Benedetta


Nobody can say that Benedetta ain’t getting nun.

(2021) Biographical Drama (IFC) Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphné Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin, Louise Cheveliotte, Hervé Pierre, Clotilde Courau, David Clavel, Guillaine Londez, Gaëlle Jeantet, Justine Bachelet, Lauriane Riquet, Elena Plonka, Héloise Bresc, Jonathan Couzinié, Vinciane Millereau, Erwan Ribard, Sophie Breyer. Directed by Paul Verhoeven

 

Some movies test your intellect. Others test your emotional tolerance. Some test your endurance. Others test your beliefs. Some test your credulity, while some test your patience. The latest from celebrated Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, best known for Soldier of Orange, Robocop, Total Recall and infamously, Showgirls, tests your permissiveness.

Benedetta Carlini (Efira) is a young woman, the daughter of a well-to-do Italian merchant (Clavel) in the city of Pescia in 17th century Tuscany. She is being delivered to the Theatine convent under the supervision of the Abbess Felicita (Rampling). Benedetta is a devout young woman who has visions of being a Bride of Christ – not just in the sense of being a nun, but an actual bride of actual Jesus, in every sense of the term.

She is given a new novice to mentor, Sister Bartolomea (Patakia), a peasant girl who is fleeing an abusive father who has taken to using her as a substitute wife following the death of her mother. Bartolomea is an earthy, uninhibited sort that Benedetta is immediately drawn to. As Benedetta begins showing signs of stigmata and her visions grow more vivid, the skeptical abbess is sure that her charge is trying to game the system for her own gain, while the local papal nuncio (Lambert) is using the girl’s growing notoriety for his own purposes. In the meantime, Benedetta is discovering her own sexuality and Bartolomea is only too happy to help her explore it.

There is a lot of sexual activity – a lot – even for a French film. A French film…about an Italian nun…directed by a Dutchman. Ah, the European Union! S’anyway, Verhoeven has a reputation for not being overly awed by boundaries, and has had no problem with extreme violence, kinky sex or disturbing imagery in any of his films and he delivers all three here. In some ways, it’s nearly as entertaining to read the reviews of the film. It’s amazing how prudish some critics are; you can feel the pearls being clutched in a death grip as some decry the amount of lesbian sex scenes in the movie. Keep in mind that the movie is based upon Judith C. Brown’s biography of Carlini Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.

The real Carlini was at one time one of the most powerful women in her order; later she was excoriated for her sexuality and her affair with Bartolomea, while other priests and male clergy routinely had mistresses despite their vow of chastity. The men were rarely persecuted for it but Benedetta certainly was, but refused to meekly accept the injustice. She was a feminist long before feminism was a thing.

But Verhoeven seems to be toning down that aspect of her story. Those who appreciate the proverbial “girl-on-girl action” will find plenty to keep them sated. However, some reviewers compare this film to porn – apparently they don’t get out on the Internet much. Highly sexual this may be, but porn this is not.

Efira has been coming on as a powerful actress over the last few years, and this performance does nothing to stem her momentum. She seems destined to become a huge star in Europe (she’s actually Belgian, not French) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood started reaching out to her agent sooner rather than later. She captures not only the devoutness of the character, but the harder edges as well – we are left to wonder if the stigmata is a divine manifestation, or the work of Benedetta’s own ambition – and she makes the character enigmatic enough to be interest, but real enough to be relatable.

Verhoeven does a marvelous job of setting the period, from the clothes to the sets to the historical accuracy – a plague was raging through Italy at the time this was going on, and Verhoeven doesn’t mind showing the horrors of that plague. As a bit of a counterpart, former Art of Noise keyboardist Anne Dudley – who has become a much-sought-after film composer – gives us a beautiful, haunting score.

Basically, if you’re offended by onscreen depictions of sex – particularly between two women – this is definitely not the movie for you. But don’t for a moment think that just because Verhoeven is generous with the nookie doesn’t mean that is all there is to the film. There is also commentary on religion, ennui and attitudes towards women in general and female sexuality in particular. This isn’t Verhoeven’s best work but it is up there, which considering the breadth of his career is really saying something.

REASONS TO SEE: Really captures the period. The score is gorgeous.
REASONS TO AVOID: The prudish or sensitive might end up offended.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of nudity and sex, as well as some violence, profanity, disturbing images and material that might offend the devout.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the second French-language film for Verhoeven after Elle (2016).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews; Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Philomena
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Rise and Fall of LuLaRoe

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Anonymous Animals (Les animaux anonymes)


The master of the hunt.

(2020) Fantasy (Gravitas)Thierry Marcos, Aurélien Chilarski, Emilien Lavaut, Pauline Guilpain. Directed by Baptiste Rouveure.

For thousands of years, humans have been using animals for a number of purposes; for transportation, for agriculture, and of course, for food. There are those who are horrified by the state of things, seeing this as exploitation of the worst sort, literally a form of murder. Obviously, French film director Baptiste Rouveure is one of those.

His brief but memorable Anonymous Animals posits a role reversal, where animals are the users and humans the used. Shot in rural France, we see dog-like figures abusing their human pets, cow and pig factory farmers herding their terrified animals into dank, filthy pens for eventual slaughter, and most visually striking, a stag-headed hunter stalking the woods, rifle in hand. Or is that hoof?

There isn’t a coherent story here, just a loose collection of scenes in which humans show anxiety and terror at their situations, a human dog straining at a chain while tied to a tree, and the fear-filled eyes of a human herd being pushed into pens with cattle prods. The point here is obvious; Rouveure wants us to think about how animals are treated.

Certainly vegans are going to champion this film and with good reason. Beyond its salient point, the movie is beautifully shot in chilly early winter/late autumn woods and farm settings and one can’t argue that the premise isn’t a fascinating one (albeit one used at least once before, in the 2018 film The Farm). Still, even though the film is short, it feels much longer because of two reasons.

First, Rouveure makes his point early on and then continues to beat us over the head with it for the rest of the film, amounting to a sixty-minute lecture. Secondly, I couldn’t help thinking “Not all dog owners treat their animals this way” as well as “Not all farms are factory farms.” In fact, the farm sequences aren’t as visceral as they could be; most factory farms (if not all) are more densely populated, to the point where the poor animals are unable to sit or lie down. “Inhumane” doesn’t even begin to describe it, but the farm here is relatively spacious, likely because Rouveure either couldn’t recruit enough actors to make the point, or couldn’t afford to pay for more than he got.

While many of the anthropomorphic animals are not always easy to figure out what species they are (with the exception of the magnificent stag headpiece), the human versions of the animals are fairly easy to figure out. It might take a few minutes for those who view the film without knowing anything about it beforehand to figure out what’s going on, but they’ll catch on pretty quickly, I think.

So while this is a bit of a polemic for the cause of PETA, the audience it will likely reach are those who are already sympathetic to the cause. For those who most need to get the message, it is as likely they will be turned off by the bludgeoning-style of narration as they will be convinced by the message.

REASONS TO SEE: A creative, visionary concept. Unsettling in every sense of the word.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels like an exercise more than a fully formed film.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing, terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several extras are former or current first responders who have actually responded to tornado disasters in the area the movie was filmed in.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Farm (2018)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Dune (2021)

The Mad Women’s Ball (Le bal des folles)


Talking to yourself makes for better conversation.

(2020) Drama (Amazon) Mélanie Laurent, Lou de Laáge, Emanuelle Bercot, Benjamin Voisin, Cédric Kahn, Lomane de Dietrich, Christophe Montenez, Coralie Russier, Alice Barnole, Lauréna Thellier, Martine Schambacher, Martine Chevallier, André Marcon, Valérie Stroh, Grégoire Bonnet, Pierre-Antoine Deborde, Morgan Perez, Pierre Renverseau, Laura Balasuriya. Directed by Mélanie Laurent

 

With the draconian abortion law enacted by Texas (and eyed eagerly by other Red States), the assault on the bodily autonomy of women continues unabated by a vicious patriarchy intent on turning women into Stepford Wives, barefoot and pregnant, mindless and opinion-free whose only role is to squeeze out more white males to perpetuate the patriarchy. These are the headlines of the 21st century.

They aren’t anything new. In the 19th century, women were expected to conform to societal norms and France was no different than anywhere else. Women who were “difficult” (read as “having opinions of their own”) who longed to enjoy the same rights as men were often diagnosed with some sort of mental illness. In Paris, they’d be sent to the notorious Salpêriére asylum where they were subjected to abominable “treatments” that were little more than legalized torture.

Young Eugénie (de Laáge) is the daughter of a wealthy, controlling man (Kahn) who is at his wit’s end with his daughter who often says and does things that scandalize the family. She wants nothing more than to hang out in Bohemian Montmartre, smoking cigarettes and reading poetry – what the chic set does. She keeps her brother Theophile’s (Voisin) homosexuality a secret in return to being smuggled to the cafes she so loves.

But Eugénie has a bit of a problem; she is able to communicate with the dead. Contact with them puts her into a convulsive-like state, although she is learning to master the situation. However, it only adds to her already tenuous reputation and when her father finds out about it, he commits her to Salpêriére. There, she will be under the treatment of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (Bonnet) whose methods are brutal, to say the least; he forces women to sit in ice baths for hours, locks them up in solitary confinement in darkness, conducts examinations with medieval-looking instruments.

Eugénie however manages to befriend head nurse Geneviéve (Laurent) particularly after telling her that her deceased sister is aware of the hundreds of letters that the nurse has written her after her death. Despite falling afoul of nurse Jeanne (Bercot), Eugénie is able to against the odds maintain her spirit, but how long can it survive in a place like this? The upcoming ball in which the madwomen of the asylum are permitted to socialize with the citizens of Paris may provide her that opportunity.

This is the sixth film Laurent has directed in the last ten years (in addition to a busy acting schedule), and her confidence and assuredness is obvious. As an actress herself, she is able to coax some amazing performances from her charges and de Laáge, who previously worked with Laurent in Breathe, is the beneficiary. Her large doe-like eyes glisten with excitement and intelligence, as she is eager to experience all the wonders of life in 1880s Paris for herself. Watching that fire slowly being leeched out of her eyes is a master class in cinematic performance.

But de Laáge isn’t alone as the cast is uniformly strong in their performances. This is Laurent’s first period piece as a director, but you’d never know it; she captures the misogyny and brutality of the era quite well. And despite the fact that the action takes place nearly 140 years ago, its relevance to our own era seems quite clear.

The movie does move at it’s own pace which some American audiences will find slow; it is also not a short, easy viewing. It will require some attention from the viewer and that’s not always easy to supply when watching at home where the distractions are often overwhelming when watching movies in your bedroom or living room.

There are definitely some scenes that are hard to watch, but as The Wrap’s Marya Gates put it, this is a love letter to the power of women. The resilience of Eugénie in the face of hardship, abandoned by those who should have loved and protected her, is inspiring. It reminds me of what some of the activists in the Pro-Choice movement in Texas are accomplishing, fighting the ongoing battle against aging white men who do not have their best interests at heart.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong acting performances all around. A look at 19th century feminism and misogyny and relates it to modern times.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-paced and a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity and sexuality, some brief profanity, violence and a rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel by Victoria Mas, a 34-year-old Sorbonne graduate who has lived in the United States for the past eight years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hysteria
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Heval

Azor


Banking on Argentina.

(2021) Drama (MUBI) Fabrizio Rongione, Stéphanie Cléau, Elli Medeiros, Alexandre Trocki, Pablo Torre Nilson, Juan Pablo Geretto, Gilles Privat, Carmen Iriondo, Yvain Julliard, Juan Trench. Directed by Andreas Fontana

 

The veneer of gentility is often thin indeed, particularly in an atmosphere dominated by uncertainty and fear. In Argentina as the 20th century turned into its eighth decade, a brutal military junta had begun a period of repression in which thousands disappeared. Not all of these were from the poor classes; anyone who expressed disagreement with the regime might find themselves gone, even those from the aristocracy.

Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (Rongione) has arrived in Buenos Aires along with his sophisticated wife Ines (Cléau). He’s a third-generation partner in a Swiss private bank – one only open to the super rich. They are there to reassure their clients that all is well after his partner Rene Keys disappears. Yvan travels from board rooms to opulent gardens, from oak-paneled studies to modern offices, meeting with Argentina’s elite.

Conversations rotate around small talk, rarely lingering long on Argentina’s political situation. People are disappearing and there is palpable fear underneath the genteel world of cocktails, formal dresses, palatial homes and luxury cars. As Yvan quietly investigates the disappearance of his more passionate partner (Yvan is low-key to the point of stupor), he comes more and more into the orbit of those near the junta who are behind the repression and brutality. Especially threatening is the Monsignor Tatosky (Nilson), who purrs “Parasites must be eradicated, even from the best families.” It chills one to the bone.

This is not the kind of movie that has a machine-gun pace; it’s a slow burn, so much so that the viewer might get a chill from time to time. Fontana keeps the tension high without resorting to anything overt; everything is done with subtle glances here, an oblique camera angle there, a pregnant silence over there. In fact, I don’t thin there are many films that have utilized silence as well as this one does; it is the things unsaid in this film that matter almost more than the things that are said.

He gets stellar performances from his two leads who are perfectly cast; Cléau eggs her husband on much like Lady Macbeth, only more cultured and urbane, picking out his suit so as to impress but not outshine. She advises him on matters of decorum and is anything but a conscience; more like a cattle prod, in that regard, urging him to do whatever is necessary to maintain the couple’s status and privilege. “Your father was right; your weakness makes you mediocre,” she observes at one point. It is her way of motivating him, because Yvan is just filled up with self-doubt enough not to trust in his own competence.

In some publications, there are comparisons for the final act with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and there is certainly some justification for that. It involves a river journey that…well, I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say is the heart of this film’s darkness. This is a movie chilling in ways that horror films are not, nor can they be. This is the banality of evil, on display in the latest Armani suits.

REASONS TO SEE: Elevates the tension nicely under the thin veneer of gentility. Fine performances throughout the ensemble cast. Captures a period in Argentine history not well-chronicled in the States.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too slow of a burn for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fontana’s grandfather was a Swiss private banker; the film is loosely inspired by his experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Missing
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
I Love Us

Mandibles (Mandibules)


The No-Pest strip isn’t working.

(2020) Fantasy Comedy (Magnolia) Grégoire Ludig, David Marsais, Adéle Exarchopoulos, India Hair, Roméo Elvis, Coralie Russier, Bruno Lochet, Raphaél Quenard, Gaspard Augé, Thomas Blanchard, Philippe Dusseau, Olivier Blanc, Jean-Paul Solal, Dave Chapman, Marius Colucci, Jézebel Marques, Pablo Beugnet, Marie Narbonne. Directed by Quentin Dupieux

 

Anyone familiar with Dumb and Dumber and other idiot buddy comedies of the 90s knows that watching stupid people do stupid things can be entertaining, if only to make us feel better about ourselves. In a more woke era such as this, there may be those who might have an issue with people who are portrayed as “intellectually challenged” for laughs.

Screw those people. Manu (Ludig) is a bearded kinda-sorta-hippie stoner who is best friends with Jean-Gab (Marsais). They both have IQs somewhat below that of coral. When Manu gets a job to deliver a suitcase that will pay him 500 Euros, he doesn’t think too much that it might be illegal. It doesn’t even bother him that he doesn’t have a car. He just knows that he needs one, so he hotwires a disreputable-looking Mercedes and takes off with Jean-Gab.

While en route through the picturesque byways of the South of France, they hear an odd buzzing sound as well as thumps coming from the trunk. What have they gotten themselves into? Well, it turns out that there’s a fly in the trunk – one the size of an Alsatian.

Normal people would slam the trunk shut and run screaming in the other direction. Not Manu; he hits upon a get-rich-quick idea utilizing the fly as a kind of trained flying monkey to steal valuable items. He and Jean-Gab set out to train their new pet. In an odd case of mistaken identity, a beautiful rich gal (Hair) mistakes Manu for an ex-lover and invites him and Jean-Gab to a mansion for the weekend. The two bumbling lowlifes at least know enough to try and keep their fly secret, but the suspicious resident Agnes (Exarchopoulos) – who shouts everything she says and takes offense to everything due to a brain trauma caused by a skiing accident – knows the two are up to something.

Dupieux has carved a name for himself with absurdist comedies like Rubber and Deerskin. He takes oddball concepts that might be found in a horror spoof – killer tires, killer jackets, giant houseflies – and turns them into something quite different than you might imagine. I can’t say that I was a big fan of Rubber and I haven’t seen Deerskin but this is by all accounts his most accessible film yet, and I did find that it actually made me laugh.

Ludig and Marsais are a sketch comedy duo in France, so it’s no surprise that the chemistry between them is strong. You can believe they are BFFs and the witlessness of their characters makes for some pretty decent comedy (such as when they attempt to cook a simple meal on their own – they are literally a couple of guys who could try to boil water and burn it.

The character of Agnes is a little overdone and is a bit of a waste of the talents of Exarchopoulos, so good in Blue is the Warmest Color. Her constant shrieking gets on the nerves quickly and while she has some funny moments, it just feels like weirdness for its own sake, a problem Dupieux sometimes demonstrates.

Still, while this is certainly an acquired taste, it isn’t necessarily one most people can’t acquire. If you’re going to get into Dupieux, this is the movie that’s going to do it for you unless you have a preference for the truly off-beat. This is as mainstream as the French director has ever gotten; that doesn’t mean he won’t necessarily continue to head in that direction, but this may well be a one-off. I hope not.

REASONS TO SEE: Bizarre but entertaining nonetheless.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty much an acquired taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and strange situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fly puppet is operated by Dave Chapman, who performed similar duties in the Star Wars movies.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zombeaver
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts

Slalom


The ski slopes can be their own kind of prison.

(2020) Sports Drama (Kino Lorber) Noée Abita, Jérémie Renier, Marie Denarnaud, Muriel Combeau, Maira Schmitt, Axel Auriant Blot, Melle Tistounet, Gaspard Couder, Maxence Clément, Victor Senegas, Alice Berger Sabbatel, Catherine Marchal, Fred Epaud, Dominique Thomas, François Godart, Michael Vander-Meiren, François Briaut. Directed by Charléne Favier

 

The relationship between an athlete and their coach is one driven by trust. In recent years, we have heard – to our horror – of youth coaches who have taken advantage of their positions of authority to gain sexual favors from those in their charge. It is not a pretty story.

Lyz Lopez (Abita) is a 15-year-old girl with enormous potential to make the French ski team. Her single mom (Combeau) works far away, leaving her alone to study at an exclusive private school where she is trained by Fred (Renier), a slalom champion who has retired from the sport. Fred is, at first, demanding and autocratic, but soon turns gentle and supportive as the unconfident Lyz starts to win races and, more importantly, believe in herself. The relationship between Lyz and Fred grows closer.

It is cringeworthy when we see Fred touching Lyz in places I would not want my teenage daughter to be touched by her coach; nor would I want to have her grilled about her menstrual cycle, as Fred does to Lyz. But we all know where this is heading; so, too, does Lyz, I believe. And she’s okay with it, at first, as she enjoys the attention of a charismatic, attractive older man but when the house of cards begins to tumble and the inappropriate crosses the line into abuse, it threatens to destroy both coach and athlete.

Although there are scenes of sexuality, this is not a sexy film. As we watch Fred groom his victim for later sexual conquest, we recoil and see Fred, perhaps, as a monster, although there are signs that Fred himself is a wounded soul, even more so than the vulnerable Lyz. This doesn’t excuse his behavior, however.

The movie hinges on the performances of Abita and Renier. It is no surprise that the latter delivers; he is, after all, a veteran of several Dardenne Brothers films and has a history of charismatic performances. However, Abita is a relative newcomer who lit up the screens in Genese and shows that she is likely to be one of the most important actresses in Frances for the next several decades with her performance here. It is subtle, nuanced and rarely goes in for unnecessary histrionics. She is absolutely note-perfect here.

So too is the cinematography; the ski sequences are breathtaking as the camera is right there with Lyz on the slopes, giving the audience a feeling as close as possible to flying down a mountainside without first having to strap on a pair of skis themselves.

The subject matter is handled matter-of-factly and although most will tend to see Fred as a monster (and he is), there is more than one dimension to the character which makes the role somewhat heartbreaking. If you’re looking for a nice, neat, Hollywood resolution at the end of the film, you are likely to be disappointed. What you WILL get, however, is an outstanding, sober and quietly damning look at how easily authority is abused.

REASONS TO SEE: Harrowing and occasionally deeply disturbing. Ski footage puts the viewers on the slopes.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the teen angst material seems forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, nudity, sexuality, and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film (after several shorts and a documentary) by Favier and is based on her own experiences as a young athlete.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Downhill Racer
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Oak Room

Latin Noir


Double fisted death.Cine

(2021) Documentary (AnemonPaco Ignacio Taibo II, Roberto Bardini, Luis Sepulveda, Claudia Pineiro, Leonardo Paduro, Philip Swanson, Juan Sasturain, Santiago Roncagliolo.  Directed by Andreas Apostolides

We all have our image of noir fiction; hard-bitten, world-weary detectives (most of whom resemble Humphrey Bogart uncannily) dealing with beautiful women who shouldn’t be trusted and forces well beyond his pay grade. They prowl the back alleys of the big city, wearing heavy trenchcoats and fedoras, peering into the fog and rain-soaked streets looking for clues, knowing deep down that justice is something that only happens in fairy tales.

In Latin America, they have a different outlook on noir. As Mexican crime fiction novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II asks, “how can you write a crime novel in a country where the state is the main criminal?” In the 70s, Latin America was riddled with military dictatorships and authoritarian governments. People disappeared without a trace; the police were not interested in protecting the people so much as protecting the government that paid them, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to be murdered in cold blood on the order of the state.

For a group of writers that began to emerge during that period, crime fiction began to blend by necessity with social fiction; the real crime was being committed by the State. A handful of writers, including Taibo but also Luis Sepulveda (Chile), Claudia Pineiro (Argentina), Leonardo Paduro (Cuba), and Santiago Roncagliolo (Peru), created a subgenre of crime fiction that came to be identified as novellas negras or, black novels. They began to be referred to as Latin Noir, for their similarities to the great noir fiction of the 1930s and 1940s.

Apostolides, himself a crime novelist whose work is infused with his own experiences during the repressive Greek dictatorship of the 1980s, interviews the five writers as well as scholars Philip Swanson and Juan Sasturain for context. The writers talk about how their experiences within their countries inspired them to create their best-known novels and characters. The interviews offer a fascinating look at the creative processes of these writers, as well as give us insight into recent Latin American politics and history.

The jazz-inspired score fits perfectly into the noir oeuvre and clips from noir films help bring some of the words to life. However, the best parts are when passages from the novels themselves are read (in Spanish, with the English translation in subtitles). One gets a sense of the underlying hope for better things and the grim realities of the past and present that flavor these novels.

This isn’t for everybody. There is definitely an academic tinge to the film which tends to be fairly analytical in tone. There is a lot of good information here, however, and those interested in Latin culture are going to find this fascinating. It made its world premiere at the Miami Film Festival and is available online through the Festival for American audiences through the end of the Festival run on March 14. Afterwards, keep an eye out for it at your own local film festival, particularly if it tends to play films from that region. I wouldn’t be surprised if this made its way onto PBS somehow; it would fit like a glove there.

REASONS TO SEE: Very informative about political events in Latin America.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very reliant on talking heads; some may fid it dry and academic.
FAMILY VALUES: Little overt violence or sex, but discusses adult thematic concepts of state-sponsored repression.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sepulveda passed away due to complications from COVID-19 last year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (available through 3/14/21)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Los Angeles: City of Film Noir
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Sin La Habana

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

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)


Love in flames.

(2019) Romance (NEON) Noémie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luána Bajrami, Valeria Golino, Christel Baras, Armande Boulanger, Guy Delamarche, Clément Bouyssou, Cécile Morel, Michéle Clément. Directed by Céline Sciamma

 

The Darkwave band Black Tape for a Blue Girl did a song “A Love That Dare Not Be” which is heartbreaking in nearly every respect; the music itself creates a melancholic mood and there’s the realization that few people have ever heard the song and it so deserves to be heard.

In fact, their Ashes in the Brittle Air album dovetails nicely with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the latest from French writer-director Sciamma and her most exciting work to date. It is a period piece, set in the mid-to-late 18th century in an isolated chateau on the seacoast of Brittany.

Marianne (Merlant) has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Hélöise (Haenel), the daughter of the countess (Golino) who lives there. Hélöise has just been yanked out of the convent to take the place of her sister in a marriage to a Milanese nobleman; the portrait is to be used to pique interest in the girl as potential marriage material. However, Hélöise is wise to the game and refused to sit for a portrait with the previous painter, who grew frustrated at her obstinance and quit.

Marianne is there in the guise of a companion to accompany Hélöise on walks around the chateau. The countess is concerned that Hélöise might suffer the same fate as her sister, who fell from the cliffs. The house’s sole servant, Sophie (Bajrami) believes it was suicide because the girl didn’t utter a sound on the way to her death.

Marianne is meant to paint surreptitiously in the evening hours. Her canvas and painting supplies are hidden behind privacy partitions. During the day the two women hang out and soon develop a friendship. Marianne is forced by circumstances to notice the details of Hélöise; the curve of her neck, the cartilage of her ears, the elegance of her fingers. Before long, the friendship develops into something deeper – the proverbial love that dare not speak its name.

This is one of the most beautifully shot movies I’ve seen in a while and I’ve seen some good ones. The composition is exquisite, done with a painter’s eye. Whether it is Hélöise standing alone in front of crashing waves on the shore, or Hélöise, Marianne and Sophia cresting a hill at dusk in the wild light of sunset, or Marianne alone before the fire, naked and puffing on a pipe contemplatively, each shot has purpose, each shot conveys emotion.

The emotions are at the center of the performances of Haenel and Merlant. Both are up for Best Actress awards at the César awards that are being presented this coming Friday – the French Oscars. Either performance is award-worthy, although I don’t know how you would choose between the two. Haenel is more reserved, somewhat more melancholy. Merlant has the advantage of being the narrator and setting the tone in that sense. The chemistry between them is natural and believable.

\Throughout the film there are references to the legend of Orpheus – he’s the bard whose love Eurydice died young, so he made the perilous journey into the underworld to beg Lord Hades for him to release her back to the world. Hades, moved by Orpheus’ artistry, grants the request with the caveat that Orpheus must lead the way and not turn back until both of them have left the Underworld; if he obeys, they will live whatever time they have left. If not, Eurydice goes right back into the afterlife, not passing go nor collecting $200. Human nature being what it is, Orpheus looks back as the end is in sight and loses his girl forever.

Hélöise, Marianne and Sophie discuss the meanings of the myth but there are also some other references; appearances of paintings based on the myth and near the end of the movie, as Marianne is leaving the chateau with her Hélöise promised to another, she hears the admonition to turn around and beholds Hélöise in a white wedding-like dress behind her. As Marianne shuts the door, Hélöise disappears from view.

There is a lot of depth here, too much to get into in one article but enough that you’ll be talking about it with your film buff friends for a long time to come. The two-hour movie takes a bit of time to get going, but once it hits its stride it holds your attention firmly. This had a one-day theatrical preview event back in December but is just now hitting a general release. Their distributor, which is still in a celebratory mood after one of their films won the Best Picture Oscar, can start celebrating again; this is another amazing film for their library and one which could very well be part of next year’s Oscar conversation.

REASONS TO SEE: A master class on camera composition. A haunting choral piece really heightens the mood. Wonderful use of the Orpheus myth.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too long; it drags a bit in the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and sexuality including one brief scene of graphic sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the festival scene, the women sing a choral version of Non Possunt Fugere which is Latin for “They Cannot Escape.” The song is repeated during the closing credits.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes:98% positive reviews: Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Breathe In
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations

A Reindeer’s Journey (Aïlo: Une odyssée en Laponie)


They don’t get much cuter than baby reindeer.

(2018) Nature Documentary (Screen MediaDonald Sutherland (narrator). Directed by Guillaume Maidatchevsky

 

After viewing the watershed nature documentary March of the Penguins, a colleague of mine opined that what she took out of the film most of all was “it sucks to be a penguin.” Well, when she sees this one she’s going to add reindeer to that list.

Reindeer are native to Lapland, a region above the Arctic Circle straddling Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia. The climate is harsh in winter and they have a fair share of predators that cause them difficulties. Climate change has only made the weather worse and worse still, has played havoc with their traditional migration routes – as have loggers who have displaced wolves from their habitat, sending them into places where reindeer once were relatively safe.

This film captures the first year of life for Aȉlo. Donald Sutherland intones that Laplanders have a saying that reindeer get five minutes to learn to stand, five more minutes to learn to walk, then five minutes to learn to run and swim. That’s how dangerous the climate and predator situation is in Lapland.

Like many nature documentaries, Aȉlo is anthropomorphized to a large extent. Sutherland – who does excellent work here, lending much needed gravitas – imbuing him with human qualities and human thought processes. Chances are, Aȉlo and others of his species don’t spend a lot of time ruminating on how tough life is in the Arctic Circle. Most animals function primarily on instinct and experience.

That isn’t to say there aren’t moments that are captivating, such as when Aȉlo mimics a rabbit and later on, a stoat. There’s no doubt that Aȉlo is insanely adorable and kids are going to be absolutely enchanted with him (and a lot of adults too). To add to the plus column, the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking – even the scenes of winter are refined with varying shades of white and blue, all filmed in the low light of perpetual Arctic twilight.

To a large extent, this isn’t as educational as it could be although Sutherland does his best. Labeling lemmings the “chicken nuggets of the North” is kind of amusing, but it oversimplifies their place in the food chain. I do give the filmmakers points for not shying away from the effects that climate change is having on these animals.

All in all, this is a solid although not remarkable documentary. Those of you who have children who really love animals and are captivated by the DisneyNature series of documentaries will no doubt find this right in their wheelhouse. The film doesn’t turn away either from the grim reality of life in a harsh environment (reindeer die, although never on-camera). While the movie is making a brief theatrical run in New York City, it is available on VOD on basically every major streaming service and likely a few of the minor ones as well. It also is or will be available on DVD/Blu-Ray just in time for the holidays and makes an awesome stocking stuffer for the animal lover in your family.

REASONS TO SEE: Aȉlo is insanely cute.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fairly standard nature doc.
FAMILY VALUES: This is extremely kid-friendly.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a French/Finnish co-production.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frozen Planet
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Shock and Awe