly unscripted demeanours of his actors and their haphazard dialogues, and in this case especially sound laboured when characters try to interact with each other in a foreign language. And speaking of communication, the usual hard-drinking of his characters—director So here—could well be a language of expression in itself.

As for the camera Claire is always carrying, one would wish Hong could have used that a bit more, cinematically and imbued with deeper meaning. Hers is a Polaroid, so the image appears slowly on a hard copy. But we don’t get to see this effect or be led to any deeper relevance. However, in one notable dialogue towards the end when Manhee finally asks Claire a question that must have been on her mind all along, we finally hear something revealing:

Manhee: Why do you take pictures?

Claire: Because the only way to change things is to look at everything again very slowly.

Manhee: That sounds very nice.

The unfinished part seems to be, “but do we do it?”

Considering Hong Sangsoo’s signature style of repeating his film sequences in a movie like we’re watching it all over again but towards different results, Claire’s words could be more layered than they appear, and the slow appearing of an image on the Polaroid print could well be a mirroring for reflection.

Premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, 2017, Claire’s Camera has since been playing in film festivals all over the world. Cinema Guild will be releasing the film on Blu-Ray and DVD beginning Nov. 6, 2018. For more details click here: http://www.cinemaguild.com/theatrical/clairescamera.html

~ ~ ~ Ripples 

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Related Reviews:

Let Things to Come be a Cooling Respite 

Art Imitates Life in Hong Sang-soo’s ‘On the Beach at Night Alone’

‘The Day After’ is a re-enactment Hong Sang-soo Style

Let ‘Things to Come’ be a Cooling Respite

July’s gone, but we’ll always have Paris.

There are many words I can use to describe the Paris born, veteran (here’s one of them) French actress Isabelle Huppert. Prolific, versatile, and age-defying. In 2016, two of her works came to prominence in the awards circuit, two features that show her in distinctly different roles that won her acclaims across the Atlantic. Playing a vigilant woman who schemingly fight back a rapist in her neighborhood in Elle, Huppert garnered a Best Actress Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination.

Things to Come

The other feature is Things to Come. Huppert is Nathalie Chazeaux, a philosophy professor, a published academic writer and editor, a mother of two almost grown children, a wife, a daughter, and a woman at the crossroads in her life.

On the career and academic front, Nathalie’s just been told by her publisher that her textbook would no longer be needed. On the home front, her husband of 25 years, Heinz (André Macron), has just confessed to her that he’s seeing another woman and will be leaving Nathalie to live with his younger love. Even though on good terms with their parents, her two children have grown enough to move away from home. As a daughter, Nathalie has to deal with a dementia-afflicted mother (Edith Scob) who calls her cell phone even while she’s teaching, delusional and threatening suicide. What is Nathalie to do?

Here, I must mention another crucial figure in the production, and that’s director Mia Hansen-Løve, who won Best Director with this feature at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2016. At eighteen, Hansen-Løve was cast by French director Olivier Assayas and later starred in another of his works. Partnered with him for a while, she’d chosen her own path, studying philosophy, writing for the prestigious French film magazine Cahiers Du Cinema, and later, directing.

Daughter of two philosophy professors, Hansen-Løve’s preoccupation with intellectual discourse is apparent in Things to ComeIn an interview, she’d said, “… for me, cinema is nothing but another way to practice philosophy… cinema is a search for wisdom, a search for good and for beauty, like philosophy could have been a search for my parents.” The intellectual exploration of what’s good and Utopian predominates in Things to Come. The film is worth a second, or third viewing just to capture the dialogues.

While she may be tossed like a floating weed in the torrents of life, Nathalie enjoys the fruit of her labor in her former star pupil Fabien (Roman Kolinka), now a writer and activist. However, as she’d influenced Fabien in his pursuit of philosophy and writing, he’d also chosen his own path by living with a few anarchists in a remote cabin in the French countryside. His outlook diverges from hers and which she can’t agree, ironically, that’s the reward of her teaching: training one to think for oneself and to choose one’s own path independently.

Upon his invitation, Nathalie had spent a few days there, an idyllic ,rural setting for her to recuperate from a life unhinged. She’s got her mother’s cat with her, Pandora, a cat that’s not used to the wild but takes off the instant Nathalie takes her out of the cabin. Lost for hours but Pandora finally finds her way back to the country abode in the middle of the night. ‘Instinct’, Fabien says. And that just might be what Nathalie needs to hang on to at this moment of her life.

Surely, Things to Come is a ‘thinking’ film, but viewers will also enjoy the nuanced performance of the cast, and what the camera reveals in the form of natural beauty and serenity for one to search things out. What more, Hansen-Løve lets us see both the larger scale of a flaw-ridden society and the trivial foibles in the interactions between Nathalie and Heinz.

Female viewers would likely find affiliation with Huppert’s role of an urban, professional woman who has to juggle many hats to fulfill her duties. Nathalie’s search for direction at the crossroads may not necessarily lead to obvious answers, but she manages to find comfort and joy in the birth of her grandchild, an endearing scene to end the film.

More importantly, Nathalie seems to have carved out a quiet solitude. an independence to mull on the unfathomable in life. Still searching, but in the meantime, she seems to have found a respite, a new solace to face what things may come.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples 

 

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‘Cleo from 5 to 7’: A Film for Paris in July

Summertime… and the viewing is nostalgic. On a lazy, hazy summer afternoon, what better way to spend your time than to catch up on classic films that you’d missed through the years, or, rewatch them. Sure, a glass of pink lemonade and some chocolate-dipped madeleines would add to the enjoyment.

Here’s a wonderful film by the venerable Belgium born French director Agnès Varda, who turned 90 on May 30 this year. Just exactly what she was doing a few weeks before her 90th birthday?

On May 12, Varda joined Cate Blanchett in leading 82 female industry figures to walk up the stairs on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, a silent protest symbolizing the challenges women face in climbing the industry ladder. Blanchett gave a speech in English, Varda in French.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) is a 1962 film by Varda, a Cannes Palme d’Or nominee the next year. The story takes place on one single day in the life of a popular recording singer Cleo (as in Cleopatra) who loves everything beautiful looking. But early in the day she receives all sorts of bad omens about her health. Her zest for life fizzles through the day as she would be calling her doctor to find out the result of the medical test she’d taken a couple days ago.

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We follow Cleo on the longest day in 1962, yes, that’s the first day of summer, which could have brought her vitality and joy. How does the fear of illness and mortality affect the beauty-seeking and fun-loving Cleo? It totally changes her outlook. Instead of being cooped up in her apartment with musicians rehearsing her songs, she steps out into the streets of Paris to escape the gloomy sense of despair.

Don’t worry, this is not Sarte or Camus. Cleo is just a gal seeking to be loved, and for the first time in her life, fearing for her own mortality. Varda takes us along the streets of 1962 Paris, and offers us naturalistic scenes of cafes and roadside buskers, and leads us into an art studio as Cleo looks for her friend who works as a model for sculptors.

Finally, she’s alone in a park, the serene, meditative milieu is the ideal setting for her to meet Antoine. The encounter is the magic she needs. The rest you ought to see it for yourself. Varda’s pace is leisurely, her viewpoint insightful, and the ending is satisfying. Maybe by now, Cleo learns the difference between beautiful-looking and beauty.

The original music is soothing and cooling for a summer day, composed by Michel Legrand (who is the piano player in the movie). Legrand is a three times Oscar winning French film composer. Which three times? Yentl (1983), Summer of ’42 (1971), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).

As I said, summer is the best time for nostalgic viewing.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Paris in July is hosted by Tamara of Thyme for Tea, an annual summer blogging event.

Paris in July 18

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‘The Rider’ is Poetry on Screen

“The Rider” opens this weekend in selective cities. If it’s screening in your area, don’t miss it.

The Rider

What is a cowboy to do if he cannot live the cowboy life again? Too remote? Substitute ‘cowboy’ with any other activities you love to do, or a role that defines you. Take that away, and what do you have left?

The film focuses on the struggles of a rodeo star and expert horse trainer Brady Blackburn as he rebuilds his life and identity after a severe head injury. Upon the prognosis of his doctor, Brady should never go back to riding and rodeo again, for another injury would be fatal.

“The Rider” is an American feature, unique in its subject matter while its director is an unlikely candidate to share the insight. Chloé Zhao was born in Beijing, had studied in London, then Massachusetts and New York. “The Rider” is her second feature. In her short directorial career, she has gone to Cannes twice, nominated in 2015 for the Caméra d’Or (“Golden Camera”), Cannes’ award for the best first feature film, and winning The CICAE Art Cinema Award in 2017 with “The Rider”. That is, among other international accolades. Zhao is an exemplar of a global citizen in filmmaking.

Chloé Zhao

The actors for “The Rider” exude authenticity, for they are actual cowboys and their family, all playing themselves. Brady Jandreau takes the role of Brady Blackburn, reflecting his real-life persona, a cowboy who is much admired and respected in the rodeo community. His father Tim and sister Lily form the Blackburn family in the film. Zhao’s directorial skills shine forth as she leads the non-actors in front of the camera, capturing them in their natural speech and actions, in particular, offering viewers realistically the dexterity involved in the wrangling work. But the film goes much deeper than the actions.

Recovering from the near-fatal injury pits Brady into a precarious existence and conflicting relationship with his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau). As a tough cowboy himself, Wayne had all along brought Brady up to be resilient and competitive, but now father had to dissuade son from the risky pursuit of bronco riding and rodeo activities. Nursing a wounded body and a tormented mind, Brady has to deal with the painful task of redefining himself. Temporarily working in a supermarket and wearing a store uniform makes Brady a displaced person, a persona out of meaningful context, both to himself and to those who recognize him as they come into the store.

While there are tense undercurrents with his dad, Brady cherishes the intimate bond with his sister Lily (Lily Jandreau), who expresses herself from her own peculiar, internal world. Kudos to Zhao for casting the real-life brother and sister in the film, they need not be experienced actors to conjure up some genuine, moving scenes.

Much of the film’s effectiveness goes to the inspiring cinematography, exposing quietly Brady’s tormented soul. The opening sequence sets the stage right away with riveting close-ups of a horse and its breathing. As the camera turns from beast to man, we see the extent of the injury Brady sustains as he gets out of bed and follows the routine needed to care for his own body, striving to return to a past life and regain some sense of normalcy.

In other sections of the film, the camera pans the vast landscape of the South Dakotan plains with a tiny figure that is Brady walking or riding through. “The Rider” is visual poetry on a subject that is seldom explored, and cinematographer Joshua James Richards is most effective in transposing Brady’s internal quest lyrically on screen: “A horse’s purpose is to run in the prairies; a cowboy’s is to ride.”

Brady’s good friend Lane Scott (Lane Scott) is a painful reminder of the risks a cowboy takes. Paralyzed and brain damaged after a fall in a rodeo event, Scott now communicates barely by spelling out words one letter at a time signing with his fingers. Poignantly, Zhao depicts Brady’s every visit with Lane in the hospital as an encounter of love and hope without sentimentality.

Zhao is nuanced and eloquent in creating impressionistic scenes. And when horse and man are juxtaposed in such intimacy, the parallel is striking. As Brady puts it, when a horse is badly hurt it has to be put down, that is the humane thing to do; when a cowboy is badly hurt, he has to continue to live, for that is what humans are supposed to do. As we come to the turning point of the film towards the end, the presence of family love and support appear to be the key to moving on.

A rare gem of a film. Watch it with a quiet heart.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Don’t just drive past Three Billboards

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a ‘Coenesque’ feature with Fargo (1996) star Frances McDormand. This might well be one of the better Brit-U.S. collaborations in recent, tumultuous years. And McDormand just might head to another Best Actress Oscar win after Fargo.

Caution: The following discussion involves a minor spoiler. Not so much a spoiler in plot but in idea. I can’t be more obscure in reviewing the film if I’m to delve into meaning.

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In British writer/director Martin McDonagh’s debut feature In Bruges (2008), the main character, a hitman, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), explains to his angry crime boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) why he didn’t kill his young protégé Ray (Colin Farrell) as Harry had ordered, saying: “He has the capacity to change. We all have the capacity to change.”

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is McDonagh’s damatization of this pivotal idea in full force: We all have the capacity to change. Viewers may not like the characters or their speech, but the dark comedy leads us to the point where we’ll find it worthwhile to hold our judgment, no matter how despicable they behave or speak. And that is the main reason for the gratifying ending of Three Billboards: Change. A change from distraught to calmness, from tension to release.

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Indeed, language is the spoken expression, the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath and beyond language is the essence of a character. McDonagh’s script is starkly effective in presenting the different sides of his characters. Not that we should make excuses for their wrongs, but that everyone has a backstory and a present reality to deal with.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has lost her teenage daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) to a most violent, horrific crime, ‘raped while dying’. She is frustrated by the inability of the police to bring in any arrests. The three billboards she pays for outside Ebbing, Missouri advertise to the world her rage, targeting police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). It’s her intention that the publicity they draw could lead to some effective police actions.

McDonagh is apt to instil humour into the sombre subject matter. The dialogues are sharp and the actors deliver. Call it a dramedy if you will, but the spontaneous laughters generated in the theatre are bittersweet, for they are acerbic depiction of racism, injustice, and the grieving rage of the unconsoled.

The three billboards pit Mildred against the town except for her co-worker Denise (Amanda Warren) in the gift shop and an admirer James (Peter Dinklage) in the bar. Her action has put her otherwise devoted son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) in an awkward position in school and inflamed her ex Charlie (John Hawkes), whose 19 year-old girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving) is totally oblivious to what’s going on in town. Dixon (Sam Rockwell) from the police station shows his utter disgust with unchecked impulses.

While the ensemble cast deserves kudos, the pivotal acts fall on three characters. Their superb performance augments the incisive and thoughtful script.

McDonagh wrote the role of Mildred Hayes with Frances McDormand in mind, and she delivers with a punch. Her actions as an angry and helpless mother is stark and brutish, but McDonagh also shows us her vulnerable side, a mother who is regretful of the argument she’d had with her daughter on that fateful day, mournful for a daughter who’d never come home, and embittered by the ineptness on the part of the police. McDormand indwells her role so effectively that she makes me see only the angry Mildred, and totally forget the pregnant, innocent police woman in Fargo.

Sam Rockwell’s dimwitted, racist Dixon stirs up non-stop laughs in the theatre. His ultimate change is the powerful force that makes the latter half of the story so gratifying.  Rockwell’s performance is spot-on. McDonagh wants us to have a last laugh on him too: Dixon’s heart may have melted by some kind, motivating words from chief Willoughby, but his intellect remains intact.

Woody Harrelson plays Chief Willoughby with a heart. He is a tough police chief and yet underneath is a kind man, a loving husband to his wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) and a devoted father to his two young girls. Furthermore, Mildred is not the only one bearing life’s harsh blows. While Mildred reacts with rage, Willoughby deals with repressed fears.

A few kind words can cause immense change. And when one person changes, the ripple effects are contagious. The latter part of the film with its twists and turns slowly reveal how positive changes ripple on. For often underneath the hard surface lies a moldable heart. I particularly appreciate the audacity of McDonagh’s writing. Among the tough and macho, love is noted as the key to hold up oneself as love leads to calmness, and calmness to thoughtful actions.

Tying up the emotional bond is the music, in particular, the Irish folk song “The Last Rose of Summer”. Thomas Moore’s lyrics and the soft yearning of Renée Fleming’s voice sings out the sad tune in Mildred’s heart, a cry for justice and the dispelling of emptiness and loss. In the opening scene, the song introduces us to the three billboards as Mildred drives by and contemplates her vengeful scheme, the song reprises as vengeance engulfs a distraught heart and leads to a violent act. Ironically, that scene becomes a pivotal turnaround for Dixon in the police station.

‘Tis the last rose of summer left blooming alone
All her lovely companions are faded and gone
No flower of her kindred, no rosebud is nigh
To reflect back her blushes and give sigh for sigh

The juxtaposition of a quiet Irish folk tune with a fictional, small American town dealing with the fallouts of a horrific, unsolved crime may sound incompatible, but it’s poignant and effective here.

Old loves are irreplaceable, yet regrets cannot heal deep wounds. Lovely companions may have faded, but new ones can be forged, albeit not the same nature, but there’s  hope for new bonds. The last rose of summer dissolves to the first red leaf of fall. It could still be a beautiful season.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Shape of Water is all Enfolding

In his review of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Roger Ebert described it as a fairy tale for adults. Well Roger, the director of fantastical cinematic imagery has given us another one. Compared to Pan’s Labyrinth, this is a simpler and less horrifying tale. The Shape of Water is a delightful love story with a gratifying, requiting end.

The Shape of Water is set during the Cold War, in 1962 U.S., inside a high security, science research centre. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) oversees a new arrival from the Amazon (South America that is), a monstrous beast, and if he cares to really examine the creature with an appreciative eye, a beautiful Amphibian Man (clandestinely played by Doug Jones). Yes, the reverse of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.

In the research centre is Dr. Holffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has to tend to his covert mission, it is the Cold War after all, but from a scientific point of view, does have an appreciative eye for the creature.

The Shape of Water (1)

At the bottom of the rung are the janitorial staff, Elisa and Zelda, and with them the story comes alive. Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer’s duo performance is worth your movie ticket. They are the heart and soul of the story, something which the villain lacks. As a fairy tale, we can identify who that is right away, and the irony of who the monster is quickly becomes apparent.

Elisa is mute, she cannot speak but can hear what you say, so be careful. She knows a language that you’ll need a translator to understand, so be careful about that too. Thanks to Zelda, her official interpreter, she knows what not to translate as Elisa speaks her mind to ruthless Strickland.

Elisa’s neighbour is Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist who does appreciate the Amphibian Man. He is of immense help to Elisa, a faithful friend to her despite endangering his own life. As a fairy tale, we see the good among the characters in sharp contrast to the villain.

As she cleans the facility, Elisa soon comes to appreciate the Amphibian Man, and the creature soon relates to her as she is, not as a handicapped, low-ranking cleaner. The two forge a bond stronger than any dangerous obstacle. The film moves into the second half as a thriller and leads us to see how love overcomes such obstacles. Love not just between the two obvious characters, but from those built upon friendship and mutual respect. As for the Amphibian Man, he is more powerful than just brute force as the story reaches its climax.

As the Awards Season is well underway, all leading to the finale, the Oscars, we see The Shape of Water gaining tremendous momentum. Among other accolades, it won the AFI Award for Movie of the Year, two Golden Globes: del Toro for Best Director and Alexandre Desplat for Best Original Score, and just received 12 BAFTA nominations. While Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer both get acting noms, they face strong contenders such as Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird).

The Shape of Water is a simple depiction of human longings and our universal need for connection. It’s a fairy tale love story and not a treatise on controversial subjects for debates. It offers some interesing cinematic visualization, like the beginning scene of Elisa’s apartment under water. The underwater romantic rendition towards the end of the movie, coincidentally, elicits another indelible cinematic moment from my memory, an underwater love scene also involving a woman who cannot speak, a film with which Marlee Matlin won her Best Actress Oscar with her heart-wrenching performance, and that’s Children of a Lesser God (1986).

Surely, water, the shape of it, all enfolding, is the main idea, for that’s what love is like.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

 

‘Certain Women’: To Connect on a Vast Landscape

The common denominator is the landscape: Montana. Open country, clear, fresh air. The expanse of space could mean the freedom to roam. As we look into the four female characters, however, the vastness of the landscape and the cold winter could infer separateness and the need for connections. In the internal landscape, an assertion of self.

Director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, 2008) has chosen three short stories by Maile Meloy to form a cinematic triptych. Meloy’s stories are lean and succinct. Correspondingly, Reichardt’s style is minimal as with her previous works. She brings together three loosely linked stories that can stand on their own. To review them in a succinct way, I’ll use three words as my focal point for each.

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Authority

Laura (Laura Dern), a woman lawyer in Livingston has to deal with a disgruntled client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who was injured in his construction job. As he has accepted a settlement, he can have no further claim for tort. Laura has explained this to him time and again, but he refuses to believe her until one day, they drive a few hours to another town to seek a second opinion from a personal injury lawyer, a male. As Fuller listens to the lawyer stating the same reason as Laura has been telling him all along, he just says ‘Okay’ and seems to accept the fact. Laura laments: “If I were a man, I could explain the law and people would listen and say ‘Okay.’ It’ll be so restful.”

A few days later, a hostage-taking incident occurs in the middle of the night, and Laura is called by the police. It’s Fuller taking a security guard hostage at a government office and wants her to go in to read him his file regarding compensation. Laura goes in and calmly diffuses the tense situation. The incident sends Fuller to prison. He seems content when Laura visits him. Laura finds a changed and much calmer Fuller. He appreciates her visit, and just wants an occasional letter from her to keep in touch. Laura does have authority after all, albeit may not be as she has hoped in the professional front. Her influence rests on her considerate demeanor making an impact on a personal and human level. And for this, Fuller learns to appreciate.

Authenticity

A city woman Gina (Michelle Williams) wants to build a country dream house, not to move in but as a weekend home. She has her eyes on a pile of sandstones that belong to long time resident of the land, Albert (Rene Auberjonois). The sandstones hold the history of the area, for they are from the original school house. We see the cracks in Gina’s relationship with her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) as they try to smooth-talk Albert, Gina seemingly caring but assertive in what she wants, while Ryan is apologetic and conciliatory. Why would a city woman want a pile of old sandstones for her country home? For authenticity, Ryan tells Albert. Ouch, is that supposed to be helpful or is he being sarcastic? Further, their daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) seems to be harder to placate as she is dragged along to the country reluctantly. The crevice in the mother-daughter relationship looks to be a tough fissure to fix.

Alienation

The most moving segment comes last. A young lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) has to drive a few hours several nights a week after work from Livingston to Belfry to teach a night course on school law, a prior commitment before she found her present job. At the night class, she encounters a ranch hand, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who drops in out of curiosity. The short moments of sharing as she accompanies Beth to a diner after class for a meal before she drives back home stir up deep longings. Gladstone’s restraint is particularly moving. Nuanced performance from both.

While she may be adroit with horses, it’s a human connection that Jamie yearns for. She comes to every class until one night, the students are told that the class will be taught by another teacher as Beth has quit due to the long drive. Eager to look for her, the ranch hand drives to Livingston to search for a lawyer named Beth Travis. What follows is an aching attempt to reach out towards an unrequited end. The last scene of the same horse-tending routines Jamie gets back to speaks poignantly. Life goes on despite…

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Source materials: Short stories by Maile Meloy “Tome” and “Native Sandstone” from the collection Half In Love, and “Travis, B.” from Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it.