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.

The Marché des Arceaux in 60 Seconds

This weekend was spent back in Montpellier, catching up with friends. On Saturday morning I visited the Marché des Arceaux with Ed Ward (read his Montpellier blog here).

With up to 80 local farmers and producers turning up each week, this is Montpellier’s premier source of fresh food in Montpellier – always worth a stop if you’re in town on a Saturday or a Tuesday!

How to Report the News

I spent much of today out in the rain, collecting footage for a little video project I’m helping with. With a video camera in your hand, it’s amazing how quickly you come to consider the city as your own private film set.

Pedestrians, traffic and background noise constantly interrupt your shots, and it gets a little frustrating. Next time, we’re going to call the police to shut down a couple of streets for us.

To help us construct a storyboard, we used Charlie Brooker‘s indispensable guide to “How to Report the News” as inspiration. Even if you’ve seen it before, it’s always worth watching again, because it’s very clever:

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.

Prolog

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…

Revisiting Kurt Cobain

Eyes

Growing up in Auckland in the early and mid-1990s, it seemed that most of my friends had pictures of Kurt Cobain on their bedroom walls. An interest in ‘artistic tragedy’ and a fascination with death seemed to go hand in hand with our suburban adolesence. For earlier generations, it might have been Jim Morrison or Ian Curtis on those bedroom posters. But for teenagers of our vintage, Kurt Cobain was the musician-who-died who most fully embodied the angst and anger of growing up.

What goes around comes around. Alongside continuing economic slowdown, it seems safe to bet that the next couple of years will see a revival of interest in the late 80s-early 90s Seattle scene of which Cobain and Nirvana were the spearhead. Before long the kids’ll be wearing plaid shirts again. Just watch.

The signs are there… just in time for Christmas is launched Charles R. Cross’s new book Kurt Cobain Unseen (produced with the cooperation of the Cobain estate) featuring images and objects drawn from Cobain’s short life.

Lumberyard

Possibly more evocative and accessible for the non-obsessive is AJ Schnack’s documentary Kurt Cobain: About a Son, which is based on 25 hours of taped interviews with journalist Michael Azerrad, recorded in late 1992 and early 1993. The documentary weaves together excerpts from the conversations with images filmed around the towns Washington state that feature in Cobain’s life: Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle.

Just as the documentary does not feature Cobain’s face (a deliberate directorial decision), the soundtrack avoids using any Nirvana material. Cobain was a constant champion of relatively obscure rock acts like The Vaselines, Meat Puppets and Butthole Surfers, and the soundtrack reflects this taste.

I remember a conversation I had years ago with a musician friend about how Kurt Cobain was, essentially, a writer of pop songs – one of the reasons that the Nevermind album succeeds is that it’s unrelentingly catchy. It’s all hooks and simple song-forms, like Thriller but with angst and a fuzzbox.

At one point in the documentary, when describing his love for Glasgow band The Vaselines, Cobain talks of his desire to write pop songs. Listening to the Vaselines again (Nirvana recorded three of their songs during their career), you can hear that pop music soul coming through.

Thanks to the realities of media and merchandising, Kurt Cobain has become a legend cruelly divorced from his real life story. His music will always be stained with the knowledge of his untimely death. But hopefully a film like About a Son will help remind us that people like Kurt Cobain are just ordinary people with ordinary stories. The only difference between them and us is the heat of the spotlight.

Interview House