Tag Archives: French film



by Hope Madden

Even a man who is pure in heart

And says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

And the autumn moon is bright

Teddy (an exceptional Anthony Bajon) may not be all that pure in heart, but he’s not such a bad kid. What he is, is a loser. He knows it. “We’re the village idiots,” he tells the uncle he lives with.

Teddy’s an outsider in his very small French hamlet, a ne’er-do-well who seems harmless enough. He has a job —one he hates. And he has a girlfriend, Rebecca (Christine Gautier) — but how long can that last? Her family can’t stand him, and she’ll graduate at the end of the term. Then what?

Before we can find out, Teddy’s bitten by something in the woods. Suddenly, by the light of the moon (which seems to forever coincide with some kind of angry humiliation Teddy faces), he loses consciousness and then wakes up naked and covered in blood.

Writers/directors/brothers Ludovic and Zoran Boukhera tap into classic monster movie mythology (and sometimes score, with fun results) to mine lycanthrope lore for metaphorical purposes.

Which is usually what werewolves are used for in movies, including the 1941 classic that spawned that poem. Anyone can be cursed, it seems, and under the right circumstances, anyone can become a monster.

In this case, Teddy represents the marginalized, angry white male. The havoc he wreaks? Well, it’s not hard to figure out what that represents. Truth be told, Teddy is almost off-putting in its empathy for the aggrieved male so disillusioned by disappointments and limitations that he becomes monstrous.

I suppose that makes Teddy feel a bit transgressive, but the reason it works is Bajon’s amiably brutish performance. A horror film is rarely worth its weight in carnage if it can’t engender some empathy, provoke some tragedy. Thanks to Bajon and a strong ensemble around him, the film makes you feel something for an enemy you might rather just hate.

It’s not often you get an official Cannes selection on Shudder. I guess that’s one more reason to watch Teddy.

Eye Spy

Keep an Eye Out

by Hope Madden

If there is one filmmaker whose movies resist summarization, it’s Quentin Dupieux. I have tried (Deerskin, Wrong).

His latest, Keep an Eye Out, takes us on a murder mystery in the most charmingly monotonous of ways. In fact, as Chief Commissioner Buron (Benoît Poelvoorde, Man Bites Dog) questions suspect Fugain (Grégoire Ludig), the officer complains that this is the most boring interrogation he’s ever done.

It’s not just the questioning (Fugain bought bug spray, then ate some potato chips, then accidentally knocked over a planter and broke it…) that’s mind numbing, though. Dupieux situates this aggressively dull conversation in a French police station leeched of color—everything in the room an unflattering shade of putty, except for the bizarre abundance of overhead lights.

It’s often tempting to seek symbolism in Dupieux’s absurd situations. Many of us are still wrestling with the message in his 2010 breakout, Rubber, about a discarded car tire on a nationwide killing spree.

Perhaps there’s no hidden meaning. In Keep an Eye Out, in particular, the filmmaker seems simply to be setting up jokes. As soon as Philippe (Marc Fraize) arrives on the scene—one eye on the accused, the other missing and grown over with skin—things take an almost Monty Python level of lunacy. It’s uncomfortably silly, stupid even.

There’s a freedom to the absurdism of a Dupieux film, although Keep an Eye Out feels far more superficial even than Deerskin (a film released prior to but filmed after Keep an Eye Out). Even his most focused work lacks the cynicism or bite of Yorgos Lanthimos, maybe the most consistent absurdist working in film today.

Which is not to say a Dupieux film can’t be as enjoyable. In many ways, they’re easier to enjoy than a Lanthimos film because they’re less likely to fill you with existential terror.

They’re weird. They’re delightfully unpredictable. They’d grow tiresome, but they’re all so short. (Keep an Eye Out runs barely longer than an hour.)

New Coat of Paint

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

by Hope Madden

Celine Sciamma follows up the vitally of-the-moment indie Girlhood with this breathy, painterly period romance only to clarify that she is a filmmaker with no identifiable bounds. In the 1790s on a forbidding island in Brittany, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) arrives to paint the wedding portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), but since Heloise is not marrying voluntarily, she will not sit for a painter. So, a ruse is developed: Marianne pretends to be simply a companion as she steals glances then sketches from memory into the night.

What develops along with the startlingly beautiful intimacy between the women is a thoughtful rumination on memory and on art, on the melancholic but no less romantic notion that the memory, though lonesome, is permanent and perfect.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a tenderly romantic film of self-discovery that asks a lot of questions.

What would life be like with no men at all, the film seems to ask. Unseen, nameless men (because we see very few) may rule the world, and the existence of one casts a pall over the events of the film. But, at least until Mother (Valeria Golino) returns with news of the wedding, this is a community of women.

On the island, women gather at a bonfire, passing time, singing and seeking each other’s guidance. In the austere mansion, Heloise, Marianne and servant Sophie (Luana Bajrami) look after one another. In a more intimate chamber, two women become friends and then lovers and then, likely, the most important relationship the other will ever have.

Offering a master class in visual storytelling, Sciamma relies far less on words than images, ending conversations or omitting them entirely, able instead to deliver meaning with a glance, a gesture, a flame or an ocean wave.

And with art. What Sciamma is able to convey about love, struggle, empowerment and art by virtue of the changing canvas on which Marianna must commit Heloise’s portrait is truly extraordinary.

Sciamam’s film has a painterly quality, frame after frame worthy of museum wall space. And yet, Portrait lacks artifice. Thomas Grezaud’s set design, Dorothee Guiraud’s costumes and, in particular, Claire Mathon’s cinematography blend together to create a costume drama worthy of the historical and art period in question.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is breathtakingly gorgeous. But, like Heloise’s portrait in the film, that’s not enough to make it a masterpiece. It’s the authenticity to the intimacy—perhaps partly born of the fact that Haenel and Sciamma are a real life couple—that’s inescapable, and it drives the piece.

Like Marianna’s final portrait, Sciamma’s film offers truth, and it’s astonishing.

The Dream I Dreamed

Les Miserables

by Hope Madden

“Remember this, my friends. There is no such thing as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”

Victor Hugo penned those words as he watched the suffering and oppression in the streets of Montfermeil.

Set in July 2018, when the World Cup victory made celebratory compatriots of everyone in France, at first blush, Ladj Ly’s film Les Miserables bears little resemblance to the saga of Jean Valjean and that tenacious Javert. But it doesn’t take long for the filmmaker to use the story of law enforcement and the population of modern day Montfermeil to show that little has changed since Hugo set quill to parchment 150 years ago.

Damien Bonnard (Staying Vertical) plays Stéphane. Ly taps Julien Poupard’s camera to follow Stephane on his first day in Paris as part of a three man unit tasked with keeping an eye on a mainly poor, primarily Muslim district.

Stéphane’s new partners, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga), have been on the job long enough to have developed relationships and tensions in the neighborhood. Thanks to an almost absurd subplot involving a traveling circus—whose lion delivers an apt metaphor and a heartbreaking scene—Stephane’s first days on the force will be regrettable.

Ly was inspired to write the film by riots that broke out in his own apartment building and neighborhood in 2005. That authenticity lends the film both a visceral dread as well as a complicated compassion.

Like Hugo, Ly seems unwilling to abandon those in authority to the fate of villain any more than he’s willing to entirely forgive the actions of the oppressed. Rather, each side is implicated (one far more boldly than the other), but it’s the lack of tidy resolution that makes the fate of these characters compelling.

While every performance is impressive, young Issa Perica is the film’s beating heart, its undetermined destiny, and he’s more than up to the task. His lines are limited but his performance is heartbreaking, his character really the only one that matters.

A devastating social commentary masquerading quite convincingly as an intense cop drama, I’d say Les Miserables would do Hugo proud. The truth is, it would probably break his heart.

Heart and Soul

BPM (120 Beats Per Minute)

by George Wolf

Transitioning slowly from a sweeping, outrage-fueled political drama to a hushed and intimate personal study, BPM becomes a deeply emotional portrait of hope and love.

It is France in the early 1990s, when Act Up/Paris is becoming increasingly confrontational in their protests, demanding an official AIDS prevention policy from the state, and an end to the indifference of the population.

Early on, director/co-writer Robin Campillo (Eastern Boys) skillfully uses Act Up’s regular meetings to bring us up to speed on procedures and strategies. Through the group’s infighting and organized protests, the film speaks to the often fragile power of activism, especially when some of the activists are dying.

The confusion caused by the AIDS epidemic is heavy in the air, and Campillo effectively pairs it with the desperation of those most personally effected, eventually settling on two in particular.

Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) is HIV-positive and a veteran Act Up member, full of a passion that draws in the shy newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois). As the two draw closer, Campillo narrows his focus to the touching, slice-of-life glimpses that lie at the very heart of the cause.

BPM builds an earnest base through faithfully re-creating an era while reinforcing that era’s continued relevance to the present. But the film reveals its purpose through the smaller moments that inspire, reminding us of the courage needed to take a stand, and just what’s at stake if we don’t.

A Tale of Two Catherines

The Midwife

by Matt Weiner

There is a scene early on in The Midwife that consists almost entirely of a conversation between Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve) and her doctor, in which Beatrice says barely a word and yet the camera doesn’t move from her face the entire time.

Director and writer Martin Provost allows moments like these to unfold again and again throughout the film, relying on superb performances and an unsentimental treatment of the material to present an arresting and spare meditation on love and the passage of time.

Claire (Catherine Frot) is an uptight midwife in Paris whose grim adherence to routine seems on the verge of upheaval, both professionally and personally. This coincides with the free-spirited Beatrice, the mistress of Claire’s dead father, reappearing out of nowhere.

It’s a familiar setup: Claire and Beatrice are natural foils, and they both have some unexorcised emotions to work out over the man they both loved, in their own ways. But that relationship between Claire and Beatrice is the main attraction, and the two actresses work off one another in a way that keeps things poignant, never melodramatic.

Deneuve, in particular, is equal parts devastating and disarming as Beatrice. It’s fitting that at this point in her career, she’s now deconstructing the haughty mystery that she become indelibly associated with over the last 50 years.

What happens when life finally strips away all the defensive layers and artifice that a woman like Beatrice has worked so hard to maintain? What remains when you’re all alone save a body that’s slowly betraying you?

The film doesn’t answer all these questions. And, beguilingly, neither does Deneuve. As circumstances force Beatrice to part with all her glamorous trappings, she holds onto her defiance. And some of her reticence.

In The Midwife, it’s not death that the characters are afraid of—it’s all the indignity that time heaps on us in between being born and dying. Babies “spring out from nothing,” Claire observes. Controlling as she is, Claire can only do so much for those she has brought into the world.

What anyone chooses to make of their time afterward, the film suggests, is all part of the mystery, joy and frustration of being alive.


Let Some Light In

Things to Come

by Cat McAlpine

Depression is often depicted as something grey and dark – a hovering cloud or a dark pit. Writer/Director Mia Hansen Love takes depression and divorce and instead floods them with light in her hopeful but slow Things to Come.

Things follows Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) as she navigates political upheaval, the end of her relationship, and the death of her mother. Instead of shooting a multitude of midlife-crises in dark corners and dim bars, Nathalie is found sleeping in sunny parks and running away to the country.

Even her mother Yvette (Edith Scob), wrought with panic attacks and depression, is bathed in light. Her apartment is bright and clean and she lays in bed all day in nothing but a silver silk night gown. Hansen Love’s film is determined to stay bright.

Huppert is steady and contemplative during the undoing of Nathalie, but her poise is just thinly veiled denial. When her husband Heinz (André Marcon) quietly announces that he’s leaving her for another woman, Huppert stares daggers out the window. “I thought you’d love me forever,” she quietly surrenders. And then, after a beat, “What an idiot.”

The tottering act of being okay and not-okay at the same time is mesmerizing from Huppert, who masters Nathalie’s self-assuredness. Nathalie needs just one puff of someone else’s cigarette to be okay. Nathalie needs just one invigorating philosophical conversation. Nathalie needs just four brief sobs alone in her room.

Riding out into the country side, she declares, “My mother is dead. My husband has left me. I’ve never been so free in my life!” All while toting along her mother’s black cat Pandora.

Nathalie hates Pandora, and is also allergic to her. But she refuses to recognize her literal baggage because sometimes faking it ’til you make it is the only option.

Things to Come can be heavy handed and slow. It intermixes quotes from philosophers and lengthy discussions on morality in a way that makes scenes feel listless. Rather than a complete narrative, the film unfolds like a series of emotional landscapes, loosely connected.

The first and last five minutes offer bizarre time jumps that don’t quite provide useful background or satisfying resolution. They are just moments on a timeline we’ve been invited to watch. But Huppert is ceaselessly watchable, and Hansen Love refuses to let dark times be … well, dark.




by Hope Madden

Elle is a flummoxing, aggravating, possibly masterful piece of filmmaking that will leave you reeling.

A misanthropic tale with a complex – even befuddling – moral core, the film explores the aftermath of a brutal rape.

It opens – before we even see an image – on the sounds of the assault. Michele Leblanc (a beyond-magnificent Isabelle Huppert), a prosperous video game developer, is being attacked by a masked figure who’s broken in.

No matter what you expect to happen next, the only thing you can predict is that clichés will be upended.

The storyline offers an almost endless look at complicated gender politics, systemic misogyny and rape culture. As Michele goads the mostly-male team working on the firm’s latest beta game that the tentacle penetration of a medieval maiden is not orgasmic enough, the film further complicates – well – everything.

Another element tangling the viewing experience is the fact that the creative team behind the film is entirely male: director Paul Verhoeven, novelist Philippe Djian, and screenwriter David Burke – who, interestingly, specializes in true-life horror films, often succeeding in humanizing the serial killer (Dahmer, Gacy).

To articulate the film’s frustrating turns would be to give away far more than is appropriate. Suffice it to say, the deeply flawed heroine makes baffling choices in a story chastising a culture that promotes rape while simultaneously encouraging rape fantasy.

Or does it?

Verhoeven’s resume may taint this perception. A provocateur always, his latest effort is his most dialed down and intelligent. And yet, this same director managed to turn a Holocaust interrogation into a scene from Flashdance in his 2016 film Black Book.

There is basically nothing he cannot reframe to objectify women – and yet, there is not one sexual act in this film that is played for titillation.

It is quite possible that Huppert is the entire reason Elle works – and God help me, it does.

Huppert understands this character’s damaging backstory – information allowed the audience in slow bursts – and captures the icy resilience it instilled. Her Michele is a restrained narcissist, a pragmatic survivor at odds with expectations – unlikeable but hard to root against. Above all things, she is unpredictable, but in Huppert’s hands, every decision – no matter how bizarre or offensive – feels utterly natural.

I cannot imagine this film surviving without Huppert in the lead role, but with her as the central conundrum in Verhoeven’s indecipherable set of intentions, Elle leaves a mark.


Doin’ It For Themselves


by Hope Madden

Moments after Girlhood’s perfectly disconcerting opening, you settle into the world of its protagonist, Marieme, but writer/director Celine Sciamma has already told you something very important. You shouldn’t assume anything.

Few, if any, films have been able to do justice to coming of age the way Sciamma’s does. Girlhood is a character study, following Marieme (Karidja Toure) through her days as an adolescent in a deprived Paris project, struggling against each of her equally unappealing life options.

Good girl Marieme sees one important door toward opportunity close. On the same day, she catches the eye of a trio of wilder girls and slowly she finds the joy in extending her adolescence and the power in solidarity and sisterhood.

Sciamma, thanks to a quietly powerful performance from Toure, represents more than just the bittersweet romance and nostalgia generally associated with the coming of age film. Saying goodbye to childhood is rarely as simple and lovely as movies make it out to be, and Sciamma’s interest is in seeing the same transition from an under represented point of view. The fact that this feels so fresh is itself an indictment. For Marieme, her choices are limited along racial, sexual and socioeconomic lines, but Sciamma’s perceptive film is too honest and understated to feel preachy.

Wisely, Sciamma disregards every filmmaking technique we’ve come to expect in a movie about a girl blossoming into womanhood. Her observant style, cast of amateur actors, and her own penetrating storytelling give the proceedings a quiet authenticity.

Like Sciamma’s previous films Tomboy and Water Lillies, Girlhood explores youth in crisis. She never judges her characters, and Toure’s ability to showcase her character’s humility and strength simultaneously ensure the audience’s empathy.

The storyline is necessarily untidy as Marieme takes on and casts off wildly different personas, illuminating the almost heartbreaking courage of youth. Regardless of the choices she makes from among the options limited by discrimination on almost every front, we must root for her fight for a life she can accept.