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the case of a young Serbian woman who is faced with possible expulsion from France after her residency permit has been withdrawn.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
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):
Claude (Ernst Umhauer) spies on Rapha’s mum, Esther (Emanuelle Seigner)
This film turned out rather differently than I expected from my brief glance at reviews. (The best are by Ginette Vincendeau in April’s Sight & Sound and Philip French in the Observer.) Many of them suggested that the film switched gear or ‘disappointed’ with its closing section, but for me it remained coherent all the way through and the ending fitted perfectly. I think I was expecting the kind of comedy offered in Potiche or 8 Women but this was more a witty satire than a broad comedy. I’ve read a number of reviews each of which seemed to make reasonable points but none of which matched by own response to the film. I think that this is partly explained by the fact that I haven’t attempted to map François Ozon’s filmography in auteurist terms and I’ve simply taken the films I have seen as superior entertainments. Further research reveals that indeed the handful of Ozon’s films that I’ve seen are the most popular and that in France he is situated somewhere between the mainstream and auteur cinema – 8 Women had over 7 million admissions in Europe.
In the House (a dreadful title in English with all kinds of unhelpful connotations – as the cashier on the ticket desk said, it sounds like Queen Latifah should be the star) is a kind of moral tale in the form of a satire on bourgeois conceptions of art and family relationships. (Philip French helpfully informs us that the title is a reference to Henry James’ preface to Portrait of a Lady in which he refers to a ‘house of fiction’.) M. Germain (at one point we do learn his name, but I won’t spoil the moment) and his wife Jeanne are a middle-aged couple in a small town in an unidentifiable part of France. She runs a small art gallery and he teaches French at a lycée. He despairs of his sixteeen year-old students and she struggles to find art to sell (the gallery is now owned via an inheritance by twin sisters with few ideas about art). M. Germain has two surprises. The school is to suffer the fate of too many English schools – a ‘back to the future’ change of direction with a return to uniforms and an emphasis on ‘standards’. But this is offset by a discovery that one of his students, Claude, is a promising writer. The problem is that what Claude writes is a provocative description of how he has explored a friend’s house and spied on the boy’s mother. Germain is caught in a dilemma – does he expose Claude or encourage him to develop his talent? The boy’s writing is compelling and Germain (and Jeanne) are soon hooked. Each writing assignment produces a new ‘instalment’ of Claude’s ‘infiltration’ of the household of Rapha and his parents and each ends with the classic come-on, ‘to be continued’.
Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Germain (Fabrice Luchini) are the couple seduced by Claude’s storytelling.
It all made me think of Buñuel. Claude, beautifully played by newcomer Ernst Umhauer, is the beautiful boy, seemingly charming but also sly and far too bright for everyone’s good. We are seduced by him just as much as Claude, Jeanne and Rafa and his family. The lycée is named after Gustave Flaubert and the key text here is Madame Bovary. At this point, my knowledge of literary theory and especially of French literature is certainly a bit shaky, but as I remember it, Madame Bovary indulges in adultery to generate some excitement in her tedious marriage. She has some fun, but it all goes wrong in the end. It’s not too difficult to see In the House as a play around the Madame Bovary figure. It works in a number of ways but the key line seems to be when M. Germain reads out Claude’s description of being aroused by the ‘scent of a middle-class woman’. This is shocking in several ways. Claude seems old beyond his years and the intimacy suggested by the phrase seems more in keeping with the later French realists like Zola rather than the Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Kafka, whose novels are lent to Claude by M. Germain. There is more to it than that though and if you know the works you will enjoy thinking about writing styles and about approaches to realism and to ‘moral tales’ – the ending curiously resembles Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari!
I’m not going to spoil the narrative any more – don’t read Philip French until after you’ve seen the film, he gives far too much away as usual. But you should expect the pleasures of a satire on both modern education practices and the ridiculousness of certain forms of avant-garde art. I’ve seen comments that the film is too clever, but I’ll happily watch films like this and I think it’s the most enjoyable film I’ve seen so far in 2013. All the performances are very good. Please go and see it. (A note for Des – in this film Ms Scott Thomas’ accent is explained by reference to her ‘Yorkshire relative’.)
Kristin Scott Thomas as Anna Cooper in her classy apartment
This is an odd little film finally getting a release in the UK, presumably based on the central performance by Kristin Scott Thomas – a major attraction for UK arthouse audiences. However, I’m not sure that word-of-mouth will make this a hit. The English title doesn’t help the film. ‘In Your Hands’, I realise is possibly a play on the phrase describing the responsibilities of a surgeon – ‘Your life in their hands’? Scott-Thomas plays Anna Cooper, a surgeon specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology, who is abducted one evening and kept in a locked room by a rather wild but very pretty young man. My limited French doesn’t run to idioms, but I’m guessing that the French title might translate as something like ‘Against You’. This would be a better title since the main narrative question is “How much ‘against’ her captor will Anna be?” or perhaps how close, literally ‘against’ him, she might become? (I read afterwards that the director did want the English title but its French translation had already been used.)
Writer-director Lola Doillon sets up these questions from the beginning since she first shows a frightened and bewildered Anna escaping from the house where she has been held and a little later sat in a police interview room seemingly telling her story in flashback. So we lose the suspense of whether the captor will murder Anna and instead we wonder about what kind of relationship might develop between the two since we remember the so-called Stockholm syndrome. The narrative does have a twist which I won’t reveal but I suspect many audiences will guess correctly. (The captor’s name, I understand, is the same as the person who first described the Stockholm syndrome.)
The narrative didn’t really work for me. The characters aren’t particularly interesting but it’s possible that some (female?) audiences will identify with Anna. There is an emphasis on her loneliness as a divorcée without children and seemingly few close friends. In terms of the male gaze, this does feel like quite an intimate film with Scott Thomas almost never off the screen. There is something almost erotic about her careful dishevelment. Somehow she still looks elegant and poised even after she has supposedly not washed or changed her clothes for a couple of days. I think the problem is more with her captor played by Pio Marmaï – the narrative would have worked better for me if he had been older and/or less pretty.
I suspect that my main interest in the film was as an example of French cinema’s seeming ease of access to directing for women as writer-directors. I’m not sure that this qualifies as ‘auteur cinema’ but it is a second film by Ms Doillon, whose parents are in the industry – her father is a director and also a teacher at FEMIS. I also read that she is married to the high-profile director Cedric Klapisch (who is thanked in the credits). With those kind of connections perhaps it is not too difficult to put together a budget. There is nothing wrong with the direction of the actors but I don’t think the script offers enough. The film is only 81 minutes long but it felt longer. It did in some ways remind me of a far more interesting film, À la folie… pas du tout (France 2002) with Audrey Tautou, written and directed by Laetitia Colombani – a director of a similar age whose second feature didn’t make it to the UK.
Suzanne and Ivan find life is arduous outside the middle-class home
Partir is a superior genre film – the kind of quality film that once inhabited British cinemas in the late 1940s. These days it is what passes as an ‘art film’ because it is in French and aimed at people over 40. Several people in the audience as I left the cinema were raving about Kristin Scott Thomas and her performance. But there’s more to it than that – even if she is very good indeed.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
Suzanne (Scott Thomas) is a French wife and mother who decides to return to work as a physiotherapist/reflexologist. Samuel, her husband (Yvan Attal) is not very gracious about paying for the work on her new workspace. But a new builder is hired and Suzanne falls for Ivan (Sergi Lopez) almost immediately. Samuel is not the kind of man to accept that his wife is in love with someone else, especially when she is so clearly smitten.
There are several intriguing aspects of this short (85 mins) film. Writer-director Catherine Corsini worked with two other women, co-writer Gaëlle Macé and cinematographer Agnès Godard (often associated with Claire Denis) to produce a film which gives Scott-Thomas plenty to get her teeth into, including some believable sex scenes – which as we know are often best directed by women. Given the short running time, I was impressed by how much was crammed into the script and how the genre repertoires were exploited in different ways. Primarily a realist love story/marital drama, there are also elements of melodrama and crime film. I kicked myself at the end for not recognising how much music was in the film. Asking myself “is this a melodrama?” I was aware that I just hadn’t noticed the music until the closing sequence. Yet when the credits came up, I saw that I’d passed over music by Georges Delerue taken from several Truffaut films including Vivement dimanche!(1983) and La femme d’à côté (1981). Now I think about it there is more music including songs sung by Sergi Lopez and the children. If there is any ‘excess’ in the film, it is probably in the sensual overload offered by the scenery – Ivan and Suzanne find a love nest in the hills of Languedoc-Roussillon (the main location is Nîmes) and enjoy a trip to the beaches of Catalunya. I think the overt displays of emotion also push the film towards melodrama, though always ‘realist melodrama’.
In some ways the question to ask is why is French Cinema able to offer these kinds of roles where British Cinema can’t? Why is it seemingly easier for top quality female directors to make films in France? It isn’t just Kristin Scott Thomas either. Brenda Blethyn has just appeared in London River and Tilda Swinton in the Italian film I Am Love. Not only that, but the last French film I saw celebrated another British export to French culture, Jane Birkin, as a character. There is something wrong with British Cinema and whatever it is won’t be helped by scrapping the Film Council.
One last thought – just as in I Loved You So Long, Kristin Scott Thomas is given a back story to justify her English accent. Is this now in her contract? Over to you Des.
Kristin Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein
This is one of those well-made dramas that only seem possible in French cinema. It is intelligent with fine performances all round and an interesting theme which is given the possibility of development over a leisurely running time (115 mins). Kristin Scott-Thomas plays Juliette, a woman released from prison after 15 years. She is met by her younger sister who takes her back to a comfortable home in Nancy. The two sisters were estranged during the long prison sentence with the younger sister banned by her parents from making contact. But now Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) is a university lecturer with two young adopted children, a husband and a father-in-law disabled by a stroke. Her parents are out of the picture and she is determined that she and Juliette can become close again. But Juliette is withdrawn and this will clearly not be a swift rehabilitation.
I should say straightaway that I enjoyed watching the film in the recently renovated art deco Tyneside Cinema and the film is obviously drawing a traditional French cinema audience (i.e. an older audience who were in afternoon and early evening screenings in good numbers). However, I’m not sure that writer-director Philippe Claudel has made the most of the potential. (It was his first film, so overall I thought he did well.) This could be a great family melodrama, but he seems to keep the lid on any visual expression and offers a relatively underplayed score. This latter picks up a pun about fountains and water (the sisters’ family name is Fontaine) that also has echoes in a relationship that gradually develops with the local police officer to whom Juliette must report. He tells her about his obsession with the Orinoco River as part of a civilised attempt to be positive. What happens to this character later was a problem for me, but perhaps I missed something. On the plus side it was nice to see an Iraqi character and a feisty/annoying smart child from Vietnam as an adoptee.
The sense of a muted emotional discourse was reinforced by the digital print. I’ve noticed this before and it might be something with other digital prints of French films. My guess is that this was shot on High Definition Video and then produced as a digital print for some cinemas (but I can’t find any evidence to back up this observation). The print I saw was super sharp, very ‘cold’ and clinical, yet in the night-time scenes lacked contrasting light and shadow. It was so bad that I found it distracting.
One real positive for me was that the film was set in Nancy. There wasn’t too much to see of the city, but it was good to have a drama set outside Paris. I have two other observations worth recording. First, I’m increasingly aware of how many French films we never see or receive only limited distribution. I wondered if I’d seen Elsa Zylberstein before and I have – but more than 10 years ago. I hope it’s not so long until next time. And finally, my ear for French accents is almost non-existent, so I was intrigued by the plot information delivered in a mealtime dialogue that Juliette was ‘half-English’. Does Kristin Scott-Thomas really need this kind of script support? Does Charlotte Rampling get the same? (Not in my memory.)
I’m intrigued that other posts see this as an award-winning performance by Thomas. She is certainly very good, but I wonder what audiences find to praise one performance over another. I think the highest praise I can give is to say that she delivers the performance that the script required and she did it flawlessly.