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 that has ever lived and 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 countries 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. However, 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.

Marguerite (2015)

The story of a woman who sang opera even though she did not have a shred of talent is more enchanting than it sounds.

marguerite-xavier-giannoliFrance/Czech Republic
4*

Director:
Xavier Giannoli

Screenwriters:
Xavier Giannoli

Marcia Romano
Director of Photography:
Glynn Speeckaert

Running time: 130 minutes

In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane’s second wife’s ambition of being an opera singer, despite having a terrible voice, was bankrolled by her rich husband, a newspaper tycoon and heir to a sizable fortune. The reviews were terrible, but their isolation from the rest of society served to protect her from the overwhelmingly negative response from both the public and the critics.

Marguerite, a French-Czech-Belgian co-production, provides French comedy legend Catherine Frot with a similar role – one informed by the real-life story of the wealthy but notoriously out-of-tune opera soprano Florence Foster Jenkins. Frot stars as the titular Marguerite, a French baroness whom we first encounter at a private recital in aid of First World War orphans. She is the only one who fails to recognise her attempt at channelling Mozart’s “Queen of the Night’s Aria” (Der Hölle Rache) from The Magic Flute is so crass it sounds like a cat is being strangled. The high society audience can barely restrain themselves from snickering into their perfumed sleeves.

But while many a newspaper excoriates her performance, one even running the headline “Pauvre Mozart” (Poor Mozart), a single critic, the dashing young Lucien Beaumont, lavishes her with ambiguous praise when he remarks that her voice seemed to want to expel some demon from the room. Of course, Beaumont has an ulterior motive, as we can easily guess when we see his friend, Kyrill, regale a well-to-do woman at the recital with tales of an art gallery he wants to open and inquires about the possibility of an investment.

Set between 1920 and 1921, Marguerite makes seamless transitions across time that become veritable leaps toward the end, as the baroness, with no shortage of instigation by Beaumont, moves toward an unskilled performance on a large public stage. Small moments along the way highlight her most intimate relationships, complicated by the lies people tell to spare her the pain of the truth.

It would be easy to dismiss the central character as a thinly veiled embodiment of anyone surrounded by yes-men and yes-women who merely exacerbate a toxic situation by avoiding the potentially agonising conversation that breaks the truth: This woman cannot sing to save her life.

However, such a view of the film would be overly simplistic, as Marguerite, thanks to Frot, is endearing and close to naïve but does not have a single mean bone in her body. Persistent exposure to her singing may cause some people to pine for hearing loss, but she is not hurting anyone, and telling her she is delusional and sounds worse than a broken bagpipe may wreck her life, which revolves around her love of music.

She has accumulated in excess of 1,400 partitions, some from the great masters of opera, and she seems to know the libretti by heart. But as those in the music industry are astounded to learn, such a deep knowledge of the fifth art does not preclude one from reproducing it with utter ineptitude, albeit with heart and soul.

Frot, however, is in complete control of her portrayal of the musically challenged baroness. Marguerite is serene and focused like a laser on the task at hand: Sharing her love of the opera with those around her. In this task she is loyally assisted by her butler, Madelbos, who has her best interests at heart and, considering the impressive collection of pictures he has taken of her in various poses, likely also yearns for her affection.

Director Xavier Giannoli, who presents his material with a straight face, includes the symbol of the peacock, which we never see displaying the beautiful colours of its feathers but whose screams we do hear at irregular intervals around the house (the sound is not dissimilar from the brief meow of a cat).

All the main parts are admirably depicted, and it is to Giannoli’s credit that this inherent romp is lighthearted but never turns into a circus. Unexpectedly, Marguerite’s climax is both funny and deeply affecting, as a moment of magical realism turns the spectacle into a heartfelt recognition of the purity of Dumont’s desire to be close to her husband and to sing her heart out. The balance here, as elsewhere in the film, is highly commendable.

The 127-minute film never feels like a drag; on the contrary, some characters – like Hazel, a talented young graduate from the conservatory, or the slightly mysterious Madelbos, who likes to take pictures of objects being consumed by fire and leaves an indelible imprint on the viewer – are sorely underdeveloped. Nonetheless, the effortless distinction with which the director and his leading lady present the comedic melodrama of this peculiar individual whom we cannot but pity makes for a very gratifying film.

Dheepan (2015)

Plight of Sri Lankan refugees in Parisian suburb underlines not only the difficulty of integration but also the risks that sometimes follow people across borders. 

France
3.5*

Director:
Jacques Audiard

Screenwriters:
Noé Debré

Thomas Bidegain
Jacques Audiard
Director of Photography:
Eponine Momenceau

Running time: 110 minutes

Of major topical significance and sketching its characters and those in their lives with compassion and understanding, Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan has the makings of a masterpiece but loses control in the final minutes, which feel rushed and underwhelming, partly because its graphic violence marks such a radical departure from the rest of the film.

A trio of characters pretending to be a family – the titular Dheepan, who is a former Tamil Tiger; Yalini, a woman who is still very much a girl; and the shy, school-aged Illayaal, who lost her mother during the war – in order to use a dead family’s passports and thus escape to Europe and settle in a diverse, low-income neighbourhood simply titled “Le Pré” (the Field), presumably Paris’s Le-Pré-Saint-Germain. They do not speak French, although Illayaal picks it up remarkably quickly at school, but Dheepan quickly finds a job as caretaker of part of the housing estate.

He has to be careful, however, as drug dealers have one part of one building to themselves, and it is better not to cross the always paranoid bunch of young men. Thanks to Youssuf, the municipality liason, Yalini also secures a job cooking and cleaning for an elderly Arabic gentleman named Mr. Habib, at a rate she considers to be a fortune: 500€/month. Mr. Habib never says a word, which suits Yalini just fine, as she starts speaking to him in Tamil.

The film offers a great many sensitively handled glimpses of the new reality the characters have to confront, from being outsiders (even in an already heterogeneous community) because they do not speak French to coping with their fake setup as a family. Dheepan is still in mourning over the loss of his wife and two daughters, but his proximity to Yalini elicits sexual feelings in her, but at the same time his experience as a father makes him more understanding of the challenges his “daughter”, Illayaal, is facing. Audiard’s use of small incidents to give colour and texture to his characters is very effective and goes a long way towards making the viewer empathise with these three individuals who are technically breaking the law.

The choice of Antonio Vivaldi’s wistful “Cum dederit” during the opening credits is deeply moving and indicates that this will not be a film like most others. A black screen is eventually illuminated by a big, blinking, blue bow tie that Dheepan has attached to his head and uses as a visual device when peddling trinkets to uninterested café-goers around Montmartre. Indeed, there is little drama or anxiety, right up until the end, when two strange things happen. The first is the sudden transformation (or regression) of Dheepan back to the soldier he used to be, filled with rage and determination. He suddenly takes over the drug den and establishes his strength, but this development does not lead anywhere. The second is the climax, during which he wields a machete and an ice pick and murders everyone in his way in order to save a desperate Yalini.

Some have taken this very graphic scene, and the absolutely serene scene that follows, as a dream, which would be possible were it not for one thing. The climax, which shows Dheepan climbing the stairs and killing people on his way up, is shot as a close-up of Dheepan’s legs, surrounded by black smoke, and could easily be read as a reality affected by flashbacks of the war, it ends with Dheepan inside Mr. Habib’s apartment, which he has never seen before. Thus, this has to be happening for real. Whether the final scene, which is a Hollywood ending wholly at odds with the rest of the film, is a dream or a fantasy is therefore both unjustified and unlikely, but not outside the real of possibility.

Dheepan is at its best when it is showing us how the three refugees interact with each other and with the different members of the community, including an old Moroccan lady who speaks Arabic to Dheepan and Mr. Habib’s drug lord son, Brahim, who has to wear an ankle monitor but towards whom Yalini feels an undeniable, childlike attraction. The film’s only serious missteps are the way in which the final sequence is framed (it could have been much better if Dheepan’s “rescue” of Yalini had occurred offscreen) and a peculiar shot from Dheepan’s point of view, through which we see Yalini seducing him one night, guiding him into the bedroom and dropping her towel before the screen fades to black.

The events of the final 30 minutes are jarring when contrasted with the gentle curiosity, though never devoid of intense feelings, that is so apparent in the rest of the story. Seeing the climax and the epilogue as a dream has the benefit of neatly separating two realities, but as the film clearly shows, events continue to inform those that follow, whether we want them to or not.

Madame Courage (2015)

Taciturn, troubled Algerian teenager steals necklace from girl to finance his drug habit, but upon seeing her face, he develops a crush that quickly escalates into unwanted devotion.  

madame-courage

Algeria/France
3.5*

Director:
Merzak Allouache
Screenwriter:
Merzak Allouache
Director of Photography:

Olivier Guerbois

Running time:
90 minutes

Original title:
مدام كوراج
Transliterated title:

Mdam Kuraj

The teenager at the heart of Madame Courage is a boy with many troubles, but it is difficult to dislike him. With high cheekbones, a gaunt face, full lips and big eyes that expressionlessly stare straight ahead, Omar lives in a squat with his mother and older sister. Despite the constant stream of religion-based indictment of debauchery broadcast on the family’s television set, his sister Sabrina is involved in prostitution, which their mother appears to sanction for the sake of having food on the table.

The thing the taciturn Omar is most focused on, however, is not food but drugs. The title refers to the name popular among Algerian youth for Artane, which helps Omar to disconnect from reality. He always carries a plastic bag in his pocket filled with these tablets and slides one of them down his throat when the going gets tough, which makes him look like a zombie most of the time, and he buys these pills with money obtained through thievery on the street.

Having established the criminal side of his life in the opening chase scene taking place late at night through deserted streets, the film’s second scene shows him grabbing a necklace from around a high-school girl’s neck before running off. She is devastated, as the piece of jewellery had belonged to her late mother, and her friends comfort her in the relative safety of a café in downtown Mostaganem. By chance, Omar walks past the café a few moments later and is about to enter when he notices her. The rush of the grab having receded by now, he watches her face more intently and is mesmerised, so he decides to follow her home.

The film never offers any real insight into this fascination that Omar has for her (her name is Selma). He doesn’t know she has lost her mother, and she doesn’t know that he has lost his father. However, because of the instability at home, Omar decides to start spending as much time as possible waiting for her next to a rubbish dump in front of the apartment she shares with her senile father and older brother, a policeman. For obvious reasons, the brother makes it clear he doesn’t want Omar around, but there is something about the boy that greatly intrigues Selma, and even though they never speak a word to each other, the teenage sexual tension between them is unmistakable and handled with great sensitivity by director Merzak Allouache.

Small digressions from the story line, which include a sub-plot with Omar’s sister, Sabrina, and her pimp (who, it appears, is always supposed to marry her) and Omar’s continued life of petty crime are always connected to the main character, who is present in almost every single scene. The hand-held camera further lingers on him to emphasise his presence as the focal point of interest, for example by framing him in the middle of the shot when he is driving his motorcycle. This latter image allows us to see him as being immobile against a mobile background, which is a perfect visual depiction of his life in general.

The relationship, or association, between Omar and Selma is mysterious and beautiful, although one cannot help but wonder whether the chances of them ending up together would ever amount to more than the fantasies Omar likely conjures up when he is high on Madame Courage. This is not exactly Pickpocket, but Selma’s arrival in Omar’s life certainly has a positive effect on him. Her brother, Redouane, is one of the film’s more complex characters, and while he obviously wants to protect his sister and can use the powers afforded to him as an officer of the law to do so, he does not abuse his authority (despite a moment of offscreen violence) but instead seeks to find out what Omar is thinking, which makes him something of a substitute for the viewer.

Although far from comprehensive, Madame Courage offers a striking glimpse of life on the streets of a lower-class teenager in Algeria who has to combat feelings of loneliness, protect himself and his family and deal with the struggles of being a teenage boy infatuated with a girl.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015