Archive for the ‘French Films’ Category



June 22, 2008

Persepolis Review


Length: 95 min

Précis: Creative and likeable “coming of age” story set against Iran’s modern history.

Review by Matt:

Persepolis is an animated cartoon version of Marjane Satrapi’s popular autobiographical graphic novels about growing up in Iran.  You might already be dubious, especially if you prefer the cinema to be a place for an entertaining escape and have been burned before by contemporary Iranian films (many of which are fine films but, oh so painful!) Don’t worry, Persepolis filters this potentially depressing subject through Marjane’s idiosyncratic viewpoint and tells a story with a refreshing wit and whimsy. Iran’s modern history, dominated by the deposition of the Shah and the consequent rise of the current fundamentalist regime, becomes the backdrop to a personal tale about rebellion against repression and the search for identity. It’s a touching and funny story whose messages are universal.

The story begins when Marjane is a small girl living with her family during the last days of the Shah in the late 1970s. It’s evident from the start that she’s a feisty non-conformist, obviously influenced by her liberal family, some of whom are even imprisoned as dissidents. Part of the delight of these early scenes is the way events are filtered through Marjane’s childish viewpoint. A story about the Shah, for example, unfolds on the screen as an animated fable. As she becomes older and the regime more repressive, Marjane’s indomitable free spirit leads to trouble and a self-imposed exile to Europe. More animated adventures confront her there, but special prominence is given to her search for identity as an Iranian living in the west.

There is a lot of enjoyment to be found simply in the film’s style of storytelling. The animation is almost anti-Pixar in its grey, un-glossy, two-dimensionality. Yet it is used creatively and evocatively, sometimes reminiscent of German expressionism, and it is ideal for animating flourishes from Marjane’s active imagination. Marjane also has an uplifting joie-de-vivre that shines through the oppression; she’s the kid who would sneak into backstreets Tehran to buy contraband Iron Maiden tapes, or who just has to ask the fundamentalists insolent questions about God.

The film’s autobiographical frame means that personal experiences trump political comment, but a humorous personal account is quite an interesting way to look at a foreign history and culture, and of course it makes the politics easier to swallow. A lot is said about indoctrination and martyrdom, for example, simply by Marjane’s brief encounter with her young cousin, who has been promised a key to a Heaven full of women in exchange for military service. Some of Marjane’s other digressions seem a bit indulgent and the film meanders slowly for a while, but Persepolis maintains an entertaining ability to poke fun. The focus on everyday details of life also reminds us nicely that people everywhere are really the same – even if they hail from the ‘axis of evil’.

It’s not a surprise that Persepolis has become so popular. It scooped the Jury Prize at the Cannes festival in 2007,  was nominated for the Best Animated Feature at the 2008 Oscars, and is still touring the world, having just played at the 2008 Sydney Film Festival. It’s a likeable, unexpected gem that celebrates strength and spirit and proudly represents everyday people faced with dark times. Marjane Satrapi produced Persepolis outside of repressive Iran – she now lives in France. We’re lucky that protestations from Iran have been ignored and that we get the chance to see this exile’s unique picture of life in her former home.


MOLIERE (2008)

June 13, 2008

Moliere Review


Length: 120 min

Précis: Droll farce about an imagined episode in the life of the father of French comedy, when he apparently gained the inspiration to write his own droll farces.

Review by Matt:

Evidently, during the early life of the famous 17th century French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as “Moliere”, there is some missing time about which historians speculate. Where did the young Moliere go and what did he get up to? French director Laurent Tirard wonders as well, and in his witty comedy film Moliere, he imagines a farcical episode to fill in the gap. Kind of like a French Shakespeare in Love, it also tries to explain where Moliere may have gained inspiration for some of his famous plays.

The fantasy history begins after the skint Moliere (played by Romain Duris) is thrown into prison for his unpaid debts. This is a true event, but historians wonder who actually paid the price for Moliere’s release. In this account, a wealthy benefactor steps up with the cash. It’s Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), a wealthy nincompoop with pretensions of joining French’s upper-class milieu. He offers to take care the debt if Moliere will stay at Jourdain’s château and teach him the great art of acting. Why does Jourdain need these lessons? So he can pursue the requisite French affair of course – he wants to perform a play he wrote to win the heart of Célimène (Ludivine Sagnier), an icy darling of the French court. So Moliere dons a fake priest’s collar, and a fake name, and treads into a situation which quickly starts to resemble a pastiche of his own farcical works. As well as needing to satisfy his unusual contract, Moliere needs to hide his true purpose from Jourdain’s neglected wife, Elmire (Laura Morante). But her artistic sensibilities soon start to attract him to her as well.

Farce time! Moliere serves up a blend of droll comedy and slapstick, skipping through silly schemes, affairs, and mistaken identities with a light tone. It also examines Moliere’s love for theatrical tragedy above the comedy for which he’s loved and, although this doesn’t come across as poignantly as is probably intended, the film still accommodates it smoothly. A few incongruous or flat moments of the “climbing trellises and peering into bedrooms” variety hardly distract from the overall ebullient tone. The film also doesn’t go for the sharp satire for which Moliere’s plays are often admired, but the clownish performances by the two leads – Romain Duris with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, and Fabrice Luchini with a likeable foolishness in his – make the film sparkle anyway. A few fanciful moments of absurdity, as Moliere tries to work with his bumbling benefactor, make the film especially worth it – one even reminded me of a favourite scene of mine from the UK series The Office, where David Brent gives an emotional speech in an ostrich outfit. There’s also plenty of sharp dialogue to make you grin and visually the film is sumptuous, decked out with all the ornate costumes and decor of the period.

Moliere aficionados – and likely most of the French audience – will appreciate the extra layer of meaning, as many of the scenes we watch incorporate famous lines and scenarios from Moliere’s own plays (here’s your chance to laugh knowingly at the literary references to prove your erudition to the rest of the theatre). Moliere’s fake priest “Tartuffe”, for example, is a reference to Moliere’s play Tartuffe, and the character is so famous that in contemporary language (French especially), the word “Tartuffe” means a hypocrite, especially one who fakes religious virtue. It’s funny anyway of course and – as proven by boorish old me – you certainly don’t have to know anything about Moliere or his plays to understand and enjoy the film. It avoids the literary pomp that might have dragged it down and is simply a well-told comic story.



March 28, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Review

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Matt: 4 stars

Length: 112 min

Let your imagination set you free.

Précis: This portrait of a completely paralysed yet conscious man is made with great intelligence and is surprisingly uplifting.

Review by Matt:

In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby (played here by Mathieu Amalric), the editor of France’s Elle Magazine and a swinging hedonist, suffered a massive stroke that left him almost completely paralysed. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly dramatises this event. As the film begins, Bauby awakens in a Parisian hospital and discovers that the swinging hedonism is well and truly lost. He can only move a single eye. Bauby has what is known as ‘locked in syndrome’. His mind is fully functioning but he is trapped in his paralysed body.

Like Edgar Allan Poe’s nightmarish story The Cask of Amontillado, in which a hapless chap is bricked up alive in a deep unvisited cellar, you would think it would be difficult for this film to overcome the innate horror of its premise. Or at least it might be pretty tedious: body in bed blinks a lot; family watch sadly. It is sad, and slightly horrific, but The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is also fascinating and uplifting. It’s an amazing artistic achievement. The director, New York artist Julian Schnabel, smartly chose to tackle the subject by diving inside the paralysed Bauby and releasing his thoughts and memories. For much of the film we get the unique experience of sharing Bauby’s point of view – the camera is Bauby, and its eyelid flutters as Bauby’s does. This could distract some viewers, but I found it interesting and immersive. In addition we hear Bauby’s inner voice commenting, lamenting, regretting, lusting, wisecracking. The plot is not too linear. Instead we experience episodes involving Bauby’s family, friends and nurses, as well as dramatisations of his fantasies and recollections. Without being insensitive to its subject, the film is often quite funny as we experience Bauby’s lively mind.

But Diving Bell and the Butterfly is also inescapably sad in parts. Max Von Sydow is outstanding and poignant, as he as consistently been ever since he pooh-poohed Death in Ingmar Berman’s famous The Seventh Seal. Here he is Bauby’s ailing father, and his additions to the film’s landscape of emotions are the most touching. Emmanuelle Seigne is also sad and superb as Bauby’s estranged wife, tangled in one of life’s complex knots of love and suffering.

Mathieu Amalric also gives a moving performance as Bauby. There is an extreme contrast between the pathetic and bedridden Bauby and the vibrant pre-stroke Bauby. What quickly becomes evident though is that Bauby’s spark wasn’t crushed with his body. It is now simply trapped inside him like a diver in a sunken diving bell. With the help of a speech therapist (Marie-Josee Croze), Bauby is able to use a system of communication using only his blinking eye. Though agonizingly slow, this method not only allows him to communicate his thoughts, but also to complete the incredible feat of dictating a memoir (which was published in France in 1997). Bauby may have made plenty of mistakes during his man-about-town years but, as the film highlights, like all of us he has an indestructible human essence that is capable of greatness.

Although it’s consistently interesting and has many moments of beauty, this is not an explosive tale so you should be prepared for a longish ride. It occasionally seemed to stretch on just a bit. But that is overshadowed by the film’s great intelligence and originality. Its tapestry of overlapping events and emotions is an honest portrait of life, broaching people’s fallibility as well as the greatness of our humanity. It’s moving and often intense. Possibly you will find parts of it devastating. Yet, despite the considerable restrictions of the subject matter and the story, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is much lighter than you’d imagine. Amazingly, by the end it has formed an elevating picture about the wholeness of life.