Saturday, December 6, 2014

2014 French Cinema Now

The San Francisco Film Society presented the 2014 French Cinema Now (FCN) from November 6 to 9 at the Vogue Theater.  I saw 7 of the 11 films on the program.  Of the three mini-festivals presented by SFFS this autumn, I attended the most films at FCN.  The lineup was very strong this year.

Paris Follies starring Isabelle Huppert & Jean-Pierre Darroussin; directed by Marc Fitoussi; French with subtitles; (2014)
The Last Diamond starring Bérénice Bejo & Yvan Attal; directed by Éric Barbier; French with subtitles; (2014)
The Good Life starring Zacharie Chasseriaud, Nicolas Bouchaud & Solène Rigot; directed by Jean Denizot; French with subtitles; (2013)
Love Is the Perfect Crime starring Mathieu Amalric, Karin Viard & Maïwenn; directed by Arnaud Larrieu & Jean-Marie Larrieu; French with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
Three Men to Kill starring Alain Delon; directed by Jacques Deray; French with subtitles; (1980)
The Easy Way Out starring Laurent Lafitte, Benjamin Biolay & Nicolas Bedos; directed by Brice Cauvin; French with subtitles; (2014)
Clouds of Sils Maria starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart & Chloë Grace Moretz; directed by Olivier Assayas; (2014)  

Two Days, One Night was on the FCN program but I had already seen it at the 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival.

Clouds of Sils Maria is an English language film.  It also played at the 2014 MVFF but I was not able to see it then.  I believe it sold out quickly.


Paris Follies was the opening night film & Isabelle Huppert must be the hardest working film actress in France.  In 2014 alone, I've seen her in four films (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Abuse of Weakness, Tip Top & now Paris Follies)   Paris Follies reunites Huppert with director Marc Fitoussi with whom she made Copacabana.

Paris Follies plays a housewife opposite Jean-Pierre Darroussin (Le Havre and Rendezvous in Kiruna).  They breed cows and I'm not referring to cattle for beef or milk cows,   It seems like they breed them for competition like the AKC dog show.  My knowledge of animal husbandry is limited so I cannot identify the type of cow.

Anyway, Huppert is bored in her marriage as her husband is somewhat bland.  She concocts an excuse to go to Paris to rendezvous with a younger man she met.  When she loses her nerves, she ends up with a Scandinavian businessman staying at her hotel.  Meanwhile, her husband has discovered her deceit and has gone to Paris to...well I'm not sure what his intention was.  You would think he would confront her but instead, he observes her.

Paris Follies is notable for making infidelity funny and keeping Huppert's character likable despite her behavior.  There is one tremendous scene which has nothing to do with the main plot.  Huppert's son is studying to be a mime.  Darroussin's character, convinced of his wife's betrayal, takes consolation in visiting his son while he is performing.  There is a sequence where the mime fall off a staircase onto an unseen trampoline and bounces back.  Initially, I thought they reversed the "film" but repeated use of the gag & careful observation lead me to believe it was performed as shown.

Paris Follies is an entertaining enough film.  Huppert is very good at showing her character's insecurities & quirks.

The Last Diamond is a caper film about a diamond heist.  Yvan Attal (Rapt) is the con man & expert thief.  Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) is the mark.  The Last Diamond was fairly predictable.  The con man (who is a decent guy at heart) falls in love with his mark but has to continue with the job because he is partnered with some ruthless associates.  It is a well made film and Attal & Bejo are solid in their roles but it wasn't too original.  

I can't help but think that with films like Paris Follies & The Last Diamond that actors of the caliber of Huppert & Bejo aren't slumming a little.  


The Good Life is based on a true story of parental abduction and living underground for more than a decade.  Yves (Nicolas Bouchaud) lives on a desolate farm with his two teenage sons, Sylvain (Zacharie Chasseriaud) and Pierre (Jules Pelissier).  Fleeing from the police, Yves & Sylvain are separated from Pierre.  They set up house on a riverbank far from anyone.  At least they think that until Sylvain meet an attractive teenage girl who is fishing.  Having been isolated all his life (no school & discouraged from making friends), Sylvain keeps his budding relationship with Gilda (Solène Rigot) a secret from his father.  The heart of the movie is the romance between Gilda & Sylvain.  Gilda has her own issues as her father is an alcoholic.  From her viewpoint, Sylvain's odd & secretive behavior represent a rejection of her until he reveals his secret.

The Good Life does a good job representing the difficulties a family like this must cope with on a long term basis.  It was very sad that in trying to raise his children, the father was actually doing more harm than good.

I know I see a lot of French films because I recognized all three leads in Love Is the Perfect Crime.  I saw Mathieu Amalric from Venus in FurQuantum of Solace, Karin Viard & Maïwenn from Polisse and for good measure Denis Podalydès who has a supporting role in Love Is the Perfect Crime was in Camille RewindsGranny's Funeral.

Let me start by saying that one of the stars of Love Is the Perfect Crime is the architect who designed the glass enclosed, curvilinear building on the University of Lausanne campus where much of the film is set.  Mathieu Amalric is Marc, an instructor at the university who has a habit of sleeping with his female students.  Actually, he also has a habit of killing them which is established in the opening scene.  I guess to be fair, the audience is initially unsure if that murder is some fugue state hallucination.  One thing that does become clear is that Marc had/has an incestuous relationship with his sister Marianne (Karin Viard) who is dating Marc's detested boss (Denis Podalydès).

Anna (Maiwenn) shows up on campus looking for her missing daughter (one of Marc's victims) and in a delightfully perverse plot twist, Marc beds mother as well.  Not only that but at times, it seems as though Anna suspects Marc killed her daughter.  There is a slutty coed that's coming on to Marc (he's banging everyone without a Y chromosome) but she's brings her own set of problems - her father is a gangster & she thinks Anna is cop.

Love Is the Perfect Crime is preposterous much of the time but it goes about it any sense of self-doubt.  Indeed, the exterior shots in the Swiss Alps and the university campus are beautiful.  The actors & director go about this film as if they are making a masterpiece.  My comments should not be interpreted as a negative review.  The film is great fun.  There is something addictive about Love Is the Perfect Crime which just kept my attention throughout.  Marc just keeps digging himself in deeper until the ending which is the the most preposterous scene of all.

While watching Three Men to Kill, I thought it was a film that Jean-Pierre Melville would have made if he survived into the 1980s.  The character's motivations seemed sufficiently inexplicable for a Melville films.  It was only afterwards that I did some research and found that Three Men to Kill star Alain Delon made three films with Melville (including Melville's final film Un Flic).  Anyway Three Men to Kill resembled a Melville crime film with 1980s aesthetics and fashions.

The plot to Three Men to Kill is very simple.  Delon plays a gambler who while driving comes across a car accident.  He transports the accident victim to the hospital but this was no accident.  It was a murder intended to look like an accident.  The assassins decide Delon has to be killed for reasons I not clear about.  Delon's character proves to be hard to kill and he spends the rest of the film working his way back up the food chain to find out who is responsible.

There is some expository dialog about the titular three men but none is given about why Delon's character is so skilled at high speed pursuit, evading killers, etc.  He has these skills, police contacts and a stubborn with it like Delon deals with his assailants.

Perhaps if Melville had made Three Men to Kill, it would have been better.  Under Jacques Deray's direction, it was barely memorable.

The Easy Way Out is about the intersecting lives of three brothers.  Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) is gay, about to move to the suburbs and feeling bored with boyfriend/husband.  Gérard (Benjamin Biolay) can't get over the breakup with his estranged wife.  Louis (Nicolas Bedos) is engaged to be married but is dragging his feet and cheating on his fiancée.  These three brothers are in various states of love and stages in their respective relationships.  Agnès Jaoui as Antoine's headstrong & outspoken coworker and Gérard's love interest is memorable.

The Easy Way Out is an excellent comedy about disappointments & compromises we make in life which are only compounded by our neuroses.  Strong performances by the three lead actors and Guy Marchand & Marie-Christine Barrault as the parents buoy the film


Sils-Maria is a small town in the Maloja district of the canton of Graubünden in Switzerland.  That's not crucial to appreciating the Clouds of Sils Maria but I kept wondering about it during & after the screening.  Maloja Snake is a fictitious play which plays a key role in Clouds of Sils Maria.  The Maloja (rhymes with Aloha) Snake is not an animal but a real fog formation - the fog snakes its way through the valleys of Maloja.  Clouds of Sils Maria makes use of an actual 1924 German documentary called Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja (The Cloud Formations of Maloja) which shows the Snake.  Reading an interview with director & screenwriter Olivier Assayas, Maloja Snake (the play within the film) was envisioned as a harsher version of Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

Clouds of Sils Maria was an incredible film.  Juliette Binoche portrays Maria Enders, a famous 50something actress who go her big break by playing the co-lead in Maloja Snake as a young woman.  Maloja Snake is about a older woman who falls in love and becomes obsessed with a younger woman.  The relationship is so volatile that it ends with the older woman committing suicide.  Valentine (Kristin Stewart) is her personal assistant.

As the film begins, she is on her way to pick up a lifetime achievement aaward for Wilhelm Melchior, the playwright of Maloja Snake.  In transt, Maria learns that Melchior has died which turns the event into more of a tribute.  It also gives Maria a more introspective mood.  She has accepted the older woman's role in a revival of Maloja Snake but has misgivings.  She attempts to back out of the play but is contractually obligated.

Maria & Valentine decamp at Melchior's house in Sils-Maria.  His widow does want to live there anymore due to the memories it conjures.  Before leaving, she confides to Maria that Melchior's death was a suicide as he had a terminal illness.

Maria & Valentine spend the summer rehearsing Maloja Snake.  This is where Clouds of Sils Maria begins to show its something special.  As they rehearse, Maria's memories of the original play begin to come to the surface.  She transforms herself from playing the tormentor to playing the victim, both in the play and in life.  At times, Maria becomes overly emotional while rehearsing with Valentine.

Chloë Grace Moretz is Jo-Ann Ellis, the troubled teenage actor who is cast in the younger woman's role in Maloja Snake (the role Maria played many years ago).  Ellis is troubled Hollywood star with internet videos of her indiscretions readily available.  As Maria views these videos and gossip items, she becomes unsure of her co-star.  It isn't until a meeting with Ellis that Maria feels reassured.  Valentine ominously notes that Ellis' companion is a well-known writer who is married and the tabloids will eat it up.

The final portion of the film is set in London during the weeks & days before the play.  Ellis is at the center of a media firestorm as news of her affair has gone public.  It proves to be a distraction for Maria but by this point, her transformation is nearly complete.

The plot recap doesn't do justice to the nuances of the film.  The performances of Binoche & Stewart are tremendous.  The plot is the key to the film.  Key plot points are advanced elliptically which gives the film a vaguely mysterious tone and allows for the viewers to assign their own motivations to the characters' actions.

Among the standout scenes are the ones with Hanns Zischler as an actor who seduced Maria as a younger woman.  She is still bitter about it and the two are forced together when Melchior dies.

In a film within a film (not to be confused with the play within the film), Maria & Valentine go to a local cinema to see Ellis' latest film which is set in outer space and looks like something out of the 1970s.  Afterwards, in response to Maria's derision, Valentine defends the film's message despite the sci-fi trappings.  Of course, Stewart could just as well be talking about her own Twilight series films.

The most discussed plot point concerns Valentine's disappearance.  While hiking the mountains to get a view of the Maloja Snake, Valentine disappears while Maria is hiking in front of her.  The audience doesn't see the circumstances of her disappearance and in fact, I wondered if her disappearance didn't indicate that Maria was losing touch with reality.  Her disappearance is never explained and in the next scene, Maria has a different personal assistant.

The word meta applies to Clouds of Sils Maria; a working knowledge of Binoche & Stewart's professional & personal lives comes in handy during some of the film's scenes.  Knowing Maloja Snake is modeled on Petra von Kant gives some context for Maria's trepidation.


Although I enjoyed all seven films in the FCN series, there was only one film that I was enthusiastic about - Clouds of Sils Maria.  Less ambitious but still worthwhile is The Easy Way Out.  Everything else was step behind.

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