With the release of her beautiful debut feature Chocolat in 1988, director Claire Denis appeared as a fully-formed, major talent who used stunningly composed wide shots, associative sequences of images, and an offbeat eye for detail to evoke the complex moods of Africa in the last decade of French colonial rule. Based on the director’s own childhood as the daughter of a French administrator in Africa, Chocolat is seen through the eyes of a French district officer’s little girl in a remote part of Cameroon. When a French plane crash-lands nearby, the district officer takes in its passengers, a group of colonial administrators and entrepreneurs who soon bring to light the many tensions underlying the family’s apparently sleepy existence, not least of which is the subtly conveyed but deeply sensual attraction between the mistress of the house and the handsome black houseboy Protée. While the film is as hushed and languid as the plains surrounding the district office, it is full of searing portraits of colonial life, with characters who appear for a single scene but whose memory hovers over the entire film like the implicit promise of the change to come. Shot entirely on location, Chocolat established Claire Denis as one of the least didactic yet most revealing chroniclers of the European presence on the continent, a reputation that would be confirmed by her later films Beau Travail and White Material.
Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau
Isaach de Bankolé
In Army of Shadows (1969), Jean-Pierre Melville, master of the French noir, takes the atmospheric style and cool efficiency of his gangster classics Le Doulos and Le Samouraï and applies them to the French Resistance, following Resistance leader Philippe Gerbier (in a powerfully understated performance by the legendary Lino Ventura) as he escapes from the Gestapo and sets about rebuilding his network. As ever, the director excels at generating tension by quietly drawing out scenes, dwelling on the grim expectation in his characters’ faces rather than their actions and focusing on the moral impact of violence rather than its execution. The film’s distinctive blue-hued photography matches its sorrowful mood: it is as much a film about solitude, silence, and secrecy as about heroism, loyalty, and daring escapes. Here, the knowledge that the characters are loosely based on real Resistance figures makes for a unique blend of horror and excitement. But perhaps the greatest achievement of Army of Shadows is that it transcends its historical setting to provide a definitive portrait of twentieth-century man staring into the metaphysical abyss, only ever one step away from absurdity. As such, it is one of the most striking cinematic illustrations of the French Resistance as Existentialism’s moral litmus test.
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Thirty-five years after playing a bourgeois woman and her thug lover in Maurice Pialat’s classic Loulou, Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu are finally reunited in Guillaume Nicloux’s deeply original Valley of Love. Here, France’s two leading stars play Gérard and Isabelle, a divorced couple of famous actors who meet in Death Valley after receiving a letter from their dead son, a recent suicide, promising that he will reappear in the desert at a specific time and place. While Nicloux, one of French cinema’s masters of the unexpected (his previous feature was The Kidnapping of Michel Houllebecq, with the controversial writer playing himself in a fictional story), fills Valley of Love with discordant visions worthy of David Lynch and wry observations of the inevitable culture clash between French and American guests in a odforsaken motel, the heart of the movie is simply the aura of its two stars and the collective memory they embody. Watching Isabelle Huppert’s marvelously nuanced expressions and Gérard Depardieu’s monumental presence—it is fair to say that he upstages the desert—the viewer is confronted with a wordless meditation on the passage of time and the extent to which moviegoers’ lives are enmeshed with those of the people on the screen. Drawing not only on its own gripping story but on the history in its actors’ faces, Valley of Love reaches an emotional fever pitch in the heart of the desert.
David H. Pickering (translation)
Belgium, France, 2015
With My Golden Days, Arnaud Desplechin reinterprets the couple at the heart of My Sex Life, the 1996 feature that established him early and definitively as one of the reigning auteurs of our era. A prequel, a sequel, and an utterly satisfying work in its own right, My Golden Days is told in flashback by the great Mathieu Amalric, who returns to the role of Paul Dedalus to recount three defining phases of his youth: a prepubescent escape from home to go live with a lesbian great-aunt, a school trip to the Soviet Union during which he sneaks off to give his passport to a dissident, and the passionate up-and-down relationship with Esther that will see him through his years as an anthropology student in Paris. As ever with Desplechin, the narrative has the discursive depth of a modernist novel and the emotional immediacy of a Technicolor film. One of the film’s chief pleasures is seeing Desplechin extend his study of family bonds and romantic partnerships to teenagers for the first time, ushering a wildly talented new group of actors onto the screen. Quentin Dolmaire is as eccentric as his predecessor Amalric, but brings a touching earthy quality to the teenage Paul Dedalus. As for newcomer Lou Roy-Lecollinet, she turns Esther into one of the great mystery women of cinema, holding the camera’s gaze with an entrancing blend of vulnerability and self-possession.
SYNOPSIS La Sapienza is the magnificent culmination of the work of one of today’s most idiosyncratic, fascinating directors, the American-born but profoundly French Eugène Green. In La Sapienza, Green, an expert in baroque theater, sends a tired middle-aged French couple on a pilgrimage to the baroque marvels of the Swiss canton of Ticino. Here, the architect and his wife befriend a young brother and sister and take them under their wing. The architect invites the young man to Rome to discover his predecessor Borromini’s masterpiece: the Church of St. Yves at La Sapienza. By contrasting the elevating beauty of the baroque with grisly contemporary architecture and finding echoes of global conflict in the most placid corners of Switzerland, Green paints a dispiriting picture of the modern world. Yet his treatment of the brother and sister Goffredo and Lavinia clearly signal that he has every hope for the next generation. In La Sapienza, the past is a source of inspiration, the present is dismaying, and the future is wide open. As luminously spiritual as it can be scathingly funny about contemporary mores, La Sapienza is lucid about our challenges but deliriously ecstatic about the possibility for beauty and love.
Christelle Prot Landman
France, Italy, 2014
PRICE RANGE From $350 for Blu-Ray and DVD
From $400 for DCP
Depending on the size of the venue
With this lushly executed, unorthodox biopic of superstar couturier Yves Saint Laurent, French director Bertrand Bonello has established himself as one of the leading auteurs of our time. Focusing on the “dark years” from 1967 to 1976, when Saint Laurent was at the peak of his powers but growing increasingly isolated through his manic work habits and equally obsessive hedonistic pursuits, becoming estranged from his lover and business manager Pierre Bergé due to a drug-fuelled affair with a notorious Paris dandy, Bonello creates an impressively layered portrait that never succumbs to the reductive formulas often found in film treatments of creative geniuses. Part of the secret lies in the way that Bonello remains allusive with his elusive subject, accumulating fragments rather than pursuing plot points. Indeed, some of the film’s most memorable episodes, such as Saint Laurent teaching an insecure client to see herself in a new light or encountering his legendary muse Betty Cattroux in a sumptuous, wordless Paris nightclub scene, feel like routine moments—which only happen to belong to the routine of an extraordinary being. Bonello’s strength lies not only in revealing the nuances of a legendarily remote character, but in capturing the electricity of his subject’s milieu with astute blue chip casting, moody scoring, and sensual camera movement. The ambition here is nothing short of operatic; it is no coincidence or hyperbole if one leaves the theater thinking of Visconti or The Godfather trilogy.
Combine David Lynch’s head-scratching wildness and Charlie Kaufman’s hilarious worst-case scenarios, throw in a pinch of Luis Buñuel’s wicked irreverence and a streak of cruel French humor, and you won’t quite have Quentin Dupieux’s Reality, but you’ll be a little closer to understanding how far outside convention this delightfully fearless, mind-bending comedy dwells. In Reality, a French filmmaker in California finds a movie-house that is already screening the film he is in the process of writing, a little girl tries to watch a big blue videotape she found inside a hog’s stomach, and a cooking show host endangers his livelihood by constantly scratching at a full-body rash that no one else can see. By making his characters intersect in the realm of the impossible, Dupieux masterfully collapses the distance between dream and reality and returns to film’s primal role in the collective unconscious. Working in a sui generis genre that can both stand up to psychoanalytic exegesis and provide riotous late-night viewing, Dupieux has established himself as one of the last mad scientists of French cinema. While he is currently seen as little more than a cult outsider, it is only a matter of time before he is recognized as one of the great originals of our age.
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SYNOPSIS May Allah Bless France! is the invigorating first feature by acclaimed French
rapper and novelist Abd Al Malik, a coming-of-age story and redemption
tale based on the writer-director’s own youth in the beleaguered projects
of Strasbourg. The film follows the struggles of Régis, a budding rapper
who relies on petty crime to fund his passion for music. But as his fellow
musicians get lured into drug dealing, teenage Régis finds salvation in the
classics of French literature and his conversion to Sufi Islam. While Abd Al
Malik’s edifying hymn to education and tolerance is first and foremost a boldly
idealistic statement, it is also a profoundly satisfying cinematic experience,
shot in high-contrast black and white and full of powerful stylistic devices
that break with convention to heighten the impact of everyday violence and
injustice. Fluidly adapting his talents as a storyteller to the screen, Abd Al
Malik revisits the “banlieue film”—the sub genre of films dealing with restless
youth in France’s tough suburbs, launched by Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine
in 1995—not only to give an insider’s update, but to break with the genre’s
suffocating pessimism. In these challenging times for France, and particularly
for French Muslims, this intelligent and accessible call for a potential way
forward is nothing short of essential viewing.
Abd Al Malik
Abd Al Malik
French, Arabic, Lingala
SYNOPSIS Phantom Boy is the second animated feature from Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, the team behind the Oscar-nominated smash A Cat in Paris. With Phantom Boy, Gagnol and Felicioli bring their charming style of handdrawn animation and whimsical narrative to New York to tell the story of the unlikely alliance between wheelchair-bound police officer Lieutenant Tanguy and Leo, a seriously ill eleven year-old. Thanks to Leo’s ability to send a ghost-like projection of himself flying through the city and some legwork from daredevil reporter Mary Delauney (voiced by Audrey Tautou), the duo are able to save New York from a disfigured maniac without ever leaving their hospital rooms. While Phantom Boy has enough action to appeal to the most hyperactive child, its serious core about childhood illness and its amusing play with the codes of the thriller and superhero genres, not to mention its winks at great local films and series such as Manhattan and The Sopranos, make for a sophisticated viewing experience. With drawings that literally pulse with life and a foreigner’s glee at depicting New York (the dialogue is in French), the film’s greatest assets are a tender blend of poetry and comedy and an idiosyncratic look in which the human touch is always apparent.
Some have called Mustang the “Turkish Virgin Suicides.” While Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s extraordinary debut has striking thematic similarities to Sofia Coppola’s film, its spirit of revolt is all its own. Ergüven goes beyond evoking the mystery and marvels of the world of adolescent girls to decry the denial of women’s rights the world over. Mustang begins at the point when the childhoods of five orphaned sisters in the Turkish countryside come to an abrupt end: when their grandmother and uncle learn they have been seen splashing around in the sea with boys, they lock them up inside the house. From there, things only get worse: medical virginity checks, arranged marriages, suicide… But the film holds our interest and carries our hope through the unrelenting rebellion of the youngest sister, Lale, who will not accept to be deprived of attending her favorite soccer team’s game, just as she will not stand to watch yet another sister be forced into a stranger’s arms. Lale’s long-planned escape from oppression and the sisters’ unbreakable bonds and explosive liveliness in the face of a repressive society are the giddy counterbalances to a sobering account of a state of affairs that holds true for millions of young women. As such, Mustang, a French co-production and nominee for the 2015 Academy Award for best foreign film, is not only a profoundly enjoyable viewing experience, but an essential one.