Category Archives: French Cinema

European ‘international’ productions

There was a bit of a stink last week when The Family was released in the UK. This film, written and directed by Luc Besson for his EuropaCorp was panned by virtually all the leading UK critics. They may well be correct in giving it the thumbs down. I haven’t seen the film, though I’m tempted to check it out (if it lasts long enough in cinemas). I’m intrigued because I read the source novel a few years ago. The novel – about an American mafia family, hiding under ‘witness protection’ in France – was written by Tonino Benacquista who despite his name is French and he has a generally very good reputation. The original title was ‘Malavita‘ which translates as ‘Badfellas‘. I thought the novel was a diverting amusement, but my interest now is in the ignorance of some UK critics who a) fail to notice that it is a French story and b) that it is essentially a French film, albeit filmed in English and starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard wondered how much of the film was shot outside LA (apart from a sequence in New York most of the film was shot in France). The main problem, I suspect, is that Luc Besson’s mix of extreme violence and comedy just doesn’t work in Anglo-American film culture.

So far  the $30 million film has grossed over $50 million worldwide and will probably eventually make a profit. Besson consistently turns out commercially successful ‘international’ films in English with Hollywood stars and production budgets small by US standards but high for Europe. I’m using the term ‘international’ to stress that these films in English are not necessarily addressed directly to a domestic European market but are intended to compete with Hollywood product in the international market. The Family has an American (independent) partner, Relativity Media, but is essentially a French production. Nearly all these films are condemned by critics but audiences want to see them. Little is written about Besson’s success but I’m interested now because I’m starting to watch some of the better films produced on a similar basis in Europe (mainly France and Italy) in the 1960s and early 1970s. I’ve seen some crackers so far and I’m going to discuss them in an evening class course running next term at Cornerhouse in Manchester. Watch this space!

Classe tous risques (France/Italy 1960)

classe-tous-risques-1960-11-g

This could be an image from a neo-realist film on the streets of Milan.

The BFI’s reissue programme with its gleaming restorations distributed as DCPs is doing wonders for the reputation of classic European cinema – and Keith will be pleased to learn that this example is in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. Claude Sautet, who died in 2000, was known in his later career for dramas like Un coeur en hiver (1992) and Nelly et M. Arnaud (1995) but in his earlier career as a writer and director he worked on genre films including this classic polar. Polars are crime films of various kinds and this is one of the very best featuring Lino Ventura in his prime and Jean-Paul Belmondo just getting established (his earlier film with Godard was also released in 1960).

Lino Ventura (Abel) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric)

Lino Ventura (Abel) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric)

The Franco-Italian co-production (a growing industry practice in the early 1960s) starts in Milan with Ventura as a career criminal and a wanted man who has killed trying to get home to France. (The title has been claimed as a pun on ‘Tourist Class’ but I prefer to think of it as a man who travels ‘at all risk’ – there is no quarter if he is caught by the police as he faces execution by guillotine.) The film includes a journey between Nice and Paris (with Belmondo as driver) which had become almost de rigeur in the polars I have seen. I was reminded of the Jacques Demy film La baie des anges (1963). Class tous risques is a relatively long film for the time (115 mins) and Sautet uses the screen time to great effect in developing the characters. The main commentaries on the film mention three things, linking it to film noir, neo-realism and the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. I don’t think this is a film noir, either in terms of the mise en scène or the theme. For one thing it doesn’t have the misogyny associated with the femme fatale. There is a woman who would betray Abel (Ventura), but she is a not a femme fatale. The women are mostly loving and supportive. It is not like a Melville polar – it’s far less romantic and instead veers towards neo-realism in the authenticity of both settings and relationships – the author of the original novel, José Giovanni had himself experienced the criminal life. It begins with a terrific chase sequence in Italy and includes passages in which Ventura must look after his young children.

I love the cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet and the music is by the ever reliable Georges Delerue. One of the things that makes the film great is its complete lack of sentimentality and its devastating ending. This is a sure-fire classic. Now I must dig out my copy of Touchez pas au grisbi, in which Ventura makes his debut down the cast list with Jean Gabin as star. If Classe tous risques comes your way via an inspired film programmer, rush to see it.

All in the Family Week 3

In the third week of this course we discussed Cherchez Hortense and then traced links through to other French comedies. We made various links, the most important of which was via the star of Cherchez Hortense, Jean-Pierre Bacri.

We looked in some detail at Jean-Pierre Bacri’s work with his wife Agnès Jaoui via an extract from Comme une image (Look At Me 2004). The extract featured a succession of shortish scenes, at the centre of which was a family lunch at the country house of the publisher played by Bacri. This character is very different from the Bacri character in Cherchez Hortense. He’s waspish and cruel, always putting people down. But he is also generous in providing contacts and support, even if he doesn’t know how to help in a gracious way (and he is himself vulnerable). In fact most of the characters in the film are ‘flawed’ with various weaknesses and each is capable of forms of betrayal, hypocrisy etc. Yet Bacri and Jaoui manage to construct their narrative so that it performs a coherent social satire on families and relationships that is both socially accurate and very entertaining. There are few laugh out loud moments but this is a true comedy in the sense that there is a resolution which is happy for at least one couple.

We then traced Bacri’s career back to the 1990s noting how prolific he has been. We looked at two trailers. The first was for the film adaptation, by Cédric Klapisch, of the successful stage comedy that Bacri and Jaoui wrote in the early 1990s. The film of Un air de famille from 1996 provides another example of a ‘family dinner’ that goes wrong. This is more clearly a comedy, though still with a dark satirical edge. We noted the similarity to certain British theatrical comedies (and the play has recently been performed in London). Bacri and Jaoui have also worked with the director Alain Resnais on a musical comedy tribute to Denis Potter, Same Old Song (On connaît la chanson, 1997) – Resnais has also adapted Alan Ayckbourn (as Smoking/No Smoking in 1993). Finally on Bacri we looked at a trailer for Didier (1997), a very broad comedy including slapstick that demonstrates the range of Bacri’s roles.

In the latter part of the session we looked at the recent work of François Ozon on Potiche (2010), also an adaptation, this time from a ‘boulevard comedy’. ‘Potiche’ in its slang usage means a ‘trophy wife’ – in the unlikely shape of Catherine Deneuve, wife of a factory owner who takes over its operation when her husband is ill. ‘Excessive’ in its use of colour and design (the story is set in the 1970s) the film draws on elements of farce as well as serious social issues about gender equality. We just had time to squeeze in the trailer for the more recent Ozon comedy Dans la maison (2012) – a much darker (but also very witty) comedy starring Fabrice Luchini from Potiche and Kristin Scott Thomas.

Week 3’s notes to download: FamilyWeek3

All in the Family Weeks 1 and 2

In the first week of this Evening Class course we started with the first 90 seconds of The Searchers, featuring the melodrama tableaux of the family as John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards rides towards his brother’s homestead. I was surprised that quite a few of the students were unaware of The Searchers – or of its influence on later films. This extract and discussion helped us to think about the family as a symbol in that most American genre, the Western. Thinking about a classic Western in this way offers a completely different ‘way in’ to a familiar genre. The French title of The Searchers – The Prisoner of the Desert seems very appropriate when we consider that Ethan is a man whose bitterness means that he can’t enter the family home/the ‘community’ which represents the ‘civilising’ force in the West, but must instead roam the desert. There are so many connotations of the struggle over values in 1950s America here!

We then looked at three examples of different kinds of family films as a preparation for the full screenings on the course over the next few weeks. Pour elle is a French thriller in which a woman is imprisoned after a conviction for murder. Her husband, believing she is innocent, attempts to organise her escape so that the couple and their small son can be a family again, somewhere overseas. Khosla Ga Khosla is an Indian family comedy, one of the ‘new Bollywood’ films. A civil servant plans his retirement which will involve building a dream home just outside Delhi but the land he has bought is occupied by a local gangster – will the family rally round and find a way to oust the gangster? Finally we looked at Still Walking, the highly personal film by Kore-eda Hirokazu about the 24 hours of a family reunion. In each case we looked at just the opening 6 or 7 minutes in which the main narrative of the film is introduced. I hope that students will want to watch the remainder of three enjoyable and interesting films.

Week 1 notes (pdf) are downloadable here: FamilyWeek1

I introduced the Week 2 screening with the suggestion that the UK poster for Cherchez Hortense was grossly misleading, suggesting a romcom starring Kristin Scott Thomas. The French poster gives a much more accurate representation of what is actually in the film. Here is the UK poster:

cherchez_hortense_ver2_xlgand here is the French poster:

cherchez hortense

I also introduced Pascal Bonitzer with some background on his earlier scriptwriting career and talked a little about Jean-Pierre Bacri, the lead in the film, and his partnership with Agnès Jaoui in other French comedies, some using a similar milieu.

The full notes for the Week 2 screening of Cherchez Hortense are here: FamilyWeek2

All the material relating to this course is now tagged ‘All in the Family’

Look at Me (Comme une image, France-Italy 2004)

Ettiene (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and his daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry)

Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and his daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry)

I’m looking again at some French ‘comedy’ films as part of work on Cherchez Hortense. In Comme une image, the partnership of Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri offers the same milieu as Cherchez Hortense with Bacri himself as a very different leading character.

Comme une image refers to Lolita, a self-conscious young woman, who is attempting to become a (classical singer). She feels herself to be overweight and unattractive and suffers low esteem because her father Étienne (Bacri), a successful publisher and writer, doesn’t give her much encouragement. (The title could also refer, in a different way, to the father who has a very high opinion of himself – and somehow persuades several others to look ‘up’ to him.) Lolita’s singing teacher Sylvia (Jaoui) is more understanding and through her partner Pierre, also a writer, she meets the publisher. Lolita has a boyfriend who turns out to be interested in her only as a means of getting an introduction to her father. Meanwhile she accidentally meets Sébastien, a young North African-French trainee journalist who she in turn treats badly, though he seems to genuinely care for her. Finally, Karine is Etienne’s new, young and pretty wife, with whom he has a small daughter, step-sister to Lolita. Karine also struggles to maintain her esteem in the face of Etienne’s sarcasm and cruel wit.

‘Comme une image’ is also the title of the novel written by Pierre who becomes drawn into Etienne’s circle. The narrative actually follows the creative projects of Lolita (to sing in a group performance), Pierre (to promote his current title and to start the next) and Etienne (to get over his writer’s block). The strains between the characters culminate in the singing concert at a country church and an after-show party hosted by Eitienne in his nearby country house. The brilliance of the film, directed by Jaoui and co-written by her and Bacri, is in its humanist/realist approach to dialogue and settings. Its conventional staging directs our attention to the swift interchange of lines that seem believable rather than scripted for effect. Bacri is extremely effective as Eitienne who sometimes seems genuinely surprised that others find him cold, cruel, unfeeling etc. and indeed he often speaks and acts in ways that most of us would probably want to emulate at certain times, but are too polite to actually carry through. But if Etienne is at times insufferable, even the most sympathetic character, Sylvia, is capable of anger towards someone else – hurting their feelings (even though she is arguably justified in venting her anger). Most of the characters are simply too weak to risk Etienne’s displeasure – feeling that his patronage will benefit them.

Agnes Jaoui on set (from the blog at http://jaouibacri.blogspot.co.uk/

Agnès Jaoui on set (from the blog at http://jaouibacri.blogspot.co.uk/

I’ve seen Woody Allen mentioned as a reference point for the Jaoui/Bacri films and I can see some resemblances but overall I find the differences more striking. Comme une image is intelligent and serious, yet somehow also light and entertaining. It never strikes me (as Allen’s films sometimes do) as ‘smart’, ‘knowing’ etc. with the expectation of a possible gag or self-conscious aside. (But this may be because I’ve given up on Woody Allen films for many years now.) When I first saw this film on its cinema release I don’t think I was aware of Jaoui’s background which is in part Tunisian-Jewish (the North African Jewish connection is also evident in the backgrounds of Claude Lelouch and Joann Sfar). I don’t recognise any connection to the New York Jewish humour of Woody Allen (I’m sure somebody can correct me on that) but in Comme une image, there is a nicely judged pair of scenes in which Sebastién’s North African heritage is commented on and sensitively ‘dealt with’ as an issue.

Comme une image is a ‘comedy’ because it has a happy ending for two of the main characters. Some of the dialogue is witty but mainly the humour comes from the human frailties displayed by all the characters. I’ve seen the film described as social satire, but I think that usually satire is sharper and more exaggerated. This has an effective satire effect but it is more subtle. I think that the film is a triumph for Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri. He is a very good actor and writer but she manages to sing and to direct as well. Formidable!

Here’s an American trailer (note that the film was a Cannes Prizewinner for the Script):

Looking for Hortense (France 2012)

Isabelle Carré and Jean-Pierre Bacri

Isabelle Carré and Jean-Pierre Bacri

Here is a French film that has probably achieved a UK release because of the casting of Kristin Scott Thomas. She has a pulling power for specialised cinema audiences in the UK almost unmatched by any other star actor. She’s fine in the film – but she doesn’t appear that much. We’ve had plenty of discussion on this blog about how she is cast in French films and whether or not the script will attempt to explain her accent. In this case she is ‘Iva’, a theatre director in a long term relationship with Damien (Jean-Pierre Bacri) who teaches ‘Asian civilisations’ and specifically a class for French business people attempting to develop projects in China. The couple have a young teenage son and things are not going well. Iva has asked Damien to speak to his father, a senior legal figure, in an attempt to persuade him to intervene in the case of a young Serbian woman who is faced  with possible expulsion from France after her residency permit has been withdrawn. (I didn’t quite follow the convoluted relationship between Iva and this woman and therefore I’m not sure about the Scott Thomas character’s background in this script.) Damien has a very poor relationship with his ego-centric father and finds this task very difficult and this will eventually create a further series of problems on top of everything else.

Kristin Scott Thomas looking beautiful and melancholic in a secondary role

Kristin Scott Thomas looking beautiful and melancholic in a secondary role

The film is intended as a comedy and, applying the test used by Mark Kermode to evaluate Hollywood comedies, I have to report that I laughed out loud several times. But this is a very Parisian sort of comedy, a comedy of manners and a comedy that requires quite a lot of cultural knowledge – I’m sure that I didn’t get all the references and someone looking for a frothy romcom should stay away. But if you like talky, intelligent films with terrific performances and witty dialogue, it’s very good.

The director is Pascal Bonitzer, who has made several features but is perhaps better known as a veteran scriptwriter – most frequently for Jacques Rivette, but also for André Techine, Raoul Ruiz and several others since the mid 1970s. He says that the character of Damien has some of his own traits (Bonitzer wrote the script with Agnès de Sacy) and Jean-Pierre Bacri does an excellent job. If that name doesn’t ring a bell for UK audiences, the hangdog face surely will. Bacri has appeared in the last three films by his partner Agnès Jaoui. This blog carries very positive  responses to Let’s Talk About the Rain (2008) for instance. Like that film, Looking for Hortense combines moments of silliness with quite moving scenes and serious social issues. It takes great skill to mix these ingredients together and produce a coherent film that appeals to the intellect and the funny bone. I think that Pascal Bonitzer manages to do that but I was bemused by the title and only after reading reviews did I understand that ‘Hortense’ is actually the family name of the character who rules on the residency issues that Damien must discuss with his father. I don’t want to spoil the plot but I do want to pick out Isabelle Carré who plays the character who in effect joins all the stories together. She is excellent and like Bacri, an actor I have seen before and whose performances I’ve enjoyed (in Anna M. for example). I just wish it was easier to see French films of this quality on a more regular basis. This week I saw or heard another reference to the ‘difficulties’ subtitled films have in the UK – even when bland Hollywood fare is being dumped into UK multiplexes.

Press Book and other background material

And here is the UK trailer (quite good in not giving too much away):