Monday, June 30, 2008

Stage Beauty

2004, UK/Germany/USA, directed by Richard Eyre

There's something almost aggressively cinematic about the opening sequences of Stage Beauty, as if director Richard Eyre is absolutely determined to ensure there's no mistaking that his story, about the London theatre world during the Restoration, is taking place in a different medium. There is a succession of overhead shots, quick cuts, zooms, and a swirling handheld camera in the early going so breathlessly put together that they sometimes distract from what is in many ways an intimate character portrait. As the film progresses, those visual tics gradually become less obvious, allowing the story to breathe at both the intimate and political levels.

Eyre uses the Shakespearean idea that all the world's a stage as a means to explore the social world of Charles II and his court, a conceit that works especially well for an era that is constantly playing at appearances and deceptions; in social London - a strikingly small world - it's never entirely clear where the line between seriousness and masquerade is drawn, and gender roles are perhaps the most ambiguous domain of all. Unfortunately, the film isn't always able to celebrate the ambiguity of that world, constricting gender roles into the moulds of both 2004 and film convention, in ways that sometimes seem untrue to the characters.

The lead actors - Billy Crudup as Ned Kynaston, an actor who specializes in female roles, and Claire Danes as Maria, his dresser and an aspiring actress - are both good, and share a real sense of complicity that gives the final sequences some emotional vigour. Crudup has to learn an entire system of emoting for the seventeenth-century stage, demonstrated in moving ways when he realizes his skills are no longer needed, while Danes has to learn, onscreen, to become a skilled actress (a part that's close to the bone, given that Danes herself hasn't always received rave reviews for her acting work). I couldn't help thinking that Eyre had watched her work with Baz Luhrmann in Romeo + Juliet very carefully; he presents Danes's face in very similar ways, even framing one scene with music that recalls the earlier film quite explicitly.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Rois et reine

2004, France, directed by Arnaud Desplechin

I'm writing about Rois et reine so long after actually seeing the film that beyond noting how much I enjoyed Desplechin's intersecting stories, and his wonderful gallery of actors (even if several scenes occasionally have the feel of acting exercises rather than contributions to the film's progress), it seems entirely unfair to stitch together half-remembered ideas.

Instead, I'll admit that I have a terribly hard time being especially critical about any film that features the lovely Emmanuelle Devos, who I met once in Paris many years ago. She was friendly with my French "older sister", also an actress (they studied together), and I spent a happy day in the bicentennial summer of 1989 being shown the sights by Laure and Emmanuelle. The latter wasn't in the least famous at that point - she had a couple of very minor film credits on her CV - but she was already the object of much admiration from a fifteen-year-old Irish boy, who was inspired to make on-the-spot improvements in his French to impress a woman almost ten years his senior.
She was more than likely aware of the fact that I was besotted with her, and was good-sported about it. Back in those pre-Internet days, I had no idea of her growing profile as an actress so it was quite a surprise to see her onscreen three years later in Arnaud Desplechin's first full-length film La Sentinelle, the initial, very public, flowering of her career; the film, somewhat incongruously, projected me back to that sunny Paris day, as we ate sandwiches with our backs against I.M. Pei's Louvre pyramid.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

French comedies stay home

Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (2008, France, Dany Boon)

The French box office is perhaps on the verge of crowning a new all-time champion in terms of seats sold (at least since the beginning of collection of reliable statistical data in the mid-1950s), with the comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis inching closer to the number one spot, held by Titanic since 1998. James Cameron's film replaced another locally-produced comic film, La Grande vadrouille, which had spent over thirty years as the undisputed king of the hill. As of mid-June 2008, Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis has sold about 19.2 million tickets, around 500,000 shy of Titanic's final tally, and while the remake rights have apparently been snapped up by Will Smith's production company I suspect that the original film will barely see the light of day in English-language markets.*

La Grande vadrouille (1966, France, Gérard Oury)

I've always been fascinated by the ways in which continental European film industries produce movies for their domestic markets that often prove wildly popular at home, and occasionally in neighbouring countries, but which remain invisible in the English-speaking world. While I'm sure the same phenomenon exists in other parts of the world, too, I'm not as familiar with the film industries of different Asian countries, for instance. Although Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis was an unexpectedly big hit, most of the biggest domestically-produced hits in the French market over the years have been popular comedies. After Bienvenue and La Grande vadrouille other big French hits include Astérix et Obélix: Mission Cléopatre (2002), Les Visiteurs (1993) and Les Bronzés 3: Amis pour la vie (2006): the first non-comedy local production comes in ninth, and that film, Le Grand bleu (1988), was partly shot in English.

Les Bronzés 3: Amis pour la vie (2006, France, Patrice Leconte)

That's only the top of the pile, too: after that you get dozens of films featuring major domestic stars who remain largely unknown to English-speaking audiences, even those who enjoy arthouse fare (for example, Thierry Lhermitte, Gérard Jugnot, Valérie Lemercier, and Bienvenue's Dany Boon, a comic who made his cinema debut in an entirely different kind of film; when we see these stars in English-speaking countries, it's more often than not for their occasional dramatic work). More familiar actors like Michel Blanc or Daniel Auteuil also got their start in broad comedies that didn't travel well, if at all - Blanc became a huge star with the success of the first two Bronzés films in 1978 and 1979, among other movies, while Daniel Auteuil appeared in films like Les Héros n'ont pas froid aux oreilles (1979) or Les Sous-doués (1980; a high school comedy that spawned a sequel, the title is hard to translate, but essentially it's the "Under-gifted"). As Rémi Fournier Lanzoni wrote, "virtually no critic could have imagined the rest of [Auteuil's] career" from such beginnings. Then there's the entire "first career" of director Patrice Leconte, who was unknown to English-speaking audiences before his ninth feature, Monsieur Hire (1989); Leconte and Michel Blanc had already made six films together with Blanc either as actor or writer before "going serious".

Viens chez moi j'habite chez une copine (1980, France, Patrice Leconte)

It's not like the French are alone, either, in consistently producing locally successful comic fare: the British had their long-lived Carry On series of comedies - which were sometimes calculated to bring American success, an effort that was not rewarded - and Italy is still churning out the seasonal Natale comedies. Smaller European countries have also produced long-lasting series, like the Danish Olsen-banden (Olsen gang) films that began in 1968; they were sometimes simultaneously made in Norwegian, with Sweden later producing its own versions. The Finns, for their part, have Uuno Turhapuro, a dishevelled character with a knack for getting himself in trouble - and talking his way back out. Over a thirty year period, twenty Uuno films appeared - remarkable for a small country with an unusual language that reduced export possibilities (though perhaps the relative novelty of Finnish-language films long before the Kaurismäki brothers entered the business was a factor in the films' domestic success).

Uuno Turhapuro and friends

What's most interesting of all to me is not the success that these films have enjoyed in their domestic markets (many French films did very well in Eastern Europe, too, with viewers from Hungary or Poland having fond memories of stars like Louis de Funès), but rather the almost complete lack of critical attention to these films in the English-speaking world (since the dawn of the video age, it's a lot harder to argue that the films are simply inaccessible). As Dimitris Eleftheriotis has written, "In the discourse of Anglo-US film studies the terms "popular" and "European" seem to be mutually exclusive." I've found that even when academics do take a look at popular European cinema, they tend more often than not to interpret "popular" in the sense of "the popular classes" rather than in the sense of box office popularity. There are plenty of sound aesthetic - and other - reasons that so much has been written about the films of directors like Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard, or Jacques Rivette, to name but three directors whose works are probably something of a minority taste in relative terms, but while popular comedies might not bear the same kind of scrutiny it seems odd, at best, that they remain so critically marginalised.

Coluche and Louis de Funès face off (L'Aile ou la cuisse, 1976, France, Claude Zidi)

Most surveys of French cinema, for instance, barely mention the key directors and, equally important, actors who have made their careers in comic films, while the little analysis that does exist tends to be largely negative in assessing the films' content from an artistic or political perspective. I can't help thinking there's a kind of critical blindspot in operation here: while critics seem keen to analyse films that attempt to depict the popular classes or which purport to speak for those classes, they're less keen to examine the films that - good, bad, or indifferent - are demonstrably watched by the population as a whole. In the process, critics miss the opportunity to examine some of the ways in which people see themselves reflected on the screen, and often fail to recognise that even a well-tooled money-making popular comedy may have its own insights to share. Susan Hayward's comment, in her book French National Cinema, that "apart from a couple of comedies" the Occupation period is rarely much more than a picturesque background in 1980s French film, is pretty typical; the "apart from" seems to contain its own commentary, as if there's little point in examining what such films do (one of the films she mentions, the highly successful Papy fait de la résistance (1983), features a group of actors who got their start in the freewheeling café-théâtres of the post-1968 era, itself a phenomenon worthy of greater attention). Another example of undervalued comedy might be Claude Zidi's 1976 L'Aile ou la cuisse, which has a sustained lament for France's changing food culture - and also marks an important generational shift in terms of comic movie acting, bringing together the older star de Funès and the younger Coluche, in the vanguard of a new kind of comic acting.

Papy fait de la résistance (1983, France, Jean-Marie Poiré)

There may not of -- course -- be anything as significant at work in Dany Boon's big hit; from what I've seen, it looks like a competently and at times very funny film. But it's surely worth looking beyond just the box office figures to at least ask what it is about this particular film -- or La Grande vadrouille or Les Visiteurs and many other films, irrespective of their relative artistic merits -- that has prompted so many of the director's compatriots to open their wallets.
I found all of the following helpful in one way or another (there are no doubt half-remembered insights from other books/articles):

Richard Dyer (ed.), Popular European Cinema (Oxford: Routledge, 1992)
Dimitrios Eleftheriotis, Popular Cinemas of Europe (New York & London: Continuum, 2001)
Rémi Fournier Lanzoni, French Cinema from its Beginnings to the Present (New York & London: Continuum, 2002)
Susan Hayward, French National Cinema (Oxford, Routledge, 2005 - 2nd edition)
Georges Sadoul, Le Cinéma français (1890-1962) (Paris: Flammarion, 1962)
Alan Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1992)Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell have also written about some of these issues a number of times on their blog.

* 2014 update: Titanic remains the all-time champ in France. Plans for a US remake of Bienvenue chez les ch'tis were abandoned in 2012. In 2011-2012, Les Intouchables also surpassed the box office tally of La Grande vadrouille, selling over 19 million tickets.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


2000, US, directed by Davis Guggenheim

Gossip is set in a hyper-art-directed cinematic world that bears no resemblance to any college experience I'm aware of: the film half-heartedly tries to justify the absurdly palatial loft digs occupied by the three protagonists, who come on like The Thin Man's Nick and Nora Charles, drinking cocktails from dawn to dusk, and smoking like it's going out of fashion (which it is). While the movie attempts to tackle big-ticket subjects like date rape in the end it's far too muddled, and far too enamored of its own sub-Hitchcockian red herrings, to make much of a contribution to the debate.

Director Davis Guggenheim is a television veteran - who went on to direct, of all things, the environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth - and here, perhaps trying to impress us with his cinematic chops, he makes liberal use of oddball angles that do little except distract from the confused storyline. He's unable to keep the film grounded in any kind of reality, with even the impoverished member of the central triumvirate apparently able to access high-end artistic materials, while the final outcome is flagged with thudding obviousness. There's the germ of an intelligent idea in here, and with a more credible college setting - with some cheap cans of beer instead of cognac, perhaps - there might even have been room for some intelligent commentary. As it is, the movie simply devolves into real estate porn for the trust fund set, and even the usually wonderful English actress Lena Headey can't save things.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Son of Rambow

2008, UK/France/Germany, directed by Garth Jennings

Set during a long, idyllic English summer, Son of Rambow mischievously captures childhood obsessions with movies and TV, as well as the inventive recreation of onscreen action. It ends up being a kind of love letter to the movies - not the great movies, necessarily, but the ones that prompted you to wear out crappy VHS tapes while watching highlight scenes over and over. At times the film also has the feel of another icon of the 1980s, the cobbled-together mixtape, with individual ideas that aren't always stitched together in convincing fashion: the film reminded me of Hot Fuzz, so it wasn't a huge surprise to discover that director Garth Jennings had a credit on that film (of the "Thanks to" variety).

The film brings two school outcasts together: Lee Carter is a perennial troublemaker and Will Proudfoot is a skinny, shy boy who happens to be a member of a strict religious group that doesn't permit television and other such entertainments. Will, the younger of the pair, proves to be a willing participant in the madcap schemes of his new pal, and while there's a wonderful sequence where he runs through the fields high as a kite on his first exposure to the glory of the movies (in the form of Rambo's initial outing, First Blood), their friendship seems just a shade unlikely, so that when the bond is tested it's hard to feel entirely surprised. Jenning doesn't seem to fully explore the ramifications of Will's background, either: in England, it's an especially unusual upbringing, with something of the feel of an American sect (with a hint of the asceticism of the Scottish community in Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves).

That said, the youthful performances are generally very strong, and often endearing: both leads are excellent, able to carry the film through occasionally sentimental moments, and the French actor Jules Sitruk is hilarious as an exchange student who develops a cult following from the moment he arrives at the boys' school. Even if patches of the film are uneven, Jennings proves generally adept at inhabiting the boys' worldview, full of fantasy as a means of escaping lives that are, for very different reasons, restrictive, while there's a tremendous affection in his half-spoofed, half-serious re-enactments of parts of Rambo - affection both for his characters and for his own early years as a movie fan.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

P.S. I Love You

2007, US, directed by Richard LaGravenese

This was much better than I expected: despite an excess of paddywhackery - most notably in the form of Gerard Butler's over-the-top Irishman-in-New-York, Gerry (he's even referred to as a leprechaun, for goodness' sake), it's a much more successful concoction than a film like Catch and Release, with which it shares some vague thematic similarities, or other recent rom-coms like 27 Dresses (though this film emphasizes the romance more than the comedy for the most part). It also has an excellent soundtrack that actually seems coherent rather than just a mishmash designed to sell CDs.

That said, there aren't too many innovations: the film follows the conventional formula of surrounding the leads with often oddball sidekicks, though here the female support is rather weak (or weakly written: Gina Gershon and Lisa Kudrow are able performers in other gigs). Harry Connick, Jr does, nonetheless, makes the most of a character with dreadful social skills, and grabs many of the best lines. However, Hilary Swank makes the film, giving it some bite in her early scenes with Butler, which have a surprisingly realistic feel, and later performs a nice acting transformation in flashbacks to a much younger version of herself.

The pre-credit sequence is especially well handled, with the two leads capturing the sense of two characters who know each other well and who, for all they share with one another, are also adept at pushing each other's buttons; they even enjoy that process just a little, though we're far from nastier The Break-Up territory here. It's unfortunate that the film isn't capable of returning to that somewhat more inventive territory again: the sequence is also a clever illustration of the couple's domestic routines, which are sketched in almost invisibly during their confrontation.

The film is based on Cecelia Ahern's successful novel (with the money she made, could she not have helped her Da out a bit?), with the original Irish setting changed to give it a transatlantic flavour, and the transformation seems to me to play up Gerry's green roots, making him much more of a cipher than his wife; even where you think he might have more of a chance to establish himself as an independent character, such as in the flashbacks, he remains something of a riddle, and eventually becomes a little grating. I couldn't help wondering, too, why the filmmakers couldn't have found at least one authentic Irishman to play one of the cute males: I know that Butler and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are considered a bit of all right, but surely one of my fellow countrymen could have provided adequate eye candy?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

La Maternelle

1933, France, directed by Jean Benoît-Lévy and Marie Epstein

Essentially forgotten today, the director Marie Epstein had a short career in the 1930s that produced at least one remarkable film, La Maternelle. Career brevity certainly did nothing to harm Jean Vigo's reputation, but Epstein hasn't been treated as kindly by history. It's a shame that her work - frequently in collaboration with Jean Benoît-Lévy - has fallen by the wayside, for this film in particular is long overdue a thorough restoration (in the US, the version that circulated on VHS has subtitles that often obscure large sections of the picture, and which seem to date from the film's original 1935 US cinema release). The film is a visually striking work with imaginative shot choices and a sense of poetic realism that often emulates the work of Vigo and René Clair. (Despite the lack of access to the film, I was pleased to discover that at least some scholars are teaching it, as Chris Cagle's 2008 summer syllabus indicates).

The film is based on a 1904 novel by Léon Frapié, the second winner of the Prix Goncourt, and a popular success that also spawned a 1925 silent film (and another version in 1949). The book is essentially a collection of vignettes with a strong eye for social detail rather than a conventional novel, and Frapié wrote two further collections of "Contes de la maternelle", apparently based largely on his wife's experiences as a teacher, after the first book became a hit. This film version condenses the book, which deals with a large number of different children over a longer time period, focusing instead on a handful of children, in particular Marie Coeuret, who becomes especially attached to the lead character, Rose (played by Madeleine Renaud, in a luminous performance; Renaud's pale face in the darker corners of the slums makes for a striking motif).

There's a strong hint of what would later become Italian neo-realism in the film's unusually clear-eyed portrayal of Paris's more down at heel neighborhoods (the English title for the film was Children of Montmartre but that area is never mentioned; the original book was set at the fringes of Paris and its suburbs, the area once known as La Zone). As in several of Roberto Rossellini's best-known films, the child's perspective on traumatic events is used to great effect: Marie Coeuret, for instance, is only too aware of what is happening around her, despite the obliviousness of her adult guardians; directors Epstein and Lévy relied almost exclusively on children from the Parisian streets, and craft a depiction of working class childhood that's both tender and unsentimentally blunt when required.

The adults in the film, especially in the titular nursery itself, often refer to the children in terms that underline the place's institutional nature, and which even imply the children are more animal than human: that perhaps explains why the youngsters identify so strongly with a rabbit that appears in a pivotal scene, or the mice which scurry through the kitchen. The film only occasionally leaves the confines of the nursery, reinforcing the sense that these children have an exceptionally limited horizon, though when the opportunity presents itself they reveal the capacity for dreams of a wider world.

Epstein and Lévy are assured filmmakers, with several arresting transitions, such as a shot of a child picking through a rubbish bin on the street that dissolves into a shot of the coathooks in the nursery, or the shots of the children's food bowls. On one occasion, the camera travels along the cluttered table to illustrate presence and absence, while another shot fills the foreground with the bowls as the staff talk in the background. Several of the scenes are shot almost wordlessly, the silent tradition still strongly present, such as the marriage proposal that takes place inside a many-windowed room, with several of the film's key characters - often stock types invested with new life - peeking in from different sides and reacting in vividly different ways. A key sequence where one of the young children attempts to destroy what she can't bear to accept is also filmed without words, the directors making imaginative use of multiple exposure.


Marie Epstein died in 1995, and the French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau wrote a notable obituary that appeared in the British newspaper The Independent in June of that year.

It was difficult to find any decent stills from the film online, and I couldn't make them myself; if anyone has a nice shot from the film, it would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Lords of Dogtown

2005, US, directed by Catherine Hardwicke

This chronicle of the birth of surf-influenced skateboard culture, with Stacy Peralta's script loosely based on his own teenage years, frequently has a wistful tone that's reminiscent of Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (coincidentally, Michael Angarano, the actor who plays the younger version of that film's lead character, has a key role here). The Southern Californian setting of this film is more hard-scrabble than that of Crowe's tale, with many of the early skateboard stars from pretty blue-collar backgrounds (added to which the characters - especially Emile Hirsch's Jay - affect a certain street toughness) but ultimately they both deal with the painful confrontation between youthful dreams and the hard sell of capitalism.

The film is very effective as a chronicle of a very specific time and place, and director Catherine Hardwicke captures the male-centric bonding of the surfer/skater crew without forgetting that many of their rougher edges are grounded in youthful cockiness - and the heedless thrill of teenage boys who've suddenly figured out a way to impress girls. Set against the backdrop of Venice, California, the skateboarders' summer does indeed seem endless - one year fades into the next seamlessly, and the characters themselves are absolutely aware of their unique ability to avoid conventional life.

The characters are often painted with a fairly broad brush, particularly in terms of how the central trio deal with the arrival of hangers-on, sponsors, and cash, while the film's episodic structure occasionally means that there are great leaps in terms of narrative progress, but the lead actors are strong enough to use the raw materials to create what are ultimately credibly rounded portraits of young people not quite ready for the compromises inherent in a world controlled by adults.
Skip, played by Heath Ledger, is the main adult presence through the film - mothers and fathers are either absent of distracted by the need to make ends meet - and his attempts to preserve his own youth and idealism, even as he runs a surfer/skateboard business, are poignant but also self-destructive, particularly when he can't compete with the deep pockets of the corporations. It's not hard to see in Skip the older, strung-out version of Sean Penn's Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a stoner who has smoked one joint too many and seen the world pass him by (I'm not sure why the filmmakers felt the need to give Ledger a distracting set of bad teeth, unless the character was inspired by someone with equally strange dental work).

The camerawork is exceptional, drawing the viewer into the skating action to a remarkable degree, following the characters through emptied-out swimming pools during drought-ridden LA summers, or swooping between cars, and at other times capturing the wild, joyful energy of kids willing to brush with the law while in search of a thrilling place to spin their wheels. Hardwicke also pays careful attention to her colour palette, capturing the strange lighting of the nighttime city as well as the intense sunlit days, with the swimming pools burning the screen with vivid blues.


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States