2023 Viewing, Part 2

Film posters of films watched

Truth be told, I did not expect to be posting my next viewing update so soon, but I’ve picked up speed and have ended up watching as many films in the past four weeks as I had watched in the previous three months. This spate of viewing productivity is mainly due to taking two weeks of annual leave and having had two bank holiday weekends, so it’s highly unlikely that I’ll keep this pace up for the rest of the year. You’ll see from the image above that I’ve continued my Tavernier mission and made further progress down the Denis Ménochet rabbit hole. I’ve actually reached my 2023 target of 40 films watched! That’s the difference that igniting curiosity and enthusiasm can make – long live rabbit holes!

It will be evident from its frequent appearance above (I was getting my money’s worth; renting the film gave me 48 hours access, so I watched it twice both times I rented it), that As bestas / The Beasts (Rodrigo Sorogoyen, 2022) lived up to its reputation (rather than my fears post Que Dios nos perdone). I am intending to write a standalone post about it – not straightaway, because I think it’s difficult to discuss properly without certain spoilers and it hasn’t been on release very long in the UK yet – so I’ll not say much at this point. I want to watch the things Sorogoyen made in between El reino and this – Madre (2019) and the TV mini-series’ Antidisturbios / Riot Police (2020) and Apagón (2022) [Sorogoyen has one episode in the latter, which is made up of five stories by different writers and directors] – because to me As bestas represents a significant step up in filmmaking. Interestingly, Sorogoyen and Isabel Peña started working on the script prior to Que Dios nos perdone, but for one reason or another it kept being delayed as a project. I’ve now read/heard Sorogoyen say in several places that he’s glad that it was delayed because they (he has worked with the same key team of people – cinematographer Álex de Pablo, editor Alberto del Campo, composer Olivier Arson, and co-writing with Isabel Peña – on all of his films and the television shows mentioned above) were capable of making a much richer piece of work by waiting and gaining further experience. So I’ve got a bit more viewing to do before writing about As bestas – both related to Sorogoyen, but also people in the cast (specifically Marina Foïs, who is integral to the film in a way that isn’t apparent at the outset).

On the Tavernier / classic French cinema front, the two standouts for me were Un carnet de bal / Life Dances On (Julien Duvivier, 1937) and Seul dans la nuit / Alone in the Night (Christian Stengel, 1945). The premise of the former is that Christine (Marie Bell), a newly-widowed woman, chases her youth by tracking down the men she danced with at her first ball twenty years earlier. It’s an episodic film, with each story (as she meets each man) tonally distinct (covering the gamut between tragedy and farce), and the change in tone sometimes unbalances the film. I was expecting it to be fairly frothy but it goes to some dark places, including suicide and a backstreet abortionist barely holding on to his sanity, as Christine discovers the hurt that she had sometimes unwittingly inflicted in the past. The most memorable sections are the Louis Jouvet one (I would have watched an entire film about that character, a lawyer turned nightclub-impresario-and-advisor-to-criminals) and the one with Pierre Blanchar (the afore-mentioned abortionist, who mistakes Christine for a potential client), although the latter feels like it belongs in a completely separate film (even the camera movement and editing style are different to the rest of the film, and reflect the male character’s unravelling mental state).

Seul dans la nuit is an atmospheric policier with a very baby-faced Bernard Blier as Inspector Pascal, in charge of his first murder case and traipsing into the high society circle of a celebrated singer and his entourage. There’s a good number of red herrings, a well-played double-bluff, and some gentle comedic touches (including Blier’s repeated nice bit of business with his pockets). Of the other French films: I really liked Tourneur’s Justin de Marseille last year but, although creepy, La main du diable / The Devil’s Hand (Maurice Tourneur, 1943) didn’t grab me; Le journal tombe à cinq heures / The Presses Roll at 5 O’Clock (Georges Lacombe, 1942) is a romantic drama set at a newspaper – star journalist Pierre Fresnay becomes a bitter rival of new cub reporter Marie Déa, with the usual cinematic resolution of squabbling battles of the sexes – but it also features some nice newsroom bickering between various reporters (including Bernard Blier); Les vieux de la vieille / The Old Guard (Gilles Grangier, 1960) is an Ealing-esque comedy about a trio of cantankerous old men (Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, and Noël-Noël) who, causing havoc wherever they go (aided by copious amounts of wine), set off on foot to a retirement home. I’ve not seen Gabin or Fresnay in comedy that broad before, but both seem to be having a whale of a time.

Onto the Denis Ménochet rabbit hole. I was thinking about this and – although I do still buy films (Spanish ones in particular) based on who is in them – I don’t think I’ve properly followed the thread of one actor’s career since finishing my PhD (wherein I tracked the careers of four). My viewing tends to be more scattershot and although I may say that I’m going to be a completist about certain people (bonjour, Louis Jouvet), I’m not approaching it in the same methodical and concentrated manner that was necessary in my research. I’m not intending to write about Ménochet’s career in the same depth as the four actors who were the focus of my thesis, but I’m enjoying following an actor again – and one who clearly doesn’t like repeating himself. Part of the enjoyment comes from watching films that I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out (admittedly this does occasionally highlight exactly why I wouldn’t usually watch them…but that happens less often than you’d think); in smaller film industries – or even in the cases of transnational actors seeking to develop careers beyond their own country – actors necessarily switch between genres (and registers), and this can cause their performances to garner richer resonances over time. Actors don’t work in a vacuum; they can only appear in the films that are actually being made. But there are also people who seem to actively seek out projects that are distinct from whatever else they’ve made to date – Ménochet appears to fall into that category. I’m not necessarily going to watch everything he’s made (so I may or may not have Assassin’s Creed in my future…although typing that almost makes it inevitable that I will end up watching it), and I don’t have an end goal in mind…I’m just enjoying the variety with a connecting factor.

Apart from As bestas, the two films that have stood out for me so far have been Seules les bêtes / Only the Animals (Dominik Moll, 2019) and Les adoptés / The Adopted (Mélanie Laurent, 2011). Seules les bêtes (currently available on Mubi in the UK) has a clever narrative structure; I really appreciated a film that refused to offer clarity and expected the viewer to pay attention and answer questions for themselves. There is an overlapping narrative whereby we see events more than once, with each repetition from a different character’s perspective, meaning that the viewer acquires more information and often has more insight than the characters. I think it offers an illustration of how we can regard ourselves as the hero of our own story, sometimes oblivious to the fact that we are actually also bit players in someone else’s story. Layers of misunderstandings accrue, to sometimes disastrous – and sometimes comic – effect. Roy Stafford has written about the structure more articulately than me, but like him I don’t want to say too much about the plot or Ménochet’s role in it because the film is worth seeking out and going in blind.

Les adoptés was Mélanie Laurent’s directorial debut and it’s sufficiently impressive that I’m going to track down the other films she’s directed (rabbit holes within rabbit holes). It’s a romantic drama told from the perspective of three characters (it’s only in typing that that I’ve realised that shared factor with Seules les bêtes) – Marine (Marie Denarnaud), Lisa (Laurent), and Alex (Ménochet) – the film is divided into three sections with each of them taking the lead in one. Marine and Lisa were inseparable best friends in childhood and Marine was adopted by Lisa’s mother (Clémentine Célarié) after both her parents died unexpectedly. Together the three women are raising Lisa’s son (Theódore Maquet-Foucher). When Marine falls in love with Alex, a rift develops between the sisters, but then tragedy strikes…so far, so romance-of-the-week, but the plot outline is reductive with regards to how the relationships play out and the freshness of the style. What I liked is that it’s not ‘merely’ competent filmmaking (which would be impressive enough in a debut), but is clearly ingrained with Laurent’s own humour and tastes; it has personality (without that overwhelming everything), which is rare. It helps that they all have great chemistry and charisma to burn, but that’s not the whole appeal, and the film manages to be both funny and moving. Not everything works (Audrey Lamy as Marine’s bookstore owner boss performs in a comic register at odds with most of what is going on) but more than enough does. I rented it on Amazon and may watch it again if I decide to write something about the films Laurent has directed.

I feel I should also (briefly) mention the two British films: Norfolk (Martin Radich, 2015) and Old Boys (Toby MacDonald, 2018). The former was Ménochet’s first English language lead and it’s a bit of an odd one. To look for the positives: I liked the slightly otherworldly quality of how the flat Norfolk landscapes are filmed; it’s certainly atmospheric; and both Ménochet and Barry Keoghan acquit themselves admirably within the thinly-drawn ciphers they are given. On the downside: the quality of the acting overall is extremely uneven (‘quality’ might be unfair because it could be deliberate but it’s the familiar problem of an unbalancing and jarring variety of styles…which again, could be deliberate in this case); events are deliberately opaque to the point of befuddlement; and any film that decides to name its characters ‘Man’, ‘Boy’, and ‘Girl’ (none of them have names) is going to set my teeth on edge. Ménochet battles manfully with Man’s gnomic utterances but sheesh (Boy’s rejoinder of “Really? You dreamt that?” after one particularly protracted riddle did however make me chuckle). Old Boys is an example of the sort of film that I might not ordinarily watch (I am actually more likely to watch something like Norfolk, more fool me) but it turned out to be an unexpected delight. Cyrano de Bergerac is transplanted to a 1980s English public school with put-upon scholarship boy Amberson (Alex Lawther) assisting the school’s nice-but-dim sporting hero to woo the daughter (Pauline Etienne) of the new French master (guess who). The archaic, violent, and frequently idiotic public school notions about ‘tradition’ are gently but persistently sent up. Being the 1980s there are no mobile phones, allowing them to keep the letter as the primary form of communication, but it also leads to some nicely Blue Peter-ish craft and audio-visual productions – or somewhere between Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998) and Be Kind, Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008). A sweet film.

My journeys through French cinema and down the rabbit hole will continue…

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