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Posts Tagged ‘Matthias Schoenaerts’

You have to feel a bit sorry for the proprietors of Oxford’s premier art-house cinema, working hard to bring international movies to film-lovers in and around the city. I imagine that their hope with non-English language presentations is to lure in anyone from the same country as the film being shown, together with casual viewers who happen to be passing. And so it is quite simply the worst possible luck for their preview showing of Michael R Roskam’s Franco-Belgian thriller Racer and the Jailbird to coincide almost exactly with another, rather higher-profile Franco-Belgian get-together, of considerable local interest to boot. So it was that about three of us turned up to watch Roskam’s film while everyone else was glued to the football semi-final.

(I suppose one should be grateful the film was showing at all; the entire schedule in Screen One had been cancelled for the following evening so yet another venue could show the other semi-final match. And don’t get me started on the fact that the UK release of Ant-Man and the Wasp has been postponed until six weeks after its American debut, once again because of the bloomin’ World Cup.)

But hey ho. There we were for Racer and the Jailbird (a title which we will return to), which initially looks like it will be a familiar sort of tale in tone, if not in detail. It opens with a fragment from the youth of Gigi, a young man with a clearly troubled family background, before we meet him in adulthood. He has grown up to be that very capable Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, and has apparently become a charming and smooth businessman, even if exactly how he makes his money is a little unclear. He and his friends are visiting a racetrack when he makes the acquaintance of Bibi (Adele Exarchopoulos, probably best known for Blue is the Warmest Colour), a promising young racing driver.

Well, Gigi makes a move, rather directly, Bibi is not unwelcoming to his overtures; the film in general doesn’t hang about and cuts straight from them meeting for their first proper date to the pair of them in a fairly graphic delicto-type situation. They get to know each other as people, too: would you follow me anywhere, they ask each other, do you trust me? What’s your biggest secret, Bibi asks Gigi. I’m a gangster and rob banks for a living, ha ha, he replies.

But, of course, he’s not really joking, which sets up rest of the plot, one way or another. The lovers grow closer, and realise that something serious has begun between them. But Bibi is no fool and is aware that there are parts of Gigi’s life to which she is not privy; her father (Eric De Staercke) can tell Gigi is serious about his daughter, and gives his blessing provided he either comes clean or stops doing whatever it is that’s forcing him to lie. One last big job looms, after which they can be together…

So, yes, that title. In the original French this film is called Le Fidele, which basically translates as The Faithful – something which gives you a pretty good pointer as to the general tenor of the movie. But, for reasons which I cannot begin to fathom, for its English release it has been given (as noted) the title Racer and the Jailbird, which is a horrible, totally inappropriate name for this kind of film, sounding as it does like some kind of wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper from the 1970s.

This is not a wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper in a 70s kind of style. The first half of the film is admittedly a very slick and entertaining crime drama, in what seems to be a highly-commercial style intended to appeal to international audiences (I have heard it compared to Heat). I found myself idly wondering how long it would be before the inevitably inferior American remake came out, who would be cast in the two lead roles, and just how much they would tweak the story and style (the sex scenes in this film are just a tad more explicit than you tend to find in a mainstream American film, but hey, there are French people involved). In short: thoroughly enjoyed the first half.

But then the film undergoes an abrupt and profound volta, signified by the switch of main characters from Schoenaerts to Exarchopoulos, and a huge change in tone. This is much more the kind of thing you would expect to see in Franco-Belgian art-house releases, i.e., it all becomes a bit heavy and depressing. The list of tribulations visited upon Bibi and Gigi as they struggle to sustain their love is so comprehensive and extreme it might even move Job to complain providence was laying it on a bit thick. Melodrama beckons, and the film doesn’t really manage to resist its siren song.

This is a shame, not least because the second half of the film is really Adele Exarchopoulos’ opportunity to shine after playing what’s initially something of a supporting role. She’s still very good, but she has to contend with some rather suspect material in a way that Schoenaerts simply doesn’t in the first half. But the two actors are good together, have chemistry, and you do kind of want to see them end up with some kind of happiness, even if the film never quite hits you with the massive rush of emotion you get from a film like (to choose another Schoenaerts-starring romance) Rust and Bone. In the end what you get is a curious ending, rather carefully ambiguous while still definitely quite downbeat. And you come away feeling mildly disappointed, both by the lack of closure and the way in which all the promise of the first part of the film was left to fizzle away.

I find it hard to be really negative about Le Fidele (or, if you really insist, Racer and the Jailbird), simply because the first half is just so strong, and even the second half is lifted by the two lead performances. But the fact remains that this resembles a peculiar welded-together hybrid of two films with wildly different styles and sensibilities, one of them much more accomplished and rewarding than the other. Worth seeing, I think, but keep your expectations under control.

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A friend of mine tells the story of how she left her home, in a distant land, and travelled many thousands of miles, until her final arrival in Europe. Here she set about partaking of all the most famous cultural and historical experiences available to her. And so it was that she finally came to the Palace of Versailles, one of the world’s great treasures, where – in a somewhat unexpected development – she found herself seized by the overwhelming need to vomit. I don’t know, maybe it was just the French food or something.

Of all the stories one could tell about Versailles and its history, this is probably not the most profound or indeed accessible one, but then again the same could probably be said, with respect, to A Little Chaos, the new film from Alan Rickman (who also stars and co-writes). One wonders how much a factor Rickman’s personal star cachet was in getting this financed at all, because the premise doesn’t exactly scream breakout hit.

ALC_poster

Anyway, we’re in France in the year 1682, and Louis XIV (Rickman, who’s really about 20 years too old for the part in terms of historical accuracy, but whatever) has decreed the construction of Versailles as a paradise on Earth. In charge of the grounds is Andre le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), who sets about interviewing leading French gardeners for the job. One of these is Madame de Barra (Kate Winslet), and the two do not initially hit it off, as they seem to have wildly different ideas when it comes to the philosophy of garden design.

However, le Notre realises the scope of the King’s ambitions require him to adopt the ancient French principle of aller grand ou rentrer à la maison and so he ends up hiring her anyway (if he has an ulterior motive, the film gallantly does not dwell upon it). And so begins a tempestuous story of fountain design, pipe-laying, perennial-bloom selection and water-table draining, as le Notre and de Barra come to terms with their burning mutual attraction (rather to the chagrin of his estranged wife (Helen McCrory))…

I don’t make a habit of reading reviews from proper critics for fear of being unduly influenced by them, but the Telegraph‘s line did catch my eye and make me laugh a lot -‘if you only see one film about 17th-century French landscape gardening this year, make it A Little Chaos’. (I notice they haven’t put that on the poster.) Most of the film’s publicity has concentrated on the central romance and the colourful whirl of courtly life, but in all honesty it does feel like there’s a lot of stuff with people talking about water pressure and soil acidity, with the two leads only really getting together quite close to the end. The film’s title card from the certificators promises ‘moderate sex scenes’ and I would say this was a fair description – but, hey, they can’t all be brilliant.

A Little Chaos is quite a long film, given the slightness of the central story, and you are aware of every minute of it. That’s not to say it is dull, as such, just that you may require a different mindset to fully appreciate it. As director, Rickman seems to have prioritised the performances of the actors and the look of the film over the narrative itself, and the film is pretty much flawless in both departments. He has a fondness for extravagant tableaux in which wigged and costumed actors stand immobile in front of a striking background, and the overall impression is that of a film which is under tight control, with every shot carefully considered and composed.

Alan Rickman is one of those actors with undeniable charisma and an impressive reputation – albeit one which is based on a fairly low output in recent years. His days as Hollywood’s go-to guy to play villains feel like a long time ago, with most of his recent appearances being undemanding but (one assumes) preposterously well-remunerated turns in the Harry Potter series. So I suppose it’s nice to see him back doing a movie in any capacity, even if you really wish he actually turned up on screen in A Little Chaos more often than he does. It is in every sense a stately performance, but one which Rickman invests with real pathos, humanity and wit.

Also more prominent in the advertising than the movie itself is Stanley Tucci as the King’s brother. Tucci comes on in a couple of scenes, delivers a big splash of colour and humour and flamboyance, then (usually) clears off again for a bit. Even so, between them it’s mainly he and Rickman who keep the film’s discreet, tasteful, thoughtfulness from making the whole enterprise lose any sense of momentum. This is not to criticise the performances of Winslet or Schoenaerts, both of whom deliver performances of great subtlety and commitment. It’s just that, once again, these are exquisite miniatures, and it’s sometimes the case that more energy and vitality comes when you paint with a broad brush.

There’s nothing that’s actively bad about A Little Chaos in any department – it’s impeccably acted, photographed and designed – but the story doesn’t really go anywhere surprising and the film offers no real new insights or ideas concerning the world it is depicting. If it has a deeper theme, it’s not immediately obvious, so carefully textured is the story. As a result, the film impresses much more than it actually moves – or, really, entertains. Watching a very well-made film can be a pleasure in and of itself, and there are things to enjoy here, for certain: but I think a little less control and a lot more chaos would actually have served A Little Chaos rather better.

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From a movie about cricket, to a movie about… you know, one good thing about operating a no-spoiler policy when reviewing films is that occasionally it prevents you from using some of the most obviously tasteless gags that might otherwise occur to you (if you are afflicted with a mind like mine, anyway). Going beyond the pale in terms of the funnies is more of a danger with some films than others, and I must say that the potential for sick jokes when discussing Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (original title De rouille et d’os) is probably greater than most. Restraint is demanded of me anyway, as this is a superior movie in every department.

As the film opens we meet Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a young man making his way to the south of France with his young son – we don’t see the situation they have left, but everything suggests it was not a pretty or healthy one. Ali is living on the fringes, and takes refuge with his sister and her partner. Eventually he gets a job as a bouncer at a swish local nightclub, where he is called upon to help a glamorous young woman in distress. She is Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), independent-minded, perhaps with troubles of her own. Ali leaves his number with her, but nothing else comes of it.

And then… Well, here we enter somewhat murky waters, as Stephanie undergoes a Significant Personal Event at her workplace (she trains killer whales). This Significant Personal Event is so fundamental to the course of the story that it hardly qualifies as a plot spoiler, but the makers of the film still clearly want it to come as a surprise to the viewer: the trailer for this movie is carefully assembled (one might say to the point of disingenuity) in order to avoid giving it away. Put it this way, she doesn’t just have her annual leave request turned down.

Anyway, following the Significant Personal Event, Stephanie finds herself in need of a friend and for some reason turns to Ali, even though they have only met once. What follows is the slow and awkward coming together of two completely different people, Stephanie vulnerable and struggling to come to terms with the realities of life, Ali outwardly carefree, with all the apparent sensitivity and emotional intelligence of a concrete breeze block. And yet it is completely convincing and very affecting.

On one level Rust and Bone is a slightly unusual film, in that it is as utterly dependent on its special effects as any summer blockbuster, but the intention here is for the audience to leave the film with, ideally, no idea that any cinematic wizardry has occurred. These are what used to be called subtle effects, intended to be invisible rather than eyecatching. Well, the virtuosity on display is incredible, as the work involved permeates most of the movie, and I consistently found myself wondering ‘how on Earth did they do that so convincingly?’ – an uninformed viewer might be completely taken in by the display. On the other hand, I wonder if this wasn’t distracting me just a bit from the story itself – I should have been drawn into the scene more than simply marvelling at the quality of the CGI.

On another level, this film had the potential to be a melodramatic weepy of the first rank – the story is bookended by tragedy and potential tragedy, punctuated by anguish and misery, and the actual through-line of the plot is not tremendously original. In some places it’s also a bit implausible – at one point, quite late on, Stephanie becomes Ali’s manager in his sideline as a bare-knuckle boxer, and her willingness to do this comes out of the blue somewhat. Also, the climax is set up by a plot development which smacks just a bit too much of coincidence (once again, decency precludes me going into too much detail).

However, the film succeeds, partly because it is resolutely unsentimental about all of the characters and their situations – Ali’s poverty is not treated as something picturesque or in some way character-forming, we see him scavenging for food in rubbish to feed his son and committing petty theft. Stephanie’s own situation is graphically presented too, and the early stages of the central relationship are not the stuff of chocolate-box romance. This is a film trying hard to ground itself in a recognisable world with characters who seem to be real people.

This is of course due to the quality of the central performances, which is the other main reason for the film being as good as it is. It almost goes without saying that much of mainstream English-speaking cinema is at best undemanding and at worst actively stupid. Marion Cotillard has been lucky enough to make most of her major English appearances in films by significant directors who are intelligent men, but even so, for Michael Mann she wound up playing a gangster’s moll, and for Christopher Nolan a fragment of someone’s memory and the long-lost daughter of a supervillain: not, perhaps, the most heavyweight of parts. Rust and Bone is a movie which really allows Cotillard the opportunity to let her talent shine and she is remarkable, somehow managing to radiate emotion without any obviously laboured technique or visible ‘acting’ worth mentioning. Matthias Schoenaerts is just as good – in fact he may possibly be even better, in that he’s playing someone who doesn’t let his emotions show and most of the time seems to be trying to mask them from himself as much as other people.

Cotillard and Schoenaerts are so good that the story is completely compelling throughout, even though much of the telling of it is rather understated. The trailer for this film is soundtracked by soaring music and is full of remarkably colourful, vibrant images, promising a lush and passionate experience. Well, there’s a degree of cherry-picking going on here, I would say: there are remarkably photographed and edited sequences dotted through this film, but most of it is much more restrained and naturalistic (the soundtrack is probably most notable for its eclecticism, featuring contributions from both Katy Perry and John Cooper Clarke, for example).

And while this works to the film’s advantage for most of its length, I think the director misses a trick in the closing stages – there isn’t the transcendent, overwhelmingly romantic climax that I suspect could quite easily have had more emotionally fragile audience-members sniffling into their snack wrappers. Normally I would have applauded the evasion of such open sentimentality – but the important thing is that this film does not deal in sentimentality, but in genuine sentiment – real emotion – and thus had surely earned the right to its big finish. I would not have begrudged it one.

The conclusion the film has instead is satisfying and appropriate, and in keeping with the rest of it, so it by no means damages the film. It’s just that this is one of the very few flaws in what is one of the best dramas of the year, with possibly the two best performances I’ve seen, subtitled or not. Not always the easiest of films to watch, and a serious work throughout, but enormously well-made and rewarding.

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