French cinema …in brief

Les Bien-Aimés

November 8th, 2011

Bien-AimesChristophe Honoré, France, 2011, 139 mins, 2.35:1

Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Ludivine Sagnier, Louis Garrel, Milos Forman, Paul Schneider, Rasha Bukvic, Michel Delpech, Omar Ben Sellen

French Theatrical Release: 24 August 2011, Le Pacte

Review by Noel Megahey

Returning for his latest film to the director’s now familiar style of the modern Parisian street musical – developed in Dans Paris and taken to full length in Les Chansons d’amour – one gets the feeling that Christophe Honoré is retreating to familiar ground.  A case of “I’ve found a style that works and I’m going to keep using it”.  That particularly seems to be the case since neither of the director’s subsequent two films – La belle personne (a modern adaptation of ‘La Princess de Clèves‘) and Non ma fille tu n’ira pas dancer – received as much attention, or even distribution in the UK.  Which is a pity, because in the case of the latter at least, there was definitely an attempt on the part of Honoré to tackle familiar themes of loss, bereavement, depression and the mixed fortunes of love through a different style.

Those familiar themes in the director’s work are there again in Les Bien-Aimés, as is the complication of love between a couple of mixed sexual orientation, and Honoré has once again called upon singer/songwriter friend Alex Beaupain to compose some musical numbers to help carry the film along through those particularly difficult subjects.  And to a large extent it works, bringing a touching quality that hints of greater emotional depths that are otherwise difficult to express in cinema without teetering on the brink of sentimentality or melodrama.  That technique had however been proven in those earlier collaborations, and one can feel a little bit frustrated that, initially at least, there appears to be little that is new about the themes or the love affair arrangements in Les Bien-Aimés.


Personally, I also found my patience tested with a storyline that seems to be all over the place, never settling on one character or period, skipping between them with what seemed like nothing more than an excuse to gather together the director’s favourite actors (Mastroianni, Garrel, Sagnier), and flirt with period 60s, 70s and 90s production designs with matching songs to fit each decade.  By the time the film reaches its terribly poignant conclusion however, the film’s overall structure becomes more apparent and one can’t help but being impressed by the ground that has been covered, not only in terms of taking its characters through a number of decades, but by the complex and in-depth characters that it has managed to build up along the way.

The complexity of the relationships is compounded by the fact that the film attempts to cover the tragedy of the great loves in the lives of both a mother and her daughter (with a real life mother and daughter in the roles, Deneuve and Mastroianni).  Played as a young woman in 1964 by Ludivine Sagnier (a good choice for a younger Deneuve), Madeleine’s life takes an unexpected but decisive turn when she steals a pair of classy shoes from the Parisian shop that she works in.  Her flaunting the shoes in the street leads her to being propositioned and she finds a calling for herself, and easy money to be made, as a prostitute.  But only until she meets Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic), a young Czech doctor, falls in love with him and moves to Prague where she has a baby, Véra.  The arrival of Russian tanks into the city, as well as the philandering activities of Jaromil (shades of the Unbearable Lightness of Being here) however leave Madeleine with no option but to return to Paris with Véra, but without Jaromil.  As the years go by however, Jaromil (played as an older man by the Czech director Milos Forman) keeps turning up, trying to rekindle their love, even though Madeleine (Catherine Deneuve) has now remarried.


While all this goes on over the years, the older Véra (Chiara Mastroianni) meanwhile is trying to make the significant relationship in her life work, but it seems doomed to failure.   While in London, on a book signing with her casual partner Clément (Louis Garrel), she meets Henderson (Paul Schneider), the drummer in a band she sees at a club.  It soon becomes apparent to Véra however – not immediately though and as a bit of a shock – that Henderson is gay and HIV positive.  Nonetheless, there is a definite connection between them that Véra at least, is compelled to follow-up on over the years, even though it seems like it’s never going to lead to any lasting happiness.

As with Honoré’s previous work in the genre, Les Chansons d’amour, there’s obviously then nothing light-hearted about this musical.  Or rather, there are moments of magic and beauty – albeit often in a rather unconventional manner – in a film that covers a much wider range of emotional situations, and covers each of them well, integrating them into the whole.  Which is surely, a reflection of life itself.  I can’t say I fully empathised with the predicaments of a bunch of characters who are difficult to like, and somewhat self-destructive, but the unconventional character-types certainly make the film a lot less predictable than it might otherwise be.

So, no matter how you might feel about the characters and the decisions they take, by the time Les Bien-Aimés does reach that conclusion after two and a quarter hours – ending with a haunting and heartfelt song beautifully sung by Catherine Deneuve – the viewer can’t help but feel for these characters, each driven to make difficult choices, never taking the easy road, but following their hearts that demand to be loved in their own individual way, wherever that leads them.

Après le Sud

November 5th, 2011

SudJean-Jacques Jauffret, France, 2011, 92 mins, 2.35:1

Adèle Haenel, Sylvie Lachat, Ulysse Grosjean, Yves Ruellan, Julien Bodet, Isalinde Giovangigli

French Theatrical Release: 12 October 2011, Jour2fête

Review by Noel Megahey

You don’t need to look much further than the poster for Jean-Jacques Jauffret’s debut feature to determine that the build up of scenes in each of the various episodes of its individual characters is leading towards an act of violence. It’s not difficult either to detect the influence of Michael Haneke – particularly 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance – in the manner in which those scenes, seemingly everyday incidents in the lives of ordinary people, are filmed directly with intensity and a hint of underlying discomfort.

That’s there right from the first scene of Après le Sud, where an elderly man is seen assembling and polishing a shotgun, while the gentle sounds of a Mozart symphony plays out in the background on his stereo. As the remainder of the film plays out, we are introduced to the other characters who will become involved in the violent incident that involves and connects the lives of Georges, Amélie, Stéphane, Luigi and Anne, all of whom seem to be having a very bad day. A very bad day indeed.


Loosely based around a real-life incident, there is something academic however about the director’s approach and its dispassionate deliberation that mirrors the collision of randomness and chance with internal and social tensions in Michael Haneke’s films, but the structure of the film means that it lacks the element of surprise that you can at least expect from the Austria actor’s relentless linear progression towards violence. The structure of Après le Sud instead is more of piecing together the pieces of a puzzle, tracking each of the characters over the eight hours of one single day leading up to the violent incident, going backwards and forwards until we have a full picture of the interaction between each of them.

There’s a sense of Bruno Dumont also in how Jauffret makes use of the location – here the relentless scorching heat of the south of France around Marseilles seems to contribute to the inescapable inevitability of what happens – and in the open physicality with which Anne’s naked body is displayed on the screen. Going to explore the option of a gastric band, Anne’s story seems to be the one least directly connected to events, but in many ways her road to Calvary is the one that best reflects the situation that is echoed in each of the other characters. The sense of having reached a point of confrontation after the culmination of a lifetime of many little incidents, humiliations and personal defeats is expressed exceptionally well in the simple little disturbances, delays and setbacks that she undergoes on the journey to the clinic.


Filmed with a fine eye towards this kind of detail and towards patterns in movement and behaviour, it’s consequently not as difficult as it might otherwise be to connect the characters and the fractured timeline that operates in the film. That makes Après le Sud a very well-made film, an involving and intriguing one, a particularly fine debut feature – but lacking the sense of social questioning of someone like Haneke or the philosophical bent of someone like Dumont, Jauffret’s film ultimately fails to find any deeper resonance to the events it depict.

The Artist

October 26th, 2011

ArtistMichel Hazanavicius, France, 2011, 100 mins, 1.33:1

Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Beth Grant, Joel Murray, Malcolm McDowell, Ed Lauter

French Theatrical Release: 12 October 2011, Warner Bros. France

Review by Noel Megahey

The highest praise I can make for The Artist is that it’s only when you reflect afterwards on the film that you realise just how brave and bold an experiment it has been.  While you are watching it, you soon forget about how it is made and just appreciate it for what it is – a good movie that tells its story well and in a highly entertaining fashion.  It’s only when you consider however that The Artist is actually a silent movie made in 2011, shot in black-and-white and projected in academy ratio, that you begin to appreciate not only just how much of a risk was taken by the director Michael Hazanavicius (previously known for his OSS 117 French spy spoofs), but just how brilliantly he has mastered the rare skill of pure visual storytelling.

Making a silent movie in 2011 isn’t impossible or even original of course – the Canadian filmmaker Guy Madden has been doing it for years in an avant-garde retro fashion – but what is different about Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is that making his film as a silent movie is not just some gimmick, but it is completely integral to what the film and its story is about, and it’s approached with utmost fidelity and affection for that bygone era of classic silent Hollywood cinema of the of 1920s and 1930s.  In fact, that’s also what the film is about, in its subject of a silent movie star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who at the height of his success, acclaim and popularity finds himself threatened by this new-fangled thing called talking movies.


As a film about movies, there are plenty of classic cinema references here if you want to look for them.  George looks every inch the Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Clarke Gable movie-idol, the swashbuckling silent adventure movies he appears in are wonderfully recreated in pastiche, but The Artist also pays tribute to the glamour and magic of this period of Hollywood cinema in a way similar to Singing In The Rain, while at the same time hinting at the bitterness and the dark side of the movie industry in a way that is often reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard.  It manages to strike this important balance by telling not just the story of George Valentin, but that of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), whose star is rising just as George’s is declining.

The Artist is filmed with as much authenticity as possible, Hazanavicius – also a film historian of sorts – not only shoots George’s silent movies in the classic style of the 20s, but he uses similar lighting techniques, shots and angles in the movie itself, going as far as to use Hollywood locations and the actual house and bed once owned by Mary Pickford in order to make it all feel as close to the period and the place as possible.  Most importantly however – and this is where Hazanavicius differs considerably from someone like Guy Madden or even Mel Brooks – there is practically nothing in the storyline of The Artist, or in the method of playing out the storyline, that would be considered out-of-place in a film from the 1920s or early 1930s.  There are no knowing winks here, no inappropriate love scenes, just a classic story told in a classic style through the performances of Dujardin and Bejo.  John Goodman and particularly James Cromwell also deserve a mention, but Valentin’s delightful sidekick dog, Jack – since he can’t speak – is proof alone that you don’t need words to entertain and tell a story.


That’s not as easy as it sounds, nor is it easy to make a silent film in black-and-white with intertitles an attractive proposition for a modern audience, but the making of the film itself as a silent movie demonstrates of the power of this kind of filmmaking, and that’s evidently part of the intention.  You never get the impression however that anything is forced or that the film is lacking anything by not having its characters speaking, but neither does the cleverness of the method ever take precedence over the actual story.  Rediscovering the magic and glamour of the period, The Artist reminds us of the power of storytelling, and that it was precisely this – something that ironically became less important when characters were given a voice – that once made Hollywood great.


Valérie Donzelli, France, 2011, 100 mins, 2.35:1

Valérie Donzelli, Jérémie Elkaïm, César Desseix, Gabriel Elkaïm, Brigitte Sy, Elina Löwensohn, Michèle Moretti, Philippe Laudenbach, Bastien Bouillon, Béatrice de Staë

French Theatrical Release: 31 August 2011, Wild Bunch Distribution

Review by Noel Megahey

Drawn from her own experience of dealing with the news that her young three-year old son was suffering from a brain tumour, there’s no doubt that the second film by Valérie Donzelli, La guerre est declarée (A Declaration of War) is not only going to be a very personal film, but also potentially a very fraught and emotionally draining one.  The real challenge for the filmmaker then is in how to make this meaningful and involving for an audience without slipping into melodrama, self-pity and sentimentality, but it’s clear from the outset that Donzelli has no intention of allowing that to happen.

That said, some of the choices the director makes to enliven the film and give it its own character are strange and sometimes questionable.  Perhaps the trickiest element to come to terms with initially is the fact that Donzelli and her former partner, actor Jérémie Elkaïm effectively play themselves, as Romeo and Juliette, (yeah, there’s this naming thing too – their son, just as significantly, is called Adam) and a self-knowing music video sequence which shows them getting together that owes something to the films of the Nouvelle Vague.  If it all feels a little self-indulgent, it is at least a unique way to open a film that has a rather more serious intent at heart, and ultimately sets the focus of the film on the couple and how they deal with the events that subsequently and inevitably cause havoc with their lives.


As a central metaphor then, the couple preparing to bring their child to a specialist for tests on the day that war is declared in Iraq, the title of La guerre est declarée at least works well.  Thereafter the lives of Romeo, Juliette and Adam becomes a planned exercise of implementing strategies to cope with the visits to hospital and the tests, as well as continue with their own work, with their family lives, and continually having to adapt to new protocols and procedures as the extent of Adam’s illness and the danger to his life becomes known.  The film meticulously documents this nerve-racking process realistically, with a sense of pacing, clarity and attention to detail that makes it comprehensible while also being tense and deeply involving.

This aspect is treated fairly naturalistically, Donzelli using real hospital and clinical locations and making a conscious effort not to dress or rearrange the sets, but there is scope for covering the emotional journey of the parents in a rather less conventional manner.  The running theme – undertaking a marathon, going the distance – isn’t the most original and may be one metaphor too many.  The eclectic soundtrack – from Baroque to pop to experimental – also sounds a little forced, the Christophe Honoré-style musical interlude ballad feels a little out of place and some of the playful edits and messing around can be a little irritating.  All of it seems to be a case of a director trying much too hard to impose a personality on the material.

On the other hand, while you can question whether some of the directorial indulgences are appropriate or even necessary, the fact that the film avoids all the trappings of the terminal illness movie and takes you through this difficult journey – as difficult for the parents as for the child – capturing the full import of the situation without sentimentality or undue distress, is not insignificant and ultimately what counts in its favour.  La guerre est declarée works, and it works on its own terms, involving the viewer as far as to consider if they could have dealt with the situation any better, or even if they could have found a better way of telling the story, and – despite the few minor reservations – one suspects not.  On both counts.

Hors Satan

October 21st, 2011

SatanBruno Dumont, France, 2011, 109 mins, 2.35:1

David Dewaele, Alexandra Lematre, Valérie Mestdagh, Sonia Barthelemy, Juliette Bacquet, Christophe Bon, Dominique Caffier, Aurore Broutin

French Theatrical Release: 19 October 2011, Pyramide Distribution

Review by Noel Megahey

You would think that by now Bruno Dumont has said all he has to say about the people and the land of the north of France.  From La vie de Jésus to L’Humanité and Flandres, his films all exhibit a very personal and philosophical response to the region that takes in unconventional, controversial violent imagery and scenes of graphic sexuality, all of it relating the people of the region to the land they live on.  Nothing new in Hors Satan then…

…and yet, with every film he makes, Dumont seems to delve deeper into a humanity that, in its connection to nature in all its mystery and force, is a deeply conflicted one.  In Flandres, there was essentially a diametric opposition between good and evil (although in reality, it’s a little more complicated than that), between the people cut off from their essential nature and caught up in the inhumanity of war.  In Hors Satan, the division of what is good and evil and how it relates to the man we encounter at the start of the film, is somewhat less clear-cut.  This man (David Dewaele), apparently a homeless vagabond, living rough in the countryside and dunes near a small community on the Côte d’Opale near Calais, responds to a plea from a young woman (Alexandra Lematre) who has been helping him out with food that she can’t take any more.  He picks up a shotgun and kills her father.


We know nothing of the origins or nature of this man, not even his name.  Since very few words are spoken either, everything must be gleaned from his face – and what a fascinating face it is.  At times, there is a satanic look in his features, but there is also something of an appearance of the traditional image of Jesus in his appearance.  The questions raised by this duality are intensified when we see him genuflect to the sunrise and take in the glory of the landscape, his hands cupped in offering or for receiving of grace, and when he is called upon by another woman in the community whose daughter is ill and seems to be demonically possessed.

The ambiguity, I’m sure, is intentional.  The traditional understanding of the concepts of good and evil are meaningless here – you might as well ask (and in a way you are) whether nature itself is good or evil.  As other violent events take place in the area (some reminiscent of the serial killer on the loose theme in L’Humanité), the man is often either directly involved, or called upon to intervene.  Yet, even though he is picked up at one stage by the police as a suspect – even though the film is highly conceptual you would still imagine that such acts of violence would not go unnoticed in the wider world – he is later released and the world continues on its way.


Much of this is very familiar Bruno Dumont material and it’s filmed in his usual style.  Hors Satan is made up of long silent scenes, very little dialogue, non-professional characters chosen for the earthiness of their appearance and lack of conventional beauty (yet striking and even beautiful in their own way), with images of strong violence and disturbing scenes of a sexual nature.  With such emphasis placed on inexpressive faces, the use of non-professional actors, a preponderance of near-religious significance and solemnity (albeit in an unconventional, paganistic manner), there are clear parallels here not only to Bresson, but also to Dreyer, particularly The Passion of Joan of Arc and, certainly in the opening and closing scenes, with Ordet.

Dumont however has his own philosophical outlook that is completely different from Bresson and Dreyer, and a visual vocabulary that is also very much his own and often very striking indeed.  Hors Satan is not easy viewing and it’s not pleasant viewing – but then you probably knew that already.  It is however an immensely powerful film that deepens the themes and the body of work of one of the most distinctive and uncompromising film directors in France and the world today.

De bon matin

October 20th, 2011

MatinJean-Marc Matout, France, 2010, 91 mins, 2.35:1

Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Valérie Dréville, Xavier Beauvois, Yannick Renier, Laurent Delbecque, Aladin Reibel, François Chattot, Nelly Antignac, Pierre Aussedat, Ralph Amoussou

French Theatrical Release: 5 October 2011, Les Films du Losange

Review by Noel Megahey

What drives a man, working in the financial sector, to go to the office one morning and shoot dead two of his colleagues?  The answer, as far as De bon matin is concerned – the film based on an actual incident – lies within the question.

Paul works for a financial company, his business is to take risks, make investments, keep the flow of money going and inevitably, particularly in the current economic climate, it’s a high pressure job that subjects Paul to considerable stress and tensions.  Particularly so in Paul’s case, since although he is good at his job and has invaluable experience that is often called upon by his colleagues, he’s of the old school that believes in ethical banking.  He not young and reckless enough to be involved in questionable practices, and he won’t lie to his customers to keep up the necessary level of confidence when he knows that the situation just isn’t good.


There may be other factors that lead Paul to breaking point, but Jean-Marc Matout’s film, methodically measured in its building and release of tension, keeps most of them surprisingly at a distance.  We are shown something of Paul’s family life, enough to know that he an ordinary man, with outside interests in sailing, that he was involved in volunteer construction work in Mali, and that he still has close ties with people from there – but we also see that he has a difficult relationship with his teenage son that isn’t helped by a drinking problem that is developing, and that he’s been seeing a psychiatrist.  All of this points to happier directions that his life could perhaps have gone in, but didn’t, and that it’s a matter of great dissatisfaction that he finds himself where he is now.

The prognosis for De bon matin then, if the opening scene alone is anything to go by, is fairly bleak.  And if that’s not enough of an indication, the film has Jean-Pierre Darroussin in the role of Paul, a terrific actor, but one who is often called upon to bring his hangdog expression to downbeaten everyman characters teetering on the edge (Feux Rouges).  Darroussin embodies the predicament of Paul marvellously – a boiling cauldron of tension with no outlet – but as a character study, it feels incomplete.  The sense of humiliation that he is subjected to, his evident discontent with the business practices and management style of his superiors all combine to create a palpable sense of tension that gets to the heart – or even the lack of heart – of modern business and banking practices, but ultimately, Matout’s film doesn’t delve deeply into the inhuman nature of big business practices that hasn’t been done already in the films of Laurent Cantet (Time Out), previously in his own work (Violence des échanges en milieu tempéré) or, and with a great deal more originality, in Christian Petzold’s Yella.

Cinémoi - August 2011 round-up

September 1st, 2011

In addition to some more classic Jean Gabin and the Blier/Depardieu work premiered last month, August on Cinémoi saw some gritty crime drama from the working classes in the provinces, and, in complete contrast, a colourful musical about AIDS. (Noel Megahey).

Le jour se lève - Marcel Carné, 1939

There’s a fabulously brooding, fatalistic noir tone to Carné’s pre-war classic, established immediately in the opening shots of the film that show an isolated tenement block in a poor working class district, where a man stumbles out of an apartment on the top floor having just been shot, falling down the stairs where he is discovered by a blind man. The man’s killer is François (Jean Gabin), a sandblaster by profession, who locks himself in the room and considers the events that have led to this moment as he holds out against the police who lay siege to the building. What has led to the killing is – what else? – a woman, Françoise, and a complicated web of relationships that has developed between the two of them and another couple – stage magician, Valentín, and his assistant Clara. The film relentlessly tracks the decline of the relationships, ground down like a sandblasted surface through bitterness and jealousy, that lead to the murder, Francois observing that “Everyone kills, but some do it by degrees”.

Buffet Froid - Bertrand Blier, 1979
Opening in the deserted landscapes and the high rise buildings of La Défense business district of Paris, where Alphonse Tram and his wife are the only occupants of an apartment building until the arrival of a police detective above them, and where a man is killed in the subway station by a knife belonging to Alphonse (Depardieu), is Buffet Froid a study of alienation and detachment from human emotions in a soulless modern world, or is it just the usual silliness of a Blier sequence of absurd events? Who cares? There are undoubtedly deeper elements and motivations that can be drawn out of the film, but even if it were just an exercise in filmmaking, Buffet Froid is a characteristically dark and entertaining piece of absurdity, wonderfully assembled and played out, with intriguing characters and great acting performances, the director convincingly and consistently sustaining a compelling mood and situation through a series of events. At the very least, it’s a perfect example of how to introduce characters, develop them and ultimately dispose of them, which essentially, is what drama is all about, isn’t it?

Le Petit Criminel - Jacques Doillon, 1990

Jacques Doillon finds a perfect balance between form and content in this terrific little film, one that captures the sense of desperation of a young boy caught up in a dangerous spiral of events that could end up destroying his life. As if to suggest that it’s not much of a life anyway, the film has no conventional scene setting to show Marc’s unstable family background in Sète in the south of France. Still a kid, fending for himself and knowing no other way of handling things, he picks up the pistol that has been left around by his stepfather and just sets out to find the sister he has just learned about. There is a superb sense of pacing as Marc and a policeman he has hijacked head to Montpellier, building characterisation along with the development of the situation, the film showing how society views and labels kids from this kind of background by their actions without fully understanding what lies beneath. There’s a great performance by Gérald Thomassin as Marc of a troubled youth that’s up there with Jean-Pierre Léaud in the 400 Blows, demonstrating a jittery nervous guiltiness that underlies his false bravado.

Fred - Pierre Jolivet, 1997
Outside of the films of Robert Guédiguian, Laurent Cantet and to some extent, Abdellatif Kechiche, the setting and the circumstances of the lives of the characters in Fred is not one commonly seen in French cinema, dealing with how ordinary people in small provincial towns struggle to cope with the loss of traditional manufacturing industries and how it affects their lives. There’s a thriller element too of course – this isn’t just social realism – when an unemployed crane operator, Fred (Vincent Lindon), gets caught-up in an organised crime operation after helping a friend move a heavy goods vehicle. Perhaps reflecting reality, it’s hard to tell who lives where, who is married to whom and whose kids are whose, but it’s also somewhat confusing and makes it difficult to establish the nature of the characters from their relationships. Ultimately however, this is of lesser importance, the film focusing on Fred and his attempts to clear his name and see the killers of his friend brought to justice, the film handling this with no small amount of tension and danger.

Jeanne et le garçon formidable - Olivier Ducastel, 1998

Although it might seem inappropriate, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau deal with the subject of the spread of AIDS and its impact on one young couple through the medium of a colourful musical. It’s not the musical genre approach which lets the film down however – it actually works quite well with the heightened subject matter – but rather the problem is that there just aren’t any particularly memorable tunes here, the lyrics are direct rather than …well, lyrical, and unfortunately neither Virginie Ledoyen nor Mathieu Demy can sing well enough to make it work. The presence of Demy evidently also evokes the work of his father, but really, Jeanne et le garçon formidable isn’t really in the same league. The film also has a way, whether intentionally or not and to what purpose I’m not sure, of differentiating between the gay community and those outside in its treatment of the risks and the experience of living with HIV. Much as the Jeanne is in love with Olivier, the perfect guy she meets casually on a metro train, she seems to remains an outsider right through to the end. Still, a brave way to take on a difficult subject.

Beautiful LiesPierre Salvadori, France, 2009, 104 mins, 1.85:1

Audrey Tautou, Nathalie Baye, Sami Bouajila, Stéphanie Lagarde, Judith Chemla, Cécile Boland, Didier Brice, Daniel Duval

UK Theatrical Release: 12 August 2011, Pathé

Review by Noel Megahey

From the moment the film opens, there’s no doubt about it that Beautiful Lies is firmly in romantic comedy territory.  Timid handyman, Jean (Sami Bouajila) is seen sneaking glances at the owner of the hairdressing and beauty salon, Emilie (Audrey Tatou), while composing in his head a flowery romantic love letter that he eventually sends to her anonymously, too shy to even expect that it could possibly lead to anything.  And, in a way, he’s right, since Emilie scans over the letter and disinterestedly pops it into the bin while in his presence, but he’s wrong in that his beautifully composed letter leads to something that turns out to be much more than he bargained for.  Things are going to get complicated. 

Complications, like the inevitable love-hate/unrequited love scenario at the outset, are however exactly what you expect in a romantic comedy, and Pierre Salvadori’s Beautiful Lies (De vrais mesonges) plays it by the book as far as the conventions of the genre are concerned.  The end result is never in doubt, but it’s how the complications play out that determine whether it’s a good romantic comedy or not, and it also relies considerably on how the audience engage with the characters/performers.  In both respects, Beautiful Lies works marvellously.  Neither the complications nor the inevitable match that will eventually result out of it need to be all that credible or convincing – the reasons Emilie’s discomfort around Jean are ridiculous, but very funny and at least original – but they do require a certain style and personality to carry it off, and it helps if the complications are particularly, well …complicated.

Beautiful Lies

It doesn’t get much more complicated, and potentially lead to a great source of embarrassment for all concerned, when Emilie belatedly decides to act upon the letter she has received, but not in the expected way.  Concerned about how her mother Maddy (Nathalie Baye) has let herself go since the breakup of her marriage, and worried about how she is going to take the news that her ex-husband’s new young lover is expecting a baby, Emilie thinks her mother would benefit more from the idea of an anonymous admirer to give her that little bit of a personal boost she needs in order to feel good about herself again.  Not gifted with any great writing ability herself, and certainly not of a romantic nature, Emilie just copies the letter she has received from Jean, certain that this will do the trick and that events will take their natural course. 

And of course they do, but never in the way that you would expect – or exactly in the way you would expect Emilie knew anything about her mother, or even if she’s ever watched any romantic comedies.  Things soon get very messy indeed.  Evidently, Maddy isn’t just going to be satisfied with the idea of an unknown admirer, and is going to expect more letters, and eventually hope to discover who is the anonymous writer of such romantic declarations of – it has to be said – a somewhat inconsistent prose style.  The trail is inevitably and eventually going to lead back to Jean, and fireworks are going to ensue.  One can only hope that the script and the performers are up to it.

Beautiful Lies

Well, they are.  The complications are well-timed to be as squirmingly embarrassing as possible, are piled on top of one another to such an extent that you can’t imagine how the characters are ever going to get themselves out of such an entangled web, much less lead to the necessary happy ending.  The characterisation and the delivery from Tatou, Bouajila and Baye moreover are simply superb – with subtle double-take gestures in those moments of complete confusion and bewilderment, and with not so subtle expressions of romantic intent (particularly on the part of Baye, playing the cougar with relish), that are nonetheless perfectly pitched for the occasion and, as I say, as toe-curlingly embarrassing – and funny – as possible. 

Romantic comedies are not noted for their subtlety or for their sophistication, not even French romantic comedies, but as recent successes like Heartbreaker and Salvadori’s earlier Priceless have shown, there is an innocent charm to their good old-fashioned romantic and filmmaking values that is a refreshing change from the rather more heavy-handed and gross-out treatment that the genre has been subjected to in Hollywood in recent years.  Beautiful Lies is a genuine crowd-pleaser – which is the very least you expect from a romantic comedy – and another clever and witty success from Pierre Salvadori and Audrey Tatou.

GabinCinémoi, the UK’s first and only channel dedicated to French film, dedicate a special season to Jean Gabin in September in association with Chez Gérard.
In almost 100 films from the early 1930s to the late 1970s, Gabin built an unparalleled career and unique screen image, as a much loved star and mythical vision of Frenchness. Jean Gabin has remained the Godfather of French cinema.” - Ginette Vincendeau

Le Jour se Lève, Le Chat and Mélodie en sous sol represent three different genres from his wide body of work - respectively a cinematic classic, searing drama and gripping thriller, giving an overview of his versatile talent throughout his career. Indeed his co-stars are some of the best known actors and actress of their time: from Arletty in the 1930s, to Alain Delon and Simone Signoret in the 1960s and 1970s.

Le Chat
1971, dir. Pierre Granier Deferre, with Jean Gabin, Simone Signoret

Nearing the end of his career, Gabin performs a poignant and tragic role as a man whose marriage has descended into disillusion and bitterness. As the two become the worst of enemies, Julien (Gabin) takes solace in the company of a stray cat, while Clémence (Signoret) sees the cat as a symbol of her rejected love.
Le Chat shows a different facet of Gabin’s talent. This drama about the redevelopment of urban Paris stages an explosive encounter between Gabin and Simone Signoret, the two ageing stars tempering the bitterness of their characters with the power of their performances.“ GV
Showing from Friday 2nd September, 9.00pm

Mélodie en sous-sol
1963, dir. Henri Verneuil, with Jean Gabin, Alain Delon

As he comes out of prison, rather than following his wife into quiet and respectable retirement, experienced crook Charles enlists the help of young Francis, to pull off a spectacular heist.
Mélodie en sous-sol (1963) shows him in top form as mentor to the rookie played by the young Alain Delon, as both plan to rob the casino in Cannes. Delon always credits Gabin as a great influence, and they would make two more films together. (Le Clan des Siciliens, Deux hommes dans la ville).” GV
Showing from Saturday 3th September at 9.00pm

Le Jour se Lève
1939, dir. Marcel Carné, with Jean Gabin, Arletty

Le Jour se lève, the fourth collaboration between esteemed director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, is a gripping tale of a factory worker (Jean Gabin) who commits a crime to free the woman he loves from the oppression of an older man. One of the great works of 1930s poetic realist cinema, Le Jour se lève is a classic film with the defining Gabin performance.
In films like Le Jour se Lève, he epitomised the tragic working-class hero, exuding charismatic masculinity and noir sensibility coupled with ‘boy-next-door’ charm”. GV
Showing from Sunday 4th September at 9pm

The Cinémoi Jean Gabin trailer can be viewed here.

The Big Picture

August 10th, 2011

HommeEric Lartigau, France, 2010, 114 mins, 2.35:1

Romain Duris, Marina Foïs, Niels Arestrup, Branka Katic, Catherine Deneuve, Eric Ruf, Enzo Caçote, Luka Antic

UK Theatrical Release: 22 July 2011, Artificial Eye

Review by Noel Megahey

An adaptation of US author Douglas Kennedy’s thriller, The Big Picture is Eric Lartigau’s first feature in the drama genre, having previously been known for the comedies with Kad Merad and Olivier Baroux - But Who Killed Pamela Rose? and A Ticket to Space - and for the romantic comedy I Do (Prête-moi ta main) starring Alain Chabat and Charlotte Gainsbourg.  Although it regains its original English-language title for its UK release, the French title of Kennedy’s popular thriller and the movie, ‘L’homme qui voulait vivre sa vie’ (The Man Who Wanted To Live His Life) is rather more explicit in highlighting the main theme of the film.  Do we direct the course of our own lives, or do our outside factors determine the direction our lives take?  And if it’s the latter, is it even possible, with all the trappings of the modern lifestyle, to put them aside and start afresh? 


It’s only when a particular traumatic event occurs in the life of successful lawyer Paul Exben (Romain Duris), and he is forced to assume a new identity that enables him to re-examine his life and attempt to rebuild it from scratch.  It’s not an easy decision to make, leaving behind a promising career, his wife and his two young children, and the full implications and the inner torment it causes Paul are fully explored and made evident in an intense and gripping performance from Romain Duris.  If the reasons for escaping his old life and the means of doing it are pure thriller movie conventions, the underlying implications and the difficulty of maintaining his anonymity do raise interesting questions about what constitutes personal success and happiness in the modern world. 

The film’s producer and the director manage to assemble a strong production team and an exceptional cast (Romain Duris, Marina Foïs, Niels Arestrup, Branka Katic, Catherine Deneuve,) that do everything to draw out these issues and make The Big Picture never anything less than absorbing as it switches pace between contemplative rediscovery, drama and romance as Paul relocates to Montenegro and learns to slow down and observe the world around him through a camera lens, forging a new career for himself as a photographer, making new friends and colleagues.  Having set out on this new life however through the means of subterfuge arising from a shocking incident, the film inevitably has to keep raising the thriller stakes, and there the script is on much less certain ground, creating for itself a conclusion not in the original novel that is as bizarre as it is dramatic. 

A fuller review of the film can be found on The Digital Fix.

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