THE UNKNOWN GIRL: even geniuses have an off-day

Adèle Haenel in THE UNKNOWN GIRL

The Belgian writer-director brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes are among my very favorite filmmakers.  Their movies about everyday people in gritty industrial Belgium have been startlingly authentic and emotionally  gripping.  However, their latest, The Unknown Girl, is a bit of a slog.

In The Unknown Girl, a compassionate and hardworking doctor (Adèle Haenel) is working late and doesn’t answer the office doorbell after hours.  It turns out that a young woman had been trying to get inside just before she was murdered.  The cops can’t even identify the victim.  The doc is wracked with guilt and embarks on a quest to identify the young woman and to solve the crime.

So this is a murder mystery – the closest thing  ever to a Dardennes brothers genre movie.  Unfortunately the deliberate, real-time pace that intensifies the emotional experience of the Dardennes’ other work just drags in The Unknown Girl.   And there are just one or two coincidences in the plot to swallow.

Adèle Haenel (recently so good in In the Name of My Daughter) is excellent and the best thing about the film.  She’s in every scene and portrays a driven and remarkably self-aware character, who often intentionally suppresses her emotions to do the best job possible for her patients.

This isn’t a bad movie, just not a spectacularly good one.  By all means, see a Dardennes film, just make it The Son or The Kid with a Bike.

DVD/Stream of the Week: ELLE – subversive and absorbing, with Huppert’s stunning performance

Isabelle Huppert in ELLE
Isabelle Huppert in ELLE

The extraordinary performance of French actress Isabelle Huppert makes the already subversive Elle into a Must See. Huppert plays the middle-aged businesswoman Michèle, who is raped in her home in the first seconds of this movie. Elle is likely to be controversial; Michèle’s reaction to the rape will not meet anyone’s expectations. At first, Elle seems like it will be a looks like a whodunit (who is the attacker?), then it shifts into a revenge fantasy, all the while remaining, at its core, an amazing study of Michèle, a character that we haven’t seen before. This is a woman who refuses to accept – and may not be capable of – victimhood.

The screenplay, which turns upside down any expectations we may have, is written by David Birke from a Philippe Djian novel. The hunted becomes the hunter, we never know what to expect from Michèle and shockers abound. Who better than Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct) to direct? Especially since the willful Michèle has a lusty sexual appetite, with adventuresome tastes.

Michèle needs to be in control, and she’s generally tough enough to stay in charge. The way to understand her actions is that she will do anything to regain that control and to avenge any moment that someone else has wrested it from her. One would expect the rape to be shattering enough, but Michèle starts getting messages from her attacker that would send ANYONE into a puddle of paralyzing terror; instead she’s only momentarily unnerved.

With the exception of two monsters, all the men in Elle are weak (despite any internal sense of bravado), and she handles them all easily. (Those two monsters better watch out, too.)

One way of watching Elle is to keep score, as in: Michèle 6, Men 0. But Elle is not a man-bashing film – Michèle’s ridiculously self-centered mom and her son’s abusive nightmare of a girlfriend are just as unsympathetic as all but two of the men.

There’s plenty of dark humor in Elle. For example, immediately after the opening rape scene, we watch Michèle at work as the founding CEO of a video game company. She’s watching a clip from her company’s newest video game in development. The clip is so hyper-violent and misogynistic that it would trigger massive PTSD for any rape victim, but Michèle’s complaint is that it’s NOT VIOLENT ENOUGH.

Isabelle Huppert may be the best screen actress working today, she’s certainly the most fearless. She’s so fearless, you gotta wonder if there any scripts that she rejects for being TOO weird, challenging or transgressive. She is comfortable with roles that range from the kinky (The Piano Teacher) to the most twisted (Ma Mere).

Huppert is especially gifted at playing impenetrable. She is at her best when she simply REGARDS other characters, assessing and judging them. With almost no lines,and very little screen time, her sphinx-like character dominated the recent Louder Than Bombs.

I also have to note that her character in Elle is in her early 50s – a sexy early 50s – while Huppert herself is 63. She seems to have somehow stopped the aging process about 15 years ago.

Elle ends in a moment of friendship, with the final line an homage to my favorite movie of all time. There’s a difference between perverse and perverted, and Elle keeps just inside that fine line. The shockers, the very dark humor and Huppert’s singular and compelling performance make Elle one of the year’s most absorbing films. Two weeks after screening it, I’m still thinking about it. Elle is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

THE MIDWIFE: life disrupted

Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot in THE MIDWIFE

A woman’s life is utterly disrupted – for better and for worse – by the unexpected appearance of someone from her past.  Claire (Catherine Frot) is a middle-aged Paris midwife who lives a completely contained life, focused only on her passion for childbirth. Her other only other devotion is to her son, who, between med school and his girlfriend, she doesn’t see much of. Claire is so abstemious that she must be the only non-recovering and non-Muslim resident of France who eschews even a glass of wine.

Suddenly Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve) shows up and, in a most unwelcome development, intrudes on Claire’s life. Thirty years before, Béatrice was Claire’s father’s mistress when Claire was a teenager. After dragging Claire’s father into financial ruin, Béatrice suddenly disappeared, and he committed suicide. Now Béatrice, for the first time in thirty years, expects to pick up the relationship with Claire as though none of this had happened.

Béatrice is an irascible libertine and hedonist with champagne tastes and a gambling habit. She’s a master manipulator who has survived by flitting between rich boyfriends, but now she’s down – really down – on her luck. Béatrice has adopted “depending on the kindness of strangers” as her personal creed.

The Midwife is a welcome showcase for the veteran French actress Catherine Frot, whom we don’t get to see enough of in the US, despite her 96 screen credits (most recently in Haute Cuisine). Frot perfectly portrays the generally strong-willed woman who is ultimately unable to resist, bit by bit, the changes to her world.

One of the striking aspects of The Midwife is the opportunity for the great Catherine Deneuve to depart from her often icy and imperious roles. Béatrice is out of control and uncontrollable.

Paul, a simple and lusty long haul trucker shows up and show interest in Claire.   Paul is played by Olivier Gourmet from the great Dardennes Brothers movies Rosetta, The Son, L’enfant and The Kid with a Bike.  This is a much less brow-furrowing role, and Gourmet gets to unleash a delightful measure of gusto.

The Midwife is written and directed  by Martin Provost, the actor who has recently written and directed Seraphine, The Long Falling and Violette.  quite brilliantly edited  and his editor Albertine Lasta – (one of the editors on Blue Is the Warmest Color) know just when to end a scene – down to the nano-second.  This is a very effectively edited film.

The Midwife is a film to settle into and to meet and understand Claire, then to watch her life change.

MOKA: whodunit mixed with psychological thriller

Emannuelle Devos in MOKA
Emannuelle Devos in MOKA

In the atmospheric ticking clock drama Moka, Emanneulle Devos plays Diane, a Swiss woman whose daughter has been killed in a hit-and-run accident.  Months afterward, she is still consumed with grief.  Impatient with the slow and uncertain pace of the police investigation and with her husband’s attempts at finding closure, Diane launches her own investigation to find the responsible party and make them pay.

Diane starts connecting dots and begins to suspect Marlène (Nathalie Baye), a shopowner from a neighboring town in France.   Diane adopts the alias of Hélène and, creepily, begins to infiltrate Marlène’s life.  Moka is a whodunit mixed with psychological thriller – who is really the perp and what is Diane capable of doing?

I, for one, didn’t see the big plot twist coming.  Director Frédéric Mermoud adapted the screenplay from the Tatiana De Rosnay novel.

The prolific French actress Emanneulle Devos made a splash in 2001 with Read My Lips and popped up last year in the indie Frank & Lola.  Devos has a very compelling quality.  She excels at playing women who are very intense and possibly dangerous, women like Diane in Moka.

Nathalie Baye is the Meryl Streep of France, nominated ten times for France’s Best Actress award.  She started off in 1972 as Joëlle the script girl in Trauffaut’s Day for Night, and had risen to international stardom by 1982 and her performance in The Return of Martin Guerre – one of the greatest acting turns in all cinema. In Moka, Baye’s Marlène is a seemingly uncomplicated woman.  We correctly suspect that she’s  something else under the surface, but we don’t guess what that really is.  It’s great to see Baye take this supporting role and nail it.

Moka is a well-crafted fuse-burner and a showcase for two great actresses.

Nathalie Baye and Emmanuelle Devos in MOKA
Nathalie Baye and Emmanuelle Devos in MOKA

DVD/Stream of the Week: AUGUSTINE: obsession, passion and the birth of a science

The absorbing French drama Augustine is based on the real work of 19th century medical research pioneer Jean-Martin Charcot, known as the father of neurology. A young kitchen maid begins suffering wild seizures and is brought to Charcot’s research hospital. He ascertains the triggers for the seizures, and begins to close in on cure. Needing funding for his research, he triggers her seizures before groups of his peers; he is showing off his research, but it’s clear that his affluent male audience is titillated by the comely girl’s orgasmic thrashes.

She is drawn to this man whose kindness to her belies their class difference and whose brilliance is the key to her recovery. The good doctor intends to cure her – but not until she has performed for his potential funders. She is unexpectedly cured just before Charcot’s most important demonstration, and she gets to decide whether to continue her exploitation. In the stunning conclusion, she gets the upper hand and her simmering feelings erupt.

The fine French actor Vincent Lindon (Mademoiselle Chambon) excels at playing very contained and reserved characters, and here he nails Charcot’s clash of decency and professional ambition.

The French pop singer Soko is captivating as his patient. Last week, I noted the feral fierceness and simmering intensity of Soko is The Stopover, a film that I just saw at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILMFestival). That’s why I was moved to make Augustine this week’s video pick.

It’s an auspicious first feature film for writer-director Alice Winocour. She has constructed a story that about two sympathetic characters whose interests converge, then diverge and then… Since Augustine, Winocur has co-written the wonderful Mustang and directed Disorder.

Augustine is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

SFFILM: THE STOPOVER

Ariane Labed and Soko in THE STOPOVER photo courtesy of SFFILM
Ariane Labed and Soko in THE STOPOVER
photo courtesy of SFFILM

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILMFestival) presents the topical French drama The Stopover, which explores the after-effects of combat in contemporary warfare.  We also get a female lens on the acceptance of women in combat roles and on sexual assault in the military from the co-writer and co-directors, the sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin.

The Stopover’s title refers to a French combat unit’s three-day stay in a luxurious Cypriot seaside resort.  The unit, heading back to France after a tour in Afghanistan, is supposed to decompress at the resort.  They are required to engage in group therapy, enhanced by virtual reality goggles.  As with any group of gung-ho and mostly macho twenty-somethings, talk therapy is not their thing.  But they sure need decompression, because their service included a terrifying engagement in which they lost three comrades.

This combat unit includes women, and The Stopover focuses on Aurore (Ariane Labed and Marine (Soko).  The strong and purposeful Aurore has physically recovered from an emotionally (and literally) scarring experience in Afghanistan.  The more impulsive Marine, on the other hand, is not a deep thinker, but has a serious chip on her shoulder.

Everyone in the unit wound very, very tightly. Some are fighting to keep psychotic outbursts from bubbling over.  Plopping these guys amidst tourists and locals in such an absurdly and artificially tranquil setting creates a powder keg.  From start to finish in The Stopover, we’re waiting for any and every character to snap or erupt.

Ariane Labed in THE STOPOVER photo courtesy of SFFILM
Ariane Labed in THE STOPOVER
photo courtesy of SFFILM

Labed is excellent as Ariane feels need to suppress her PTSD, to mask it with rowdy fun and, finally, to confront it.  Labed won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival for a completely different kind of movie in 2010, the absurdly goofy Attenberg, which I also watched at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

I just can’t take my eyes of Soko, who is a French pop music star. Here, as Marine, she has a feral fierceness. Soko is also a force of nature in the excellent period drama Augustine. She stars in another movie out this year that I’m looking forward to seeing, The Dancer.  She brings a simmering intensity to the screen, in contrast to her offbeat, ironic pop music.
The rest of the cast is excellent, too, particularly Karim Leklou as a sergeant with an unresolved issue or two.

The Stopover plays the SFFILMFestival tonight and again this weekend.  It’s also programmed in Film Society of Lincoln Center’s sometimes traveling Rendez-vous with French Cinema series.  It’s an engrossing and powerful film.

PERSONAL SHOPPER: Kristin Stewart can’t save this mess

PERSONAL SHOPPER
PERSONAL SHOPPER

Kristen Stewart’s brilliant performance isn’t enough to save Olivier Assaya’s murky French drama Personal Shopper.  Stewart plays a woman who is working as a personal shopper for an obnoxious celebrity, but she really identifies as a medium. She is grieving her twin brother, who died a few months before. He was also a medium, and the two had resolved that the first to die would contact the survivor from Beyond. As Personal Shopper opens, she is walking around her brother’s house and muttering his name without turning on any lights.  Does she find him?  Does she find something even scarier?  Do we care?

Assayas takes Personal Shopper bouncing along between movie genres – from Ghost Story to a moment of Horror, then to Mystery Thriller and finally Ghost Story again. Some critics have credited him with a highly original approach to an exploration of grief.  But, no, Personal Shopper is just a mess.  Grief has shocked the main character into a malaise, but Personal Shopper keeps changing its focus to her fears and her sexuality.  If you want to see a good movie about grief, try Manchester by the Sea, Five Nights in Maine or Rabbit Hole.

Near the beginning of Personal Shopper, there’s some very clumsy exposition – as if a character were reading from the Wikipedia page on spiritualism.  The big mystery in Personal Shopper is who is sending her texts, and that question is never resolved. I’m usually OK with ambiguous movie endings, but this would have bothered me if I had cared.

Nonetheless, Kristin Stewart is superb.  Stewart seems completely natural when her character feels deep terror, grief or fascination  and also when her emotions are stunted or repressed and her affect is blunted. There’s a moment of auto-eroticism that is very, well, erotic.  Stewart holds our attention in every scene.  She’s so damned watchable that we always want to know what her character is thinking and about to do.

Stewart may be good, but Personal Shopper is not worth 105 minutes of anyone’s life.

Cinequest: SWEET GIRLS

SWEET GIRLS
SWEET GIRLS

In the dark, dark Swiss comedy Sweet Girls, the two teenage besties are lazy and unmotivated – even by teenage standards.  They will do ANYTHING to avoid an entry-level job that might plunge them into the adult workaday drudgery that they despise.  Left to their own devices with a deadline looming, the two  take unseemly advantage when an elderly woman dies in their apartment building.  Absurdly self-involved, the two start harvesting all the apartment building’s elderly in an absurdly harsh scheme.  Think Arsenic and Old Lace and Sweeney Todd.

Both girls are brats of the first order, but Elodie, the ringleader, also has an experience in her past which has scarred her feelings about the geriatric set.  Neither is a sympathetic character.  The humor here comes from the absurdist plot and from the social satire, which is probably more accessible to a Western European audience.

ELLE: subversive and absorbing, with Huppert’s stunning performance

Isabelle Huppert in ELLE
Isabelle Huppert in ELLE

The extraordinary performance of French actress Isabelle Huppert makes the already subversive Elle into a Must See.  Huppert plays the middle-aged businesswoman Michèle,  who is raped in her home in the first seconds of this movie.  Elle is likely to be controversial; Michèle’s reaction to the rape will not meet anyone’s expectations.   At first, Elle seems like it will be a looks like a whodunit (who is the attacker?), then it shifts into a revenge fantasy, all the while remaining, at its core, an amazing study of Michèle, a character that we haven’t seen before.  This is a woman who refuses to accept – and may not be capable of – victimhood.

The screenplay, which turns upside down any expectations we may have, is written by David Birke from a Philippe Djian novel.  The hunted becomes the hunter, we never know what to expect from Michèle and shockers abound.  Who better than Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct) to direct?  Especially since the willful Michèle has a lusty sexual appetite, with adventuresome tastes.

Michèle needs to be in control, and she’s generally tough enough to stay in charge.  The way to understand her actions is that she will do anything to regain that control and to avenge any moment that someone else has wrested it from her.  One would expect the rape to be shattering enough, but Michèle starts getting messages from her attacker that would send ANYONE into a puddle of  paralyzing terror; instead she’s only momentarily unnerved.

With the exception of two monsters, all the men in Elle are weak (despite any internal sense of bravado), and she handles them all easily. (Those two monsters better watch out, too.)

One way of watching Elle is to keep score, as in:  Michèle 6, Men 0.  But Elle is not a man-bashing film – Michèle’s ridiculously self-centered mom and her son’s abusive nightmare of a girlfriend are just as unsympathetic as all but two of the men.

There’s plenty of dark humor in Elle.  For example, immediately after the opening rape scene, we watch Michèle at work as the founding CEO of a video game company.  She’s watching a clip from her company’s newest video game in development.  The clip is so hyper-violent and misogynistic that it would trigger massive PTSD for any rape victim, but Michèle’s complaint is that it’s NOT VIOLENT ENOUGH.

Isabelle Huppert may be the best screen actress working today, she’s certainly the most fearless.  She’s so fearless, you gotta wonder if there any scripts that she rejects for being TOO weird, challenging or transgressive.  She is comfortable with roles that range from the kinky (The Piano Teacher) to the most twisted (Ma Mere).

Huppert is especially gifted at playing impenetrable.  She is at her best when she simply REGARDS other characters, assessing and judging them. With almost no lines,and very little screen time, her sphinx-like character dominated the recent Louder Than Bombs.

I also have to note that her character in Elle is in her early 50s – a sexy early 50s – while Huppert herself is 63.  She seems to have somehow stopped the aging process about 15 years ago.

Elle ends in a moment of friendship, with the final line an homage to my favorite movie of all time.  There’s a difference between perverse and perverted, and Elle keeps just inside that fine line.  The shockers, the very dark humor and Huppert’s singular and compelling performance make Elle one of the year’s most absorbing films.  Two weeks after screening it, I’m still thinking about it.

MY GOLDEN DAYS: the urgency of first love

MY GOLDEN DAYS
MY GOLDEN DAYS

The first love depicted in Arnaud Desplechin’s coming of age film My Golden Days is completely evocative. That first love is inevitable even if the young lovers don’t know it yet, and then filled with passion, importance, obsession, angst, conflict, breakups and makeups. And then it runs its course.

The performance of Lou Roy-Lecollinet as the unpredictable object of the young protagonist’s affection really elevates My Golden Days. Roy-Lecollinet has looks which won’t attract every guy, but would be irresistible to some. She’s able to convincingly play a girl with a devastating combination of confidence, forthrightness, charm, wit, impulsivity and a wandering eye.

That story makes up the core of My Golden Days, a flashback bookended by the contemporary, middle-aged version of the protagonist (Mathieu Amalric). The story of young romance is perfect – one that we can all recognize. But, in the epilogue, the Amalric character (who has lived a full and eventful life in the 15-20 years since) is oddly still fervently bitter about what happened years before; with that distance, most of us would look back with nostalgia or, at least, a wistful acknowledgement of lessons learned. I was a bit put off.

And what’s with the lame title My Golden Days, which makes this sound like the story set in a retirement home? The original title is Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse which I think translates into Three Memories of My Youth – that would be better and there’s gotta be plenty of more appealing and descriptive titles.

My Golden Days, which I saw at Cinequest, is a movie that anyone who is decades removed from first love should see.