Finishing off my week of films I saw at Wellington’s recent French Film Festival is this recent release, which went swiftly into the cinemas and I think has probably done quite well, presumably based on the lead actor’s profile in Call My Agent! (which is certainly where I know her from). I hadn’t realised Robert Louis Stevenson had been a pioneer of hiking, or had links with this area of France, but that was one of the things I learned from this otherwise rather silly (but fun) movie.
Did Balthazar truly die so that Patrick could take a walk with Laure Calamy in the Cévennes? I was all ready to be snarky and dismissive along those lines, but actually this is quite a sweet and even rather funny film in which Calamy basically reprises her role as Noémie in the TV show Call My Agent! but as the titular Antoinette, lovestruck over a married man and barely holding herself together at times, but finding through her journey an inner resilience (nurtured by a growing bond with Patrick the donkey, etc. etc.). I mean, it should all be unwatchable really, but Calamy (a bit like Jane Krakowski on US TV shows like 30 Rock) has a gift at imbuing what seem like shallow caricatures with an inner humanity. She’s introduced as a teacher changing at the back of her classroom into a spangly dress to lead her kids in a rendition of a thematically very inappropriate and slightly gothy song to a group of parents, while winking at what we all assume is her boyfriend, but turns out to be the (married) parent of one of her children, and when he heads off for a holiday with his family, foolishly decides to secretly stalk him. It’s the pure sociopathic stuff of romcoms, but as ever is negotiated largely through having such a likeable lead. Basically, it shouldn’t really work, but it does.
Director/Writer Caroline Vignal (based on the book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson); Cinematographer Simon Beaufils; Starring Laure Calamy, Benjamin Lavernhe, Olivia Côte; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Tuesday 15 June 2021.
I was uncertain about whether to even go to this film in our local French film festival (I’ve barely engaged with Céline Dion’s music, though I greatly enjoyed Carl Wilson’s 33 1/3 book Let’s Talk about Love), but it turned out to be a highlight. It’s bonkers, let’s be clear, it is a gonzo piece of filmmaking, largely due to the writer/director’s casting of herself, starting with playing Dion in childhood (no younger stand-ins for this biopic). It’s also fictionalised, as I can’t imagine Dion ever giving her blessing to a film about her, certainly not this one, but it feels consistent with Dion’s own persona to be this far out. It’s good fun, though I can easily imagine someone hating it as much as I enjoyed it.
There is something self-indulgent about directing and writing a film about a Canadian pop culture icon and then casting yourself as the lead, but I have to applaud it. The move of then having you, a fully middle-aged woman, playing her as a child as well is the stuff of nightmares, but luckily that section only lasts a short while. Given the (lightly fictionalised) biopic nature of this — Aline Dieu is actually a stand-in for Céline Dion, as is clear from the very opening credits — it has a slightly episodic feel to it, as her life and career is rushed through. Nonetheless, it manages to hit all the requisite emotional crescendos, particularly around her large but supportive family (particularly her doting mother and father), her relationship with her much older manager, and her rather quirky looks — a sort of unkempt gawkiness that the actor/director/writer Valérie Lemercier captures well, without quite looking like the original (but that’s fine; it’s fictionalised after all). I’ve come across Dion in a number of pop cultural contexts, and she always comes across as an appealing personality to me, including in this film, so I really should actually engage with her music at some point in my life. In the meantime, for those of you who don’t really know her songs at all (like me), I can say that the film affected me despite that.
Director Valérie Lemercier; Writers Brigitte Buc and Lemercier; Cinematographer Laurent Dailland; Starring Valérie Lemercier, Sylvain Marcel, Danielle Fichaud; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 20 June 2021.
Moving on in my week of French Film Festival picks from this year is this quirky and odd drama with more than a hint of slapstick comedy about a relationship set against the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in the mid-1970s. It’s as much about the characters as it is about Beirut, I feel, and about the relationship we have to history as those who have been scarred by it.
I feel like a see a lot of very middling dramas in various film festivals, that are competent and about people dealing with stuff but don’t really bring anything particularly new to the screen either formally or in content. This film deals with the past, and it’s really focused on a relationship between two characters — Alba Rohrwacher’s Alice, a Swiss au pair who goes to help out a Lebanese family and for whom the film is named in the original French, and a Lebanese scientist Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), and the life they have in Beirut together. But it’s also sub rosa about the relationship we have to Beirut’s past, largely lost in a destructive Civil War that started in the mid-70s and against the backdrop of which this plays out. The film is inventive in its formal strategies to depict this sense of displacement, but mounting scenes against a green screen with old photos of Beirut used as the backdrop, or just by occluding certain sights that characters are looking at, or by staging factional fighting using a few characters in masks on what looks like a soundstage, all of which imparts a heightened sense of loss of the past and adds a certain extra melancholy element to the film, which is otherwise rather brightly and quirkily set designed. It doesn’t work in every detail, but its distinctively different from most films set in the past, and Rohrwacher is herself always such an interesting screen presence, that I really liked this film.
Director Chloé Mazlo; Writers Yacine Badday and Mazlo; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Alba Rohrwacher, Wajdi Mouawad وجدي معوض; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Saturday 19 June 2021.
Like any town with more than a handful of cinemas (though barely more than a handful), there are a range of smaller film festivals being organised to show films that otherwise wouldn’t make it to a big screen, and such is the way in Wellington, where recently there was a French Film Festival. It showed a handful of classics (like Breathless) but most of the programme was dedicated to recent films, and I saw a few so that’s what I’ll be focusing on this week. I’ll start with the latest film de Anne Fontaine, the Luxembourger who’s not my favourite filmmaker but who does solid work.
This film is called Police in the original, but the title is shown reflected from right to left, and that very much cues you up to what to expect: it’s about the police, sure, but… are they the good guys? The title is a bold move, though, given there’s a Pialat film of the same name, and, look, I’ve been guilty in the past of seeing that Anne Fontaine directorial credit and being a bit dismissive, but I’ve never really hated any of her films I’ve seen (even Adore aka Perfect Mothers), and I appreciate her spin on fairly well-worn tropes, even if ultimately it all ends up feeling just a little… off somehow. Still, she’s assembled a fine cast of big names. Efira! Sy! Another couple of guys, who feel pretty honest to their characters, and she’s telling a story of morality intersecting with one’s work. It goes where it goes, and it doesn’t explain everything for the viewer; certain outcomes are hinted at, but there’s no expectation of change and I’m not sure Fontaine is even trying to redeem these guys, just give some perspective. I’m not suddenly, as a result, going to start loving cops as film subjects, but this feels like solid character work.
Director Anne Fontaine; Writers Claire Barré and Fontaine (based on the novel by Hugo Boris); Cinematographer Yves Angelo; Starring Virginie Efira, Omar Sy, Gregory Gadebois; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Wednesday 16 June 2021.
My main instinct with this film is to hold it back for my Global Cinema series, as I can’t imagine there are a huge number of other Djiboutian films to cover. Still, I like a challenge so hopefully I can find another one to cover when I get to the Ds. In the meantime, this is one of the films I’ve seen in the cinema since I arrived in New Zealand, and I thought broadly favourably about it.
A lot of the drama within this film is somewhat programmatic, in the sense of taking three young women from different walks of life and pushing them together for the sake of narrative expediency. Still, I can’t fault any of the spirited acting from the three leads, and needless to say there aren’t a whole lot of Djiboutian films that I can think of, so it’s just interesting to get an idea of the country. It follows the familiar movements of the coming of age film, as all three study for the college entrance exam, with varying levels of commitment. I also occasionally got the feeling that it didn’t quite know how to resolve some of these storylines, but seeing any of the three smiling was just about the happiest experience, and I can’t blame the filmmaker for wanting the best for her characters.
Director Lula Ali Ismaïl لولا علي إسماعيل; Writers Ismaïl and Alexandra Ramniceanu; Cinematographer Jean-Christophe Beauvallet; Starring Amina Mohamed Ali, Tousmo Mouhoumed Mohamed, Bilan Samir Moubus; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 5 November 2020.
There was a small African Film Festival which took place here in Wellington this past weekend, and which will have a (slightly expanded) programme in Auckland at the end of the month. It was a chance to catch up a few recent films, both documentaries and fiction. This one is the former, and while it has a somewhat academic feel to it, it’s still interesting and enlightening about ongoing social justice issues.
I can’t really fault this documentary, made under the auspices of the University of Michigan (if I deduce correctly from the end credits) and directed by members of the faculty there, in the way that it earnestly tells the story of a few members of the Maasai people, who live in lands in Tanzania and Kenya. Their story, which is a familiar colonial story of dispossession from areas of the greatest natural resources, pushing them into less productive lands and leading to protracted and ongoing fights for their rights to their ancestral lands. Access to education is the film’s particular interest, showing how this has helped a number of Maasai to leadership positions on a global stage (specifically, the United Nations), which has in turn allowed them to promote the importance of education amongst their communities, and how those who have been educated (such as Evelyne, whom we see studying in Northern Arizona) have made a material difference to their own lives and that of their families. There are a number of interviews with each of them over a course of years, with some fairly dry footage of them at the UN, but also in their villages (which in the case of these Maasai are in Tanzania), and it’s certainly interesting to see. I suppose it has a certain didactic feeling, as you might expect from a university-sponsored public education documentary, but it provides some interesting context to indigenous rights in this part of the continent.
Directors Ron Mulvihill and Kelly Askew; Cinematographer Mulvihill; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Sunday 8 November 2020.
The director of Madeline’s Madeline, one of my favourite films of a couple years ago, is back with another film, this time about the horror author Shirley Jackson, with a bravura performance from Elisabeth Moss. Hopefully this means it gets a bit more widespread acclaim, because I think it deserves it, not that it’s always easy to watch, given the mind games going on amongst the protagonists.
Director Josephine Decker has made some of my favourite films of recent years, developing a distinctive, corporeal and impressionistic aesthetic. It feels a little different here, presumably because she’s working with a different cinematographer from her earlier works, and so this feels a little more classical than her erstwhile experiments in trying to get directly inside someone’s head. It’s still stylish in evoking a mid-20th century New England setting, and comes across at times a little like Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and while that film had its psychosexual overtones, Shirley really pushes hard into some dark territory in essaying the relationship between the titular writer and a young woman whom she at first fears her flirtatious and philandering academic husband has his sights set on. Things develop into a four-way entanglement between these two couples, all of which is brought out ultimately by the committed performances of the ever-mercurial Elisabeth Moss as Shirley and Australian actor Odessa Young as her protegee of sorts (plus of course Michael Stuhlbarg, who really makes the most of his beard and his paunch to create a memorable professor).
Director Josephine Decker; Writer Sarah Gubbins (based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell); Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.
My London Film Festival took place entirely online this year (they did put on some actual screenings, but I did not venture to any). This was my first film, an American documentary about the animals in a Turkish city. It was a pleasant enough start to the week of films.
It’s impossible, I suppose, in thinking about this (American) film about the stray canine population of Turkey’s largest city of Istabul, not to think also about the recent documentary Kedi, which deals with felines in the same city. This cleaves closely to the dog point-of-view, the camera rarely making it above knee height on any of the humans, as it follows a number of dogs around the city. Of course, it’s not just about dogs — there’s a fair amount of circumstantial evidence of protests against Erdoğan’s rule, and of the way in which dogs become part of the fabric of urban society. But it also very much rewards the dog lovers amongst the audience.
Director/Cinematographer Elizabeth Lo; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Wednesday 7 October 2020.
The highlight of the archival strand of the London Film Festival was undoubtedly recently rediscovered Iranian film The Chess Game of the Wind, which I saw at the online version of Il Cinema Ritrovato (though I haven’t posted about it here yet). However, there was also this silent programme of Australian director Paulette McDonagh’s surviving feature, alongside a fragment of her earlier Those Who Love (1925).
This surviving Australian silent film, directed by Paulette McDonagh and starring her sister Isabel (as “Marie Lorraine”), has a somewhat hoary old feel to it, given the advances being made in silent (and indeed sound cinema) at the time in other parts of the world. It’s a melodrama of criminals and cheats, but also a romance in which “Marie” falls for the son of an old enemy of her father’s, prompting all kinds of contorted plotting that I didn’t fully keep up with. Still, it’s jaunty good fun and a perfectly solid bit of early filmmaking from a nation not known for its cinema for quite a few decades yet.
Director/Writer Paulette McDonagh; Cinematographer Jack Fletcher; Starring Marie Lorraine [Isabel McDonagh], Arthur Greenaway, John Faulkner; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Monday 12 October 2020.
Another of the MENA film selections, from Iran, a country with a strong film culture and a number of contemporary women filmmakers. I didn’t perhaps love this the most, mainly because it’s a tough watch and quite a wrenching and tragic story, but it has real filmmaking chops.
There is a lot of crying in this film, not least because it takes a trajectory of family tragedy, compounded by illiberal patriarchal restrictions which filter through a number of characters within the film. It’s difficult to always follow the contortions that mother Sara (Sahar Dolatshahi) goes to in order to maintain her status in her husband’s (Pejman Jamshidi) eyes after the tragedy strikes, but you get that they are grounded in a sense of shock or hopelessness. There are no rewards at the end, and even a brief detente seems to lead into further spiralling guilt on the mother’s behalf. However, it’s all shot in elegant widescreen and is put together nicely, enough I think to allow you to follow Sara even in her darker moments.
Director/Writer Farnoosh Samadi فرنوش صمدی; Cinematographer Masoud Salami مسعود سلامی; Starring Sahar Dolatshahi سحر دولتشاهی, Pejman Jamshidi پژمان جمشیدی; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.