Film review – Farewell, My Queen (2012)

6 June 2013
Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux)

Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux)

One of the most interesting approaches to telling the story of the life and times of a famous person is telling that story through the eyes of an unknown. Rather than the traditional and often stodgy birth-to-death autobiographical approach, this second-hand perspective has the potential to be far more insightful. Firstly it allows the viewer to vicariously share the protagonist’s experience in encountering fame, and secondly, it provides the filmmaker with an opportunity to reflect the core characteristics of the famous person during a fixed moment in their life. It is a technique that recent films such as Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, 2008) and My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis, 2011) used extremely well, using factual liberties to create an impression of the subject matter with far more depth and intrigue than the standard biopic that is more interested it checking off all the important moments over a whole life time.

Similar to Me and Orson Welles and My Week with Marilyn, Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen (based on a 2002 novel by Chantal Thomas) presents the ‘celebrity’ at the centre of the narrative through the eyes of ‘ordinary’ person, in this case a fictitious servant named Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux). And the celebrity that the audience discovers through the eyes of Sidonie is Marie Antoinette. As Sophia Coppola suggested in her uneven yet fascinating 2006 film Marie Antoinette, the French queen was something of a pop-culture figure, endlessly scrutinised in life and in death, and torn between her true self and her public persona. In Farewell, My Queen, which is set during the start of the French Revolution during July 1789, Marie is played by Diane Kruger who delivers a good performance when she actually appears on screen. Her absence from the majority of the first half of the film is part of the overall problem that there seems to be two different films struggling to be seen in Farewell, My Queen resulting in a final product that never quite feels unified.

Marie’s fleeting appearance at the start of the film initially suggests that the focus is not on her, but on the dynamics of the court and servants living at the Palace of Versailles. An early pan of a group of desperate peasants to the ornate gates of the palace establishes the disconnect that the palace inhabitants had to the rest of the country. The film then follows Sidonie as she goes to read for Marie and plays the part of a dutiful friend, further establishing the disconnect of the aristocracy who mistake servitude for companionship. Then for a long stretch the film follows Sidonie through court life, representing its complex hierarchy and the growing unease about the fragments of revolutionary news being received from outside the palace gates.

While the upstairs/downstairs dynamic is a theme frequently explored in English texts, it is rarely depicted in such detail as it is in Farewell, My Queen. Not only is there a marked division between the members of the court and the servants, but there is a further system of status that exists within the broader groups. Different members of the court have a higher social standing than others, and the servants are also guided by rank. Characters will be commanding or chastising somebody in one moment, and in another will be bowing their heads in subservience. It is a complex social system that Jacquot’s offers as more an observation on tribal behaviour than anything else, and the results are mostly fascinating.

Even more fascinating is how Jacquot portrays the rising panic and paranoia of the court as the news about the revolution starts to spread. Along with the sometimes Robert Altmanesque overlapping dialogue, the constantly moving camera captures Sidonie’s observant curiosity and increasingly urgent desire to find out what is happening outside of the palace. When marching through the palace upon hearing about the storming of the Bastille, the camera is placed close to Sidonie to emphasise her determined footsteps and rising anxiety. The edits are sudden and quick as if time was folding in on itself upon hearing such alarming news.

In a later scene – and the film’s stylistic moment of triumph – all the members of the court and their servants move through the residential halls of the palace trying to determine what they should do. Social order is breaking down, people are gripped by uncertainty and the whole moment is like a dream. The camera is suitably dreamlike, floating through the scene and accompanied by the films unconventional and disarming music score. The effect is not unlike Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), which while a different type of film in many ways, contained similar themes about being lost in history and the passing of time where all things must come to an end.

While very effectively setting itself up as a film about court life during Marie Antoinette’s rule through the eyes of one servant, the film then shifts gear to become an unrequited love triangle narrative with Marie harbouring a secret love for Gabrielle de Polastron (Virginie Ledoyen) and Sidonie for Marie. By reintroducing Marie so late and giving Gabrielle so little to do until this stage, it is difficult to be swept away by the intended drama. A moment when Marie and Gabrielle publicly embrace to suggest considerable intimacy is presented as having monumental significance. While the audience can appreciate such a moment, it is difficult to really feel the desired intensity of the moment since the relationship between Marie and Gabrielle had been mentioned, but never shown.

Sidonie remains the constant throughout Farewell, My Queen, but she moves from being the inquisitive observer to a participant in a supposedly forbidden love affair. It feels like two different films competing for dominance, which just results in them both being weakened. This is a shame as so much of the film works, especially the combination of production design, cinematography and music to convey the shifting moods of the court while facing the growing crisis. Nevertheless, there are many examples of innovative and bold filmmaking in Farewell, My Queen, which aspires to more than biopics that simply deliver historical re-enactments. While it does not hang together as a whole, Farewell, My Queen is still an interesting and engaging film that should be overall commended for what it does achieve. Through the eyes of Sidonie a compelling impression of an extinct society is delivered, and while the presence of Marie Antoinette in the story is frustrating held back until it is too late, she still emerges as a curious blend of contradictions – kind, indifferent, calculating and somebody to love.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Amour (2012)

24 February 2013
Amour: Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant)

Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant)

Even though Amour has been released internationally under its French name, it is still a film titled Love. While many films often have the word ‘love’ in the title, few filmmakers are as bold (or perhaps foolish) to have that loaded word used as the title for their film. This is probably because most films about love are really about romance or other idealised variations about what love is. Few films really explore the question of what it means to love, not necessarily because of the complexity that is potentially involved, but because of the challenge required to express an understanding of love at its purest. Filmmaker Michael Haneke has approached the task by depicting the slow decline of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an elderly woman living in Paris whose husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) looks after her as her body and then mind start to fail. The result is a triumph for Haneke and a deeply beautiful film.

As a filmmaker renowned for his ability to provoke, challenge and confront audiences with their own hypocrisy, Haneke may not seem like an obvious choice to make a film about love. However, he is perfect because of his ability to remove all traces of sentimentality and romantic notions of love that popular culture has trained audiences to believe in. So instead of young lovers discovering that they are one another’s soul mates, we see an elderly couple whose companionship has long moved on from the moment where most romance films end. Never before has Haneke’s highly formal and almost didactic approach to representing human behaviour so clearly expose him as a humanist at heart.

The film opens with Haneke asserting that the audience are voyeurs, witnesses to a private space and occupying an ethically ambiguous position. It is a favourite technique of Haneke’s and here it is established with a flashforward of the authorities bursting into Anne and Georges’s apartment; literally bursting into the space of the film in the very first frame. The film then goes back in time to show Anne and Georges enjoying a live music concert (we later learn the performer was once a student of Anne’s) before taking a train home together. As they enter their apartment they talk about somebody having broken in and how this concerns them. It is not only a typically Hanekesque moment for both recalling the flashforward and providing a narrative red herring, but it serves as a metaphor for the audience having ‘broken in’ to their lives. Later death becomes the intruder in their home. A pair of scenes involving a pigeon serves a similar purpose as it represents an unwanted visitor and also serves as a calculated distraction from other events. Eventually the pigeon exists to express the kindness that ultimately characterises the film.

Through all the difficult scenes of Anne’s decline and Georges’s frustration, kindness pervades. Even Haneke is kind towards the various supporting characters who commit acts of insensitivity to differing degrees; suggesting they have good intentions without full comprehension of the outcomes. For example, Anne’s former student Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud) unwittingly comes across as overly dramatic in how he expresses his sympathy, leaving Anne unable to listen to his music anymore. Likewise their daughter Eve (Isabelle Huppert) seems irrational compared to her parents, but Haneke shows us that she has not been able to get accustomed to what is happening to her mother due to other parts of her life demanding her attention.

Finally there is the kindness and affection between Anne and Georges that is initially shown through their daily domestic interaction and later through the scenes of Georges looking after Anne. Both of them struggle with the fact that what is happening to Anne is robbing her of her dignity. The way the pair attempts to make the situation more bearable for the other, often against the wishes of each other, is a significant part of what makes Amour a film of such integrity. The other strength is Haneke’s meticulous framing and camera position so that the camera only ever gets as close to the characters as it needs to, rather than opting for indulgent close-ups at every opportunity to elicit easy sentiment. Amour becomes the opposite of the film that Georges saw as a child and describes to Anne, which was manipulative and completely forgettable, but shamefully left him sad beyond belief afterwards without registering its power at the time. Amour is anything but manipulative or forgettable, but its emotional power is similarly not fully felt until the final credits are rolling.

Unlike the film Georges saw, Amour is not a film to feel ashamed about for having been moved by it. It is distinctively a Haneke film and yet its formal elements and moments of self-awareness seem designed to reward the viewer rather than punish them. By stripping back any aspects of film style or narrative that feel false or constructed, Haneke ensures that everything that happens between Anne and Georges is an act of intense kindness and personal sacrifice shared by people who love each other unconditionally. The scenario is upsetting, but the execution is genuine and pure, making Amour a film of heartbreaking beauty and Haneke’s masterpiece.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Holy Motors (2012)

23 August 2012
Holy Motors: Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) and Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue)

Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) and Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue)

In Holy Motors director Leos Carax demonstrates that playful can be profound, bewildering can be meaningful and randomness can have precision. It undermines so many cinematic conventions and yet it is a loving tribute to cinema. Like Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s deliriously funny animation A Town Called Panic (2009) it appears to be a film where the story has been made up on the spot, and yet it is not possible that a work this intricate could not have been strategically planned. Like the dream inspired films of Federico Fellini in the 1960s, Holy Motors is funny, melancholic, nostalgic and just self-aware enough to remind the audience that although they can enjoy the sensory experience on screen, thinking further about what the film could be suggesting will deliver the richest rewards.

The basic structure of the film is straightforward – a man played by actor Denis Lavant (a regular collaborator with Carax) is taken around Paris in a limousine and given a variety of tasks where he takes on different personae. His limousine is like an elaborate backstage changing room where he not only physically transforms himself but psychologically seems to fully possess the role he has to play, which is then completely accepted without question by the people he encounters in the real world.

The point and purpose of the various tasks is deliberately left wide open for interpretation. The film hints that they could be the dreams of the people the Lavant character encounters, as if Holy Motors is a visualisation of the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the dream world. Every task could also be regarded as symbolising a cinematic genre: from social realism, to crime thriller, to family drama and even to a Jacques Demy-style musical in a scene featuring an incredible performance by Kylie Minogue. One task that seems to evoke recent French and other European horror sees the Lavant character as a deranged representation of a homeless man. He kidnaps a model played by Eva Mendes and then forces her to wear a burqa in a scene that parodies fears of ‘otherness’.

An earlier sequence sees Lavant wearing a motion-capture bodysuit, dancing in a darkened studio with only the sensors on his bodysuit capturing the light. During the sequence he is joined by a female companion and the pair perform a strange sensual dance. It’s a visually startling scene that is then undermined when the results of their performance is revealed and the audience see the pair as two CGI creatures from a fantasy film animated by their moves. The creation of the illusion is so much more fulfilling than the reveal of the illusion, which seems to be Carax’s main theme in terms of how Holy Motors represents filmmaking and even the meaning of life itself.

Carax is perhaps arguing that seeing the mechanics of cinema and being aware of its tangibility is what makes film great, and the current pursuit of smaller cameras, discrete digital filmmaking and the new verite-style ‘realism’ is removing the magic. Similarly, defining a life by landmark events and occasions loses the joy of the strange and wonderful passages in-between and the moments that don’t make sense in a Hollywood narrative but form who we are. At least that’s one potential way to read Holy Motors. One thing that Carax leaves no doubt about with the film’s final scene is that regardless of how the film is experienced or deconstructed, it all boils down to being a bit of fun. Playful, absurd and whimsical fun that captures so much of why cinema is still something to be treasured and celebrated.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Polisse (2011)

3 July 2012
Polisse: Nadine (Karin Viard), Fred (Joeystarr) and Iris (Marina Foïs)

Nadine (Karin Viard), Fred (Joeystarr) and Iris (Marina Foïs)

Polisse follows the day-to-day work of a Child Protection Unit (CPU) in Paris, inspired by real cases and the lives of actual CPU officers. Juxtaposition plays an important part throughout the film where scenes depicting child abuse or neglect are frequently followed by scenes depicting family life where adults interact with children appropriately. This technique is sometimes used to reveal the great harm that adults can do to children and it is also used strategically to remind the audience there are plenty of adults who genuinely love their children and have no trouble at all distinguishing between right and wrong. The technique is also used to reinforce the almost schizophrenic nature of being a CPU officer where the days are spent coldly discussing and investigating horrific crimes against children before going home to spend time with their own families.

Polisse has frequently been compared to the US television series The Wire (created by David Simon, 2002-2008) due to its focus on police work, multi-narrative structure and sense of realism. However, the complex narrative structure of The Wire is used to convey all the different facets of the drug trade in Baltimore. The Wire contains a grand narrative of interlinking storylines; Polisse is a snapshot of the daily grind where storylines filter in and out of the narrative often without resolution. Cases pass by the desks of the CPU, are briefly worked on and then go elsewhere. The members of the unit go to work on the next case and more often than not don’t know the outcomes of the cases they began. Sometimes the officers have cause to celebrate, other times they are devastated by what has happened that day. Mostly they maintain an odd detachment that sometimes results in melancholy and sometimes in ultra black humour.

This approach allows the audience to get an insight into the reality of police work in a highly sensitive department. Early in the film it is established that the officers come from a variety of ethnic, religious and political backgrounds with different levels of education. Some remain cool and detached throughout while others are prone to emotional investment. Polisse shows the danger of being too detached from the work, resulting in a lack of sensitivity while interrogating a victim or the parent of a victim, and also the danger of becoming too attached, resulting in emotional meltdown.

Some of the most interesting characters that emerge are the ones on various ends of the emotional attachment spectrum. There is Baloo (Frédéric Pierrot), the head of the unit, who is passionate about the work, but remains a calming presence at crucial moments, even though at times the other officers perceive him as weak for not challenging the bureau chief. On the other hand, there is Fred (Joeystarr) a far more volatile presence who is fed up with situations where a lack of resources is all that’s preventing the unit from helping somebody. The most engaging dynamic throughout the film is the friendship between Nadine (Karin Viard) and Iris (Marina Foïs), who are partners in the unit. Both are having marital troubles, which they discuss in between arrests and while on stakeouts, and during the film both develop in very different ways. The resolution for one of the characters may initially seem surprising, but throughout the film there are clues and suggestions about what is to come.

Director and co-writer Maïwenn casts herself in the film as Mélissa, a photojournalist who is assigned to the unit. It’s a clever self aware piece of casting where her character mimics her actual time spent with real CPU police officers. It positions her as the outsider looking inwards at this tightly knit team and like the audience tries to make sense of how the officers function. Conversations her character has mimic questions the audience might have about how to represent the CPU. What is the value of showing a crying child? Is there a point to showing members of the unit chatting over lunch rather than out solving crimes? Unfortunately, when the film delves into Mélissa’s backstory and then develops a romance story involving her and one of the CPU officers, it’s neither necessary nor insightful. Nevertheless, the benefit of a film that follows so many characters is that scenes containing less interesting characters and storylines don’t linger on the screen for long.

Not only is Polisse an excellent film for how it pieces together fragments to convey the CPU as a whole, but it also offers a sobering insight into the range and causes of child abuse. Some of the perpetrators are simply clueless while others are disturbingly calculated. A scene when an Islamic officer rips shreds off a fundamentalist man for betraying the true values of Islam by forcing his daughter into an arranged marriage is the only scene that edges into didactic territory. Polisse also depicts how not all cases are clear cut especially ones involving young teenagers who are openly and assertively sexually active. A scene depicting a teenage girl having a stillbirth as a result of rape is one of the most upsetting cinematic depictions of the incredible harm a rapist can do.

The fragmented narrative and use of juxtaposition that Maïwenn adopts for Polisse results in an engaging portrait of an ensemble of people and cases, which for the subject matter works far better than a conventional narrative. The CPU unit feels like a character with many different and often contradictory elements that make up the whole. The different cases become a single ongoing mission to best manage the continual abuse and neglect that children suffer. Appropriately the film ends with a final juxtaposition where two storylines are resolved through crosscutting. One story offers a sense of hope and healing while the other is tragic. As the rest of the film has shown us, this is the reality of working in the CPU.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

DVD review – Carlos the Jackal (2010), Region 4, Madman

15 August 2011
Carlos the Jackal: Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Édgar Ramírez Arellano)

Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Édgar Ramírez Arellano)

It’s difficult to imagine a more comprehensive and detailed depiction of the life and times of international terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (aka Carlos the Jackal) than Olivier Assayas’s made for television French/German co-production Carlos. Beginning with Carlos’s early activities in Paris in the early 1970s working for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Carlos covers three decades of the career of the ‘celebrity terrorist’ up until his arrest in 1994.

Portrayed with chilling charisma, arrogance, narcissism and ruthlessness by Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez Arellano, Carlos is as fascinating and appealing as a terrorist could be without the film ever coming across as endorsing his violent actions. Against the backdrop of the end of the Cold War and the rise of radical Islam, Carlos is relentlessly tense and exciting in the sequences depicting the planning and then execution of various plots, with the 1975 raid on the OPEC headquarters as the centrepiece.

Carlos is available in both the 3-part TV miniseries version and the condensed 158-minute theatrical edition.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 385, 2011

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Of Gods and Men (2010)

26 May 2011
Of Gods and Men: Christian (Lambert Wilson) and Paul (Jean-Marie Frin)

Christian (Lambert Wilson) and Paul (Jean-Marie Frin)

One of the many atrocities during the Algerian Civil War, between the government and extremist Islamic rebel groups, was the 1996 kidnapping and murder of seven French Cistercian monks. Of Gods and Men tells the story of those monks not as a detailed historical account (what actually happened to the monks and who killed them are questions still being investigated) but as an exploration of the kinds of people those monks were. A highly spiritual order, their mission was to help the suffering and the film demonstrates their strong relationship with the local Muslim population. As terrorist violence starts to affect their small community the monks have to decide whether to stay or leave.

Director and co-writer Xavier Beauvois creates an impression of the monastic life through a series of observational moments. The audience sees the monks in prayer, tending to their chores, studying and simply passing silently through the monastery halls. Life is disciplined and serene. Beauvois also depicts the way the monks interact with the local villagers, providing medical treatment, providing charity, working at the market and even giving advice about love. The naturalistic performances and Beauvois’s almost documentary style of filmmaking means that Of Gods and Men always feels sincere. The monks emerge as remarkable men whose faith is less motivated by dogma than compassion, intelligence, introspection and a powerful sense of duty to help others.

The stylistic restraint used throughout Of Gods and Men means that moments of emotional vulnerability are felt extremely profound. The monks are mostly reserved, displaying their kindness and the pleasure they take in the happiness of others through a twinkle in the eye rather than broad facial expressions. So when they do privately break down in rare moments of uncertainty or despair, the enormity of what they are feeling is fully conveyed.

Of Gods and Men: Amédée (Jacques Herlin) and Luc (Michael Lonsdale)

Amédée (Jacques Herlin) and Luc (Michael Lonsdale)

There is no musical score in the film so that the only music heard are the chants by the monks and the overture from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which is played in a key scene towards the end of the film. The music is presumably one of the few indulgences the monks allow themselves and the obviousness of such a blatantly emotive piece of music in this context becomes very touching. During this sequence the camera gradually gets closer and closer to each monk so that eventually only their eyes fill the screen, highlighting their conflicting feelings of joy about what they have achieved and despair about what is to come. The scene overtly takes on The Last Supper symbolism and like Jesus, the monks are preparing to take on the sins of the world and forgive the sinners. It’s a profound moment that captures the monks as both human beings and men devoted to the values of Christianity in their purest form.

Of Gods and Men does not shy away from demonstrating the harm that can be done when religion is strategically interpreted for political gain, and the film ensures that the differences between the local Muslims villagers and the in-name-only Muslim terrorists are pronounced. The monks are deeply respectful and knowledgeable about Islam and share more of the values of the local villagers than the terrorist extremists do. Whether their religious beliefs are the reason for the monks being such courageous and selfless men or simply incidental is not the point as Of Gods and Men aims to celebrate who they were without glossing over the difficult choices they had to make. The results are a wonderfully humanist film about a tragic story.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Copacabana (2010)

14 November 2010
Copacabana: Esméralda (Lolita Chammah) and Babou (Isabelle Huppert)

Esméralda (Lolita Chammah) and Babou (Isabelle Huppert)

The mother and daughter relationship at the heart of Copacabana is not a million light years away from the dynamic explored in the British television series Absolutely Fabulous, where the mature daughter had to put up with her mother’s frequently infantile behaviour. In Copacabana the mother, who goes by the nickname Babou (Isabelle Huppert), is something like an impulsive teenager with her restless and extroverted behaviour. She is a glorious force of nature with a lust for life and a constant desire to travel and not be tied down. The downside of her personality is that she can also be unreliable, petulant and self-centred. Worse of all, she has become an embarrassment to her daughter Esméralda (played by Huppert’s actual daughter Lolita Chammah) who while once close to her mother now craves stability. A rather painful encounter early in the film between the pair results in Babou moving to Belgium to sell time-share apartments.

Isabelle Huppert has an extraordinary filmography behind her, having worked with distinguished directors from all over the world. She has acted in a diverse range of roles, but more recently she is perhaps best known for some of her extremely gritty roles in films such as Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001) and Claire Denis’s White Material (2009). It is somewhat pleasing to now see her in a more light-hearted role playing a character that has a similar energy to the Poppy character Sally Hawkins played in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, although Babou is not as selfless and assured as Poppy was. However, like Happy-Go-Lucky, Copacabana is not a broad comedy relying on big belly laughs but more a socially observant comedy/drama.

Copacabana: Babou (Isabelle Huppert)

Babou (Isabelle Huppert)

Writer/director Marc Fitoussi does a marvellous job capturing the strained mother/daughter relationship and the uncomfortable nature of starting a dubious job. Babou is an immediately recognisable character and both Fitoussi and Huppert make her extremely endearing while still openly presenting all her flaws. It would have been easy to take cheap shots at a character like Babou as an ‘out-of-touch, do-gooder bohemian’ but instead Copacabana presents us with a woman who, for all her temperamental behaviour, is a good person with a generous and loving nature. The lack of cynicism from the filmmakers and the lead character means that Copacabana ends up being an extremely charming and sweet film, pleasingly revealing yet another side to the chameleon-like Isabelle Huppert.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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