Cinemania Film Festival

The 8th annual CINEMANIA FILM FESTIVAL takes place from Thursday, November 7th to Sunday, November 17th, 2002 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The fest, a non-profit event, is dedicated to contemporary French cinema, presented here with English subtitles. More information can be found at the festival’s website.

QUÉBEC-MONTRÉAL 32

Three buddies going from Quebec to Montreal to fly out to a Cuba vacation, a man and a woman going to Montreal on business, a Quebec couple moving to Montreal… They’re all driving along the same highway at the same time and what do you know, they’re all talking about sex. Ricardo Trogi’s film offers a few insights into man-woman relationships, but it doesn’t add up to more than the cynical conclusion that cheating, disrespectful players get laid while nice guys don’t because women don’t know better.

All the male characters are either misogynist jerks or sensitive losers, and the few female characters are dumb, bitchy and slutty. The visuals are even more unappealing, with every scene set in moving cars shot in bad DV. And it’s not the lame gimmicks that are gonna help: half-clever Ken and Barbie in a red Corvette bits, cheapie CGI, dumb fantasy sequences… The filmmakers want their picture to be an updated “Le Déclin de l’Empire Américan”, but that’s hardly a good thing. Oh, great, another dull flick both pretentious and juvenile! There’s hardly anything worth seeing in “Québec Montréal” that you couldn’t find in a bad TV sitcom.

PETITES MISÈRES 57

Albert Dupontel stars as a bailiff who is starting to feel guilty about his daily obligation to not care about the poor people whose things he repossesses. His job also alienates him from his wife (Marie Trintignant), who tries to escape boredom by compulsively buying stuff, whether she needs it or not. Philippe Boon and Laurent Brandenbourger’s film is a not very subtle but amusing satire of our society of consumption. It’s often deliberately banal, but it’s livened up by surprising outbursts of quirkiness like a Guiness record meditation session, minimalist musical numbers and a giant plush tiger with glasses who follows the bailiff around!

This is the fourth movie I see this year (after “The Good Girl”, “One Hour Photo” and “Punch-Drunk Love”) that depicts department store as over-lit and numbing but with a great sense of composition and color. This makes for striking shots making these ordinary places look surreal, Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent-style. “Petites Misères” runs a little long and would have been more effective as a 30 minute short, but it’s still an entertaining picture.

MONSIEUR BATIGNOLE 62

This film takes place during one of the least glorious times in the history of France, when the country backed down before Germany and essentially became collaborators of the Nazis. Jews in France were gradually robbed of all their rights and ultimately sent to camps. Many resisted and resented the occupation, but others sided with the illegitimate Vichy regime. Local butcher and caterer Mr. Batignole (played by Gérard Jugnot, who also directed the film) is one such “collabo”, even though he thinks of himself as a good French man only conducting business. It might be his opportunistic son-in-law and not him who makes the call to denounce their Jewish neighbours, but by watching passively as the SS take them away and appropriate their belongings and by profiting from the situation, Batignole is as reprehensible. He gets a chance to redeem himself when an escaped Jewish boy knocks at his door and he decides to hide him and eventually take him to safety in Switzerland.

Jugnot’s film is sort of a French “Life is Beautiful”, but with even more broad comedy and caricatural characters. In French fashion, there’s a lot of yelling and arguing, which might have been funnier if it wasn’t for the bitter aftertaste left by the context in which these vaudeville bouts take place. The uneasy combination of light and heavy material doesn’t always work, at least not to the affecting extent it did in Benigni’s film, but it’s well acted and crafted enough. Worth checking out.

UNE AFFAIRE PRIVÉE 72

Guillaume Nicloux’s latest is a stylish, thoroughly intriguing film noir homage. Thierry Lhermitte is a divorced private detective who chain-smokes, drinks, sleeps around with the wrong women, carries debts from back-room poker games and is not unfamiliar with getting beat up once in a while. He’s a noir character all right, down to the utterly cool, nonchalant, couldn’t-give-a-damn attitude.

The film has him trying to track down a 22 year old who has disappeared six months before, but the plot is almost beside the point. “Une Affaire Privée” is all about mood and moral ambivalence, tough talk and casual sex, midday confrontations and late night calls. Through Lhermitte’s investigation, possibilities and leads multiply and he runs into all kinds of people who knew the missing girl in one way or another, but ultimately this isn’t about answers as much as it’s about the questions being asked.

Nicloux’s noir departs from the classics of the genre by taking place not in black & white smoke and shadow but in sort of a greenish brightness. There’s a greenish tint to the film stock, especially in the exterior scenes, and every other shot filled with green clothes, green walls, green light, green trees and grass of course and green Heineken cans. In Des Couleurs Symboliques dans l’Antiquité, le Moyen-Age et les Temps Modernes, Frédéric Portal writes that the color green “is the manifestation of love and truth as revealed in deeds and action” and “symbolises charity and the regeneration of the soul through action and influence.” If that’s what Nicloux is going for, it’s certainly in a wickedly ironic fashion. In any case, this gives the movie an otherworldly feel which, paired with Lhermitte’s solid performance makes for a very compelling experience.

CET AMOUR-LÀ 5

After five years of correspondence with Marguerite Duras, one of her fans goes to meet her in her beach house and ends up sleeping over for sixteen years. Adapted freely from the book by Yann Andréa (Duras’ 38 years younger lover), “Cet Amour-là” hovers aimlessly over their relationship, never managing to be insightful or involving. Many have praised Jeanne Moreau’s performance as the late French author, but it didn’t impress me. Her Duras is always talking like a book, with every line sounding hopelessly written unnatural.

And is that supposed to be a love story? I didn’t feel any emotion between the two beside an old woman into young meat and a vacant young man thrilled to be near a famous novelist. How is that any different than a groupie excited to sleep with Mick Jagger? Duras and Andréa are essentially alone together, with her rambling pretentiously about how great she is and him passively listening or occasionally lashing out at her for being abusive, which makes her answer “I’m not mean, I’m intelligent.”

The film is directed without inspiration by Josée Dayan, who multiplies TV movie-style fade-to-blacks and endlessly lingers over blue skies, crashing waves and sandy beaches while Angelo Badalamenti’s uncharacteristically sappy score drones on. Then it’s back to more excruciatingly dull dialogue about how “cooking is like writing” and “writing is like dancing”, countless bottles of red wine emptied and embarrassing sing-alongs to old French pop tunes. I think we’re supposed to feel sad when Duras dies at the end, but I was just glad this incredibly boring movie finally ended.

OUI, MAIS… 93

If you’re asked whether you want to improve yourself, you’ll certainly agree. But are people truly willing to change? Are we ready to give up all opportunities to complain? Because face it, people like to bitch. When’s the last time you heard someone tell you that “the boss is fair,” “mom’s a peach,” “teachers are interesting”? No, it’s always “this guy’s a jerk,” “I can’t stand her,” “they make my life hell”… “Oui, mais…” (which translates as “Yes, but…”) is about allowing change into your life and stopping to make excuses. Or in the words of writer-director Yves Lavandier, about “a world fascinated omnipotence (financial, political, even criminal) that must learn to deal with tenderness and personal responsibility.” Or if you want to reduce it in the crudest, it’s about a girl trying to free herself from her mom’s guilt-trips to be able to get off in bed!

The film opens like a fairy tale, with gorgeous establishing shots and schmaltzy music, then it introduces its on-screen narrator, a wise and sympathetic therapist played by Gérard Jugnot. Right there, the irreverent but empathic tone and the episodic storytelling remind of “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, but before long “Oui, mais…” reveals itself to be ten times wittier and more involving. We meet Églantine (Émilie Dequenne), a high school girl torn between her father who’s never there, her heinously manipulative mother and her insensitive boyfriend who’s trying to push her into sleeping with him. It becomes so confusing for her that she decides to go see a therapist (Jugnot’s character, naturally). After all, “You don’t have to be sick to heal.”

Lavandier also says he was fed up with how “shrinks in movies are always clowns or psychopaths. One of the worst villains in film history is Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist. That tells you a lot about people’s perceptions of therapists, even though those I know are more like (Jugnot’s character) than like Lecter!” Lavandier’s film thus presents us with a therapist who’s not only a nice guy but who genuinely helps the young girl, making him a pivotal figure. I feared that this would become didactic self-help guru hogwash, but Jugnot’s advice is insightful and not condescending. Furthermore, it’s surprising how much back and forth eventually occurs between him and his client. He might help her along the way, but to a large degree Églantine is helping herself.

This is only Émilie Dequenne’s third picture (after “Rosetta”, which won her the acting prize at Cannes in ’99, and “Brotherhood of the Wolf”, in which she played Marianne), but she’s already establishing herself as an absolutely wonderful actress. She gives a layered, always convincing, very touching performance. It’s wonderful to witness how she goes from wilting flower to a delightfully self-assured young woman. “Oui, mais…” is a great film that unfortunately seems to be falling through the cracks, having been only a modest success in France and having yet to score a North American distributor. That’s a pity, because it’s full of truth and humor and it features one of the best lovemaking scenes I’ve ever seen.

OUR COVERAGE continues h e r e

FCMM 2002

While the Festival des Films du Monde gets more exposure, the Festival of new Cinema and Media of Montreal offers a selection of films from around the world that tend to be more modern, artistic and thought-provoking, as well as a wide array of multimedia installations.

Next are brief reviews of all the films I saw during the 2002 edition.

Bollywood, Hollywood, Deepa Mehta 68

As the title suggests, Deepa Mehta’s delightful new movie marries the goofiness of Bombay musicals with the charm of the best Hollywood romantic comedies, all the while being hilariously irreverent towards both genres. Rahul Khanna plays an Indian-Canadian millionaire who’s so fed up with the pressure of his family that he hires an escort (the absolutely adorable Lisa Ray) to pose as his Indian wife-to-be. Much hilarity, joyful song and dance numbers and a surprisingly touching love story ensue. I loved the actors, loved the music… Loved the whole movie, basically! “Bollywood/Hollywood” is as much fun as Monsoon Wedding.

Gambling, Gods and LSD, Peter Mettler 48

More a travelogue than a documentary, Peter Mettler’s film takes us from Toronto to India by the way of Nevada and Switzerland, showing us religious fanatics, gamblers, junkies, erotic electro-stimulation, the implosion of a Las Vegas casino, a Bollywood film shoot, Mountain Valley, Hindu rites, Swiss mountains, raves, a dog show, rivers, planes, bungee jumping, clouds… The result is alternately fascinating and boring as a dog’s ass. And while it scores some insights into the human condition, a lot of the movie comes off as pretentious hogwash. There’s a near-brilliant 88 minute pic somewhere in there, too bad it’s lost in an overblown 3 hour long (and I mean long) student film.

Good Rockin’ Tonight : The Legacy of Sun Records, Bruce Sinofsky 44

Sam Phillips might be a shameless self-promoter, but you must admit that what he did in the 50s in his Memphis studios did affect music forever. As he puts it himself, the thing about the Sun sound is that he didn’t care if it was country, blues, rock & roll or an amalgam of them, all that mattered to him is how a record made you feel. Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary doesn’t dig much deeper than that, failing to address issues like how, even though Phillips initially put out records by black artists in the belief that “the only thing that wasn’t segregated was the radio dial”, from his discovery of Elvis Presley onwards Sun Records mostly focused on black music played by white acts.

Still, you gotta appreciate all the great music the film packs, be it vintage performances by the likes of Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis or new recordings of Sun classics by everyone from Paul McCartney to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Mark Knopfler Ben Folds Five and Live. Unfortunately, even the musical content is a mixed blessing as it devotes much time to obscure Sun artists and questionable reinterpretations by Third Eye Blind, matchbox 20 and Kid Rock.

The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Eugene Jarecki 86

This is the third documentary I see at the festival, and it’s another totally different approach. Where “LSD” was contemplative and philosophical and “Sun Records” was harmless and self-congratulary, “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” is a passionately inquisitive film determined to uncover the truth and hopefully inspire action. In a manner not unlike Michael Moore’s, Eugene Jarecki makes an infuriating case against Kissinger and exposes the hypocrisy and deviousness of US Foreign Policy.

The film argues that if dictators like Milosevic and Pinochet can be brought before a tribunal for crimes against humanity, so should Kissinger. Jarecki, using journalist Christopher Hitchens’ book as a starting point, establishes that the former National Security Advisor:

– sabotaged the 1968 negotiations between the Johnson administration and the North Vietnamese to position himself in a place of power with the Nixon camp, which was elected after the peace talks collapsed (the war in Nam continued for years, causing thousands more useless casualties)
– supervised the illegal secret bombings in Cambodia that killed thousands of civilians
– green-lighted the genocide in East Timor
– ordered the coup against the democratically elected President of Chile and approved the kidnapping and subsequent murder of a General who opposed said coup, which could then proceed and install Pinochet’s regime of terror in 1973 on… September 11.

It would be hard not to draw a parallel with the other 9/11, which reinforces the film’s query: if the US is so adamant about hunting down those responsible for the deaths of innocents, why aren’t they prosecuting Kissinger? Jarucki’s film needs to be widely seen and discussed. The manipulation and secrecy of this most objectionable Nobel Peace Prize can’t go on any longer.

Tan de Repente, Diego Lerman 89

A quirky Argentinean film that’s thoroughly entertaining but also lingers in your mind long after it’s over. The story is about how Marcia, a fat and depressed Buenos Aires lingerie store clerk, is taken on an impromptu road trip by a pair of switchblade lesbians (!) who call themselves Mao and Lenin. Mao is a real firecracker, making overt sexual passes at strangers without blinking, and it’s sad how Marcia lets herself get attached to such an unpredictable person. Lenin is somewhere between the two; she’s a hitch-hiking, shoplifting punk, but when she takes her friends to her aunt’s place in Rivero, she finds herself unexpectedly caring for the 70 year old woman.

This is 26 year old Diego Lerman’s first feature, but it’s a surprisingly mature yet irreverent film. This sexy Latin road movie and its unspoken life-affirming message might call to mind Y Tu Mama Tambien, but “Tan de Repente” has a style of its own. Not only does it revolve around young girls instead of boys, it also has an almost impressionistic feel, with long stretches without dialogue, just great music and black & white cinematography and a lot of life and beauty.

Blissfully Yours, Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Actually, I didn’t see that one. They “lost” the film, so it couldn’t be screened. Thus I went into whatever was starting soon in one of the other theatres instead:

Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew, Matthew Buzzell 40

Jimmy Scott’s life story is so pathetic you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. His father abandoned the family, he lost his mother at a young age, he had to hustle as a kid to survive during the Depression, and at 12 he stopped growing because of an hormonal disease. Hence, he never went through puberty, retains boyish features and can’t reproduce. This also gave him a curiously high-pitched voice, which got him attention in the jazz community in the 50s. Unfortunately, he was screwed over and over by the music business, to the point where he stopped singing and spent decades struggling through minimum wage jobs, three failed marriages and alcoholism. Only recently has he been rediscovered by jazz enthusiasts, which led to a proper record deal and some recognition- he’s apparently big in Japan.

After the screening, Matthew Buzzell admitted himself that he’s not a filmmaker, just a big fan of the obscure 75 year old easy-listening vocalist. Yet while we can feel Buzzell’s affection for his subject through the documentary, it doesn’t change the fact that the movie is amateurish and superficial. Scott’s story is rather interesting, but “If You Only Knew” coasts through it in 77 minutes without going further than running a check-list of the man’s (few) good and (many) bad times.

Un Homme sans l’Occident, Raymond Depardon 43

Unsurprisingly, this film from French photographer Raymond Depardon is expertly shot, but it’s hard not to grow impatient with its uneventful, deadly slow narrative. A self-proclaimed “elegy to the nomads”, it opens by quoting David Lean with a shot of infinite sky and small and smallish black specks that turns out to be men on camels when they get closer.

The film then sticks with long, static shots of early 20th century nomads struggling to survive the Sahara desert and each other in amoral survival-of-the-fittest bouts, with the mostly unseen threat of the white man hanging over them. This makes for a stunningly beautiful flip-book of deep focus black & white photography, but the potential for it to overwhelm you with the cruel emptiness of the desert is undermined by annoying blocks of National Geographic-style narration.

Waiting for Happiness, Abderrahmane Sissako 68

Funny watching this after “Un Homme sans l’Occident”. Another slow-paced, contemplative film set in the desert, this touching little African picture is not quite as gorgeously photographed as Depardon’s, but it possesses so much more heart. Another difference is how it’s set in present, as the influence of the Occident has become inevitable, for better (cars, planes, lightbulbs) or worse (cigarettes, bad Karaoke singing, Des Chiffres et des Lettres on TV).

There is not much plot to speak of; this is a “hanging out” movie. We meet a father and his young son who work as electricians, a mother teaching her daughter traditional music, and ever more men (and women) who hear the call of Europe and leave the village. Writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako has made a quietly beautiful film about “transit cities” between Africa and Europe, which are called “heremakono”, ie places where people are “waiting for happiness”.

La Devinière, Benoit Dervaux W/O

Badly shot, pointless documentary about mental patients grimacing, making animal noises and messing with scrap in and around a dilapidated asylum. I d’angeloed after two reels.

Isabelle Huppert, une vie pour jouer, Serge Toubiana 62

A somewhat voyeuristic look at French actress Isabelle Huppert: in rehearsals for the play Médée, on set with Chabrol or Heneke, swamped by the media and fans at Cannes, during photo shoots, even as a kid in old Super 8 films. We also hear Huppert’s views on the profession. On good days she sees it as “holding on to childhood and playtime”; on not so good ones, she feels she is “nothing”, with acting being her only way to gain “definition”. Interesting.

Viva la Frida!, André Luc W/O

Stiff, lifeless portrait of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, with cheesy video reenactments of key events. D’angeloed.

This Is Not a Love Song, Billie Eltringham 37

Spike and Central Heaton (get it?), two dumb Scottish lowlives, spend days and nights wandering in the English countryside to escape the wrath of the locals after the accidental death of a farmer’s daughter. Billie Eltringham’s latest is an occasionally intense but simple-minded “Of Mice and Men” update, brought down by the clumsy way it shifts between a faux-vérité look (it was shot on digital video in two weeks) and Guy Ritchie-type visual gimmicks.

Ken Park, Larry Clark, Ed Lachman 0

I don’t know why I still bother to see Larry Clark’s sexploitation films when each one is more despicable than the previous. I’ll give him one thing, his work his memorable, but so would be the experience of having to watch him rape your children. “Ken Park”, which is co-directed by Ed Lachmen, follows three guys and a girl from Visalia, California, as they do nothing but skateboard, smoke dope and do each other, with the occasional bit of the old ultra-violence.

Shawn has a girlfriend, but he likes her mother better. Graphic sex ensues. Tate’s always yelling at his grandparents and his dog. The only person he tolerates is himself. Graphic sex ensues. Claude clashes with his drunken, abusive father. Graphic sex ensues (I wish I was kidding). Peaches’ dad is a gentler, religious man, but when he catches her being kinky with some guy from Bible Studies, he beats the snot out of both of them. Then out of nowhere, Shawn, Claude and Peaches (who we’ve never even seen together before) are having a threesome, shown in graphic detail, natch.

Why one would make such a film? I see two possibilities: 1) He’s only depicting a reality. If that’s the case, someone needs to tell him we got that teenagers were horny and amoral when he made “Kids” seven years ago, no need to keep shoving this down our collective throat. 2) Clark’s getting off on making films with the crassest characters and the most close-ups of penises possible. In any case, “Ken Park” is by far the worst film I’ve seen since… Well, “Bully”.

The Sea, Baltasar Kormakur 66

A day in the life of a spectacularly dysfunctional family, Baltasar Kormakur’s follow-up to “101 Reykjavik” is unpredictable to say the least. It starts with a bang but soon settles into an almost boringly low-key drama about how an old man, whose fishing and processing company has been holding together a small Iceland village, is being bullied into selling his fish quotas to a big corporation by his own son. As we meet the rest of the family, each member quirkier than the next, “The Sea” shifts into a bittersweet but comedic tone, before ultimately escalating into over-the-top melodrama drenched in alcohol, unhealthy sexual urges and old grudges bursting out. This makes for a wildly unbalanced film, hardly subtle but intense.

In a Foreign Land: Concrete (shorts program)

“Winkelhart”- Dialogue-free but oddly compelling look at a Dutch mall and the nearby train station and back streets at night, as the misery behind urban progress is unearthed. It ends with cleaning crews throwing out the hobos and their cardboard boxes to make the area neat again before the beautiful people arrive.

“Rejoue-moi ce vieux mélodrame”- Same theme, but played around a construction site instead. Local film critic Denis Côté shoots with a sickeningly shaky handheld video camera and amps up the noise to communicate the oppressive nature of the surroundings. Basically, it’s incompetently shot and unwatchable, but on purpose. Could have fooled me…

“Entering Indifference” – More of the seedy side of modern city life, more lousy camerawork, but this time with an obnoxious, pretentious voice-over over random images of Chicago and out-of-focus corporate logos.

“Je m’appelle” – Another large block of narration put into images, but this one is well written and relevant, giving a name and a voice to factory workers, junkies, Irishmen, angry youths… Anyone who’s been oppressed, belittled, ignored. Powerful.

Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes 79

Cathy Withaker has it all: a great big house in the Connecticut suburbs, a successful husband, adorable kids, nice friends to invite for soirées and benefits… But when she finds herself growing closer to Raymond Deagan, the family’s Black gardener, she realises that the world around her can be a cold and mean place. Bringing further confusion into her life is the revelation by her husband that he’s attracted by men; you’d think they would bond over their common flirting with unconventional relationships, but they each contribute in alienating the other for his feelings.

From the very start, Todd Haynes’ homage to Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas is a real treat. The autumn leaves in gorgeous Technicolor, the swooning score by Elmer Bernstein, the lavish titles… And when Julianne Moore’s upper-middle-class housewife enters the picture, the attention to detail is even more impressive. It’s one thing to fill each frame with period cars, clothes and hairstyles, but here even the camera movements and the delivery and body language of the actors are old fashioned! Moore is superb as always, but Dennis Quaid also nails the 50s tone down as her fast-talking husband.

So far so good, but there’s one thing that slightly bothered me about “Far From Heaven”: what’s the purpose, beside a brilliant exercise in style? I can see Haynes throwing a few curve balls, overtly addressing issues hush-hush in Sirk’s time like homosexuality and interracial relationships, but the handling remains out-of-time: doctors conduct treatments to “restore heterosexuality”, and the whole town literally frowns upon a white woman being friendly to a “Negro”. The film can’t possibly think it’s daringly revealing that intolerance was rampant behind the polished exteriors of 1950s suburbia, right?

Some people seem to take the film as a parody, laughing out loud at every retro flourish, but I doubt Haynes’ intent is this juvenile. Then what is it? In an interview with EW, Haynes explains that his film “uses the filmmaking style of the ‘50s to affect on an emotional level.” That sounds just dandy but despite strong chemistry between Moore and Dennis Haysbert (who plays a charismatic and wise African-American gardener), the stunning but overwhelming art direction creates a distance between the story and the audience that makes emotional involvement difficult. I admire the heck out of “Far From Heaven”, I just wish I could embrace it more heartily.