“In The House”: in the company of Francois Ozon’s women

Francois Ozon has created a body of work that features some unique film worlds: the pastel-colored past of “Potiche”, the soap-opera world of singing actresses in “8 Women”, and many films where the real and imaginary walk hand-in-hand!  His films break the “fourth wall”, challenging the audience to accept the unexpected.  One of things audiences can expect: strong roles for women performed by some of the biggest names in French cinema.

In “Swimming Pool” and “Potiche”, the narrative is driven by Charlotte Rampling and Catherine Deneuve. Charlotte Rampling’s character re-discovers her sexuality while embroiled in a mystery involving a young woman (played by the luminous Ludvine Sagnier).  Catherine Deneuve’s character in “Potiche” takes over the family business, resolves a crisis, and discovers romance.  Both films feature women taking control of their lives and expressing their desires.

“In The House” continues that tradition with Kristin Scott-Thomas, the brilliant British actor who lives in France and speaks fluent French, and with Emmanuelle Seigner (“La Vie en Rose”). They, too, exist in the Ozon film universe of fractured realities. The film opens with the voice and view of a young voyeur, Claude, attempting to win the affections of a family.  Ernst Unhauer portrays Claude as an intelligent but troubled teen; yearning for a place within what he perceives as an idealized family.  He describes his classmate waiting for his parents after school.  His classmate is embraced by them and yet feels no shame in this public display.  Claude clearly desires this closeness but, at the same time, seems to want to destroy it.  He describes, with teenage arrogance, his classmate’s mother as “listlessly thumbing through House Beautiful magazines while lounging on the couch”.  Esther, (Emmanuelle Seigner), is set-up as the bored and passive suburban housewife…

As Claude’s Literature teacher, Germain (Fabrice Lachine) reads his essay and becomes intrigued “by the scent of the suburban woman” — but also by his young student who shows some promise as a writer.  His wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott-Thomas), is immediately suspicious.  She sympathizes with the Mother, who is being objectified by both men, and senses an unhealthy fascination.  Her advice to discourage this willful young man in his writing goes unheeded.

Claude narrates, as his writing comes to life on the screen — but is it this his version of events, or is it reality?  He writes about this family, not as a class assignment, but as if he is obsessed by them.  Germain encourages him and then starts behaving in erratic and unprofessional ways in an attempt to facilitate the writing of the essays he’s becoming increasingly addicted to.  The essays always end with “To be continued…”  He becomes so enmeshed in Claude’s intrigues that he even appears in the scenes interacting with the teen, and with his object of desire, the passive Esther.

Both women are shown reacting to their husbands.  Jeanne runs a contemporary art gallery but she is in danger of losing her business and often asks Germain for advice. She is also losing the affection and physical attentions of Germain.  She even invites the couple–whom they’ve grown to feel an uncomfortable intimacy with through Claude’s writing– to appear in the flesh at a gallery opening!  Unaware of the earlier angry confrontation between Germain and Claude’s father, Jeanne is both disappointed and distraught when Germain flees the gallery.

Esther is also dealing with her husband’s erratic behavior.  He is losing his job and Esther is shocked to learn that he behaved unprofessionally – and that he has committed a crime.  Stepping out of her passive role, she forces Claude to see that his romantic view is a fantasy.  He is forced back to his role as an outsider; no longer the threatening interloper.  Esther moves from being the object of desire — and passive — to actively creating a new life for herself and her family.

“In The House” is an interesting film with strong performances by the entire cast.  The female leads start the film in passive roles, reacting to the men in their lives.  By the film’s conclusion, both women ACT to take control of their lives.  When a crucial event described (and filmed) is revealed to be a vengeful fantasy, Germain (and the audience), must confront the powerful thrall that Claude’s story has cast.  Is it all just fiction?  And what price must be paid when reality intrudes and the consequences must be faced?  The final scene reveals Germain and Claude, alone, watching other people’s lives unfold before them.  Stranded and abandoned, they are relegated to the sidelines.

Rating: 3 glasses of French Chablis

“Blancanieves”: Borrowing from the past to tell stories to the present

Blancanieves-poster-2077x3000-103x150Two years ago, “The Artist” took home the Oscar for Best Picture.  A French production with high-production values, a jazzy soundtrack and classy Hollywood setting, the film is a romance and a crowd-pleaser.  The film even has a cute dog.

This year, Spain’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for 2012 was also a silent film.  Decidedly different, instead of a modern film made to look like an older period creation, “Blancanieves” has the look and feel of a 1920’s silent film made in that time period.  The action is staged as if the camera must remain stationary while the actors paraded in front of it.  There are static shots, like postcards, to establish the locations and the actors hold their poses for the camera or present themselves in single file for scenes. Though the look and feel of the production calls to mind penny arcades and newsreels, the writer takes a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and gives it a Spanish twist with a modern sensibility.  Instead of a cute performing dog, this film features a rooster.

This is Snow White as if told by Guillermo del Toro.  A “Pan’s Labyrinth” for our young heroine to suffer and battle her way through.  Written and directed by Pablo Berger, this amazing work keeps a few of the fairy tale details but embellishes them with a Spanish world of make-believe.  A bullfighter, a frightening and cruel Stepmother (bondage, anyone?), and a young girl who’s forced to do a lot more than sweep the floors; she’s treated like a mule.  Unlike the Disney version, there’s no prince to ride in and rescue our fair maiden.  No, she must rescue herself and slay her own bulls — and when she finds her “prince”, he is a whole lot shorter than one might expect!

Paco Delgado’s costumes are stunning.  There’s an opening scene of the Bullfighter dressing for the ring that is like a lesson in fashion of the time; the small metal button fastener, the way he spins to wind his cummerbund around his waist, all the details of brocade, buckles and embellishment.  The Stepmother wears the high fashion of Seville. The evil fashionista is shown trying on hats and furs and posing for paintings.  Her goal is to be featured in the magazines.  It’s as if she’s the Kim Kardashian of Spain and even as she rides off to offer her poison apple to our hero, she’s resplendent in black lace with a veil that covers her eyes.

Our young Snow White is played by a charming young actress, Maribel Verdu from “Pan’s Labyrinth”, with expressive eyes and a sunny smile.  She learns flamenco dancing from her grandmother and bull fighting from her father but grows up in the poisoned household of her Stepmother.  Fleeing from the man who’s sent to kill her, the young woman, now played by Angela Molina, loses her memory and finds a new home among the traveling bullfighting “dwarves”. As her memory slowly returns, she finds her place in the ring just as her Wicked Stepmother finds HER.

At 107 minutes, this charming film tests the audience’s patience with many repeated scenes, slow-moving carriages and too many shots of the crowd’s reactions.  While it’s great to see something created in an antiquated style of filmmaking, there needs to be more substance to the story to hold our attention and justify the unusual trip down memory lane.  One thing that could have been shortened is the long coda. It’s a nice twist to have a setting in an old carnival sideshow with a tender scene to help offset the tragedy in the bullring.  It’s bittersweet, but it’s an additional ending and runs too long.

The ending, like “Blancanieves”, though far from fairy tale, is definitely Grimm.

Rating: 3 glasses of Sangria

“Trance” :Hypnotic, chaotic, who-done-it

imagesJames McAvoy has a wide-eyed, boy wonder appeal.  Dressed in a nice suit with his posh accent, he stares straight out at us narrating a heist; a heist that leaves him gravely injured.  His charm draws the audience in and makes us care about his welfare.  An exciting start to a thriller that plays with your perceptions.

All three of the leads give committed and naked performances–both literally and figuratively.  It’s a rare film where full frontal nudity is used as a plot point, but this one is unique.  Rosario Dawson gives an extraordinary performance and Vincent Cassel subverts the British criminal stereotype with dry humor and an unexpected warmth.  As the man who may have lost more than his memory, Jame McAvoy exudes charm even without his fingernails.

From the heist to the hypnotist, from the secret club house at the dump, and back and forth to the three lead’s flats, not only does where the action is taking place get confusing, it’s even a challenge to know when (past or present) and even, if what just happened was imagined or real.  As the characters seem to get closer to solving the mystery, the action gets more intense and the possibility that one or more of them will be killed seems certain.  But who and by whom?

“Trance” loses it’s way in it’s own maze by the end but with a thrilling soundtrack (original music by Rick Smith), some excellent performances and a plot that plays with our perceptions; it’s a ride you’ll enjoy. Danny Boyle has mentioned that he’d like to try his hand at a musical next.  His work ranges from science fiction (“Sunshine”) to dark farce (“Shallow Grave”), from charming Irish fable (“Millions”) to the drug-fueled abandon of “Trainspotting”.  He’s the acclaimed and award-winning director of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours”.  Danny Boyle crafted this action-packed thriller in a short break while planning the Opening Ceremonies for the Olympic Games in London; it’s safe to say, he’s capable of tackling any genre!

Rating: 3 glasses of wine at a posh restaurant

Challenging the audience: Films that make you “wonder”

Here in the Bay Area in the middle of April, lovers of cinema have a wide array of film choices.  For those of us lucky enough to live near the cities that are graced with art-house theaters, there’s more at the local cineplex than the comic book adaptations, sequels and rom-coms to choose from.  Now, more than any other time, there seem to be a plethora of challenging, thought-provoking films that encourage discussion and flaunt the rules of conventional story-telling.

Welcome to “to the Wonder”, Terrence Malick’s latest divisive film.  A cinematic meditation on love, faith and commitment, Malick continues to contrast nature porn, voice-overs and characters interacting.  He chooses to drop the audience into the middle of his exploration.  Only four of the actors from the 14 or so he filmed made the cut but in truth, he seems to care more for the silent interactions between his actors and not WHO is playing the role.  No dinosaurs or images of the cosmos like “Tree of Life” but it does asks audience to sit through long stretches of silent (or unheard dialogue) and with little in the way of plot or resolution. And a distinct disregard for audience’s patience.

Another head-scratcher is the film, “Upstream Color” from a new auteur, Shane Carruth.  He also directed “Primer” and wrote, directed, shot and edited “Upsteam Color” as well as scoring and acting in the film!  Where “Primer” was told from an engineer’s point of view and deals with time travel, “Upstream Color” is romance thru the prism of of a sic-fi thriller.  With references to Walden, orchids, possession and pigs, the story unfolds with beautiful images and an emphasis on sound.  One character is even called the Sampler and is seen recording sound.  Like Malick, Carruth seems more interested in presenting ideas than a straight-forward romance.  Thankfully, he knows the importance of an audience’s attention span, especially considering the complex material and the film is 96 minutes.

Also opening this weekend is a more Hollywood-style film, the British production, “Trance”.  Danny Boyle  breaks free from the standard heist narrative with a focus on hypnosis.  “Trance” plays with perceptions and takes the who-done-it to a where?who?why? realm.  Danny Boyle wants the audience to question if a scene happened in the past, is currently taking place or is a fiction created in the character’s mind.  Lofty aspirations for a heist film and featuring some nice performances from James McAlvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel.  At 101 minutes, it loses it’s way in it’s own maze near the end but it’s  entertaining and has a great soundtrack.

Now this is not to say that the local cineplex is chock-full of art-house fare.  There’s still “G.I. Joe-Retaliation”, “Oz, The Great And Powerful”, “The Croods” and even a re-release of “Jurrassic Park” to take advantage of the 3D fad and encourage new fans for the upcoming sequel.  But it’s nice to see that there’s really something for everyone playing right now and even the mainstream fare is being directed by filmmakers that are willing to bet that not all audiences are looking for an evening of crashes, chases or cheesy rom-coms.

So I say, hooray for Terrence Malick, Shane Carruth, and Danny Boyle.  It might not be my cup of tea but I’ll take it over the same ol’ concession soda any time!

The Place Beyond the Pines: The Sins of the Fathers…

284x155Are the actions of the fathers destined to be repeated by the sons?  In Derek Cianfrance’s second film, “The Place Beyond the Pines”, Handsome Luke is pacing, his heavy breathing heard before he’s even seen. He’s psyching himself up for his daredevil motorcycle act.  Opening with a medium shot of the chiseled torso of Ryan Gosling, there’s an urgency and excitement that leads the audience to expect a thrilling ride.  This first of three acts does have robberies, get-aways and a dramatic ending, but it’s packed with stereotype Hollywood tropes: the final desperate job, the long-suffering, hard-working wife/mistress, and the thief with the heart of gold that meets a tragic end.  There are spoilers ahead but you’d have figured this all out yourself after the opening act.

Eva Mendes plays such a tragic figure that most of her scenes involve weeping.  Her role is one of reaction.  Even in the movie poster, Ryan Gosling is holding money, Bradley Cooper; a gun.  Eva is shown winching as if in pain.  The story has her character, Romina, drawn to Luke even though she knows he’s bad news (I mean, look at those tattoos!) and she’s already involved with someone else.  The revelation that he’s a father, drive the fatherless Luke to abandon the road and support his son and win Romina’s heart.  Even though it was a one night stand, suddenly, Luke has decided to do the right thing.  But Luke can’t escape his nature.  As he’s is putting together a crib using a tiny Allen wrench (“L”-shaped tool often used to assemble IKEA furniture), Luke suddenly smashes the face of Romina’s lover.  The incongruity of the heavy wrench he uses seems like such a plot device (where did it come from?) that the movie stalls when it should be gaining momentum.

The second act features our young cop, Avery, played by Bradley Cooper.  He’s hailed as a hero but suffers the knowledge that he shot first and has left a fatherless child.  Conflicted and wounded, he convalesces at home but can’t bring himself to confide in his long-suffering wife, another tragic female character (played by Rose Byrne), and he can’t bring himself to connect with his own infant son.  Hmmm, could this lead to problems down the line?  Only if this is the type of movie to feature police corruption, a showdown in the woods and a moral crossroad for our “hero”.  Oh wait, this is that movie.

Giving up hope that there will be anything original happening in the third act, the audience is rewarded with the story circling back on itself and repeating scenes that rang false the first time. Avery tries to give Romina money in the same way Luke did, even using the same words.  Jason discovers who his father was and goes to visit Robin, the mechanic who took Luke in but also lead him astray.  Ben Mendolson, as Robin, almost steals the film with the one performance that doesn’t feel staged and phony.

Not only do the two sons meet, Avery is now a Lieutenant Governor and must bail out his damaged son from jail–just as Robin bailed out Luke.  Realizing who his son, AJ (Emory Cohen), is mixed up with, Avery demands that he “leave that boy alone”.  So, of course, AJ, played with a broad Trenton accent and gold chains, bullies Jason into robbing a convenience store and invites him to a party at his father’s house.  AJ and Jason have a drug and booze-fueled evening of fun till Jason, a very good Dane DeHaan, realizes that the photographs he’s repeatedly smashed into are of the man-who-killed-my-father.  The sons fight and Jason ends up the hospital.

As the long-suffering Mom, Romina comes to the hospital only to be rejected by her son, Jason.  Now there’s a confrontation at gun point, one son that appears to be dead, a kidnapping and a death threat in the woods with Bradley’s character AGAIN, and a dramatic moment of AJ realizing his father’s worth and standing literally and figuratively at his side.  And guess who rides off into the sunset on a motorcycle?  Could it be the son of the man who rode into town to start this whole mess?  Not only do the sins of the fathers get visited upon the sons; so does the skill to ride a motorcycle.  Who knew that was genetic?

Rating: one pull off a bottle of Jack, without the “oxy” please.

“to the Wonder” : long-winded discourse with few words

photo_06How long have you spent time in someone’s company before one of you speaks, or checks your cellphone, or quietly whistles or hums?  In Terrence Malick’s beautiful film poem, “to the Wonder”, our characters spend most of their time together in silence.  The opening scene of the young lovers traveling by car, touring a landmark on the French coast and walking along the beach, all in silence, was finally relieved by a little laughing.  The stilted, surreal nature of this film is off-putting to such a great extent that even with determination to put aside preconceived notions of plot and character development, it’s still hard to relax into the poetry of images.

This is not a film that’s concerned with narrative.  Yes, there are lovers and there is conflict but resolution is not the goal.  This is an attempt to explore the larger truths of love, faith, trust and a study of one man’s inability to commit.  Ben Affleck’s character, Neil, is so conflicted that he can’t seem to even furnish his house.   Scenes of physical intimacy are shown in tight, close-ups but rarely communicate satisfaction or resolution.   Instead, these intimate scenes show a wistfulness or inability to connect and end with one of the character’s turning away or leaving.

This exploration of larger themes is told through the male gaze.  Both Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko are photographed from behind as if the audience is posited in Ben Affleck’s place.  Both women are extremely fond of twirling; spinning in long skirts across a field or dancing around the house with flowing scarves, even bouncing on the bed; the Wonder women are like pinwheels blown about by their feelings.

Terrence Malick’s films make nature a character.  In this film, the wind has a featured role.  There is wind blowing through drapes, wind-swept reeds, wind blowing on the water.  Nature is a place to escape to, to flee the confinement of suburbia but also a place to reflect and renew.  Neil tries to connect with the daughter by talking about the sunset as they walk outside.  There is a beautiful scene of buffalo shot in the golden hour, Rachel McAdams hair glowing in the setting sun. Nature also needs to be protected.  Neil’s job is taking soil and water samples of the toxins created by construction and he’s shown interviewing people suffering pollution’s effects.  The limited amount of dialogue that is heard on the soundtrack (as opposed to the long voice overs from the characters), is mainly from these outsiders; the people in this small town.  The daughter is also given spoken dialogue and it’s used to criticize the relationship and to persuade her mother to return to Paris.  She tells her mother, “This doesn’t feel right”.

The words are not used to explain motivations or further the plot and the soundtrack drowns out some of Rachel McAdam’s voice over and in it’s discordance, acts as a distancing device for her character.  At this point in the film, many in the audience began to leave the theater.  Frustrated by the lack of plot or character motivation or lack of resolution?

The who, why and where are left unexplained.  The film is focused on images of nature and our main character’s struggle for intimacy and the priest (Javier Bardem) struggling with his lose of faith. the priest intones, “Love is not just a feeling; it’s a duty” and tells Neil, “You are afraid to commit; to risk failure, to risk betrayal”.  If there’s an epiphany in the film, it’s the moment when each of the characters seems to find the divine in nature, particularly in the form of light: a sunset, the light on a fence, the light coming through the stain glass window.  Ahhh, but if only this divination didn’t take almost two hours to reveal itself!

Rating:  1 glass of sacramental wine