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.

REVIEW: Summer Hours

15 05 2016

Summer HoursFrom the opening series of scenes in Olivier Assayas’ film “Summer Hours,” the direction of events appears quite clear. An ailing matriarch (Edith Scob) invites her three children – COUGH, heirs to the estate – to get her affairs in order. Her eldest son (Charles Berling’s Frédéric) stayed in France, while one daughter (Juliette Binoche’s Adrienne) went west to the U.S. and her younger son (Jérémie Renier’s Jérémie) headed eastward to China.

When it comes down to the inevitable decisions about what to do with her formidable collections of art and decor, guess who pulls rank and opts to donate/sell rather than keep everything in the family heritage? If you guessed the siblings living abroad, well … slightly obvious spoiler alert, if you catch my drift. “Summer Hours” is a simple yet effective rehashing of the dialectic between continuing a legacy and punting on one’s heritage.

It may seem familiar, in part because these questions are important. Every communal unit, from the family to the nation, must continue to ask itself what debt it owes to past ancestors and what paths it must boldly blaze for itself. In films as wide-ranging as Derek Jarman’s “The Last of England” and Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” (two extremely random examples but they were the first to pop into my head), we see such issues debated.

Assayas is a worthy artist to work through these conundrums, and he sets up the tensions quite deftly in “Summer Hours.” Problem is, by about halfway through the film, he seems to run out of new things to say. None of this discredits the fine work to begin with; it just softens the impact by the close. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Lorna’s Silence

10 08 2015

Lorna's SilenceFor fans of the Dardennes (a group that probably exists only at the very fringes of cinephile circles), “Lorna’s Silence” functions as an interesting bridge between two stages of the brothers’ career.  Their first few movies, which include two Palme D’Or winners in “Rosetta” and “L’Enfant,” feature hardscrabble protagonists forced to learn tough lessons in an uncaring society.  Their latest two films, “The Kid with a Bike” and “Two Days, One Night,” allow some pyrrhic victories for characters willing to fight tooth and nail for them.

“Lorna’s Silence” falls somewhere in between these dueling worldviews, both evincing the past and presaging the future.  Perhaps it feels somewhat wishy-washy as a result, but Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne never hit a false note in their grim portrayal of what happens to Lorna, a fundamentally good-natured woman, when she makes her own life harder by having compassion.

In order to gain Belgian citizenship so she can start a business with her boyfriend, the Albanian emigre Lorna allows herself to become a pawn in a mafia game.  She endures a sham marriage to a junkie to avoid the messiness of divorce proceedings; local boss Fabio (Fabrize Rongione) thinks Lorna can kill off her husband Claudy (Jérémie Renier) by staging an overdose.  Lorna, however, finds herself torn between her personal desires to realize her dreams and the desire to help someone clearly struggling.  The push and pull, as well as how she attempts to create some kind of balance between the two opposing forces, proves brutally compelling to watch unfold.

The film may come across as slight in comparison to the brothers’ other work, but the impact of “Lorna’s Silence” is still hard to shrug off.  If this is the toll of trying to remain upright in a world that rewards self-service, then why would anyone ever want to do the charitable thing?  The Dardennes confront some of the tough dilemmas that face the working-class, daring us to feel the pain with their beleaguered, woebegone protagonists.  B+ / 3stars

REVIEW: Saint Laurent

9 06 2015

Saint LaurentBertrand Bonello goes to war with the biopic genre in “Saint Laurent,” his portrait of iconoclastic French fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent.  Anyone hoping for a highlight reel or a filmed version of his Wikipedia page need not apply here.  In fact, prior to the final segment of the film, where an older incarnation of the designer appears and reflects back on his past, I would be hard pressed to name a single accomplishment of Saint Laurent.

In a sprawling yet highly constricted two and a half hour odyssey, Bonello (with the help of screenwriter Thomas Bidegain, a frequent collaborator with Jacques Audiard) presents scenes from Saint Laurent’s creative zenith of 1967-1976.  Nothing shown meets conventional standards for worthiness of inclusion when portraying a “great man,” however.  What plays out on screen in “Saint Laurent” often feels like the scenes that might immediately precede the big, important dramatic centerpieces of a flashier biopic.

The problem, though, is that these scenes sometimes feel selected with all the curated purpose of an iPod shuffle.  Bonello directs many a great episode within “Saint Laurent,” but if these moments were tiles, they would not add up to a mosaic.  In some sense, this is likely his aim by bucking the established conventions for treating real people in cinema.  Can any life be reduced to some kind of contrived narrative?

The big problem of the film is that it never seems to be about anything.  Bonello tightens the focus of time, but not necessarily the subject matters he sets out to cover.  Is the film about his artistry?  His business savvy?  His success coinciding with some of the biggest French political crises of the modern era?  His sexual libertinism with swinging lothario Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel)?  Gaspard Ulliel embodies Saint Laurent with confidence, but Bonello far too often has his star just “be” instead of “do.”

Nonetheless, “Saint Laurent” amount to something radical and worthwhile by painting a titanic figure with evocative, rather than demonstrative, strokes.  Bonello poses quite a challenge with his film, one that he might not solve here.  Yet his call to redefine our ways of seeing public figures as human beings could inspire greatness in a keen filmmaker that can more cogently articulate a thesis or takeaway.  B-2stars