All entries for October 2008

October 30, 2008

Ensemble, c'est tout

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Ensemble, c'est tout
3 out of 5 stars

Claude Berri’s 2007 Ensemble, c’est tout is a predictable, yet charming, romantic French work of fiction based on Anna Gavalda’s novel which goes by the same title.

Audrey Tautou (Amélie) plays the role of Camille, an endearing but feisty young cleaner, at odds with her family and living alone in a cold under-roof room. Her encounter with a neighbour (Philibert, played by Laurent Stocker) leads to her being taken in by him when she falls ill. Things are, of course, not so simple when she comes face to face with Philibert’s angry, handsome, Casanova-type, over-worked and under-paid housemate, Franck (Guillaume Canet, Jeux d’enfants). Franck does however have his soft-side which we witness in his attitude towards his grandmother (played by the exceptional Françoise Bertin) for whom he would do anything.
The personality clash between Camille (Tautou) and Franck (Canet) progresses, predictably, into a story of romance which runs parallel to the issues raised by the declining health of Franck’s grandmother. The four protagonists complement each other in an odd way, creating a whole unit in which they are all stronger than as individuals.

Altogether, Ensemble, c’est tout is enjoyable, fun and romantic, but remains an anticipated story which is not intellectually stimulating.

October 23, 2008

Goodbye Lenin! – Crossing the borders

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Goodbye Lenin!
5 out of 5 stars

Goodbye Lenin! is a rare anomaly in film, a German-language comedy that successfully transferred to the mainstream English-language cinema; appropriate, considering the clash of cultures depicted in the film itself. Wolfgang Becker’s sophomore film as writer and director is a masterpiece of cultural commentary, blending nostalgia and satire while viewing one of the 20th century’s defining political moments through a human story that is both heartbreaking and hilarious.

Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass) is a model Socialist citizen living in East Berlin, who devotes her time to writing letters and galvanising her community in support of the DDR. On the eve of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, however, she sees her son Alex (Daniel Bruhl) taking part in an anti-communist protest and collapses, falling into a coma and missing the entire reunification process. When she awakes, Alex and sister Ariane (Maria Simon) are warned that any shocks may trigger a heart attack, and Alex therefore commits himself to pretending that the Wall never fell down, which becomes increasingly difficult as Western culture increasingly encroaches on reunified Berlin…..

From this (admittedly rather unlikely) premise, Becker constructs a narrative that, through this family, recreates the thrill and upheaval of post-reunification Germany. With a bittersweet taste we see Ariane starting work at Burger King, Coca-Cola banners being plastered over apartment blocks and a group of wide-eyed East Germans watching American porn as the Western world gradually eradicates the distinctive culture of the East, causing comic trouble for Alex as his recovering mother requests specific favourite brands of pickles. Yet the encroaching homogenisation of the nation is largely welcomed, and a genuine celebratory feel is created as the unified German football team progress through the 1990 world cup, with East and West German citizens celebrating together. The famously poignant scene in which Alex’s mother finally leaves their flat and witnesses the changes in all their glory as a statue of Lenin is flown past best encapsulates the extent of the cultural change sweeping the country (see the clip below).

Rather than ram history down the throats of its audience, however, the strength of Goodbye Lenin! is in the way it creates a tapestry of everyday life, with glimpses of the major events rather than front row seats. Much of the action takes place in the closed-off apartments of ordinary people, focussing on the changes in their day to day lives. The enormity of reunification is taken for granted; it is the people who lived through it that we are asked to empathise with; and its central character is one of the most human protagonists one could hope to meet.

Alex inadvertently echoes the tactics of the DDR itself, attempting to protect his mother by disguising her from uncomfortable truths, and the lengths he goes to (including recording fake TV news reports with his work colleague) form much of the film’s comedy. Yet, through this, Alex starts creating his own fantasy version of history, in which socialism prevails over capitalism and eventually welcomes in and subsumes the West. Bruhl is wonderful in a role that combines ingenuity with pathos; his repeated slipping into fantasy is as much to protect himself as his mother, he hurt by the abandonment of the family by his father years ago. This is Alex’s story throughout, and Bruhl brings great feeling to the joys and pains of first love, of responsibility at a young age, of the overwhelming love for his mother that pushes the rest of his relationships to breaking point. In a final heartbreaking moment, Alex’s long-suffering girlfriend reveals the entire plot to his mother in exasperation; yet she, realising what he has done for her, doesn’t give away that she knows and plays along, realising that the charade is as much for him as for her. This final unspoken act of motherly love, just before her death, provides the closure he needs.

Becker’s script expertly treads a line between condemnation of and nostalgia for socialism, refusing to align the film to either viewpoint and taking a somewhat simplistic view of the politics, but ultimately the political aspect is unimportant next to his humanist concern with the people affected by the transition. Underscored by Yann Tiersen's evocative music, Goodbye Lenin! is a film about love and loss, with the situation of the country a backdrop to the relatively simple story of a young man and his mother. Its historicity is specific, but its resonance is universal.

October 22, 2008

Cinema Paradiso: A heart warming tale of life

Cinema Paradiso
Not rated

Cinema Paradiso is a heart-warming tale, full of Mediterranean emotion, about the progression of a young boy (Toto) through life and its associated trials, joys and tribulations. It is set in a small town in the beautiful sun-drenched isle of Sicily, Italy. The focal point of the town is the local cinema. Young Toto develops a friendship with the grizzled and charming projectionist Alfredo, played wonderfully by the late Phillipe Noiret. They both share a mutual love for the cinema and much of Toto’s youth is spent cute-ishly pestering Alfredo to teach him the techniques of cinematic projection. The film recalls a somewhat romantic pre-war age, where the cinema provided a gathering point for the whole community who share their fascinations of the outside world and big-screen characters.

As Toto ages into adolescence, he takes on the role of the projectionist but the focus of his attention turns to the beautiful girl Elena. Here enter themes of love and passion, as Toto awkwardly and ineptly tries to attract the mysterious young woman. However, Toto’s life begins to dramatically change when he is drafted into army service. It is from here that the film draws on another key theme, nostalgia. Toto finds the life of a soldier difficult, and longs to go back to the community and woman he loves. In one of the most moving passages of the film, Alfredo encourages Toto to leave the village and use his creative talents to liberate himself from the constraints of small-town Sicily, and explore the world. It is extremely poignant and somewhat resonant for many young people. The film ends as it starts, with Toto, now a famous and respected figure in the film industry, returning to his beloved home town for Alfredo’s funeral. Toto finds that Alfredo has left him a present and the subsequent and concluding scene is perhaps one of the most moving in cinema. The beautiful piano-laden score, written by Ennio Morricone adds to the overall poignancy and emotion of the film.

The film is a fantastic alternative to the often sterile, monotony that appears from Hollywood, and provides a great foundation for exploring contemporary Italian and European cinema. The film focuses on numerous themes, which the audience can instantly engage with: love, regret, nostalgia, passion, friendship. It will play to all your emotional senses. It will fill you with happiness, make you laugh and I can guarantee it will make even the hardiest of souls cry.


October 04, 2008

Les Femmes de l'Ombre best kept in the shadows

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Female Agents is the story of four Frenchwomen on a secret mission in France to stop D-Day plans from being revealed. The bad guy is an SS officer called Heindrich who is always one step ahead of the SOE and the heroes are Louise (Marceau) and her brother Pierre, heading a motley crew of girls: Jeanne the prostitute who killed her pimp (Depardieu), Suzy the Follies Bergeres dancer and ex of Heindrich (Gillain), and Gaelle the Christian goody-two shoes (Francois). They are later joined by an Italian Jewish countess Maria (Sansa). Their first mission is successful but their second attempt is disastrous: through a string of blunders, confessions and the cunning of Heindrich, almost all the major characters find death (and themselves).

The script is not bad per se, in its favour there is little Hollywoodian heroism. The girls are at turns cowardly, treacherous, or downright stupid and their reasons for taking part in the mission are far from glorious: Jeanne escapes a hanging thanks to it, Suzy escapes blackmail. One can’t help wonder however what exactly the film was trying to achieve. The title leaves little doubt that its aim was to highlight women’s part in the war, yet these women are hardly the typical fare. Unlike the majority of spies sent to France, these women receive little to no training. Yet the weight of the D-day landing is allowed to rest on their shoulders: and what a mess they make of it! Pious Gaelle reveals all after a single nail is plucked, Suzy threatens the success of several operations with her sentimentalism and inability to fire a gun, Jeanne tries to escape a few times with the cash. Only Louise comes out favourably, but as Jeanne says, she’s barely human. The film is to be praised for not idolizing its central characters, yet the simplistic depiction of men as largely fearless and clever, and women as flawed is unsettling.

The film crucially fails to create a sense of real relationships between these characters. Julie Depardieu, as Jeanne is the exception rather than the rule: she alone manages to create a likeable, vibrant character out of the threadbare script, in her presence the other characters gain a bit of colour. On the other hand, there is no sense of sibling friendship or love between Louise and Pierre which makes the ploy to torture Louise to make him speak preposterous. One can't help but feel a sprinkling of humour would have helped us swallow the ridiculously beautiful smoke-fumed settings, but then, you know, the war is serious and shit, yeah?

Female Agents throws characters at the screen as quickly as it discards them. Characters such as Maria are introduced only to be killed moments later. Perhaps this is an attempt to capture the restlessness of the times but ultimately it just makes it difficult to care about the outcome.

October 2008

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