Tuesday, April 03, 2007

French Film Festival 3

The Alliance Française French Film Festival finishes today, and last night I saw my last screening for the festival, Les amitiés maléfiques (Poison Friends). This stunning film was a fantastic way to end the festival, and came a very close second to my favourite of the festival, Nue Propriété (Private Property).

I almost feel a little guilty for my opening criticism of the festival. Yes, there's lots of light entertainment to be had, but there's definitely been some solid gems available for those that looked (or stumbled by chance). My other must-see picks of the festival are The Right of the Weakest and Premonition. OSS 117: Cairo - Nest of Spies is also a rare good comedy.

As I posted in The Week in Review, I got to see everything I wanted to, except for Coeurs (Private Fears in Public Places)

Nue Propriété (Private Property, Joachim Lafosse, 2006)
What is it with the Belgians? They sure are capable of producing gritty social dramas: the Dardennes’ L’enfant (The Child), Lucas Belvaux’s The Right of the Weakest, and now Joachim Lafosse’s Private Property.

Jérémie Renier played the father blindly unaware of the consequences of his actions in L’enfant. In Private Property, a quietly searing social drama set in regional Belgium, he and real-life brother Yannick play screen brothers Thierry and François. Isabelle Huppert plays single mother to the grown up boys still living at home.

Unemployed, François is quiet and gentle while Thierry works in town and is volatile and sometimes argumentative. The dynamics between boys, mother and father (played by Patrick Descamps, who also appeared as the invalid in The Right of the Weakest) are explored in the context of property laws as they pertain to divorcees – the parents separated some fifteen years earlier. It appears that in law, the house belongs to the boys, and the mother is entitled to live there. However, she wants to sell up and start a new life elsewhere. This leads to conflict, involving the father, and through it, the exploration of the nature of existing and broken relationships, and old resentments. All the roles were portrayed convincingly.

I found the film riveting, compelling and (dare I say it)... profound. As usual, Huppert plays a terrifically nuanced role and she was used to maximum but understated effect without hogging the limelight. She was pulled out of frame at times, particularly towards the end, when the boys 'took over'. The film reeked of emotional honesty and was aptly contemplative.

I loved the lack of music. When the opening credits appeared first to silence, then to background noise – reminiscent of Iranian cinema like the films of Kiarostami or Panahi – it was evident that this was going to be a serious film. The short piece of music at the end was quite chilling, accentuating the previous lack of music and then again silence during the closing credits.

The film depicted moral complexity with skill and avoided stereotypes. The director takes no sides and the audience can make their own judgements. The most quietly profound line was left to the father at the end. Thierry, angry and grieving, explodes: “Fucking bitch!” he yells at his mother. “You let her screw you!” he yells at his father. “Your mother’s not a bitch”, says the father firmly but matter-of-fact, “we just tried and it didn’t work out. That’s all.”

The film is full of beautifully quiet moments and riddled with ambiguity, leaving ample opportunity to ruminate on meanings. There are times of simmering silence and explosive moments that are emotionally compelling. This is a family, not so much in crisis, but trying to deal with real life difficulties. Well-cast, brilliantly written and directed, from the opening credits to the haunting and symbolic images at the end, it reeks quality cinema.

OSS 117 Le Caire nid d'espions (OSS 117: Cairo - Nest of Spies, Michel Hazanavicius, 2006)
Having previously bagged contemporary French comedy*, I'm having to eat my words with this one (which is a good thing). On Matt Riviera's recommendation, I saw and thoroughly enjoyed it. Basically it's a parody of James Bond 007, and largely resembles the early incarnation with Sean Connery, but goofed up slightly like Don Adams' Maxwell Smart in TV's Get Smart.

This film was virtually non-stop laughs and Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, alias agent OSS 117 (played by Jean Dujardin) was a great combination of Connery-like debonair, competency, sexiness, yet at times clumsy and self-absorbed.

It was a clever start - the opening credits with Gaumont (the production company) appeared to be straight out of the 1950's in black and white (I presume it was taken from stock film). The story starts with a French resistance fighter (apparently how OSS 117 started out) stealing blueprints from the Nazis during the closing stages of World War II.

The remaining film is set in 1955 and the period reproduction - not of the time, but of early Bond films set around the time - is terrific. I found various flashbacks by characters, with muted pastel tones, to be especially effective visually. The array of period vehicles in use, such as cars and a Lambretta scooter added a nice touch. Of course, there is a clever and stylised reproduction of political incorrectness of the time.

Unlike the Bond franchise, which has become a fairly stale action-film franchise, overly dependent on CGI, OSS 117 maintains interest with little action or special effects. It's more like the earlier Bond (or even Hitchcock) films, and perhaps the most sophisticated piece of surveillance equipment used is a telephone. While the laughs were mostly non-stop, the film could perhaps have been edited by dropping five or ten minutes to keep the action a bit tighter. But that's only a small criticism others may not agree with.

This film has been picked up for distribution and the word is that it will go straight to DVD, probably later in the year. It was definitely worth seeing on the big screen.

* I acknowledge the possibility that there may be a body of contemporary smart French comedy being made, that doesn't make it to Australia. Generally, I find what is distributed here to be fairly inane, inoffensive, light, feel-good, charming and what could usually be described using other such mediocre superlatives.

L’ivresse du pouvoir (A Comedy of Power, Claude Chabrol, 2006)
Isabelle Huppert, with her usual nuanced and cold nature, was perfect for the role of magistrate, Jeanne Charmant-Killman, investigating a corporate corruption case - a company has been paying illegal commissions. Sounds much like the AWB scandal, which as far as I can tell, no heads have rolled yet.

The film investigates Jeanne's character and how she 'squeezes' the heads she's chasing to get them to comply. Very realistic, and reminds me of the strategy of the Stasi as described and depicted in The Lives of Others. The film also looks at her personal life, and how her work adversely affects her relationships.

Chabrol is a veteran film-maker - he's made some 60 or so films since his debut in 1958 - and this is the first of his I've seen. So I can't compare it to any of his vast body of work. There's no doubt when watching this film that it's well made. All the technical aspects are strong: directing, acting, lighting, etc.

Ultimately, the film didn't hold much interest for me, because the story itself didn't really engage me. It seems too preoccupied with the process of obtaining compliance and convictions from defendents. The title is interesting; it certainly has nothing to do with comedy. Apparently the original title refers to "drunk on power", which could equally refer to the corporate heads being pursued, or to Jeanne herself.

Mauvaise foi (Bad Faith, Roschdy Zem, 2006)
Cécile de France seems ubiquitous at this year's festival, appearing in no fewer than three films. I haven't seen The Singer at the festival in which she stars opposite Gérard Depardieu, but wasn't particulary impressed with her role in Orchestra Seats. In this film she plays a Jewish woman and Roschdy (who both stars and directs) plays a Muslim man in what is basically a meet the parents drama.

It's not a heavy-weight film, but is played serious. Aimed at a mainstream audience, it uses the usual devices like pop soundtrack (including Elvis' Suspicious Minds), cutesy-pie female protagonist and some predictable plot stereotypes. Nonetheless, it's enjoyable enough for the casual film-goer out for a light evening's entertainment.

Les amitiés maléfiques (Poison Friends, Emmanuel Bourdieu, 2006)
Poison Friends is a thought-provoking film. It is about friendship, intellect, ego, manipulation, power, deception and lies. And it is all too believable, to the extent that my heart rate took an hour or more to settle after it finished - it was so affecting. The film is considered drama, but its effect was more like a thriller.

It took a while to warm to the film – to understand the direction it was taking and who the different characters were. I still feel a little confused about some of the opening narrative, and the film almost demands a repeat viewing.

André Morney is confident, highly intelligent and has the respect of lecturers and co-students alike. He is also a sociopath. The narrative investigates various intellectual ideas as the characters go through the process of studying writing at university. Those with a tertiary education will have some appreciation of the personality types and the type of dialogue depicted in various conversations.

The writing of the film is very strong and original, and directed with much skill. The actors all played their parts effectively. The cinematography was generally good, though I sometimes found the night scenes a little dark (not uncommon with this type of film). Highly recommended.


The end of a festival is both relief and lament. It's pretty intense trying to fit it in all the films one wishes to see, what to speak of writing about them as well (I'm pretty run-down right now). The French Film Festival is my favourite festival other than MIFF, and French social drama is possibly my favourite genre (not that I generally think of film in terms of genre). I just love the way the French portray social realism with such conviction. So it's sad to see the festival end. That's all for this year, and I keenly await next year's festival. Thanks again to Matt from Last Night at Riviera for his recommendations.

Previous posts: French Film Festival 1 & 2
See also: Last Night at Riviera 1, 2, 3 & 4

4 comments:

Paul Martin said...

It has been pointed out to me that Coeurs has been picked up by Sharmill Films for distribution, though no confirmed date yet.

Maya said...

Paul, thank you very much for alerting me to your post on Private Property, which I likewise deeply enjoyed, for many of the reasons that you have expressed.

I just loaned my screener copy and the attendant press notes to my Evening Class cohort Michael Hawley and wish I had them with me right now to respond to your assessment that LaFosse took no sides in creating this family portrait. I seem to recall statements he made in an interview that--though recognizing Pascale insufficiently set boundaries--the blame lay more in the expectations placed upon her by the men around her. So I'm not convinced of that argument though, as always with a film this deep and complex, there's ample room for variant interpretation.

Paul Martin said...

Michael, even if it were Lafosse's intent, I would still make a different interpretation, simply based on my own life experiences. I think it's a general characteristic of society in general to defend women - to see men as aggressors and women as passive or victims.

Anyone can lay any unrealistic expectation on anyone (of either gender), but that doesn't automatically place any obligation. It is an important part of our development that we learn to say no and to lay down the boundaries of what is acceptable.

My observation is that many single mothers do not develop the assertiveness their children require, and these kids (usually boys) are often wrongly diagnosed as ADHD. It is the parents' (or parent's) responsibility to teach children acceptable behaviour and boundaries.

I don't think Pascale adequately did that, and her sons' obnoxiousness was the result (not that that absolves them of responsibility for their actions).

Paul Martin said...

As an addendum, even though the father had the least screen time, I thought Lafosse portrayed him more sympathetically than the others. He seemed generally a decent person who was aggrieved (having missed out on the upbringing of his beloved sons). And he had the best line in the film - the profound statement at the end that I mentioned above, and referred to on your post.