Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful


Newton’s Teutonic sensibility of beauty is both cold and sexy.

 (2020) Documentary (Kino LorberHelmut Newton, Grace Jones, Anna Wintour, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, June Newton, Hanna Schygula, Catherine Deneuve, Marianne Faithfull, Claudia Schiffer, Sylvia Gobbel, Phyllis Posnick, Carla Sozzoni, Nadja Auermann. Directed by Gero von Boehm

 

Helmut Newton is often described in terms of being a provocateur, an enfant terrible, the King of Kink, as Anna Wintour, the doyenne of Vogue magazine and one of his main employers, dubbed him. His photographs were often controversial, but always memorable.

He was born in Germany and grew up there during the age of the Weimar Republic, whose aesthetic influenced his work to a large extent. The rise of the Nazi party and their depiction of the human form (he admired Leni Riefenstahl’s work in Olympia although he bristles at the thought that she was an influence, seeing as he was Jewish and ended up fleeing Germany with his family). His was an essentially Teutonic aesthetic.

At the time he was working (he passed away in a car accident in Los Angeles in 2004 at the age of 83) he was recognized as an artist, an influence on how women were photographed (for better or for worse). Seen through the lens of 2020, perhaps we are less kind to him; often his pictures depicted women nude, and they were nearly always white (Grace Jones, the Jamaican singer, was one of the few exceptions), blonde, tall and statuesque. Often, they were posed in bondage gear, or in demeaning poses – there was often an element of S&M to his oeuvre – and his models often glared defiantly at the camera, a cigarette dangling petulantly from lips heavily painted with lipstick, smoke wreathing the lower part of their jaw.

His work hasn’t aged well in the sense that we are a different culture now; even though his portraiture depicted women as being strong and in control in most  occasions (and many of his models interviewed here said that even posing butt naked they felt safe and strong when posing for him) but many consider him a misogynist; certainly feminist Susan Sontag, who appeared with him on a French talk show (shown here) pointedly made the accusation, which he denied. “I love women” he protests, to which she responds “That doesn’t impress me. Misogynists always say they love women. Executioners love their victims.”

I suppose I would agree with the criticisms, except that nobody seems to be criticizing Robert Mapplethorpe, a contemporary, for shooting men in the same manner. There is a double standard here, reversed. There are those who say that it’s about time; as my mother might say, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Von Boehm, a veteran of German television, chooses not to make this a biography; Newton himself jokes during one of his archival interviews that “photographers are boring…if you want to know all that (details about his life and influences), I’m saving that for someone who has a lot more money than you.” Like many artists, he prefers to let his work speak for itself.

We mostly hear from the women in his life – his wife June (mostly in audio clips), Wintour, gallery curator Carla Sozzoni and a host of women who posed for him over the years; Jones, actresses Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Catherine Deneuve and Hanna Schygula, models Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Auermann and Sylvia Gobbel, and singer Marianne Faithfull. Most of them praise the photographer, although Jones admits with her typical candor “He was a pervert. That’s good; so am I.”

The film is hagiographic in that it really doesn’t address the criticisms – valid as they are – about his depiction of women. His wife describes him as a “naughty boy who grew up to be an anarchist” which is about as close to a description of who he was as you are likely to get. The filmmakers seem to be trying to allow the viewer to develop their own opinions about his work, but there isn’t enough of an opposing viewpoint to allow for an informed opinion. The images of Newton’s work are all that is offered, in the end, to consider and there is definitely an artistic vision at work here. Whether you believe it is art or misogyny is going to depend on you.

REASONS TO SEE: The images are compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really biographical so much as an exhibition of his work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of nudity, some sexuality and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Newton’s ashes are interred three plots down from Marlene Dietrich in Berlin.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Times of Bill Cunningham
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Opus of an Angel

Celebration


The grace and elegance of French fashion.

 (2007) Documentary (Kimstim/1091Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint-Laurent, Loulou De La Falaise, Catherine Deneuve, Laetitia Casta. Directed by Olivier Meyrou

 

The great Yves Saint-Laurent was a fashion icon, one of the last of the great haute couture fashion houses and certainly, as he expresses mournfully in an interview sequence during the film, the last with a living couturier (his fashion house would be sold to Gucci the following year).

Despite the title, this documentary is not so much a celebration as it is an elegy, a look at a great lion in the winter of his life. Shockingly, Saint-Laurent appears almost drugged in much of the film, sometimes appearing to be nodding off, other times being remonstrated with by his business partner and life partner Pierre Bergé not to lean over the podium before giving a speech so as not to appear as a doddering old man.

Most of the film revolves around a show the old master is putting together, what would turn out to be his last (although nobody knew it at the time). We see the apparatus of a major fashion hose humming at the top of its game; the seamstresses, chafing at near-impossible deadlines and an endless series of revisions, the models preening and cooing in the presence of the great man, the publicists trying to make order amidst the chaos and Bergé.

He also doesn’t come off particularly well, often boorish and condescending in his behavior, throwing a temper tantrum due to the presence of a photographer, often making snide and passive-aggressive comments about his partner “He is a sleepwalker, one who should not be awakened.” There is one unbelievable sequence late the film where Saint-Laurent has just won a prestigious award, only to have it nearly ripped out of his arms by Bergé, who says “I probably had a hand in it.” And yes, he probably did but it comes off seeming mean.

The film was screened only once, at the 2007 Berlinale, the year before Saint-Laurent passed away from brain cancer, only to have Bergé sue to have the film suppressed. It wasn’t until after Bergé himself passed on two years ago that the rights became available. After a brief New York theatrical release last October, the film is finally making its way to home video.

Is this an essential documentary? If you are a fashion junkie, no doubt. I don’t know if this is the most flattering portrait of Saint-Laurent possible and it certainly says nothing about his contributions to the industry, which among other things included the introduction of the pantsuit, for which Hilary Clinton should be grateful if nobody else. There is very little context of any sort given here; it is cinema verité in its purest form. That is both good and bad; if you don’t have much knowledge of fashion, you will undoubtedly feel lost and even bored while watching.

Meyrou alternates between using color and black and white in his footage; color for the reality of the work, black and white for contemplation. The music score is a problem; it is often jarring and intrusive, meant, I suppose, to symbolize the frail mental state of Saint-Laurent but coming off largely as inappropriate for the film. You’re better off turning the sound off and reading the subtitles.

One of the more delightful sequences is showing a couple of the seamstresses who return to the fashion house after it had been shuttered, remembering where their desks were, where the time clocks were, remembering a fellow seamstress who had a bad temper nearly clocking one of the two of them with a window.

It is on the one hand a fascinating portrait of Bergé but as for a legacy film for Saint-Laurent, it doesn’t work all that well. In a sense it is a look at the way fashion houses worked in times gone by but it may seem quaint to modern fashionistas. Nonetheless, if you have any sort of interest in the subject at all, it is well worth your time to rent this. If you’re like me and don’t have the interest in women’s clothes, you still might find some fulfillment in watching the interpersonal relationship between Bergé and Saint-Laurent.

REASONS TO SEE: Essential for fashionistas.
REASONS TO AVOID: The musical score is unsettling and at times inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was filmed back in 1998 for what would turn out to be St. Laurent’s last show before his house was sold to Gucci. It was kept on the shelf by Berge who felt that it revealed too much about the reclusive fashion icon.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3//20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic:  No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gospel According to Andre
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Johnny English Strikes Again

Maria by Callas


The legendary opera diva Maria Callas interviewed by David Frost.

(2017) Documentary (Sony ClassicsMaria Callas, Fanny Ardant, David Frost, Edward R. Murrow, Barbara Walters, Elvira de Hidalgo, Joyce DiDonato, Aristotle Onassis, Omar Sharif, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rudolf Bing, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, Bernard Gavoty, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean Cocteau, Brigitte Bardot, Vittorio De Sica, Catherine Deneuve, Grace Kelly. Directed by Tom Volf

 

Maria Callas’ star has faded. Even to people my own age she’s just a name that may or may not be familiar and to those younger than myself, not even that. Those who remember her may remember her as the epitome of the operatic diva, a woman whose talent made her a household name and whose lifestyle made her a legend.

When diva behavior is caricatured with furs, an adoring sycophantic entourage and small dogs, they are really discussing Callas who developed the persona for real. However, she was more than just a caricature and Volf uses interview footage – much of it unseen since it first aired – and the diva’s own words through letters and an unpublished autobiography to paint a portrait of the artist.

Born in New York to Greek immigrants, she was sent (unwillingly) to Athens to study operatic singing and after the war became a rising star, a star that blazed in the 1950s and early 1960s. She famously had a long-term affair with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis who would then in a shocking turn of events (at least to Callas) marry the widow of the former U.S. President, Jacqueline Kennedy. The betrayal devastated her, although she apparently continued a romantic relationship with him after he married Jackie.

Her life was a lonely one despite the wealth and fame; she had a love-hate relationship with the press and with her relationship with Onassis a defining moment for her, she would not marry again (she did marry an Italian impresario but the marriage ended when she felt he exerted too much influence over her career). That she was bitter is obvious through her words here.

This is an intimate look at an artist who has largely been forgotten, which is the nature of fame; it is indeed fleeting. How many famous people who dominate the headlines now be remembered in 50 to 70 years? For many, the answer will be not at all.

The movie glosses over a lot of the less pleasant aspects of her life, and tends to be unwilling to identify various people talking to and about Callas, so you may find yourself having to Google images of some of these folks. The filmmaker presents Callas as a woman who was largely imprisoned by her fame and gave more to her art and to her lover than she received back from either, a viewpoint that I think is a bit condescending. From everything I’ve been able to find out about the woman, she was very much in control of her life and her career; she was strong-willed and temperamental to the point that people tended to walk on eggshells around her.

I don’t think this is a complete view of the opera star, although watching her rapturous expression as she is singing an aria may well tell you everything you need to know about her. The film also tends to gloss over some of her less admirable qualities, as well as to the very obvious weight loss which may have contributed to the vocal issues that plagued her later on in her career, which only the opera fan may notice from her performances here. Still, this is an excellent introduction to her work and her life and maybe even to her personality as well.

REASONS TO SEE: A must for opera fans and history buffs. Some wonderful archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Skips over the less wonderful aspects of her life.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some vague sexual references, mild profanity and mild adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film by Volf.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Sling TV, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Vie en Rose
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Front Runner

New Releases for the Week of November 30, 2018


THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE

(Screen Gems) Shay Mitchell, Grey Damon, Kirby Johnson, Nick Thune, Louis Herthum, Stana Katic, Max McNamara, Jacob Ming-Trent. Directed by Diederik Van Rooijen

A young woman dies during the course of an exorcism. Months later, a morgue attendant working the graveyard shift takes delivery of a disfigured corpse. She begins having horrifying visions and begins to suspect that the corpse may be possessed by a demonic force. Formerly known as Cadaver, the movie has been bouncing around the release schedule for more than a year.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for gruesome images and terror throughout)

Border

(NEON) Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jorgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén. A customs office has the uncanny knack of being able to sniff out the guilt of smugglers – literally. One day a mysterious man walks past her and for the first time in her life, confounds her senses. This leads her down the rabbit hole of secrets and incredible revelations, into strong feelings and choices of whether to live a life or an uncomfortable truth.

See the trailer and a clip here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for some sexual content, graphic nudity, a bloody violent image, and language)

Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer

(Screen Media) Starring the voices of Josh Hutcherson, Morena Baccarin, John Cleese, Martin Short. When one of Santa’s reindeer retires unexpectedly, a frantic search for a replacement gets underway. Elliot, a horse with big dreams, heads to the North Pole to try his luck. In the interim his farm gets a new owner with nefarious plans of his own. Elliot must choose between achieving his dream and saving Christmas in doing so, or saving the lives of his friends.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Epic Theaters at Lee Vista (Saturday only)

Rating: PG (for some suggestive and rude humor)

Maria by Callas

(Sony Classics) Maria Callas, Omar Sharif, Aristotle Onasis, Catherine Deneuve. The life of the iconic opera star is told in her own words.

See the trailer and a clip here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements, some smoking and brief language)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

2.0
12 Round Gun
The Clovehitch Killer
Mirai
Pokémon the Movie: The Power of Us
Searching for Ingmar Bergman

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

2.0
A Cool Fish
Becoming Astrid
Dead in a Week (or Your Money Back)
The Great Buster
Mirai
On Her Shoulders
Oru Kuprasidha Payyan
Pokémon the Movie: The Power of Us
Return of the Hero

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

2.0
Blood Brother
Dark Was the Night
Pokémon the Movie: The Power of Us

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

The Great Buster

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Border
Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer
The Possession of Hannah Grace

New Releases for the Week of May 29, 2015


San AndreasSAN ANDREAS

(New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandria Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue. Directed by Brad Peyton

All Californians know that the big one is inevitable and now it is upon them. As a 9.0 quake rocks Southern California, a daring rescue helicopter pilot and his estranged wife take a perilous journey north to find their daughter, off to college in San Francisco. However, as bad as things were, they may only be the beginning of worse things yet to come.

See the trailer, interviews, and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Disaster
Now Playing: Wide Release (opens Thursday)
Rating: PG-13 (for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language)

Aloha

(Columbia) Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray. A military contractor, once celebrated but now more of an industry joke because of a meltdown, returns to the scenes of his greatest triumphs – the U.S. Space program in Honolulu. He reconnects with an ex-girlfriend while falling unexpectedly for a fast-burning U.S. Air Force liaison. In between his romantic conundrum, he is working on an intricate satellite system for an enigmatic billionaire whose intentions aren’t entirely clear. Just another day at the office.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Wide Release (opens Thursday)
Rating: PG-13 (for some language including suggestive comments)

I’ll See You in My Dreams

(Bleecker Street) Blythe Danner, June Squibb, Malin Akerman, Sam Elliott.  A widow in her 70s finds her comfortable routine shaken up. This causes her to reassess her views on love, death and family and now in her golden years, she decides to start dating again and in doing so falls into relationships with two very different men, leaving her with quite the quandary.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, drug use and brief strong language)

In the Name of My Daughter

(Cohen Media Group) Catherine Deneuve, Guillaume Canet, Adele Haenel, Judith Chemla. The brilliant French director André Téchiné brings us back to Nice in 1976 and one of the most notorious crimes in French history. When a casino heiress falls in love and marries a shady lawyer, her new husband manipulates her into voting against her mother and turning the casino over to the mob. Her subsequent disappearance and her husband’s hasty emigration to Panama lead her mother to believe that her daughter was murdered and her husband had a hand in it. She swears to see justice done, even though it takes decades.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for innuendo and language)

Tanu Weds Manu Returns

(Eros International) Kangana Ranaut, Madhavan, Jimmy Shergill, Eljaz Khan. The sequel to a hit Bollywood film, the marriage between Tanu and Manu collapses as many do. When lovely Manu meets a man who looks exactly like her ex-husband, what will she do when Tanu returns, seeking to patch things up?

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks
Rating: NR

New Releases for the Week of May 6, 2011


May 6, 2011

Thor gets ready to lay the hammer down on a bad guy.

THOR

(Paramount/Marvel) Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Colm Feore, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Stevenson, Jaimie Alexander, Clark Gregg. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Thor, the God of Thunder and son of Odin is a mighty warrior but an arrogant one. His arrogance unwittingly triggers hostilities between the Gods and the Giants who have been in an uneasy peace for centuries. For his actions, Odin banishes his son to live on Earth and to learn a little humility, which isn’t easy for a God living on Earth but there you go.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette, promos and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard. 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence)

I Am

(Paladin) Tom Shadyac, Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn. After a devastating cycling accident left him incapacitated, possibly permanently, director Shadyac (auteur of the Ace Ventura movies among others) re-examines himself and his place in the universe, deciding to make a movie about it which might just make up for Ace Ventura, karma-wise.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

In a Better World

(Sony Classics) Mikael Persbrandt, William Johnk Nielsen, Trine Dyrholm, Markus Rygaard. An idealistic doctor who splits time between his home in Denmark and an African refugee camp must choose between revenge and forgiveness. At home his son is undergoing the same choice, albeit in a far different situation. This was the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for violent and disturbing content some involving preteens, and for language)

Jumping the Broom

(TriStar) Angela Bassett, Paula Patton, Mike Epps, Loretta Devine. It seems like it would be a simple thing; two young people coming together in matrimony, in beautiful Martha’s Vineyard no less. However their families – one well-to-do, the other blue collar – are at each other’s throats. Not exactly the seeds for a happy nuptial, right?

See the trailer, clips, interviews and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content)

POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold

(Sony Classics) Morgan Spurlock, Ben Silverman, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader. Gadfly Spurlock (he of Super Size Me) takes on his own industry this time – and product placement therein as he documents his attempts to have his film entirely financed by product placement. Along the way he gives us a glimpse of how the movie industry works – and how pervasive advertising is in our lives.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for some language and sexual material)

Potiche

(Music Box) Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard. Set in the 1970s, the trophy wife of a wealthy French industrialist proves to be better at running his company than he is when he is convalescing from a heart attack, setting the stage for this French war between the sexes. I saw this previously at the Florida Film Festival and reviewed it here.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for some sexuality)

Something Borrowed

(Warner Brothers) Ginnifer Goodwin, Kate Hudson, Colin Egglesfield, John Krasinski. Rachel and Darcy are best friends; Rachel is the maid of honor for Darcy, who is about to marry the man that Rachel has had a crush on since law school. When Rachel sleeps with Darcy’s husband-to-be after a night of too much drinking, their little circle of friends are in for a game of “change partners!”

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including dialogue, and some drug material)

Potiche


Potiche

Judith Godreche is miffed that Catherine Deneuve and Karin Viard are so amused at her mannequin imitation.

(2010) Comedy (Music Box) Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard, Judith Godreche, Jeremie Renier, Evelyne Dandry, Bruno Lochet, Elodie Freget, Gautier About, Jean-Baptiste Shelmerdine, Noam Charlier. Directed by Francois Ozon

Through the ages and across the continents women have had to put up with a second class status in nearly every culture. How far have we come in righting that wrong?

Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve) is the heiress to a successful umbrella factory in France. Her husband Robert (Luchini) is in charge of the factory and his autocratic tendencies have led his workers to a strike, egged on by the communist mayor and MP Maurice Babin (Depardieu) with whom Suzanne had a brief and torrid affair shortly after she was married.

She calls in a favor with Babin when angry workers take Robert hostage. He is not grateful in the least when he is released to the bosom of his family – the artistic son Laurent (Renier) who resembles a young Michael York and has been dismissed by his father as a non-entity, and Joelle (Godreche) who beneath her Farrah haircut hides a fear that she and her husband will divorce – and an all-consuming need to win her father’s approval, although again she is dismissed as just a girl.

When Robert suffers a heart attack, Suzanne is forced to take over the factory and resume negotiations with the workers. Not only does she give in to the demands which are remarkably fair, but she actually builds the business, expanding into new markets and updating the look of the umbrellas to add artistic flair and color. However, when Robert returns from his convalescence, he means to have control of his factory back (which is only his because he married the boss’s daughter) and doesn’t care what he does to get it back.

This is a light and frothy comedy, set in 1977 with all the camp and kitsch that it implies. Ozon has had a career that has spanned all sorts of movies, from comedies to suspense movies and dramas. Here, he affects a light, deft touch, basing this on a stage play that was written in that era. While he maintains the ‘70s setting, he has also updated the play somewhat to reference the social and political sensibilities of modern France.

It also doesn’t hurt that he has two of the giants of French cinema in his cast. Deneuve, in her late 60s, is still ridiculously beautiful and elegant. She plays the long-suffering Suzanne as a bit on the timid side to begin, doting on her children, supporting her husband and making a home. As she becomes more confident in herself, it is fun to watch her blossom and come into herself, a lovely butterfly.

Depardieu is an amazing actor who while no longer the lean leading man he was 20 years ago, still impresses. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and while he is somewhat cowed by Suzanne, he nonetheless stands up to her when she breaks his heart.

Viard, one of France’s most popular actresses, takes on a lesser role than she is usually used to but considering whom she’s supporting I imagine it wasn’t hard to convince her to do so – if she didn’t volunteer to begin with. She plays Robert’s put upon secretary who has also been the object of his philandering attention. She’s efficient and competent but like most of the women in the movie, disregarded.

The setting is note-perfect, from the scene where Depardieu and Deneuve do the Hustle at a nightclub to the bright colors and fonts of the graphics in the titles. The comedy is light and light-hearted and while there’s an underlying message of gender equality, it never gets in the way of a good time. Potiche isn’t the kind of movie that is going to be a game-changer; it has opened several film festivals here in the United States which is a bit mystifying, but it is still satisfying entertaining and way more funny than most of the comedies Hollywood will release this year.

REASONS TO GO: Any chance at seeing Deneuve and Depardieu (here in their 8th pairing) is worth taking. Reasonably funny and note-perfect recreation of the 70s.

REASONS TO STAY: Fluffy and disposable at best.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality but nothing overt. Lots of smoking though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In French, “potiche” is a decorative vase but it is also a slang term for a trophy wife.

HOME OR THEATER: While this will probably get a decent-sized release, chances are you have a better shot at seeing it at home which is just fine.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Holy Wars

A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noel)


A Christmas Tale

Even now, most red-blooded men wouldn't mind having Catherine Deneuve under their tree.

(IFC) Catherine Deneuve, Matthieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Hippolyte Girardot, Emmanuelle Devos, Emile Berling, Laurent Capelluto. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin

Christmas is a time for families to gather, no matter the distance. Sometimes the distance isn’t just physical and geographical, it’s emotional as well.

Junon (Deneuve) and Abel (Roussillon) Vuillard are the parents of three adult children: Elizabeth (Consigny), a neurotic playwright, Henri (Amalric) the charming but destructive black sheep and Ivan (Poupaud), the peacemaker between the children. After a disastrous business venture five years prior, Henri who had misappropriated funds from the theater he co-owned was bailed out by Elizabeth on the condition that she never have anything to do with him again and that he be banished from any family event that she was also attending.

Junon and Abel also had a fourth child, Joseph, who would have been the eldest but had died in childhood of leukemia. Now, Junon has developed it and the children and grandchildren (including Paul (Berling), son of Elizabeth who has mental problems) are being tested for compatibility to donate bone marrow for a transfusion.

Because it is Christmas, the decision is for the children to come to the Paris home they grew up in and so they do, families in tow; Henri’s flamboyant girlfriend Faunia (Devos), Ivan’s beautiful wife Sylvia (Mastroianni), Elizabeth’s mathematician husband Claude (Girardot) and cousin Simon (Capelluto), a lovesick tortured artist (sounds like the name of a band to me).

Spending time in closed quarters begins to force the family to deal with the tensions and feelings that have been dormant due to distance. The family dynamics begin to distend, change and convulse under the weight of Junon’s illness, the always-present specter of Joseph hovering sorrowfully above the family table and the family politics that create enemies out of brother and sister.

I’m deliberately trying to reveal as little of the plot as I can. One of the things that works about the film is the little subplots and interrelationships that are only seen as threads of the tapestry, but in the final couple of scenes it’s as if the camera pulls back and the tapestry is finally seen as a whole.

None of these characters are perfect and few of them are even likable. Junon is not the best of mothers, playing favorites with her children but loving none of them as much as she loves herself. Deneuve is still radiantly beautiful at age 66 and as elegant as she has ever been. Her Junon seems an improbable match with the more gnome-like Abel, but there is a certain amount of affection between them.

Amalric is one of my favorite French actors today, and anyone who saw him in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is likely to agree (he also played the villain in Quantum of Solace and was one of the best things about it). His Henri is fully aware of his familial role as an absolute jerk and has embraced it, but not without cost. Few actors in France can hold their own with Deneuve but Amalric is one of them and he does here.

One of the more interesting asides of the movie is the casting of Mastroianni as Sylvia. If the name sounds familiar, it should be; she’s the daughter of Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni and…Catherine Deneuve. The facial resemblance to her mother is marked; I think the casting is meant to imply that Ivan married a girl who not only was much like his mother emotionally but also facially as well which is a little bit creepy but there is a certain delicious irony to it.

At times the squabbling and some of the family skeletons seem a little bit too forced and that takes away from the film’s realism. What I like about the movie is that the characters are very human and far from perfect; this is a family that has issues, a whole lot of them as a matter of fact. As I said earlier, some of the main characters aren’t even that likable but every last one of them is compelling. Other critics have said that they have uncovered further subtleties upon repeated viewing of the movie; I haven’t had a chance to do that yet but I suspect I’ll have the same reaction.

If you’re expecting a Hollywood feel-good family Christmas movie, you’re going to open up a big box of disappointment. If you want to feel good without being manipulated, this is going to be more your speed. I wound up with a warm, Christmas feeling that was so genuine that I didn’t let go of it for days. Christmas isn’t about the perfect family; it’s about the family we actually do have, warts and all. The Vuillards aren’t always lovable but there is love and it is real. That’s the Christmas we may not generally wish for but it’s the one we usually get and to be honest, the one we usually remember with the most fondness.

WHY RENT THIS: The themes of redemption and forgiveness are particularly heartwarming given the seasonal tale. Deneuve is captivating and still absolutely gorgeous.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The squabbling and family dynamics sometimes seem a little bit more over the top than real.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, foul language and lots and lots of smoking – hey, they’re French.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Desplechin has been nominated for eight Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscar) and four Golden Palms (a prestigious award handed out at the Cannes Film Festival) but has yet to win either.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD and Blu-Ray are available as a part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. They contain a copy of Desplechin’s one hour documentary L’Aimee which is about the selling of his childhood home and directly prefaces the tone of A Christmas Tale. There is also a booklet containing an essay from critic Phillip Lopate about the film and its impact.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.