Deux Par Ozon (Ricky, Potiche)

27 05 2017

Ever since his “Young & Beautiful” beguiled me at Cannes in 2013, I’ve been a fan of Francois Ozon’s peculiar blend of French cinema. His blend of camp and noir traditions provides for unconventionally satisfying watches in “Swimming Pool” and “In the House” – and, for something totally different, he made a stunningly classical film recently with “Frantz.” That’s not to say I find him perfect, though.

Potiche” (B-) casts icon of French cinema Catherine Deneuve in a role fitting of her status. As Suzanne Pujol, matriarch of a business-owning family, she often keeps her dysfunctional family functioning while receiving little credit. She’s the titular trophy wife (the literal English translation of “potiche”) in a late ’70s era when such was a high honor to which a woman aspired.

But out of necessity, she must step in to manage her husband Robert’s umbrella factory while he falls ill – and during a classic French workers’ strike, no less. Her feminine wiles turn out to be just what the doctor ordered for the factory, so much so that her temporary custodianship begins calcifying into a more permanent management. Her newfound purpose divides her families and galvanizes French society, then still in shock over a woman exerting such authority in the business world so openly and unabashedly.

“Potiche” is a mostly enjoyable romp, although it eventually begins to drag as Ozon hits the same notes on his satirical social commentary again and again. We get the point pretty early on about female empowerment in a patriarchal society, and it’s not exactly a novel idea. Still, the fun of Deneuve letting loose in classic Ozon style makes the film worth a watch.

Now, I have seen Ozon make a movie about a teenage girl who chooses to be a prostitute, a widower who changes gender identity, and two tales about an obfuscated boundary between fiction and reality. These have been exciting takes indeed, though neither promise the sheer spectacle of “Ricky” (D / ). The film quite literally features a baby that sprouts wings (that resemble the kinds you’d see on a Butterball turkey at the supermarket).

It’s told with no urgency, no energy and no vitality – an especially shocking thing to say regarding Ozon, whose films are usually zany expressions of his twisted desires. Every moment rings false and every scene feels phoned in. To call it melodrama implies that there might be a moment resembling dramatic tension. There isn’t.

In fact, the cherubic titular character isn’t even the focus, he’s just the means for the mother to realize herself – but Ozon doesn’t develop her enough for us to give a damn. It’s just a bizarre spectacle and a head-scratcher of the worst variety.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 13, 2015)

13 08 2015

A Christmas TaleIt’s hotter than Hades here in Houston, so I ventured into Arnaud Despelchin’s “A Christmas Tale” for some escapism.  (Just kidding, I watched it mostly because the Criterion Collection deemed it worthy of inclusion in their hallowed ground of cinephilia.)  Despite the title, this is a film that should not be dusted off every December to watch ritualistically like “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Rather, “A Christmas Tale” merely uses the holiday as its setting – not its subject.  A large French family needs to gather under the same roof for all this drama to play out, and what better occasion is there for that than Christmas?  Instead of celebration, this day brings bitterness, resentment, and sorrow.

The family’s matriarch, Catherine Deneuve’s regal Junon Vuillard, needs a bone-marrow transplant to treat her fast-progressing cancer.  She needs a match from one of her children or grandchildren, all of which seem to struggle with some sort of serious issue.  (Except the two toddlers, but one can only imagine what kind of misery awaits them when they are old enough.)  To list everyone’s baggage would just consume the word count of a whole other review, not to mention spoil the fun of watching everyone collide and implode.

Though two and a half hours for a family melodrama might seem excessive, “A Christmas Tale” never buckles under the weight of its runtime.  Despelchin’s epic sprawl and familial brawl recalls the ’90s works of Paul Thomas Anderson – a comparison anyone who reads my reviews is high enough praise to earn the distinction of the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  Here is a movie with a grandiosity to its mood that feels perfectly cinematic, never exaggerated or gauche, anchored in a sharply written script and fine performance by a stellar cast.  What more could one ask for underneath the tree?

F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 18, 2015)

18 06 2015

If you watched “Les Misérables” and thought, “This was great, but I really wish Jean-Luc Godard directed it,” then I have quite the movie to recommend.  You simply have to watch Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” which he made back in 2000 (before the remarks about sympathizing with Hitler).  This kitchen sink realist drama/musical has to be one of the most heartbreaking, gut-wrenching films I have ever seen.

As you might have pondered reading that last sentence, realist drama and the movie musical are two territories that seldom overlap.  Hard-hitting, issues-based filmmaking concerns itself primarily with getting us to focus on the real, observable world.  Musicals, on the other hand, mostly offer us a pleasant diversion away from thinking about those problems.  von Trier finds the harmony between these two elements and combines them to devastating effect in my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Over the course of “Dancer in the Dark,” Björk’s Czech immigrant Selma Ježková slowly loses her eyesight and thus her ability to provide for her son.  The degenerative disease also takes away her one passionate activity outside of work: acting in community musical theater.  With that gone, she begins playing out musical numbers in her head – which we get to see acted out as vivid productions – to escape the depressing fate before her.

Essentially, Selma’s life recalls Fantine from “Les Misérables,” played out in slow motion and for an entire feature.  So, needless to say, “Dancer in the Dark” is not for those looking for a joyous, uplifting experience.  But those looking for an intellectually stimulating as well as emotionally engaging watch simply must watch this little marvel of a film.  Those who endure will be stunned by how anything can simultaneously be Brechtian and maudlin as well as beautiful and tragic.


9 05 2015

On My WayIn Emmanuelle Bercot’s road trip drama “On My Way,” the viewer gets treated to not just one but two separate automotive journeys with Catherine Deneuve’s aging beauty queen Bettie.  Each has its own narrative arc with separate, compartmentalized motivations.  Bercot, working from a script she co-wrote with Jérôme Tonnerre, pivots from the first to the second so suddenly that it takes a while to realize the film has entered a new phase.

The two sections of “On My Way” feel so tenuously connected that Bercot and Tonnerre might as well have Scotch taped them together.  The first section, a short film where Bettie walks out on her responsibilities and duties to find cigarettes (but really a deeper meaning to her life), makes for the kind of pondering philosophical piece rarely thrown to actresses of Deneuve’s age.  Though, to be fair, those kinds of movies scarcely get made anyways.

Then, the bulk of “On My Way” follows Bettie extending her road trip to transport her grandson, born to an estranged daughter, to visit the paternal grandfather.  In this section, which could stand alone as its own curt narrative, Bercot hits all the expected beats of the family drama with little to no surprises up her sleeve.  Nothing ever falls flat, yet the film inspires ambivalence since nothing soars.

“On My Way” essentially provides two movies for the price of one, though the ticket is hardly worth buying unless it’s cheap.  The film’s first thirty minutes of introspection might have been half-decent had they not been followed up by over an hour of a rather standard issue story.  C+2stars