Space Stationary

Proxima

by George Wolf

I don’t know how many jobs are more challenging than astronaut, but there can’t be many. And it is via that intense work experience that French writer/director Alice Winocour’s Proxima ruminates on the career struggles faced by women in every profession.

Eva Green carries this weight gracefully as Sarah, the only female member of a team of astronauts training for a year-long stint at an international space station. This means a year away from her young daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant), who will stay with her father/Sarah’s ex-husband Thomas (Lars Eidinger).

From the moment Sarah is introduced as a crew member by team leader Mike (Matt Dillon), her gender is fodder for subtle (and not so subtle) condescension. Resisting a heavy hand, Winocour (Mustang, Disorder) revels in the details of the job, showcasing the added strain carried only by Sarah.

The setting may center on spaceflight, but this is not a film about going into space. It is about preparing to go into space, preparing to leave your child, and preparing to be separated from your mother. And all of that preparing is work.

Green has never been better, and Winocour continues to display understated insight as a filmmaker. Like that walk among the stars that Sarah has long dreamed about, Proxima is quiet, but often emotionally dazzling.

Killer Style

Deerskin

by Hope Madden

What makes a good midlife crisis? What gives it swagger? Physicality? Style? Maybe a little fringe?

Deerskin.

Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (The Artist) is Georges, a man willing to pay an awful lot for a jacket—so much that his wife locks him out of their account. No matter, Georges will just hole up in this little French town, learn how to use the digital camera that came with his purchase, and spend some quality time with his new jacket.

If that sounds absurd, it should. You’ve just stumbled into the one-paragraph synopsis of the latest bit of lunacy from filmmaker Quentin Dupieux. As he did with 2010’s Rubber (a sentient tire on a cross-country rampage), Dupieux sets up one feature-length joke.

It’s funny, though.

Again the filmmaker draws hysterically deadpan, even confused performances from the many nameless characters supporting his leads. Adèle Haenel (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), playing town barkeep and would-be filmmaker, offers a wily and enjoyable counterpoint to Dujardin’s earnestness.

Aside from a couple of utterly priceless Dupieux flourishes, it’s Dujardin that sells this film. He’s deeply committed to the wildly wrong-headed internal logic of the film and the character. There’s an underlying sadness to it, and the willful obliviousness required of a character so willing to commit to a plan as ludicrous as Georges’s. He’s wonderful.

Deerskin is also slyly autobiographical in a way Dupieux’s other films are not. An odd duck wants to follow his vision (in this case, the obsessive love of a deerskin jacket) and make a movie. Creative partnerships and collaboration, while possibly necessary, also soil the vision and make the filmmaker feel dumb.

No one understands him!

Or maybe they do and his ruse is up.

No matter. He still has killer style.

Stranger than Fiction

Non-Fiction

by Hope Madden

Nothing ever changes. That appears to be the sentiment behind Olivier Assayas’s chamber dramedy Non-Fiction, a tale set in the middle of the dying publishing industry, a relic that either needs to embrace digital disruption or die trying.

Or does it?

Hard to say, although a lot is being said. This is perhaps Assayas’s talkiest and most Parisian film to date. And yet, it’s breezy and honest. It’s also cagey and cynical.

What Non-Fiction is depends on your mood, perhaps, because every scene unfolds in about thirty ways. Jubilant performances buoy whip-smart writing that skewers the very platitudes it seems to be promoting.

Novelist and lazy anarchist Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) prefers to ever-so-slightly tweak his own daily life and liaisons than create characters and plots. Unfortunately, the audience at large – and his friend and editor Alain (Guillaume Canet – incredible) in particular – have grown weary. Is it even fiction? And do the women so thinly veiled in the works have any right to their own stories?

Does it even matter? Audio books and eReaders are the hot tickets now, or so says Laure (Christa Théret), sent to the publisher to drum up excitement for a digital transformation.

Well, Alain’s wife Selena (Juliette Binoche, also spectacular) prefers real, concrete books. She’s an actress coming to terms with bingeable cop shows rather than stage work, except when she’s not.

Valerie (Nora Hamzawi) turns out to be the only straightforward and entirely decent character in the film. The fact that she is A) the only one entirely outside of entertainment and publishing, and B) indeed in politics, allows Assays to say quite a lot about his feelings for the industry.

And as everyone talks and talks and desperately talks about changing paradigms in taste, consumption and art, they are eating, drinking and having sex. Because truly, some things do not change—especially in French films.

Assayas keeps his incredibly verbose scenes aloft with a wandering camera that feels like another guest at the party. Bright, funny, biting performances highlight actors who relish the challenge of bringing the script to life. Binoche is at her slippery best.

Non-Fiction toes the line of being too smart for its own good, of losing its audience for its serpentine commentary. But it never does. Assayas and his savvy foursome are having too much fun themselves for their effort to do anything other than entertain.

Good Day Sunshine

Let the Sunshine In

by Hope Madden

Claire Denis + Juliet Binoche = yes, please.

For her latest, Let the Sunshine In, the unerringly insightful French filmmaker takes on middle aged dating, following behind an exasperated Isabelle (Binoche) as she rotates through a series of relationships in Paris.

Isabelle is an artist, though her work—and her 10-year-old daughter, for that matter—are trivialities here. The point is the journey toward that last, real companion for the rest of the journey.

Could it be the boorish, married banker (Xavier Beauvois, flawlessly intolerable)? The boozy but oh-so-dreamy stage actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle)? Sensitive artist (Denis regular Alex Descas)? Brooding guy with the smooth dance moves (Paul Blain)? Ex-husband (Laurent Grevill)?

Whew! Who needs a rest?

Don’t look for any additional plot here. Denis’s focus, through a circuitous story of relationships crumbling, rekindling and sparking for the first time, simply illuminates the passionate daily trivialities of mid-life dating. She strips away nearly everything besides the ups and downs of Isabelle’s romantic life, sometimes skipping weeks at a time to pinpoint not the relationship itself, but each beginning and end.

And, of course, that intoxicating moment of promise —of love? Sex? Rejection? Few filmmakers capture that one moment, breathless and nervous, as authentically as Denis does.

It’s dizzying. No wonder Isabelle’s always so tired.

Binoche’s generous performance as the self-sabotaging Isabelle embraces the insecurities, optimism and neediness that color the character’s quest. Though never laugh-out-loud funny, the film is a comedy of sorts. There is something absurd about the assault of highs and lows, the desperate lurches toward love and the inevitably disappointing consequences.

And then a big cry and she’s off again.

Though Isabelle is a frustrating, often unlikeable character, the film never judges her. It’s too late to settle, which is a dangerous, selfish, vulnerable decision to make.

Good for her.





Unsane Worldwide

12 Days

by Rachel Willis

Like a fly on the wall, Raymond Depardon takes his audience inside a world most will never see, and many may never want to see again.

In France, anyone committed to a psychiatric hospital without consent must be seen by a judge within 12 days. At that time, the judge will decide whether to continue their treatment or release them from care. Each patient’s doctor, or group of doctors, provides recommendations to the judge. In every case Depardon is privy to, the doctors never recommend release for their patients.

Only one woman is okay with this decision. She admits she needs additional care and seems happy with the judge’s decision to continue her treatment for another six months. For the rest, they desire their freedom.

Many of the patients are lucid. They argue their cases before the judge, promising to seek treatment from their own doctors, find jobs, and do what they can to lead healthy lives. When they’re remitted back into the care of the hospital, they promise to appeal the decision (they have ten days to appeal any decision made by the judge).

For others, it is clear their mental health is poor. One man is unable to answer questions from the judge; it’s as if he is having a separate conversation, one that only makes sense to him. Another man begs the judge to find his father and have his father come visit him. Only after he leaves the room does the judge comment on why his father will never visit.

It’s an interesting conundrum for the judges, who must rely on the recommendations of the doctors to make their decisions. Do they struggle with their decision when patients have clear goals for their lives outside of the hospital?

Depardon doesn’t give us any answers. He remains an unbiased observer never offering a narrative to sway the viewer. We’re never given any information outside of what we see inside the small, claustrophobic courtroom. This may irritate some viewers who may wish to know more about each of the individuals seen before the judges or the circumstances surrounding their care. For those open to simply taking what Depardon gives, the film is likely to raise many important questions about the nature of mental health care.





Ironic Title

Happy End

by Hope Madden

Happy End is as perceptive as it is dispassionate—and this, as every choice filmmaker Michael Haneke makes—is intentional.

Channeling themes from across his career, pulling most noticeably from both his 1992 horror Benny’s Video and his 2012 masterpiece Amour, Haneke slowly, deliberately unveils a tale of distance.

His subjects are the well-off Laurent family: a doddering patriarch (Amour’s brilliant Jean-Louis Trintignant), the daughter who runs the company (Isabelle Huppert), her surgeon brother (Mathieu Kassovitz), her disappointing son (Franz Rogowski), and the surgeon’s 13-year-old daughter, Eve (Fantine Harduin).

Eve has come to live with the family because of her mother’s suicide.

In the film’s opening moments, we watch as an emotionally unattached and unnamed character documents a mother’s every banal moment with critical commentary before poisoning a pet hamster.

It’s a maneuver that announces Haneke’s point: whether by way of technology, psychosis or money, the Laurents lack any depth of emotion, intimacy or personal connection. Or is it humanity they lack?

The filmmaker braids together the stories and points of view of several main participants, keeping his focus at arm’s length until we’ve become apprehensive about every move. Why is Georges (Trintignant) wandering the median in a wheelchair and talking to strangers? What struggles could cause Pierre (Rogowski) to behave—and dance—like that?

Why would anyone leave a baby alone with Eve?

Patient viewers will recognize Haneke’s deliberate and chilly storytelling, but Happy End really requires your patience. Still, don’t let your eye wander because too many frames contain a startling image, and this filmmaker won’t insist that you notice.

Eventually the distance becomes somewhat problematic because it feels as if Haneke is pulling punches he was happy to land in previous films.

As is always the case, though, you’re repaid for your efforts. Whether it’s the understated brilliance of the performances (Trintignant and Harduin are particularly memorable), the chilling clash of human emotion with whatever has taken its place within the Laurent family, or the diabolical final image, Happy End leaves you stunned.





Delicious Dish

Raw

by Hope Madden

Much has been made of barf bags and fainting during screenings of writer/director Julia Ducournau’s feature debut, Raw.

A festival favorite, the film has been plagued by rumors of aggressive audience nausea, let’s say, as well as ambulance calls. Several theaters recently have offered vomit bags with ticket purchases.

Don’t let that cloud your expectations. Raw is no Hostel, no Human Centipede.

What you’ll find instead of in-your-face viscera and nihilistic corporeal abuse is a thoughtful coming of age tale.

And meat.

Justine (Garance Marillier, impressive) is off to join her older sister (Ella Rumpf) at veterinary school – the very same school where their parents met. Justine may be a bit sheltered, a bit prudish to settle in immediately, but surely with her sister’s help, she’ll be fine.

The film often felt to me like a cross between Trouble Every Day and Anatomy. The latter, a German film from 2000, follows a prudish med student dealing with carnage and peer pressure. In the former, France’s Claire Denis directs a troubling parable combining sexual desire and cannibalism.

Ducournau has her cagey way with the same themes that populate any coming-of-age story – pressure to conform, peer pressure generally, societal order and sexual hysteria. Here all take on a sly, macabre humor that’s both refreshing and unsettling.

A vegetarian from a meat-free family, Justine objects to the freshman hazing ritual of eating a piece of raw meat. But once she submits to peer pressure and tastes that taboo, her appetite is awakened and it will take more and more dangerous, self-destructive acts to indulge her blood lust.

In a very obvious way, Raw is a metaphor for what can and often does happen to a sheltered girl when she leaves home for college. But as Ducournau looks at those excesses committed on the cusp of adulthood, she creates opportunities to explore and comment on so many upsetting realities, and does so with absolute fidelity to her core metaphor.

She immediately joins the ranks of Jennifer Kent (Babadook) and Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) – all recent, first time horror filmmakers whose premier features predict boundless talent.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down

Staying Vertical

by Hope Madden

Alain Guiraudie’s meditation on manhood Staying Vertical hits upon similar themes as his 2013 murder mystery Stranger by the Lake. In other ways, one film is the other’s opposite.

Stranger by the Lake – a serial killer film set on the banks of a French lake used for gay cruising – examined its topic from the inside out. We were surrounded by the suspects, the victims and the scene of the crime. We knew what the leads knew when they knew it, so we participated in each curious choice.

And though Guiraudie once again considers sexuality – sexual expression, repression and identity – he keeps the audience at arm’s length from the exploration.

We wander the French countryside with Léo (Damien Bonnard). Our wide-eyed protagonist is a screenwriter in search of a story. He meanders from one situation to the next, his open curiosity his guide as well as his frequent undoing.

Staying Vertical’s story is as loose and open as Stranger’s was tightly wound. The film is borderline plot free. Leo hikes into the path of shepherd Marie (India Hair), plays with her kids, dodges looks from her father (Raphaël Thiéry – a find!), wanders away and, periodically, back.

His rambling leads him to town, where he tries to connect with a homeless man under a bridge. Then we’re on to a ramshackle house and into the lives of a young man and his ambiguously-defined father figure, into a bizarre plant therapy situation, back to Marie and out again.

Between the loose structure and Bonnard’s guileless performance, Guiraudie creates a fascinatingly male world of disconnection, longing and hope. Léo is – as are we, by extension – an interloper, regardless of his attempts to situate himself.

The filmmaker knows how to arrest your attention despite the meandering nature of the plot. The frank and often jarring sexual imagery (seriously, there’s a scene set to a Pink Floyd riff that will floor you) manages to question preconceived notions in truly fresh ways.

He also shoots scenes through with wry humor, and he captures landscapes (in look and sound) as few if any current filmmaker can.

Guiraudie’s metaphors are frequent and interesting, but never stronger than in the closing scene. Though the crossing storylines don’t always work, the characters that populate this harsh but lovely environment pique your interest as Léo’s journey captures your imagination.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





Working for the Weekend

Two Days, One Night

by Hope Madden

A woman wakes from a nap due to a phone call. She’s baking for the kids. It seems like a lovely way to spend your afternoon, really, drowsy and surrounded by the smell of baked goods. So why does Sandra (Oscar-nominated Marion Cotillard) sound defensive about the nap and too enthusiastic about the treats with whoever is on the phone?

Because there are layers and layers to the most ordinary of circumstances, a point Two Days, One Night explores so effectively.

Sandra’s co-workers were faced with a vote: each stands to gain a large bonus in return for eliminating one salary – Sandra’s. She has the weekend to convince them to give up their bonus and save her job.

If it sounds contrived, rest assured that writing/directing brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne embrace their characteristically naturalistic style to great effect. The films lacks any hint of melodrama, thanks in part to the brothers’ honest style and in greater part to a lead performance utterly absent of artificiality.

Cotillard is a master, and this film is no exception, it’s a highlight. Her gestures, her gaze, her posture, every syllable of dialogue simply convince you this is a woman fighting for her dignity as well as her job. She’s aided by a large, capable cast and buoyed by the Dardennes’ fly-on-the-wall camera work.

The film has larger goals, looking at ideas as concrete as corporate indifference, as amorphous as depression, and as grand as human nature. Grounding all this examination in the intimate and mundane details of one woman’s struggle keeps the film anchored in the reality so precious to the filmmakers.

Two Days, One Night is not as touching as the Dardennes’ Kid with a Bike or as gripping as L’Enfant – two of their finest efforts. It feels more contrived than those films, its craftsmanship more obvious. But Sandra’s challenge and her personal journey are so beautifully articulated that you won’t care. The film is a small, potent wonder.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





Am I Blue?

The Blue Room

by Hope Madden

A quietly hypnotic tale that slowly takes shape, The Blue Room is an impressive piece of French cinema. This story of a clandestine love affair is hauntingly told with flashbacks that blend languidly with the present to create a dreamy effect.

Known best for performances like his devastatingly complex Jean-Do in The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, Mathieu Amalric proves just as nimble when behind the camera. He directs, stars and co-adapts the novel by respected and prolific crime writer Georges Simenon, a sordid yet restrained tale of love, suspicion and shame.

While Amalric weaves dreamily between a couple’s passionate moments, the man’s memory of his recent past, and his current predicament, Christophe Beaucarne’s camera articulates every detail. Amalric creates an atmosphere that mirrors his character Julien’s state of mind.

His performance is just as impressive. As these details swim through his consciousness alongside fragments of passion and moments of familial happiness, we and he try to make sense of what’s going on. As we finally, simultaneously, understand, the effect is as devastating to us as it is to Julien.

Amalric’s turn is as restrained as the storytelling, and his face animates his growing helplessness, terror and realization.

It’s a slight story, padded with no fat at all and clocking in at a slick 75 minutes. Within that timeframe, Amalric picks at your nerves, keeps you guessing, and delivers a tidy little mystery.

Verdict-4-0-Stars