Newcomer director Alice Winocour drafts an erotically charged and socially complex telling of a controversial 19th century neurologist and his nubile patient. Set in 1885 France, the film eloquently questions feminist independence in a male-dominated medical system operating under repressive mores.
Based on a true story, the film opens with kitchen servant Augustine (tempestuously played by French pop star Soko) suffering an unexplained seizure in the presence of her employers and their houseguests during a dinner. The strange convulsion leaves her unable to open her left eye. Once placed in the prison-like environment of Paris’s Salpetriere psychiatric hospital, Augustine vies with other patients for the attention of Dr. Charcot (Vincent Lindon), whose charismatic bearing promises to cure Augustine.
Dr. Charcot employs hypnotism to treat Augustine, but her symptoms shift during another seizure. Her eye opens but she becomes partially paralyzed in one arm. The filmmaker leaves the film’s themes up for interpretation. One analysis suggests that Augustine reaches a subconsciously influenced psychological crisis regarding her initiation to womanhood through sexual experience. One thing is certain: “Augustine” is a confidently composed film certain to provoke much discussion for those audiences fortunate enough to experience its brilliance.
Not Rated. 102 mins. (B+) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
In the House
François Ozon’s slow-burn comic thriller is a sensitive observation of a global race-to-the-bottom that is devaluing culture in all of its varied forms. Set in France, Germain (wonderfully played by Fabrice Luchini) teaches literature and writing to an ever dumber group of students at a private school where uniforms insure conformity. Germain’s waning enthusiasm for teaching is lifted when Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a promising new student, delivers the first installment in a serial essay about his experiences gaining access inside the bourgeoisie home of his classmate Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto).
Outlier Claude is obsessed with getting “in the house” of a “perfect family.” He’s been working on executing his plan for more than a year. Claude tutors the sports-loving Rapha in math in exchange for entrée into the Artole household. Ozon makes Claude’s curiosity palpable. We too, are led to desire the physical and incalculable emotional properties hiding behind the home’s closed doors. We become polarized on Claude’s behalf via a combination of Ernst Umhaure’s mannered performance and Ozon’s fetishized portrayal of an idealized middle class existence.
Germain is so enthralled with Calude’s abundant wealth of cataloged details and sexually charged subtext that that he can barely contain himself from influencing the interloper’s actions. In fact, he can’t. He gives Claude overheated technical criticisms about his essays, along with personal copies of his favorite novels, to camouflage his manipulation of his student’s exploits. The inspired professor can’t resist goading Claude to create more conflict in the interest of improving his essays. Germain goes so far as to commit a misdeed involving obtaining the answers to an upcoming math test that might insure Claude’s access into the Artole household. At home, Germain shares Claude’s stories with his art-dealer wife Jeanne (Kristen Scott Thomas).
Ozon’s tightly woven narrative flips neatly between recreations of Claude’s essays and the forward-moving action of the story. Dramatic lines are blurred.
Emmanuelle Seigner’s “middle-class” housewife Esther is Claude’s object of desire. Her provocative “scent” and magazine-lifestyle intoxicates Claude, and de facto Germain who experiences Claude’s activities vicariously.
Ultimately, a question regarding who is teaching who takes on increasing significance in Ozon’s movie, loosely based on Juan Mayorga’s stage play “The Boy in the Last Row.” Issues of class, social responsibility, and human nature’s insatiable appetite for scandal roil through “In the House” with an appropriately ironic tone. The audience is complicit in egging on unreliable characters whose destructive deeds must surly catch up with them. As with François Ozon’s other films (witness “See the Sea,” “Swimming Pool,” “Hideaway”), “In the House” is a slippery genre-blended concoction full of suspense and social commentary that invites its audience to interact with it. Such unique delight is a treat for any filmgoer.
Rated R. 105 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Holy Motors — THE NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2012
Leos Carax’s long overdue return to feature filmmaking — after such dark delights as “The Lovers on the Bridge” (1991) and “Pola X” (1999) — is a self-reflective avant-garde examination of external and internal influences. Writ large is Carax’s identification of global surveillance technology that has turned citizens into performers acting out their daily realities on an imaginary grand stage. As atoms react differently when observed through a microscope, people act contrarily with the knowledge that their every action is being recorded.
Carax’s returning muse Denis Lavant (“The Lovers on the Bridge”) puts his chameleon acting skills to broad use as Monsieur Oscar, a bizarre public performance artist employed by an unseen organization to carry out various disguised missions in and around Paris. Lavant’s delightfully changeable character is transported about in a stretch limousine/dressing room from which his chauffeur Celine (Edith Scob) delivers him to each new location. Over the course of the film’s single day timeframe, Monsieur Oscar has nine “appointments” of distinctively different formulations.
Monsieur Oscar morphs into a hunched-over gypsy beggar before showing up as a green-screen ninja for a film production. He eventually turns into a reptilian sex god making love with his ideal mate. Freaky.
As the story shifts through its visually and thematically challenging episodes, Carax’s stream-of-consciousness narrative circles back to personal allusions to his former films. The Pont-Neuf Bridge plays a significant aspect beneath the now-decrepit La Samaritaine department store where Monsieur Oscar has an impromptu meet-up with a former lover who breaks into song before making a dramatic exit.
“Holy Motors” is a cinema lover's movie. Those familiar with Leos Carax’s films will identify the otherwise obscure references he makes to his past work, and to his current state of mind as an artist of the cinema. Challenging yes, but worth every minute.
Not Rated. 116 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Amour — New York Film Festival 2012
Michael Haneke’s elegiac exploration of an elderly couple’s final days together transcends all definition of the romantic ideal. The film’s cumulative dramatic effect achieves a depth of emotional reward rarely attempted and far less frequently realized in cinema. The mercurial Austrian auteur has matured considerably as a filmmaker since the days of the confrontationally effective approach that informed such devastating films as “Benny’s Video” and “Funny Games.” His piercing commitment to dissecting social values is nonetheless as sharp as ever.
Gendarmes break down the doors of an apartment to discover a woman’s corpse resting in her bed. The conditions of her death provide the story with its plaintive narrative hook. Retired music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) rarely leave the comfort of their spacious Parisian apartment. An exception comes when they attend a performance of one of Anne’s successful students, Alexandre, a classical concert pianist. Shortly thereafter Anne suffers a stroke that leaves Georges as her primary caregiver. A second attack leaves Anne barely able to communicate with her long-adoring husband.
The story’s central heartbreak emanates from the exquisite performances of two of France’s best-loved actors. The tenderness and fire in Trintignant’s and Riva’s portrayals occurs with a quietly operatic significance. The brutality of nature is a mutual enemy that the characters struggle to command. A pigeon that flies into the apartment through a courtyard window is a tragic metaphor that informs Georges’s sense of personal justice. “Amour” is an incredibly intimate movie that provides a priceless definition of romantic commitment and loyalty. Counter-intuitively, it could well be the most appropriate date-movie young lovers could ever hope for to inaugurate a lasting relationship.
Rated PG-13. 127 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Jarring tonal shifts come at regular intervals in writer-director Christophe Honoré’s epic romantic musical drama about the life-paths of a French mother and her daughter. What starts out as a perky musical, slides downward into a morass of misplaced romantic desires over the course of four decades.
In 1964 Paris, Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier) works as a shop girl in shoe boutique from which she steals a pair that have the effect of making her appear a prostitute to local men. Madeleine goes with the flow, taking Johns up to her apartment for brief assignations. She thinks of herself as a “part-timer.” A Czech doctor named Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic) appreciates Madeleine enough to take her to back to Prague with him.
Madeleine has a habit of breaking out in song on city streets. For a moment it seems like the filmmaker is taking his audience on a musical fantasy a la “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” No such luck. The film all but abandons its musical aspect for long stretches of time. Having a daughter together doesn’t prevent Jaromil from cheating on Madeleine with impunity. The 1968 Russian invasion of Warsaw provides added impetus for Madeleine to return to Paris with her daughter Vera, where she soon marries another man.
The sprawling narrative comes into focus through the eyes of Chiara Mastroianni’s adult version of Vera. The legacy of her mother’s promiscuity haunts Vera to London where her flagging relationship with a fellow teacher (Louis Garrel) gives way to doomed affair with a gay American drummer (awkwardly played by Paul Schneider).
“Beloved” attempts to classify catastrophic social changes brought on by the AIDS epidemic. 9/11 is presented as a final straw that removes any possibility for lives to be lived as fully as they once were. While the film’s energetic performances — especially Catherine Deneuve’s portrayal of the aged Madeleine — have a grounding effect, “Beloved” clashes with itself on too many artistic and narrative levels. The viewer can’t help feeling abandoned by the filmmaker’s refusal to follow cinematic logic. Christophe Honoré tries to work on a stylistic canvas that is too big for his talents. You can see him reaching for a Robert Altman-inspired level of cinematic storytelling that he simply is not able to execute.
Not Rated. 145 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Rust and Bone
A tour de force by any standard, Jacques Audiard’s convention-breaking romantic drama is one more example of how French filmic storytelling rises above the fray of Hollywood’s forced efforts. Co-writer-director Audiard (notable for his unforgettable 2009 film “A Prophet”), meticulously examines a complex love story between Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a single father who boxes in an underground circuit in Cannes, and Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer at a waterpark park who loses her legs in a freak accident involving one of the giant creatures. Matthias Schoenaerts (fresh off his vibrant performance in “Bullhead”) makes for an empathetic anti-hero in spite of, and due to, his character’s honest but guarded nature. The film’s thought-provoking title evokes the strange compatibility linking Alain and Stephanie, two unlikely lovers who develop a unique romantic bond. The consistently persuasive Marion Cotillard plays her character’s layers of vulnerability, lust, and emotional need with a humble conviction that is nothing short of astonishing.
Based on a novel by Craig Davidson, “Rust and Bone” is an in-depth character study that never telegraphs its motivations. The provocative sexual component of the couple’s relationship helps the drama earn its stripes. Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (d.p. on “The Next Three Days’) uses documentary techniques to keep the compositions fresh. Likewise, Juliette Welfling’s editing never misses a beat. Look for “Rust and Bone” to be a contender for a foreign entry at the Oscars.
Rated R. 115 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Well-Digger’s Daughter
Daniel Auteuil’s long and storied career as one of France’s most engaging leading men has guided him to direct his first film at the age of 62. The actor of such classic films as “Jean de Florette” chooses for his filmmaking debut, a reworking of writer/director Marcel Pagnol’s 1940 film. Coincidence lies in the fact that Pagnol was the author of “Jean de Florette,” which gave Auteuil his breakthrough role.
For the film, Auteuil condenses the source material considerably, while retaining the story’s fraught romanticism of a love affair that strikes up on the dawn of World War I. Old world French traditions are at the heart of the story. Not a line of dialogue or physical gesture is wasted. The director plays Pascal Amoretti, a skilled but poor well-digger living in the South of France. Since the death of his wife Pascal has sent for his budding teenaged daughter Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) to help raise his other daughters. Pascal has had many children — all girls. His pride for Patricia overflows. On her daily chore to bring her father lunch at his rural job-site, Patricia meets Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle) the pilot son to the wealthy owners of the village’s hardware stores. A fleeting moment of opportunity brings the lovers together before Jacques is called up to serve in the fight against the Germans.
No amount of pride in his daughter can ease Pascal’s humiliation when Jacques’s parents refuse to acknowledge their missing son’s responsibility to Patricia’s pregnancy. Auteuil navigates any possible melodramatic pitfalls with a deeply seeded understanding of the stoic French traditions the story expresses. Nicolas Duvauchelle handles his problematic role with deceptive ease.
“The Well-Digger’s Daughter” transports the viewer to the smells, rhythms, and social constraints of a France that no longer exists. Daniel Auteuil performs his roles as screenwriter, director, and actor with all of the intelligence and grace you would expect from such a gifted actor. May he direct many more films as satisfying as this one.
Not Rated. 105 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Farewell, My Queen
Marie Antoinette takes on the façade of lesbian-rebel-savant in Benoit Jacquot’s nuanced cinematic rendition of Chantal Thomas’s novel. The graceful period drama occurs during Marie Antoinette’s waning days at Versailles (July 14 to 17, 1789) when the French Revolution was just gearing up. The opulent halls and grounds of the majestic Palace of Versailles make for an intrinsically cinematic staging. Inside the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) takes notice of her “personal reader” Sidonie Laborde’s ample cleavage when the young woman comes to read to the Queen as she lay on her daybed. The microcosm scene manifests the emotional weight of the story. The bare-footed Queen Antoinette takes notice of the mosquito bites Sidonie (Lea Sidonie) scratches, and calls for her ever-near assistant to tend to them. Such improper intimacy between a Queen and her reader are unheard of, and so excite Sidonie’s imagination — the audience’s imagination — however exaggerated that expectation might be.
Diane Kruger’s Marie Antoinette is a fickle, possibly bi-polar, creation. Her material and sensual obsessions turn coldly, if not judiciously, practical after the storming of the Bastille when she realizes she must escape from Versailles. Sidonie’s consequent epiphany about the Queen’s Sapphic relationship with the Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen) only fuels her daydreams more about what might be possible for her relationship with the Queen. Sidonie is so blinded by her own tempestuous desire that she fails to complete a vital assignment given her by the Queen.
“Farewell, My Queen” shares a kinship with “My Week With Marilyn” in that both films capture the all-enthralling sensual attraction of a lower class member of society to an impossibly looming cultural figure. While the connection between Marie Antoinette and her hopeful assistant advances nowhere near the intimacy that occurs in “My Week With Marilyn,” the movie embodies a carnal paradox elevated by social crisis. The ensemble performances are solid, as is the film’s terrific production and costume design.
Rated R. 100 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
André Téchiné taints his otherwise stellar filmmaking career with this abbreviated romantic drama in which nothing holds together. Taking a novelistic approach to events and structure, the writer-director simultaneously overreaches and under-executes. The novels of Philippe Dijian are the touchstone Téchiné uses to build this flawed effort. In a story that hopscotches across time like a misshapen stone skipping across choppy waters, Andre Dussolier plays French author Francis. In Venice, Francis searches for an abode where he will write his next book. Real estate agent Judith (Carole Bouquet) captures Francis’s romantic attention in her locally famous web of seduction, which is equally directed toward both sexes. Jump to 18 months later. The couple is now married and living on Sant'Erasmo Island. Francis hasn’t written a word, and seemingly has no intention of doing so. Drama builds when Francis’s adult daughter Alice (Melanie Thierry) goes missing after abandoning her wealthy husband and child in favor of a young local mobster. Francis is compelled to draw Judith’s former lesbian lover Anna Maria out of retirement as a private detective in order to track down Alice. While he’s at it, Francis hires Anna Maria’s ex-convict son Jeremie (Mauro Conte) to follow Judith around from morning to night. It seems Francis is worried that Judith is having an affair. “Unforgivable” feels like a month’s worth of soap opera episodes edited down to a two-hour movie. The characters hardly interact. Incidental episodes come out of nowhere—as when Jeremie throws a gay lurker into the canal after the man follows him down a dark ally. The film refuses to sustain a constant tone. You can’t really call it a melodrama or a thriller or a romantic anything. “Unforgivable” lives up to its title inasmuch as it presents an indefensible excuse for a movie.
Not Rated. 111 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Writing and directing duo Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano tick all the necessary cliché boxes in adapting this true story of a wealthy quadriplegic who hires a lower class assistant in order to enrich his life. The filmmakers cheat the original story by changing the nationality of the personal aide from Arab to a Senegalese-born Frenchman. While questionable in their motives for doing so, the choice allows for a winning performance from Omar Sy (“Micmacs”) as Driss, a family man who temporarily leaves behind the gloom of Paris housing projects to soak up the good life while helping his charge Philippe (Francois Cluzet) find joy in his radically abbreviated existence. The movie shines via the tender friendship that develops between Driss and Philippe. Having lost use of his body below the neck in a hang-gliding accident, Philippe relies on his staff to exercise his muscles, if not his mind and imagination. He’s not looking for empathy, but rather the brand of tough love that a smalltime ex-con such as Driss can effortlessly supply. While some audiences will find fault with the film for its racial stereotyping, “The Intouchables” is a well-crafted comedy built on humanitarian values.
Rated R. 112 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
French auteur Maiwenn’s provocative slice-of-life examination of a Parisian Child Protection unit is haphazard to a fault. Attempts to capture an authentic quotidian view of police agents whose personal lives frequently fall prey to the demands of their job flip between a cavalier sensibility to a kneejerk tendency to mock and humiliate suspected offenders during interrogations. A couple of such interrogation scenes slip into exploitation territory because they are presented without adequate context. The cases are viewed from a fly-on-the-wall perspective before being abandoned completely. The effect is a distancing one. To the film’s credit, the audience becomes well acquainted with the unit’s many members, which includes its share of adulterers. “Polisse” is an energetic but overreaching film that plants its surprise climax as kind of un-foreshadowed bomb. The gimmick doesn’t do the audience, or the material, justice.
Not Rated. 128 mins. (C-) (two Stars - out of five/no halves)
"The Conquest" is true anomaly in cinema. Director Xavier Durringer's solely-devoted character study of Nicolas Sarkozy, during his rise to the seat of France's President, makes up for what it lacks in narrative structure with flabbergasting set pieces that reveal a wildly ambitious, irrationally irreverent, and appropriately cold blooded political animal. Denis Podalydès gives a high-wire performance as Nicolas Sarkozy that is mesmerizing to behold. Not only is his body type and stature equal to Sarkozy, but Podalydès enacts every identical gesture and behavioral tic with total empathy.
Designed as a crash course in the landscape of modern French politics, the film builds on dialogue-heavy scenes anchored in their intrinsic theatricality. Durringer, and co-writer-historian Patrick Rotman, make Sarkozy's dependent-but-tenuous relationship with his work-partner wife Cecilla (Florence Pernel) the narrative hub from which all action follows. Florence Pernel more than exemplifies the de facto protagonist role of the offended wife who loses all emotional connection, if not a last ounce of respect, for the husband she helped guide to his place as the leader of France. Clearly, in the context of the story, Nicolas Sarkozy is the film's counter-intuitive antagonist.
Bernard Le Coq plays a significant role as President Jacques Chirac, who underestimates his calculating rival during every step of his Sarkozy's rise to political power. Also crucial to the film's success is Samuel Labarthe's spot-on portrayal of Dominique de Villepin, Prime Minister of France during the time span covered in the story leading up to Nicolas Sarkozy's acceptance speech in 2007. While “The Conquest” periodically glosses over the substance of important events it alludes to, it is a fascinating look at how similar the French political system has become to America’s flagrantly corrupt methods of “Democracy.”
If, as the film states, "politics is a stupid job done by intelligent people," then you have to wonder at the intellectual of the corporate heads who call the shots for every political functionary the world over.
Not Rated. 105 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Céline Sciamma’s sophomore effort is a tour-de-force chamber piece of childhood cinema that confirms her status as a gifted filmmaker with her finger on the pulse of youthful development. As with her 2007 debut “Water Lilies,” Sciamma exhibits utter control of her craft. Ten-year-old Laure (Zoé Héran) moves with her parents and six-year-old sister Jeanne (Malonn Levana) into a suburban apartment complex that promises to provide a group of kids to play with. Laure's pixie haircut accentuates her boyish athletic frame so much that she introduces herself as "Michaël" when she meets an attractive girl named Lisa (Jeanne Disson) who mistakes Laure for a boy.
Lisa introduces Michaël to her multicultural group of boyfriends, none of whom question Lure's put-on sexual identity. Laure proves a quick study of boyish mannerisms during a game of soccer. She learns to spit and hold her hands on her knees while waiting to spring into action. Most impressive is the pitch-perfect casting of Zoé Héran, without whose miraculous performance this film would not work. Laure's doting parents (Sophie Cattani and Mathieu Demy) form an intrinsic narrative backbone without overstatement. A revealing playground game of truth-or-dare unfolds with a keen sense of naturalism that perfectly expresses the film's free-spirited exploration of childhood growing pains. When dared to chew Lisa’s gum, Michaël performs the “disgusting” act for all its romantic implications. “Tomboy” effectively puts the audience in the mindset of an androgynous girl experimenting with her sexual identity in a completely innocent and brave way. You can’t help but root for her.
Not Rated. 84 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Just because a book is a bestseller is no guarantee its film version will be anything to crow about. Such is the case with debut director Mona Achache’s flailing adaptation of Muriel Barbery’s international best seller “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”
Two vastly different female protagonists vie for audience empathy. Insufferable 11-year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) is the contemptuous daughter of a government official dad and a pill-popping mom. Bourgeois discontent reigns supreme. Paloma has the rude habit of filming family members with an old Hi-8 camera when she isn’t turning the lens on herself to record apathetic monologues. Unable to see the value of existence, Paloma declares that she will commit suicide on her 12th birthday. She diligently steals from her mother’s pills to hoard enough for the planned overdose.
Meanwhile, the family’s grumpy downstairs neighbor Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko) works as the apartment building's "concierge" (i.e. janitor) when she isn’t curled up with her cat and vast library of books. Outwardly, the frumpy Mme. Michel doesn't seem to have much more joie de vivre than Paloma. That situation changes, albeit only slightly, with the arrival of a new tenant in the building. Mr. Ozu (Togo Igawa) piques Renée interest, but not as much as she does his. The couple’s budding courtship creates what little allure the film has to offer. At best, “The Hedgehog” seems like half a decent idea for a movie. At worst, it comes across as a severely unfinished narrative begging for some sturdy editorial direction.
Not Rated. 100 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
France's best-kept secret, writer/director René Féret, embellishes the journey of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's older sister Nannerl during their family's early efforts to impress the royal courts of Europe during the 18th century. The filmmaker's own daughter Marie Féret imbues her musically gifted character with an unmistakable erotic grace. With intricate attention to detail Féret lays out the milieu of the noble class in which the Mozart family intrudes like a band of remarkably disciplined gypsies. There is nothing glamorous about the family's touring through the bitter cold of snow-covered landscapes. Patriarch Leopold (Marc Barbe) has trained his 15-year-old daughter Nannerl to be a virtuoso violinist, harpsichordist, and singer. Scenes of effortless musical performances by Nannerl and Wolfgang (David Moreau) are utterly convincing. Aware of the culturally imposed limitations for women, the ambitious father turns his attention to train his prodigious ten-year-old son to compose music. He furthermore forbids Nannerl to play the violin for fear of her upstaging Wolfgang.
A daring feat by any measure, Féret's imagined account of Nannerl Mozart's early struggles sharply pivots on an invented romantic liaison she develops with the Dauphin (Clovis Fouin) to Louis XV. The opportune introduction comes at the behest of the Dauphin's forthright young sister Louise de France (wonderfully played by the director's other daughter Lisa Féret). The couple's attraction is complicated by the necessity for Nannerl to dress as a boy in order to approach the Dauphin, who is nonetheless won over by her phenomenal singing voice. "Mozart's Sister" fits easily into a category of meaningful bio-pictures about long-suffering French heroines of art that includes films like "Seraphine" and "Adele H." Marie Féret's magical eyes allow for a haunting performance that transcends time. Prepare to be swept away.
Not Rated. 120 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Not far removed from Denis Dercourt's 2006 precision revenge thriller "The Page Turner," Alain Corneau's knotty tale of female retribution is set in the glass and steel world of corporate France. The plot doesn't merely twist; it folds back on itself to spring off in entirely unexpected directions. Corneau's restrained use of atmospheric music (courtesy of jazz legend Pharoah Sanders) locks you in the film's spell.
Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) helms her multinational company with a Machiavellian style that includes manipulating her underlings--both male and female--with flirtation, sex, and other clandestine traps. Christine mentors her ambitious assistant Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier) with equal parts praise and humiliation. Together, Christine and Isabelle form a sensual bond that loads the dice for their dynamic effectiveness at work. Still, Christine takes all the credit.
Christine's mixed signals send Isabelle toward a predictable breakdown after a scene of public humiliation proves too much to bear. Having slept with Christine's boy-toy Philippe, Isabelle holds a few important cards of her own. Thomas and Sagnier create an exotic chemistry together. Sparks fly whenever the two pricelessly gifted actresses share the screen.
"Love Crime" is a meaty little corporate thriller that pulls the rug from clichés of the genre. There's a streamlined appeal at play. When the complex puzzle of duplicity that Isabelle constructs is revealed in the third act, you have to admire the film's direct approach. A great French thriller never gets old. This one promises to age very well.
Not Rated. 106 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Writer/director Lucas Belvaux's purposefully executed 2009 thriller is a thoughtful study in the corrupting effects of power and its blind fragility. Loosely based on the real-life kidnapping of millionaire bad-boy Edouard-Jean Empain in 1978, the film's oblique title refers to a self-absorbed French industrialist who finds time to ponder life's deeper priorities when he is kidnapped and tortured. Yvan Attal brilliantly portrays Stanislas Graff, an adulterous gambling egoist with a loving family held together by his forbearing wife Françoise (Anne Consigny). The wealthy family's resiliency is sorely tested. The tabloid press blow up every shred of scandalous indiscretion they can dig up as days turn into weeks. Pierre Milon's pinpoint-precise cinematography clicks to ramp up the tension. There are infinite layers of socially designed nuances at play. Graff's deadly serious kidnappers brutally establish the lengths they are willing to go to in order to extract an impossibly high ransom for their victim's not-so-safe return. Belvaux does a neat trick of playing with audience empathy. We are helplessly drawn into sympathizing with a capitalist pig whose greed far outshines that of his captors. Hypocrisy proves contagious as Graff's family members reveal their true colors throughout an ordeal that puts oxygen in a power vacuum. This is what it looks and feels like when the rich and powerful are brought low. "Rapt" lets you savor every second.
Unrated R. 125 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Rules of the Game - Classic Film Pick
To the eyes of most modern filmgoers Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece of French Cinema may seem like nothing more than a farcical treatment of class distinctions. The film's pre-roll advises, "This entertainment, set on the eve of World War II, does not claim to be a study of manners. Its characters are purely fictitious." However, "The Rules of the Game" is a scathing satirical dissection of bourgeois mores and the use of manners to mask its frequently adulterous, and sometimes lethal, sins. That the film was banned by both French and German authorities after being edited down by distributors speaks to its not-so-subtle thematic arrows.
Son of the admired painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, writer/director/producer/actor Jean enjoyed full artistic license in making the film. He nevertheless met with fierce resistance and setbacks toward achieving his vision. Renoir loosely based his story on Alfred de Musset's "Les Caprices de Marianne." The setting is a weekend party at the mansion estate of Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio). Robert's popular wife Christine (Nora Gregor) has recently been at the center of a public scandal related to the "heroic" aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain). Christine's absence at André's welcoming party for his 23-hour solo flight across the Atlantic causes the heartbroken pilot to publicly lash out at her during a live radio broadcast. The hopelessly smitten André implores his best friend Octave (delightfully played by Renoir) to gain him admittance to the La Chesnaye party despite his atrocious behavior. Christine will be in attendance. As a longtime friend to Christine and her highly regarded father, Octave obliges. The stage is set for charged romantic conflict in the estate's upstairs/downstairs world of privilege where the rules of the game are set, shattered, and reset.
Octave speaks the story's theme line when he states, "There's one thing that's terrifying in this world, and that is that every man has his reasons." As much a predictor of Hitler's approaching devastation, the line strikes at the heart of the anti-Semitic segment of the French public that went ballistic when they saw the film. They took particular umbrage at Renoir's casting of Jewish actor Marcel Dalio as the story's ostensibly wealthiest French character.
"The Rules of the Game" is both funny and dramatic. Renoir's attempt to show that no one is entirely good or bad comes under a prismatic magnifying glass during the film's coda. One of the bourgeois partygoers defends their host's best effort at bringing closure to the weekend's violent climax. The man pronounces that "La Chesnaye has class," something "that's become rare." The ethically ambiguous attitude points up a cultural environment ripe for abuse.
The Princess of Montpensier