French cinema

The Intouchables

A charming feel-good French drama/comedy about an unlikely friendship, The Intouchables is maybe not the most original film ever and doesn’t dig into its premise all that deeply, but it remains irresistible thanks to the exuberant lead performances and the film’s belief in the power of human empathy and resilience.

Based on a true story, it centres on the relationship between Philippe (François Cluzet), an enormously wealthy middle-aged man rendered immobile from neck down after an accident, and Driss (Omar Sy), a young immigrant from Senegal who becomes his caretaker. In the beginning of the film, Driss, recently released from prison for theft, shows up at Philippe’s Versaille-like mansion for the caretaker job interview, not because he’s genuinely interested in the position but because he’s after a formal rejection that will help him collect unemployment benefits. Driss is rude and crude to everyone in the room, tries to hit on Philippe’s lovely secretary, and pinches a Faberge egg on his way out, but his vitality and don’t-give-a-damn attitude paradoxically win over Philippe, who above all wants a caretaker that won’t pity him. The arrangement also works well for Driss, since he’s kicked out of his home by the family’s matriarch after she gets fed up with his disappearances and criminal ways.

Since the two men take to each other straight away, their relationship is more about mining comedy from their culture clash, and exploring the ways they manage to impact each other’s lives. These are mostly predictable (cultured Philippe loves opera but streetwise Driss thinks it’s boring as batshit!) and, at least on one occasion, stretching believability. Also, some of the transitions between the film’s vignettes and subplots are handled a tad too abruptly. But none of these really detract from the film, and Sy’s charisma helps Driss get away with the humour at the expense of Philippe’s condition that often comes close to bad taste. The film makes it clear that, despite the obvious social and cultural discrepancies between the two men, this love of irreverence is their common ground, and their bond is truly moving. It helps that Sy and Cluzet bounce off each other so well as actors, with Sy’s freewheeling energy and physicality, and Cluzet’s restrained performance, where he can only express himself with his face and voice. The French love their odd couple movies, and they do them well.

Things to Come

Our trip to the cinema to see this French film with the incomparable Isabelle Huppert started off with a bit of drama: as the room went dark and the opening credits rolled in, Mum and I realised we were in a wrong cinema and instead were watching a British war film, which explained the trailer for Dunkirk. Oops. We hurried across into the right theatre and luckily our session hasn’t started yet.

The film itself was in a way an anti-drama; we are so conditioned to constant dramatic developments and turns in the movies that it’s almost disorienting to watch something that’s actually much closer to real life. In a different film, a character suddenly bursting into tears would generally be followed by some shocking confession or revelation, but here it’s just a random burst from a new mother whose emotions run high after the birth and which doesn’t necessarily suggest a shift in the narrative.

Not to say that there wasn’t any drama period – Huppert plays Nathalie, a Parisian philosophy professor, who in the course of the film loses things and people most important in her life. The most devastating loss comes when her husband of 25 years, another philosophy teacher and fellow lover of books, leaves her for another woman. Not that Nathalie lets any of these losses unravel her – even though she doesn’t go through anywhere as much trauma as Huppert’s memorable character in Elle from last year, the two women respond to their misfortunes with a similar lack of self-pity. In the case of fiercely intellectual Nathalie, she leans on the tenets of philosophy to get her through hard times.

Huppert is brilliant and luminous, the gorgeous and serene shots of Paris and French countryside are francophile’s manna, and the movie is best seen as a collection of slice-of-life observations, rather than something that builds up to anything major. This is not How A Mature Philosophy Professor Got Her Groove Back, despite the presence of a younger man, Nathalie’s former student and now a fellow philosopher, who invites her to spend time at the commune-like rural house he shares with his anti-establishment friends. The film tantalises you with possibilities that their relationship might take a sexual turn, but like everything else this doesn’t play like your regular movie drama. In fact the most dramatic thing in the film might be Nathalie’s mother’s fickle black cat.

Holy Motors

holy_motorsThe whole time I watched this bonkers surrealist fever dream of a film, my feeling was, I’ve no idea what on earth this movie is about, but I want to keep watching just to see what happens next. It’s a one-of-a-kind movie alright.

The story, if you can call it so, involves a man called Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who is ferried around Paris in the back of a limo by his taciturn but caring driver, Céline. He is employed by a mysterious organisation and has a number of appointments to attend to every day, and for each one, he adopts a different guise. The first appointment sees him transform into an old beggar woman, who loiters around with her begging bowl for a while before scooting off in the limo for the next appointment, which is… as far as I could say, a motion-capture acrobat who ends up romping around the studio in a highly erotic manner with a woman in a red skin-tight suit. And that’s not even the weirdest appointment by far; the honour goes to the one where Monsieur Oscar turns into a horrible red-haired satyr-like madman who runs around the cemetery munching on flowers, kidnaps a model (Eva Mendes) from a photo shoot, then takes her to the sewers and dresses her up as a Muslim woman. Even typing this up is extremely bizarre.

To make the whole thing even more jarring, the WTF episodes are interspersed with appointments that have clear conventional narratives and could have come from your average drama – a dad picks up his teenage daughter from a party, a young woman farewells her dying uncle. These feel so real it’s a jolt when they’re over and it’s time for Monsieur Oscar to take his wig and make-up off and move on. In another scene, Monsieur Oscar runs into an old flame (Kylie Minogue, lovely and elfin) who is also a colleague with her own limo and schedule to follow. They walk around an old abandoned department store and she sings a melancholic song about lost love. The film is quite mad, anarchic and preposterous, but tremendously entertaining and funny in places (while totally not funny in others) and the movie never lets you relax by throwing more and more unexpected weirdness onscreen until the very end. As an experience, it’s both engrossing and alienating, like looking in a distorted mirror.

Lady Chatterley

ladychatterleyAnother movie I missed out on in the cinemas despite the best intentions, Lady Chatterley is a French adaptation of an earlier version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a once-notorious novel by D. H. Lawrence. Pretty tame by today’s standards (you’ll find much more explicit content in your Jackie Collins novel), at the time the book was banned for its frank descriptions of sex, use of unprintable words and a central romance between a high society woman and a working class man. Though I really wanted to see the film, I raised my eyebrows at the running time, which clocks at almost three hours, but if anything this movie is a proof that a good movie can never be too long.

Connie (Marina Hands) is a young woman living at a gorgeous country estate with her husband Clifford, who is bound to a wheelchair after receiving an injury in World War I. They have an amiable, polite and passionless marriage which bores her out of her skull, to the point of physical illness. She begins to spend time at the forest hut of their gamekeeper, Parkin (Jean-Louis Coullo’ch), a taciturn man and something of a loner, at first because she finds the peace and quiet rejuvenating. Soon enough, the visits turn into an affair, and the movie charts the course of the relationship from its fumbling beginning – he grunts away, she lies there with the detached, what-the-hell-is-happening expression on her face – to a true intimacy, love and tenderness that transcend class. I was rather pleased that scene from the book where lovers decorate their bodies with flowers made it into the film; it could have been something truly cringeworthy (animal crackers scene from Armageddon anyone), but in the hands of a capable and, must be said, very French director it becomes touching and sexy.

The movie has a peculiar rhythm, where the individual scenes unfold gently and take their time, but the transitions between the scenes are done abruptly with lots of fade-to-black (and I mean lots), title cards (which I haven’t seen in movies in ages) and voiceover. It shouldn’t really work but somehow it all adds to the feeling of reading a novel on a long lazy afternoon. The leads are absolutely wonderful – Hands has a lively, expressive face that perfectly conveys Connie’s emotions; her male lead might not be an Adonis, shortish with a rough-hewn appearance, but their scenes together have a genuine sensuality. Another big standout of the movie is the beautiful setting that frames Connie’s physical awakening, which is shot with an obvious love for nature and really made me pine for the lush, green, sunlit European forests. It’s honestly one of the very few things I miss here in Australia. The movie touches briefly on the wider social and political issues, but not to the degree they’re explored in the later version of the book – this is a much more straightforward story. The only problem I had with the film is the ending, which doesn’t really feel like one – it plays just like another scene and then the movie simply… ends. Maybe I’m too used to the conventional ways of ending a film, but it felt jarring.


delicatessen-b-1080A delightfully zany French movie about love, dystopia… and cannibalism. It’s directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who later made Amélie, so I kinda knew what to expect – beautifully textured and whimsical visuals, quirky and imaginative little details, eccentric characters – but even so this movie is quite out there. It’s set in some sort of post-apocalyptic future where money is obsolete and food is scarce, and centres on the apartment block with a butcher shop on the ground floor, whose owner, also the landlord, is always in need of a new superintendent. That’s because every new applicant inevitably gets chopped up and served to the other tenants, who are on to the scheme and start complaining when the meat supply stops. The latest would-be-victim is Louison, a former clown, who catches the eye of Julie, the butcher’s daughter. Determined to save him, she turns for help to the bunch of underground vegetarian freedom fighters called the Troglodytes.

This description sounds quite grisly and silly, but Delicatessen does a marvellous job juggling the elements of horror, romance and humour in a macabre yet playful fashion, and it’s a delicious, perverse little morsel. It gets episodic at times, with the various vignettes about the colourful tenants of the building. They include an old man who lives in a flooded basement apartment full of frogs and snails, which constitute his daily diet, and a high-strung matron who keeps hearing mysterious voices telling her to do away with herself, which she attempts to do with increasingly elaborate means. There’s a nice unpredictability to it all because you never know what bizarre subplot the movie is going to move on next. The central romance is sweet and charming; there’s a hilarious sequence where Julie, wishing to make a better impression on Louison without her glasses, takes them off for their tea party, with disastrous results. I haven’t watched a European film in a while, and it’s funny that, once I realised that there would be a romance, my first thought was, there’s no way this guy would be playing a romantic lead in an American movie.