- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (11/9/2020)
(Reviews of Les Misérables; Young Ahmed; Matthias & Maxime; Perfumes; and Around the Sun)
The majority of cinemas may be closed during these enduringly dismal days. And who, in all honesty is that big a film fan that they would risk contracting a contagious disease just to see something on the big screen as part of a well-spaced crowd? There are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release, however. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
There have been numerous adaptations of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, Les Misérables. Perhaps the best two were released within a year of each other, with Raymond Bernard's epic 289-minute 1934 version starring Harry Baur and Charles Vanel pipping Richard Boleslawski's 1935 Hollywood take, with Fredric March and Charles Laughton. Lewis Milestone revisited the story with Michael Rennie and Robert Newton in 1952 before Jean-Paul Le Chanois took a cast led by Jean Gabin and Bernard Blier to East Germany for a 1957 interpretation that has widely been seen as the most politicised.
Glenn Jordan directed the first television version in 1978, with Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins, who were followed by Gérard Depardieu and John Malkovich and Dominic West and David Oyelowo in adaptations respectively overseen by Josée Dayan and Tom Shankland in 2000 and 2018. Back on the big screen, Lino Ventura and Michel Bouquet were teamed by Robert Hossein in 1982, while Jean-Paul Belmondo and Michel Boujenah joined forces in Claude Lelouch's Golden Globe-winning vision in 1995 Subsequently, Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush headlined Bille August's 1998 dramatisation, while Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe locked horns in Tom Hooper's much garlanded 2012 version of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's 1980 musical.
The debuting Lady Ly has set his take on Les Misérables in Hugo's Montfermeil. But this expansion of a César-nominated 2017 short of the same name has nothing to do with Jean Valjean and Javert. Instead, it's a snapshot of the commune in the eastern suburbs of Paris as it is today and, while it very much belongs to the banelieue tradition launched by Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995), it owes more to uncompromising American pictures like Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) and Antoine Fuqua's Training Day (2001).
Shortly after crowds had packed the streets to celebrate France's victory in the 2018 World Cup, Brigadier Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) joins officer Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and Street Crime Unit sergeant Chris (Alexis Manenti) on a ride through Les Bosquets, the most crime-ridden estate in the capital. Gwada explains how the drug problem was cleared up by the Muslim Brotherhood's Smack Combat Unit, but the Nigerians running the prostitution rackets are harder to coerce. Ruiz listens intently and bridles when the swaggeringly alpha Chris (who relishes the moniker `Pink Pig') saddles him with the nickname, `Pento' (`Greaser').
Back at the station, Ruiz explains that he has come to Paris from the countryside because his ex has moved there with their son. Captain Chandier (Jeanne Balibar) welcomes him to the beat and reminds him of the need for solidarity. On another tour of the neighbourhood, Chris and Gwada point out local villains and chat with Owl, an aspiring rapper who has just been released after a four-year stretch. Ruiz is disturbed when Chris intimidates three girls who have been smoking hash at the bus stop, but he isn't in a position to protect them.
As it's July, the schools are on vacation. Issa (Issa Perica) kills time with his pals, while the bespectacled Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) flies a drone over the tenements until he gets caught filming girls dressing at their windows. While the Muslim Brotherhood patrol the projects seeking to keep kids out of trouble, The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) imposes his own brand of order over the bustling marketplace. He is furious that Amar (Abdelkader Hoggui) is taking up more space than he has paid for and Ruiz notes that Chris isn't averse to using The Mayor to procure him expensive items on the cheap.
They are interrupted by the sound of threats coming from a loudhailer and discover that Zorro (Raymond Lopez) is on the warpath because someone has stolen a lion cub named Johnny from Zeffirelli's travelling circus. The SCU trio arrive as an insult-spewing stand-off is heating up, as Zorro gives The Major 24 hours to return his property or face the consequences. Ruiz has never seen anything like the bristling machismo and wonders what he has got himself into. He's not amused, therefore, when he's sent into a café belonging to Salah (Almamy Kanouté) to ask about the cub and gets a lecture on how Islam's opposition to the caging of animals. When he emerges with a free kebab, Chris and Gwada explain that Salah is a reformed jihadi, who can still keep order on his patch.
Issa has stolen the cub and poses for photos holding it. He locks it in a shed with a live chicken, while working out what to do with it. Meanwhile, Chris and Gwada lose patience with Ruiz when he apologises to an angry mother for frisking her son and giving him a clip when he swears at him. They tell him to remove his orange armband because everyone knows they're cops and Chris orders him to toughen up because he'll get no respect by trying to be nice.
Spotting Issa's picture on social media, Chris orders Gwada to search the family home. They track him down to the football court, where Gwada gets sprayed in the eye, as he tries to keep the other kids at bay. Issa bolts across the wasteland and Chris and Ruiz give chase, while Gwada cuts off the road with their car. As they cuff Issa, his friends arrive and start pelting the cops with rocks and Buzz's drone arrives just in time to see Gwada fire a flash-ball into Issa's face and Ruiz is appalled that Chris is more concerned with finding the camera footage and saving their skins that in taking a suffering child to hospital.
While Chris and Gwada ask Stingy (Nizar Ben Fatma) who owns a drone, Ruiz takes off in the car to find a pharmacy to tend to the gash on Issa's right cheek. When he returns, Chris leaves the boy with Stingy and goes off in search of Buzz, who has downloaded the footage on to a memory card and sprints away from Chris to deliver it to Salah. The Mayor's oppos spot the boy and he arrives with his sidekick to ask Salah to hand over the card so they can blackmail the SCU and make life easier for everyone. However, Chris has Stingy in his corner and he tries to reason with Salah before Chris blows a fuse and makes a grab for Buzz.
Ruiz defuses the situation and asks Salah for a word in private. He explains that Issa had committed a crime and that his pals had turned on them when they tried to arrest him. When Salah asks if the shooting was really accidental, Ruiz urges him to hand over the memory card, as the footage could spark 2005-style riots that would do nobody any good. While they talk, Chris, Gwada, Stingy and The Mayor all peer through the café glass to gauge what's happening.
Dialogue succeeds where threat had failed and Chris returns Johnny to Zorro. He also forces Issa to apologise, but Zorro hauls the boy into the lion-taming cage and he is so terrified that he wets himself. Ruiz pulls a gun on Zorro and he insists he is merely trying to teach the kid a lesson. But, as the SCU team drive him home, the humiliated Issa is storing up his resentments, which are intensified by Chris drumming into him that he hurt his face in a fall and has no one to blame but himself for stealing the cub.
A silent montage ends the day, as Gwada goes home to his mother and Chris to his wife and two daughters. The Mayor patrols his manor, while Salah sits in his café and wonders whether he's done the right thing. Ruiz gets home to the unpacked boxes in his cramped flat and calls his son, while Issa sits on a discarded sofa on a rubbish tip with the 10-storey high-rise looming behind him. as the sun goes down.
Later that evening, Gwada meets Ruiz in a bar. He tells him that he knows the gun couldn't go off by accident and Gwada admits that he lost it for a few seconds. But he's still nettled by Ruiz thinking he knows best, when he grew up in Montfermeil and thinks he and Chris do a decent job of keeping the lid on things. Ruiz claims being teamed with them feels like a calamity and he hands over the memory card before walking out.
Next day, the younger kids are splashing around in a paddling pool and they revels in attacking the SCU Peugeot with squirt guns. However, Issa and his friends have a reception planned and even Chris feels uneasy when they are given an escort of wheelying motorbikes when they drive on to the estate. As they turn a corner, a hooded Issa calmly walks out in front of them and aims a mortar canister at the car. Chris and Gwada give chase and order Ruiz to call back up.
Once inside the building, however, the cops are cut off by youths pushing shopping trolleys down the stairwell. They fire more smoke bombs and start hurling rocks. The Mayor's office is also attacked and, when he strides into the tenement to demand an explanation, he is belted by Issa and left to the mercy of his mates. Stingy rolls up, only to have his car smashed by marauding kids before a missile is fired inside.
Chris is hit in the eye by flying debris and Ruiz and Gwada are pelted as they try to help him. Ruiz bangs on a door, but Buzz does nothing more than peer through the spyhole, as Issa appears on the landing with a Molotov cocktail, Pleading with the boy to calm down, Ruiz aims his gun, as the scene fades to black and the film ends on Hugo's words: `Remember this. my friends. There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.'
From the moment you see the word `Venom' emblazoned across Chris's t-shirt, you know this banelieue drama is going to end badly for someone. Yet, the first 40 minutes of Ladj Ly's outstanding debut is devoted to establishing the lie of the land and the relationship between the members of the Street Crime Unit and the largely non-white population they have sworn to serve and protect. However, as the temperature edges towards 38º, the homogeneous bonhomie that Parisians had experienced in the wake of becoming world champions begins to melt away and the brutal truths start to emerge as the glow dims.
Having made 365 Jours à Clichy-Montfermeil (2006) while a youthful member of the Kourtrajmé collective alongside such other Montfermeil residents as Romain Gavras, Kim Chapiron and Toumani Sangaré, Ly knows the area and its people inside out. Thus, the screenplay he has written with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti (who plays Chris) feels firmly rooted in its everyday realities. Small details like the girl filming the confrontation at the bus stop reinforce this sense and means that Ly earns the right to build the escalation around the more unlikely occurrence of a lion cub being stolen from a circus.
The seething hatred between the Roma and The Mayor's crew is shudderingly palpable, as they square up to each other in a bristling display of toxic masculinity that keeps threatening to boil over throughout the picture. Yet, women play a quietly significant part in proceedings, with Issa's mother (Djeneba Diallo) knowing her rights when Gwada searches the apartment, in which a group of girls are counting the money accrued by a tontine. Dressed in traditional West African attire, Gwada's own mother recognises the strain her son is under when he comes home after an emotional day. Indeed, she seems to be more clued in than commissaire Jeanne Balibar (returning to the scene of her own feature, Wonders in the Suburbs), who jokes with Chris about the cuddly pig collection on his desk and with Gwada about the smoothness of his legs rather than tasking them about their unorthodox tactics on the ground.
Countless cop films have centred on mavericks and the misgivings their antics provoke in their rookie partners. But Ly riffs on the clichés in applying them to an authentic situation. Some have complained about the climactic ambush, but this feels like a credible eruption, as the energy generated by the transient euphoria of victory is channelled into fury by the suffusing return of futility and despair among the African and Maghrebin populations. Besides, Ly leaves things in the air by fading before Issa throws his petrol bomb or Ruiz fires his gun. Whatever the endgame, it's clear that something will have to give before a new status quo can be achieved.
In truth, there's a reliance on Bressonian caricature on either side of the law and it's slightly surprising that Ly elects to prioritise the police story. Nevertheless, he is well served by a splendid ensemble, with several supporting players giving the impression that they were spotted on the street and cast on the spot. But the most remarkable performances are given by Issa Perica and Al-Hassan Ly, as Issa and Buzz, with their naturalism contrasting starkly with Idir Ben Addi's studied stiffness in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Young Ahmed (see below).
As with that film, a little humour might not have gone amiss. But, even though he offers few new perspectives, Ly has serious issues to discuss and he stresses their immediacy by making the action so immersive. He is indebted here to cinematographer Julien Poupard, who not only captures the sprawl and atmosphere of Montfermeil, but also conveys how cruising the streets in their vehicle prevents the cops being part of the tinderbox community. Whittling down over 100 hours of rushes, Flora Volpelière's editing and Pink Noise;s pulsating, but sparingly used electro score also reinforce the pace of life, as the kids are left to amuse themselves for hours on end without any sort of adult supervision beyond the ignored offers of regimented `fun' being provided by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The closing Hugo quote helped fan the flames when the film was released in France, while there was a furore in the press when it was revealed that Ly had served a two-year prison term for complicity in a 2009 kidnapping and sequestration case. Intriguingly, as the Hollywood Reporter revealed, he had also been fined €400 in 2011 for posting footage of police violence with his own commentary and had spoken out against Montfermeil mayor, Xavier Lemoine, in 2012 after a nine month-old baby had died in a fire. Right-wing attempts to discredit Ly fell flat, however, as he added the Jury Prize at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film to the 11 César nominations and Best Picture triumph, which was made all the sweeter by Ly adding the César du Public, which reinforced that this humanistic man of the people had very much struck a chord.
Since first coming to prominence with La Promesse (1996), Belgian siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have built up enough cinematic capital to be allowed the odd misstep. Having won the Palme d'or for Rosetta (1999) and L'Enfant (2005), the Dardennes rewrote the social realist rulebook with The Son (2002), The Kid With a Bike (2011) and Two Days, One Night (2014), Even minor works like Lorna's Silence (2008) and The Unknown Girl (2016) left a deep impression. But, even though they won the Best Director prize at Cannes, the pair come close to over-reaching themselves with Young Ahmed, a treatise on teenage radicalisation that takes the Seraing sixtysomethings well outside of their usual sphere of expertise.
Much to the despair of his single mother (Claire Bodson) and sister, Yasmine (Cyra Lassman), 13 year-old Ahmed Abou Salah (Idir Ben Addi) has changed beyond all recognition since he fell under the spell of Imam Youssouf (Othmane Moumen). Brother Rachid (Amine Hamidou) also attends the prayer groups, but he is nowhere near as committed as Ahmed, who has become so fervent in his beliefs that he refuses to shake the hands of his devoted teacher, Inès Touzani (Myriem Akheddiou), because the imam has declared her an apostate because she has a Jewish boyfriend. When his mother chides him for being rude to someone who had helped him with his dyslexia, Ahmed berates her for drinking alcohol and upbraids his sister for not wearing a hijab.
Youssouf sends Rachid and Ahmed to a meeting to denounce Inès for using songs to help students in her language class learn Arabic more easily. A lively debate about ensues about whether the Quran should be the sole learning tool to teach respect for Islam and the tongue in which it's written. But the brothers disrupt proceedings by accusing Inès of being tainted by her relationship. Hurt by their words, she comes to Youssouf's shop to reason with Ahmed, who likes to help out in the stockroom. But he avers that she's unworthy to teach Arabic and admonishes her when she brands the imam a liar who is trying to manipulate impressionable minds.
As his cousin was martyred, Ahmed is keen to follow in his footsteps and he wraps a kitchen knife in paper to hide it in his boot during the bus ride to Inès's office. He panics when the teacher confronts him in the corridor and botches the bid to stab her. Running to the mosque, Ahmed pleads with Youssouf for protection. But he is frustrated with the boy for misinterpreting his words about killing heretics once the jihad starts and delivers him to the authorities with a hug and a promise he will be in his prayers.
At the reformatory, Ahmed gets off to a bad start when he gets fretful about missing his prayer time and tries to run away during a search for some missing scissors. He is also sullen with his mother when she brings him some snacks and pleads with him to change his ways. Ahmed is angry when he hears that Youssouf was arrested after Rachid testified against him and he wishes his father was still around because he would like his brother into shape and force his wife and daughter to cover themselves.
Seeing his mother cry affects the boy, however, and he agrees to meet Inès, who would like to talk to him to achieve closure. He starts to participate in exercise periods at the centre. Moreover, he returns to the farm run by Mathieu (Laurent Caron) and Sandrine (Annette Closset), even though he had disliked being licked by Mira the sheepdog and had refused to pet the rabbits. Having helped move some bullocks, Ahmed joins the farmer's daughter, Louise (Victoria Bluck), in feeding the calves. But, having stolen a spare toothbrush from the bathroom, he refuses her offer of a goodbye kiss.
Driving home with his caseworker (Olivier Bonnaud), Ahmed hears that the psychologist (Eva Zingaro-Meyer) has blocked his meeting with Inès because she is concerned that he is trying to please people to secure a swift release rather than genuinely reforming. When they next meet, however, she is impressed that he has started to empathise with his victim. But he continues to pray with dutiful fervour and sends his mother a note, in which he exhorts her to be a good Muslim so that she will be able to understand his actions and be proud of him.
He gives this to his lawyer to pass on when he goes to the police station to meet Inès. Slipping away to the bathroom, Ahmed places the toothbrush with the sharpened handle in his sock so that he can strike at his teacher again. However, the mere sight of him causes her to break down and he has to ask for the note back and rehide the weapon in his waistband before he can leave.
Louise has taken a shine to Ahmed, as he is a handsome Afro-haired boy. During lunch, she asks to try on his glasses and takes him to the beat field, where she tries to kiss him. He recoils when she puts her tongue in his mouth and pays extra attention to cleaning his teeth while doing his ablutions before prayers. Still feeling impure, he goes to Louise's room and asks if she would consider becoming a Muslim to that his sin would be reduced She is hurt that he feels nothing for her and is only concerned by his own soul. When she again refuses to convert when follows her to the hayloft, he pushes her over and calls her an infidel.
Driving home, Ahmed makes a dash for the woods and gives his caseworker the slip. He takes a bus into town and finds a metal rod in the grounds of the school to use as a weapon. Unable to find an open door, he clambers on to the roof and is edging his way towards a window when he falls. Barely able to move, he pulls himself across the grass to use the rod to bang on a flower tray to attract some attention. Inès hears him and accepts his tearful apology before rushing off to phone an ambulance.
Often feeling more Loachian than Dardennesque, this is a tricky film to gauge. The writer-directors strive to maintain a balance by allowing the audience to draw inferences from their observation of Ahmed and by contextualising them by contrasting the different ways in which his actions are interpreted by his co-religionists and by wider Belgian society. By focusing solely on the teenager and his response to his incarceration rather than showing any active attempts to de-programme him, the Dardennes avoid making any judgements. But they struggle to get inside the boy's head, while Idir Ben Addi's stiffly unemotive performance makes the friendless loner difficult to read and empathise with.
This is, of course, partly the point, as this is as much a film about secular society and its attitudes to religious zeal as it is a study of fundamentalist teaching and the recruitment of jihadis. In less sensitive hands, this could easily have become patronising or proselytising, although there are still moments when Ahmed is made to look foolish and even comes close to becoming a figure of fun. But the Dardennes are keen to understand him and his theories and, consequently, this never comes close to the savage satire in Chris Morris's Four Lions (2010).
An intriguing sideline is the bond that develops between Ahmed and Louise, as it sheds some light on the relationship between the boy's parents. His father is only briefly mentioned, but Ahmed clearly looks up to him and seemingly seeks to coerce Louise into conversion in much the same way. However, she is very much her own person and it's interesting to compare her with Yasmine, who brings a boyfriend back to the flat while her mother is working, and Inès, who is dating a Jew, even though she knows how the liaison will be viewed within her community.
It's also instructive to compare the performances of Claire Bodson, Myriem Akheddiou and Victoria Bluck with those of Idir Ben Addi and Othmane Moumen, as they seem much truer to life and far less stilted. It's never apparent whether this is by design or coincidence, but it might have been useful to have seen a little more of Ahmed and Rachid's interaction to discern the effect of the imam's teachings on kids from identical backgrounds and temper what sometimes comes close to racial stereotype.
On the technical side, newcomer Benoît Dervaux's camera cleaves close to the protagonist to emphasise his isolation, while the elliptical economy of Tristan Meunier's editing captures Ahmed's furtive twitchiness. But, notwithstanding the youth's tightly wound personality, this never feels as intense as previous Dardenne offerings or as rooted in its marginalised inner-city milieu. Such is their storytelling prowess, however, that it's impossible to look away, even during the singularly unpersuasive denouement.
MATTHIAS & MAXIME.
The problem with enfant terribles is that they grow up. Some look back on their youthful notoriety with a certain sheepishness, while others cling to the outré attitudes and statements that had once made them seem so mad, bad and dangerous to know. Judging by Matthias & Maxime, erstwhile Québecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan appears to have fallen into the latter category, as he seeks to sum up the crises of confidence facing his generation by having a bunch of caricatures trade clichés and platitudes while heading towards an inevitable conclusion.
Before he heads to Australia for a year, Maxime Leduc (Xavier Dolan) and best pal, Matthias Ruiz (Gabriel D'Almeida Freitas), join Rivette (Pier-Luc Funk), Frank (Samuel Gauthier), Brass (Antoine Pilon) and Shariff (Adib Alkhalidey) in a lakeside cottage for a farewell bonding session. Rivette's younger sister, Érika (Camille Felton), has also tagged along with her classmate, Matisse (Louis-Julien Durso), to make a short for film school and she persuades Maxime to step in when a couple of actors let her down. When Matthias loses a bet about his habit of correcting people's grammar, he is also roped in and is appalled to discover that the script involves a same-sex kiss.
Forever dropping English slang, Érika sees herself as a Gen Z It Girl and she confuses Maxime and Matthias in explaining that her film seeks to be both impressionist and expressionist in tackling issues of gender fluidity. The screen cuts to black as the camera starts to roll and the pair shuffle uneasily towards each other on the sofa. But, while the audience doesn't get to see the kiss, its ramifications soon become evident, as Matthias goes for a midnight swim when he can't sleep and gets lost and has to scramble his way back to shore.
Back in Montréal, 12 days before Maxime is due to go Down Under, Maxime calls on his mother, Manon (Anne Dorval), a recovering addict who has been clean for six months. She resents the way Maxime fusses over her and misses his brother, Julien (Alexandre Bourgeois), who lives in New Haven and wants nothing more to do with her. Maxime has arranged for his Aunt Ginette (Louise Bombardier) to act as Manon's guardian while he's away, but they have a blazing row that leaves him wondering why he bothers.
Meanwhile, Matthias is doing well at his law firm and has a steady relationship with Sarah (Marilyn Castonguay). They go to a party thrown by Rivette's mother, Martine (Anne-Marie Cadieux), who embarrasses her son with her chums Francine (Micheline Bernard) and Colette (Monique Spaziani), while he plays the piano. But Matthias is the one left cringing, as Érika shows her film, Limbo, and he snaps at Sarah when she calls him `babe' in trying to reassure him that he had been good in it.
She doesn't take offence, however, and allows him to come to the girls' night she is hosting at their home. The camera frames Matthias in a hatch to show how isolated he feels, as he prepares to show whizz kid lawyer McAfee (Harris Dickinson) around town for boss Gilles (Jacques Lavallée) and mentally readies himself for Maxime's going-away bash. He is also having a difficult time, as he feels bad about leaving Manon behind and he invites fellow bartender, Lisa (Catherine Brunet), to be his date at the party he is rather dreading.
A week before Maxime's departure, Manon tries to be nice to Maxime by baking him a favourite childhood dish and she's hurt that he no longer feels the need even to try to get along. She makes spaghetti and they argue over his refusal to let her access her own money. When she slaps him, he hides in the bathroom and punches out the mirror, as Manon accuses him of being a pathetic girl.. Across the city, Matthias is enduring an awkward encounter of his own, as McAfee is a brash Torontonian who uses chauvinist language in discussing women and seems to sense that Matthias has something on his mind when he mentions Maxime.
Arriving at mother Francine's house, Matthias gets scolded for ducking out of getting things ready for her tea party and nagged for having forgotten to get the letter of recommendation from his father than Maxime will need to get a job in Australia. He also gets tutted when he makes a mess of his embarrassingly off-the-cuff speech and claims to be too tired to go on to Sharaff's place for the knees-up. Sarah takes him to one side and urges him to show some more enthusiasm, as his buddy is going away for two years. Feeling picked on, Matthias blurts out about the film and how it means nothing to him. But Sarah has no idea what he is talking about and drops him off with a look of bemusement.
Rivette organises a guessing game that is played out in a montage that shifts between accelerated and slow-motion footage. As drinks are taken and bongs puffed, tensions rise and Matthias accuses Maxime and Rivette of cheating. The room falls silent, as he demands penalty points. But Frank squares up to him and a fight breaks out. When Maxime tries to mediate, Matthias calls him `Ink Stain', on account of the strawberry mark on his right cheek. A hush descends, as Maxime winces and Matthias wishes he could sink through the floor.
Standing under a streetlight, as the wind blows autumnal leaves around his feet, Matthias decides to go back inside. The others readily forgive him, but Maxime is unimpressed by his effort to laugh things off, as they sit at opposite ends of a long settee. When Maxime sidles off alone to a room at the rear of the house, Matthias follows and locks the door. He takes his friend's hands and kisses his barked knuckles before seeking out his lips. As their mates dash out into the rain to recover some washing from a downpour, Matthias and Maxime smooch and fondle. But, when he feels a hand down the front of his trousers, Matthias backs away and beats a retreat, as Maxime invites him to spend the weekend together so they can talk.
Walking home, Matthias gets a call from McAfee and he joins him in a pole-dancing bar, where he discovers his name is Kevin, as they discuss monogamy. By now, Maxime has also left the party and he heads back to the bar where he works to gaze at his birthmark in the bathroom mirror. For a second, he imagines it's gone when he covers it with his hand. But it's still there and he upsets Lisa by snogging a girl on the dance floor. Spooked by the offer of a lap dance, Matthias staggers past a line of homeless people queuing for hot food, as sleet drifts down. He breaks into a run and only stops when he gets close to home, as dawn breaks and he realises he has some decisions to make.
The day before he leaves, Maxime calls on Francine to borrow a suitcase. He also asks for her ex-husband's number, as he still hasn't had his letter of recommendation. As he waits for Francine to find it, he spots a painting that Matthias had done when he was seven showing the farm he owned with his best pal. Fighting back the tears, he heads home to pack with Frank and Lisa, who has never managed to tell him how she feels. Just as he is about to leave for the airport with Frank, Matthias turns up on the doorstep and Maxime has a decision to make.
This is by no means a bad film. Dolan is a talented film-maker who's at his best when he plays with storytelling convention and allows his audiovisual imagination free rein. As a writer, however, he can be ponderous and too often his dialogue feels consciously scripted. These shortcomings certainly hamper this involving, but rarely compelling melodrama, which never manages to convince the viewer that it's about real people rather than actors playing roles.
The 31 year-old is certainly more comfortable in his character's skin than Gabriel D'Almeida Freitas (although that is partly the point), who spends much of the picture frowning pensively in angular close-up. But the dice are loaded against Matthias, who comes across as an uptight bore from his initial appearance and it's only when he's thrown together with the obnoxious McAfee (who is amusingly played as a preening blow-hard by Harris Dickinson) that he becomes marginally less tiresome. His long-suffering partner certainly deserves better, but she is very much a cipher and it's to Marilyn Castonguay's credit that she manages to convey a sense of emotional depth.
Indeed, none of the sketchily drawn gang is particularly likeable, with their quirks being all they have to hang their hats on. But Dolan gives himself more to work with, as Maxime can ponder upon his birthmark, sibling rivalry, imminent departure and fluid sexuality before he even starts to hone in on his relationships with Matthias and his mother. She is played with typical assurance by Anne Dorval, but even she struggles to prevent the confrontations from sounding like something eavesdropped in a soap opera.
André Turpin's photography is as efficient as Colombe Raby's production design, while Dolan's editing is effectively elliptical. The use of songs to counterpoint the action is also astute, while Jean-Michel Blais's score contains some delightful passages of melancholic piano. But this always feels like it's trying too hard to reassure Dolan's Gen Y peers, while also striving to connect with woke millennials.
Grégory Magne may not be a familiar name in this country, but the Burgundian has led a varied existence. Ditching journalism to become a navigator, he competed in solo transatlantic yacht races before teaming with documentarist to record his experiences in Twenty-Four Hours a Day At Sea (2007). Following a couple more collaborations with Viard, Magne made his feature bow with L'Air de rien (2012) and he reunites with its star, Grégory Montel, in Perfumes, which repays its debt to Manuel Poirier's Western (1997) by casting its leads, Sergi López and Sacha Bourdo in key supporting roles.
Despite being divorced from Lucie (Lisa Perrio), chauffeur Guillaume Favre (Grégory Montel) is determined to be a good father to their nine year-old daughter, Léa (Zélie Rixhon). However, the custody magistrate insists that his studio flat is too small and Guillaume has to find alternative accommodation. He pleads with boss Arsène Pélissier (Gustave Kervern) to overlook a traffic violation in order to land a job driving Anne Walberg (Emmanuelle Devos), a demanding fragrance designer who takes her own sheets to hotels because she can't stand the smell of ultra-fresh detergent.
Nettled by Anne tossing his cigarettes out of the car window, Guillaume resents being blackmailed into helping his client change her sheets because she has caught him fiddling his expenses. She even has him take notes when she descends into a prehistoric cave to discern the odours needed to bring authenticity to a tourist mock-up. On the return trip north, Anne catches Guillaume having a crafty drag at a petrol station, but overlooks it because the washroom soap reminds her of childhood holidays. But, when she chides him for stopping a thief from stealing her bag, he loses his temper and leaves her on the pavement with her luggage.
Yet, when agent Jeanne (Pauline Moulène) sends her to Alsace, Anne insists on Guillaume accompanying her. He doesn't get to drive, however, as she travels by train and uses him to take notes in a meeting with handbag executives needing to temper the smell of a new batch about to go on sale. Disliking the tone they take with Anne, Guillaume demands double the fee and she is impressed with the way he spoke up for her. In her hotel room, she encourages him to trust his nose and confides over supper that she created the Christian Dior perfume, J'adore (which was actually the work of Calice Becker).
On the train ride home, Anne advises Guillaume to give Léa a day to remember on her 10th birthday rather than an expensive present. They go to the seaside and have a bonding moment, as they conspire to tell Lucie that they have been to the sandpit in the park. He also finds himself escorting Anne to Jeanne's birthday party, where he learns that she had been one of the stars of the perfume world until she suddenly withdraw. As he drops her at home, Anne recalls how she lost her nose after being overwhelmed by the media fuss after she joined a large American company. She had tried to bluff her way through, but was fired after creating a dismal concoction that ruined her reputation. Now, she subsists on jobs that are beneath her, but which she needs to survive.
When Jeanne sends her to mask the stench created by a factory, Anne pleads with her to get her back into the perfume business. But she tells her to be patient and Anne is still feeling so hard done by when they stop at services en route that she ruins the smell of cut grass that Guillaume associates with his father by revealing that it's created by enzymes secreted to provoke an insect war. Already feeling deflated by Léa's response to the apartment that had been shown to him by eccentric estate agent, Bourigault (Olivier Broche), Guillaume exacts his revenge by reprimanding Anne for being so brusque with their waitress in the dining room.
Distracted by the noise of a nearby bar, Anne gets drunk and is crashed on her bed when Guillaume finds her the next morning. Realising her sense of smell has diminished, she asks him to help her identify the odours emanating from the factory. At the services on the way home, she confides that she has had a relapse when she buries her nose to no avail in a selection of car fresheners. She gulps down a handful of sleeping pills and Guillaume gets a speeding ticket in rushing her to hospital that causes Arsène to terminate his contract.
While Guillaume returns to his studio flat, Anne is visited by Professor Patrick Ballester (Sergi López), who is keen to help her overcome this latest case of anosmia. His methods annoy Jeanne, however, so Anne fires her and vows to make perfume again. Meanwhile, Arsène finds Guillaume a job helping airport gardener Ranio (Sacha Bourdo), who has broken his leg and has to teach him how to drive a ride-on mower.
This is where Anne finds him to offer him a job as her assistant and she smiles when he comes up with the idea of using cut grass to counter the factory smell. As the film ends, Anne returns to Dior with her new offerings, while Guillaume secures alternate-week custody of Léa, who is delighted when he comes to give a talk to her class about being a nose.
Ostensibly a Gallic variation on Bruce Beresford's Oscar winner, Driving Miss Daisy (1989), this is a splendid vehicle (as it were) for Grégory Montel and the ever-wonderful Emmanuelle Devos. There are few surprises in Magne's screenplay, which moves smoothly through the gears as Guillaume thaws Anne's frosty exterior and she comes to rely on him for much more than getting from A to B. Indeed, the focus falls so predictably on the way in which the twosome learn to blend that there's little room to develop any of the secondary characters, besides Léa. Yet, even though she's engagingly played by Zélie Rixhon, she's also a cookie-cutter broken home kid and it's only when Magne sweeps her off to the beach with her father that she comes alive.
Despite the slightness of the storyline, Magne manages to touch upon a range of issues, including class, parenting, housing and professionalism. He also contrasts the ways in which Arsène and Jeanne treat Guillaume and Anne, but he pushes things a touch too far in making the pair so simpatico, as there is virtually no tension in the plot's latter stages, as it's evident that Sergi López and his suave bedside manner will soon have Devos relishing the joys of spring again.
On the technical side, cinematographer Thomas Rames gets the job done, but the film has little visual personality. Gaëtan Roussel's score is similarly proficient. Despite the input of renowned perfumer Christine Nagel, the one problem that can't be solved, of course, is how to convey the various smells that Anne is charged with creating or eradicating. As the picture is available online, viewers might want to stock up on a range of substances - perhaps some Grasse jasmine, Indian jasmine, plain damask rose, ylang ylang, coconut oil and `a note of magnolia with vanilla undertones', you know the sort of thing - to waft under their noses in order to get the complete olfactory experience. You know it makes scents.
AROUND THE SUN.
It's safe to say that no one had ever thought of basing a film around Enlightenment thinker Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes/Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds before American screenwriter Jonathan Kiefer and British-Greek director Oliver Krimpas (who had been classmates at Boston University Film School) joined forces for their debut feature, Around the Sun. It's taken a while for this intriguing two-hander to reach UK screens, but its meta-musings on life, the universe and everything have an unassuming charm that is reinforced by the atmospheric location and a pair of intelligent performances.
Hailing from northern England, Maggie (Cara Theobold) is a property manager waiting to show a château in Normandy to Bernard (Gethin Anthony), a film location scout in a brown anorak who has just received the not entirely welcome news that his wife is pregnant. As he's still a bit shaken, Maggie takes the conversational lead, she mentions that Claude Monet painted nearby Rouen Cathedral and enthuses about the fact that Fontenelle had written his seminal treatise on the nature of the universe while staying at the house in 1686. She explains that the text centres around a series of conversations between a philosopher and a marquise, as they gaze upon the night sky while walking around the gardens.
Realising she's been chattering on, Maggie confides that she had never heard of the tome until she had moved into the area, but instantly felt it speaking to her. Still distracted, Bernard jokes that she would have less to talk about if the book had been instantly forgotten and there's an awkward silence before they continue their progress towards the house. She reveals that Fontenelle's heliocentric model of the universe had saved the property from being converted into a golf course and spa. But the owners can no longer afford the upkeep and it has been on the market for some time.
Having taken down particulars about sunsets and the lie of the land, Bernard admits to being a bit nervous because the director has instructed him to find an atmospheric location that would spark his creativity, As they reach the main door, Maggie pauses and asks Bernard if the place seems familiar. Before we can learn more about her sense of déjà vu, however, the screen fades to black and we embark upon a second scenario.
This time, Bernard is a special projects manager in a brown jacket seeking a base for a satellite company and he comes to find Maggie at the alternative entrance rather than the other way round. He's more garrulous and reveals that his boss is keen to find a security property, as he has recently received death threats. As they walk, Maggie brings up Fontenelle and describes how he fits between René Descartes and Isaac Newton in musing on the workings of the solar system. She also mentions that he had discussed humanity's place in the grand scheme of things by criticising us for believing that `everything in creation is destined for our service'
Having gone inside, the film scout and the estate agent admit to feeling protective over the old place, as they measure up the library. Maggie asks Bernard if he knows any celebrities and he pretends to have forgotten their names, in admitting that he doesn't know much about films and rather blundered into location scouting as a way to travel after dropping out of law school. She insists that his joke about alien property developers proves he has a lively imagination and discloses that she broke up with her last boyfriend because he showed no curiosity about the Fermi Paradox relating to why extraterrestrials have never bothered to make themselves known to Earth dwellers.
As Maggie wishes it was possible to know someone fully and laments how easy it is to settle for a passable fit rather than close bond, Bernard takes a sly photo of her. She wonders if his boss would be interested in adapting Fontenelle's Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds and suggests it might appeal to those feeling nostalgic for nerdy student chats. Maggie also highlights the flirtatious nature of the dialogues, but her train of thought is disrupted by Bernard's phone and the screen fades to black once more.
The director of special projects is much more businesslike and Maggie is amused by his gauche attempts at small talk, as he describes how his employer is keen to find something with a pre-existing aristocratic aspect so that he can't be accused of gentrifying it. She teases him about his company having algorithms to measure a place's potential for giving pleasure and he isn't quite sure whether she's being serious or not. Similarly, he isn't sure how to respond when she declares a fear of re-reading books she loves in case they disappoint. He shrugs when she says that the discovery someone is unworthy of her love is equally shattering and she refers to an ex who hadn't been interested in the universe because it wasn't interested in him.
Yet Bernard suddenly asks Maggie about the marquise and she reveals that she was a widow in her twenties with a young son. She was the daughter of a noted salon owner and Bernard is impressed by Maggie's knowledge. He asks if she sometimes slopes off to the château to enjoy its ambiance on her own and admits to feeling a bit guilty that his company will be depriving her of that pleasure if it moves in. As they contemplate the attraction of being alone in a country retreat, Maggie wonders why people who can't live without social media suddenly swear off the Internet and she's dismayed when Bernard reveals that his tech company has teams fathoming the same conundrum.
Moving into the drawing room, Maggie admits that she set up a Facebook page devoted to Fontenelle, but nobody joined. She finds this sad, as he was exploring the same ideas that had landed Galileo in trouble and contributed to Giordano di Bruno being burned at the stake. But she is also drawn to the erudition of the text and the courtliness of the relationship between the philosopher and the marquise. Hopping on to a couch, Bernard asks her to explain the concept of plurality and she worries that human folly will bring about a singularity that cannot be reversed. When he questions her reasoning, she accuses him of being cynical and is keen to move the conversation on to why alien races have steered clear of Earth when he asks to see the Petit Château.
This is in a shoddier state of repair and Maggie has trouble gaining access to a staircase. She suggests that Bernard goes first, but the door slams behind them and they realise they are locked in. Reaching out to see if he can get a signal, Bernard drops his phone and Maggie sees the message from Diana about her pregnancy test. Taken aback (as though she has been in that situation herself), she questions why someone would send a photo of a plastic stick rather than convey the news in person. Before he can answer, she urges him to be more cautious about uploading baby news, as a lot can go wrong during nine months. For the moment, however. Bernard is more concerned about not being trapped on a hidden staircase.
At this juncture, the action cuts back to the 17th century, as Bernard and Maggie assume the roles of Fontenelle and the marquise, as they embark upon their fabled conversations. But this is a momentary digression, as the estate agent and the project manager find their way to the loft and settle down for the night with an old bottle of calvados. Maggie defends Fontenelle from charges of mansplaining, although she finds the fact he flirted with Madame Helvétius when he was approaching 90 to be a bit creepy. She even speculates that he might have flirted in such a way to deflect from the fact he was gay.
Getting tipsy, Bernard offers to let Maggie hold salons in the château and she suggests they could turn it into a B&B. He laughs when she reveals that Fontenelle reckoned that God made humans when he was drunk and despaired of them when he sobered up. At that moment, she tells him that she knows he's the son of the former owners and he owns up that he had come to have another look at the place because he had wanted to see how she had turned out, as she was a only child when her father's company had evicted his family,
Bernard explains that he has had a tough time trying to find a niche and had quit law school and had failed to make a go of both being a film scout and working for a tech company. Maggie reminds him that he has to pull himself together because he's going to become a father and they recite Philip Larkin's famous line about parents because her life hasn't exactly gone swimmingly, either. She wishes she had known about Fontenelle when she was girl, as he might have inspired her to become a writer or a scientist. But she's just an estate agent, who only has time to dream at nights.
Maggie looks at Bernard for reassurance, but he says she's the one driving the liaison and she looks past him, as if becoming aware that they are being watched. Suddenly, we cut back to Maggie spotting Bernard from an upper window and greeting him on the lawn. They know each other instantly from their past connection and he admits that it feels odd seeing his former home looking so neglected. She tells him that she has often imagined how this reunion might go and a rolling piano plays on the soundtrack as we flashback through two of her scenarios. There's even a moment when a golfer comes to reclaim his ball from Fontenelle and the marquise.
As they wander around the grounds, Maggie asks Bernard if there's a pregnant wife in the wings and he confesses to a childless divorce. When they venture inside, he feels the past wave over him and admits to having always felt that the château was haunted. On entering the library, Maggie hands Bernard an envelope containing the copy of Fontenelle that his father had given him as a boy. As his father had killed himself after losing the house, the gesture means a good deal and Maggie thanks him for introducing her to her favourite book.
Having found a bottle of calvados, the pair sit on the steps and wait for the sun to go down. They wonder whether there will be another eureka moment like the ones involving Fontenelle and his confrères and hope that no one will be burned by a modern Inquisition. As they ponder the mysteries of the universe, Maggie reminds Bernard that there will always be love and the film ends on this supreme note of optimism.
While not everyone will appreciate the rug-pull finale, this is a clever conceit that takes theories and themes that would ordinarily only ever be aired in front of a documentary camera and use them as the basis for a charming love story. Much depends on the affecting performances of Cara Theobald and Gethin Anthony, who will be familiar to many from such small-screen series as Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones. But, excellent though Theobald is, in particular, it's the writing of the mumblecore-inspired Jonathan Kiefer that makes this so engaging and exciting.
Abetted by Michael Edo Keane's evocative photography, Oliver Krimpas and co-editor Patrick Brooks are able to stitch the threads together without overwhelming viewers who need to pay attention to the visuals as well as the dialogue and the enduringly dazzling ideas it contains. Despite not being able to shoot in the very house where Fontenelle had stayed, Krampas makes admirable use of his stand-in. The wigs and costumes for the 17th-century segment seem a little ill-fitting, but that may be by design, as the cutaway is taking place in Maggie's imagination and she may not have researched contemporary fashions with the thoroughness she had brought to Fontenelle.
Nevertheless, with Steven Gutheinz's lovely piano score reinforcing the mood, this is a confident debut, whose references to pictures as different as Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blind Chance (1987), Eric Rohmer's A Tale of Winter (1992), Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) and Eugène Green's La Sapienza (2015). One suspects, however, it will only get the audience it deserves in a parallel universe.