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Posts Tagged ‘Xavier Giannoli’

The Phoenix in Oxford is officially in the middle of a Hitchcock season at the moment (Psycho this coming Sunday, Vertigo the week after that), but if one didn’t know better one might suspect that the cinema’s film booker was quietly running another, unofficial season at the same time: this week the place is showing not two but three films with a religious theme to them. (I enjoy a revival as much as anyone else, but not usually in this sense of the word.)

Yes, this week, currently showing at a cinema near – well, likely not you, but certainly me – is First Reformed (previously discussed hereabouts), Apostasy (a British drama about life in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses), and finally Xavier Giannoli’s The Apparition (titre Francais: L’Apparition), which will be our main focus on this occasion.

Vincent Lindon plays Jacques Mayano, who as the film opens is a deeply traumatised figure: we first find him hunched in a hotel bedroom, somewhere in the Middle East, clutching a battered and bloody camera. The situation soon becomes clear: Mayano is a war reporter, and his photographer colleague has recently been killed in action. Mayano is consumed by grief and guilt, and upon his return home to France shows every sign of being in the throes of some kind of psychological breakdown.

Then a message comes, from the Vatican no less. He is invited for a confidential meeting with one of the cardinals there. The Catholic Church has a job for Mayano, if he is prepared to take it on: a young girl in rural France claims to have been visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary, and has attracted a dedicated following of pilgrims and other believers as a result. The girl is named Anna (she is played by Galatea Belugi) and she is a novice in the local convent. Her local priest (Patrick D’Assumcao) is a rebellious type and not being especially cooperative with the Holy Office, who generally like to keep a lid on this sort of thing, at least until it can be authenticated (Mayano is told that the Church would prefer to let a genuine case of a supernatural manifestation languish in obscurity than give publicity to something that might be fraudulent).

And authentication, or not, is what is on the cards for this particular phenomenon. How does this involve Mayano? Well, the Church would like him to participate in the process, essentially being lead investigator for the assessment panel (which also includes a psychiatrist, a priest from the local diocese, a theologian, and so on). More out of curiosity than anything else (or so it is implied), Mayano takes the job – but as he gets to know Anna and the other principals in the case, he finds himself being more deeply affected than he had anticipated – especially when it seems there may be a connection between Anna’s supposed visions and his own recent trauma…

I saw Xavier Giannoli’s previous film, Marguerite, a couple of years ago, and was rather blown away by it: a very subtle and impressive piece of work, especially in the understated shifts in tone which see a film that begins as a smart comedy end as a genuinely moving and rather tragic drama. His name rang a vague bell when I saw it on the poster for The Apparition, but I didn’t put two and two together until after seeing the film – I have to say this is probably just as well, as it would only have raised my expectations for the new movie.

As it is, The Apparition gets off to a notably assured and compelling start, detailing Mayano’s personal situation and then his summons to Rome. This all plays rather like a more naturalistic and credible version of something that Dan Brown might write, with the understated way that various church officials discuss extraordinary phenomena only adding to the impression that the film makes. You are left genuinely wrong-footed and unsure of just which way the film is going to go as it proceeds – is this going to be a slightly arty drama about Mayano’s own personal issues? Some kind of paranormal mystery, with a touch of the theological about it? Or a more conventional thriller, exploring some of the murky backstory of Anna’s visions of the Virgin?

Well, if I say that even at the end of the film, I wasn’t entirely sure which way the film had gone, you may get some idea of the problems with which The Apparition is saddled: it has a great opening, to be sure, but by about halfway through it has lost most of its momentum and cuts back and forth between a number of plotlines, with no great sense of this being a film which is in a hurry to go anywhere in a hurry. Indeed, ‘hurry’ is definitely not the word, for The Apparition is knocking on the door of being two and a half hours’ long, and this is frankly just too much. The story wanders off on odd tangents and explores obscure subplots, but there’s not much sense of anyone being in command of the narrative. When I say that by the end of the film I still wasn’t entirely clear if anyone had genuinely seen the Virgin Mary or not, and what this might mean, you may get some idea of how impenetrable the film becomes – not because it’s difficult to follow what’s going on from scene to scene, but because it’s clearly all supposed to mean something but it’s very difficult to tell what. You’re in no doubt as to Mayano’s mental state as the film concludes, but you have no real sense of it yourself, nor any real understanding of why he’s feeling this way.

Now, it would be remiss of me to suggest that there’s nothing of interest going on here at all: Giannoli takes a balanced view of the Church, comparing the genuine faith and decency of some adherents and members of the hierarchy with the willingness of others to exploit Anna for her visions, and puts this across with a light touch. The film also benefits enormously from two tremendous performances from the two leads – Lindon does just enough to suggest that beneath the surface of his world-weary journalist is a man who may actually want to believe in something greater, while Galatea Belugi is astonishingly self-assured in a very demanding role as the young devotee: I suspect she may very well be going places.

However, if so it will almost certainly be in vehicles which are better assembled than The Apparition. There is enough good stuff here for me to put it in the pile marked ‘Creditable Misfire’, and one certainly gets the impression that Giannoli managed to get reasonably close to the subtle and thoughtful film he was clearly aiming for. Nevertheless, it still looks to me like he fell some way short of his target, with the result that this is an ultimately disappointing movie on many levels.

 

 

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Well, after a few thin weeks, there is finally almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the films on release. What this means, of course, is that the worst-reviewed movies are getting all the attention and filling up all the multiplexes, while less obviously commercial fare like Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite just about manage to get a screen at the art house cinema, despite the fact that it has been widely acclaimed abroad. In the words of Paul Weller back when he was in the Jam, this is the modern world.

Marguerite-poster

Marguerite opens in 1920s France, with the country struggling to rebuild after the trauma of the First World War. The great and the good of Parisian society are doing their best to help the unfortunate by holding charitable events, and the film depicts one of these: a series of musical recitals held by a private club of arts-lovers in the home of Baron Dumont (Andre Marcon). Two Bohemian young fellows, Lucien and Kyril (Sylvain Dieuaide and Aubert Fenoy), have snuck in, looking for mischief, although Lucien finds himself rather taken by a young singer booked to perform, Hazel (Christa Theret). Everyone is anticipating the latest performance of the hostess, Marguerite (Catherine Frot), with the tacit understanding being that this is always something special.

But not all is as it seems, with the Baron faking the breakdown of his car in order to avoid being there to hear his wife sing. Soon enough the truth is revealed to the bemused young onlookers: Marguerite is one of the worst singers in the history of the world, incapable of carrying a tune in a bucket, and constantly about as far out of key as it is possible to be without starting to come back in again from the other side. She is oblivious to this, genuinely loves music, and is a generous patron of the arts. This, together with her own genuine sweetness of nature, means that no-one has had the heart to tell her just how badly she sings.

Lucien and Kyril are delighted by their discovery and write a mocking review praising the Baroness’s performance – which she characteristically takes at face value. They encourage her in her dream of finally performing in public, despite the deep misgivings of the Baron himself…

It looks like being a bumper year for films about bad singing, as Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant have a film about Florence Foster Jenkins coming out soon, too. (She was a legendarily untalented American opera singer from the early years of the last century.) Marguerite is clearly based on the Jenkins story, albeit quite loosely – the film’s first jaw-dropping moment of mangled coloratura comes with the Baroness’ performance of Mozart’s Queen of the Night, which was also a staple of the American diva’s repertoire.

In case there was any doubt as to just how rotten Marguerite’s performance is, Giannoli precedes it with a ‘proper’ rendition of the Flower Duet from Lakme, which is of course one of the loveliest things you will ever hear. For a while I thought Giannoli was making a point about the artificial distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art – the good singing is a marvellously uplifting, almost transcendent delight, while Marguerite’s impassioned shrieking left me sore-sided and weeping with laughter. If this is his intent, it’s not necessarily clear – the film on the whole is much subtler than that, and not the handsome costume comedy-drama it initially seems it might be.

Instead, it turns into much more of a character piece, concerned with just what makes a person so deluded. I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s take on the story of Emperor Norton as a man whose madness keeps him sane, and it seemed to me that the story also has echoes of the likes of Don Quixote and King Lear. Those are rather bold claims to make, but the quality of the film – its script, direction, and performances – seems to me to make them entirely justified. All the performances are storng, but central to the whole thing is Catherine Fort’s deservedly award-winning turn – Marguerite could just have been a rather foolish and stupid woman, but Frot gives her such warmth and heart and sweetness that you are on her side throughout the story. (A word in praise of Denis Mpunga, also, who is memorable as Marguerite’s inscrutable butler.)

I find myself at a bit of a loss when it comes to deciding just how much I can say about Marguerite. As I said, this film is not just a classy comedy-drama about dreadful singing, but Giannoli manages the subtle shifts in tone and atmosphere with almost magical skill. I found my responses to what was on the screen changing dramatically, and for no reason I could obviously discern, so skilfully had the director worked with the material. Suffice to say that the climax of the film is profoundly moving and quite at odds with some elements of the early sections.

This is a film made with the greatest of subtlety and skill, that never seems to be openly manipulative: it never feels like one is being impelled to make a judgement about Lucien, for instance, who despite apparently being a nice guy is ultimately responsible for much of what happens to Marguerite. The relationship – the non-romance, perhaps one should say – between him and Hazel is also winningly written and played. But then the whole film impresses from start to finish. With the possible exception of some slightly pretentious moments, there is scarcely a bum note in the whole thing. Well, actually, there are bum notes by the dozen, but you know what I mean. Quite possibly one of the best films of the year.

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