Avant que les flammes ne s’éteignent (AFTER THE FIRE) (France 2023) ***
Directed by Mehdi Fikri
Injustice against minorities is often favourite fodder for French films, (BATIMENT 5 (LES INDESIRABLES) and LES MISERABLES by Ladj Ly being prime examples. In an immigrant French suburb of Strasbourg. Karim, a 25-year-old man, has died at the hands of the police. Devastated by the news, his estranged sister Malika (Camélia Jordana) reunites with her family, compelled to seek justice for her slain brother. The police claim the death is due to an epileptic fit due to drug taking. Strategizing with mentorly community organizer Slim (Samir Guesmi) and suave private lawyer Mr. Harchi (Makita Samba), Malika soon begins to face a courtroom battle with overwhelming media exposure, while contending with the growing chaos of her hectic everyday — missed daycare meetings, a failing business, and a strained marriage. But she and her siblings Driss (passionately played by rapper Sofiane Zermani, a.k.a. Fianso) and Nour (Sonia Faidi) are anchored by their renewed blood ties. Together they harness the fire of public outrage against a racist criminal justice system. Director Fikri shows some sympathy for the authorities with the pathologist and the guarding police officer allowing Malika total photos of the bruises from the beatings of the dead brother’s corpse while also showing the judicial process and the court case preparations. The sight of the bruised body also gets the emotions of the audience going.
ANATOMIE D’UNE CHUTE (France 2023) ***** Top 10
Directed by Justine Triet
The film that both received great applause during the screening at Cannes and the coveted Palme d’Or (Best Film) is a taut courtroom drama and thriller that keeps one glued to the set from start to end. Great performances from all especially the lead, Sandra Huller and including the dog that voids and has its eyes rolled whitened. Sandra (Sandra Hüller) is a successful German writer who lives in the French Alps with her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and their visually impaired son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). A brilliant, decibel-bursting opening scene suggests tensions in their isolated chalet, so when Samuel is discovered dead in the snow beneath one of their windows, suspicion is quickly aroused. Did he take his own life, or was he pushed to his death? When the investigation proves to be inconclusive — its varying angles hinting at the microscopic examination to come — Sandra is ultimately indicted and put on trial. The prosecuting attorney is understandably nasty and able to twist all the evidence against Sandra, forcing her to unveil all her personal emotions and her life. The twist near the film’s end ties all the ends tidily in what is an excellent film all around.
UNE ANNEE DIFFICILE (A DIFFICULT YEAR)N(FRANCE 2023) ***
Directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledan
Writer and directors Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledan of C’EST LA VIE return with a similar feel-good commercial French comedy with few relevant messages to boot. It is mainly about two friends who join a movement out of chance with the hope of a little romance.. When Bruno (Pion Marmaï) and Albert (Jonathan Cohen) first meet, neither is in a good way. Bruno has just stolen a television, while Albert responds to being evicted with a bumbling suicide attempt. Bruno manages to save this doped-up stranger’s life — only after getting vomited on — and a friendship is born. They have something in common: each suffers an addiction to buying stuff, and both are drowning in debt. They take classes from debt-reduction expert Henri (Mathieu Amalric), though he, too, has a long record of overspending that threatens to follow him forever. They join an activist anti-consumer anti-climate change group, both falling for the group’s beautiful leader (Noémie Merlant), who manages to persuade them to participate in elaborate demonstrations that Bruno hopes will spark a love affair. An entertaining enough fare lacking in any power in the messages put across.
ARTHUR & DIANE (Germany 2023) **
Directed by Sara Summa
Filmed mostly in French
Writer-director Sara Summa stars alongside her real-life brother Robin Summa, in this playful auto-fictional road trip from Berlin to Paris she takes with her brother Arthur and two-year-old son, Lupa. The mission to renew an expired MOT — a certificate confirming a vehicle’s compliance with road safety and environmental standards — on their shared car, a rusty childhood relic, they also plan on visiting their aging mother along the way. Arthur and Diane travel from Point A to Point B without much direction nor purpose (for example, they diverge to a lake to swim) The film feels the same way. Though quite a neat exercise in filmmaking, one cannot help but feel bored and listless rather than charmed or excited, - though director Summa at least does not try to manipulate her audience. The ultimate question throughout the movie is: Are we there yet?”
LA CHIMERA (Italy/France/Switzerland 2013) ****
Directed by Alice Rohrwacher
LA CHIMERA follows the adventures of a linen-clothed British archaeologist first name of Arthur (Josh O’Connor) as he digs up tombs and sells treasures in the likes of Indiana Jones. Arthur has the uncanny ability to be able to foretell where treasures are buried. Unlike the Spielberg movies, this is art-house Indian Jones, competing with the latest Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. LA CHIMERA has its major surprises and is an utter delight in its delivery, presentation and originality. Arthur is a handsome fellow and O’Connor portrays him with a certain suave and likability. It turns out that Arthur has just been released from prison, the only one caught the last time he was tomb digging with the gypsy romans, who are eager to get up with him again. The Romans are shown to be a colourful and playful art and director Rohrwacher delivers many of the film’s funniest and brightest moments of this group. many members of which love to dress in drag. The film’s ending has a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s final scene in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, in which Cary Grant reaches out to Eva Marie Saint as she almost falls off the cliff only to reveal the final scene where Grant lifts her to the top of the bunk bed on the train.
THE DEAD DON’T HURT (Canada/Mexico/Denmark 2023) ****
Directed by Viggo Mortensen
(French spoken largely)
enImpressive and ambitious second feature after FALLING by actor Viggo Mortensen has an 1860s setting in an elegantly realized feminist western starring Mortensen himself and Vicky Krieps as immigrants attempting to forge a life in a corrupt Nevada town. There are a lot of French spoken in the film. French-Canadian flower seller Vivienne Le Coudy (Krieps) and Danish carpenter Holger Olsen (Mortensen) meet in San Francisco. Vivienne is irreverent, fiercely independent, and refuses to wed, but agrees to travel with Holger to his home near the quiet town of Elk Flats, Nevada. There, they begin a life together — Vivienne grows roses and waits tables at a tavern and Holger builds barns until the couple is separated by Holger’s decision to fight for the Union in the burgeoning Civil War. Left on her own, Vivienne must fend for herself in a place controlled by corrupt Mayor Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston) and his business partner, powerful rancher Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt). Alfred's violent, wayward son Weston (Solly McLeod) aggressively pursues Vivienne, who is determined to resist his unwanted advances. A bit disorienting at first as the story unveils in non-chronological order without titles, the tactic forces the audience to think a bit and puts all the pieces into place. Necessarily violent, this is a violent revenge western. Director Mortensen sets up all the I justices down toward the couple before exacting the well-deserved revenge that would have the audience cheering.
L’ETE DERNIER (LAST SUMMER)(France 2023) ****
Directed by Catherine Breillat
French director Breillat returns to the screen with another provocative film as in one of her best films MA SOEUR. Breillat films can never have the adjective ’pleasant’ to describe them, but their unpleasantness and unease make her films so memorable. In the latest film by French provocateur Catherine Breillat, a prominent lawyer’s passionate affair with her 17-year-old stepson threatens both her career and family. Anne (a radiant, fierce Léa Drucker) is a prominent lawyer in her forties who lives with her loving yet overworked husband Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin) and their two young, adopted girls in a stunning, sun-soaked villa on the outskirts of Paris. A woman of plenty with as much to lose, Anne soon falls under the spell of the tousled-haired Théo (Samuel Kircher, a revelation in his first role), her husband’s rebellious 17-year-old son from a previous marriage, when he comes to stay with them. Their steamy affair seems less premeditated than accidental as Anne, coaxed out of her conjugal ennui, gradually gives into Théo’s advances, excited not only by his physical beauty but also by the thought of being lusted after by someone half her age. Though the film is a remake of the 2019 Danish film Queen of Hearts by May el-Toukhy, Breillat’s version has her imprint all over it. Superb performances by all especially from Druker in the lead.
LES INDESIRABLES (BATIMENT 5) (France 2023) ***½
Directed by Ladj Ly
LES INDESIRABLES (BATIMENT 5) is co-writer and director Ladj Li’s second feature after his excellent Cannes Jury Prize–winning debut, LES MISERABLES (TIFF ’19), which was also French’s entry for the Oscar’s Best International Film that lost all its glory to the over-rated PARASITE.
istLES MISERABLES' actor Alexis Manenti who played the racist white cop with the nickname ‘Piggy’ now plays the unlikeable, white new deputy mayor who has some slight good in him but carries policies out the wrong way. In LES MISERABLES, his cop says “Le loi, c'est moi!” (The law - it’s me!) In this one, his mayor, Pierre says: “The law is harsh, until it is the law!” Pierre is woefully unfamiliar with the less affluent members of his constituency and soon realizes he’s in over his head. Manenti is a superb actor and it is clear the reason director Ly chose him again for his second feature. Newcomer Anta Diaw, is also especially good in the main role of the running mayor, dramatizing a most divisive social theme.
As Pierre’s administration unleashes an aggressive campaign targeting immigrants, Haby decides to put herself forward as a candidate in the forthcoming mayoral election. But can she and her team act fast enough to prevent their community from being evicted wholesale?
Director Ly also includes a few more intimate scenes at the start of the film to show the plight of the poor. These include a bus driver strike, a disastrously executed demolition, and a scene in which a family must move a casket carrying the remains of a loved one down multiple flights of stairs.
Director Ly proves himself apt at shooting spectacle. The fire on the upper floor of a building is shown at a distance as well as a demolition of a building at the film’s beginning. The riot scenes are also well-shot.
LES INDESIRABLES (BATIMENT 5) pale in comparison to Ly’s masterwork LES MISERABLES for its lesser biting humour and spirit (that one begins with tParis’ celebration of winning the world cup), but still shows the director in fine form, tacking key issues, in this case, mis-sue of power and the law as well as poverty housing. Praise to director Ly for carrying out his convictions in film.
SIMPLE COMME SYLVAIN (Nature of Love) (Canada 2023) ***
Directed by Monica Choki
Simple like Sylvain is what being with Sylvain is like, as Sophia Magalie Lépine Blondeau) discovers. Sylvain (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) is a simple carpenter hired by Sophie to fix up her country home. Sophia is a 40-something dissatisfied professor who teaches love relationships and hangs out with literary and art-loving folk who look down upon ordinary people. Opposites attract here — she’s the brains and he’s the brawn — and they quickly begin a tumultuous affair. But Sophia has a hard time reconciling the reality of their differences, especially when they introduce their family and friends to one another, and their disparate political leanings and varying viewpoints become comically apparent. As their affair continues, the tension between their different worlds comes to a very uncomfortable head. The first major argument comes fast and furious and Sophie is distraught. What follows too is fast and quick compared to the film’s slower pace in the first half. Director Choki creates a credible somewhat angry fable of relationships that does not conform to the standard romantic drama.
SPIRIT OF ECSTASY (France 2023) ***** Top 10
Directed by Héléna Klotz
A stunning second film from director Héléna Klotz (11 years after her ATOMIC AGE) sees the director in top form adapting a script she co-wrote with Noé Debré. The film follows Jeanne Francoeur (French pop star Claire Pommet in her first but impressive role), a young non-binary person (who dresses like a man but looks like a girl but nothing else is disclosed about her non-binary character) from a long line of gendarmes. Jeanne lives on a military base with an abrasive father, forced to care for their younger siblings while dreaming of breaking out of the family’s milieu by becoming a high-powered financial analyst. Life can be as tricky as it is wonderful, The question is whether Jeanne should give up her ambition of being a quant (short for a quantitative analyst) or give up her family. The clever script shows that it is possible to have both. “You are very clever at talking shit,” says Jeanne’s job interviewer at one point in the film. The same can be said of this film, which is extremely smart, confident, funny and totally winning. The additional bonus is the stunning cinematography, particularly of the night scenes.
VAMPIRE HUMANISTE CHERCHE SUICIDAIRE CONSENTANT (Canada 2023) ***
(Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person)
Directed by Ariane Louis-Seize
The title of the movie VAMPIRE HUMANISTE CHERCHE SUICIDAIRE CONSENTANT (Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person) tells it all. A young teen vampire is unable to kill her victims in order to feed on the victim’s blood in order to survive. Sasha (Sara Montpetit) is a teenage vampire — well, “teenage” is relative in their world — with an empathy problem. Unlike the rest of her clan that includes her worried vampire parents, Sasha’s fangs don’t come out when she’s hungry or sensing fear; she needs to feel a personal connection to her prey. And then Sasha meets Paul (Félix-Antoine Bénard), an actual teenager convinced he’ll never enjoy anything in life. She befriends him, introduces him to her world and its secrets, and he happily volunteers to be her next meal. Which would be great, except for the whole empathy thing. The film serves too, as a novel coming-of-age story. Director Louis-Seize plays her story deadpan without resorting to theatrics or cheap humour. For example in the dancing scene, Sasha and Paul just move their bodies right and left instead of breaking out into over-styled choreography. The blood and gore though present, are toned down a notch or two in this worthy and amusing take on the teen vampire genre.
VIVA VARDA! (France 2023) ****
Directed by Pierre-Henri Gibert
Known recently for her films like the Oscar-nominated Best Documentary VISAGES, VILLAGES and AGNES PAR AGNEDS and for her earlier classics like CLEO DE 5 A 7 and VAGABOND with Sandrine Bonnier who appears too in this doc, Agnes Varda of the late French Novelle vague is a force reckoned with all these years. Her artistic independence and female voice strokes one as a very strong woman while her sensitivity in her marriage to filmmaker Jacques Demy who died from AIDs revealed her as a sensitive human being. She made a wonderful film about Demy’s childhood and love for filmmaking in JACQUOT DE NANTE. Director Gibert captures all the importance and urgency in her work and life in a doc just so short that one just does not want to end. Pierre-Henri Gibert, a documentarian specializing in cinema history, chronicles her expansive career, embodying her curiosity and whimsy, but filling in notable gaps.
WIDOW CLICQUOT (France/U.K. 2023)
Directed by Thomas Napper
Yet another piece of the difficulties if not impossibilities of success in farming. From JEAN DE FLORETTE to this year’s THE PROMISED LAND and THE BEAST, farming in Europe must be torturous. And worse if, one is a woman. WIDOW CLICQUOT has to remain resilient while fighting nature’s elements and the chauvinistic males around her to succeed in developing champagne amidst the Napoleon Wars, The film tells the true story of Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, the “Grande Dame of Champagne,” otherwise known as as Veuve Clicquot. At the age of 20, she became Madame Clicquot after marrying the scion of a winemaking family. Though their marriage was arranged, a timeless love blossomed between Barbe-Nicole (Haley Bennett) and her poetic, unconventional, and erratic husband, François (Tom Sturridge).As a beautifully mounted period piece, coupled with the wine-making process and all its intricacies. Too bad the film is shot in English and not in French.