La vie d’Adèle

Recipient of the Palme d’Or this year (decided by a jury chaired by Stephen Spielberg, no less) La Vie d’Adele Chapitres 1 et 2 is an intense love story, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche.  If you get the chance to see it, you should.  It will be released in English speaking countries as Blue is the Warmest Colour.

The storyline is simple enough… high school girl (Adèle Exarchopoulos) meets art school girl (Léa Seydoux), they fall in love and go on to live an intense and ultimately turbulent relationship. In its simplest version, this scenario could have been summarised in a 20 minutes.  But Kechiche’s directorial gift is in depicting the texture of the interactions between people – the details conversations, the physicality of relationships.  In three hours of storytelling, there are very few slack moments.

There’s not a lot that I could say about the La Vie d’Adèle that hasn’t already been said in mainstream reviews. First of all, it’s not a lesbian film, it is indeed a love story. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has seen the film has praised its “realism”… and the depictions of various social milieux of modern France is particularly well-observed. Whether filming a spaghetti bolognaise dinner in the suburbs, a garden party of the Parisian intello-artistic in-crowd, or the petty politics of student life in a lycée, Kechiche and his actors deliver a deep, absorbing experience that feels “true” in the smallest details.

Ultimately, the magnificent performances by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are the reason that this film works so well. Adèle Exarchopoulos provides a compelling central character, whose naïvity and passionate love for Emma (Seydoux) drives this film forward. This is an impressive piece of cinema a headlong plunge into love and obsession that you won’t forget anytime soon.

Two Cars, One Night

There were plans to write some big old posts about Easter and music this weekend, but got busy, then distracted, then got writer’s block (well, that’s my excuse). But I did enjoy rediscovering Taika Waititi‘s first short film, Two Cars, One Night.

Made in 2003, the film shows the story of a girl and two boys meeting outside a rural pub while their parents are drinking inside.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award, which in hindsight seems a remarkable achievement for a film made in the pub carpark in Te Kaha, featuring two old cars and inpenetrable Maori English accents.

Apparently Taika Waititi’s new feature film Boy is doing very well in the cinemas in its home country. It mines similar themes and settings to Two Cars, One Night, extending them into a full-length story of a family growing up on the East Coast of the North Island, and features music by The Phoenix Foundation and, of course, Patea Maori Club’s Poi E, the greatest song of the 1980s except for Michael Jackson…

I wonder if it’ll make it to cinemas in Paris, and what French audiences will think ?

The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon feels and looks like a return to an earlier era of European cinema. From a visual and narrative standpoint, the film recalls the work of Bergman and Tarkovsky in the 1960s and 1970s, and much of its power comes from its recourse techniques of these masters.

The use of black and white,  the juxtaposition of claustrophobic interiors against the vast open plains of northern Europe and the fine-grained focus on characters faces are a  hommage to Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer for many of Bergman’s films and for the last act of Tarkovsky’s career (The Sacrifice, 1986). Indeed, Haneke’s cameraman Christian Berger studied Nykvist’s work in preparation for filming The White Ribbon.

While it could be argued that Tarkovsky and Bergman used film to explore psychological or spiritual themes, The White Ribbon is by contrast a tale of sociology and politics.

To take just one example, the severe Protestant pastors in Bergman’s works serve to lay bare the impossibility of belief in God, whereas in The White Ribbon, the pastor (alongside the village baron and the doctor) is portrayed as the agent of a sick society where absolute truths are used to dominate through fear.

Haneke has been quite explicit about the message of his film. He claims it as an exploration of the origins of terrorism in all its forms. Haneke’s village of Eichwald is haunted by repression, abuse and violence of all imaginable varieties. It’s matrix of sadism, deliberate and unintentional, in which children and adults alike are victims and participants.

Ostensibly The White Ribbon is a film about Germany. By setting this story in 1913 and 1914, the viewer knows that the children in this film are the generation who will, as adults, oversee the rise of Nazism twenty years later. Just as the feudalism of Eichwald dissolves in paroxysms of fear and recrimination, so the seeds are sown for new forms of control and repression that will follow.

Hannah Arendt invented the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe how easily violence and tyranny can become a commonplace among men. With The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke has provided us a sharply-focused (and, yes, beautiful) vision of Arendt’s words come to life.


When I found this on YouTube, I knew I had to post it… it’s the opening sequence of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. I’ve never seen a film quite like it before or since, and the first 7 minutes set the mood perfectly – mysterious, subtle and playful, drawing you into Alexander’s world.

Alexander is played by Bertil Guve, and Grandma Ekdahl by Gunn Wållgren (who was suffering terminal cancer throughout the filming). The music at the start is the 2nd movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat, Op. 44.

Brèves de trottoirs

Something to watch out for in 2010: Brèves de trottoirs is a new web-documentary project lead by journalist Olivier Lambert and photographer Thomas Salva. The objective is to bring together a collection of short documentaries focused on personalities met on the streets of Paris.

Their first subject was Elie, the famous “Papy Dance” who dances outside the Italie 2 shopping centre in the 13th arrondissement. His performances have made him an internet star, but his life story is far more poignant… (this video is subtitled in English)

Also recently released is the next short film, an interview with Violette, a florist on Place Monge in the 5th arrondissement.

Brèves de Trottoirs provides an interesting example of how journalism, film-making and internet are coming together to create new modes story-telling. It’ll be fascinating to watch the project develop during the year. You can follow their Twitter feed or their blog.

Mountain High, Himalayan Style

Zanskari women during transhumance (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve decided that Arte is possibly the best TV channel in the world. Last night I happened to stumble across an amazing documentary by Marianne Chaud called Himalaya, la Terre des Femmes.

Marianne Chaud has previously made films about India and wrote her doctorate on popular theatre in the Himalayan Ladakh region. La Terre des Femmes is essentially a work of ethnography, made in 2007 during her long stay in the remote village of Sking in Zanskar valley at 4000m, a region of Kashmir where the culture is predominantly Tibetan.

Barley fields in Zanskar (Image: Paul A. Fagan, Creative Commons)

The film follows a summer in the lives of the villagers. The men have left for the season to find work in distant towns like Leh and Manali, and the women and children remain to herd the yaks, harvest barley and collect grass for animal feed in the coming winter.

Chaud is not just a bystander but an active participant in the film, and grows particularly fond of a 13 year-old sheperdess, who lives on her own with a herd of yaks. In the absence of men, the women speak openly of their life histories, their hopes and fears.

Farmhouse in Zanskar, with winter feed piled on the roof
(Image: bobwitlox, Creative Commons)

What develops is a compelling portrait of a people who live largely isolated from the modern world, and rely on centuries-old transhumance practices to live in such a harsh environment. The nearest town is 4 days walk away. Everyone, from 5 years old to 80 years old, works in the fields every day.

The only intrusion from beyond the valley is the occasional sound of an aircraft high overhead. The sheperdess asks Marianne, “Inside an aeroplane, how many carpets are there?” “Why carpets?“, responds Marianne. “So you can sit down of course!” laughs the sheperdess. In Zanskar, there are no chairs, because there are no trees, and no timber. The shepherdess has never seen furniture, let alone been in an aeroplane.

The Himalayas as filmed by Marianne Chaud are a long way from the “Lonely Planet” images of picturesque monasteries and prayer-wheels we’ve grown accustomed to. La Terre des Femmes is a gentle, human and intelligent film that ranks among the most beautiful things I’ve seen on television for a very long time.

Looking for nazis, finding turkeys

At the end of the late screening of Inglourious Basterds on Wednesday night, the cinema erupted into applause. Now, maybe it’s a strange French custom that I hadn’t come across before, or perhaps the room happened to be full of rabid mordus de Tarantino that evening. But quite simply, the film didn’t deserve it.

Diane Kruger contemplates the flammable possibilities of nitrate filmstock

First of all, I’m not going to criticise Inglourious Basterds for being ahistorical.  The film is set in a fairy tale world that happens to bear a very passing resemblence to occupied France. It’s a little like watching Hogans Heroes and ‘Allo ‘Allo simultaneously, but with gruesome screen violence added in. I can accept this -because  if you’re incapable of suspending disbelief during a Tarantino flick, then don’t bother watching.

But Inglourious Basterds simply makes very little sense as a story. Tarantino is a master of slick and innovative narrative. But this film shambles along in overly long and occasionally irrelevant episodes, linked by massive leaps of logic that are neither explained nor plausible (yes, you can place your story inside an ultraviolent comic-book, but the story still needs to fit together).

Brad Pitt should be scalped for his performance, although the script gives him very little to work with. In fact, the script is mostly lumpen, although there is some post-modern fun to be had with  dialogue that transitions glibly between German, English and French (and occasionally Italian – providing Pitt’s only golden moment).

There some bright spots – a couple of scenes remind us of the tension and black humour of which Tarantino is capable. And the show is stolen by the European actors – Christoph Waltz struts around as a zealous and slightly camp jew-hunting Nazi, and Mélanie “Standing In for Uma” Laurent plays a convincing French-Jewish maiden bent on revenge.

War Films 101: A British officer in a German uniform is just asking for trouble…

Mr Tarantino is lumbered with a reputation based on his classic early films,  setting a high standard that is hard to live up to.  He is a genius – growing up in the 90s, I had to sneak in underage to see Pulp Fiction, the one totemic film of my teenagehood. And I had a Reservoir Dogs poster on my bedroom wall for many years (thanks Cameron!).

With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino may have been trying to make a grand statement about cinema, fiction and history (the climactic scene certainly suggests so, as does Philip French). Tarantino doesn’t completely fail, but most of the time it seems like he’s just made an occasionally diverting film full of silly accents.

Yeah, you see, I told you so…


The part of parenthood that Dr Spock never told you about

In between pretending to finish my dissertation, I’ve discovered a low-cost summer activity that doesn’t involve going outside and sweating: catching up on half a decade of television. After 4 years of not having a TV at home, I’ve realised there are actually a few good things I’ve missed.

So I borrowed the first four seasons of Weeds off a friend, and have been working my way through it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. If Weeds is a sitcom, the “situations” are twisted, and the “comedy” even more so. In Seinfeld, we laughed at Soup Nazis and George’s lack of luck with the ladies. In Weeds, people get shot dead and dissolved in baths of acid – and we still laugh.

Growing shedloads of pot in suburbia – what could possibly go wrong…?

In case you haven’t seen it, basically, Weeds is a show about suburban mom Nancy Botwin – after her husband dies suddenly, she turns to dealing marijuana to her friends and neighbours in order to make ends meet. But her efforts to support her family via a modest weed-pushing operation rapidly fall apart as alcoholic friends (Celia), idiot accoutants (Doug), DEA agents and couch-surfing brothers-in-law (Andy) foul her every move.

There’s something refreshing about a TV comedy that tracks the slow disintegration of a suburban family and their hangers-on. Weeds is very much a show for our time: at the end of season 3, (screened in 2007, just as the credit crunch was beginning to hit), the Botwins’ identikit suburb of easy-credit homes burns to the ground (something to do with Mexican mafia revenge, biker gangs and Nancy with a petrol can… oh never mind).

The last thing you want to deal with when you’re on the run from the Mexican mafia..

Illegal immigration, Mexican drug wars, euthanasia, police corruption, narcotics (lots), and sex (even more): life is complicated in Schwarznegger’s California. We’re a long way, geographically and spiritually from Saturday evenings with Bob Saget or the amiable but inane antics of Friends.

If occasionally the storylines lacks energy, the series is kept alive by a dynamite script. Andy spouts unlikely slacker wisdom at crucial moments, Nancy’s best enemy Celia goes postal every few episodes, and Shane (borderline sociopath and Nancy’s 13 year-old son) makes the most of being on cable with a dirtier mouth than the rest of the cast combined. And could you imagine Clifford Huxtable having this conversation (NSFW) with Theo?

Celia is actually stabbing Nancy in the back in this photo

But the show belongs to Mary-Louise Parker, who plays Nancy. Her character, who has the best of intentions but no business plan, seems only capable of digging her family into deeper trouble. Although her problems are of her own making, you feel truly sorry for Nancy, and somehow responsible for her predicament as her world teeters on the edge of the abyss.

So, Weeds has been well worth staying inside for. Maybe TV isn’t completely useless. I’ve heard The Wire‘s worth seeing too – anyone have some DVDs I can borrow?

Perspectives on Occupation

Today is V-E Day. Place de la Comédie in Montpellier was cleared for a few hours of its café tables and lounging youths while the military paraded in commemoration of France’s “victory”.

Faced by ranks of braided motorcycle gendarmes, tricolor bunting and martial music, it might be easy to forget that the 8th of May 1945 was as much the end of a complex and painful period in French history as it ever was a triumph. The story of Occupied France is fascinating, raising many questions about personal morality, politics and memory.

After the war, with de Gaulle as president, the myth of a nation of stubborn résistants and a handful of cowardly collaborateurs emerged. This convenient simplification of history was perhaps necessary to underpin the rebuilding of a traumatised society and economy.

In the turbulence of 1968, a revisionism of the myth started to emerge. Max Ophüls’ film Le Chagrin et la Pitié was the first to explore the reality of French experience under Axis domination. Released 40 years ago this year, it’s still one of the best documentaries ever made, mixing perspectives of ordinary French and Germans with the recollections of political figures such as Anthony Eden and Pierre Mendès-France.

Later fiction films started to explore the dramatic possibilities of a morally grey period in the nation’s life: Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien and Au revoir les enfants, alongside Truffaut’s Le dernier métro address very directly themes of antisemitism, collaboration and loyalty.

Scene from Le Chagrin et la Pitié

Novelists quickly recognised that in reality, many French citizens were, at best, ambivalent about the defeat in 1940 and Pétain’s armistice. Irène Némirovsky‘s Suite Française is  full of characters simply trying to retain their humanity as the tide of history swirls around them. In this maelström, Némirovsky depicts courage, cowardice and indifference as all valid reactions to circumstance. Given that Némirovsky never lived long enough to view the occupation with hindsight, her perspective is remarkably poignant.

Robert Sabatier‘s perennial hero Olivier Châteauneuf faces World War 2 as a stubborn but confused teenager in Olivier 1940: his experience of war is one of survival and frustration, punctuated by occasional adventures.  There is little heroism in Olivier’s war: he only accidentally joins the maquis right at the end of the novel. In La DouleurMarguerite Duras evokes how a woman’s humanist concern for the chaos that engulfed Europe is submerged by personal grief and uncertainty about the return of her husband from deportation.

The reconsideration of France’s wartime story is explored on TV next month with the first 6 episodes of Philippe Triboit’s Un Village Français broadcast on France 3. This ongoing series promises to recount the life of a community in Vichy France throughout the entire war period. The promotional material focuses on the moral dilemmas faced by the characters, and I’m hoping it’s going to be as provocative as the books and films that have preceded it.

At Home With Charles Mingus

A short post is often a good post. Here’s some rather extraordinary footage of Charles Mingus playing with his daughter and being interviewed in the 1960s. The next day he was evicted by the police from his apartment:

The film is Thomas Reichmann’s Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968.