Movies – A Five-Star Life (Italy, 2013)

 

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Margherita Buy and Stefano Accorsi in “A Five-Star Life.” credit: musicboxfilms.com

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

Maria Sole Tognazzi’s A Five Star Life (Viaggia Sola, or I Travel Alone) (Italy, 2013) is a pretty straightforward ‘dramedy’ that touches on a lot of issues contemporary women both engage in and are at conflict with. But there’s a not-so-secret subtext running underneath the occupational, romantic and familial issues that our protagonist, Irene Lorenzi (an appealing and confident Margherita Buy) navigates – she is fully, and confidently, herself; genuinely comfortable in her own skin and guiltlessly content with her single and childless status, deservedly proud that she’s very good at her job, but never allowing what she does for a living to define her life.

When I saw the film at the European Union Film Festival last spring, I was struck by the plain fact that we never, ever, see women like this in mainstream film. They either need to be Crusading Heroines Bucking The Old-Boy Network (Norma Rae, Nine-To-Five, Silkwood, Erin Brockovitch) or Women Who Must Reinvent Themselves After Our Long-Cherished Institutions Fail Them (Mildred Pierce, The First Wives Club, Under The Tuscan Sun, countless others…). Even the most independent, self-sufficient female characters we see in film invariably consider couplehood, or motherhood, or their career choices as necessary compromises or practical inevitabilities. The world is full of perfectly content women who have clearly and freely made the same choices as Irene, but, for some reason, filmmakers and writers always need to include an undercurrent of second guessing, or they need to tailor the circumstances to justify their decisions – the world of men has limited their choices, or their family history dooms them to be a particular kind of person, and they either make the constructive best of it or end up lonely and miserable. (And it isn’t just female characters – I’ve lamented in the past about Nick Hornby’s work [High Fidelity, About A Boy, An Education] constructing achingly single-minded hipsters only to have them ultimately ‘learn their lessons’ about the true value of conformity.)

Irene, it must be said, has an enviable job; she’s a ‘mystery guest’ who works for an agency that sets the ratings for very high-end European hotels. She stays at the finest hotels in the world for three or four days at a time – Paris, Berlin, Tuscany, Switzerland, Marrakesh, Shanghai – analyzing the effectiveness and graciousness of the staff, the quality of the housekeeping, food and amenities, and, ultimately, whether the experience is as satisfying and luxurious as promised. And she’s tough – spying a newlywed couple who are clearly not used to such high-end indulgence, Irene fiercely berates the hotel manager for his staff’s condescension towards them.

When Irene isn’t working (and those breaks are getting fewer and far between – she’s very good at her job, and her boss is constantly adding to her workload), she spends time with her sister’s family or her best-friend ex-boyfriend. Her sister Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi) harangues her about being a single woman, even though Silvia herself is having some pretty typical marriage and self-esteem issues that Irene simply doesn’t have to contend with. Silvia might like to have more sex with her husband. Might Irene like more sex in her life as well? Sure, but those issues don’t define Irene in the same way they define Silvia. When Irene advises Silvia not to buy a particular dress, it’s because she simply doesn’t like the dress. But Silvia can only ask why the dress isn’t good on her? What is it about her that makes the dress unsuitable? Nonetheless, as sisters, they’re great friends, and make a point to talk to each other every day. Irene even recruits her two young nieces for one of her inspections, giving Silvia a well-deserved break while doing what seems to be a nice adventurous favor for the girls.

Andrea (Stefano Accorsi) runs an organic produce distributorship, and he and Irene share a terrific friendship well after they’ve broken up as an intimate couple. Andrea is now courting a new girlfriend, Fabiana (Alessia Barela), and Irene is nothing if not encouraging. When a particularly tragic occurrence shakes Irene up, she beelines straight to Andrea for comfort. But when aspects of their close friendship start to alienate Fabiana, Irene steps up forthrightly to assure Fabiana of Andrea’s dedicated commitment to their burgeoning new relationship. She defends Andrea, not herself, which turns out to be exactly what Fabiana needed to hear.

One of the centerpieces of the film is a chance encounter that Irene has with a famous sex-positive feminist intellectual, Kate Sherman (Lesley Manville, a terrific performance in a deceptively small role). Irene leads her life day-to-day, rarely having any distance or objectivity. But Kate distills many of Irene’s beliefs about herself and the choices she’s made within a much larger context, and they become immediate mutually-supportive friends.

Irene is a great character because, despite her ‘cushy’ job, she deals with all of the issues we ourselves contend with every day – sharing and supporting the experiences of our families and our friends, constantly assessing and re-assessing whether our work defines us and/or whether it’s worth doing at all. Irene lives a rich and varied life, and doesn’t feel like she lacks for anything, but, like all of us, isn’t oblivious to the other life options she’s weighed, accepted or rejected. If there’s one thing her job has taught her, it’s the importance of standards. Not rules, but empirical standards.  Irene is essentially the same person at the end of the film as she was at its beginning, and that’s an immensely good, and distressingly rare, thing. Other reviews and plot synopses are stuffed with words like “conflict,” “fractured,” “struggles,” coming to terms,”  “Irene must re-think.” Why should she?  I think Irene may work somewhat like a Rorschach test for a lot of viewers – she must be unhappy, she must have regrets, she’s kidding herself. And Irene Lorenzi would be the first person to admit that all of that might be true. But she’s going to move along and get on with her life anyway, taking it as it comes and, ultimately, loving herself through it all. Hollywood needs Meg Ryans and Whitney Houstons and Barbra Streisands to convince us that it’s possible. Italy has Margherita Buy, and in her own modest but impressive way, she might just blow those other divas out of the cinematic water.

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Movies – 8 Women (France, 2002)

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Emmanuelle Béart in “Eight Women.”

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

If you’re in the mood for a big, fun, campy, stylish, melodramatic potboiler with world-famous actresses artfully shooting fish in a barrel, I direct you to 8 Women (Huit Femmes) (France, 2002), Francois Ozon’s Agatha-Christie-meets-Douglas-Sirk-via-Knots-Landing-withmusical-interludes extravaganza. It starts as a standard Poirot-like murder mystery (who killed Marcel in the bedroom with the knife?), and works its way across endless scandals and revelations to finally conclude with a nice twist ending (also textbook Christie) that’s surprisingly dark.

Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) is home for the holidays to visit her parents, Marcel (Dominique Lemure, in the Kevin Costner ‘Big Chill’ role) and Gaby (Catherine Deneuve), her grandmamy (Danielle Darrieux), her younger sister Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier) and her spinster Aunt Augustine (Isabelle Huppert). In their employ are the beloved cook Chanel (Firmine Richard) and the new maid, Louise (Emmanuelle Béart). After the family exchanges early pleasantries, and Suzon performs a quick ‘Grease’-like ditty about how clueless her fuddy-duddy Papa can be, Louise is dispatched to awaken M. Marcel and deliver his breakfast tray. After the requisite blood-curdling scream, the women discover that Marcel’s been murdered, the phone lines have been cut, the car won’t start, and the front gate has been blocked. Quel horreur! Arriving soon afterward, having received a mysterious phone call, is Marcel’s black-sheep sister Pierrete (Fanny Ardant), and we have our full complement of suspects.

Of course, each has a reason to see him dead; each has a grave secret, or chequered past, that they cannot, but yet must, reveal; each confides in, and then condemns, each of the others; and each gets a silly non-sequiter musical episode that illustrates their general character while completely stopping the actual plot in its tracks. Mon dieu, someone’s pregnant! Zut alors, someone’s having an affair! Incroyable, there are lesbians in this house! Ozon smartly keeps the proceedings irony-and-wink-free; each of these thespian amazons fully commit to the hothouse intrigues, whispered conspiracies and free-flowing estrogen mania. They play it all straight, trusting M. Ozon to wrap things up in a pleasantly vinyl package. Mlle. Ledoyen is criminally charming, and Mme. Huppert shamelessly chews the scenery as the Gatling-gun-neurotic eccentric-but-sympathetic aunt. Fanny Ardant oozes woman-of-the-world slinkiness, and the legendary Mme. Darrieux displays impressive gravity, wiggy-ness and humor as Gaby’s maman. Mlles. Beart and Sagnier don’t get a lot to do early on, but rise to the occasion in timely fashion. And Mme. Richard acquits herself well with perhaps the best song of a disappointingly generic bunch.

It’s refreshing that, in the face of lame celeb-fests like whatever Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston and Kate Hudson are phoning in these days, these French icons are literally eating scripts like this alive. They know exactly how silly this stuff can be – they use that as an excuse to work all the harder, rather than take their fans for granted and cash the check. Where else can you see Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant making out on the living room floor? On screen or at home, this movie is highly recommended viewing for a lightweight and deeply goofy refresher course on Pros At Work.

 

 

 

The Luis Buñuel Project – That Obscure Object Of Desire

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Carole Bouquet and Fernando Rey in “That Obscure Object Of Desire.” credit: tasteofcinema.com

Luis Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object Of Desire (Cet Obscur Objet Du Désir) (France / Spain, 1977), is an adaptation of the 1898 novel La Femme Et Le Pantin (The Woman And The Puppet) by Pierre Louÿs, which served as an effective vehicle for both Marlene Dietrich (Von Sternberg’s The Devil Is A Woman) and Brigitte Bardot (Julien Duvivier’s The Female). Once again he collaborated with Jean-Claude Carrière on the screenplay, and the basic narrative of the book is left intact. But Buñuel and Carrière nonetheless put their own irreverently surreal cast on material that had already taken some politically incorrect liberties, even in 1898.

Buñuel regular Fernando Rey is Mathieu, a wealthy, well-groomed man-about-town who becomes obsessed with a poor but pretty Spanish working girl named Conchita. He relates the story of the relationship (in flashbacks) to the other passengers of his train coach, who have just watched him dump a bucket of water on the pursuing Conchita’s head before embarking. Mathieu, who regards himself as a devoted and generous find for any woman whom he might take a fancy to, has treated Conchita to enormous amounts of attention and indulgence. Conchita, nonetheless, torments him with varying and escalating degrees of tease and denial, imploring him to not see her as a possession but as another person with her own full life and desires. By the time Mathieu boards this train, he’s seemingly done with her.

Conchita first appears as a chambermaid in Mathieu’s household, inexperienced but earnest. That evening, Mathieu wastes no time in conveying his affections towards his strikingly lovely new employee. She demurs and they part, minutes later, on seemingly flirty good terms, but Mathieu discovers the next day that Conchita has quit. Months later, while languishing in Switzerland, he encounters her again; she’s touring with some musician friends (as a dancer) and they’ve just been stiffed by their agent. He helps them out with some cash (after being oddly pranked by them), and learns where Conchita lives in Paris. He visits often, ingratiating himself with Conchita’s mother and offering them favor upon kind favor. He eventually asks Conchita’s mother for her daughter’s hand in marriage, and offers her a large financial incentive. But Conchita again refuses, feeling that Mathieu is buying off Mom instead of earning her own affections patiently and honestly, and disappears. A few months later, Mathieu and his magistrate brother Edouard (Julien Bertheau) are having lunch at a posh restaurant and discover that Conchita is the recently-hired coat-check girl. Once again reunited, Conchita agrees to live with Mathieu at his country estate.

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Fernando Rey and Ángela Molina in “That Obscure Object Of Desire.” credit: dvdactive.com

Here, at roughly the halfway point of the film, is a good spot to assess the larger context. Mathieu‘s Paris, and greater Europe for that matter, is plagued by terrorists blowing up cars, shops and restaurants, shooting dignitaries down in the streets and bombing planes. The insurgents are a vague mish-mash of lone wolves, anarchists, religious extremists and other various small groups, all with fearsome acronyms like the P.O.P., the G.R.I.F. and the O.U.T., and all allegedly in the service of the R.A.O.I.J., the Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus. Mathieu wields enough privilege and wealth to avoid most of this, but it’s an insistent background. Conchita is a fascinating character made even more complex by the famous stroke of Buñuel and Carrière’s of casting two separate actresses in the one role. Carole Bouquet – French, tall, willowy and wry, making her feature debut, seems more elegant, and somewhat regretful at denying Mathieu his way with her. Ángela Molina, an earthy and cheery Spanish actress with a bit more experience, is more extroverted and engaging, but also more directly defiant. Neither performer is used for particular consistent purposes, though – Buñuel and Carrière alternate them almost at random, a few times within the very same scene. Mathieu’s having to contend with two Conchitas adds extra complexity, and extra boundaries to negotiate. But Buñuel the surrealist is far more interested in letting created associations reverberate than in setting up specific symbols or allegorical contexts. The film is full of visual non-sequiturs: mouse traps, pet baby pigs, a fly in a cocktail. A seamstress repairs an embroidery tear on a blood-streaked piece of fabric, and there are recurring guest appearances by a burlap bag – sackcloth, perhaps?

Mathieu’s country estate is quite nice, but terrorists have disabled the nearby power station. The candlelit evening would seem to be conducive to mutual romance, and Mathieu is delighted that he can finally be intimate and alone with Conchita. But Conchita is adamant about protecting her chastity; he can be as intimate as he likes, but she won’t surrender that. (“Just wait a little while longer. You know I’m yours and yours alone. What more do you want?”) Days go by, they spend lovely recreational days together in Paris, but she still insists on remaining chaste. One night after being turned down again, Mathieu discovers that Conchita’s musician friend has been sleeping over with her in the other room after being tossed out of his hotel. (“But don’t worry, we slept back to back – exactly as I do with you!”). Mathieu throws her out, but he’s irretrievably smitten. He has Edouard use his connections to get Conchita and her mother deported back to Seville, but he then pursues them there anyway. He becomes more obsessive, more pos-sessive, and she continues to profess her love while making him jump through more increasingly demeaning hoops. “I belong to no one, and I am my most precious possession.”

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Ángela Molina in “That Obscure Object Of Desire.” credit: pinterest.com

Mathieu is the protagonist here, and in seeing the relationship through his eyes  we’re naturally sympathetic to his frustrations concerning Conchita. But Buñuel, throughout the film, is just as much on Conchita’s side, and is clearly admiring of her self-protective tendencies; there’s no evidence that Mathieu wouldn’t toss her over if given his full indulgences. It’s why she won’t ask him for money; as long as he sees it as a means to his end, he’ll always give it to her anyway. He’ll pay her and Mom’s rent, she can have a room on his country estate, he’ll buy her a small villa in Seville. She meets his frustrations with cruelty, and vice-versa; at one point he strikes her, repeatedly, and, face bloodied, she responds with “Now I know you love me.” Conchita’s reaction may distress us these days (it distressed some back then), but it’s true to Louÿs’ book – after this episode, it’s definitely her pursuing him now – but Buñuel uses this moment to obscure things further; is this another manipulative tactic, or is she truly relenting? Has he done enough for her by now to earn her acquiescence? The privileged Mathieu never changes throughout the entire story, but Conchita has no choice but to strive,  adapt, and oftentimes submit, in order to keep a roof over her head, food in her mouth, and love in her modest life. By the time we end up back on that train, though, near the end, it’s pretty clear what each of them know they need, and how pointlessly, even maliciously, they’re willing to treat each other in order not to just admit that to each other. The terrorists are the least of our problems, some might say – just look what we do to each other. And Luis Buñuel has a good laugh at our expense, again…