Capsule reviews of French Films screened at TFF 2020.
BEGINNING (France/Georgia 2020) ****
Directed by Dea Kulumbegashvili
BEGINNING is the story of Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), wife of David (Rati Oneli), a Jehovah’s Witness missionary in a predominantly Christian Orthodox mountainside village in Georgia. Their Kingdom Hall is attacked during a service and the modest place of worship left in ashes. David manages to obtain CCTV footage of the attack and Yana, who is searching for purpose in life, becomes fixated on justice. The film plays like an Andrei Tarkorvski film from director Dea Kulumbegashvili’s long takes and meticulously composed scenes where her actors often move in and out of the frames. There is a segment in which the camera lingers on Yana lying still on the ground for a full 5 minutes only to end with her telling her son: “I’m only kidding. I am alive.” The film takes a turn when Yana is visited by local police officer (Kakha Kintsurashvili) who has come in to question her about the fire. “Does your husband fuck you on the couch?” he asks her at one point during the interrogation. What follows is to be seen to be believed. A remarkable and assured work from Kulumbegashvili.
ETE 85 (SUMMER OF 1985) (France/Belgium) ***** Top 10
Directed by Francois Ozon
French director Francois Ozon in top form with a moving and complicated film about youth, the way older directors like Eric Rohmer make superior films on the subject. The film opens with 16-year old Alexis (Felix Lefevre) taken into questioning by the police on the death of an older boy David (Benjamin Voisin). It takes 30 minutes into the film before Ozon presents the first gay scene of the two young boys in bed. The film is told in dual time lines. Ozon teases his audience often creating the audience in anticipating what is to come creating both excitement and mystery. One is the death of David and it is only revealed how Alexis is involved after two thirds of the film. Alexis has a hard-on early in the film while entering the bath, and one wonders (before it is revealed of the gay relationship) whether that was due to the sexuality of David or David’s beautiful mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). The love relationship is revealed to be a complex one with the idea of falling in love not with any person but an idea of a person one conjures up - the idea well communicated by Ozon. ETE 85 is based on the English novel DANCING ON MY GRAVE by Aidan Chambers which Ozon brilliantly adapted to the Normandy setting while putting his personal imprint on the story. (The film has already played in France.)
THE FATHER (UK/France 2020) ****
Directed by Florian Zeller
In these times of Covid-19 when all the theatres are closed, it is indeed a refreshing pleasure to watch a good play even though it is an adaptation to the screen. Written by Christopher Hampton based on director Florian Zeller’s play, it is fortunate to have Oscar Winner Anthony Hopkins play the main character, an elderly named Anthony suffering from memory loss. Anthony refuses all assistance from his daughter, Anne (Oscar Winner Olivia Colman) as he ages. As he tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind and even the fabric of his reality. The play puts the audience in Anthony’s shoes. When he forgets someone from his memory loss, the audience sees another actor playing that someone. It is an amazing device that allows the audience to really feel for the demise of old age. A simple story about old age sensitively and beautifully told. Hopkins is superb as is Coleman.
GARCON CHIFFON) (My Best Part) (France 2020) ***
Directed by Nicolas Maury
If there is one film about the destruction jealousy plays on ones life, this film is the one. Not only is Jérémie a totally jealous mess but he attends a jealousy group that yields one of the film’s best segments. Director Maury gives a sad-sack performance as gay Jérémie Meyer, an out-of-work actor plagued by doubts, jealousy (he suspects his partner may be cheating on him), and an unhealthy emotional dependency on his mother, played by veteran French actress Nathalie Baye. Jérémie, in the film claims that he knows the smell of his partner’s sperm in one scene where he accuses him of cheating. Maury delivers a sympathetic performance and one wishes his character will succeed not only as an actor but in life as well. Great to see Bye again in a role deserving of her talents. The film is part of Cannes 2020 official selection.
A GOOD MAN (France 2020) ***** Top 10
Directed by Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar
Benjamin Adler (Noémie Merlant from PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE) and Aude (Soko) want to have a baby, but when they find out that it is not possible for Aude to conceive, Benjamin comes up with a plan to solve their dilemma. Benjamin will carry the baby. This sounds really strange but the less one knows about the film’s plot the better. I knew nothing of the story nor that the actor playing Benjamin is female as Benjamin is shown with a thin beard and lifting barbells in one of the film’s scenes. Shot in the region of Bretagne (Brittany), director Mention-Schaar makes good use of the location, with the sea visible in many of the film’s segments. One might think that subjects of LGBT films have run thin, but A GOOD MAN is totally original and a solid drama. A GOOD MAN is a Cannes 2020 Official Selection. At one point in the film, Ben and Aude remark: “Don’t you think we will be the coolest parents ever?” Truly they are and A GOOD MAN is clearly one of the coolest films ever!
MEMORY HOUSE (Brazil/France 2020) ***
Directed by João Paulo Miranda Maria
In writer/director João Paulo Miranda Maria’s sad take on misplaced culture, a black indigenous man, Cristovam (Antonio Potanga) has made sacrifices to adapt to the Austrian colonism of the north. Christovam has moved to the south and in the film’s opening, is given a long speech by management to explain his wage cut. He moves into an old abandoned house, the MEMORY HOUSE of the film’s title, which contains artifacts reminding him of the past. This is the story of a man pushed to the limits with disastrous results not only for him but for the community. The film is a slow burn with many long takes. Still, one has to be attentive as to what is going on onscreen. The cinematography by Benjamin Echazarreta is magnificent as is the soundtrack by Nicolas Becker. MEMORY HOUSE is a Cannes Festival Official selection and the only latin-American film in the selection.
LA NUIT DES ROIS (NIGHT OF THE KINGS) (Cote d’Ivoire/France/Senegal/Canada) ***1/2 Directed by Philippe LaCote
NIGHT OF THE KINGS is set in a God-forsaken place known as the Maca. The Maca is a 5-star prison set in the deep jungle of the Ivory Coast. It is the place where inmates rule. When the current Lord of the cellblock, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) is about to die from terminal cancer, the prison is thrown into chaos. Into the mayhem enters a new inmate, who the prisoners call Roman (Kone Bakary). He has to tell a story lasting the whole night in order to survive at the order of Blackbeard. Director LaCote, himself from the Ivory Coast weaves a fascinating tale of horror and survival - a world seldom seen and hardly imagined. French actor Denis Lavant as a cameo as a character called ‘Crack’ who gos about with a white chicken on his shoulder. Lacote builds the story to an intense climax where all hell breaks loose in the Maca. The film also contains a message that one cannot change destiny (God decides all!) and demonstrates the enormous power of storytelling. A remarkable film!
PASSION SIMPLE (France/Belgium/Lebanon 2020) **
Directed by Danielle Arbid
Simple passion or obsessive love? The film traces a mother’s falling into an addictive relationship with a Russian diplomat, with whom she has nothing in common. Hélène (Laetitia Dosch) cannot function without sex with the man (Sergei Polunin) who does not give her his name or address. She has to wait for his call for unbridled sex which causes her to go crazy. The sex scenes are erotic enough to show how passionate their love making is. Much, much more of the same, repeated and repeated as if the audience does not get the idea that she cannot function without him. Her relationship with her son Paul also deteriorates with her unable to focus on anything but sex. So what happens in the end? Two options - she either totally breaks down or she moves on. 90 minutes one has to wait for the answer.