Film #292: Mommy (2014)

director: Xavier Dolan
language: French
length: 138 minutes
watched on: 15 May 2017

I last watched a Xavier Dolan movie about two years ago, I Killed My Mother. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Dolan has a lot of mommy issues, and is putting those into his work. (Also, the mother in both movies is the same actress, which I didn’t realize.) And those who know me well might know why I perhaps am intrigued by those themes…

As for this movie, I tried to watch it on DVD – I rented it along with Sing Street and a few other movies, but I forgot that there wouldn’t be English subtitles (not for the first time, I might add – I tried to rent an Almodóvar film a while back). Normally, I’d just attempt to muddle my way through the movie, but the second or third line of dialogue is one character asking the main character if she even speaks French, to which she replies that it may not be proper hoity-toity French but it’s still French. And if the other characters in the story can’t understand her, then I’d have no hope. At that point I gave up and just resolved to stream it later with English subtitles, and finally got around to that in May.

The movie is about Die, a single mother, and her son Steve, who has a violent form of ADHD. Parts of the story is contingent on a fictional future government of Canada, that puts into place a law allowing families of young offenders to bypass the due course of justice and put them straight into institutions. At the beginning, she chooses to take her son out of hospital to avoid him having to go to jail instead. Then the movie follows their struggle to get along with each other, and introduces a shy woman with a stammer from across the street who bonds with them and starts tutoring Steve.

Visually, the film is unique in that it uses a 1:1 aspect ratio, reminiscent of Instagram pictures, and creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. The cinematography is also really nice, and the camera likes to linger on contemplative images – characters bored or listening to music, or of nature.

Perhaps it’s a spoiler, but when the mood lifts around the halfway point and everyone is feeling elated, the boy pushes the frame out with his hands and it fills the screen in the anamorphic widescreen ratio. It does this again later – but both times it subtly pushes back in when the mood dampens again.

The soundtrack is nothing but throwbacks – like they’ve looked into my pre-teen listening history and chosen some select tracks. They use Wonderwall, and then it’s the first time I’ve heard Dido, or that song Blue Da Ba Dee in many years. These parts of the movie are also very colourful, and I enjoyed them a lot.

Anyway, where I Killed My Mother was all about a boy trying to escape from the grasp of his evil mother, this one is much more Oedipal. Steve doesn’t know where to draw the line, getting jealous and lashing out when his mother flirts with another man, and tries to kiss her and tell her he’ll take care of her instead, precipitating the more catastrophic events towards the end of the movie. In contrast to Dolan’s earlier movie, it’s told from the mother’s perspective.

And while Steve is nominally the one with violent outbursts and mental health problems, Die is not much better – she is alcoholic, and a lot of the movie is the two of them shouting and swearing at each other. Like mother like son.

It’s quite a slow movie overall, and the ending is a bit of a downer, but I definitely enjoyed it, and liked a lot of the imagery. I can definitely see a lot of myself and my family relationships in both characters, too. Fortunately minus the violence and constant swearing.


Film #276: April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

aka: Avril et le monde truqué
directors: Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci
language: French
length: 101 minutes
watched on: 23 March 2017

I picked this up randomly when I was back in the UK at new year. In fact, I think I bought it mainly because if I bought two DVDs with a particular deal, they’d be £20 for two (it was this and Departure, if anyone’s wondering, and I also bought a bunch of other movies too). DVDs are expensive, yo!

Anyway, my last foray into French animation was a complete dud, so I was slightly worried that I’d have the same problem again, but this is not computer-animated. Phew! It’s gone down the Japanese route of adapting a comic book (manga, bande-déssinée, whatever you want to call them) to the big screen, and it looks the part. A lot of the character styles, and the sensibility of the animation, remind me strongly of Tintin, and likewise a lot of the humour seems to be drawn from a similar source.

The movie is an alternate history story where the age of steam didn’t die out, electricity was either never discovered or never harnessed properly, and things stayed roughly as they were in the 19th century. The film is set around the 1930s or so, but the history is completely different: needing coal and wood to power everything, Europe faces an energy crisis and starts fighting over who gets to strip-mine Canada. It’s “steampunk”, in a word. Things that would be controlled by electricity in the real world are clunking great steam machines. It’s very much in the vein of Howl’s Moving Castle, or the Japanese anime Steamboy, which I watched a few years ago. In fact, the plot of Steamboy, just reading back on Wikipedia, seems suspiciously similar to this one. There’s a MacGuffin (the elixir of life, or something), and people have to fly around on clunking machines to get at it.

Anyway, the characters are funny – I like the fact that the main character is female, for one thing. She has a talking cat pet, which also tangentially reminds me of Tintin. I think the world is well-developed and looks nice, if very brown. From the exquisite descriptions on the DVD case of the visual style of the film, I was expecting something less beige. But it does make the colourful parts come alive a bit more.

Say no more for now, but the film just goes bonkers in the third act when the identities of the secret captors are revealed. I think by this point I’d decided just to enjoy the film, and even though it’s stupid, it ties together somehow. So I can let it off.

The level of technology in steampunk stuff always amuses me. It’s always way above and beyond what we in the real world can produce, despite being set a hundred years ago. This is guilty of that – the “bad guys” have some kind of super space age ‘copter that can control the weather and go invisible, but the rest of the world are stuck with heavy pollution and mechanical parts that break a lot. It reminds me of the bonkers last act of Wild Wild West, when Kevin Kline has a giant mechanical spider. Like, there’s steampunk, and there’s pushing the boundary of what can be considered physically possible, and that danced right over the line.

It’s enjoyable, anyway, one of those gems I was lucky to find by browsing (this is why physical stores are important). And if anyone wants to borrow this or any of the other DVDs I have, you’d be welcome. Has anyone else seen this? What do you think?

Film #262: Departure (2015)

departure-2015director: Andrew Steggall
language: English and French
length: 104 minutes
watched on: 20 Jan 2017

I heard about this movie last year, and like a lot of the other movies I’ve reviewed recently, it was one of my eagerly anticipated movies of the last year or two. I’d been waiting for the DVD price to go down a bit – eventually, I bought it when I went back home for New Year this time. As usual, good luck getting it released over here (it can be delivered internationally, though!).

Heaven knows I’ve watched enough gay coming-of-age stories in my life already, but I still fall for it very easily. But watching the trailer I could see a hint of something special there, and I liked the folk music accompaniment. Inadvertently, I’ve also completed a kind of trilogy of gay coming-of-age movies set in the rural south of France, this one following Being 17 and Summertime. In fact, the opening shots of this movie reminded me a lot of the latter film, and the imagery and composition was reminiscent of the former. Seasons are again very important to this film, and it provides the autumn counterpart to winter, spring and summer of the other two movies.

The story is about a mother and son, who go to their creaky old holiday home in the south of France to get ready to sell it. They have to pack up their old life, but neither really wants to. Then the son (Elliot) comes across a French guy (Clément), in that time-honored gay coming-of-age story way by seeing him naked from afar, followed by quickly approaching him and inducting him into the family’s life. Clément also awakens something in the mother, triggering a tense competition between mother and son. Such animosity was already developing between them, but it gets worse over the course of the movie.

Elliot is played by the very cute but very young-looking Alex Lawther, who’s already picked up a couple of accolades for his other work. His character is fundamentally bored, and he’s on the cusp of adulthood – a big theme of the movie is endings, with the autumn setting and the sale of the house, which ties into him leaving behind childhood. He’s got a poetic mind, and already seems to know his sexuality – he proudly announces at one point that all the French writers he knows are gay. He occasionally has fantasies that are reflected in strange magical realism or imaginary moments in the film – one of him as St Sebastian, and another later on with falling leaves indoors.

The mother, Beatrice, is superbly performed by Juliet Stevenson, and perfectly captures the feeling of a woman who feels abandoned by her husband and son, but is trying to put a very middle class brave face on it. She gets upset very easily and is obviously in emotional turmoil. I think she hit me closer to the bone than the other characters, as she reminded me a lot of my own mother in many ways, desperate to rekindle the childhood relationship she had with her son, yet very isolated and going through a lot of emotions all at once.

Ultimately the boy that they end up fighting over is window-dressing – the central conflict is between Elliot and her, him trying to be aloof and not so keen to be treated like a child, and her trying desperately to reconnect with him. Or he’s embarrassed by her in a typical teenager way and shocked that she’s trying to flirt with the French guy too. But we’re reminded at key moments that the French guy has real feelings too – too often they’re ignored by the main characters, causing upset and argument.

The sexual content in the movie weirded me out a bit – while it’s nothing explicit, of course, it’s showing Elliot masturbating off camera, and later finding a carrot as a conveniently-sized vegetable to … use on himself in bed (followed by one of the movie’s more comedic moments when his mother almost catches him and makes an inadvertent innuendo). I couldn’t quite take the movie seriously at these points. They’re important to the movie and its repressed atmosphere, but I just started laughing. I think it’s just because Elliot is still obviously a child, by the way he acts otherwise.

The movie is a lot of melodrama, overall, and there are a lot of overwrought images in it. Sometimes the themes can be shoved in viewers’ faces a little too forcefully – especially the whole theme of endings, constantly reinforced by the autumn imagery. The movie was treading the line between pretension and fine art for quite a lot of the runtime.

So I don’t think it’s a perfect movie by any means, but I was deeply moved by parts of it, I loved the imagery and cinematography, and I’m definitely going to be watching out for those actors again. And I couldn’t get the movie out of my head for a few days. Highly recommended.

Anyone else seen it?

Film #255: Summertime (2015)

labellesaisonaka: La belle saison
director: Catherine Corsini
language: French (and a little bit of Spanish)
length: 105 minutes
watched on: 26 Dec 2016 (plane 6/6)

I mentioned in my review of the short film I watched on the way back to the UK that I’d been sifting through Air France’s selection for anything LGBT-related, and this film was basically the only one I could find (I had a vain hope that I might be able to find Quand on a 17 ans (Being 17), with proper subtitles, but it wasn’t to be). I heard about it last year because it was the opening event at the LGBT film festival in Tokyo (now called Rainbow Reel Tokyo – I wrote some reviews last year starting with this one), and if I’d had a little more time and money, I might have tried to go, but it didn’t make the cut, eventually.

The movie is about a country girl who goes to university in the city, in the 70s. She gets accidentally caught up in a feminist group, by saving one of them from an aggressive man – she then starts a passionate love affair with that woman. And so on. The other woman comes back with her to the countryside and tries to fit in, but finds it difficult.

Just opening with farmland vistas it was already shaping up to be very similar in tone and style to Being 17. That other movie also had farms and landscape almost acting like another character. Seasonality is also important – this time it’s summer in particular. The characters spend large parts of the second act lounging in fields and having picnics. There’s something very French about that, it makes me nostalgic for going on holiday there as a child. There’s also something very French about the frank nudity in the second act, incidentally – what else should we expect?

I’ve mentioned a lot recently the tendency for filmmakers to exaggerate the distinction between now and the periods they’re portraying, to the point that it becomes parody or cartoonish – I’ve noticed this in High-Rise, Toast, and Stranger Things, just to name a few. I was reminded of High-Rise in this movie by the fact that people are constantly smoking, at least in the Paris scenes – but these scenes are actually more evocative of nouvelle-vague due to that and a few other things, reminding me a lot of Jean-Luc Godard’s work.

There is a familiar tension between the city and country in this film, especially between the two leads – the one girl who has to go back to the countryside to take care of her mother and dying father, and the other who kind of follows her reluctantly and never fits in there. And of course with homophobia – attitudes to such things in liberal Paris are at odds with how the mother reacts late in the film when she finds out about the two women sleeping together.

The film touches on a much wider variety of issues than that, though – sometimes it feels like it’s making too much of an effort, in fact. But I really enjoyed it. It was uplifting, despite a lot of heartbreak and emotion. It had a lot of comedy moments, despite often being very sad. It chronicles the entire course of a love affair from beginning to end, over the course of a brief summer (as I mentioned, and as the title proclaims, seasons are very important), and I think that is one of the main things that differentiates it from Being 17, which is all about beginnings.

It can be all too easy when exploring the world of LGBT cinema to stick to your own gender – a lot of gay men don’t watch lesbian films and vice versa – and I don’t think I need to convince any lesbians to watch this. So this goes out to all the guys, and straight people, reading this review – watch this. It’s good.

Film #252: Children of History (2016)

cohaka: Les enfants de l’histoire
director: Aurélien Kouby
language: French
length: 5 minutes
watched on: 26 Dec 2016 (plane 3/6)

Air France had a really extensive selection of films this year, and instead of making the mistake of picking a random “comedy” movie from the list of French films (as I did last year to my dismay), I found the “short films” section. That’s basically how I watched six movies this time around: this one is only five minutes long. I picked this one because it seemed like a nice way to see some French talent, and I was searching through the list for anything vaguely LGBT-themed. This certainly has overtones of that, although the two subject matters are twelve years old, and I wouldn’t actually class it as an LGBT movie.

I think I’d class it as comedy, although subtle. The two boys are changing after a swimming class. The teacher tells them to hurry up, followed swiftly by chastising them for running – it’s that kind of humour. The white kid quizzes the other boy about his ethnicity (Jewish), and then proceeds to talk about how he found a photo of his grandparents doing a Hitler salute, which he demonstrates. The Jewish kid is initially dumbfounded and gets angry. But by the end of the five minutes he’s agreed that whatever the grandparents did, he can still be friends with the other boy. History is history, or something. The boy isn’t his grandfather.

It’s less of a film than a slice of life, or a fossilized moment. Interesting in passing, certainly, and it raised a chuckle. But unless you’re also going to catch an intercontinental Air France flight, you’re unlikely to come across it.

Film #247: Being 17 (2016)

qoa17ansaka: Quand on a 17 ans
director: André Téchiné
language: French with a bit of Spanish
length: 109 minutes
watched on: 16 Dec 2016

There’s been a bit of buzz about this movie in LGBT circles over the last few months, and I finally got around to watching it in December. Now, I don’t usually talk about this publicly, but if you know about it already or you look at the IMDB page now, you will know that it’s only had a limited release in the US, and certainly not in Japan or even the UK. Spoiler alert: I downloaded it. But honestly, I don’t recommend that, not yet: it’s only had a DVD release in the Netherlands, and the subtitles included with the torrent are Google-translated from Dutch. My French is good enough that I could just use the subtitles to understand the more difficult words, but this lack of proper subtitles may ruin one’s enjoyment. However, next spoiler alert: I really liked this movie, and I would definitely see it again on the big screen if I get the chance (fingers crossed it comes to the festival in Tokyo this year). So I’d hold out for that, or a proper DVD release.

The film is set in the Pyrénées, and it opens with extraordinary vistas of the mountains in the winter. Seasonality is very important in the movie, and it transitions in the second and third acts to spring and summer. Honestly, I haven’t seen such an immediately beautiful movie in a while. It really revels in the scenery, and that’s the main reason I want to see it again on the big screen.

The plot follows two boys, who don’t get on at school – they’re always fighting. But one’s doctor mother helps the other’s sick mother, who turns out to be pregnant. She then helps out the other family by taking in the other boy for a while, much to the chagrin of her own son. Then in the time-honoured tradition of gay films, he falls for the other guy. Long story short, anyway.

It’s not completely true to my experience – I didn’t roughhouse with my fellow students so much, and I wasn’t so brutally honest with my crushes when I was a teenager. But it has a universality to the kinds of anxieties it captures, of being that age, beyond the usual coming-out anxieties typical of gay films. I’d be very disappointed if it gets relegated only to LGBT film festivals, but as usual, this is almost certainly going to happen.

I also like the slow-burn realization that they’re into each other, as I think it’s not until the third act that they finally do something about it, and not before a lot of angst, and quoting Rimbaud at each other, talking about desire and need. They’re also downright cute together by the end.

Is it the perfect movie? Not quite, but it’s very beautiful. Did it tear my heart into a thousand pieces? Yes…

Anyone else seen it?

Film #191: Made in U.S.A. (1966)

madeinusaDirector: Jean-Luc Godard
Language: French plus some English
Length: 81 minutes
Watched on: 15 June 2016

I got this for Christmas over a year ago, and it’s been sitting in my DVD folder since then. Something has been spurring me to actually go through a few of the DVDs that I have, since I have so many lying around – for whatever reason, I haven’t watched DVDs much recently, and I’ve had some in that folder even since I came to Japan four years ago.

Anyway, I don’t have the case for this one, and couldn’t remember what it’d be about, and it turned out to be a Godard film from the 60s. I couldn’t work out where it was supposed to be set – it has the atmosphere of actually being set in the USA, as the title suggests, but everyone speaks French – I think it’s really meant to be Atlantic City. The story is pretty ephemeral, but it follows Anna Karina’s heroine around as she tries to track down a killer. There are a lot of gangsters.

For me the film is memorable for its visuals, which is usually the distinguishing feature of Godard’s movies. A lot of scenes are done in single shots, and there is one moment when the two main characters are speaking at the same time, and have to individually deliver a soliloquy to camera while the other is speaking – which seems like the most difficult thing to do!

But basically, I’m not such a fan of Godard’s work. Beyond the visuals nothing ever stands out to me, and I usually can’t recall other details about the movies later. It’s all atmosphere, and sometimes that’s all it needs to be effective and have an impact, but I much more appreciate something with a meatier narrative.

On a side note, I watched the DVD extra, which was an interview with Karina, who pronounces the movie with “Made in” the English was and “USA” the French way, which threw me. I didn’t know it might be natural for people to say it that way…

Film #177: Family for Rent (2015)

unefamillealoueraka: Une famille à louer
Director: Jean-Pierre Améris
Language: French
Length: 97 minutes
Watched on: 28 December 2015 (plane 3/4)

One problem I have with watching movies on a plane is that I don’t have access to the internet in order to make a balanced decision about what to watch. My usual threshold is at least 6 or 7 stars on IMDB, for all that the opinions of people who use IMDB matter at all. On getting off the plane and checking the reviews later my suspicions with this movie were confirmed – it only has 5.3 stars.

I think I always have this problem when looking at a country’s local cinematic offerings – it’s very hard to separate the wheat from the ever-present chaff. This is a barely-passable French comedy about a rich guy who decides he wants a family and moves in with a woman who’s been on TV for shoplifting, or something. Like all French comedy, it boils down to class – the rich man who thinks he can pay his way through life and the working-class single mother who loves her children very much just scratching the surface.

I just got quickly frustrated with the absurd situation and the unlikable characters, but I stuck it out… because I guess most other movies on Air France’s entertainment system would be just as bad. I was also creeped out by the age difference of the main characters… and just didn’t find the movie funny.

The kids were good actors, though.

Film #155: Breathe (2014)

respireaka: Respire
Director: Mélanie Laurent
Language: French plus some English, Spanish, Italian
Length: 91 minutes
Watched on: 14 July 2015 (2 of 4 on my flight back to Japan)

Having just had my fill of classic French cinema with The 400 Blows, I turned next to something a bit more modern. I picked Respire, or “Breathe”, based on the description that screamed “lesbian” to me – it’s been an unfortunately long time since I’ve delved into the world of Sapphic love onscreen.

The film’s synopsis is that a girl meets a new girl at school – she’s obviously instantly enraptured by her, and the two spend all their time together. The film takes a bit of a turn for the worse when the new girl bores of her.

Unfortunately, the film didn’t capture my attention for much of it. A few months later (I really need to start setting myself deadlines for these reviews!), and most of the finer details escape me. I’m pretty sure the lesbian aspects of it were relegated to heavily implied subtext, or were completely one-sided infatuation on the main character’s part. I liked the acting, though. I reckon there’s something worthwhile in this film, but perhaps if it could have a faster pace that would be better for me.

It also reminded me of another lesbian movie with a disturbing or fucked-up ending that I saw a few years ago – that one’s title escapes me, but the ending of this one was certainly much more disturbing or shocking. It doesn’t bode well for lesbian cinema when two of the examples I can come up with having seen are those two, basically. Does anyone have any better suggestions?

Film #139: Holy Motors (2012)

holy-motorsDirector: Leos Carax
Language: French with some English and Chinese
Length: 111 minutes
Watched on: 1 Jan 2015

I had quite a movie-filled holiday this year: this was the second movie I watched on New Year’s Day, at my friend’s enthusiastic recommendation. He called it one of the most intelligent recent movies he’d watched. I’m not sure I’d be quite so gracious, but I certainly enjoyed it.

It’s French and has very self-conscious arthouse sensibilities. In the movie we follow around a guy in a limo, who is taken from place to place, whereby he has to dress up and act out a short scene, spurred by instructions from his mysterious employers.

The scenes are very diverse – they include the one pictured above, where he, as a dishevelled homeless man, disrupts a funeral and kidnaps a woman to take her down to his underground lair. The scene ends with the image of him lying there with an erection while his victim sits looking majestic in a veil. Then there’s a scene where he meets his twin (somehow) and they engage in bloody battle. Then somehow he meets up with Kylie Minogue, who looks nothing like she used to in the 90s, and apparently speaks French. It was almost like watching a compilation of short movies – I’m reminded of Paris, je t’aime, at least by setting if not by tone – but we also get to see the main character going between each role over the course of a day.

Trying to explain the movie is almost like a chore – it doesn’t really make sense. What I think, in my cynical way, happened, is that the filmmakers came up with several images or scenes first and then found a way to link them together. What especially made me think this is the way the film lingered on the image of the crazed homeless guy with his cock out, saying clearly that everything else in that scene had been a build-up to that.

I do also think it’s uncharitable to just think that, though. I think they’ve managed to create something that is reminiscent of even greater French works from la nouvelle vague and its ilk. I think they’ve managed to create something thought-provoking and not simple.

To illustrate that, on the one time we hear from the man’s employers, off-camera, they make reference to the man’s viewers – indeed, who are these viewers? Are we in some dystopian future, making comment about the voyeuristic nature of reality TV? Or are we ourselves the voyeurs, behind the proverbial fourth wall? There were also the parts in between the scenes, which blurred more and more into the main scenes too – it became very unclear where one finished and the next started off.

So it was nice to see something that had a bit of depth to it. While I didn’t quite agree that the movie was the most intelligent thing I’ve seen recently – I think it relied on shock value a little too much for my liking, for one thing – I think it would stand up to a repeat viewing (especially because I’ve gone and done the thing where I lag behind with my reviews and have forgotten many of the details), and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in French arthouse cinema.