7 posts categorized "French Cinema"

January 03, 2017


And God Created WomanThe term “sex-kitten” was coined for Brigitte Bardot for her sexually liberated role as Juliette in her [then] husband Roger Vadim’s 1956 debut film. Bardot’s exotic nubile beauty is in sync with her orphaned character’s rebellious disavowal of social mores in the seaside town of St. Tropez.

Never before in Cinema had a female character exhibited such an honest reflection of wanton feminine hunger with the goods to back it up. When an old Frenchman describes Bardot’s ass as a “song,” the commentary comes across as apt poetry rather than the vulgar expression it might otherwise seem.

A 22-year-old Bardot plays 18-year-old Juliette, an orphan living with an older disapproving provincial couple intent on returning her to the orphanage where they got her. The house matriarch freely calls Juliette a slut, which seems a stretch considering she doesn't have sex (at least on screen) until after she is married. Then the gloves are off.

Generational battle-lines are drawn, and the war is on. A nudist by nature, Juliette enjoys sunbathing in the raw in her backyard. Male suitors abound. Eric Carradine (Curd Jurgens) is a millionaire powerbroker pushing 60 who wants to build a large hotel in the undeveloped Riveria town of St. Tropez. A capitalist exploiter of all he sees, Carradine has Juliette in his sights, along with a family-owned shipyard run by a couple of brothers (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Christian Marquand) who also desire Juliette. It doesn’t take Carradine long to effect a plan that puts the shipyard in his possession, with Juliette as an inevitable consequence. Juliette becomes a lightening rod for social upheaval as these men with divergent agendas, leverage their positions using her as a bargaining chit.

And God Created Woman

Vadim cannily puts Bardot’s vibrant physicality to pointed narrative and thematic use during the film’s music-inflected climax. Bardot dances an impromptu mambo with a band of black nightclub musicians who play off of her carefree dance movements while joining in with her. The lively sequence presages the ‘60’s go-go dance craze by more than half a decade. Things get steamy when she reflexively dances in front of a full-length mirror. You could argue that Brigitte Bardot ushered in the ‘60’s era of sexual liberation in this one scene.

Although condemned by some cultural gatekeepers and critics as scandalous — "And God Created Woman" was heavily edited, and dubbed, for his its U.S. release — Bardot’s portrayal of a freethinking young woman became the celebrated subject of Simone de Beauvoir’s 1959 essay “The Lolita Syndrome.” In it, de Beauvoir described Brigitte Bardot as a “locomotive of women’s history.” The petite but curvy actress captured the communal global imaginations of women and men alike. The film adds up to more than Brigitte Bardot’s obvious charms and headstrong attitude about the essentials of life. Here is a social document of the ways that a woman’s allure can fuel, destroy, and build the dreams of men who fall under her spell.

And God Created Woman2

Rated PG. 90 mins. (A) (Five stars - out of five / no stars)

November 23, 2016


LaCeremonieMoviePosterThe revolution comes from the inside in Claude Chabrol’s exquisite adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s 1977 leftist novel “A Judgement In Stone.”

Not since Luis Bunuel has any filmmaker come so daringly close to enunciating the ideological, ethical, and soulful rift between the bourgeoisie and the rest of us as Chabrol does in this fascinating, if darkly sensuous, picture. Lesbian fires ignite between two would-be murderess[s].

Rituals such as family dinners or private parties allow for characters to interact, impregnate, and divide. As with Bunuel’s films, food plays a significant part in these daily rites.

The story unfolds in the northwest coast of France where art gallery director Catherine Lelievres (Jacqueline Bisset) lives in French countryside splendor with her recent (opera-obsessed) husband Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and his two teenage children (Melinda and Gilles) from a previous marriage.

Catherine hires Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) as her latest live-in maid to keep her lavish home tidy and cook the family meals. 

Sophie keeps secrets close to her chest. Her illiteracy means that she can't order the weekly groceries because she can't read the list. Help arrives in the magnetic tomboy form of Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a local postal clerk with a murderous past. Jeanne knows that Sophie was accused of murdering her handicapped dad but was let go due to a lack of proof. Threat of prison is a mutual experience since Jeanne was accused of killing her four-year-old daughter, but was found innocent. 

La Ceremonie

21st century audiences may be surprised to learn that there was such a thing as a “boy-bun” long before there was a “man-bun” as evidenced by Catherine’s adopted son Gilles (Valentin Merlet).

Addressing Gilles's freshly budding smoking habit, Catherine tells her adopted son, “It’s easier not to start than it is to quit.” Naturally, she offers him a cigarette later on when it suits her. She decrees that Gilles can only smoke in her presence. Careful social coding comes through in every sequence involving the family. Their limited (stereotype) attitudes clash against the intimate (female outlaw) romantic reality that Bonnaire and Huppert share. Their mutual attraction is real. 

Claude Chabrol deftly uses television as an implement of reality displacement that Sophie learns to use to deny demands that are placed on her, such as when Georges calls requesting that she retrieve a file from his desk. She becomes a robot to the TV in same way that audiences all over the world are. 

“La Ceremonie” is a film that is ahead of its time, just as much as it is of its time. Isabelle Huppert’s determined (read lesbian leftist activist) character speaks the film’s theme lines with sinewy authority.

Regarding Sophie’s discovery of Melinda’s (Virginie Ledoyen) pregnancy, Jeanne says, “It’s no problem for them [the Lelievres), anyway. Keep it or get rid of it, no problem.”

La Caremonie2

Indeed, Jeanne’s brief summation of Melinda’s dilemma coincides with the teenaged girl's blasé attitude in the face of her next day's scheduled abortion. Charming Melinda sits happily on the sofa with her snobby family watching a VHS-recorded opera. Virginie Ledoyen is the embodiment of privileged nubility. Incredible, and contemptible.  

Regardless of how much elites (in any country) attempt to buffer themselves from the lower classes, they must always remain at the workers' mercy in the form of service industry jobs. Poison comes in many forms.

Chabrol’s dream-team cast comes together in a once-in-a-lifetime event. I could wax poetic about Jean-Pierre Cassel, who delivers such a wonderfully bland rendition of veiled white supremacist viewpoints that you could blink and miss it. Jacqueline Bisset reaches microcosmic degrees of restrained emotion like you can’t believe.

Don’t get me started on cinematographer Bernard Zitzermann’s dynamic formalism that works like guitar in a jazz trio, playing against Monique Fardoulis’s snappy editing. This film is a flawless example of French Cinema. Look. There it is.

La Ceremonie3

April 11, 2016




Catherine Breillat announced her status as a feminist enfant terrible at the age of 17 with her sex-filled debut novel l’Homme facile (“A Man for the Asking”). The French government promptly banned the book for anyone under 18.

By the time she made “A Real Young Girl” Breillat (pronounced Bray-yah) had acted in Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” and Edouard Molinaro’s “Dracula and Son” opposite Christopher Lee. Such practical experiences paved the way for a filmmaker whose furious first effort would be delayed for nearly a quarter century. “A Real Young Girl” was made in 1976, but not released until 1999 due to the “shocking” nature of the work. Criminal.

Based on her novel “Le soupirail,” this [ostensibly] autobiographical story is set in Breillat’s hometown of Niort, France. Alice Bonnard is a physically developed 14-year-old girl visiting her mom and dad while on summer vacation from boarding school. Charlotte Alexandra (“Immoral Tales”) was 20 when she played the role of Alice, but is credible and her performance is fearless.

“A Real Young Girl” is a coming-of-age reverie expressed with unbridled honesty by a canny young author fascinated with every erotic detail of the substances that discharge from her body at regular intervals. Alice is a prolific producer of runny earwax that she smears on the family tablecloth. Sexual thoughts consume her every waking minute.

Our unreliable young protagonist narrates the film with intimate reflections about her parents, her intolerance of other people, and about her budding, albeit messy, sexuality. Alice’s provincially minded folks (Rita Maiden and Bruno Balp) are as flawed versions of adults as you will find anywhere in the history of film.

Real Young Girl1

The movie has a raw sensibility in keeping with the natural savagery of wanton libidos in close proximity to one another. A scene in which Alice probes her vagina with a spoon while her oblivious father sits next to her at the dinner table is unsettling, to say the least. There is reason to suspect that Alice’s father might yet molest her if he hasn’t already.

Cinematographers Pierre Fattori and Patrick Godaert share camera duties in giving the picture its deceptively unpolished appearance. Sequences screech and roar with an unbearable lustful tension. Breillat’s jarring use of soundscape is masterful.

The rebel filmmaker’s insatiable desire for intimate truths, dips into the phantasmagoric. Graphically explicit sex-fantasy sequences are at once shocking and recognizable. During once such scene, Jim, a twentysomething stud (played by Hiram Keller) tears off pieces of an earthworm that he presses inside Alice’s wet vagina. Alice will not be tamed, but she must be sated. Finding a lover who can provide birth control pills might hold the key to Alice’s sexual liberation.  

Real Young Girl2

Alice says things like, “Disgust makes me lucid.” She enjoys vomiting on herself in bed for its sickly smell and the warmth it provides on her ample chest. She’s a country girl in touch with the everyday brutalities of such regular tasks as killing and cleaning a chicken, something she does with her mother before imagining herself crawling around on the ground (with feathers protruding from her anus) in front of Jim, who works for Alice’s father at a nearby sawmill.

While the film could be construed as pornographic in nature, the intention of the narrative function is clearly to examine the psyche and sexuality of a young girl within the political and social context of Niort, France circa 1963. A television newscast reports General de Gaulle’s dissolution of parliament. A local shopkeeper (played by Shirley Stoler) is none too pleased about Alice’s tempting ways and lets Alice’s mother know it.

Breillat’s magically real tale of sexual adventure owes a debit to Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and to J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” The character of Alice is after all a female archetype born of the same hunger for individuality and sexual expression as the teenage male protagonists of Roth and Salinger. “A Real Young Girl” retains a fresh sense of transgressing taboos. The melodramatic flourish that Breillat uses to end the story gives a knowing wink to say that this filmmaker knows exactly what she’s doing. Bravo.

Not Rated. 90 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves

February 02, 2015



“Band de Filles”
2015 Has its First Great Film of the Year

BandedefillesYou might read the title “Girlhood” and think that some ambitious (perhaps female) filmmaker is taking on Richard Linklater at his most recent game. Indeed, if you consider Céline Sciamma’s substantial pedigree, as the masterful writer-director behind such youth-centric LGBT triumphs as “Water Lilies” and “Tomboy,” you could arrive at the conclusion that Richard Linklater has been taking some notes from her.

Sciamma conjures an urgent social atmosphere of transformation that resonates with an energy not unlike Cassavetes' early films.  

When compared to her first two tour de force films, “Girlhood” reveals itself to be every bit as insightful and authentic a cinematic representation of a personal female coming-of-age experience in modern-day France. For the record, “Girlhood” stands up well opposite Linklater’s “Boyhood” as another essential filmic chapter in the global political, socioeconomic, and cultural challenges facing young people in the 21st century, albeit from vastly different cultural backgrounds.

Newcomer Karidja Touré plays Marieme (a.k.a. Vic), a shy 16-year-old black girl living with her younger sister, their physically and psychologically abusive older brother, and his young daughter, in a low-income housing project on the outskirts of Paris. Karidja Touré is a force of nature on par with Adèle Exarchopoulos, the unforgettable actress from “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Both actresses embody a feminine mystique best celebrated on the big screen. While it may seem premature to deem Karidja Touré’s performance in “Girlhood” a breakthrough success, that is precisely what it is. 

GirlhoodHaving failed the same grade two years in a row, Marieme is at a crossroads. Her grades are too low for her to advance into high school. A counselor informs Marieme that vocational training is her only option. Sciamma’s static camera faces the worried Marieme so that we never see the faceless bureaucrat with whom Marieme pleads. “It’s not my fault,” she says. The stern counselor replies, “So whose fault is it, Marieme?” It’s clear that unseen systemic social forces are pushing Marieme into a life in which she will have increasingly less control. Marieme’s immediate need for social acceptance and familial support sends her into the life of a girl-gang member, where she can recast her identity as a person in charge of her fate, however dubious that future may be.     

Lady (Assa Sylla), Lindsay (Karamoh Adiatou), and Fily (Marietou Touré) are a gang of tough black chics who accept Marieme into their clique. With the gift of a cheap necklace they recast Marieme as “Vic.” The charismatic girls wear their hair straightened, a look that the braided Vic soon adopts. It is the first of several transformations that Vic will undergo over the course the film’s distinct four-act structure.

GirlhoodVic extorts money from high school girls by bullying them with her older physique and aggressive attitude she learned from her domineering brother. She hands over extorted euros to Lady, the gang’s leader. With the money, the girls live out their role-play ambitions as beloved pop stars when they dance and lip-sync along to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in the privacy of a plush hotel room where they model freshly stolen dresses, smoke pot, and drink booze. Filmed under a blue filter, the longingly dynamic sequence captures glimpses of the girls’ innate potential as beauty objects for commodification.  

Increasingly, Vic makes decisions that cross social taboos and expose her to new dangers. As with Céline Sciamma’s other films, the filmmaker gracefully avoids judging her characters’ actions, behaviors, and choices. Vic experiments with bisexuality, drug selling, and a romantic relationship with a boy with whom she has been smitten for some time. The mystery of Vic’s transition from girlhood into adulthood is tempered by the bold choices she makes. Vic is getting better at making informed decisions. “Girlhood” is a stunner.

Not Rated. 112 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)


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February 21, 2014


Jeune & JolieFor his latest filmic exploration François Ozon addresses a complex mix of sexual, personal, social, familial, gender-based, and technological issues, inexorably honing in on a striking synthesis of generational catharsis. That he does so via a story about Isabelle (exquisitely played by newcomer Marine Vacth), a beautiful bourgeoisie and a 17-year-old DIY prostitute, reflects the growth of one of France’s most consistent filmmakers — one of few who develops in proportion to the promise of his well-seeded career.

Set over the course of a year, the film uses the age-old narrative form of seasonal changes to mark Isabelle’s fluid transition from virgin to sensual mistress. Most of her clients are men old enough to be her grandfathers. To call Marine Vacth’s fearless performance extraordinary barely scratches the surface of her finely crafted, transparent portrayal. Vacth isn’t merely precocious; she is a force of unbridled feminine and intellectual nature. Isabelle has important lessons to teach, as well as to learn.

Ozon takes “meta” liberties when he shows Isabelle and some of her high school classmates reciting quotes from Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “No One’s Serious at Seventeen.”

"On beautiful nights when beer and lemonade

And loud, blinding cafés are the last thing you need

You stroll beneath green lindens on the promenade.”

The unapologetically poetic direct-to-camera sequence captures much of the naiveté, seething lust, and directionless ambition that Isabelle seeks to shed through her computer-facilitated double life of erotic experimentation. Her journey will be a quicksilver submersion into a lifetime’s worth of sexual experience and ever-changing needs and desires.

In keeping with Ozon’s non-judgmental approach to his characters in such films as “Hideaway” and “In the House,” the filmmaker never veers into melodrama or exploitation regardless of how tempting the subject matter might seem on the surface. That’s not to say that Ozon doesn’t regard the erotic nature of Isabelle’s endeavors with the sexual directness they deserve. The audience experiences her erotic journey in relation to the sense of liberation she discovers along the way. If that freedom comes with a cost of cynicism, then the lessons are all the more truthful for her paying that price. There is a cost to wisdom — regardless of how it is achieved.

Young & Beautiful

When Isabelle witnesses her judgmental mother Sylvie (Geraldine Paihas) secretly flirting with a man with whom she may be having an adulterous affair, it seems to support Isabelle’s bold if hazardous attempt at getting to the bottom of a romantic illusion that is too limited and naïve for her mature constitution. Isabelle always gravitates to the bottom line in human relations. An uncomfortable sequence where she gauges her step-father’s lustful ambitions presents one of the film’s more challenging scenes. 

Gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Pascal Marti, “Jeune & Jolie” (“Young & Beautiful”) is a patient film that delves thoroughly into the generational mindsets of its age-disparate characters. Charlotte Rampling helps send the narrative to its evocative conclusion as a woman called Alice, the wife of one of Isabelle’s clients. You will never forget this truly mind-blowing film.

Not Rated. 95 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)  

September 15, 2013


Falling In Love
Cannes Palme d’Or Winner Soars

Blue-warmest-color“Blue is the Warmest Color” is one of the most stunning films I’ve ever seen. I realize that sounds like a readymade pull-quote, and it's fine with me if it gets used as such, but I don’t offer lavish praise cheaply. It would diminish this beautiful film to pigeonhole it to a modern standard-bearer for the LGBT movement (which it is); its tremendous depths of emotional intimacy demand more than that. Watching the three-hour love story unfold is a simultaneously transgressive and transcendent encounter in which the audience is compelled in no uncertain terms to fall head-over-heels in love with the film’s romantic heroine.

An epic coming-of-age romantic drama between two captivating forces of feminine nature, “Blue” is as intimate a representation of erotic and romantic love as has ever been committed to cinema. Graphic in its depiction of lesbian sex, it circumvents any accusations of pornographic intent by being hopelessly and sincerely sensual. If that sounds confusing, it should. What director Abdellatif Kechiche achieves is unprecedented.

The camera worships everything about lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos. It contemplates her persuasively wanton lips, which wait in a constant state of a half-open invitation to be kissed. Her upper lip points in an upward arc that resembles a temple of tenderness. Poets could write a thousand sonnets about the slight wrinkle that flirts at the right corner of her mouth when a certain mood strikes. Every tiny movement of Exarchopoulos’s oral orifice transmits an encyclopedia’s worth of primal and intellectual information. Director Abdellatif Kechiche understands the power of Exarchopoulos’s mesmerizing face, and the filmmaker takes ample advantage of her unique features in extreme close-ups that convey volumes of narrative subtext.

Using the actress’s real first name blurs the line between the comely Exarchopoulos and the exotically nubile character she plays. Adèle is a French 16-year-old high school junior exploring the boundaries of romance as informed by the male classmate who pursues her. Yet Emma, an older woman with blue-dyed hair Adèle passes in the street, fans her inner desires. A chance meeting during her first visit to a lesbian bar introduces Adèle to Emma in a meet-cut sequence full of overflowing curiosity and erotic ambition.

As part of a clique of meddlesome schoolgirls, Adèle is publically humiliated after her “friends” witness her leaving school with Emma (Léa Seydoux). Just when the story seems as though it will stay in one social stratum, it shifts without commentary.

Loosely adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel “le bleu est une coleur chaude,” Kechiche and his co-writer Ghalia Lacroix create extended, seemingly real-time, sequences that allow the characters and story to develop in an organic fashion. That several of these protracted sequences involve beautifully explicit lovemaking sessions between Adèle and Emma adds incalculably to our empathy and understanding of the characters and the lustful nature of their relationship.

Social forces and personal insecurities are the antagonist. Early on, we see Adèle marching and shouting in an anti-austerity protest march. Later on, when she is a few years older Adèle participates in a LGBT parade. She has changed significantly. The audience is left to judge via their own individual perspective exactly how Adèle’s live-in relationship with Emma, and other internal and external factors, have influenced her.

“Blue is the Warmest Color” is a monumental cinematic achievement that must be experienced by anyone passionate about film. That the movie also encompasses national, familial, political, personal, sexual, intellectual, and artistic themes brings the narrative to an epic level of romantic drama. Still, it never overstresses its implicit nature as an all-inclusive portrait of love.

Rated NC-17. 179 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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April 22, 2011


Claiming Equality
Catherine Deneuve Takes the Helm
By Cole Smithey

Potiche François Ozon's flamboyant adaptation of a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy is a light comic confection. That the film's sole purpose may just be to reunite the effervescent Catherine Deneuve with Gérard Depardieu one more time on the big screen is validation enough. Set in 1977 France, the story takes its title from the French slang for "trophy wife." Ms. Deneuve more than fills her shiny tennis shoes as Suzanne, the neglected wife of sexist and selfish husband Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini). Suzanne busies herself writing prosaic poetry about the nature that teems around the couple's mansion grounds. Birds tweet and bunnies mate. Hubby Robert takes advantage of his mistress, a secretary at the umbrella factory he manages. Suzanne's beloved grandfather started the successful company many years ago. The plot element allows for a colorful homage to one of Catherine Deneuve's most iconic films, Jacques Demy's 1964 classic “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.’’ When her fragile husband takes ill, Suzanne is pushed to run the factory just as it is faced with the threat of a strike by its dissatisfied workers. Depardieu's former union leader Babin holds on to a piece of Suzanne's heart he won when they were young. Babin has since been promoted as the town's socialist mayor. He relishes the opportunity to possibly fan the flames of romance once more with Suzanne. 

François Ozon is one of France's most enigmatic directors. His approach to cinema is a personalized style of genre-blending that frequently utilizes suspense and desire as key ingredients. Todd Haynes and Pedro Almodovar are generational peers. All three filmmakers share an affinity for rich color palates and untraditional narrative substance. So it is that audiences familiar with some of Ozon's previous films, such as "Swimming Pool" (2003) or his most recent film "Hideaway" (2009), might be tempted to look for dramatic threads of subtext that simply don't exist in the airy farce of "Potiche."

Light comic styles from cinema, theater, and television come seamlessly together here. The bawdy vibe of an early '70s American TV comedy like "Love American Style" segues into screwball comic territory on a whim. '70s ideas such as "a woman's place is in the home," come into the workplace to roost. Suzanne tames the male chauvinism around her with her natural poise and a serine sense of equality. The snappy humor is as much about the ability of fashionable artifice to blind as it is about its usefulness in claiming independence.

Woman's liberation French-style couldn't do better than to have Catherine Deneuve represent the period's common sense message of equality. "Potiche" rings with a sophisticated brand of restrained comic expression. It might not be everyone's cup of tea. But it is a well blended herbal potion.

Rated R. 103 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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