The Little Prince (2015)

This unusual adaptation of French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s widely read and beloved The Little Prince is intelligent, funny and deeply moving.

Little PrinceFrance
4.5*

Director:
Mark Osborne

Screenwriters:
Irena Brignull

Bob Persichetti
Directors of Photography:
Adel Abada

Kris Kapp

Running time: 110 minutes

Stories about father figures are nothing new, nor are stories about father figures who teach young girls about the world (just consider Jostein Gaarder’s masterful compendium of 3,000 years of philosophy in the novel Sophie’s World). However, when such a story is obliquely infused with critical insights about culture, religion and the magic of childhood thanks to a beloved novella that is equally accessible to children and adults, the result can be overwhelming.

Director Mark Osborne took up the burden of adapting the 70-year-old, 100-page-long novella, which continues to rank among the most-read and bestselling works in the world, for the big screen. An added challenge, beyond merely adding movement to the pictures and breathing physical life (and voice) into the words of the author, the late Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was that the original work would only comprise half of the final film’s narrative. Overcoming the sceptics, the director of Kung Fu Panda and a handful of SpongeBob SquarePants episodes has produced a stirring glimpse of childhood and of growing up that will amuse younger viewers and captivate elder viewers alike with light-hearted entertainment informed by the melancholia-tinged savvy of the original text.

Unexpectedly, the main character is not a young prince nor a mature aviator but a little girl who fittingly resembles Dora the Explorer. Following Saint-Exupéry’s lead, none of the characters have names (except for the all-important “Mr. Prince” in the final act) and instead bear descriptive titles such as “Little Girl”, “Mother”, “Fox”, “Aviator” and, of course, “The Little Prince”.

The Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy, who starred as the daughter of Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar, another star-struck feature) lives with her mother, a very serious auditor, in a nondescript city. Her father sends her the same snow globe containing a skyscraper for her birthday every single year. We can assume that both parents want their daughter to end up in some capacity as a successful worker, and therefore Little Girl is on the road to join the prestigious, strait-laced Werth Academy, where everyone is asked to work toward being “essential”. After a disastrous enrolment interview, Little Girl’s mother lays out a stringent plan for the summer holiday, during which any of her daughter’s free time will be minimal and limited to essential activities, such as eating and exercise.

Mother and daughter move in next to a dilapidated house, the scourge of the planned community where everyone wears the same grayscale-coloured outfits, whispers in very hushed tones about their neighbours and seem to be about as far removed from the exuberance and spontaneity of childhood as possible. The house, it turns out, belongs to the Aviator (voiced by Jeff Bridges), an eccentric, old man who represents both Saint-Exupéry and his alter ego creation, the aviator of his novella, and also calls to mind the grumpy but lovable Carl Fredricksen of the magnificent animation film Up.

Before long, just like philosopher Alberto Knox in Sophie’s World, the Aviator starts sending the Little Girl pages of text containing the aphorisms and adventures of the Little Prince, and thus begins a subversive but thrilling adventure that helps the child, quickly on her way to becoming an “adult”, reconnect with and hang on to her childhood impulses as long as possible.

From time to time, these pages turns into animations, and the effect of seeing a formerly static character come to life in front of our eyes will certainly bring a shiver to most viewers familiar with the novella. We see the Little Prince cleaning his tiny planet, trying to rid it of invasive baobab seeds and falling in love with a rose, here perfectly voiced by Marion Cotillard. He flees the Rose’s ever-increasing demands on his time and ends up on Earth, where he meets the aviator and learns valuable nuggets of wisdom from the fox, including the famous quotation, “It is the time you have lost for your rose that makes your rose so important”.

This story with the Little Prince is interwoven with the story of the Little Girl, and by using one text to inform another, Osborne also suggests that tales from many decades ago can continue to educate us about ourselves and inspire us to see the beauty of life instead of letting the rat race consume our energy and destroy our imagination. The focus throughout the story is that, as the smiling Aviator reminds us, “Growing up is not the problem; forgetting is”.

Although ostensibly created for children, animated films have developed to the point where something like The Little Prince can be entertaining for young ones and deeply moving for their parents, or anyone scared they might no longer be a child. There are multiple layers to this story, and those who know Saint-Exupéry’s tale well are just as likely to enjoy it as those who come to the film without any knowledge about the prince, the fox, the rose or the aviator. There is a beautiful message about religion (in the form of the rose), a melancholy background of absence, a rousing theme of friendship and a dramatic struggle against forgetting, which is a struggle for remembering.

We should always see the world through the eyes of a child, but more importantly, we should view life with the same sense of curiosity and fascination, perhaps even naiveté, that reconnects us with our younger selves, just like this film connects the old with the new in a tidy package that is invigorating, inspirational and intrepid depiction of a story we thought we knew, but which hits us twice as hard when the characters start to speak and the drawings start to move.

Zero for Conduct (1933)

Using all the tools at his disposal to take on the establishment, the 27-year-old Jean Vigo shows life as it is and film as it can be in Zero for Conduct.

Zero for ConductFrance
4*

Director:
Jean Vigo

Screenwriter:
Jean Vigo

Director of Photography:
Boris Kaufman

Running time: 40 minutes

Original title: Zéro de conduite

Orson Welles was 25 when he started shooting Citizen Kane, a film whose tongue-in-cheek, broad-strokes reference to media magnate William Randolph Hearst landed him in hot water but ultimately re-defined the parameters of the possible in movie making. Seven and a half years earlier, under very different circumstances, a 27-year-old Frenchman named Jean Vigo, the son of a prominent anarchist assassinated for his beliefs, had started production on a medium-length film that also took a shot at re-inventing the wheel and arguably succeeded beyond the director’s wildest dreams.

The title was Zero for Conduct (the full title is subtitled “Young Devils in School“), and it is a visionary take on childhood rebellion against oppressive school structures. These 40 minutes are a corner stone of what film enthusiasts refer to as the “poetic realism” movement, to which Vigo would contribute just one more film – his only feature, L’Atalante – before his tuberculosis-induced death at the age of 29.

Poetic realism refers to a loose array of socially conscious films made in France during the early years of “sound cinema” that focused on working-class characters. Besides Vigo, the best-known directors of the movement included Jean Renoir (Les bas-fonds / The Lower Depths, 1936), Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko, 1937) and Marcel Carné (Le Quai des brumes / Port of Shadows, 1938).

Nearly 75 years after it was made, Jean Vigo’s controversial take on the French educational system (the film was banned until the end of the Second World War) remains an astonishing accomplishment because it is not a stale vision of the world weighed down by the technology of the time. The title refers to the punishment meted out to school children, no matter how small the alleged infraction: detention on Sunday.

Although made shortly after the advent of the “talkie”, a development that halted the strides made in cinematography over the previous decade, Zero for Conduct is remarkably supple, thanks in no small part to its 26-year-old cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, the younger brother of the cinema’s first visual wizard, Dziga Vertov. And the storytelling, albeit frequently patchy, somehow lifts the viewer into the clouds thanks to the playful nature of the events as depicted.

The opening scene is particularly attention-grabbing: Unfolding as a scene from a classic silent film, it contains a strong score by Maurice Jaubert and no audible dialogue. Inside one compartment of a moving steam train, two young school boys are amusing themselves by blowing balloons and pretending they are a woman’s breasts, which they naturally proceed to fondle.  They also smoke cigars, blow on a miniature trumpet and perform the old “pulling off your thumb” trick in close-up, all while the one adult in the scene (an as yet anonymous character opposite them) is so fast asleep the boys imagine he might be dead.

As soon as the train pulls into the station, however, reality sets it, and it does so by penetrating the film itself: The dreamland of silent cinema fades away as the boys get off the train and we hear a soundtrack reproducing their movements and dialogue. They are returning to boarding school after the holidays and discover that the man who was sleeping in the train is in fact the new school monitor, Huguet, played by the wonderfully youthful Jean Dasté.

The casting of Dasté, who had débuted in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning the previous year, as the only likeable teacher (who even imitates Chaplin’s Tramp to amuse his students) is inspired and ultimately strengthens our resolve against his creepy colleagues.

Vigo effortlessly interweaves the children’s gaiety and inclination for mischief with more serious incidents of injustice at the school. And the tone is always light, even as events seem to be heading towards their inexorable conclusion: large-scale rebellion. He does this by depicting the authority figures as rather pathetic. The clearest example is the headmaster, played by a thickly bearded dwarf with a high-pitched voice who stores his bowler hat under a glass dome. The contrast between his high position in the school hierarchy and the lowly way in which he is represented is so stark it is all but certain to elicit laughter from the viewer.

The tall, gangly apparently mute housemaster, Beanpole, who steals from the children and is generally odious, cuts another comical figure. Huguet makes a drawing of him by hand, which comes to life and turns into an animation of a stick-figure Napoleon Bonaparte. Earlier in this same classroom scene, a boy tossed a ball into the air before a jump cut made it disappear in mid-air. These are very brief, arguably inconsequential moments for the narrative, but they do add a level of playfulness that borders on magical realism.

The most famous scene, however, is the late-night pillow fight that precedes the climactic uprising. Using slow motion and producing a kind of indoor snowfall with purely conventional means (feathers), Vigo demonstrates his skill at turning the mundane into something enchanting, fashioning beauty out of childhood rebellion. This scene has been reproduced in a group of films as distinct as Fanny and Alexander and Billy Elliot, and there is no question Zero for Conduct influenced the depiction of school episodes involving Antoine Doinel, the school-flunking central character in François Truffaut’s début feature, The 400 Blows.

Although it is more a collection of well-staged fragments rather than an elegantly maturing narrative, Zero for Conduct is a kind of magic. Filled with anger at authority figures, it also hurls its derision at and cuts them down to size by using a novel approach to realism that seeks to break free and soar towards the skies: poetic realism.

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

The most memorable donkey in the history of cinema is an infinitely better actor than his human counterparts in Robert Bresson’s emotionally stunted Au hasard Balthazar.

Au hasard BalthazarFrance
3*

Director:
Robert Bresson

Screenwriter:
Robert Bresson

Director of Photography:
Ghislain Cloquet

Running time: 95 minutes

Even though they almost always deal with profoundly spiritual issues, most of Robert Bresson’s films cannot be taken very seriously because the acting is so unbelievably bad. The French director famously used amateurs because he considered them blank canvases onto which it was easier to project fictional characters than would be the case with professional actors. And yet, the result, inevitably, is people uncomfortably saying lines that sound like a machine reading a page instead of an actual person speaking his/her mind. It’s diction without emotion, and the result is one laughably robotic line reading after another. Luckily, the main actor in Au hasard Balthazar is not a human but a donkey. And he is unaffected by these demands from Bresson, which makes the film at least somewhat acceptable to watch.

One of Bresson’s most highly acclaimed films (in the 2012 Sight and Sound critics’ poll, it took the 16th spot, handily beating out the director’s other entry on the list, Pickpocket, at no. 63), Au hasard Balthazar is certainly very successful at its anthropomorphism. But while we see the donkey as a person, it is very unfortunate that we also tend to view the lethargic characters as donkeys, or even worse, inanimate still lifes incapable of change.

The most grating example of this passivity is the non-donkey lead in the film, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky). Early on, she tenderly places a crown of flowers around the head of her pet donkey, Balthazar. She sits back down on a bench and looks fondly at him. Behind her, a petty criminal, Gérard (François Lafarge), sneaks up and touches her hand. Marie’s response? She simply gets up and moves gingerly into the house. Looking back timidly at Gérard, she sees his gang of good-for-nothing buddies have joined him in brutally kicking poor Balthazar for their own amusement. She makes no effort to protect the donkey, nor does she display any particular revulsion at his suffering.

A few days later, after her family has hired out Balthazar to a baker, who coincidentally employs Gérard to deliver the bread, Marie spots the donkey alone next to the road. She strokes him, lovingly, as she always does, when she sees Gérard appear with a lascivious look on his face. She slowly moves back to her car, but Gérard follows her onto the passenger seat. But she says nothing, and she does nothing. Two tears roll down her cheeks. And then he rapes her.

A few days later, he does the same. Her response? She starts dating him.

This narrative progression is not only sickening but makes Marie one of the weakest characters ever to grace the silver screen. And worst of all, she does not demonstrate any trace of doubt or self-reflection or anger or shame. For her, resistance is not only futile but unimaginable.

But let’s forget about Marie for a moment, as she is clearly unworthy of our empathy and perhaps even discussion.

The plot advances episodically with very awkward transitions between its various parts. Balthazar grows older and is passed from one owner to the next, each of whom whips him, kicks him or smashes a chair over his back. Although Balthazar is merely a donkey, he often realises this treatment is inhumane and sets off for greener pastures. The same, alas, cannot be said for Marie. She may be a fictional human of flesh and blood but clearly has no common sense.

The actions (or rather, the lack of any action) around Balthazar continually become more and more peculiar. The first owner from whom the donkey manages to escape is a farmer. In its youth, the donkey’s trot turns into a full-fledged gallop while it is transporting a heavy load of hay, and the attendant instability causes the cart and its cargo to keel over. Within seconds, a group of rowdy townspeople, pitchforks in hand, arrive to take out their anger (?) on poor Balthazar, who manages to scamper away just in time. These people are cartoonish in every way, seemingly the French version of Frankenstein‘s mob, but there is no explanation for their sudden appearance.

Since she is one of the film’s two main characters, let’s return to Marie for a moment. Another head-scratching moment comes late in the film after she appears to have been gang raped. Naturally, Gérard is one of the aggressors. Our first glimpse of the devastating scene comes after the fact, when a group of people, including Marie’s childhood love and hopeful wannabe beau, Jacques, peer expressionlessly through a window as she sobs, bruised and naked, inside. His inaction is yet further proof that this film’s characters are wholly devoid of human emotion.

The film’s visual style relies on a great many close-ups – sometimes to an obsessive degree. The shots are mostly of hands and feet, whose meaning is open to interpretation, but also of Balthazar’s face. This kind of intimacy draws us close. We may not get any information about his state of mind, but by being closer to this victim of human cruelty and indifference, we feel we can almost stroke him and put him at ease. Such shots make us forget, even just for a moment, about the chilling interruption (a donkey braying) of Massimiliano Damerini’s otherwise gentle “Piano Sonata in A Major” that plays over the opening credits.

Au hasard Balthazar does not have the narrative focus of Bresson’s Pickpocket nor the visual clarity of his A Man Escaped. The motivation for its characters’ (in)action is mostly unclear or simply incomprehensible. The only character that appeals to our emotions is Balthazar. Sadly, his presence alone cannot lift the film out of the realm of mediocrity.

Rocco (2016)

In this documentary, one of the world’s most prolific porn actors, Rocco Siffredi, is mostly clothed but comes across as a professional lover and a congenial husband and father.

RoccoFrance
3*

Directors:
Thierry Demaizière

Alban Teurlai
Editor:
Alban Teurlai
Director of Photography:
Alban Teurlai

Running time: 105 minutes

Boogie Nights kept us guessing until the final shot about the true size of its central character’s money-maker. Rocco, by contrast, opens with a close-up. There’s no mystery about the extent of his endowment and thus very little reason to keep the viewer in suspense. The titular Rocco, whose full nom de porno is Rocco Siffredi, has starred in around 1,500 porn films during his three decades in front of the camera. He may just be the most famous porn actor who has ever lived, and he is about to retire. It is very disappointing, then, that this documentary detailing his departure from the world of XXX only scratches the surface and does its utmost to avert its eyes from the prize in more ways than one.

Born with the surname Tano in 1964 in the town on Ortona on the east coast of Italy, perhaps the most phallus-shaped country in all of Europe and complete with gonads, Rocco recounts how – even as a young boy – he felt such a fire between his legs that he started masturbating at the age of just 9. His mother caught him but gave him a complicitous smile of permission. And he has never looked back. At least, that’s the way he tells it.

Today, despite his brutal on-camera pounding of a bevvy of young women, many of them from Eastern Europe, Rocco also has a family: two clean-cut teenage sons and their mother, Rózsa, who has been with him for more than 20 years. His cousin, Gabriele, has also been his lifelong production partner at their Budapest studios. Unfortunately, Gabriele appears to be unprofessional at best and senile at worst, coming up with ridiculous narratives for the films while Rocco’s (and the target viewer’s) pure focus is whether there will be enough sex. At another point, Gabriele forgets to hit the record button.

And yet, through it all, Rocco appears to be the most laid-back guy in the world. He has no real social barriers and handily makes out with most of the girls during the casting sessions. Most notable, however, is the precision with which he questions his future sex partners as he seeks to determine exactly what they are willing to do – or rather, have done to them. Rocco does not hold back during sex and fills every one of his partners’ orifices with brutal force. A few early scenes are particularly shocking because we see the hot post-coital showers expose bloody and blue bruises on butt cheeks.

The interviews with Rocco reveal a man seemingly without a care in the world but with a firm connection to his late mother. He says he carries her photo with him wherever he goes. By the end, however, the final product is too fulsome to be credible. We get the briefest of glimpses of his family, but if Rocco has any friends we don’t see them. The various people who do drift in and out of his life are never introduced, and the third act, which never recovers from an absurd detour into the English countryside, is stunningly weak.

This final act, which mostly takes place in Los Angeles on the set of what is allegedly Rocco’s swan song as a porn star, is lengthy but flaccid. James Deen, in some ways the Italian Stallion’s American counterpart, particularly with regard to the aggression he brings to his sexual encounters, is Rocco’s co-star, but for whatever reason he is not interviewed, which leaves us with more questions than answers. The slightly bemused look he shoots in Gabriele’s direction speaks volumes, however, and the sentiment is one the viewer easily identifies with.

If humanising its subject was the goal, the film is more or less successful. While we get little insight into either his day-to-day life or his thoughts on the many decades of fame and fornication, the image that Tano/Siffredi projects is one of kindness, sincere emotion and a persistent hunger for buxom female flesh. But if telling a story with enough detail to answer our most nagging questions was Rocco‘s other goal, it fails (just like Gabriele when he tried being a porn actor) to rise to the occasion.

La Jetée (1962)

La Jetée, Chris Marker’s classic short film about time travel, is as intelligent, as unconventional and as emotionally engaging today as it was upon its release in 1962.

La JetéeFrance
4*

Director:
Chris Marker

Screenwriter:
Chris Marker

Director of Photography:
Chris Marker

Running time: 28 minutes

Perhaps best known today as the short film that inspired Terry Gilliam to make 12 Monkeys, Chris Marker’s La Jetée is very unconventional as a moving picture precisely because the pictures do not move. Unlike the overwhelming majority of films out there, of which movement is a defining feature, this 28-minute work of science-fiction employs photographs to tell its story, and the reason is quite simple: These are supposed to be fragments of memory, and memories are experiences that we almost never remember in their entirety but rather in snippets.

The first few moments already hint at the distorted nature of the world we are about to encounter when the opening credits themselves are altered, albeit very subtly: Upon expressing thanks to the research department at the national public broadcaster, the Radiodiffusion-télévision française (RTF), the credits change momentarily from “Service de la Recherche de la R.T.F.” to “Service de la Trouvaille de la R.T.F.”. In French, the word “trouvaille” means a “(lucky) find”, and the fact that most viewers might only notice this change during a second or a third viewing underscores the notion that there is more beneath the surface than we may realise at first.

Indeed, the entire story depends on our impression of reality, constructed on the basis of fragmented memories, that in the end is revealed to be defective in a crucial way that the main character (and we) realises all too late.

The film has almost no diegetic sounds but does have a narrator. This narrator’s voice belongs to Jean Négroni, whose surname is curiously, though perhaps intentionally, written without the requisite diacritical marks in the opening credits.

Set mostly in a dystopian environment (what used to be Paris) after the end of the Third World War, a nameless man (played by Davos Hanich), is haunted by an image burnt into his memory as a child. Shortly before the outbreak of the war that would destroy most of mankind, he was standing on the viewing pier (the “jetty” in the title) at Orly International Airport in Paris. There, he saw a woman, but the rest of his memory is blurred by a feeling of violence and the perception that someone had died.

Today, huddled up in subterranean passageways under the Palais de Chaillot because the world above is too radioactive for human life, there are victors and victims, and the former are conducting experiments on the latter: The prisoners have to imagine a moment from their past so intensely that they are transported back and can eventually bring help from the future into the present. But there are many failed attempts, with the experiment’s subjects either dying or losing their minds.

With the image of the woman seared into his brain, the main character is successful at making the past vibrate with such life that it becomes a living memory, although not without pain. And all the while, in a nod to the events of the Second World War, which had ended barely 17 years before La Jetée‘s release, the people conducting the experiment are ominously whispering to each other in German.

When the man starts forming images in his head that appear to correspond to the peacefulness of the past, the narrator insists on calling them “real”: “a real bedroom”, “real children”, “real birds”, “real cats” and, deliberately anticlimactically, “real graves”. And yet, there is a firm suspicion on our part that these are merely imaginary projections, most importantly because there is no movement. Another ackowledgement of the likely fictitious status of the events comes when the narrator explains that the man “never knows whether he moves towards her, or is pushed, whether he’s made it all up, or is only dreaming”.

But this is where the intelligence of Marker’s chosen form starts to reveal itself, because before long, the man and the woman from his past find themselves in a museum with stuffed animals. By this stage, the viewer has already started to ascribe movement to the film’s frozen images, and therefore the exercise now engenders a cognitive animation of the immobile animals, too, which produces a frisson and a feeling of confusion, not unlike what the main character is experiencing. This bewilderment is particularly palpable when we see a close-up of a shark baring its teeth right next to the couple. At another point, in a timeless space filled with statues, the narrator also describes his memory as a kind of museum.

The final development in La Jetée, during which the man is sent to the future, is a little ridiculous and compares badly with the rest of the film, as expressionless, alienoid humans with medallion-like objects on their pale foreheads learn of the desperation in the present.

The ending will leave the viewer breathless, because at the end of a brief but brilliant action montage, insofar as that label may be applied in this case, the smallest revelations suddenly hit us like a brick wall and leave us pulverised with despair. The final image is held just long enough for us to take in but not fully digest the gravity of the narrator’s explicit closing of the circle of life – and with it, of hope.

The Arrival of a Train (1897)

The 50-second recording of a train’s arrival at La Ciotat Station was neither one of the first films ever made nor a reason for filmgoers to run in terror from the theatre.

train-ciotatFrance
5*

Directors:
Auguste Lumière

Louis Lumière
Screenwriters:
Auguste Lumière

Louis Lumière
Directors of Photography:
Auguste Lumière

Louis Lumière

Running time: 50 seconds

Original title: l’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat
Alternate title: l‘Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat

The Arrival of a Train, while so often credited with being “the first”, was actually anything but. It was not the first film to be recorded, nor the first to be shown, nor even the first “arriving train” film that its makers, the two fathers of the cinematic art form, ever produced. But for good reason it has become a symbol of the power of movement and verisimilitude that rapidly propelled this monochrome curiosity into the pantheon of art forms.

The story goes that this 50-second shot showing an oncoming train created such terror among the room full of cinematic neophytes that it sent them scattering for their lives. The incident allegedly took place in January 1896, that is in the weeks that followed the very first screening of brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière’s first 10 “views”, each roughly 1 minute in length, at the Salon indien du Grand Café in Paris on 28 December 1895.

Did they or did they not flee from their seats when they saw the train approach? Although the story above has become one of the foundational myths of the cinema and has been recounted in countless film studies books and classes over the years, it no longer holds much sway.

In theory, the story makes absolute sense, not only because of the novelty of seeing almost life-sized movements from up close but also because Paris, where the first screenings of the Auguste and Louis Lumière’s one-minute films were held, was the setting for a famous train derailment just weeks earlier: On 22 October 1895, a locomotive like the one in the film sped towards Montparnasse Station, but when its brakes failed, it crashed through the barriers, careened across the station concourse and plummeted into the street below.

But here’s the rub: The famous Arrival of a Train that has become such an icon of the early days of cinema was actually shot a full 18 months after the inaugural screening at the Salon indien. And it was the Lumières’ second attempt at capturing this scene. Of this first film, which might or might not have had the same title and was projected in multiple venues starting in Lyon on 26 January 1896, only the copies of 32 representative frames remain, published as part of an article on the working of the cinematograph in the journal La Science française (no. 59, 13 March 1896, p. 89). These images, whose quality is just good enough to confirm they belong to a very different scene than the one in Arrival of a Train, may be viewed by clicking here.

As with most of the Lumières’ works, which fit into what film historian Siegfried Kracauer dubbed the “absolute realism” camp, this particular “view” is exceedingly straightforward: In the opening frame, a man on a station platform is hauling an empty luggage cart behind him before disappearing off-screen. But blink and you’ll miss him looking straight into the camera, which is likely why the film was cut in such a way as to prevent the viewer from noticing this breaking of the fourth wall (it is conspicuous that no one else appears to notice the Lumières’ giant camera/cinematograph and hand-crank operator/director of photography on the platform).

The man’s departure from the frame reveals behind him a crowd of people waiting in line for a train to arrive, which happens almost immediately. One of the people in the crowd is a woman holding hands with her child, dressed in white; walking briskly alongside the train, in the direction of the viewer, they pass by and exit the frame moments before the train comes to a complete stop.

This woman is Marguerite Lumière (née Winckler), the wife of Antoine, and the child is their three-year-old son, Andrée, who starred as the lead (and titular) character in Feeding the Baby (Repas de bébé), directed in February 1896. And the appearance of Andrée, born on 22 June 1894, is proof that the film could not have been shot in 1895, because the child onscreen is clearly much older than 12 months. In fact, Arrival of a Train was shot in the summer of 1897 at the train station in the seaside town of La Ciotat, along the Côte d’Azur, just southeast of Marseille. 

The story of the terrified filmgoers may be nothing more than marketing, but the film itself is one of the crowning achievements of the Lumière brothers. With a single, fixed shot, they make the train the central character entering the scene with flair that almost certainly evoked a (measured) reaction in the viewer thanks to the movement inside the frame. This was the beginning of something big.

The Unknown Girl (2016)

The Dardenne brothers’ worst film in memory has a tour de force performance by French actress Adèle Haenel.

la-fille-inconnueBelgium/France
3*

Directors:
Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Screenwriters:
Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Director of Photography:
Alain Marcoen

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: La fille inconnue

Jenny initially seems like a professional, but then she sticks her nose in where it doesn’t belong, screws up an important police investigation and commits ethically questionable practices in the course of her launching her own amateur probe à la Nancy Drew, quickly diminishing she standing she had at the outset.

By the end of the The Unknown Girl, the latest film by Belgium’s famous social-realist filmmaker brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, everything is tied up neatly with a bow, and those primed to accept it will forgive the film its faults.

But before we reach the end, there is a whole lot to be irritated by, and even the dynamite performance of the gifted lead actress, Adèle Haenel, cannot save this from being one of the worst fiction films the experienced Dardennes have ever produced.

At the start of the film, a woman is found murdered on the side of the river in the city of Liège, across the road from a doctor’s office, where Jenny Davin, a young but dedicated doctor, has recently taken over and is making great strides in her career. On the night of the murder, Jenny is at the office lecturing her intern about the importance of setting one’s emotions aside lest they cloud the diagnosis of a patient. When the door buzzer sounds, she coldly explains that it is too late in the evening and that, if it were truly an emergency, the person would buzz again.

The next day, she learns that the deceased had been the same person who rang the buzzer moments before her death. Naturally, this news fills her with a sense of culpability. But what she does for the rest of the film becomes more and more difficult to empathise with, particularly because her actions stand in such stark contrast with (and change so quickly from) her earlier approach of prudence and professionalism.

Shot mostly as single-take scenes with a handheld camera, The Unknown Girl has a gritty visual aesthetic that closely mirrors the one on display in all of the brothers’ other award-winning films. Every one of the duo’s feature films since their 1996 début, La promesse, has been shot by Alain Marcoen.

It is easy to convince oneself that Jenny’s sharp focus on investigating the crime and discovering the identity of the girl has merit, particularly because a resolution would almost certainly bring closure and return things to normal. Over time, however, Jenny’s behaviour becomes more and more unprofessional, to the point that she even tells someone in desperate need of medical attention that she will only be available an hour later – the reason being that she deems her mission to collect information to be more important than delivering life-saving assistance.

As far as we can tell, Jenny has no professional background in tracking down criminals or solving crimes. That is what the police is for, and while this is only one of the items on their roster and their progress is not as swift as she would like, they have infinitely more experience. After all, by looking into the matter they are doing their job, whereas Jenny is abnegating hers.

The narrative is built on small details revealed along the way. Primarily, they involve one of her clients, a teenage boy named Bryan (Louka Minnella), who suffers from chronic indigestion, whose assistance in tracking down the person responsible for the title character’s death becomes less and less credible with every passing moment, even though Jenny persists, Columbo-like, in questioning him to the point of harassment.

It is thoroughly surprising that the directors would allow a great many of the answers to simply fall into Jenny’s lap. In a city of 200,000 people, there have to be many coincidences to solve this mystery, and they rain down upon her like manna from heaven. Almost all of her suspicions turn out to be well-founded, and we are compelled to believe that her decision to take time off from work in order to prowl the streets looking for persons of interest is praiseworthy because she moves ever closer to the truth. This kind of storytelling lulls the viewer into a sense of comfort that does not reflect the real world the Dardennes have taken care to reconstruct through their work, and it is a big disappointment to have to witness such flimsy filmmaking in this case.

And yet, if you can look past the lack of narrative complexity and the foolhardy behaviour of the central character, the film’s use of situations in which the main character enters forbidden spaces – a common trope in the Dardennes’ films – is executed with enough distance so as not to appear calculated even though the effect on the viewer is genuine anxiety for the character.

The Unknown Girl suggests that the revered filmmakers are slipping into a comfort zone and are no longer challenging themselves, and that is a real shame, because the tour de force performance they wring out of Haenel is nothing short of mesmerising. If their story had received similar care, this would have been a much more satisfying film.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

Love (2015)

An epic film about obsession, rutting and a lot of fluids (once shooting straight at the viewer), but nothing about love.

love-gaspar-noeFrance/Belgium
2*

Director:
Gaspar Noé

Screenwriter:
Gaspar Noé

Director of Photography:
Benoît Debie

Running time: 135 minutes

An ode to genitalia, vigorous rutting and the release of bodily fluids, Gaspar Noé’s Love is the polar opposite of Michael Haneke’s similarly titled Amour. For one, its two main characters are immensely unlikeable: Instead of two octagenarians who have spent a lifetime together and are reaching the end of their lives, we have here a chronically oversexed American named Murphy and the “love” of his life, Electra, who satisfies him provided he is not already pounding away between someone else’s open legs.

Love has little to do with the intense emotions suggested by its title and is rather an examination (albeit superficial) of sexual obsession, with the filmmaker intent on showing the audience as many graphic details as possible. Murphy’s tool shoots his life essence as often as possible – at one point directly in the direction of the viewer, who might be catching the film at one of its 3-D screenings. If this were exciting and not laughable, it may have qualified as pornography, but as things stand, this is much worse than most kinds of triple-X entertainment.

The poster of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) appears on the wall of the main characters’ apartment, for no particular reason except self-interest (it is one of Noé’s favourite films), and maybe because it serves as a kind of reminder that we should view this material as controversial but worthwhile, too.

That is difficult to do, as the very thin story is barely worth a discussion, except for the inclusion of the hardcore sex scenes, which appear to be unsimulated, and in which full penetration takes place at least some of the time. Unlike a film such as Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, however, there is no underlying interest in seeing these characters growing closer before they grow apart. Noé focuses on the stagnant relationship, held together by bouts of mostly routine sexual intercourse, and he does not allow us to experience any elation or regret at the rare developments we are witness to.

The film’s first shot recalls the heady, steamy days of Catherine Breillat’s Romance X, as we look down vertically onto the naked bodies of Murphy and his wife, Omi, nearly immobile except for them slowly using their hands to bring each other to orgasm. When the moment comes, as it were, Omi laps up Murphy’s juice. This surprisingly explicit action immediately takes the viewer aback, because such a scene is not at all an everyday occurrence in the cinema, at least in theaters without sticky seats.

Noé, perhaps best known for his brutal examination of love, assault and revenge in Irreversible (Irréversible), here intimates, through his main character who is a film school graduate, that movies should be about “blood, sperm and tears”, and this film lives up to the expected trio of fluids.

But even more copious than Murphy’s seed is his use of the dreaded c-word to cuss out Electra, who is right to suspect he is cheating on her with any girl that shows a passing interest in having him inside her. We simply cannot care one little bit about Murphy’s meltdown, even though the film seems to suggest that this is the only story that is of any interest.

The film’s major flaw, and there are many to choose from, is that it does not enable us to empathise with its main character. Even worse, we are not particularly interested in him or his way of thinking, because his actions appear to be primitive, and although far from unexpected, his betrayal of his girlfriend is despicable.

The acting is terrible, and especially the scenes of high melodrama, namely the shouting matches between him and his girlfriend, are laughably amateurish. Contrast them with the break-up scene in Blue is the Warmest Colour, and you will quickly see what these scenes are supposed to look like if they are to have even a shred of credibility.

Noé, whose unconventional use of the cinematic medium in both visual and narrative terms was laudable in Irreversible, here tries to imitate Jean-Luc Godard’s physical manipulation of the medium by adding black-screen flashes to the entire film, which are not only irritating but pointlessly exhibitionist and silly. Early on in the film, we also get a splashy, full-screen-text definition of Murphy’s Law, because, you know, the main character is called “Murphy”.

And then there is director Gaspar Noé’s masturbatory references to himself. Not only is Murphy’s son named “Gaspar”, but Murphy’s ex hooks up with an “artist” named Noé, played by – you guessed it – the director himself. These names are repeated often enough for us to recognise what Noé is up to, but we never get close to understanding why he is behaving like such a neophyte. Who, except the most amateur of filmmakers, would engage in such ill-conceived grandstanding?

Because of their unconventional nature, the unreserved depictions of sex often harm whatever serious intent Noé had with his story, and some of the particularly graphic moments elicit laughter instead of compassion. This film had no reason to be. Its director obviously thought people would get a kick from unsimulated sex, but unlike Lars von Trier’s amazing look at sex in the double-volume modern-day masterpiece Nymphomaniac, Noé’s film is a fluff piece that has as much to do with love as with serious filmmaking, which is almost nothing at all.

Timbuktu (2014)

Splendid film about oppression in historic city occupied by Islamic radicals draws us in with its multifaceted view of humanity.

timbuktuFrance/Mauritania
4*

Director:
Abderrahmane Sissako 
Screenwriters:
Abderrahmane Sissako 

Kessen Tall
Director of Photography:
Sofian El Fani

Running time: 95 minutes

Born in Mauritania and raised in Mali, Abderrahmane Sissako has set his last two films in the latter, their respective titles referring directly to the country’s two most famous cities. His thoroughly engaging Bamako literally put the World Bank on trial, and Timbuktu examines life under the Islamists who controlled the famed city with its mud buildings for a few months during the Northern Mali conflict in 2012.

Timbuktu was actually shot in Mauritania, and we don’t get a coherent impression of the city in the film, but rather snapshots of characters at various places, mostly inside their homes, under their tents, at the lake where they fish and on the plains where their cattle graze. We don’t know at what point in time the film is set, but what is clear is that the self-installed Islamist overlords are not welcome in the city.

The opening shot is a memorable one. A gazelle is running in total silence, faster and faster, seemingly gracefully, until we hear the rat-a-tat of machine guns. The men in pursuit on the back of a Land Rover are Islamic extremists, whose demands include that Sharia law be carried out, meaning – as we see in the next shot, when wood carvings are shot to pieces – traditional culture or any form of idolatry is rejected. Music is also forbidden, and people have to start covering themselves. Men have to pull their socks up, and women have to wear gloves. The latter demand leads to a bitter confrontation between a strong-willed fish monger, already fed up with having to wear a veil, who points out the absurdity of her having to handle fish with gloves on.

Such scenes of tension are essential to making this film and its topic accessible, especially to a Western audience. We naturally side with the women who resist the oppression by the all-male ultra-orthodox wing of Islam, who see no contradiction in using Western-made automobiles, mobile phones and video cameras while condemning the sin that is the West and all its works. The hypocrisy of the movement is exemplified by a character called Abdelkrim, who doesn’t only smoke, albeit behind a tree where he is not in the company of his fellow jihadis, but also openly covets a married woman.

Every scene that makes the sham and the friction within the movement visible is wonderful, because it gives the audience a real sense of life’s many facets and demonstrates how the director is not interested in presenting the Islamists as a unified block of identical individuals. Unfortunately, Sissako does not do a very good job of introducing his characters to the audience, and it takes us nearly half the film to learn one of the main characters is called Kidane. Living a modest life with his wife, Satima, and their daughter, Toya, he is proud of his eight cows and has a young boy, Issan, look after them during the day.

But the cows are not acting in lockstep either, and when the pride of the drove, humorously called GPS, veers off-course and into the nets of a local fisherman, Kidane’s life takes an unexpected turn that shows just how fragile the peace is in this seemingly laid-back community.

Elsewhere in Timbuktu, a group of young people are arrested and tried when they get caught late at night singing songs together in the privacy of a house, the same way hundreds of thousands of other youngsters their age in other parts of the world spend their evenings.

Many of these scenes have powerful conclusions, sometimes admittedly verging on the melodramatic, but Sissako is very adept at striking a consistent tone in his story. He uses the nuances of the events and our natural attachment to very likeable (mostly female) characters to bring us along on a ride that has many a tragic undertone.

The images are some of the most beautiful in African cinema but never overwhelm our experience and understanding of the narrative. On the contrary, as can be seen in a key scene that takes place at a lake, what starts out as a gorgeous depiction of nature sometimes ends with a startling reminder that man’s impact on nature can be devastating.

Far from being activist or anti-Muslim, Timbuktu shows the strife ordinary, God-fearing people are facing because of a handful of self-righteous individuals who cannot even live by their own rules but insist on carrying out their interpretation of Allah’s regulations on a society that was functioning very well before they came along and ruined it all.

Viewed at the 2014 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Lucy (2014)

Luc Besson’s fantastical, mad rush of a movie reminds us that the cinema is capable of wonderful things.

lucy-luc-besson-posterFrance/USA
4*

Director:
Luc Besson

Screenwriter:
Luc Besson

Director of Photography:
Thierry Arbogast

Running time: 90 minutes

Effortlessly referencing films as disparate as Nymphomaniac, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Transcendencealthough with a deliberate lack of seriousness, Luc Besson’s Lucy is a breathless combination of visual effects and sympathetic fantasy like only the cinema can deliver. It never strives for anything more than pure entertainment and even sidesteps issues of power in favour of showing us unexpected domination, often by very gentle means, but the result is a thrilling ride you won’t want to miss.

The central (widely debunked) idea is one that most people have heard about at school or at college: Humans use a very small amount of their brain, and there is no telling what deeds we may be capable of if we used more. The screenplay hypothesises what would happen in a scenario where someone absorbed large quantities of CPH4, which is supposedly formed in the bodies of pregnant women to help the fetus grow, thereby rendering the individual almost infinitely brilliant.

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, the girlfriend of a smalltime drug dealer in Taiwan, who is kidnapped and forced to be a drug mule carrying CPH4, hidden in a bag stitched into her stomach. But when one of her kidnappers tries to fondle her and she fights back, she also gets kicked in the stomach, and the CPH4 bursts into her veins, filling her with immense power and boosting her mental capacity into the higher double-digits.

The person who gives meaning and a measure of credibility to her rapid development is the brain researcher, Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman, who provides the fantastical plot with the right measure of gravitas it needs while also linking the material with that of Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, a similar but far inferior movie in which he played a very similar part). Norman has written volumes on the potential of the human brain, but most of it is pure conjecture. That is, until Lucy contacts him. She has just read all his work in a matter of minutes and tells him he is on the right track. However, she has only about 24 hours left on Earth as her mind will expand to the point where her body cannot contain her any longer.

And so the clock starts ticking while director Luc Besson points us in strange but thoroughly entertaining directions. The first half of the film is unexpectedly closely tied to Lars von Trier’s two-part Nymphomaniac films, as simplistic metaphors are made very vivid, although the effect is at times laughable, such as when Lucy is in danger and there is a sudden cut to an antelope being chased by a cheetah. These references culminate with Besson’s use of Mozart’s “Requiem”, which Von Trier also used in his film.

But while the film’s loose structure enables Besson to incorporate references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, in particular the stargate sequence but also the unforgettable monkey, obviously played by someone in an ape suit, with which both Kubrick’s and Besson’s films open. By the time we meet up with the monkey again towards the end of Lucy, having gone through something of a magical ride on a time machine that conjures up haunting images, we realise that Besson is attracting us on a primal level, through memories and desires to see moments from the past in a way only made possible by the technology of the present.

The film is not entirely successful, however, as it suffers from a few dialogues that don’t come across as particularly believable, such as the overly descriptive telephone conversation between Lucy and her mother, and a faux stargate sequence that simply cannot compete with the one that came 45 years earlier in one of Kubrick’s masterpieces.

A few details are also missing, such as an explanation for her ability to learn languages without any significant exposure to them, or her inability to notice her car being tailed when her level of brain use is nearing 99 percent. But in general, the plot is very easy to follow and while the film never appears to be pretentious, it certainly strikes a very able balance between amusement and intelligence, inasmuch as the one is constrained by the other in a form of mass entertainment like this one.

This may seem at times like a dumbed-down version of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, but while there is enough to keep the popcorn gallery entertained, Lucy also shows us the wonders the cinema can make us a witness to by recreating time in its almost unimaginable richness. Words cannot adequately describe the sense of awe we feel seeing the world going in reverse in fast motion, and while these sequences are also slightly comical, they remind us what movies can make us see and feel that we can never experience in the world outside the theater.