Parky At the Pictures (26/8/2022)
(Reviews of Eiffel; Her Way; and Black Mail)
With Covid levels and temperatures dropping, it's safe(ish) to presume that cinema-going is once again a thing. Just in case it's not, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained.
If William Dieterle had been French instead of German, Paul Muni or Edward G. Robinson would almost certainly have played Gustave Eiffel during a garlanded run of biopics that included The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Juarez (1939), Dr Ehrlich's Magic Bullet and A Dispatch From Reuter's (both 1940). Ultimately, the role has fallen to Romain Duris in Martin Bourboulon's CinemaScope biopic, Eiffel.
Surveying Paris from the tower bearing his name, Gustave Eiffel (Romain Duris) reflects on how much his triumph could have been improved by having the love of his life by his side. He thinks back to the time he had jumped into the River Garonne to rescue a worker who had fallen off the railway bridge he was building near Bordeaux. His heroism had been witnessed by Adrienne Bourgès (Emma Mackey), whose father (Bruno Raffaelli) Eiffel approaches to purchase timber to make some safety scaffolding.
During the course of a luncheon appointment and a birthday party, Eiffel becomes enamoured of Adrienne, who had kissed him on the cheek after they had played musical chairs and he had given her a book on the art of bridge building. However, he had been embarrassed by the display of affection and had slipped away from the gathering. When he encountered Adrienne again at the bridge site, she had conspired to tumble into the river after he had informed her that she was still a spoilt girl. Naturally, Eiffel had plunged in to rescue her and they had made love after holding each other to get warm in front of his office fire.
Any hopes of marrying Adrienne were dashed, however, after her father had sent her away because he didn't want her consorting with a tradesman. In trying to defy her parents by announcing her pregnancy and fleeing their home, Adrienne had impaled herself on a gate and lost the child.
Twenty-six years were to pass before Eiffel and Adrienne met again. He was engaged in building his tower and she had married his school friend, Antoine de Restec (Pierre Deladonchamps), who is now an influential newspaper columnist. Each realises that their feelings remain strong, but Adrienne knows that a hint of scandal could ruin Eiffel's reputation and she leaves him to fight his battles with the organisers of the 1889 World's Fair, which he wins by using rivets rather than bolts so that the proposed temporary structure can become a permanent landmark.
Having scored box-office hits with the comedy, Daddy or Mommy (2015), and its 2016 sequel, Divorce French Style, Martin Bourboulon is very much on a roll. However, by shooting a film about the Eiffel Tower in widescreen, he has narrowed his horizons to such an extent that this amiable slice of hokumised history barely gets off the ground.
Dieterle would also have probably factored the engineer's private travails into the story of the edifice's erection. But he would also have delved into the backroom contretemps that made the enterprise a challenge on so many levels. Caroline Bongrand's screenplay wastes little time in establishing the social conventions of fin-de-siècle France and, consequently, pitches Eiffel and Adrienne into a penny dreadful affair, whose doomed nature is leavened by a pair of meet cutes and some romcomedic playfulness.
Conveying something of Eiffel's purposeful personality, Duris is watchable as ever. But Matias Boucard's restless camerawork and Virginie Bruant and Valérie Deseine's pugnacious editing impose a modern air of urban bustle on proceedings that would have benefited from more sedentary and detailed discussions over crumpled blueprints spread across a dimly lit desk. We learn about the technical obstacles that have to be overcome, the scepticism of the press, the complaints of the nearby residents, the timidity of the bankers and the strike threats of the workers. But the procedural aspects always feel dutiful rather than integral, as the real focus is not on the brilliance and audacity of a monument to France's recovery from the humiliation of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War, but on Eiffel's broken heart (even though he is now a widowed father whose daughter wishes to marry his office junior).
Unusually, Alexandre Desplat's score seems skittishly solecistic. But Stéphane Taillasson's production design and Thierry Delettre's costumes are exemplary. Yet the $23 million budget clearly limited the extent to which Bourboulon could show the tower rising above streets that had so recently been remodelled by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. By presenting it as an A-shaped symbol of undying passion, however, the tower remains something of a MacGuffin, as the problems with its construction are bound into Antoine's growing suspicion that his spouse and Eiffel aren't the strangers they claim to be.
Following this sub-tract on class, wealth, status and power, Bourboulon and Duris are set to reunite on a two-part adaptation of Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers. One wonders whether he will be as ready to take liberties with a treasured text as blithely as he has been here with historical fact.
France isn't short of exceptional actresses and Laure Calamy must now be considered among the front rank. She has four César nominations to her credit, for Léa Mysius's Ava (2017), Dominick Moll's Only the Animals (2020), Caroline Vignal's My Donkey, My Lover & I (2021) and Cécile Ducrocq's Her Way (2022). She was unlucky not to achieve consecutive victories, as her gamut-running performance in this unyielding depiction of sex work reinforces comparisons with another paradigm of unfaltering versatility, Olivia Colman.
Marie Kriegel (Laure Calamy) works as a prostitute in Strasbourg. She tells people she is a home hairdresser, but 17 year-old son Adrien (Nissim Renard) knows the truth about her bringing men to their apartment. He has been expelled from catering school and Marie is desperate for him to secure a place at Parrandier, a private institution that asks no questions about academic records. However, it has a €5,000 admission fee and she vows to raise it to prevent Adrien joining the army.
Now in her late thirties, Marie is proud of her choices and joins a demonstration calling for the repeal of France's client criminalisation law. She is reluctant to support Black women, however, as their pimps offer lower rates and entice her customers away. While leafleting with Camille (Béatrice Facquer), she spots regular Martin (Maxence Tual) emerging from a parked caravan and she is annoyed by his disloyalty (especially as he had suggested Parrandier to her and bought her a Big Mouth Billy Bass).
Such is her focus on getting Adrien into the school that she asks The Lawyer (Romain Brau) to draft the letter of application and stage a mock interview. Adrien refuses to have anything to do with a `tranny', however, and only responds after Marie bawls at him and The Lawyer asks how he first became interested in cookery. Unused to someone taking an interest, he recalls poring over cookbooks and wanting to try out the recipes.
When Adrien is accepted, Marie drives him to the country to ask her farming parents for a loan. However, they don't have any money to spare and Marie and Adrien argue on the drive back through the snow-covered countryside. She is even more angry with him when she discovers he's been doing drugs and, having been rejected for a bank loan, she has no option than to ask Bruno (Sam Louwyck) for work in his seedy club across the German border in Offenburg.
Altromondo is a neon-lit brothel and Bruno is reluctant to take on someone of Marie's age. But he gives her a week to prove herself and Tatiana (Diana Korudzhiyska) shows her around and explains the cut that Bruno will take from her earnings. She receives a cool reception from the other girls and warns Encarna (Valentina Papic) not to mess with her when she recommends her to a violent client.
Despite his mother's sacrifices, Adrien remains surly and can barely rouse himself to get a delivery job to earn his keep. Marie is dismayed to discover how little she can earn in a week and finds herself in Tatiana's bad books when she and Sofia (Melissa Guers) rip off a client who had fallen asleep. Walking the streets by day and subjecting herself to all kinds of indignities by night, Marie still finds herself €2,000 short, with the 19 December deadline looming for the January term.
When Awa (Amlan Larcher) is arrested for having no papers, Marie finds a bundle of notes hidden in her mattress. But Adrien discovers that she is working for Bruno and comes to make a scene because she has always promised to be independent and not work for pimps. He accuses her of being a whore and has to be restrained by the bouncer before Marie can drive him home. She's touched by his concern for her and happy when he gets a busboy job at a bistro.
However, nothing can run smoothly for long and Marie is thrown into a panic when Awa isn't deported. She accuses Tatiana of stealing the cash and Marie helps calm her down. She feels awful when she learns that Awa needs the cash to keep her daughter in school. In returning the envelope to her locker, however, she invites suspicion and Bruno throws her out after a scuffle in the changing room.
Unable to persuade the school to give her an extension, Marie follows Martin from his pharmacy and tries to blackmail him into giving her €2,000. He is furious with her and they tussle before the Black girls from the caravan rescue her. Back home, she breaks the news to Adrien and feels she has failed him. When she visits him at the boat bistro, however, he serves her a lemon crème brûlée
that he has made and she hugs him with pride that he has found a niche on his own terms.
Marie celebrates at a party thrown by Camille. She's soon back soliciting on a busy street corner and knows she faces an uncertain future. By guiding her son to his métier, however, she has succeeded as a mother and, for once, can allow herself to face the next bridge when she comes to it.
Since first working with Laure Calamy on her acclaimed short, La Contre-Allée (2014),
Cécile Ducrocq has been lucky enough to stay in touch while writing for the hit TV series, Call My Agent!, in which Calamy plays the lovelorn office assistant, Noémie Leclerc. Her fortune is evident in every frame of this feature debut, as its unflinching depiction of the oldest profession in its ruthlessly exploitative current state
would lapse into melodrama without Calamy's flintily authentic performance.
Despite Ducrocq striving for social realist rawness and relevance, there's always the feeling that the plot is overly reliant on Marie overcoming a stumbling block only for a more incommodious one to block her path in the very next scene. As the deadline looms, the situations become increasingly contrived, with the whole strand over Awa's money feeling like it belongs in a telenovela rather than a hard-hitting social tract. In this regard, the film has much in common with Emmanuel Carrière's Between Two Worlds (2021), in which Juliette Binoche goes undercover to research the lot of cross-Channel ferry cleaners.
Whether feigning arousal for clients, fronting up before people looking down on her or fighting for her rights on the march, Calamy excels as the energetic, impulsive and erratic Marie. Her best scenes are with Nissim Renard, whose infuriating teenage stropperisms mask fears and insecurities that only emerge when his mother's defences slip so low as to expose her own vulnerability.
Noé Bach's cinematography is pin-sharp in contrasting the historical charms of Strasbourg and the sordid interiors of the Altromondo, a clash of cultures that also reflects well on production designer Catherine Cosme. The relentlessness of Sophie Reine's propulsive editing is similarly complemented by Julie Roué's evaluative score. It's just a shame that Ducrocq couldn't have taken a more rigorously Dardennesque approach to her storyline.
Obi Emelonye's Black Mail should be a cause for celebration, as it makes history by becoming the first independently produced and distributed Black British film to open nationwide in 100 cinemas. It's the fourth feature produced by the Nigerian-born, London-based director after Echoes of War (2004), The Mirror Boy (2011) and Last Flight to Abuja (2012) to reach UK screens. But this cyber crime saga looks set not only to raise Emelonye's profile, but also to showcase Nollywood cinema for British and diasporic audiences.
Ray Chinda (O.C. Ukeje) is a successful actor based in London. However, his marriage to solicitor Nikki (Julia Holden) is going through a rocky patch. Therefore, when he receives an e-mail demanding bitcoin to prevent the release of hacked footage of him masturbating to pornography, he replies in a panic. Too ashamed to tell Nikki and fearful for his reputation, Ray confides in manager Reuben (Alessandro Babalola), when Russian mafioso Igor (Nikolay Shulik) makes second contact. However, he is concerned that the demands will keep coming and not only jeopardise some deals in the pipeline, but will also cause Nikki to leave with children Kosi (Da'Luchy Obi-Emelonye) and Zorba (D'Richy Obi-Emelonye).
Igor is under pressure from his boss to up his returns and orders Ivana (Natalia N) and Vitali (Ivan Papovec) to find some easy targets. In addition to Ray, they have also nabbed a pastor from Texas. But Ivana wants to leave, as she was trafficked from Belarus and forced to work as a prostitute before Igor rescued her. However, he has incriminating pictures of her that he threatens to send to her widowed mother to keep her compliant (because he needs money to pay for his daughter's medical bills).
When Ivana discovers she's pregnant by Igor (again) and he orders her to get an abortion, she stabs him with a beer bottle. Having wired stolen cash to her mother, she throws herself under a train at the same moment that Ray has a mini-stroke and winds up in hospital. He confesses to Nikki, who is already aware of the scam through her legal work. When the cops visit Ivana's address, they find Petra (Jelena Borovskaya) and several other women living there and Commissioner Baines (Emma Fletcher) thinks she's on to a big gang.
Meanwhile, Ray receives a posthumous message from Ivana telling him where Igor is based. However, under pressure from Alexei (Mladen Petrov) and his father in St Petersburg, Igor has posted a pixellated picture of Ray online and demanded a huge payout to prevent him from ruining him.
Guaranteed asylum by the Home Office, Petra squeals, just as Ray heads for the Wembley lock-up where Igor is based. There's a stand-off and a struggle before a gun goes off and the cops arrive. Nikki tells waiting reporters that we all need to be vigilant online and brings the kids to see her husband in hospital, as he recovers from his ordeal.
Following the Nollywood trend of dotting a hoary melodrama with earnest moral dilemmas, this is some way superior to the other Nigerian-linked features that have reached the UK in recent times. As one might expect of a film that thanks `Almighty God', the emphasis is on decent living and protecting one's nearest and dearest. Emelonye takes a risk in borrowing Jean Renoir's maxim that everyone has their reasons in seeking to justify Igor's actions. Indeed, he even gives him the personal trait of having once been a footballer (as Emelonye had trials for West Ham and Charlton before arriving at film-making via the legal profession). But Igor's rapacious behaviour can't be condoned and some will be perplexed by it being equated in the highly conservative scheme of things with jerking off to porn in the privacy of one's own home.
Notwithstanding its creaky ethical stance, this is a reasonably slick offering that belies the fact it was made during the pandemic for under £10,000. Robert Ford's photography is crisp, as is Andrew Webber's editing. The performances are more of a mixed bag, though, with some of the coppers struggling to walk and talk at the same time. O.C. Ukeje convinces more as a family man scared of losing everything than a screen tough guy. But his medical condition feels as contrived as Igor's sick daughter, while his domestic travails are as clumsily established as Ivana's harrowing plight. Moreover, while Petra and her housemates get to sing Belorussian folk songs on their way to a new life, the Met don't appear to arrest anyone or have the intel to smash a pernicious operation. But a sinner has repented, so let's rejoice at that!