Movies – Hiroshima, Mon Amour

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.

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Alain Resnais’ gorgeous and timeless Hiroshima Mon Amour (France, 1959) is one of the landmarks of world cinema – and it was Resnais’ feature film debut. Of course, he had spent the previous 20 years doing short films and documentaries, one of the most notable being Night And Fog (Nuit Et Brouillard). The 1955 film shuffled an almost pastoral visual tour of the abandoned Auschwitz with previously unseen documentary footage of the camp in full deployment, and during its liberation, 10 years earlier. Only 32 minutes long, it presents things we might be inclined to avoid remembering while demonstrating why we mustn’t. Rather than strictly explaining what happened and why, the film’s narrative recalls things more as reminiscence, as memories already being irrevocably diluted. The screenwriter is the novelist Jean Cayrol, who himself was interred in the camps.

Resnais originally set out to do something similar with Hiroshima Mon Amour, but more expansively. The French novelist Marguerite Duras wrote Resnais’ screenplay, and successfully manufactured a 36-hour affair between strangers that not only expressed enormous amounts of swooning romantic fatalism, but also commented on our human propensities to process, or repress, pain and tragedy through the filter of memory. The first portion of the film is, indeed, a documentary on Hiroshima, filmed years after the atomic bomb blast – we tour the commemorative museum, see footage of the initial aftermath of the blast, and witness how the Japanese inhabitants themselves are still living with the results. But the voiceover, and the initial images, are provided by the couple having the affair; the French woman (the brilliant Emmanuelle Riva) asserts what she’s learned, and describes the local sights she’s seen, during her short visit, while the Japanese man (Eiji Okada) denies that she knows anything of Hiroshima. He’s an architect whose family lived through the blast – she’s an actress who has come to Hiroshima as part of the cast of an anti-war film. They are, however, immersed in love and lust with each other at the moment, despite knowing that they must leave each other, probably forever, in 36 hours.

At the onset of the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut made The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959), and dissolved the line between objectively- presented narrative and the filmmaker’s subjective personal concerns. Jean-Luc Godard made Breathless (À bout de soufflé, 1960), and dissolved the line between real people and actors, real interaction and contrived narrative, and how the plastic qualities of film can affect all of that. Like the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, Godard always reminds you of the pretense, he always reminds you you’re watching a film, while convincing you that what’s on screen can be just as real as any other lived experience. Alain Resnais, in this film and his subsequent works, had more in common with the new wave of French writers and novelists of the time – the Nouveau Roman. Along with Resnais’ collaborators like Cayrol, Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet (the writer of his next feature, Last Year At Marienbad, 1961), French writers like Raymond Queneau, George Perec and Robert Pinget were deconstructing literature into its component concepts – Queneau wrote interchangeable cut-and-paste poems (A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), and Exercices De Style, which tells the same mundane story in 99 different styles, while Perec wrote a 300-page mystery novel (La Disparition / A Void) that never used the letter ‘e.’ (Neither in French nor the English translation!)

Resnais was interested in the same kind of narrative experiments as films; to tell stories of evocative people with personal histories, but to dissolve the boundaries between present and past, real-time and flashback, the lived present moment and memory, emotion and practicality, normal conversation and poetic exchange. The actress relates a tragic story of her love for a German soldier during the French occupation, and, as she relates the tale, the Japanese architect becomes a kind of transferee, a surrogate for her unresolved feelings towards her lost love. He, in turn, married with a family, begs her to remain in Hiroshima, simultaneously knowing, and denying, that it can never happen.

Hiroshima Mon Amour is not only superb as engaging storytelling and incisive character study, but also ranks as one of the most beautifully shot films of the French New Wave; French veteran Sacha Vierny and Michio Takahashi are co-credited as cinematographers. Also quite wonderful is the musical score by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco, an aggressively angular small-group jazz soundtrack that isn’t afraid to pop into circus music or mournful lament as the moment calls for. And don’t underestimate the musicality of Duras’ text, either, superbly surveyed by Riva and Okada (who, while clearly understanding what he was saying, performed the French dialogue purely phonetically. You’d never know it…)

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The Giallo Project – Massimo Dallamano

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Cristina Galbó in “What Have They Done To Solange?” credit: deadshed.blogspot.com

Like another giallo craftsman, Emilio Miraglia, our filmmaker today, Massimo Dallamano, was a seasoned veteran of Italian filmmaking technical departments before creating his own work. He started out as a cinematographer in the late forties, and had shot close to thirty features when Sergio Leone hired him as cinematographer for A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More (credited as Jack Dalmas). A few years later, he graduated to directing his own projects: the excellent spaghetti western Bandidos (1967) and his first tame-but-capable foray into giallo-style, A Black Veil For Lisa (1968). And, like many journeyman filmmakers, Dallamano treated giallo as just another genre among westerns, sex comedies and poliziotteschi. But his films, like Sergio Martino’s, are of such high consistency that even the non-giallos are worth examining here.

 

Venus In Furs (aka Devil In The Flesh) (Le Malizie Di Venere) (Italy, 1969) is writer Fabio Massimo’s genuinely sexy loose adaptation of the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novella, and Dallamano delivers some genuinely classy work here. Severin (Régis Vallée, a very capable actor who only made a few films) is a writer and bon vivant staying at an Italian lake resort. When Wanda (Laura Antonelli), a stunning photographer’s model, arrives, Severin is smitten. He indulges himself voyeuristically at first – she’s in a room that Severin can peep into through holes behind a painting, and he relates a voice-over narrative to us about his youngest erotic experiences growing up. But once he finally introduces himself, her voice is added to the narrative as well, and we find her to be every bit his match in pragmatism and sexuality. And as they confide to each other more and more, Severin reveals that his fondest wish is to be her slave – to be dominated, and, on occasion, outrightly humiliated, by her. She has some misgivings about it at first, but slowly but surely warms to the sense of power she feels, the power he’s allowing her to have. They move to a small villa in the country and hire a couple of comely domestics, blond and brunette. Severin then becomes her chauffeur, joining the domestic servants, and she starts to more fervently indulge herself, and her own power, at his expense, with a local painter who does her portrait and a biker, Bruno (Loren Ewing), whom she has Severin pick up for her on the highway. Bruno moves in with them to service her, embarrass him, and even abuse the maids as well. By now she’s all about her own pleasure, and genuinely enthusiastic about belittling Severin any way she can, even as Bruno treats her just as cruelly. Severin, in shame and exasperation, seems to give up on the whole affair, packing his bags and leaving. But Wanda has one more trick up her sleeve…

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Laura Antonelli in “Venus In Furs.” credit: videowatchdog.blogspot.com

A few things keep the film from being just another soft-core snoozefest; the first is Dallamano’s taste level, which is unerring. He’s acutely aware of, and makes real visual distinctions between, scenes about sex and sensuality and scenes about power and antagonism. (The cinematographer is Sergio D’Offizi, who later shot Don’t Torture A Duckling for Lucio Fulci.) The characters are established confidently, and there’s a well-structured narrative dynamic to their interactions. And while the film may not seem like much of a provocation these days, it was banned in Italy for six years, and then released in an egregiously-edited version. (It’s since been re-assembled, thank goodness.) The second asset the film has is Dallamano’s seemingly effortless rapport with his actors. Laura Antonelli soon became one of Italy’s most reliably appealing actresses throughout the seventies; 1973’s Malizia was her breakthrough role, and its success led to a deluge of sexy young man/ older woman comedies and dramas. But it can be argued that Italy’s censorship of this film postponed her inevitable stardom by four years. Vallée works with her well, generating real spark and intimacy. It feels a little dated, but not distractingly so. It’s well-crafted, and well worth checking out if you run across it.

 

Dallamano’s next project was Dorian Gray (Il Dio Chiamato Dorian – ‘The God Called Dorian’) (Italy, 1970), an update of the 1945 Albert Lewin adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novella “The Picture Of Dorian Gray,” produced by British hackmeister Harry Alan Towers (one of Jess Franco’s most ardent backers) and the American Samuel Z. Arkoff. This adaptation is far freer about indulgences that Wilde and Lewin could only hint at in 1890 and 1945, but, again, Dallamano brings a healthy sense of restraint to what could have been a profligately trashy movie. Helmut Berger sandwiched this role between appearing in two Italian masterworks, Visconti’s The Damned (1969) and DeSica’s The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis (1970), but he couldn’t pass up Dorian Gray, and he’s inarguably perfect for the role. The film hews pretty closely to Wilde’s narrative – Dorian is callow and self-centered, but has a sensitive side brought out by Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl, one of a few Jess Franco actors used here), a beautiful aspiring actress who captures his heart. The fateful portrait is painted by his friend Basil Hallward (Richard Todd), and immoderately admired by the reptilian artists’ agent and man-about-town Henry Wotton (Herbert Lom) and his willful sister Gwendolyn (Margaret Lee) – Henry befriends Dorian, and becomes an aesthetic and philosophical mentor to him. Wotton explains that the painting will be forever young while Dorian must inevitably age. “Why should I get old while this stays young?” Dorian famously exclaims. And, of course, Dorian’s evil switcheroo comes to pass (with a refreshing absence of any religious or magical context). Wotton’s in-crowd indulges Dorian, luring him towards riches, fame and wealthy patronage, while Sybil struggles in her small theater. After a bitter argument between them, Sybil departs and has a deadly accident. (This is straight-up suicide in the book, but Dallamano keeps things a little less hysteric throughout.) In total denial of his loss, Dorian spends the rest of the film on a sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll bender featuring lots of bedwork with whomever he wishes of any sex. With his decadence escalating, he eventually kills Basil is a fit of pique, and causes the deaths of Sybil’s snoopy brother and a doctor/friend, Alan Campbell, who helped him dispose of Basil’s body. The last straw of sanity is pulled when he meets a rich doctor’s wife who is a doppelganger for Sybil. Mad as a hatter, he gazes for a last time on the hideous image the canvas now holds, and kills himself, returning the natural order back to its proper subjects.

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Helmut Berger in “Dorian Gray.” credit: eldiabolik.wordpress.com

Narratively, the film is pretty racy. But after the visual candor of Venus In Furs, I was surprised that Dorian Gray was so… umm… reasonable. The seventies art-direction elements mix old-school old-money with pop art and pop furnishings admirably, and everything’s shot beautifully by Otello Spila, whom incidentally shot Pasolini’s Teorema as well – another tale of an amoral man tearing a swath through conventional ideas of wealth and family. But aside from some bashful nudity and strategic camera placement, the sex scenes suggest more than they show, a departure from a number of other Italian genre directors at the time. The deaths are also far more melodramatic than explicit – one can only imagine what grisly opportunities Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento would have made of Sybil’s, or the others’, deaths. Dallamano is really good at parsing and structuring his writers’ narratives to direct visual purposes, and eliciting the most from his actors throughout. It’s good, watchable fun, but no masterpiece. The masterpiece comes next.

 

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Cristina Galbó and Fabio Testi in “What Have They Done To Solange?” credit: http://goodefficientbutchery.blogspot.com

What Have They Done To Solange? (Cosa Avete Fatto A Solange?) (Italy, 1971), in notable contrast to his previous work, perhaps goes a little too far. The murders are darkly sexual and disturbing, the romantic elements are always a little creepy, some of giallos’ more notorious clichés are seemingly reinforced, and the Catholic church, as usual, comes in for some derisive scrutiny. But we’ve discussed Dallamano’s touch for presenting lurid subject matter in appreciable doses, and he (and co-writer Bruno Di Geronimo) nails those boundaries here within the context of his always well-tailored narrative strategies.

The artful withholding of information is a time-honored exercise in crime mysteries; which secrets are kept, and which pieces of the puzzle are revealed in which particular order is always the trick of a good narrative. Most giallos make each murder a showpiece of sorts, and the murders are thematically intrinsic to the narrative. But here, as in Lucio Fulci’s year- later Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972), the specifics of the actual crimes, and the motivations thereof, aren’t as important as presenting the particular culture or environmental temperament that allows such subsequent nastiness to arise and flourish, and examining how our protagonists act and react under unnaturally stressful circumstances.

Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi) is an Italian and gymnastics teacher at St. Mary’s Catholic College for Girls in London; his wife, Erta (Karin Baal) teaches mathematics there as well. But the marriage is in poor shape these days – they’re estranged, but still living together – and Enrico is having a passionate affair with one of his students, Elizabeth (Cristina Galbó). While spending a leisurely Sunday in a rowboat floating along a woody path, Elizabeth thinks she’s glimpsed a young girl running from a dark figure. Distracted by Enrico’s canoodling, she tries to dismiss it as nothing, but then sees the flash of a large knife and what she imagines must be a violent attack. She’s pretty upset, but Enrico takes it as a ruse to reject his advances, and they leave the park in annoyed disagreement. They regrettably learn the next day that those glimpses indeed were a nasty crime, and one of Elizabeth’s classmates, Hilda, was the victim. Feeling guilty about being dismissive with Elizabeth, Enrico starts to investigate on his own; he inevitably crosses paths with the police, but is reluctant to expose Elizabeth and his affair with her.

After a second victim is discovered – Elizabeth’s schoolmate Janet – Elizabeth recalls that the man she spied chasing Hilda may have been wearing black priest’s robes. The school’s staff and faculty start eyeing each other warily, the police investigation narrows- Janet’s death is identical to Hilda’s – and another crucially important murder follows depressingly quickly.

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Claudia Butenuth and Joachim Fuchsberger in “What Have They Done To Solange?” credit: oneworldmusics.blogspot.com

Part of Dallamano’s success here is the initial, and nicely sustained, empathy he fosters for his main characters. Having fragments of the first death filtered through Elizabeth’s perspective is quite effective – she helps us to take the attack seriously and empathize with the unknown victim even as we’re temporarily spared the nastier details. Enrico sleeping with one of his students is transgressive, but they’re both so likable otherwise – he deferential and discreet, she quite mature and prepossessing – that we’re inclined to accept their couplehood as credible, not simply an indulgence. Dallamano’s confidence in our goodwill towards them is then the basis of a few hard twists, but those choices are well-earned and effective. Enrico, in true giallo form, is a suspect in the murders; nonetheless, he gets unexpected support later on from the seemingly spiteful but resilient Erta, who knows in her heart that he’s not capable of any of it. (A featurette on the most recent DVD release reveals that Karin Baal, despite her convincing work, did not like the film.) The ubiquitous police inspector (German krimi veteran Joachim Fuchsberger), almost always superfluous or unhelpful in most giallos, is actually pretty capable here, though it’s Enrico, of course, who eventually cracks the case. Elizabeth’s friends, who form the list of victims, are tied together by indulgences that, in one fateful instance, turned tragic. There’s an easy, specious argument to be made here that the girls are being punished for their promiscuity, but the overall narrative goes deeper than that. Dallamano and Di Geronimo’s film is about the failures of contemporary institutions – educational, familial and religious, and the failures of the so-called adults thereof, to protect their children from, or prepare their children for, the moral vagaries of the real world.

The film is notably well-shot by Aristide Massaccesi, but B-movie aficionados will know him better by his directing nom du cinéma Joe D’Amato, one of the more prolific erotica and gorefest sleazemeisters of the late 20th century. The man knows his photography, though, make no mistake. And Ennio Morricone provides another astonishingly good, and characteristically unique, soundtrack. This film will easily make the upper half of any top ten list of giallos, and is a must-see exemplar of the genre.

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Camille Keaton in “What Have They Done To Solange?” credit: nuovocinemalocatelli.com

 

Dallamano’s next films evinced more evidence of his technical skills in service to his storytelling, to varying degrees of success. Mafia Junction (Si Può Essere Più Bastardi Dell’ispettore Cliff?, or Can You Be More Of A Bastard Than Inspector Cliff?) also goes by The Blue Movie Murders and, my favorite, Super Bitch (Italy, 1973). An elaborate crime caper film with equally unscrupulous cops and criminals, it features a pretty elaborate, sometimes ridiculous plot and solid performances from Italian-film veteran Ivan Rassimov and the terrific British actress Stephanie Beacham, who managed to easily outclass most of the projects she found herself performing in. Next up was Innocence and Desire (Innocenza E Turbamento) (Italy, 1974), one of seemingly hundreds of Malizia knock-offs, with this version featuring impressive giallo and sex-comedy veteran Edwige Fenech rather than Venus In Furs’ Laura Antonelli. It’s pretty generic stuff for the genre, but was certainly acceptable light entertainment at the time. It features a few typically Italian digs at the church (our young protagonist is a seminarian sent home to reconsider his convictions who falls in love with Dad’s second wife) and also features the blacklisted American actor Lionel Stander, who worked in Europe extensively throughout the sixties and seventies before gaining notoriety as Max on the TV series Hart To Hart.

 

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Mario Adorf and Giovanna Ralli in “What Have They Done To Your Daughters?” credit: 10kbullets.com

What Have They Done To Your Daughters? started out as La Polizia Chiede Aiuto (Italy, 1974), which translates to The Police Need Your Help. But western distributors were keen on associating it with What Have They Done To Solange?, even though I suspect Dallamano just saw it as another project he could bring a similar style to. It’s far more poliziotteschi than giallo, but the idea that schools, police, doctors and parents are actually pretty helpless to protect their children from malicious harm runs through this film as well. Told from the view of an ongoing police investigation, a teenaged girl’s suicide leads to the discovery of a high-school-girls’ prostitution ring, and the criminals that run it starts getting sloppy and violent when the police start closing in.

Inspector Valentini (Mario Adorf), a family man with a teen daughter of his own, draws the suicide case at first, but it’s handed off to the tenacious Inspector Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli) and Assistant D.A. Vittoria Stori (Giovanna Ralli). Their first lead is a snooping photographer who has images of the dead girl in flagrante delicto before her death. The girl’s maid and absentee parents then lead them to a private detective and the girl’s therapist. From there the plot thickens in pretty efficient and involving fashion. Most prominent is the ubiquitous black leather-clad motorcycle -riding killer wielding a butcher’s cleaver.

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“What Have They Done To Your Daughters?” credit: grindhousedatabase.com

Dallamano collaborated with Ettore Sanzò on the screenplay, and, despite a few narrative slip-ups, has constructed a very good procedural thriller. Efficiently shot by Franco Delli Colli, there’s a nice car chase and a genuinely scary parking-garage stalking scene that rise well above their standard treatments elsewhere. With a very good musical score by the reliable Stelvio Cipriani, this isn’t a film I’d urge you to seek out, but it’s certainly worth your while if you run across it.

 

Dallamano followed with the well-regarded supernatural horror thriller The Night Child, aka The Cursed Medallion (Il Medaglione Insanguinato) (Italy, 1975) and 1976’s Annie, aka Blue Belle an Emmanuelle-like softcore sex saga starring Euro-siren Annie Belle. Dallamano was hired in for this one, as tawdry producer Harry Alan Towers had fallen out with Jess Franco, who would have usually handled this sort of project for him.

 

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“Rings Of Fear” credit: giallowkadrze.blogspot.com

The third “chapter” of what others like to group as Dallamano’s “Schoolgirls-In-Peril” trilogy (…Solange, …Daughters) goes by another long list of titles – the Italian title is Enigma Rosso, and is most commonly called Rings Of Fear (Italy, 1978), but it’s also found as Red Rings Of Fear, Virgin Killer and Trauma, depending on the distributor. The film had a rocky road to production – another Dallamano directing project, he had completed his screenplay when he tragically lost his life in a car crash in Rome. The producers then hired Alberto Negrin, a TV veteran with no feature film experience, and four other writers to put the finishing touches on what they had. The results are pretty disappointing.

Another Catholic girl’s school, another secretive clique of promiscuous girls, another traumatic abortion, and another step-by-step police investigation feels like Dallamano territory, but it’s all so unoriginal and clumsily presented that I suspect there wasn’t a lot of this in the original script – those elements were grafted on in homage to Dallamano’s earlier work, and simplified to give fans more of what they expected in far less subtle doses. Fabio Testi is once again our protagonist, but this time he’s the police inspector, DiSalvo, with a sensitive streak at home with his kleptomaniac girlfriend (Christine Kaufmann, in a woefully underwritten role) and pet cats, and a hot temper when on the job, on the case. The discovery of a girl’s mutilated body wrapped in plastic in the lake starts the investigation, but DiSalvo gets unexpected help from the victim’s vengeful little sister Emily (Fausta Avelli).

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Fabio Testi in “Rings Of Fear.” credit: satanicpandemonium.blogspot.com

The film, admittedly, looks great. Shot by Italian veteran Eduardo Noé, the film features an impressive central staircase in the girl’s school with a giant nun statue that’s put to excellent use, both atmospherically and practically. Credited composer Riz Ortolani is usually pretty reliable, but much of his soundtrack music here is recycled from 1973’s Super Bitch. Actor Jack Taylor, who figures as one of the villains here, later claimed the film was never finished, and that’s not hard to believe.

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“Rings Of Fear.” credit: dirtypictures.pnpbb8.de

The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 9

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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Ágnes Máhr, Arghavan Shekari and Cake-Baly Marcelo in “The Citizen.” credit: zff.com

Roland Vranik’s The Citizen (Az Állampolgár) (Hungary, 2016) presents a quite powerful, unsentimental episode in the life of Wilson Ugabe (Cake-Baly Marcelo), a middle-aged West African refugee whose family was destroyed in civil conflict there a few years past. He’s building a new life in Budapest, having learned the language, acquired a decent job (as a greeter and security man at a supermarket) and found a safe place to live. But Wilson has a complication – an old girlfriend of a former roommate arrives on his doorstep pregnant, looking for Dad. Shirin (Arghavan Shekari), a refugee herself (from Iran), has a baby due, nowhere to stay and a warrant out for her deportation. Wilson, familiar with, and supportive of, her predicament, chooses to take them in. Meanwhile, Wilson is having trouble passing his citizenship test, so his employer Éva (Tünde Szalontay) introduces him to her sister, Mari (Ágnes Máhr), who gives private lessons to both kids and adults. Wilson is not only a diligent pupil for Mari, but an ever-closer friend, then lover, and her own dead-end marriage comes to an awkward but deserving end. When Mari arrives to live with Wilson, the additional roommates are an unpleasant but (hopefully) manageable surprise.

I don’t mean to suggest the film is without humor – both Wilson and Mari are smart, friendly people, well-surveyed by these two fine actors, and watching their courtship develop is warm and fun. But the situation darkens, and all three of our characters fall victim to some of their own bad decisions. Vranik’s script, co-written with Iván Szabó, steers away from the fevered melodrama that these stories can sometimes fall into, and presents the characters as straightforward products of their own hard experiences, for better and worse. Imre Juhasz does the film justice visually as well – a regular cinematographer in Hungary, he’s been getting increasing amounts of camera crew and second-unit work here in the U.S., and he’ll work his talented way up quickly.

I liked this movie a lot – it’s no ray of sunshine, but it’s a really good, wordly-wise short-story film that rings rewardingly true.

“The Citizen” will be shown on Friday, March 30th at 8:00 pm and Tuesday, April 3rd at 6:00 pm.

The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 8

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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Iris Bry and Nathalie Baye in “The Guardians.” credit: Music Box Films

Xavier Beauvois is clearly an extraordinarily talented French director, and I don’t want to steal his thunder – this is a great film, and my favorite of the festival so far. But casting director Karen Hottois did him immeasurable service in discovering the superb Iris Bry, and the visual narrative of his newest film, The Guardians (Les Guardiennes) (France, 2017) is so beautifully wrought that it’s tough not to sing the praises of his veteran cinematographer Caroline Champetier. She’s been a prolific cinematographer since the early eighties, shooting for Jacques Rivette, Chantal Akerman, Leos Carax and, of course, earlier Beauvois films.

I emphasize this because Beauvois’ clear intention is to praise the courage, resourcefulness and resilience of women, specifically those who stayed home while fathers and sons left home to fight World War I. The film follows the Sandrail family, caretakers of Le Pardier farm. All three of the sons of Hortense Sandrail (Nathalie Baye, superb) and her frail husband Henri (Gilbert Bonneau) have gone to war, leaving the work of the farm to herself and her daughter–in–law Solange (Laura Smet). They could use a little help, but the only available laborer turns out to be another woman, the young but hardy Francine (Iris Bry, in a solidly impressive debut). Immensely helpful, diligent and well-mannered, Francine turns out to be a godsend. But the sons get leave from time to time, American soldiers pop in here and there, and co-ed complications, sadly, inevitably,ensue.

Collaborating with Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau to adapt Ernest Perochon’s 1924 novel, Beauvois keeps the dialogue sparse and efficient – he knows he can rely on his actors to show us, not tell us, what’s important. Long passages of the film feel like Jean-François Millet paintings come-to-life, but we feel real intimacy with the laboring figures. The performances are great, the film looks sensational, the story is movingly straightforward and there’s even an honest-to-God Michel Legrand musical score. This is a wonderful film.

“The Guardians” will be shown on Sunday, March 25th at 2:30 pm and Thursday the 29th at 6:00 pm.

The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 7

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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James McAvoy and Alicia Vikander in “Submergence.” credit: facebook.com/pg/submergencefanpage

Everything Wim Wenders does in the service of relating the story of his newest film, Submergence (Germany / USA, 2017), seems like exactly what he should be doing: building relationships minute-by-minute, taking the time to really watch people think, and relate to each other. Taking the specific circumstances of his characters’ lives and expanding their context to more universal ideas and meanings. Expressing love without over-earnestness, and violence without shock or sensationalism. And yet, at less than two hours, it’s a tough film to stick with or stay interested in.

Based on a novel by J.M. Ledgard, we follow two protagonists. James More (James McAvoy) is a European intelligence agent who, undercover, attempts to make contacts in Somalia, but is quickly kidnapped and held in squalid captivity by jihadists. In his imprisoned despair, he thinks longingly of a recent love, Danny (Alicia Vikander), a bio-mathematician who studies deep deep underwater ocean life (don’t call her an oceanographer…!) and is prepping for an important expedition in a high-tech submersible. With their meeting at a small posh Atlantic oceanside resort, Wenders and screenwriter Erin Dignam construct an efficient but credibly heartfelt courtship – James is understandably reticent about career specifics, but the whip-smart Danny clearly gets the gist; when time comes to go their separate ways it’s genuinely moving. The metaphorical landscape here is obvious but not overwrought, and the talented Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie makes hard but effective visual distinctions between an impressive variety of locations and moods. Scene-by-scene it’s engrossing, and there’s hard creative work being done here, but the two threads need stronger cohesion to each other, and more complementary dynamics of speed and rhythm, both narratively and visually. Maybe it’s an editing thing, maybe the script, maybe just a lack of rigor from Wenders. It’s a shame, though – there’s a lot here otherwise.

“Submergence” screens on Saturday, March 24th at 3:00 pm and Tuesday the 27th at 8:00 pm.

The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 6

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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Andrea Petrik and Ervin Nagy in “Kincsem – Bet On Revenge.” credit: 8400.info.hu

Hungarian director Gábor Herendi is no stranger to domestic success – his Valami Amerika Hollywood-spoof comedies are on their third sequel, and he does a fair amount of television work as well. At around $12 million (HUF 3 billion), Kincsem – Bet On Revenge (Hungary, 2017) is reportedly the most expensive Hungarian film ever produced; it’s a bit more than Herendi can really chew, but it’s solidly entertaining nonetheless and was wildly successful with his domestic audiences. Kincsem (‘My Treasure’) was the most successful thoroughbred racehorse in history; 54 races, 54 wins, which is a sports story well worth telling. But Herendi (with screenwriter Bálint Hegedûs) has also fashioned a somewhat operatic rags-to-riches adventure yarn about the orphaned son of a Hungarian partisan who grows up to become Kincsem’s trainer, finds fame and fortune and wins the love of the daughter of his arch enemy. The story is pleasantly predictable, but they’ve had some real fun with flamboyant costuming, a nicely anachronistic music score, a few cyberpunk touches and spirited performances. Ervin Nagy is the trainer, Blaskovich, a perenially hard-luck horseman and gambling party-animal who just has a feeling about this sad-looking wild horse. Andrea Petrik is the wealthy daughter of the man who killed Blaskovich’s father, and she works harder than many of her American contemporaries might, elevating an otherwise stereotypical role. And I should mention Tamás Keresztes as Gerlóczy, a young rich nobleman who bankrolls Blaskovich in the good-old-days, but falls out with him when he actually starts succeeding – it’s a more complex performance than it needed to be, to the actor’s credit. The steadily-working Péter Szatmári shot the film, which is great-looking even if some of the computer-enhancement is awkwardly handled.

No masterpiece, Kincsem – Bet On Revenge is still a fun mainstream popcorn movie that simultaneously aspires to, and wants to avoid the mistakes of, big Hollywood entertainment. It’s a pretty ambitious and admirable Saturday matinee, and I recommend it.

“Kincsem – Bet On Revenge” will be shown on Saturday, March 24th at 3:00 pm.

 

The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 5

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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Emmanuelle Devos and Richard Berry in “Number One.” credit: tiff.net

In a country of reliably artful film actresses, France’s Emmanuelle Devos holds a place of prominence, both in her own innate talent and in her discerning choice of projects. In Tonie Marshall’s most recent film, Number One (Numéro Une) (France, 2017), she plays Emmanuelle Blachey, an executive vice-president for a state-of-the-art wind turbine manufacturer who manages their Chinese operations as well. Prodigiously talented and internationally respected, she’s hand-picked by a prestigious women’s political coalition to vie for the corporate presidency of one of France’s national water utilities, Althéa – she’d be the first female CEO of a CAC 40 corporation. But there’s another contender for the position, and he – of course, he – has access to a resourceful and well-connected network subculture of venture capitalists, P.R. consultants, lobbyists, charity-ball regulars and board members who will dutifully make Ms. Blachey’s life whatever level of hell suits their self-interested purposes.

Tonie Marshall has done feature films, documentaries and some TV work – her technical storytelling skills are excellent. Her screenplay (written with Marion Doussot and Raphaëlle Bacqué) reflects a level of ubiquitous corruption and amorality that certainly exists, but is condensed and exaggerated here to (arguably) righteous ends. She spends the first part of the movie convincing us to admire, respect and cheer on Emmanuelle Blachey, but then spends the later sequences having things happen to Ms. Blachey rather than having Ms. Blachey herself make things happen. The list of what-she-has-to-deal-with is daunting, and credible, but I wish they had made more with less. But these are quibbles; if there’s an equally serious-minded examination of aspiring executive women in big-league corporate culture (besides TV-show subplots) made by an American filmmaker, I’d sure like to hear about it. Here’s another very good film that deserves wider distribution.

“Number One” will be shown Monday, March 19th at 6:00 pm.