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Posts Tagged ‘Berenice Bejo’

Five or six years ago, I was startled to see that the official start of Big Summer Movie season had crept forward to the start of May, when – back before the coming of Day and Date releasing – it always used to be no earlier than June. Now, it seems that the year’s really big popcorn blockbusters are starting to appear as early as the back end of March. You might think that this was bad news, should you be the kind of person disinterested in the collected oeuvre of Stan Lee or any kind of film predicated on a massive special-effects investment.

I would tend to disagree, as the more big movies that come out to dominate the multiplexes, the more cover they provide for the smaller independent cinemas to indulge in counter-programming – showing films for a different audience. (Of course, if you don’t live near a smaller independent cinema, you are basically stuffed, but that’s the modern world we have made for ourselves.) Currently reaping the counter-programming dividend is Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (or, in the versione originale, Le Passe).

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Asghar Farhadi is most celebrated for a series of Iran-based films, and long-term readers may recall the ‘stroke a bandicoot’ campaign I launched after seeing his 2009 movie About Elly…. The Past is set in a more familiar context, but it’s another acutely-observed human drama.

Central to the story is Marie, played by Berenice Bejo (who’s most famous for The Artist), a Parisian woman whose life is largely dominated by her chaotic domestic situation: she shares her home with two daughters from a long-since-concluded relationship, and the son of the man whose child she is carrying and who she intends to marry. He is Samir (Tahar Rahim), an average sort of guy. However, their relationship has an awkward, never-to-be-discussed issue at its centre, something which threatens to destroy Marie’s relationship with her hostile elder daughter (Pauline Burlet).

Our route into this complex, intimate situation is to see it through the eyes of Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), an Iranian man to whom Marie is still technically married. He’s in town to finalise their divorce, but while catching up with his stepchildren finds himself sucked into the tensions between them and their mother’s intended new husband.

So, no jetpacks, no biblical apocalypses, and no musical numbers in this one, then (there isn’t even any non-diegetic music, which appears to be something of a Farhadi trademark). What there is is a forensically-precise examination of the intersections and interdependencies of a handful of lives, and the way in which the regrets and mistakes of the past can act as a dreadful drag-anchor on the hopes of the present and future.

The subtleties and nuances of the central situation are presented with great skill, and, it seemed to me, forethought: for example, the fact that Ali is not the actual father of any of the children he’s helped to raise is significant, giving him a sense of binding responsibility towards them but crucially barring him from having any real authority. His well-intentioned efforts to help resolve the situation are arguably counter-productive, but it seemed to me that one of the themes of the film is that everyone is locked in a sort of emotional stasis, unable to make any progression or find any sort of resolution – increasingly, the key figure in the story becomes Samir’s wife, who is comatose and unable to provide anyone with the answers they need (the exact reasons for this are, of course, a crucial plot point).

If you were of a certain sort of disposition I expect you could make a case that The Past is implicitly a film criticising the collapse of the nuclear family as a social unit – Marie and Samir are both onto their second or third relationships, and so on – I didn’t get any sense of intention in this respect from the film. It’s too personal and particular for that – Farhadi just seems to be interested in these people, in this situation, rather than making general social or political points.

You could, I suppose, ask what the point of a film like this is – it’s not attempting to push a point of view or send a message, except in the vaguest way. Well, it certainly has value as a piece of art for its own sake – the performances of Bejo and Mosaffa in particular are wonderful, subtle things, and Burlet is also very good. Farhadi’s direction is undertstated to the point of being invisible, but every key moment of the story, every emotion is captured.

I have to say that at over two hours long The Past really outstays its welcome by at least fifteen minutes, and the narrative has an odd, lumpy sort of structure – what looks like it’s going to be a film about Ahmad’s relationship with Marie and the children turns into one trying to uncover the truth about Samir’s ex-wife and her condition, in which Ahmad is a very peripheral character. The delicate exposure of layers of character and plot involved is very well done, but I think the film would have benefited had they found a way to get to this stuff rather earlier.

Still, this is a thoughtful, humane drama made for intelligent adults, not afraid to contemplate the complexities of modern life, even if it is naturally reluctant to offer any easy answers to the questions it discovers. Perhaps not quite as impressive as Asghar Farhadi’s Persian-language films, but still a viable alternative for anyone looking for a worthwhile trip to Arthouseville.

 

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We have reached one of those moments in the year when the multiplexes down my way, given the eternal choice between quantity and quality have opted for… well, neither, if we’re completely honest. Perhaps there are a few good films showing within easy reach that aren’t aimed at children: the thing is, I’ve seen them all already.

I did consider going further afield and had considered heading out of town (two bus-rides, a long walk and/or some hitch-hiking) to catch a promising new film about some pole-dancing vampires. But in the end I couldn’t be bothered and ended up going to see Regis Roinsard’s Populaire at the art-house instead.

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Listings information for Populaire, no matter what its source, uniformly announces that this film contains ‘a moderate sex scene’. Well, I suppose that’ll do until a really good one comes along. The other common reference point everyone is using when talking about it is Mad Men, which is just one more example of a popular and critically acclaimed TV series I’ve never actually seen and am not qualified to talk about (I haven’t seen the one about the dwarf playing musical chairs, either). You know, I’m getting the impression I should’ve gone with the vampire pole-dancers after all.

I suspect the Mad Men references are due to this film’s 1950s setting, although most of it does take place in France. Deborah Francois deploys a performance packed with weapons-grade winsomeness as Rose, an innocent country girl whose life’s ambition is to become a secretary. Despite being quite phenomenally clumsy and naive, she nevertheless finds a job with small-town insurance man Louis (Romain Duris). As it happens, Louis’ best friend (Shaun Benson) is American, and his best friend’s wife is played by Berenice Bejo from The Artist, both of which should help with that tres important commerce international.

Louis has, of course, got an ulterior motive for taking Rose on: he has discerned she has phenomenal potential as a speed typist and resolves to become her coach and train her to conquer the world, one key-stroke at a time. Needless to say the obvious chemistry going off between them cannot be allowed to get in the way of the coach-athlete relationship…

Yes, welcome back to cinema’s most utterly predictable genre, for we are in the world of the rom-com. Two extremely beautiful young people meet each other, feel an instant mutual attraction, and then spend the next hour and a half acting like idiots in order to defer their climactic moment of coming together (is this a good moment to bring up that ‘moderate sex scene’ again? ‘Moderate’ is probably selling it a little short, but I digress) until the end of the film .

Some of the convolutions the plot is put through to this end are rather contrived, resulting in a film which outstays its welcome a tiny amount, but the whole film is such a frothy, feather-light confection that it almost feels churlish to criticise it on these grounds. Audiences could be excused for feeling souffled alive by a film which departs from conventional reality very early on and never really returns to it. (There are a couple of more serious character beats along the way, but these are sensibly kept understated.)

However, it is hard to overstate quite how winningly well-put-together Populaire is, with nicely judged turns from all the leads, but especially Francois: she delivers a performance of quite colossal charm and sweetness, which more than makes up for any predictability in the plot. The film also makes a real virtue of the competitive element of its story: there’s something deeply, slyly funny about the way all the traditional movie cliches for depicting sporting clashes are repurposed to cover competitive typing – and yet the final scenes of Rose taking on the hissable American world champ (naturally, I will not spoil the result for you) do manage to be genuinely stirring stuff. It also manages to seem rather accessible to an international audience without being obvious or cynical about it.

The 50s setting means it all looks very stylish, too, although given the nature of the story I don’t think they had a great deal of latitude there. We could, I suppose, discuss the sexual politics inherent in a story where the gender roles are quite so rigid as they are here, to say nothing of what’s going on with a character as smart and strong as Rose being so determined to become a secretary. But, as I say, this is such a floaty little confection that we’d be in real butterfly-on-a-wheel territory to start criticising it in those terms. As I have had cause to ponder in another context in recent days, one can take gender politics much too seriously when it comes to escapist entertainment.

Populaire may have come up short on the pole dancing vampire front, but I did enjoy it very much; rather more, in fact, than I’d expected to. It is not deep, it is not heavy, it is never what you could honestly call surprising or unpredictable. But it is enormously likeable and entertaining, with the kind of eye-opening central performance that major careers are built on. Deborah Francois is surely one to watch: look out for her being wasted in a knuckle-dragging English-language genre movie somewhere near you, soon.

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If you were to saunter into the offices of any major movie studio and request $15 million to engage the services of much noted international talent so that they might make a lavish black-and white movie set in 1920s Hollywood, featuring virtually no dialogue to speak of and with a key role played by a Jack Russell terrier, you would probably yourself rapidly expelled from the same offices very shortly afterwards, possibly… Zut alors! Pardonez-moi, mes amis, I’m having a touch of the deja vus. Actually, when you put it like that, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist isn’t quite so unusual compared to some of the other films on major release right now. But even so…

Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a rather Douglas Fairbanks-ish silent movie star in 1920s Hollywood. Valentin is a big star and rather full of himself, and initially doesn’t pay much attention when he crosses the path of aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). Valentin gets her a job as an extra on his new movie, and while there’s obviously chemistry between them, events conspire so that nothing comes of it.

Time passes and Peppy’s star waxes, even as news of a strange new invention reaches the studio: talking cinema. Valentin refuses to even contemplate making a sound movie and embarks upon his own financially risky project, while his former bosses give Peppy her own star vehicle – with sound, of course. One of them is clearly rising, but is the other’s fall inevitable? And can they come together long enough to recapture the brief spark they once shared?

Everyone seems to be talking about The Artist, which is probably just as well given that nobody’s actually talking in it. Even better, they all seem to be going to see it – as I’ve mentioned before, it’s regularly playing to sold-out houses at the local arthouse. Glowing reviews and a smidge of novelty value clearly have considerable combined influence – and the movie does live up to expectations.

Is this just a novelty film, though? Certainly, making a silent movie pastiche sounds like a very gimmicky idea, and there’s a sense in which it’s slightly perverse to be making a silent movie about the advent of sound – just as it would be to make a black and white film about the coming of colour. On the other hand, black and white movies are still being made now, over seventy years after the invention of colour stock – perhaps it’s a stylistic choice like any other, and Hazanavicius is using the silent format in the same way that, say, Abel Ferrara used monochrome in The Addiction?

Hmm. Even if this was being given as the reason why, I would be dubious – black and white films hung in there for thirty years or more before finally being consigned to the realms of the arty and the terminally low-budget. With a very few exceptions, talkies displaced silent movies completely and very rapidly within a handful of years. So it seems unlikely that Hazanavicius is rediscovering a lost and distinct art form. Apparently The Artist emerged from his admiration for the era and its film-makers and also its focus on visual storytelling, and both of these are richly visible in the film itself.

That said, the most obvious kisses to the past in this movie go to Citizen Kane and Singin’ in the Rain, both of which were talkies! (The re-use in this movie of parts of Vertigo‘s score has also been the subject of much recent flapping, which if nothing else has spared me from burbling on about how authentically the soundtrack imitates Bernard Herrmann…) The visual storytelling in The Artist is the real joy of the film, however – there are relatively few intertitles, and the rest of the movie relies on ceaseless inventiveness and some brilliant flourishes – there are several uses of films-within-the-film, and so on – but also a tremendous understanding of the grammar of editing. The director isn’t afraid to play with the conventions of the form, and doesn’t let himself be straitjacketed by it either – at a couple of points sound intrudes into The Artist‘s silent world, always with good reason and to spine-tingling effect.

One of the great things about silent cinema is its ability to travel internationally with a minimum of reworking – and in a similar vein, an international cast coexists here very happily. Jean Dujardin and the winsome Berenice Bejo’s previous work in knockabout Bond spoofs will probably be receiving a lot more attention now, while John Goodman and James Cromwell turn up in surprisingly minor roles. The performer getting the most attention, however, is Uggie the Dog for his scene-stealing turn as the Dog. The Artist has already won the prestigious (it says here) Palm Dog – ‘for the outstanding canine performance at the Cannes Film Festival’ – and moves have been made to have Uggie nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar this year. Somehow I can’t see the collective dignity of the Academy standing for that, but it’s a nice idea – even if he’d probably end up sharing the stage with Spielberg’s flippin’ horse…

Anyway. I’m pretty sure the success of The Artist is a one-off – the subject matter really lends itself to this kind of treatment, while I suspect a great deal of the film’s appeal derives from a peculiar combination of novelty value and nostalgia. (Even so, I am bracing myself for a slew of inferior knock-offs, not to mention the two leads being shoehorned into unflattering supporting roles in big-budget American films a la Sharlto Copley, Monica Bellucci, etc.) Nevertheless the film itself is great fun, witty, romantic and occasionally moving, and it’s exactly the kind of self-consciously nostalgic, classic entertainment that Oscar’s shown a distinct fondness for in the past. I suspect the Palm Dog will end up with some equally distinguished company before too many weeks elapse.

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