Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2016

 

Dark Inclusion (Diamant Noir)

In July 2014, Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker, “Film noir is historically determined by particular circumstances; that’s why latter-day attempts at film noir, or so-called neo-noirs, almost all feel like exercises in nostalgia.” When it comes to Dark Inclusion, either Richard Brody is wrong, or Dark Inclusion is the rare exception that escapes the “almost all” category.

When Pier (a sinister and unrecognizable Niels Schneider) discovers that his estranged father has died, he determines to extract revenge on the wealthy branch of the family that screwed him and his father out of respect, position, and wealth. Along with his criminal mentor, Pier devises a malignant plan that inserts him into the family diamond business to wreak his evil intent.

Films grow out of changing historical circumstances, but the best films transcend time with universal and never-changing truths about the human condition. Now, as then, character determines fate. Now, as then, revenge is the last hope for men or women who have run out of time or luck. And now, as then, the rage experienced by outsiders looking into the glass houses of the upper crust is real, and palpable, and almost, but not quite, sympathetic.

Dark Inclusion has the plot, conventions, and look—albeit it in vibrant color—of a classic film noir, but it is at all times a contemporary tale, perhaps because it grows out of its own historical circumstances: for five hundred years, Orthodox Jews controlled the diamond market in Antwerp, but they are now being displaced by dealers from India. Perhaps Brody was right after all: historical circumstances did determine film noir, but the fear, guilt, and betrayal at the root of noir will forever have purchase in the human soul.

 

Disorder

Disorder describes much of what happens in this unnerving film about a PTSD sufferer hired to guard the wife and son of a shady Lebanese “businessman.”

Matthieu Schoenaerts plays Victor, a hunky, tattooed French vet plagued by PTSD-induced hallucinations after a tour in Afghanistan. In spite of his condition, he lands a job doing security at a high-society bash, where he overhears conversations definitely not meant for his ears. Throughout the evening, Victor’s disorder makes it difficult for him to differentiate between real and imagined threats. The stakes are raised when Victor is asked to stay on to protect the businessman’s family while he goes on a two-day “business” trip: Victor becomes both hero and horror as  imagined threats materialize and reality morphs with the impossible.

Schoenaerts’s eery but sympathetic performance is supported by a highly effective combination of original music by Gesaffelstein and sound design by Nicolas Becker (You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, Gravity, Ex Machina). Still, there’s something vaguely disquieting about the film that doesn’t come from its many positive aspects:  It slips a little too easily into thriller-style entertainment that masks the personal, political, and social ramifications of PTSD with scary music and things that go bump in the night. Nevertheless, the terrible effects of war on the human personality resound throughout the film, and a little entertainment ain’t always a bad thing in the end.

 

Standing Tall (La Tête Haute)

There are many reasons to see Standing Tall, but the most salient is Rod Paradot, an outstanding new talent with the visceral energy and emotional intelligence of a young James Dean. It’s clear he has the esteem of the film’s superb ensemble cast, headed by Catherine Deneuve and Benoît Magimel, who give Paradot the space he needs to bring the role of a juvenile delinquent to blazing life.

Paradot plays Malony, a tough kid with a lousy mom, who’s thrown in and out of corrective institutions until he finally lands in jail at the age of 16. His painful path is smoothed by his corrections judge, lovingly played by Deneuve, whose surprising affinity for working with youngsters suffused Emmanuelle Bercot’s previous film, On My Way (Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2014), as it does here.

Like Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers, Bercot recognizes that the success of a film in the social realist model lies in letting her actors do what they need to do. That’s not always enough to bring an audience to its feet, but in this case, it sure is.

 

 Story of Judas (Histoire de Judas)

Story of Judas is a unique retelling of the tale of Jesus and his disciple; in this version, Judas is neither a monster who betrays Jesus, nor a hero who sacrifices himself in order to fulfill God’s purpose, nor a friend who liberates Jesus’s soul from his earthly body so that it might ascend to heaven, as suggested in the recently found Gospel of Judas. Instead, Judas seems to sleep through Jesus’s betrayal, which happens offscreen, without Judas’s agency.

Director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche is known for films that are driven less by plot than by personalities and atmosphere. As he does in his previous films, Ameur-Zaïmeche plays a starring role—in this case, Judas. This allows him to guide the action from within, in the moment, resulting in spontaneous, even joyous, communication onscreen. (He had a similar effect on Smuggler’s Song, one of the highlights of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2012.) Visually, Story of Judas luxuriates with the sophisticated cinematography of Irina Lubtchansky, whose interiors resemble Vermeer paintings, lending time-space contrast to the blinding exteriors of a sun-drenched Mediterranean in the year 33.

The film reaches its height in the sequence where Pontius Pilate condemns Jesus to death. Shot by shot, word for word, it’s a near-perfect reenactment of the same scene in Mikhail Bulgakov’s brilliant novel Master and Margarita—headaches, longing for the dog, and all. Whatever one thinks of the theology of Story of Judas as a whole, this single sequence makes the film worthy of intelligent discussion.

And there should be plenty of that, however it may split along religious lines.

 

Winter Song (Chant d’hiver)

Born in Georgia, USSR, director Otar Iosseliani attended Soviet film school in the ’50s.  His first professional film, April, was banned. When a second film was banned, Iosseliani moved to France, where his wry, knowing, sweetly satiric view of life was better appreciated.

In Winter Song, Iosseliani’s latest film, La Ronde meets Comedie Francaise as two old friends, played by Amiran Amiranashvili and iconic French comedian (and former clown) Pierre Etaix, encounter a series of characters in their walks about town. The characters’ lives are loosely interwoven as the skull of an aristocrat beheaded during the French Revolution passes from hand to hand, each time initiating a new vignette. In one adorable scene, the two old friends vie for the hand of an ancient spinster. In another, three Gypsies sing in perfect harmony as the police demolish their camp. In a third, Mathieu Almaric (a frequent Iosseliani colleague) builds a house from stones brought to him by an impoverished aristrocrat demolishing her castle.

Iosseliani’s satire, like Jacques Tati’s, is gentle and full of love for the foibles of humankind. At the same time, his firsthand experience with Soviet dictatorship underlines his acerbic presentation of authority figures—military men, police chiefs, government officials. Look at people, he seems to say: to know them is to love them…until they’re in positions of power. Then it’s time to watch out.

 

 

 

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