Cupcakes (2013)

CupcakesIsrael

1.5*
Director:
Eytan Fox

Screenwriter:
Eli Bijaoui

Eytan Fox
Director of Photography:
Daniel Schneor

Running time: 90 minutes

One would think the world has moved on past the point where putting a man in a dress is a central source of comedy for a film, especially one directed by Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox, whose 2002 film Yossi & Jagger established him as the most important director of gay films in the region.

But in Cupcakes, which features “five girls and a homo” as an act taking part in the UniverSong contest (read, “Eurovision,” but even trashier, if that is possible), a flaming queen named Ofer (Ofer Schechter) skirts the surface of transvestism to pop up in every second scene with a song-and-dance number, or just another wig-and-dress combination, to remind us he is as gay as the day is long.

All of this is supposedly in the name of gay liberation, and of “being yourself”, but the message is drowned out completely by the absolutely ridiculous behavior of the only out gay character. By the way, his boyfriend, Asi (Alon Levi), is famous and closeted, despite his wealthy family’s firm trading on the slogan of authenticity while covering up the sexuality of their handsome heir.  Viewers who know very few gay people may come to the disturbing conclusion Asi is better off staying in the closet.

Of course, we want the boyfriend to be out, but why is there all of this anguish? Does Fox really want us to believe that coming out is such a big deal, when he has a major Jewish character (the country’s bombastic culture minister) openly asking for pork while on a business trip to Paris?

This particular scene in the City of Light has one of the biggest laugh lines of the film, but most of the production reeks with desperately low-budget sets that may or may not be intentionally comical. Even if the director wanted us to revel in a kind of lo-fi musical, the characters are terribly one-dimensional, and the development is exclusively — and predictably — romantic in nature.

But the viewer’s enjoyment of (or repulsion at) the film is rooted almost entirely in the character of Ofer, who all but walks around with a giant spotlight trained on him while he rides a unicorn and has rainbows shooting out of his fingertips. It’s not that his outfits are bad (the only inspired moment is an elegant tuxedo-tutu combination toward the end that shows off his legs), but that there are so many of them we struggle to understand whether this is who he is or whether it is all just a show.

There is something admirable about the message to “be yourself”, but for the purpose of the film, the director has chosen characters who, even if they are being themselves, are only there to make us laugh at their bizarre behavior. For those on the periphery, like the culture minister in Paris, that is fine, but when characters central to the story are vapid and hollow, the thinking viewer should take offense.

Cupcakes may have a musical’s fluffy intentions of pure entertainment, and if that was all it wanted to be, perhaps it could have been mildly interesting. If we know it is a musical, we are willing to suspend our disbelief when characters start belting out an improvised song without hesitation and in perfect unison. But the film has too few songs, and when the genre is less clear, and the production value is this bad, the product is unbelievable and truly dreadful.

One would like to believe a film cannot be this camp unless it is done on purpose. Many of Pedro Almodóvar’s films have outrageously camp moments or characters, but Almodóvar doesn’t expect us to laugh every time they open their mouths or prance around in drag. He feels for them, and he makes us feel for them, too. Fox has no such desire, and his film is a slap in the face of efforts to present complete homosexual characters that don’t simply conform to limp-wristed stereotypes or angst-ridden closet cases.

Not only LGBT cinema but the world at large deserves much better than this silly little film.

The Beloved (2011)

Les Bien-AimesFrance

1.5*
Director:
Christophe Honoré
Screenwriter:
Christophe Honoré
Director of Photography:
Rémy Chevrin

Original title: Les Bien-aimés

Running time: 140 minutes

Just because it’s French doesn’t mean it’s any good.

The Beloved (Les Bien-aimés) tries to be everything and nothing at once, incorporating some terribly dramatic events into a film that shrieks with ostentation yet encourages us to forgive its sins because it is set to the melody of so-called love. Over a period of more than four decades, in a globe-trotting tale played out in locales from Paris to Prague to Montreal, we get a look at the world’s oldest profession with many songs that are somehow supposed to lift the mood but only make the viewer roll her eyes at the exasperating ordeal.

In a very promising opening scene that takes place in Paris during the early 1960s and pays homage to François Truffaut, we see plenty of women parading their legs onscreen. These legs are clearly meant to seduce, and they work their charms a little too well: A Frenchman mistakes Madeleine, a young demoiselle leisurely lingering on the sidewalk, for a prostitute. But she has nothing better to do and, seizing the day for a quick buck, unexpectedly finds her calling.

News travels fast, and before long, Madeleine is approached by every Tom, Dick and Harry for a good time. One day, she meets a young Czech doctor called Jaromil — for some confounding reason played by Raša Bukvić, a Franco-Serb actor who speaks Czech with an accent — and elopes with him to Czechoslovakia, shortly before 1968.

Love can make the world turn round, but it makes this film fall flat on its face, and we know things are going pear-shaped when the actors soon start belting out dreadfully dull songs on the street. The songs are too long, too numerous and too boring to make us care about the characters, and while (or, perhaps, because) director Christophe Honoré tries to jazz up his sets by using bright colours or, on one occasion, lighting his characters with an enormous spotlight, the action has a consistently phony feel to it.

As the young Madeleine, Ludivine Seignier does bring a certain shine to the boggy waters of the plot, but once she disappears, any interest disappears along with her. As an adult, she is played by the grand dame of French acting, Catherine Deneuve, and Madeleine’s daughter Vera is also Deneuve’s real-life daughter, Chiara Mastroianni. Perhaps the casting of these two actresses as the film’s mother-daughter duo of nymphos could have provided some wonderful moments of chemistry, but in this event it brings nothing of note to the production and appears as gratuitous as much else onscreen.

Vera quickly takes centre stage and has an interesting face but fails to be a force strong enough to join the rambling series of plot developments. At one point, it seems we should believe she has magical powers of seduction, since she more or less turns a gay man straight, but even this ridiculous development has no pay-off, since there are merely hints at complex human emotions without any real engagement of the questions raised.

Furthermore, we get scenes built around narrative threads no less bleak than Prague Spring, AIDS and 9/11, without any attempt to integrate such topics in a less than flippant fashion. Honoré tries to be both courageous and playful but ends up with a very cowardly treatment of his material.

By the time the very Czech Miloš Forman (taking over as the elderly Jaromil from the youthful Bukvić) appears as a bumbling fool halfway through the film, serving as a kind of comic relief, it is with a sense of dread that we realize this is as good as it will get.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Beloved is grossly overweight, and despite the 40 years covered in the script, one has the sense we’ve spent half the time looking at senseless close-ups of the mole on Mastroianni’s face and listening to an excessive amount of second-tier songs. The sight of people like Deneuve prostituting her talents for an awful film like this one makes the viewer plunge into despair. There is nothing  to love here, so move along.

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.