About Me

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In my interests below, I list French language, cinema, theatre, politics, art, and wine. And while French brought me to a lot of these things, I also like all of them in a more general way. I really love languages and their connections. I also have a thing about how theatre and cinema, art, politics and wine all hook up in some way. As I think of these ideas, I can hear the thwonk of the cork coming out of the neck of the bottle, and the gentle squeak as the cork is twisted off the tire-bouchon. Ah, that oakey, musty, acidic aroma wafting, wafting and people talking and talking and talking. And, oh they found out we have some sets of boules and they want to play pétanque. "Let's pick teams and play in the shade of those plane trees." The sounds of summer resonate: the crunch of the terrain under foot, the click of the iron bocce knocking in the players' hands, and the soft kiss of the wooden cochonnet as it hits the ground scuttling down to its resting point where it will await the arrival of each team's battle-worn aggies.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Venus in Fur: Theatrical Cinema at its Best

The French Press really loved La Vénus à la fourrure (Venus in Fur – written by Roman Polanski and David Ives – the latter is the dramatist who wrote the Tony-nominated play) – you can check out the ratings on the French site allocine – even if French is not a language you speak well, the star ratings will give you an idea of how well this film went down.

If you’re interested in reading more (in English) check out the Press Kit that was put out for the 2013 Festival de Cannes where Venus was in competition.

Watch a clip from the play that opened off-Broadway in 2010 and moved onto Broadway in 2011 – I think Nina Arianda is delightful.

Trailer with Emanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Almaric

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Camille Claudel 1915 - Austere Emotion

Bruno Dumont's Camille Claudel 1915 depicts three days in the life of Camille Claudel, the French sculptor, who was confined to a mental asylum by her family in 1913.  Bruno Dumont collaborated with Juliette Binoche in creating the scenario and arranged for filming to take place in a real asylum near Avignon in the South of France with mental patients and their nurses taking part in telling the story of a few days in Camille Claudel's life.

In this interview on NPR, Binoche discusses the film, the issues it raises, and the life of Camille Claudel.  Juliette Binoche interview
Sheila O'Malley's thumbs-up review published on Roger Ebert's site
New York Times - Stephen Holden, "The Agony of an Artist's Commitment"

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Attila Marcel: Memories, Movies, and Make-Believe

Sylvain Chomet's fisrt live action film has not been widely reviewed outside of his Canadian homeland, so here are two reviews, one from the 2013 Toronto Film Festival and the second from the Montréal Gazette:

Attila Marcel: Toronto review
Attila Marcel: Montréal Gazette

Age of Panic - La Bataille de Solferino

Age of Panic, one of today's new films at the Sacramento French Film Festival has had a couple of interesting reviews from Variety and from Filmmaker's review of the Lincoln Center's Rendez-Vous with French cinema earlier this year:

Rendez-vous with French 2014: Age of Panic and Other
Age of Panic Wins Audience Award at Paris Cinema Fest

Friday, June 20, 2014

On My Way, Catherine Deneuve, Emanuelle Bercot, and the road movie

In his New York Times review of Emanuelle Bercot’s latest film, Elle s’en va – On My Way, Stephen Holden describes it as a road movie.  This particular film genre is not as pervasive in France as it is in films from the US.  But what constitutes a road movie?  Is it primarily a male-defined genre or can we identify a feminine approach to this type of  film.

In the road movie, the main character or characters leave their home and travel other places.  From an historical point of view, we can trace the narrative’s roots back to Ancient Greek epics such as The Odyssey or Ancient Mesopotamian sagas like The Epic of Gilgamesh, where an initial fight between the two main characters – Gilgamesh and Enkidu – is followed by their grand journey to Cedar Mountain where they destroy the mountain’s monstrous guardian.

They also kill the Bull of Heaven, which brings the wrath of the gods upon them.  Enikidu is sentenced to death.  Distraught at the loss of his friend, Gilgamesh sets out on a long and dangerous journey in search of eternal life. Some cineastes – notably German director Wim Wenders - will say that the origin of this desire to roam lies even deeper into history, in our nomadic prehistoric roots, “in [our] primal need to leave an account of [our] passage on earth.” (New York Times, Nov 11, 2007). 

As far as cinematic history is concerned, we can find examples of the road movie even in early Hollywood films.  Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, for example, is a character that is always on the road.  The genre really blossomed, however, after the Second World War with the increasing presence and use of the automobile.  In the 1960s, the road film really gained recognition with such epics as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969).

The road movie in France also began to flourish in the late 1960s and 1970s – Gérard Oury’s Le Corniaud (1965), Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Weekend (1967), Bertand Bliers Les Valseuses (1974).  

More recently, we have seen other examples: 
Western (1997) by Manuel Poirier - a Spanish shoe company representative and a Russian hitchhiker track down love as they wander and hitchhike through Brittany.

Time Out (2001) by Laurent Canet - a 50-year-old executive is laid off, but rather than tell his family, he pretends to go to work but in reality passes the time driving the highways of France and Switzerland, reading the paper, or sleeping in his car.

The Grocer’s Son (2007) by Eric Guirado sees an estranged son return home from Lyon to his family’s home in the Drôme countryside and help out by driving the family’s grocer’s van from village to village.

Voir la mer  (2011) – Two brothers drive their motor home from Burgundy to Saint-Jean de Luz in the Basque country but they come across an attractive young woman who has never seen the sea so together they head for the Basque coast.

The road movie genre is often characterized as a means of creating narratives that explore space and mobility, cross boundaries, and lead to escape from a stifling society and a mise-en-question of location and identity. In the hands of male directors, the genre is more often than not a romantic escapism where the automobile or motorbike allows the male protagonist to shake off the shackles of responsibility: job, home, marriage.  By contrast, however, given that women have usually played roles within the home or in a space strongly connected with the private/domestic world the very presence of a woman or a couple of women alone on the road is a paradoxical insubordination to the status quo.  Among the first woman-directed road movies was Chantal Ackerman’s  Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), but perhaps the best known road saga directed by a woman is Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond) (1985) directed by Agnès Varda and recently restored and re-released in cinemas in France.  It tells the story from the end back to the beginning of a young woman who takes to the road and ends up frozen to death in a ditch.  We follow the police investigation and discover in reverse order the events that led to her wretched demise. 
Ten years later, Yolande Moreau – a Belgian actress and comedian - made her début in film-making alongside Gilles Porte with a road picture of her own: Quand la mer monte (When the Sea Rises) (2006).  She plays the role of Irène.  She is touring northern France with her one-woman show, where a stout, loud, and somewhat unattractive woman wearing a clownish mask comically confesses to the audience that she has murdered her husband. At each performance, she randomly selects a man from the crowd and makes him both lover and accomplice to a robbery she is planning. Having broken down one day on the road, she is helped by Dries (Wim Willaert) who was passing on his moped.  As a way of thanking him for his help she offers him two tickets to the show.  He comes with one of his mates, and she spots him in the audience during her performance.  She chooses him as her "chicken" for that show.

Later, she goes out with Dries and his friends for a drink.  They all hit it off quite well, but the next night, to Irène’s surprise, Dries shows up again for the show but gets thrown out of the theatre for berating some audience members who arrived late.  Even though she is angry with him, she sees him after the performance and slowly their relationship evolves as she is drawn into the mesh of Dries’ life.  She sadly sees him lose his job unloading and stacking vegetables on the open-air market, but then happily she gets to know him as one of the operators of Totor, his town’s famous giant puppet, who only comes out for the town’s festivities.  The carnival atmosphere that surrounds the parading of the giant puppets contrasts with Irène’s holding on to the domestic side of her life through her regular evening phone calls to her husband, where they discuss the tiles they should choose for their kitchen and how things are going at his work. 

Emmanuelle Bercot’s road movie also combines a feeling of escape from the domestic humdrum with a renewal, retrieval, rediscovery, or maybe a reinvigoration of family life? With Catherine Deneuve in the central role, the film explores domestic relationships, a particular genre of cinema (the road movie), whilst also engaging in a contemplation of life lived both on screen and in reality as Mick Lasalle of the San Francisco Chronicle proposes in his review of the film.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Film Pairings

Film pairings

Wine and cheese or wine and movies?
When I watch films at home I often like to have a glass of wine.  I also believe in stimulating the local economy, so I buy locally made wines and we have several favorites from wineries we visit in the foothills of El Dorado county, in the Lodi appelation, and elsewhere.  At the same time, while reading the descriptions and getting sneak previews of  the films at this year’s Sacramento French Film Festival, I have had  ideas popping through my head of how the film’s themes remind me of other films that took a different perspective on a similar theme. 

The opening film is Lucas Belvaux’s adaptation of Philippe Vilain’s novel.  The story brings together a couple from different backgrounds and observes them as they fall in love, out of love and even over love. 

If you’d like to try to pair the opening night film with a film that explores similar themes as Pas son genre, I‘d suggest any of these accompanied by a glass of a local California cru.

La Dentellière (1977) (The Lacemaker)
In Paris, Béatrice (Pomme), timid and innocent, played by a young Isabelle Huppert, lives at home and works in a hairdresser’s.   Her only friend, Maylène, who has been dumped by her lover, takes Pomme on holiday to Cabourg, a pretty town on the Normandy coast. Soon, Marylène gets involved with a new man and leaves Pomme on her own. At a café terrace, Pomme, savoring a glace au chocolat catches the eye of François, a self-confident French literature student attending the Sorbonne.  Gradually, they become lovers and Béatrice moves in with François in Paris.  But can their love bridge the cultural gap that separates them.

Trailer: La Dentellière

Suggested pairing: Heritage Oak (2013) Sauvignon Blanc (serve cold and savor)

Romuald et Juliette (1989) (Maman, There’s a Man in Your Bed)
Coline Serreau’s follow-up to her 1985 blockbuster Trois hommes et un couffin (Three men and a Cradle) has the late-night cleaning woman Juliet, played by a compelling Firmine Richard helping a company president, Romuald (Daniel Auteuil).  She discovers a plot to frame him for food poisoning in his factory’s yoghurts.  As she takes a bigger role in his affairs, he falls deeper and deeper in love with her.
Suggested pairing: Capay Valley (2009) Tempranillo (red wine that you can drink chilled or even with an ice cube)

Le gout des autres (2000) (The Taste of Others)
In this multi-layered comedy directed by Agnè Jaoui, three women and three men who are quite opposites open a number of possibilities for liaisons, but their personal culture, tastes and backgrounds will determine the course of their loves.  One of the central relationships is between Castella (Jean-Pierre Bacri), the owner of an industrial steel barrel plant in Rouen and a forty-year-old actress, who tutors Castella  in English.  After reluctantly seeing Clara in a performance of Racine’s Bernice that he had to go to since his wife insisted that their niece was acting in the paly, Castella discovers the world of theater and a Bohemian lifestyle quite at tangents to his own lifestyle.  The path of true love never runs too smoothly in this vibrantly dialogued take on life in provincial France.

Suggested pairing:  Sierra Vista (2013) Grenche rosé  (chill this light and refreshing summer pink)

Une femme de ménage (2002)  (The Housekeeper)
In Claude Berri’s adaptation of Christian Oster’s eponymous novel, Emilie Dequenne (Pas son genre) is Laura, a young spirited woman who does cleaning work.  Jacques  (Jean-Pierre Bacri) a fifty-year old sound engineer, whose wife has just left him, is in a mess so he decides to hire Laura to do his cleaning.  Circumstances force her to ask him if she can stay at his place for a few nights and little by little he begins to fall for her, despite her disturbing his ordered world of reading, jazz music, and apértifs with his similarly aged friends.

Trailer: Une femme de ménage (no subtitles)

Suggested pairing: Sierra Vista (2011) Viognier (put it on ice then discover the delicate balance of experience and youth)

Fauteuils d’orchestre (2006) (Avenue Montaigne)
In this Daniel Thompson romantic comedy, young Jessica (Cécile de France) arrives in Paris from Mâcon, a small city in the Saône-et-Loire department in Burgundy.  She has come in search of the "luxurious" world her grandmother had always told her about when she worked in Paris as a maid.  Jessica is hired as a waitress in a café that caters to the bourgeois, the elegant, the famous, and the ordinary:  the nannies, the refuse collectors, and technical staff of the areas various theatres and concert halls.  She discovers the beauty and finery of this upscale part of Paris and also the backstage of this world of celebrity and fortune.  And, she also finds love but it is not quite what she expected.

Trailer: Fauteuils d’orchestre (2006)

Suggested pairing:  Domanine Chandon Blanc des noirs – enjoy this California sparkling wine which is also served at the White House

Angèle et Tony (2010)
Seen at the 2011 Sacramento French Film Festival, this film takes us to a small fishing town on the Normandy coast where Tony works as a fisherman. Angèle, a pretty young woman with a tarnished past, arrives looking for work.  Tony takes her on as a fishmonger, teaches her the trade, and lodges her in a house he shares with his mother.  Their relationships Tony, his mother, and Angèle are strained, but as Angèle adapts to her new environment, Tony starts to like her.  Their destiny is still fraught with risk and confrontation as  they try to come to terms with their imperfect match.

Trailer: Angèle et Tony

Suggested pairing: A Holly’s Hill’s red - Mourvèdre or maybe a Patriarche – if you find a Petit Patriarche go for it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Sacramento French Film Festival 2014

Sacramento FrenchFilm Festival

Connecting and Re-connecting
As we get ready for the thirteenth annual Sacramento French Film Festival, I have been looking for relations between the films that are on this year’s program and those from previous festivals. 

Re-relating with Lucas Belvaux
The opening night movie is Lucas Belvaux’s ninth feature film Pas son genre  (2013).  At the 2002 festival we had the opportunity to see his daring trilogy (2002) On The Run, An Amazing Couple, and AfterLife.  These films do not tell the same story from different points of view but weave together three film genres – a thriller followed by a romantic comedy and then a melodrama – together they give us the parts, the outcomes, and consequences of the combined scenarios of all three movies.  

In 2010, the Festival brought us another tour de force courtesy of Belvaux: Rapt (2009), a powerful drama about the downfall of rich and powerful businessman derived from the real-life kidnapping of Baron Édouard-Jean Empain in 1978.  Two years later 38 Witnesses (2012) came to our Festival.  Once again we encounter a tough drama that is also loosely based on a true story this one from New York City in 1964.  Kitty Genovese, a young New York waitress was brutally murdered on a residential street, but not one of 38 witnesses  the police questioned that were in the vicinity, could remember hearing or seeing anything. Belvaux moved the action of his film to Le Havre on the Normandy coast, France’s biggest container ship port.  The police investigation and the unraveling of the story take place against the backdrop of giant container ships and the massive docks with their monstrous cranes and offloading gear that tower over the city's inhabitants.  

Pas son genre
Belvaux’s latest film differs quite a bit in tone and mood from his 2009 and 2012 features, however that is just on the surface, since this drama also revolves around conflict. A high school philosophy teacher from Paris – Clément Le Guern - is transferred to the “Provinces,” the town of Arras in the Pas-de-Calais department. As he settles in to what he hopes will be a temporary residence, he meets Jennifer, a hairdresser who has lived there all of her life.  The story that ensues is an adaptation of a novel by Philippe Vilain, an author who seems to study love as a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional thing that can bring people together and tear them apart as they grapple with the different ways each views love.  The movie develops in a way that we’re both attracted and distanced from each of the characters – Vilain’s novel was written in the first person from the point of view of the philosophy teacher, but Belvaux tries to draw his story from both points of view – his and hers, the Parisian and the provincial, the philosopher and the hairdresser.  

This portrait of how differences in background and culture coalesce while also complicating and impeding love is made all the more engaging by the performances of the two central characters.  Emilie Dequenne plays Jennifer, bubbly and a little naive, fun-loving, at times a little on the garish side, and yet lovable and heart-breaking. Loic Cobery’s Clément is very handsome, enticing, but a little condescending and at the same time a really passionate teacher.  Both of them are new to the Sacramento French Film Festival. 

Emilie Dequenne - Like Lucas Belvaux Emilie Dequenne was born in Belgium. In 1999, she was cast by the Dardenne brothers – also from Belgium - to play the title role in Rosetta, a gritty story about a young woman who desperately tries to find work and hold on to her job so that she can be a part of society and live what she sees as a normal life.  She was awarded the palme d’or for her interpretation of Rosetta. In 2009, she received her second award at Cannes – le prix de l’interprétation feminine in the Un certain regard competition for her role as a young mother who murders her five children in Joachim Lafosse’s A perdre la raison, based on a true story.

Loïc Corbery is also a distinguished actor but most of his work has been on the stage.  He has been a sociétaire of the Comédie Française since 2010 and has played all kinds of classical roles from plays by Molière, Corneille, Shakespeare, Aristophanes, and the like.  Like Grégory Gadebois, another Comédie Française actor who starred in Angèle et Tony (SFFF 2011), he brings to the screen a unique and solid theatrical training that adds strength and depth to his performance.

Other connections
This film has lots of dimensions and angles to it taking us into the heart of French culture, introducing us to a multi-faceted and constantly changing and challenging world of life and love.

Return to Flanders - Lucas Belvaux was born in Namur in Belgium.  His home-town has a lot in common with the city of Arras, the setting for Pas son genre. Today Namur is the capital of Wallonia (French-speaking Belgium) and Arras is the chef-lieu of the Pas-de-Calais department in France.

However, throughout their histories both cities have changed hands having been variously owned by, among others, Counts of Flanders and Dukes of Burgundy, and both cities have fine examples of Flemish architecture. Arras, sometimes known as the most southern of the "capitales" flamandes, has a population of around 50,000, which makes it very provincial when compared to Paris, but Arras has a long proud history as a powerful northern city and one of the preferred residencies of the medieval Dukes of Flanders.

Arras and Social Conflict - By setting his film in Arras, Belvaux also reminds us that this area is an historical focal point of class struggle.  One of the first coal miners’ strikes took place in the region in 1831 and Emile Zola set his novel Germinal against the backdrop of the northern French coalfields.  Incidentally, one of France’s greatest revolutionary leaders, Maximilien Robespierre, was born and raised in Arras and was elected by the population to be their Tiers état representative and the Etats généraux of 1789 whence he went on to lead the French Revolution.

A Belgian French film - France has always had a knack of corralling and glorifying artists, actors, musicians, dancers or other famous people who came to live and work in France and preferably spoke some French.  Leonardo da Vinci, obviously an Italian but a friend of François premier spent the last years of his life in France and left his most beloved painting in France (La Jaconde) the Mona Lisa. Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch artist who discovered himself in France made Arles his home for a short time and that Provençal city still celebrates the Dutchman today, as Antibes commemorates Picasso’s residence at the Chateau Grimaldi, and, in a Renaissance castle perched on a craggy hill in the Aquitaine, le Chateau des Milandes houses the Josephine Baker museum. French culture abounds with men and women who moved to France to work and became adoptive daughters and sons: Mary Cassat, Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Cécile de France, and many more.  We can add to that list the Belgian-born Lucas Belvaux and Emilie Dequenne.

Anna Gavalda - In one scene of Pas son genre, Clément asks Jennifer what she reads.  She replies, “des romans” (novels) and goes on to give the example of Anna Gavalda. Gavalda is a prize-winning and best-selling author of several novels and short stories, but her writing is often considered too easy to read in the opinion of a number of literary critics.  Ensemble, c’est tout (Hunting and Gathering) a novel published in 2004 was made into a film by Claude Berri - starring Audrey Tautou.  That film drew large crowds at the 2008 Sacramento French Film Festival. 

Les géants – giant puppets - The giant puppets we see during the Carnival of Arras are another intriguing feature of the Belvaux film and one that reflects the cultural gap between the two main characters.  The puppets, a very popular part of many festivities in the north of France, are so big that the puppeteers have to go completely inside the puppet. They can be as tall as eight meters and are constructed on a basket frame made of wicker. Their presence at carnivals and festivities in Flemish towns on both sides of the French-Belgian border dates back to the sixteenth century and the giant puppets may have their origin in Spain or Portugal – at that time the Spanish crown held territory throughout the area.  Originally, the géants were Saints and protagonists from the Bible carried through the streets on local saint’s days, but in the years since the French Revolution they have assumed a secular and popular identity.  

Colas and Jaqueline, Arras' giants, are dressed as artisanal peasants and have been around since the carnival of 1891.  In 1995, they gave birth to their son Dédé.  They come out in late August for the festivities celebrating the end of the Spanish occupation (1659) and they can sometimes be seen at Bastille Day.  However, their major sortie is during the Fêtes d’Arras at Carnival time – after all that is their anniversary. 

We have seen the giants before at the Sacramento French Film Festival. Our opening film of 2005 SFFF – Quand la mer monte (2004) (When the Sea Rises) starring Yolande Moreau and Will Waert and filmed on location featuring the giant Totor a puppet from Steenwerck.

Karaoke - The role of the karaoke in Pas son genre is another aspect of the film that may pique our curiosity as it articulates the cultural distance between Clément and Jennifer. Its not a feature of any French films that I can think of, but it has been used in a number of American movies.  Marlow Stern, an entertainment editor at The Daily Beast, has compiled a list of greatest movie karaoke scenes.  From the list, I think my favorite for its beauty and depth of meaning is Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.
 Karaoke tends to be a device used in comedies and romances to externalize some of the inner feelings of the protagonists.  In Pas son genre, the karaoke scenes have a similar role for Jennifer, but her love of karaoke stands in opposition to Clément’s passion for opera.