‘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.

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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.

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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.

 

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~ ~ ~ ~ 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

 

‘Gemma Bovery’ to cool your summer day

This film by the French director Anne Fontaine could offer you a couple hours of  cool entertainment in a lazy, hazy summer afternoon.

Gemma Bovery (2014)

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert was published in 1856. There have been no less than half a dozen movie adaptations of this famous piece of literature, dating back as early as 1934 (dir. Jean Renoir). Only in 2014 did a female rendition emerge with Sophie Barthes in the helm and featured Mia Wasikowska as Emma Bovary. It’s a relatively conventional take on Flaubert’s literary classic.

Interestingly, in that same year, another movie version of Madame Bovary also came out. This one is by French director Anne Fontaine (born 1959). Under the helm of the versatile Fontaine, and in the spirit of Emma Bovary, this one looks like it’s a vignette from a parallel universe, defying traditional norms, laced with a deadpan, comical streak, and transported to modern day France.

Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), a long-time academic publisher in Paris, moves back to Normandy to take over his father’s bakery, seeking for a peaceful and balanced life in the quiet region. A literature enthusiast, Martin’s antenna for the literary is sharp and sensitive. When a couple with the names of Charles and Gemma Bovery move into his adjacent house in the country, he quickly stands guard on the affairs of the young woman, as he knows the ending of the novel Madame Bovary by Flaubert. He uses all his male sense and sensibility to avoid a tragedy that could befall his new neighbours.

Director Fontaine’s title gives it away as a parody not to be taken too seriously. Gemma Arterton is a good choice as she appears to be a more convincing Gemma Bovery than Mia Wasikowska’s Emma Bovary. For those watchful for literary adaptations, Arterton was Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008, TV miniseries) playing alongside Eddie Redmayne as Angel Claire. In a more recent year, Their Finest (2016) also saw her mastering her role poignantly.

Gemma is an interior decorator and Charles a furniture refurbisher. Parallel characters as in Flaubert’s novel appear in Gemma’s life after she moves into the Norman countryside, tempting her to fall into a similar track as Madame B.  Except, we don’t see her buying luxurious goods and remodelling her humble abode. Fontaine is bold to let her viewers see what Flaubert was describing with his words, albeit these scenes are short.

So, is Martin successful in avoiding a tragic end to his imagined literary heroine? No spoilers here. In a lazy, hazy summer afternoon, an ending short of crazy would not be worthwhile for a parody.

 

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Do you have a favourite French literature to movie adaptation?

 

Thanks to Tamara for hosting a 6th annual Paris in July event at Thyme for Tea.

PIJ2019 Tamara

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

If the Impressionist painters were to make a movie, what would it be like? A Sunday in the Country (1984) could very well be an exemplar. French director Bertrand Tavernier used the camera as a paintbrush to tell his story, while the cast bring to life the human pathos that are deeper than a painting on the wall could convey. 

A Sunday in the Country - Un Dimanche à la Campagne (1984)

Monsieur Ladmiral is an elderly artist living in an idyllic country house on the outskirt of Paris. The setting is pre-WWI. M. Ladmiral is a widower, his daily routines assisted by a lived-in, indispensable housekeeper called Mercédès (Monique Chaumette). His home is cozy with classic charm, the adjacent studio, inspiring. The camera leads us to see every details of M. Ladmiral’s house and moves fluidly from far to close-in on the artist’s workplace, a quiet haven and a treasure trove of memories and life works. With his colours, Ladmiral attempts to capture traces of youth and life.

M. Ladmiral’s son Gonzague (Michel Aumont) and his wife Marie-Thérèse (Genevieve Mnich), together with their three children, come visit him from Paris every Sunday, but not frequent enough still. His two grandsons, Emile (Thomas Duvall) and Lucien (Quentin Ogler), add lively sparks to his serene environs, while little Mereille (Katia Wostrikoff) is simply adorable.

No matter how much Gonzague tries to give him, grandchildren and his family’s frequent visits, the son knows he’s a disappointment to his father. Deep in M. Ladmiral’s heart, he longs to see his daughter Irène (Sabine Azéma), who seldom visits. Irène is single, exuberant, fearlessly independent and cheerful, or at least, on the surface. She drives an automobile, a new invention. “Look at your sister Irene,” Ladmiral tells Gonzague. “She forges ahead.” Then after a beat, “you don’t.” Nice going, Dad.

The pace of the film is leisurely, taking its time for viewers to hear (or read the subtitle of) every single dialogue, capture every nuance, and observe every item in the mise en scène. Life is too precious to hurry by. As well, we get to appreciate the humour, but often as guise to underlying relational tensions.

Tavernier won Best Director at Cannes Film Festival in 1985 with A Sunday in the Country, as well as the César Award for his adapted screenplay. The film also saw Azéma who plays daughter Irene won the Best Actress César Award and Bruno de Keyzer for Best Cinematography.

The film is an adaptation from the French novel by Pierre Bost entitled “Monsieur Ladmiral va bientôt mourir”, translated in English: “Mr. Ladmiral will die soon”. Have to say, the movie title is much more appealing. One note though, be patient with the 1:40 min. of credits rolling at the beginning with just white words on black background without image. You’re looking into the mind of an old man. While the overall mood is warm and amusing, the undercurrents of  disappointment, mortality, and separation gently flow throughout the film.

On that Sunday as Gonzague and his family are visiting, Irene drops in unannounced in her automobile. Free-spirited Irene is a fresh breeze to the hot countryside, her automobile a progressive symbol for everyone to admire. She charms with her energetic presence and spontaneous delights. But as viewers, we are privy to her psyche and anxiety when she’s alone. Tavernier deals with the past and the present seamlessly, melding them as if showing us memories are natural extension of our present self, so’s our imagination. As she stands by the window looking out to the lawn, we see Irene’s flashback of her mother saying, “When will you stop asking so much of life, Irene?” 

Irene’s visit is short, albeit one that leaves a significant impact on her father. She takes him on a ride in her automobile to a guinguette for a drink and a dance, an episode that’s bound to be indelible in M. Ladmiral’s last memories. Guinguettes were open-air taverns in the outskirts of Paris where people would come on Sundays to have drinks and casual meals, listen to music, and dance. In the style of Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la GaletteTavernier paints a beautiful Impressionist movie moment in this scene:

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During the memorable father-daughter chat at the guinguette, M. Ladmiral talks about his own style, and admits that he’s a traditionalist unable to catch up with the changes other painters have brought about. Unable or unwilling, no matter, he’s at least honest to himself in painting the way he does, he tells Irene. In tearing eyes, daughter looks fondly at her father and asks him to dance with her.

Irene has to leave right after she drives her father home from the guinguette, upon receiving an upsetting telephone call. Later that evening, Gonzague and his family have to catch the late train back to Paris as well. After seeing them off, M. Ladmiral walks back home from the train station alone. For an old man, every goodbye could be the last.

But the final scene appears to turn the tide. M. Ladmiral goes into his studio, takes down the painting he’s been working on, a still-life subject he’s painted numerous times before and in a style he’s been following all his life. He replaces it with a blank canvas on the easel, sits down, and looks at it ponderously. Like his son’s, his life, too, has been a disappointment to himself. What M. Ladmiral is thinking staring into a blank canvas at that moment is up to anyone’s interpretation. What I see is a slight, nuanced smile on his face. Every blank canvas is a fresh start no matter how old you are.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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This film review is a participation of the 6th Paris in July event at
Tamara’s Thyme for Tea. 

PIJ2019 Tamara

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Arles: In Search of Van Gogh

Séraphine and the wrought-iron chair

Inspired by Vermeer

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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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.

 

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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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Séraphine and the Wrought-Iron Chair

By day, she scrubs floors, cleans houses, washes dirty linens in the river. By night, she paints. She is Séraphine, a cleaning woman in her fifties. Later, she is better known as Séraphine de Senlis. 

Séraphine (2008), a film based on the life of the early 20th Century French painter Séraphine Louis (1864-1942), won 7 César Awards in France including Best Film of 2009 and Best Actress for Yolande Moreau as Séraphine. True to its subject matter, director Martin Provost has crafted an aesthetically pleasing work of art. The pace is slow for the viewer to savour every bit. Moreau’s charming portrayal of Séraphine is captivating. She wins my heart from the first scene.

It is gratifying to be noticed, to be confirmed of one’s worth. To the dismissive eye, an ageing cleaning woman is nothing to deserve another glance. Makes me think of the concierge Renée in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. In one of the apartment units which Séraphine cleans, a new tenant just moves in. He is Wilhelm Uhde, a noted art critic and collector of Picasso. He is also the one who has discovered Henri Rousseau of the naive art style, a term referring to untrained talents, a term to which Uhde doesn’t subscribe.

And right there in his rental unit Uhde notices another hidden gem of this style, his own housecleaner Séraphine. Uhdle is deeply moved by her work and soon becomes her patron. He stops her from mopping his floor, leads her out into the garden, seats her down in a wrought-iron chair and tells her she has talent. It is a wrought-iron chair that I notice since that scene, and it recurs later in the film, a metaphor for aesthetics, style and elegance, antidote to the crude reality of Séraphine’s life.

Séraphine loves nature, and nature rewards her with inspiration.

Her subjects are mainly flowers and fruits, their design exquisite, natural, colourful and lively. 

Deep religious fervour soon drives Séraphine to relentless, maddening obsession to paint. She claims to follow voices from her guardian angel. She would sing hymns at the top of her voice while painting through the night, waking up in the morning on the floor with her work-in-progress. She gradually becomes delusional and out of touch with reality.

Why is it that giftedness and mental illness often find affinity for each other? Van Gogh comes to mind. And only recently did I read this Guardian article drawing uncanny similarities between Séraphine and Susan Boyle.

As WWI draws near, the impending conflicts push Uhde out of France and back to Germany. They reunite after the War. Sadly, the painter’s growing achievement brings about more severe delusions. Later the economic depression ends contact between patron and artist for a while.

When Uhde finds Séraphine some years later, she is locked up in an insane asylum. This latter part of the movie is a bit uncomfortable to watch. Uhde is unable to communicate with her as she is restrained in a straight jacket, tied to the bed weeping in anguish.

Months pass and in 1935 Uhde visits her again. He needs to tell Séraphine her paintings are selling. Her condition has stabilized by now but upon doctor’s advice, Uhde should just leave her be. There in the asylum at Asile de Clermont Uhde quietly pays for her a private room with a view out towards a lush green meadow and full, leafy trees.

The ending that follows is one of the best I’ve seen in films. We see Séraphine being led into the room. She sits on her bed, dazed, unfeeling. Then she turns her head and notices the door leading outside to the trees and green meadow. The next three silent minutes bring us to a poignant closing:

Séraphine slowly gets up and opens the door. She sees a wrought-iron chair on the porch. The frame on screen here is roughly split in two. On the left side is her room with a sterile, wooden chair of the asylum. On the right we see the porch outside with the wrought-iron chair, not unlike the one she had sat on while being declared a talent by Uhde years before. She tentatively steps out of her room, touches and examines the chair, then picks it up and slowly carries it with her up a green hill to a full, beautiful tree. From afar, we see her look at the tree, put the chair under its shade, sit down and tilt her head back, fully relaxed.

In the silence with just the wind blowing, it seems we can hear her gratified sigh of relief, being back in nature, coming home.

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CLICK HERE to watch Séraphine’s official trailer on Youtube. You’ll be able to see the ending scene. But of course, nothing compares to watching the film in its entirety.

A NOTE ABOUT MOVIE PHOTOS: These images are used according to the Fair Use guidelines for criticism, comment and educational purposes. CLICK HERE for more information. CLICK HERE to read the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Society For Cinema Studies, “Fair Usage Publication of Film Stills” by Kristin Thompson.

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This movie review is my third post for Paris in July hosted by Karen of BookBath and Tamara of Thyme for Tea. To read my previous posts you can click HERE and HERE.

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The Hedgehog: Movie Review (Le Hérisson, 2009, DVD)

To read my book review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, CLICK HERE.

I’m sure it must be a major challenge to turn Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog into a movie.  I admire director/screenwriter Mona Achache’s courage.  She has taken up a tall order to make her full feature directorial debut.  How do you deal with all the ubiquitous internal dialogues, philosophical ruminations, literary allusions, and turn the story that takes place inside a Paris apartment into a full length film, holding viewers’ attention for 100 minutes?  Overall, Achache has done well on a formidable task… including building the set, the whole luxury apartment façade from scratch, from the workable old-style elevator to the cast iron gate in the front entrance.

But, maybe that’s the easy part.

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In the film, we look at things from 11 years-old Paloma’s point of view, for she is constantly video-taping the people and the happenings both in her own suite and those in her apartment building.  She intends to produce some sort of a visual philosophical treatise, her legacy, as she plans to take her own life on her 12th birthday.  This is a clever alteration, shooting video instead of writing a journal, for the visual effects.   We see a very intelligent girl (Garance le Guillermic), having concluded that life is utterly absurd, decides not to spend her life in a fishbowl as everyone else. With her artistic talents, Paloma has used her drawings as a kind of personal record-keeping; from her point of view, some delightful animations are added to enhance the appeal of the film. Paloma is an interesting and amiable character that ironically brightens up the film with some humorous deadpan takes.

The movie is an abridged and simplified version of the book, that is expected.  But while it has some stylish manoeuvring in presenting the story, I’m disappointed that the crux of the premise has not been focused upon. My major concern then, must turn to the other character.  The main speaker of the book is Madame Michel, Renée, the 54 year-old autodidact, the concierge of the luxury apartment.  Yes, we see her outward appearance following exactly what the book has described:

I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump… I live alone with my cat, a big, lazy tom… neither he nor I make any effort to take part in the social doings of our respective species.  Because I am rarely friendly–though always polite–I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless…

Well, maybe not the ‘ugly’ part.  But yes, we see the Hedgehog alright, but what about its elegance?

Josiane Balasko has put on a meticulous performance as Madame Michel, a bit too much even, for her grumpy persona has hidden all humor the character could have diffused, as the book has rendered.  But other than the faithful characterization on the surface, it is more important that the inner world, the clandestine and ignored persona of Renée be depicted.  What makes the book so appealing is Renée’s inner quest, not only for intellectual ideals (yes we see her reading and her secret library in the film), but her appreciation of art as a form of transcendence, her search for beauty in the mundane, her ability to seize the moment of permanence in the temporal, as Barbery has written: “pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion”.  It is such wisdom that Paloma finally realizes, and which changes her mind about suicide.  This crucial theme is not shown in the movie, and I count that as a major deficit, despite the conscientious effort in following the outward details of the book.

Director Achache, who has also written the screenplay, chooses to replace these gratifying thoughts with the cliché statement of  “It’s what you’re doing the moment you die that’s important.”  Well, ok… maybe she’d like to write a book with that premise, but I’m afraid it might not be the essence of the source material here.

Yes, we still have the new tenant Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), who has wisely looked past the ordinary façade of a socially lower-ranked concierge, and chooses to embark on a romantic journey with his new-found friend.  And yes, we have the chance to see his newly renovated Japanese suite, even his Mozart-playing toilet, as well as an excerpt from the Japanese director Ozu‘s The Munekata Sisters. Achache has followed the particulars faithfully. I wish she had had explored the essence, transporting her viewers from the mundane to a transcendent plane, albeit just momentarily.

I must add though, the music has come through most effectively.  Thanks to Gabriel Yared, whatever that is missing has been displayed musically by the meditative tunes and the longing voice of the cello.  The Oscar winning composer has created such memorable scores for The English Patient (1996), which won him an Oscar, and nominations for Cold Mountain (2003), and The Talented Mr. Rippley (1999).  Here in The Hedgehog, his musical rendering is beauty itself.

The DVD is in French with English subtitles.  Special features include the making of and deleted scenes. Unfortunately, they are all in French with no subtitles.  While watching the luxury apartment building being set up from scratch is interesting,  without subtitles, the comments from the director and actors in the making of featurette cannot be appreciated as they should be.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

I’ve Loved You So Long (2008, France) Il y a longtemps que je t’aime

Update: 

March 3:  The DVD has come out.  For those who don’t like to read subtitles, the DVD has an English Version with Kristin Scott Thomas voicing her own part.  But nothing compares to the original of course. 

Feb. 8  I’ve Loved You So Long has just won the BAFTA for Best Film Not In The English Lanugage tonight in London, England.

Dec. 11:  I’ve Loved You So Long has just been nominated for two Golden Globes, Best Foreign Film and Best Actress (Drama) for Kristin Scott Thomas.

Sisters reuniting is the storyline of several movies recently, as in Margot At The Wedding (2007) and Rachel Getting Married (2008 ).  But both Nicole Kidman and Anne Hathaway are just featherweights compared to Kristin Scott Thomas’s powerful performance here in I’ve Loved You So Long.

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Winner of the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, I’ve Loved You So Long is the  directorial debut of Philippe Claudel, French novelist, screenwriter, and professor of literature at The University of Nancy.  It is unfortunate that festival films like this one are rarely shown in North America, except in major selective cities.  I’ve wanted to see the film for a while, but not until my trip to Vancouver last week did I have the chance to watch it in a theatre.

In the film, the reunion of the sisters comes under the most unusual of circumstances.  Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, 1996) plays Juliette, an older sister who has just been released on parole after 15 years in prison.  She rejoins society to the  embrace of her younger sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein).  Léa was only a young teenager when her much older sister was disowned by their parents.  To them, the crime she had committed was unforgivable.   Léa was told to ostracize Juliette, as the rest of the family did.   Now years later, Léa is teaching literature at a university, and  mature enough to reconnect the tie that binds.   She receives Juliette  into her own home, a warm family with a loving husband, two adopted Vietnamese girls, and her father-in-law Papy Paul (Jean-Claude Arnaud), who has lost his ability to speak after a stroke.  But her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is apprehensive, and understandably so.

Like the viewers, Léa is kept in the dark as to the details of the act Juliette had done , a secret that is painfully borne by Juliette alone.  The slow unfolding of the facts thus sets the stage for the heart-wrenching performance by Scott Thomas.  The film is an exploration into the nature of good and evil, love and forgiveness.  In our society that excels in labeling people, the writer/director leads us to ponder the questions of what constitutes a crime, who are the victims, likewise, who are the strong, the helpers, and who are those that need help?  How can we truly know each other?  And ultimately, what is love?

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I admire that the elegant Oscar nominated actress Scott Thomas was willing to take up a role that would cast her against type, and to work under a first-time director.  Devoid of  make-up, her gaunt and haunted look,  deep set eyes and languid lids, and the high cheek bones that used to speak of beauty in her other films now form the epitome of a soul tormented.  Her icy demeanor reflects a guarded self that is too wounded to risk another blow.  Though released from physical confinement, Juliette is still imprisoned by her own guilt, and has to serve a  life sentence of torments from the ambivalence of her act.  Scott Thomas has poignantly portrayed a believable character and effectively created a tragic heroine.  Juliet is out of prison, has nowhere to go, lost to herself and the world.

Yet love paves the road to redemption, and courage is the building block.  While Léa plays a major part in reaching out to Juliette, her adopted daughters and even the silent Papy Paul have all unknowingly participated  in the healing process. It is his silence and the calming effect of his books that Juliette finds affinity.  In sharing the French children’s song ‘Il y a longtemps que je t’aime’ with Léa’s adopted daughter P’tit Lys (Lise Ségur), she ventures out to reconnect in a meaningful way.

Léa also invites Juliette into her circle of friends, in particular, her colleague Michel (Laurent Grévill).  Michel has spent some time teaching in a prison.  He reaches out to Juliette with his understanding and compassion, and shares with her the enjoyment of art.  Although he does not know the full details of her circumstances, he respects her humanity and offers his friendship, even when Juliette is not ready to receive.  He patiently waits.

Engrossing and intense, the film nonetheless offers a satisfying experience.  Even though I was able to guess the nature of the dark secret underlying the suspense, such that it has lessened the effect of surprise on me at the end, I still find the film thoroughly enjoyable, in particular, the superb acting from both sisters.  For those who associate tears with melodramatic and contrived effects, the film is an apt refutation of such a view.  Tears are most welcome and cathartic as a closure here after almost 90 minutes of elliptical restraint,  for they are  the very expression of reconciliation and redemption.  The climax is one of the most poignant I’ve seen in a long while, and the subsequent ending, a triumph.

I look forward to more of Claudel’s work.  And for Kristin Scott Thomas, I think she deserves no less than an Oscar for her performance.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

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