Every year in the month of March, the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts the Chicago European Union Film Festival. I’ll give capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can. All films are shown at the Film Center, 164 N. State Street, right across State St. from the Chicago Theater. See you there!
Danièle Thompson is a veteran French writer and director who is very comfortable in mainstream storytelling moviemaking. Best known here for lightweight romances like Jet Lag and Avenue Montaigne, she’s taken on a much larger project with Cézanne And I (Cézanne Et Moi) (France, 2016). Chronicling the longtime friendship between painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and the writer Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet), Thompson plays fairly fast and loose with a number of historical aspects (I suspect Cézanne didn’t start a brawl in front of Manet’s Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe at the Salon des Refusés, for instance), but effectively sketches out the elemental character of each man – Zola, who rose from poverty to become a successful social-realist novelist (Thérèse Raquin ,Germinal, Nana), poet, playwright and critic, and Cézanne, who estranged himself from his wealthy father and ascetically committed himself to his post-Impressionist painting in rural Provence. (Again, Thompson’s liberties don’t match reality so much – after initial disagreement, his banker father supported him amply throughout – but actor Gallienne does terrific work with the red meat he’s given here.) The real treat of the film, however, is the fine digital cinematography work of Jean-Marie Dreujou – the Aix-en-Provence locations are lovely, but Dreujou does equally stunning work with the period interiors as well. The film is attractive and efficient, if a little conventional, and I’m not sure Thompson does much service to the female characters here, but it’s, overall, a smart and pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
“Cézanne And I” will screen on Friday, March 3rd at 2:00 pm and Tuesday the 7th at 6:00 pm.
Czechoslovakia, and what is now the Czech Republic, has been one of the creative centers for animated film since at least the 1920s. After the liberation of Czechoslovakia from German occupation, the Czechs nationalized their film industry, and the animator Jiří Trnka was recognized at Cannes in 1946 for his second animated film, Zvírátka A Petrovstí (Animals and Robbers); animation thrived thereafter, there and in much of Eastern Europe. Karel Zeman had started in the marketing and advertising field, but was introduced to animation for advertising in the 1940s – shortly thereafter he accepted a job at Zlin Animation Studios as an assistant to Hermína Týrlová, an early female pioneer in puppetry and stop-motion work. Zeman’s best-known work is The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (Vynález Zkázy, 1958), but the film we’re concerned with here is The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil, 1961), adapted from Gottfried August Bürger’s children’s books. Sure to be one of the highlights of the festival, this new digitally restored version of Zeman’s film is a jawdropping combination of tinted silent-film techniques, matte painting, stop-motion and cut-out animation and live action, employing Gustave Doré engravings as vastly-scaled interiors and settings. It’s easy to see how this film influenced Terry Gilliam’s treatments of this material (as well as the work of other animated filmmakers like Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay), but, I must admit, Gilliam can’t hold a candle to this far thriftier and inventive version. It’s a lovely, hilarious surprise, and a must see.
“The Fabulous Baron Munchausen” will be shown on Saturday, March 4th at 8:00 pm and Sunday, March 5th at 5:15 pm. On Saturday, a reception starting at 7:00 pm will be hosted by the Prague Committee of the Sister Cities. Ludmila Zeman and Linda Spaleny, who spearheaded the restoration of the film, will be present for audience discussion at both screenings.
A producer-in-common ended up introducing the French director Olivier Assayas to the actress Kristen Stewart concerning his 2014 film Clouds Of Sils Maria, and they clearly hit it off creatively; Stewart won a César Award for her role (the first American actor to do that), and Assayas happily chose to use her again for our film today, Personal Shopper (France, 2017). There’s some crossover in her characters from the two films; Valentine in Clouds and Maureen in Personal Shopper are both underlings to high-powered celebrity women, and each reliably negotiate within that culture. But there’s much more to Maureen here than just her job – Maureen and her late twin brother share a heart condition that has already taken his life, and they each shared a talent for being mediums, conduits to the world of restless spirits and lingering souls. They swore that the first to fall from their condition would contact the other from beyond, and Maureen is waiting, running errands between Paris and London for her style-icon client Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) and subsequently fielding an unsettling array of communications that may or may not be her brother.
Assayas insists that he wrote it first, then cast Stewart, but there are too many uses to which Assayas puts Stewart’s own effectively mannered persona to believe he didn’t have her in mind from the start. But that’s in no way a bad thing – what’s surprising is how compelling she makes this particular character well beyond her trademark coltish dorkiness and post-adolescent vocal elisions. Like Diane in Assayas’ DemonLover (2002), we never know how much control Maureen is really exercising, how much of this may be her own projection or wish-fulfillment, or whether she’s even a reliable judge of her own experiences. This film will see a regular theatrical run in a few weeks, but this is a good opportunity to catch this very intriguing film early on. Olivier Assayas’ films are like no one else’s, and are always worth your while.
“Personal Shopper” will screen Saturday, March 4th at 4:00 pm and Wednesday the 8th at 6:00 pm.