Tuesday, December 3, 2013

2013 French Cinema Now

French Cinema Now was the fourth film series in the San Francisco Film Society's 2013 Fall Season.  It was held from November 7 to 10 at the Landmark Clay.  I saw eight films in the series.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters starring Vincent Macaigne, Maud Wyler & Bastien Bouillon; directed by Sébastien Betbeder; French with subtitles; (2013)
A Castle in Italy starring Valeria Bruni Tedeschi & Louis Garrel; directed by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi; French and Italian with subtitles; (2013)
Rendezvous in Kiruna starring Jean-Pierre Darroussin & Anastasios Soulis; directed by Anna Novion; French and Swedish with subtitles; (2012)
Michael Kohlhaas starring Mads Mikkelsen & Delphine Chuillot; directed by Arnaud des Pallières; French and German with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
Miss and the Doctors starring Louise Bourgoin, Cédric Kahn & Laurent Stocker; directed by Axelle Ropert; French with subtitles; (2013)
Suzanne starring Sara Forestier & Adèle Haenel; directed by Katell Quillévéré; French with subtitles; (2013)
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear starring Pierrette Robitaille & Romane Bohringer; directed by Denis Côté; French with subtitles; (2013) - Official Facebook
Bastards starring Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni & Julie Bataille; directed by Claire Denis; French with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website


Michael Kohlhaas has a longer, alternate title of Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas.  Kohlhaas was a tremendous film which was based on a 19th century novel which in turn was based on a actual 17th century incident.  This film version switches France for the German setting of the story.

Kohlhaas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a horse trader.  When passing through an area, he discovers the Baron of the area has died and his son is the new Baron.  The new Baron requires a toll to pass through his land.  After some disagreement, Kohlhaas leaves two horses and a servant behind while he seeks legal resolution.  Indeed the practice is illegal and Kohlhaas returns with an official decree to take back his horses and servant only to find the horses abused and injured and his servant injured from dog maulings.

His complaints to the Baron don't go far so he seeks legal redress which is stymied by the Baron's friends at court.  Unwilling to let the matter drop, Kohlhaas' wife (Delphine Chuillot) goes to the royal court to petition her husband's case before the princess (Roxane Duran).  She is murdered at court and her bloodied body returned to Kohlhaas.  At this point, he decides to resolve the issue with his crossbow.

Quickly gaining followers who feel similarly aggrieved by the Baron, Kohlhaas forms an army that is a cross between Robin Hood's Merry Men and a hit squad.  On the verge of capturing and killing the Baron, Kohlhaas is persuaded to end the hostilities in exchange of amnesty and fair adjudication of the Baron's actions.  Kohlhaas unwisely agrees because his overriding concern is justice, not vengeance.

Kohlhaas' amnesty is eventually revoked and after a brief period as a fugitive he is captured.  The film ends with Kohlhaas' horses returned to him in good health and the Baron led away to spend a few years in prison for his crimes.  However, for the crime of armed rebellion, Kohlhaas is sentenced to death.  He submits to his sentence without complaint but Kohlhaas and the audience is left to wonder if it was worth it.

Michael Kohlhaas benefits from having a tremendous story to base its plot upon.  His single minded pursuit of justice and his ultimate Pyrrhic victory will split opinions.  Was it worth it? vs. How can you put a price on justice?  Mikkelsen plays Kohlhaas with a stoic demeanor for the most part.  Kohlhaas isn't one to show his emotions (even while bedding his wife) but it's evident that his passions are just beneath the surface and he is more than willing to act upon them.
Michael Kohlhaas, the film and the character, broods and simmers for the first part of the film.  He doesn't explode so much as he makes a deliberate choice which results in methodical and unavoidable violence.  The film doesn't have the pacing of a revenge tale by American movie standards.  I thought it was a welcome change of pace.  I was drawn into the film and deeply affected by the outcome.


Suzanne spanned 25 years in the life of the titular character (Sara Forestier).  Suzanne and her older sister Maria (Adèle Haenel) grew up without a mother because she died when they were young.  Their father (François Damiens) does his best but the girls grow up as what we would call latchkey kids.  From a young age, Suzanne has behavioral issues while her sister is the more responsible one.  Suzanne gets pregnant while in high school, later falls for a handsome petty criminal and abandons her son...and that's just the first half of the film.

Playing out like a soap opera at times, Suzanne is a cautionary tale about a woman who, inexplicably, makes bad choices in life.  Perhaps the presence of her mother may have made the difference but her sister grew up in the same environment and turned out differently.  Actually, being the younger sister of the more attractive and creative Maria was part of the problem for her self-esteem.

The scenes with Sara Forestier and Paul Hamy as Julien, Suzanne's troublesome boyfriend stand out.  Some may find Suzanne too obvious but I appreciated Forestier's portrayal of the downward trajectory of Suzanne's life.

The medicos in Miss and the Doctors are Boris and Dimitri Pizarnik (Cédric Kahn and Laurent Stocker).  The have a joint pediatric practice and are so close they can complete each other's sentence.  Frankly, they seem co-dependent but that will be taken care of soon.  They both fall in love with Judith (Louise Bourgoin), the mother of one of their patients.  Eventually, Judith chooses Boris which causes more than the usual sibling problems.  Their medical practice suffers and Dimitri is a recovering alcoholic who falls off the wagon.

The relationship between the brothers is ridiculous but if you can overcome disbelief, it's touching.  On top of that, Louise Bourgoin is beautiful and the bar she works in looks like a blast.  Most of all it is a comedy despite the serious medical issues the brothers face.  Striking a nice pace, director Axelle Ropert shows considerable skill with a tricky plot that could have gotten too complicated for its own good.  Louise chooses her ex-husband over Boris and the two brothers shut down the practice to go their own separate ways.  Dimitri ends up on the French Riviera while Boris gives Judith a second chance.  I'm not sure if I'm starting to like the rom-com genre as I age but Miss and the Doctors is a pleasing rom-com by my standards.

Ernest Toussant (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is a successful architect in Rendezvous in Kiruna.  He receives a phone call informing him that his son has accidentally died in Sweden.  However, he didn't know he had a son in Sweden.  After initial resistance, Toussant decides he must go to Sweden to identify his son's body which is absurd since he has never seen his son before.

On the way, the picks up Magnus (Anastasios Soulis), a Swedish hitchhiker.  Magnus is making his way back to Sweden from France.  Along the way, they encounter two problems.  Magnus gets into a fight with some bikers and one of them chases them down in Toussant's BMW.  Toussant forces him off the road and he breaks his leg.  This results in a police bulletin being issued for the car.  Simultaneously, a soon to be retired cop in the hometown of Toussant's son carries a grudge against Toussant for abandoning the boy and his mother.  Toussant is completely unaware of this.

Eventually, Toussant has a heart-to-heart with the cop and comes to regret his choices regarding his son and his mother (who is out of town).  Magnus wanted to stay with his grandfather but the old man turns him away (nice scene) because he is too depressed about his wife recent passing.

Darroussin is outstanding as Toussant who is always reserved but goes from cold to showing sympathy for those around him.  He expresses so much with a glance.

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear was a French Canadian film.  It undergoes a tremendous tonal shift from start to finish.  Vic is short for Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille), a 61 year old woman who arrives at her disabled uncle's house in remote French Canada.  Her reason for coming is eventually revealed.  She has just gotten out of prison and is staying with her uncle because it is the official address for her brother.  In reality, the young man next door cares for the old man and the brother is never around.  Vic quickly dismisses the young man.  Next we see a man whom I assumed to be a welfare worker checking in but it turns out he is probation officer.  He is all business but lets Vic stay despite suspecting her brother isn't there which violates the terms of her release.  At this point, I thought the film was going to be a offbeat comedy.

Later, Florence or Flo (Romane Bohringer) arrives.  Vic & Flo were inmates together and quickly settle into idyllic lesbian bliss.  However, Flo grows tired of the isolation as well as her sexuality and Vic senses it.  At this point, I thought the film was going to be a relationship drama.

An odd woman named Marina (Marie Brassard) shows up and claims to be a government worker testing the water lines.  Later still, she claims to have a second job as a bar manager where Flo has been racking up bar tabs and male sex partners.  Introducing further discord into Vic & Flo's relationship, it is revealed that she was an ex-con with a grudge against Flo.  Even more ominous is the fact that she and mean looking black guy shoot guns in the woods near Vic's place.  At this point, I thought the film was going to be a stalker/thriller film.

As the specter of Marina's revenge grows larger, Flo begins forming a friendship with her gay PO (Marc-Andre Grondin).  I thought things were going to work out for the pair when one of the most shocking and innovative death/torture scenes occurs.  Marina and her accomplice park a truck on a dirt path near Vic's place.  When Vic & Flo encounter the truck, they walk on the field to get around the truck.  Marina has placed bear traps and concealed them.  Both Vic & Flo get their legs caught in the traps.  I thought those traps had releases but in the film, the two women cannot release themselves and die from exposure or dehydration all the while suffering agonizing pain from the steel traps.

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear was a very original film which kept me guessing throughout.  There were strong performances throughout but Marie Bressard stole the show with her portrayal of Marina as externally kooky with a constant touch of danger.  Pierrette Robitaille was also impressive as the tired and frightened woman putting up a brave front.


Three mediocre films were the bottom of the barrel.   I should acknowledge these films weren't that bad.  FCN had a very strong lineup this year.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters is a clever dramedy about the existential crises of a group of 30something Parisians.   Less than a month after seeing it, I am having difficulty remembering how it ended.  Vincent Macaigne is outstanding as the lead.  There are voiceovers which are amusing and visual flourishes but in hindsight, it seems superficial.

Slowly, I've become something of a fan of Valeria Bruni Tedeschi.  A Castle in Italy is highly autobiographical despite Bruni Tedeschi's claims otherwise.  Her mother, Marisa Bruni Tedeschi, plays the role of her mother.  Her ex-boyfriend (Louis Garrel) plays the role of her boyfriend.  Bruni Tedeschi's brother died of AIDS.  Her character's brother (Filippo Timi in memorable performance) is dying of AIDS.  You get the idea.

However, A Castle in Italy doesn't ever gain traction.  Bruni Tedeschi plays Louise, a movie star that has stopped acting.  She comes from a prominent family which owns the eponymous estate.  Land rich, cash poor, the family is considering selling assets or, God forbid, opening the castle to public tours.  This tragedy is played out amongst Louise's other problems - her dying brother (with whom she has a peculiar relationship), her new young boyfrined, her ex-husband, etc.

It all seems slapdash and it didn't inspire any empathy from me.  A Castle in Italy is one of Bruni Tedeschi's lesser films.

Claire Denis is hailed as a modern day master.  Her Beau Travail was amazing; her Bastards less so.  If I were to right a single post about the film, I would title it "Inglorious Bastards."  Vincent Lindon plays Marco Silvestri, a commercial shipping captain.  He abruptly leaves his post and returns to Paris to find his family's shoe manufacturing business in ruins.  He takes an empty apartment one floor above Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), who just happens to be the mistress of Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor).  Laporte is involved in his family's financial ruin and his brother-in-law's suicide.

Silvestri quickly begins an affair with the sexy Raphaëlle but this isn't simply a case of cuckolding.  Silvestri's niece is in a psychiatric ward and she lives to wander the streets in the nude with blood running down her legs.  Apparently, she took part in some orgies in the country where ears of corn were used to sodomize her.  Eventually it turns out Laporte and her father were part of the orgy which gives Bastards a truly sordid atmosphere.

Atmosphere is pretty much all Bastards achieves.  It's told in nonlinear fashion so we have piece the puzzle together.  It can be confusing although it's fun ride.  Silvestri's ultimate goal is unclear so the finale is hard to put into context of what preceded.  Lindon & Mastroianni have a lot of chemistry on screen and Subor is sufficiently menacing.   Agnès Godard was the cinematographer for Bastards.

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