The 2017 Chicago International Film Festival – Sunday, October 15th Pt. 2

The Chicago International Film Festival is back again, from Thursday, October 12th to Thursday, October 26th, and I’ll provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois.


Nato Murvanidze in “Scary Mother.” credit:

A fiercely impressive debut feature film, Ana Urushadze’s Scary Mother (Sashishi Deda) (Georgia/Estonia, 2017) observes Manana (Nato Murvanidze, excellent here), a devoted, selfless wife and mother who has shown loving deference to her family for the years the kids have been growing up. But, no longer little kids, the family decides to now let Mom pursue her own real passion – writing. As the film opens, Dad and the kids have taken over the chores and upkeep of the small family apartment for quite some time now. Dad has even relinquished his place in the bedroom for her private efforts – ‘a room of one’s own’ indeed. But with the novel being completed, tonight’s the night she’ll read it out loud to those whose love and support have made it possible. And their jaws will drop, and not in a good way. Manana’s free-associative epic is her long-dormant id unleashed – all that she’s repressed or privately reconfigured comes gushing out. All of the body mileage, repetitive labor and drudgery that the average mother withstands over 15 years and 3 children is cathartically expressed in almost Lovecraftian physical and sexual metaphor. Manana has invited along her neighborhood acquaintance Nukri (Ramaz Ioseliani), who runs the local stationary shop, and he thinks it’s a worship-worthy masterpiece. But her husband Anri (Dimitri Tatishvili) is vehemently dismissive, and deeply disappointed that Manana would even indulge such thoughts. Start over, he admonishes, we’ll make all the same sacrifices for your next book. But this one will never see the light of day anywhere. (The kids just basically duck and cover – what else would Anri expect?) They even burn the manuscript the next morning, thinking it’s the only copy. But Nukri knows better.

Manana just thinks she has drawn from her own experiences and turned them into far-more-interesting fictional abstractions. She still loves her family dearly, but drifts away nonetheless in the face of their (i.e. Anri’s) non-support. She leaves the apartment and moves into a back room at Nukri’s store, and starts to prowl around the city after he’s closed up for the night. Is she indulging liberated eccentricity, or is she actually losing her grip on reality? A big clue is provided by the knowledge that her scholarly father is translating her novel into another language (presumably English) without knowing that Manana is, in fact, the author.( “I have never read such a filthy author – the text is ingenious and obscene at the same time.”)

Ana Urushadze is the daughter of Georgian/Estonian director Zaza Urushadze (Tangerines), but his fingerprints are nowhere to be found here. This is clearly Ana’s film, with her own out-of-the-park screenplay, a strong visual narrative artfully shot by Konstantin Esadze and an obviously strong rapport with her skilled actors. There are a lot of very good films here this year, but this is the first Do Not Miss item of the bunch. It’s quite wonderful.

‘Scary Mother (Sashishi Deda)’ will be shown on Sunday, October 15th at 8:00 pm, Monday the 16th at 5:45 pm and Friday the 20th at 3:15 pm (an $8.00 matinee).



The 2017 Chicago International Film Festival – Sunday, October 15th Pt. 1

The Chicago International Film Festival is back again, from Thursday, October 12th to Thursday, October 26th, and I’ll provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois.



Eliane Umuhire in “Birds Are Singing In Kigali.” credit: Materiały prasowe

Birds Are Singing In Kigali (Ptaki Spiewaja W Kigali) (Poland, 2017) concerns Anna Keller (Jowita Budnik), a Polish ornithologist doing research on vultures with a close in-country colleague… in Rwanda in 1994. But rather than being another chronicle of the genocide itself, the film follows Anna’s escape from Rwanda with the daughter of her Tutsi mentor/colleague, her post-trauma settlement back into her life in Poland after three years, and the daughter’s efforts to make a life for herself there after everything else has been taken.

The daughter, Claudine Mugambira (Eliane Umuhire) insists on going to the refugee center rather than Anna’s home. Clearly derisive of charity on her behalf, we learn later of another reason for her distance. Nonetheless, Claudine eventually ends up with Anna, fending off nosy immigration agents and gamely trying her hand at a few different occupations. Anna is clearly deeply scarred – she ends her university-sponsored research and donates away years of personal research archives. Reaching a still-painful détente with each other, Anna accompanies Claudine back to now-Tutsi-controlled Kigali, where she’ll seek to find her family to bury them properly while reconnecting with a lost relative.

The film, directed by Joanna Kos-Krauze, was a co-directing project with her husband Krzysztof Krauze before his sudden death in 2014. Cinematographer Krzysztof Ptak also passed away before completion as well, so the final film is a genuine labor of love and a tribute to Kos-Krauze’s resilience. She hasn’t compromised much – we accumulate details as it cruises along, a long slow blending smear of events and feelings rather than a conventional, step-by-step episodic narrative. But the film is ultimately uplifting and hopeful, without reducing any of the horror that these two women have lived through. I recommend it.

‘Birds Are Singing In Kigali’ screens on Sunday, October 15th at 5:30 pm and Monday the 15th at 5:30 as well.



Reza Akhlaghirad in “A Man Of Integrity.” credit:

Mohammad Rasoulof was arrested in Iran with Jafar Panahi in 2010 for making films critical of Iranian politics and culture. While Panahi languishes in house arrest, he still manages to make underground films like This Is Not a Film (2011) and Taxi Tehran (2015), which are then smuggled out of Iran and avidly shown in the rest of the world. Rasoulof served one year of his sentenced six in prison before being granted bail. He’s since made Goodbye (2011), Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013) and our film today, A Man Of Integrity (Lerd) (Iran, 2017), all shot under clandestine circumstances, all having been banned in Iran and smuggled out. His latest seems to have been met with the usual reaction from Iranian authorities – Rasoulof had been allowed some limited travel, but Iran seized his passport upon his return from Cannes and Telluride last month.

Most of Rasoulof’s films concern themselves with big-hearted people being brought to heel by their corrupt government, or corrupt private enterprise that government turns a blind eye to. A Man Of Integrity follows Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), his wife Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee) and their young son, who live on a rural northern farmhouse on a small river farming goldfish. Once a rebellious college student in Tehran, he was expelled and forced to settle north, where he presumably landed on the first practical business opportunity presented to him. But the farm, and the river, is under control of a larger land-use corporation, and Reza is at the mercy of their greedy whims. They control the banks, the police, the real estate, the insurance and the lawyers, and nothing moves forward, and no problem is solved, until all of the proper palms have been greased. Religious authorities, cracking down on miniscule domestic vices like Reza’s spiked watermelons, have no interest in messing with any of these bigger fish. His neighbor Abbas (Misagh Zare Zeinab) is one of the company’s field agents; when Abbas closes a dam up the river to spite Reza, they quarrel and fight. The honest Reza must now sit in jail for days while the quickly-freed Abbas fabricates an injury that Reza must now compensate. Mishaps accumulate – Reza pays the penalty on an overdue mortgage loan rather than bribing the banker for relief, then can’t sell the farm for its true worth. Hadis, the head teacher at the local school, tries to pressure Abbas through his young student daughter, which backfires maliciously. The goldfish, the farm itself, and even their lives are all imperiled solely because of Reza’s insistence on good-faith business, mutual respect, paying his honest debts and earning the fruits of his labors. A Man Of Integrity is notable for its resemblance to Russian and Eastern-European films of the last twenty-or-so years, or even American westerns pitting common folk against cattle or railroad tycoons. It’s only when Reza is on his last noble legs, and starts dishing out some of the same malicious medicine he’s been taking, that the powers-that-be, rather than finishing him off, start liking him and offering him a piece of what they’ve got.

The film is excellent work – the lead performances are terrific (especially the steely Beizaee), it’s admirably composed and shot by cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani, and Peyman Yazdanian’s musical score is affecting without being intrusive. My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, is the film’s length; Reza’s business struggles are fastidiously detailed from jail cell to office to warehouse to office to car interior to office, and there are only so many graying middle-aged overweight wheeler-dealers with five-o’clock shadows one can keep track of. Every inch of Rasoulof’s footage is clearly hard-won, but his film is about twenty minutes too long. Rasoulof’s film is a very good one, though, and richly deserves our support. Go.

‘A Man Of Integrity’ will be shown on Sunday, October 15th at 8:30 pm and Wednesday the 18th at 8:30 pm as well.

The 2017 Chicago International Film Festival – Saturday, October 14th Pt. 2

The Chicago International Film Festival is back again, from Thursday, October 12th to Thursday, October 26th, and I’ll provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois.



David Asavanond and Chermarn “Ploy” Boonyasak in “Samui Song.” credit:

According to the press materials for his film, Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang was interested in exploring interracial marriages as status signification, mixed with his jaundiced interest in the predominance and variety of Buddhist cults in Thailand. “Basically, insecurity is a lucrative business in this country.” The resulting film, Samui Song (Thailand, 2017) is an adventurous narrative mash-up that doesn’t always work, but is smartly and darkly entertaining nonetheless. Viyada (“Vi”), a well-known daytime television actress (Chermarn “Ploy” Boonyasak, a prolific young Thai actress often billed as Laila Boonyasak) crashes her car on a rural road. Being treated at the hospital, she meets the eccentric but engaging Guy Spenser (David Asavanond) and, sharing cigarettes and lunch with him, gives him the dirt; her husband Jerome (Stéphane Sednaoui, a photographer and filmmaker worth Googling…) is an impotent, abusive, privileged, navel-gazing western white guy in the thrall of The Holy One (Vithaya “Pu” Pansringarm), a cult priest “healer” who has his way with her, his follower’s wife, as Jerome’s religious offering to him. Easily convinced, Guy offers his services to her as her husband’s assassin, since he could use the money to help care for his sick, elderly, Alzheimer’s-addled mother. So much for the Double IndemnityPostmanBody Heat exemplars – Ratanaruang is more interested in their value as signifiers than concrete references, and slowly but persuasively pulls us into his own meta-narrative rabbit-hole. The title refers to Koh Samui, a quiet resort island where Vi finds refuge, and a new lover, to start a better life. Or does she?  I had a lot of puzzle-wrestling fun with this confident film, but the final ten minutes feature a fair amount of excessive cruelty and gore that may be a dealbreaker for some viewers. Ratanaruang’s amiably loose hand on the helm leads to some underwhelming performances and some temporal confusion, but his ideas are pretty intriguing and he’s a seasoned technical storyteller. Give this one a shot, by all means.

‘Samui Song’ will be shown on Saturday, October 14th at 8:30 pm, Sunday the 15th at 8:15 pm and Monday the 16th at 2:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).



The 2017 Chicago International Film Festival – Saturday, October 14th Pt. 1

The Chicago International Film Festival is back again, from Thursday, October 12th to Thursday, October 26th, and I’ll provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois.



Arnaud Valois in “BPM (Beats Per Minute).” credit: © Celine Nieszawer

David France’s excellent, affecting 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague chronicled the rise of ACT UP in the U.S. from the late eighties into the nineties, and it’s catalytic role in spurring genuinely aggressive medical research for the treatment, and potential cure, for the HIV virus and AIDS. It remains one of the go-to film sources on the subject. Now we have another equally powerful chronicle of the era crafted by the French filmmaker Robin Campillo, who himself was a member of ACT UP Paris in the 1990s. A collaboration with fellow screenwriter and ACT UP Paris member Philippe Mangeot, BPM (Beats Per Minute) (120 Battements Par Minute) (France, 2017) is a fictionalized but still-impressive account of these same sexual, cultural and political issues in France. It’s a very thorough but passionate ensemble overview of ACT UP Paris’ membership, structure and tactics, as well as an intimate and moving portrayal of one couple’s joining together, both as fellow activists and lovers, and, regrettably, the sad and too-typical demise of one of them.

Campillo thrusts us into the action from the start – the interruption of a government presentation by the activists proceeds far more intensely than one of the activists feels they agreed to; some join her questioning of the tactical extremity and its effect on potential allies, while others defend whatever level seems to have the most actual results. One of the most vocal participants, Sean Dalmazo (the excellent Argentinian actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is quick to start an argument, a fight or a party. A flamboyant queen and fiercely loyal friend, Sean has serious differences with the leaders of the chapter, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and Sophie (Adèle Haenel) ; Sean is dying, and wants results now, feeling frustration at those who don’t share his survivalist sense of urgency on behalf of thousands of others. Drawn by Sean’s fearsome resolve and love of life, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is discreet about his HIV-negative status, but knows he’s been lucky and is resolved to help his community.

We follow the activists to a French high school, where they pass out explicit leaflets and condoms, and are met with a mix of positive and negative reaction from the faculty and administration, while another action, at a pharmaceutical corporation’s Paris headquarters, becomes a fake-blood-drenched mess of (again) dubious effectiveness. But we also have a raucously joyous parade (with cheerleaders!)  and a series of nicely stylized visual interludes in dance clubs. Interspersed within it all are Sean and Nathan and their mutual love, expressed in both intimate conversations, and impressively frank nearly-explicit sex. But no matter what else is presented to us, their relationship consequently comes to the fore, and the film’s penultimate scenes are both heartbreaking and joyful. Campillo strikes a superb tone here, graciously sympathetic without overdoing the sentiment.

The film is France’s Foreign Film submission to the 2018 Academy Awards – considering the annual field of films in France, yours had better be good. This one is quite wonderful. It’ll get a regular theatrical run from November 17th, but these should be well-attended early screenings you’ll be glad you made time for.

‘BPM (Beats Per Minute) (120 Battements Par Minute)’ screens on Saturday, October 14th at 8:45 pm and Sunday the 15th at 11:30 am.



Tomáš Maštalír in “The Line (Čiara).” credit: Wandal Production

 Peter Bebjak is a very good Slovakian director whose prolific TV work seems to allow him his more adventurous feature film work. His newest film, The Line (Čiara) (Slovakia, 2017) is an urgent, smoldering crime drama about inter-generational smuggling syndicates along the Slovakia – Ukraine border in 2007. That’s the year the EU established the Schengen Area – 26 European states that did away with passports and border control to allow unrestricted travel between them. In Slovakia’s case, it opened their shared north, west and south borders in Europe, but reinforced the border at Ukraine, making the already tight smuggling routes practically impassable. Cigarettes and refugees have been the normal contraband that Adam Krajnak (a very good Tomáš Maštalír) transports for the sordid but successful Krull (Stanislav Boklan), but when Krull starts slipping narcotics shipments in without Adam’s knowledge, then business-as-usual starts to deteriorate. With the border tightening, Krull needs to pump up his margins, but Adam wants to stick to the old-school program he’s used to living with – he has a family, after all. Adam trusts his friend Jona (Eugen Libezňuk) to handle the Ukrainian side of things [with Slovak border police captain Peter Bernard (Andrej Kryc) on his side of the checkpoint], but, with Jona’s son in a Ukrainian jail, he’s mightily tempted to let Krull help him out for a price.

It’s easier to make delineations if you’re aware of the language shifts from Ukrainian to Slovak – we Americans are at a disadvantage there, unfortunately – but, still, with the subtitles it’s not a tough story to follow. The efficient management of a longtime criminal enterprise, and where that intersects with profoundly deep familial concerns, is Godfather territory, but Bebjak works both aspects admirably – some of Adam’s family turmoil is indeed genuinely heartbreaking. Peter Balko’s script sets a well-structured course, but leaves plenty of room for the actors to show and not tell. Many of cinematographer Martin Ziaran’s visual strategies mimic surveillance – things seen from two views simultaneously, through windows, over other people’s shoulders, or things we probably shouldn’t see at all from skewed, intrusive angles. But he’s not afraid of settling in to harder geometric, Gordon Willis-like chiaroscuro compositions either.

I liked this film a lot. It’s technically excellent, visually vibrant to watch and follow, and well-told as a complex but compelling story. It’s Slovakia’s Foreign Film submission to the 2018 Academy Awards, and well worth seeing.

‘The Line (Čiara)’ will be shown on Saturday, October 14th at 8:30 pm, Sunday the 15th at 2:30 pm, and Tuesday the 17th at 3:15 pm (an $8.00 matinee).




The 2017 Chicago International Film Festival – Friday, October 13th

The Chicago International Film Festival is back again, from Thursday, October 12th to Thursday, October 26th, and I’ll provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois.


The Charmer (c) Jason Alami 1

Ardalan Esmaili in “The Charmer.” credit: Jason Alami

Milad Alami’s The Charmer (Charmøren) (Denmark, 2017) is not only a sometimes amusing, sometimes nerve-wracking examination of the trials and tribulations of a male immigrant working Europe for matrimonial prospects, but it’s also a darkly incisive examination of the middle-Eastern male psyche.

We don’t meet the, indeed, charming Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili) at the film’s outset – we see an unsettling out-of-context domestic tragedy instead, and its effect can’t help but color what comes after for us. Esmail finds himself at a disadvantage as well – he’s clearly on the last nerve of his current romantic partner, and she ends the relationship intimately but unmistakably. Esmail, an Iranian citizen with an expiring migrant visa, then anxiously resumes what seems to be his regular routine, frequenting the same upscale Copenhagen brass-and-fern bar to seek yet another candidate for romantic partnership and state-licensed marital bliss. One particular night he meets two lovely young Danish ladies, but one of them, Sarah (Danish pop singer Soho Rezanejad, very good here) is of Iranian heritage and cannily calls out Esmail’s marry-me opportunism. Oddly, it’s this relationship that turns surprisingly ‘real,’ since any participation in that arrangement has been pre-empted. Now they can just befriend each other, surprise each other, and socialize with each other; he meets her mother, a famous singer, and, despite his cautiousness, starts to ingratiate himself into Copenhagen’s Persian community. But, inevitably, some other incidental loose ends and unintended consequences slowly start to surface (again) that cast a darker personal urgency to his present situation.

Alami (with co-screenwriter Ingeborg Topsøe) builds a compellingly escalating narrative structure around Esmail’s practical / amorous pursuits. But there are darker reasons why his potential scores develop into washouts – Denmark seems to be full of smart and self-capable women who spot the sweaty desperation underlying Esmail’s seemingly earnest striving towards his expat aspirations. I don’t want to create spoilers, but let’s just say that Esmail carries a variety of assumptions about the uses to which the women in his life can be put in the pursuit of his own happiness, which then lead to a fitting-but-still-open conclusion. The filmmakers are assisted admirably by Sophia Olsson’s superb cinematography and Martin Dirkov’s rich and edgy musical soundtrack. It’s a great character study, a smart examination of complex cultural  delineations, a brooding psychodrama, and utterly fascinating throughout. This is a terrific film.

‘The Charmer (Charmøren)’ will be shown on Friday, October 13th at 6:30 pm, Saturday the 14th at 3:00 pm and Monday the 16th at Noon (an $8.00 matinee).



Claes Bang in “The Square.” credit: Magnolia Pictures

Ruben Östlund’s The Square (Sweden, 2017) was this year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner, and is Sweden’s Foreign Film submission to the 2018 Oscars. It’s pretty smart, pretty funny and pretty entertaining, but has enough ironic and/or disturbing moments to keep you from taking it too lightly. I liked this film much more than his previous family comedy Force Majeure (2014), which I found a little mean-spirited. He’s more charitable here, working a wider dynamic, following a museum curator, Christian (the measured, superb Claes Bang), and his efforts to promote the museum’s newest installation – The Square, a 6-meter-square square, illuminated, set into the museum’s outer entrance plaza, which represents A Safe Space and the assumed high humanist ideals and aspirations of those who chose to stand In It.

Östlund’s satirical critiques of Modern Art, and the earnest white snobs who market it, are well-executed, and clever at the time, but after-film scrutiny doesn’t raise them much above My-Kid-Could-Do-That territory, even considering the uncomfortably violent lengths to which he takes one particular performance piece in the film. He’s far more successful with the smaller strokes of just following Christian and his own trials and tribulations; his quest for retribution towards a perpetrated criminal act against him, his can’t-be-bothered blundering of the video promotion of The Square, his awkward seduction of an American art critic (the excellent Elizabeth Moss, bringing her own dark and sparkling humor to the role), and his distressingly nonchalant attitudes towards his young daughters by his recently estranged wife (whom we tellingly never encounter). Bang is a superb straight-man, grounding the chaos constantly surrounding Christian – we tend to always give him the benefit of the doubt, even when someone else’s cries for help echo weakly in the background. I still think Östlund’s pretty mean-spirited overall, but it’s tempered here – he’s aspiring to a lot more in both ideas and scale, and I don’t begrudge him that. Many people will enjoy this film more than I did, but this time I won’t blame them.

‘The Square’ will be shown on Friday, October 13th at 8:15 pm and Saturday the 14th at 5:15 pm.



Lautaro Bettoni and Germán Palacios in “Hunting Season (Temporada De Caza).” credit:

Hunting Season (Temporada De Caza) (Argentina, 2017), on the surface, seems to read as one of those tedious male-rites-of-passage slogs that we’ve seen countless times. A high-schooler, Nahuel (Lautaro Bettoni) has been living in Buenos Aires with his mother and stepfather. But, upon her passing unexpectedly, Nahuel has become surly and withdrawn, losing interest in his studies, snubbing his stepfather and starting fights. After his expulsion from school, the decision is made for Nahuel to live south, in deep rural Patagonia, with his natural father. He, Ernesto (veteran Germán Palacios), lives essentially off-the-grid with his wife and four young daughters, as a hunter and hunting guide for others. Nahuel is his usual acting-out self for a bit, but Ernesto refuses to take the bait. He, instead, starts to give Nahuel chores, and brings him along on hunts, letting Nahuel make his own mistakes but emphasizing a sense of shared responsibility rather than enforcing his own paternal authority.

I must say it’s an intriguing first-feature material choice for writer / director Natalia Garagiola – this is pretty thick testosterone territory, and yet Garagiola’s quiet, deliberate, one-thing-at-a-time approach works. She takes their communication shortfalls as a given, and constructs her scenarios around that. No hugs, no valuable lessons, just men finding their way through to the next thing. Cinematographer Fernando Lockett’s work goes a long way in supporting Garagiola’s efforts (he was one of the two DPs to shoot last year’s Kékszakállú); interior and exterior, social and solitude, urban and pastoral – Lockett makes clear visual distinctions that help to define the characters’ own stages in the ongoing narrative. Garagiola’s done well with short films over 4 or 5 years – her first feature is good, not great, but she’s a good writer and technically proficient director who clearly works well with her actors. This is nice work that I recommend.

‘Hunting Season (Temporada De Caza)’ will be shown on Friday, October 13th at 8:30 pm, Saturday the 14th at 1:30 pm and Tuesday the 17th at 1:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

Movies – Force Majeure


Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli and the kids in “Force Majeure.”

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

Ruben Östlund’s “The Square” won the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year, opens in Chicago at the Chicago Int’l Film Festival Oct. 13th and 14th, and starts regular theatrical showings on Nov. 10th.

There’s an agreeably structured feel to Ruben Östlund’s dark comedy, Force Majeure (Turist) (Sweden, 2014), a nice command of compelling, ordered visuals in his direction, and a nicely overlapping sense of incident and emotion in his screenplay. But that which simmers below Östlund’s technical and structural accomplishments is a formulaic and mean-spirited parade of awkward encounters and embarrassments that don’t really add up to the stinging ironic commentary to which he obviously aspired.

Östlund’s film follows Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), a seemingly content married couple on vacation, skiing in the Alps with their two young children, Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren). There’s the usual wrangling of moody kids, and the usual acclimatization to the unfamiliar but welcoming hotel and resort, but the family settles in nicely on the first day. The second day, however, is the lurch down the domestic rabbit-hole, as an inadvertent, but profoundly revealing, betrayal occurs, and its repercussions color the tenor of the rest of the film. One spouse has their faith in the family unit irrevocably shaken, the other just wants to move past an awkward event and pick up where things left off. Ultimately the film is an examination of each spouse’s own particular methods of denial, and how they’ve cultivated and refined those methods throughout their marriage. Early on we understand that the children have been on to this for a while – there’s a superb scene where the kids sternly throw the adults out of their own bedroom, brooking no nonsense. The couple thinks this crisis is an outlier in an otherwise well-tended relationship, but the kids always know better.

One of the unfair things that critics may tend to do is compare generally dissimilar films that contain a specific similarity, and extrapolate on the one at the expense of the other. I’m going to commit that sin here in comparing Östlund’s Force Majeure with last year’s The Loneliest Planet by Julia Loktev. Loktev’s film is a serious-minded love story, also under ‘vacationing’ similar circumstances, hinging on a very similar betrayal that reverberates through the subsequent behavior of the two protagonists (Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) over the rest of their week.

Loktev’s film tends to concentrate on personal identity – the couple never brings the event up afterwards in any conversation whatsoever, but it has not only redefined the relationship, but how each of them feels about themselves. Loktev’s approach is put to far more dramatic, and more profoundly thoughtful, uses than Ruben Östlund has in mind, and that’s OK for Östlund, but, even as a comedy, I missed that element. Tomas and Ebba talk on and on to each other about the event, to little actual effect – the more Östlund ‘s characters talk, the less we like them. Many have seen Force Majeure as a wicked dissection of male pride, as Tomas’ self-righteous resolve slowly disintegrates under Ebba’s insistent frankness. But Ebba’s passive/aggressive strategies seemed outrightly malicious to me, and not in any Carole Lombard / Miriam Hopkins I’ll-show-you-for-your-own-good-because-I-love-you way; Ebba’s showing up Tomas in public is her own defense mechanism, is how she feeds her own insecurities. Tomas isn’t like someone like Larry David; we take no glee in Tomas’ comeuppance because he isn’t as richly deserving of it. When Tomas finally acknowledges the gravity of his ‘sin,’ and has his own emotional purge, Ebba is unsympathetic, and embarrassed for him.  (But the kids always know better.)

If Östlund wanted to create a truly black comedy, he had plenty of openings – his supporting characters are very well-written, and incorporated nicely. But his leads are written too timidly; they’re too reasonable to be funny or subversive. Tomas is too nice of a guy, or, at least, too typical of a guy, to be the asshole that Östlund wants us to gleefully judge, and Ebba is too self-serving to deliver Tomas’ tragicomic doom in any enlightening or entertaining way. The film, measured scene-by-scene, is impressive, and Östlund’s protagonists deliver rock-solid performances. The interaction of the four family members is quite credible: Kuhnke obviously knows who this guy is, and has his own kind of fun with the character. Loven Kongsli is a little more immersed in Ebba’s neuroses, and game to see where they lead her.  They’re never unlikable characters, even as the script’s contrivances start to overplay themselves in the last 1/2-hour.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Force Majeure – the good parts are excellent, and there are spots where you can see, feel, and laugh at Östlund’s higher aspirations. But the film just feels overthought, and the overthinking undermines some very good performances, some very nice visual ideas, and the  broader and wilder brush that should have been brought to the overall narrative.

Movies – Band Of Outsiders

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

bandof outsiders aspect

Jean-Luc Godard’s Band Of Outsiders (Bande À Part) (France, 1964) is a tough film to write about; so much has been written already about this wildly original and eccentric caper film that it’s a challenge to bring anything new to the table. Based on a now-obscure paperback thriller called ‘Fool’s Gold’ by Dolores Hitchens, the film relates the meeting of Odile (Anna Karina) with two bored, media-obsessed wannabe hipsters, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), and how they conspire to rip off one of the tenants with whom she lives in the house of her Aunt Victoria (Louisa Colpeyn). There’s a pretty big pile of 10,000-franc notes in Mr. Stolz’s bureau, and Odile has no idea where he might have gotten it, but Franz and Arthur take it for granted that, like the laconic and remorseless outlaws that they’ve been admiring and emulating from countless American movies, it’s too good an opportunity for two resourceful mugs to pass up.

When the film starts, Franz has already become acquainted with Odile through their English class, and Odile has already told Franz about the money. Now Franz is anxious for his buddy Arthur to get in on the action; Franz shows Arthur the house where she lives, and brings him along to the class to meet her. Odile seems to be a normal young French girl; attractive, engaging and friendly, but coy and cautious. But she’s also furtively anxious to make new friends and step out a little past her Aunt’s practical influence. Most of the things the two men suggest – skip out on class, go with them to a café, don’t go home to your Aunt right away – seem like a bad idea to her, but she acquiesces nonetheless; she could use a little insubordinate adventure. (Anna Karina was 24 at this time, married to Godard, and had already suffered a miscarriage, a nervous breakdown, and a few suicide attempts, but her depiction of Odile as a game, wide-eyed, impressionable naïf who gets in over her head is astonishingly good). Arthur lays the pretense on thick, yanking out every dour gangster mannerism he can summon; they bond by sharing cigarettes, and he defuses her forthright practicality by answering her questions with more questions. ‘Is something wrong?’ she inquires. “Something unusual, Arthur?” “Why unusual?” he responds, “aren’t ordinary troubles enough?” “You have troubles?” “Don’t you?”

The café scene is one of the film landmarks of the sixties French new-wave – unapologetically manipulated by Godard, having some fun at his characters’, and his story’s, expense, Godard expands his earlier presence (simply providing narration over the action) to use the technical aspects of filmed storytelling to actively subvert our fourth-wall suspension of disbelief. When Franz glibly asks for a minute of silence, Godard cuts the sound entirely, background noises and all. When the three are line-dancing to, one assumes, the juke-box, Godard stops the music off-and-on to explain the thoughts of the three dancers, even as we still hear their rhythmic footfalls, snaps and claps. The ‘Madison’ sequence is surprisingly charming, and our identification with the three carefree dancers is oddly enhanced by Godard’s ‘taking us aside’. Godard loves to remind his audience that This Isn’t Real, It’s A Movie, by hilariously shocking us out of our acquiescence to the make-believe and pointing out the artificiality of everything we’re seeing.

The movie continues in this playfully subversive vein, in more subtle fashion – Godard’s placement of Michel Legrand’s music is disconcertingly un-synced to the action or transitions between scenes, and Arthur’s courtship of Odile is awkward and distanced, even as Odile admits to Arthur that she loves him. (After she initially tells him, as a direct action, Godard resorts to his narration for anything else concerning it; “Arthur said such love talk was crap. Odile said she’d blurted it out but meant it.”). The three playfully race each other through the Louvre as frantic museum guards try to wave them away (“In 9 min. 43secs, Arthur, Odile and Franz broke the record set by Jimmy Johnson of San Francisco,” Godard informs us). They have to attempt the actual robbery twice, due to goofily unforeseen circumstances and their own hesitant ineptitude. Throughout the film, we’re in a constant state of flux – we identify with Franz’s culture-driven dreams of striking it rich, racing a Ferrari in the Indy 500, and retiring to ‘Jack London country’; the romantic notions that Odile pursues in the face of the other two’s tawdry opportunism; and Arthur’s clumsy but earnest attempts to woo Odile while trying to impress his family as an underworld big-shot. It’s easy to identify with their headlong youthful exuberance, even as we understand that each, in their way, is a total screw-up, more like semi-delusional victims of their own inner cultures than any kind of genuine vanguard who draw from them to artfully deal with harsh reality.

On my list of overused words I make a point not to use is ‘bittersweet,’ but it truly fits here. Even Michel Legrand’s low-brass, jazz-inflected melody that pervades the proceedings (and, I suspect, your own brain for a few days afterwards) can be described that way. Godard amusingly overwhelms his three protagonists with the very culture they can’t help but model themselves after – the English class teacher asks her obviously-beginning students to translate Shakespeare from French-to-English. Odile sings a song based on a Louis Aragon poem on the Metro, competing with the thuds and squeals of the moving train (Aragon was a famous surrealist, and Communist, poet and novelist). ‘Arthur’ and ‘Franz’ are named after Rimbaud and Kafka, and Godard slyly peppers his narration with further references to them. Franz and Arthur pretend to shoot each other in mock-good-guy-bad-guy ambush throughout the film, but when one of them is really shot, it looks brazenly fake compared to the other, truly fake, instances. Godard, though, somehow blends these elements – the dark slapstick, the lofty aspirations, the B-movie surliness, his own exo-cinematic intrusions – into a uniquely intriguing, amiable shaggy-dog whole that still finds a way, ‘Graduate’-like, to leave us hanging with a real sense of serious-minded loss.  Or, as the great Pauline Kael explains:

“The sadness that pervades the work is romantic regret that you can no longer believe in the kind of movie you once wanted to be enfolded in, becoming part of that marvelous world of beauty and danger with its gangsters who trusted their friends and its whores who never really sold themselves. It’s the sadness in frivolity—in the abandonment of efforts to make sense out of life in art. Godard in his films seems to say; only this kind of impossible romance is possible. You play at cops and robbers but the bullets can kill you. His movies themselves become playful gestures, games in which you succeed or fail with a shrug, a smile.”