• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (20/11/2020)

(An overview of the FFF@Home selection gleaned from the 28th French Film Festival)


Now in its 28th year, the French Film Festival is always one of the highlights of the late autumn. This year, the pandemic has limited its scope to a few venues in Scotland. But, thanks to Festival Scope, the entire UK will be able to join in the 2020 celebration during a special FFF@Home presentation that runs from 27 November to 4 December.


Among the titles on view are Martin Provost's How to Be a Good Wife, which stars Juliette Binoche as a domestic goddess running a housekeeping school in Alsace in 1967. When her rosy view of quotidian Gaullism is shaken, however, she discovers Women's Liberation and herself. Also available to rent is Claus Drexel's Under the Stars of Paris, which was based on the stories the director heard while making the documentary, On the Edge of the World (2013), and follows the efforts of the homeless Catherine Frot to reunite eight year-old Burkinabe boy, Mahamadou Yaffa, with his mother.


The selection also includes a Short Cuts slate that includes Foued Mansour's Ahmed's Song, which was nominated for Best Short Film at this year's Césars.


THE DAZZLED.


Anyone in the UK who has experienced the Charismatic Renewal will remember the hymns of Brother Damian Lundy and the sense of sincerity and serenity that characterised the majority of prayer meetings. Every now and then, however, these would be hijacked by lay preachers with an air of messianic superiority, whose testimony was as much about themselves as the Spirit. Having grown up in a community dominated by such ideals and practices, director Sarah Suco is ideally placed to explore their beliefs and practices that were often viewed with scepticism by mainstream Catholics. For all its insights, however, The Dazzled often feels like a cobbling of themes from Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and François Ozon's By the Grace of God (2018).


The Lourmels live in the southern city of Angoulême. Father Frédéric (Eric Caravaca) is a teacher and mother Christine (Camille Cottin) is keen to return to work after the birth of fourth child, Eva (Eva Ristorcelli). As she is a devout member of the local church, she is offered the post of accountant to the Community of the Dove, the charismatic enclave run by parish priest, Fr Luc-Marie (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). He is known to his flock as The Shepherd and they even bleat in greeting when he enters the room. Christine is devoted to him and Frédéric is keen to support his spouse. But siblings Matthieu (Armand Rayaume) and Benjamin (Jules Dhios Francisco) are far from convinced, while 13 year-old sister Camille (Céleste Brunnquell) is appalled that membership of the community means she has to abandon her beloved circus school.


While she misses the classes, Camille is also dismayed by the prospect of being separated from Boris (Spencer Bogaert), the 18 year-old clowning student on whom she has developed her first crush. She is also embarrassed by the modest attire The Shepherd insists upon and hides a change of clothes in a disused fuse box on her route to school. But things take a turn for the worse when Camille and Frédéric are convinced to sell their home, donate the proceeds to the community and move into accommodation adjoining the church. Moreover, Camille is persuaded to break off contact with her mother (Laurence Roy) and father (Daniel Martin) after she hazily recalls the latter abusing her.


Given the nature of films about religious sects and the ongoing investigation into sexual misconduct by the clergy, it will surprise no one that Suco and co-scenarist Nicolas Silhol steer the story in the direction of a grand exposé. Yet, they do it so clumsily that they ruinously undermine the credibility of what is essentially an adolescent rite of passage told from the perspective of a free spirit who resents having her liberty curtailed by parents who are too blinkered to see what is plain to her from the moment The Shepherd criticises her clown act for mocking his beliefs.


Much is made of Camille's defiant readiness to steal from the petty cash and remain in contact with both Boris and her grandparents. But her acts of rebellion feel peevish, especially as the writers opt against exploring the nature of her faith. They also decide to make the community seem sinister from the outset and so narrow their focus that we learn nothing about why anyone would want to live within it or how the children of other members are coping with their incarceration. While they avoid the risible histrionics favoured by Florian Gallenberger in Colonia (2015), they fail to show the potential appeal of The Shepherd before demonising him. Moreover, they compound the sense of contrivance by dumping the climactic twist on a minor character.


The performances are solid enough, with Céleste Brunnquell displaying considerably more nuance than Camille Cottin, as her emotionally stunted mother, and Eric Caravaca, as her milquetoast father. For once, Yves Angelo's cinematography is more functional than evocative, as Suco wisely opts for an unobtrusive style. But, while there's no doubting the probity of the intentions underpinning the narrative, this lacks the thematic complexity or dramatic dynamism of items like Lukas Moodyson's Together (2000) and Thomas Vinterburg's The Commune (2016).


FELICITÀ.


It should come as no surprise that Northern European cinema has such a fine track record when it comes to kidpix. After all Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen all hail from that part of the continent and their readiness to explore the darker aspects of life feeds into films like Bruno Merle's Felicità, which is one of four films in the FFF@Home slate to focus on children.


Tommy (Rita Merle) is sitting in a diner with parents Tim (Pio Marmaï) and

Chloé (Camille Rutherford) when they break the news that they took her in when she was abandoned by their former housemate, who is now the famous rapper, Orelsan, Fortunately, Tommy is used to having such yarns spun for her and Tim is disappointed that she has become so difficult to fool. For the most part, Tommy is happy to potter around in the noise-cancelling headphones that allow her to enjoy her own little world, with a plaster Labrador she has named Biscuit and a little strawberry patch in the back garden.


She's not allowed in the padlocked attic and is complaining about the fact to her mother when Chloé gets a phone call that the owners of the house are about to return and they have to make a fast getaway, with Tommy using Tim's phone to ensure each room is left exactly the way they found it. Unfazed by the need to flee and resume residence on a boat at the quay, Tommy is solely concerned that she is on time for the first day of the new school term and using all the new supplies in her pencil case.


When Chloé leaves for work - having tricked Tim into believing that their bar-owning friend, Marco (Bert Haelvoet), had tricked her into making a porn film - Tim and Tommy watch Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) and she draws the conclusion that normal people aren't to be trusted. She asks Tim to check her height on the measuring lines he has had tattooed on his arm and is curious as to why there are no marks before her fifth birthday. He reminds her that he had been in prison when she was born and thanks her for helping him transform his life.


But, when Chloé fails to return after dark, Tim gets in a panic and `borrows' Marco's car in order to drive out to the house. He tells Tommy to stay put and she has a conversation with a cosmonaut (Orelsan) about making choices that can change the way events pan out. She imagines going to the door and seeing her father smash a window and gun down the occupant. However, even when her parents return and they drive off in separate cars, the weirdness isn't quite over.


As emergency vehicles pass them on the road, Chloé parks in a junkyard and tells Tommy how she had gone to the house as an agency cleaner and had watched Serge (Adama Niane) chastise his daughter (Lulubelle Gobron-Amoti) for still having a cuddly monkey at the age of 11. Knowing that Tommy had become attached to the toy during their stay, Chloé had waded out to the rock where it had landed after the girl had thrown it off the cliff at the end of the garden. However, the tide had come in and Chloé (who is a poor swimmer) had waited until the last moment to head for shore. Unfortunately, Tim had gone to the house and assaulted Serge before he had found Chloé and they now have to make themselves scarce.


Because Tim had escaped from prison and is still on the run, he wants to cross the Belgian border and stay with Chloé's brother. However, in his anxiety, he upsets Tommy by smashing her headphones and she hides among the rusting cars. Chloé wants Tommy to go to school for once without a crisis hanging over them and Tim agrees to tell his daughter that he had been jailed for injuring a woman in a fast car while trafficking drugs. He is, however, prepared to use his driving skills to cover 40 miles in half an hour so that Tommy's at the gates on time. She is thrilled to be doing something normal, even though the cops are waiting for Tim and she has to look on with her classmates as he is forcibly handcuffed and led away.


Following a shot of the cosmonaut's corpse washed up on the beach to represent Tommy ditching her illusions and growing up, she waits with the pregnant Chloé outside Rennes jail. Tim is miffed by the indifferent reception he receives, so Chloé suggests he goes back to the door for `take two' (a family in-joke, like Tommy always having to have the last word) and he has barely set foot outside when his daughter comes running towards him for a huge hug.


In some ways, this tantalising dysfantasy feels like a tangential sequel to Isabelle Czajka's Living on Love Alone (2010), in which recent graduate Anaïs Demoustier is led off the straight and narrow by drug trafficker Pio Marmaï. His character there might have been called Ben, but Tim could easily be an alias and Chloé may well have been the girl he seduced on leaving prison. Either way, the charm exhibited in the earlier outing remains undiminished, as Marmaï (who should be a shoo-in if anyone decides to make a biopic of Marcello Mastroianni) switches in an instant between doting quirkiness and unhinged menace - in a manner that also recalls Alban Lenoir in Véro Cratzborn's Into Dad's Woods (see below).


Camille Rutherford proves as watchfully indulgent as Ludivine Sagnier in the same film. But Rita Merle (who is the director's daughter) is younger and more quizzically passive than Léonie Souchard. Consequently, her deadpan visage is more engagingly enigmatic, as she cocoons herself in silence or communes with an imagined spaceman. Often seen in Romain Carcanade's discreet close-ups, she clearly responds well to her father's direction and it will be intriguing to see if she makes further films with him or anyone else. As it has taken Merle 13 years to follow up his debut, Héros (2007), we maybe shouldn't hold our breathe, although has been busy writing for television and co-writing Michel Hazanavicius's even more audiovisually ambitious saga, The Lost Prince (2020).


HONEY CIGAR.


Eight years after co-scripting Lisa Azuelos's LOL (2012), Kamir Aïnouz makes her directorial debut with Honey Cigar, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age saga that boasts the unlikely combination of Dany Boon and Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne among its associate producers. From the swirling yonic motifs in the animated credit sequence, this is a film that boldly seeks to assert its stance on female entitlement in all matters social and sensual. But, while Aïnouz succeeds in presenting the world from the viewpoint of a 17 year-old Parisian girl of Algerian heritage, she struggles to accommodate the secondary characters in what persists in being a frustratingly flimsy scenario,


It's 1993 and Selma (Zoé Adjani) is ready to kick against the privileged upbringing she has enjoyed in the affluent suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Her lawyer father (Lyès Salem) tends to side with her against her mother (Amira Casar), who gave up her career as a gynaecologist to raise her child and play hostess for her ambitious husband. She is furious that Selma has applied without her consent for a place at a business-oriented high school and redoubles her efforts to find her a suitable husband. Selma is in no hurry to conform, however, and, despite dreaming of the idealised romance she finds in Gilbert Sinoue's novel L'Egyptienne, she uses a courgette to dispense with her virginity after she is embarrassed by a hazing ritual by Julien (Louis Peres) and his friend, William (Axel Granberger).


Ignoring their casual racism, Selma joins their circle and is frustrated when she is chastised by her father for getting home after curfew. She is even more appalled when Hafida Benslimane (Rym Takoucht), the son of a family friend, is beaten by his father (Samir El Hakim) for asking her for a practice kiss after they had been left alone in his bedroom because the grown-ups were unwilling to listen to Selma's views on the deteriorating situation in Algeria caused by the rise of the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front. However, she knows there is no point in reporting the fact that she has been raped by Luka Toumi (Idir Chender), the investment banker who had been chosen by her mother as a prospective husband after she had made it clear she wasn't interested in the bashful Selim (Jud Bengana).


As tensions mount between her parents, Selma becomes aware that her mother is considering a move back to Algeria in order to resume her vocation. She accompanies her on a trip to her home village of Tizi Ouzou: in the remote Kabylia mountains and frets about the safety of her grandmother (Fatima Hachache), who refuses to move to Algiers, even though the region has become increasingly dangerous as the civil war spreads. Returning to Paris, Selma seeks out Julien after a period apart and makes love with him. He informs her that he has been posted to Singapore and that there is no point in her waiting for him. As the story ends, Selma prepares to face a new phase in her life.


Laudably depicting a young Muslim woman navigating her way through the pitfalls of parental expectation, peer pressure, sexual curiosity and cultural cliché, this is very much an opportunity seized by Zoé Adjani (who is Isabelle Adjani's niece), as she shifts between defiance, insecurity, coquettishness and naivete. However, none of the other characters is as rounded, with the consequence that Amira Casar and Lyès Salem are reduced to playing ciphers until the trip to Algeria when Casar reveals something of the conflicts that had forced her into largely regretted choices.


In many ways, the pictures recalls Sadaf Foroughi's Ava (2017) and Mounia Meddour's Papicha (2019), although Aïnouz is much franker in her empowering discussion of female desire. That said, Jeanne Lapoirie's camerawork is much more discreet than Julie Roué's score, which often leaves little to the imagination in its use of vocalisation. The visual contrast between Paris and Kabylia is strikingly achieved, although Aïnouz avoids going into much detail about the events in Algeria in the early 1990s that make the road trip so perilous. Thus, while she isn't yet on a par with her film-making brother, Karim (whose credits include Madame Satã, 2002 and Futuro Beach, 2014), Aïnouz does enough here to suggest she has plenty in her mind and won't be afraid to say it.


INTO DAD'S WOODS.


Véro Cratzborn has been making shorts since F(r)ictions (1997). Now, following on from Lavomatic (2000), Week-End (2005), En Pays éloigné (2007), Les Biches (2012) and Love Changes (2014), she finally makes the step up to features with Into Dad's Woods. At times, this rather feels like an elongated short, as the debutant occasionally strings out the simple story to the point where it strains credibility. Nevertheless, she directs with confidence and is well served by a the younger members of her ensemble.


Gina Kremer (Léonie Souchaud) adores her father, Jimmy (Alban Lenoir), who takes her to the woodland where he works and teaches her and siblings Tony (Mathias Bour) and Nora (Saskia de Melo Dillais) about the flora and fauna. When he loses his job, he convinces the children that he was fired because a red and black cat had told him that lopping tree branches was bad for the environment. But wife Carole (Ludivine Sagnier) is worried by his increasingly eccentric behaviour, especially after he throws the television out of the window and returns home with a wild rabbit after having abandoned the kids in the woods during an impromptu stargazing expedition.


Gina keeps being pestered by a couple of lads near the flats where she lives, but older neighbour Nico (Carl Malapa) keeps an eye on her. He also offers a shoulder to cry on when Jimmy is detained after assaulting a supermarket guard during a bizarre attempt to shoplift in the nude. Carole is informed by the doctor that her husband is showing signs of decompensating and she is persuaded into signing him over to the hospital's care. This means, however, that the family is denied access and Gina accuses her mother of betrayal.


As Carole is a housekeeper in a large residence in a plusher part of town, she has to take the kids to work. But Gina is determined to see her father and a brief meeting after she sneaks into the hospital grounds prompts Jimmy to escape. Despite the fact that Carole has injured her ankle, he suggests a holiday and bundles everyone into the car, only to speed up and announce that they are all going to die together. Fortunately, he calms down when Gina sings a soothing song and Carole drives home. But Jimmy is so heavily sedated that Gina and Nico are unable to move him when they break in late at night. They retreat to the woods, where Gina promises Nico he can kiss her when the fire he has made to warm them dies down.


Ending on a note of poignant optimism, this is social realism with a dollop of sentiment. Writing with Ève Deboise and François Verjans, Cratzborn ably conveys the chasm between the house where Carole works and the flat in which she lives. But we never get to see her employers, whose convenient absence means that she is able to drop everything and dash to the hospital after Jimmy is arrested and that Gina is able to pop in and borrow a black dress that makes her look old enough to visit her father. Such contrivances may seem minor, but their accumulation serves to reinforce the impression that we are watching a made-up story rather than a slice of life.


Equally laboured is the symbolism of Gina releasing the pigeon that Nico keeps in a cage in the high-rise roof to prevent his own father from poisoning it. This same unseen parent has presumably purchased the scooter on which Nico and Gina whizz around (as well as the petrol), as the youth doesn't appear to have a job. Moreover, nobody seems to have to go to school and there are no snooping social workers checking up on how Carole is coping with three kids and two jobs.


Such sloppiness is mitigated to some extent by Philippe Guilbert's unfussy photography and Stephan Rubens's astute production design. The performances are also admirably committed, with Alban Lenoir retaining our sympathy as the hair-triggered Jimmy and Ludivine Sagnier sensitively conveying the dilemma of having to protect her kids from a man she still loves and keeps threatening to kill himself if she ever leaves him. But the standout is Léonie Souchaud, who builds on her impressive debut in Lola Doillon's adaptation of Fanny Ben-Ami's Nazi-era memoir, Fanny's Journey (2016), to show resourcefulness and fragility in seeking to fathom the workings of her grown-up world and her own shifting emotions.


JUST KIDS.


Christophe Blanc has hardly been prolific since debuting with Faute de Soleil in 1995. He has since released a feature a decade, with An Outgoing Woman (2000) and White As Snow (2010), while also making the odd short and teleplay. But he seems set to make his most telling impact on UK audiences with Just Kids, which he has co-scripted with Béryl Peillard.


When his debt-ridden gambling addict father takes his own life on the railway line near Grenoble, 19 year-old Jack Certy (Kacey Mottet Klein) agrees to stand guardian for his younger sister, Lisa (Anamaria Vartolomei), and 10 year-old brother, Mathis (Andrea Maggiulli). He accepts the supporting guidance of his Uncle David (Yves Caumon) and Great-Uncle Albert (Pierre Vial), with the former providing taking charge of the family finances from his home in Lyon. As she has already left school, the 17 year-old Lisa has no intention of being controlled by Jack and she heads south with her boyfriend to run a mobile chip van.


Despite taking the loss of his father so soon after his mother succumbed to cancer, Mathis trusts Jack to take care of him and accepts responsibility for Turkel the iguana. He also becomes fascinated with his father's collection of cameras and starts taking pictures at every opportunity. Jack hooks up with Maureen (Angelina Woreth) at a party he throws in their high-rise apartment. But he is intrigued by the messages that keep being sent to his father's phone from Spain and he travels with Mathis and his buddy Quentin (Ahmed Abdel Laoui) to investigate. Much to his dismay, he discovers that his father had bought a consignment of hams and Mathis throws up after spending the night with them in the back of the car.


At school, Mathis gets a crush on new classmate Melinda (Lou Lambrecht), who has also lost a parent. However, she is soon sent away to boarding school and Mathis begins to feel detached from Jack, who is frittering his way through his allowance at the racetrack. Eventually, they get a visit from the uncle they have nicknamed The Eye because he is always checking up on them. He insists he trusts Jack, but reminds him of his duty to Mathis, who is at a vulnerable age. Shortly afterwards, Jack gets badly beaten up while visiting Lisa and the three siblings cling to each other in the sea. But, as Mathis takes snapshots of Jack's battered face, it seems clear that they are going to tough it out together.


It only seems like yesterday that Kacey Mottet Klein was the baby brother being cared for by sister Léa Seydoux in Ursula Meier's Sister (2012). He might look grown up, but he is still very much the kid of the title and the onus of holding things together for young Andrea Maggiulli looks like proving too much for him. Both actors deliver committed performances, with the chubby, long-haired Maggiulli growing into his debut role after dramatically trashing his room on learning that his father had ducked out on him. However, they are rather sold short by the screenplay.


The picaresque nature of the narrative makes it difficult to get a handle on where the are at any given time, which also means it's not always easy to follow where Jack's problems and adversaries are coming from. Blanc and Peillard also skimp on character development, as Jack lurches between crises and Mathis becomes increasingly petulant. Cinematographer Noé Bach makes effective use of the contrasting light in Grenoble and Spain, but Florencia Di Concilio's score errs on the sentimental side as the action grows more melodramatic.

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