Things To Come

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***

Mia Hansen-Løve’s fifth feature film as a director plays out a little like an archetypal country-and-western song: our hero (in this case, Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie) loses a succession of the most valuable things and people in her life, yet somehow gets by, and even gets stronger. It works as a fascinating companion piece to Elle, Huppert’s Oscar-nominated film from last year, in which her character put on a brave face following one of the most wretched traumas a human being may be put through. Here, the traumatic events are more mundane, but her resilience is similar. She smiles at fate.

Nathalie is a Parisian philosophy professor, and her philosophical approach to life seems to be the film’s raisin d’être, for it otherwise eschews a lot of dramatic practice, and a lot of drama. Life happens to Nathalie, but the ramifications aren’t necessarily going to be contained within the movie’s brisk hundred and two minutes. You might call it a character study, or a slice of life, but it’s a bit more than that. Nathalie’s resistance to self-pity is quietly inspiring, and her advocation of philosophy and intellectual engagement to deal with life’s blows – its unfairness – is good advice in troubled times.

Huppert plays Nathalie with her customary brilliance and sense of detachment. She’s become invincible and so, it seems, have her recent characters. The chink in her armour may be her interest in a past student of hers, Fabien (Roman Kolinka, tall, handsome, and so perfectly cast that you’d swear he was off to a discussion on radical thinking the moment he leaves any frame.) Fabien has taken Nathalie’s philosophical teachings to heart, and taken them further; he’s moving  with a group of like-minded young people onto a farm, where they continue a post-graduate academic lifestyle of self-sufficiency and revolutionary ideas. In this context – Nathalie visits the farm twice – she is visibly old and bourgeois, stuck in the comforts of academia. To her, the students may seem comically idealistic, or they may be living the dream; her attitude to Fabien is similarly conflicted, and the film’s most tantalising question is, of course, whether the relationship is going to take a sexual turn.

Hansen-Løve shoots sunnily; Nathalie’s Paris is relatively calm and spacious, with a glorious riverbank which she takes her students to occasionally. Watching this group of smart young people discuss philosophy on the banks of the Seine will scratch your Francophile itch, c’est pour dire. Whether the film scratches your dramatic itch depends on how much you need; Things to Come is, like its protagonist, hardly prone to hysteria of any kind. It is based directly on Hansen-Løve’s mother, and observes the casual reality of life.

Elle

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****

Elle, based on a novel called O by Philippe Dijan, who also wrote Betty Blue, is Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s first French film, and features Isabelle Huppert in a performance already being touted as an Oscar contender. It is a mesmerizing, frenzied abomination, a thrilling, propulsively lurid provocation that is simultaneously classy and grotesque, refined and coarse, arthouse and grindhouse. The Hitchcock of Psycho and Frenzy, and the De Palma of pretty much everything, would love it. I did.

Some people won’t. The central conceit of the film – that a woman, Michèle (Huppert), who is raped in her home in the first scene, won’t let the event disrupt the rythms of her life – will appal some, and that’s only the starting point. By the end, the film’s sexual politics, which I won’t elaborate on here in deference to keeping the film’s many plot twists unspoiled, are a viper’s nest. Suffice to say, you are welcome to loathe this film.

Huppert – who is up there with Streep and Day-Lewis as one of the masters of screen acting – is infamous for bringing characters similar to Michèle to the screen, most notably in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001). Indeed, Michèle is such an “Huppert role” that you’d think it had been written with her in mind, but that wasn’t the case. Initally, producer Saïd Ben Saïd, whose intriguing body of work includes Maps To The Stars, Carnage and De Palma’s Passion, hired American screenwriter David Birke to write an english-language version of the novel, moving the action from Paris to an American city. But Verhoeven has stated that “no American actress would ever take on such an amoral movie”, and, sweeping as that statement is (and given the “level” of actress he’s referring to, being A-List or A-List Adjacent), he’s probably not wrong, given the conversation around sexual abuse going on in the US at the moment. Once Huppert expressed a keen interest in the role, the script was transplanted back to France and French. Thank goodness. It feels right there, and Huppert is the absolute mechanism that makes the whole thing tick.

It’s relentless. I can’t recall a recent movie with so much plot, so many things going on. Each scene piles on more incident, more character intrigue, more development, as if, like a shark, the film would die if it stood still. This is not a bad thing. Despite the film’s extremely polished veneer – of superb acting, top-tier cinematography (Stéphane Fontaine, A Prophet and Rust and Bone) and generally upscale Parisians in a generally upscale Paris – it really is a lurid potboiler, which would collapse under scrutiny, and certainly under the gaze of a university class on feminism.

Is the film, in terms of its sexual politics, an abomination? I don’t know. The fact that Huppert, who is all class, was so keen to be involved offers no answers, because she is obviously drawn to provocative material, and Elle is certainly that. I do know that the film is unbelievably entertaining, engrossing, thrilling and genuinely engaging – the last time I squirmed in my seat so much was during Force Majeur (2014), which I considered the best film of that year. Elle is not on the same level as Force Majeur, which truly had something to say, but it is a gloriously digestible guilty pleasure. Feel free to hate it, but also feel free to love it; I did.

Beauty And Sadness

Amour ***** (out of five)

amour-movie-poster-2It’s tempting to go overboard writing about Amour: “Master movie-maker Michael Haneke masterminds a masterclass in masterful masterpiece making!” But the fact is, it’s pretty much a perfect film on every level. Structurally assured, perfectly acted, and deeply moving, it tells a simple tale, and in doing so examines the absolute extremes of its theme, which is also its title: Love.

amour-movie-poster-11The central dramatic question is straight-forward: what do you do when your lifelong partner starts to rapidly deteriorate before you do?  Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play George and Anne, two sophisticated, retired music teachers in their eighties. At the beginning of the film they are still sprightly, going out to see a former student’s performance, taking the tram home. They are as we may all want to be in our dessert days, namely, still deeply in love, and capable of being all the other needs to fill out their days. But then Anne has a stroke, and from there, Georges must face her deterioration as he himself remains healthy.

No more of the plot should be revealed, because it is going on Georges’ journey that forms the film, and it is sublimely told. Hanneke, who wrote the screenplay, has realized that, rather than sequences and acts, this is a story of moments, and he chooses all the right ones to portray his subject with absolute thematic depth. They have a daughter (Isabelle Huppert, perfect); she’s going to “want them to do more”: that’s a moment we need to see, and we see it. Likewise, at one point Georges has to fire a nurse: it’s a moment filled with so much to say about what it is to grow old, it’s astonishing.

Haneke and his Palme D'Or at Cannes 2012
Haneke and his Palme D’Or at Cannes 2012

But the most moving scenes are those when it’s just Georges and Anne alone. Both actors give perfect natural performances; it’s Georges’ story but Anne, of course, has to deteriorate; they both deserve all the awards and praise they’ve been receiving (Riva is nominated for a Best Actress Oscar; Trintignant should have been for Best Actor).

If all this sounds depressing, it’s actually not. It’s sad, of course, but that’s different. It’s also astoundingly thought-provoking and gorgeously shot. It’s beautiful. See it with someone you love.

Movie 43 * (out of five)

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They all knew they should never have done MOVIE 43.

MV5BMTg4NzQ3NDM1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjEzMjM3OA@@._V1_SX214_Movie 43, a set of gross-out sketches padded with a silly overarching story and performed by a galaxy of A List Stars, is depressing. Shoddily made but, worse, absolutely appallingly written from first sketch to last, it’s a complete fiasco, a dreadful, obnoxious, deeply embarrassing disaster from start (Hugh Jackman has testicles hanging from his neck!) to finish (Josh Duhamel’s cat anally pleasures himself while raping a teddy bear!) My hopes that it just might be so over-the-top it would work were dashed in the first minutes, and it never got better. Besides the dreadful writing of the sketches (sorry, did I mention that this movie is horribly written?), these actors are not Will Ferrell, Jack Black and Steve Carrell. This is obviously all of them, in a sense, screen-testing to become Big Screen Comedy Stars, and, let’s be honest, Kate Winslet, Halle Berry, Richard Gere, Dennis Quaid (he’s the worst of all) – that’s not gonna happen.43.rMovie-43_11Screen-shot-2013-02-08-at-1.42.25-PMelizabeth-banks-movie-43

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
To be honest, I laughed three times, but once was just at the sheer idea that the “joke” I’d just seen was even meant to be a joke, so that doesn’t really count. The movie stinks; it’s even at times legitimately offensive. Horrible. Avoid like the plague it is.