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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (5/1/2024)

Updated: Jan 6

(Reviews of Bernadette; The Goldfinger; Sweet Sue; and The Inseparables)


BERNADETTE.


Sixty-seven years have elapsed since a 13 year-old Catherine Dorléac was first seen on screen in André Hunebelle's Les Collégiennes. Under the name Deneuve, she has amassed a further 142 further credits, with the latest, Léa Doménach's Bernadette, earning her a Best Actress nomination at the forthcoming Lumière Awards.


As Bernadette Chirac (Catherine Deneuve) confides in Father Mouret (Jacky Nercessian), a choir fills in her background and warns that the events we are about to see aren't always entirely based on fact. What can't be disputed, however, is that Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac (Michel Vuillermoz), became President of France on 7 May 1995.

Bernadette has hopes of playing an active role as First Lady, especially as daughter Claude (Sara Giraudeau) is a key adviser. But Chirac prefers her to focus on her charitable foundation and her duties as a councillor in Corrèze. He even agrees to back a fast train link to keep her occupied. However, Bernadette keeps speaking her mind, even when there are cameras around, and Claude appoints Bernard Niquet (Denis Podalydès) to re-shape her public image.


Pained at being excluded from the top table after the 14 July garden party and having to watch her notoriously unfaithful husband flirting with lots of pretty girls, Bernadette takes solace in Marie Antoinette, the tortoise she had received from her other daughter, Laurence (Maud Wyler). However, she is proved right when she warns Chirac against calling National Assembly elections in April 1997 and takes no pleasure in adviser Dominique de Villepin (François Vincentelli) falling on his face. When Niquet questions Claude's influence over her father, Bernadette reveals that she made them a team after her daughter lost her best friend and her husband in quick succession and feels the arrangement's positives still outweigh the negatives.


Following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in Paris on 31 August 1997, Bernadette has to track Chirac down to an Italian love nest in order to return to the Elysée and do his job. Feeling humiliated, she refuses to leave her room for three days and isn't impressed when Claude tells her to take one for the team. Instead, she colludes with Niquet in changing her image by being her own woman.


She starts by borrowing Chirac's trusted chauffeur, Yvon Molinier (Lionel Abelanski), for the duration of her March 1998 re-election campaign in Corrèze and frames him for drunk-driving after getting him to down wine samples during a market walkabout. Niquet then suggests asking celebrities to support Bernadette's centime collection charity and Olympic judoka David Douillet (Victor Artus Solaro) joins her for a tour that wins over the press and make her popular with kids. Chirac, however, is unhappy that she's not at the end of a phone whenever he needs her.


Designer Karl Lagerfeld (Olivier Breitman) is also unimpressed when the press comment on the old twin-sets that Bernadette keeps wearing. So, he presents her with a new wardrobe and joins her at a nightclub to promote the Centime Coin Operation. When she is photographed with a member of the 2Be3 boy band, Claude is furious. But her father is even more vexed when Bernadette invites Hilary Clinton to Corrèze and he knows nothing about the visit dominating the headlines. As punishment, Bernadette and Laurence are barred from the 1998 World Cup Final and the latter is appalled when the camera catches her father struggling with the names of the French team when they are announced to the cheering crowd.


During the municipal elections in March 2001, Molinier publishes a poisonous memoir in which he calls Bernadette a tyrannical opportunist. As she is also writing her autobiography, she bites back and launches a campaign to build a specialist unit for children with eating disorders. This upsets the anorexic Laurence, who feels betrayed. But it gives Bernadette a 71% approval rating and Chirac is advised to harness her appeal to offset media stories about his morality and help him secure the nomination over the ambitious Nicolas Sarkozy (Laurent Stocker).


Chirac reluctantly allows Bernadette to play a prominent role in the campaign and berates his advisers when they fail to heed her warning about Jean-Marie Le Pen. But her strategy brings about a landslide victory and Sarkozy encourages her to give a speech to aides while Chirac is taking the applause on the Elysée balcony. Claude is amazed by how far her mother has come, but has no idea that the note her father has given her to pass on contains the words, `Shut up!'


Three years later, while mired in a sleaze scandal, Chirac has a stroke and Claude relies on Bernadette for advice on how to break the news. She persuades him not to run again, but he refuses to endorse Sarkozy as his successor for a past betrayal. With the help of Niquet, who is now the Préfet for Versailles, Bernadette cuts a deal to protect them from corruption charges and keep her own seat in return for a podium appearance at a crucial Sarkozy rally. Chirac is livid. But, as Bernadette leaves the venue, she reassures the press pack that she never does anything without her husband's consent.


While it might not offer much in the way of political heft, this is a lively, gossipy overview of the Chirac presidency. Michel Vuillermoz is splendidly pompous while belittling his spouse in front of his foppish cohorts, but it might have been amusing (and instructive) to see a bit more of his public façade in order to highlight how accident prone he was in office. Similarly, more might have been made of Bernadette's relationships with her daughters to increase the understanding of Claude's blinkered loyalty to her father. Nevertheless, Sara Giraudeau ably conveys the blend of embarrassment and jobsworthiness with which she treats her mother.


The ever-dependable Denis Podalydès lends deft support as the scorned factotum who proves his worth, while Scali Delpeyrat's Elysée footman bounces back drolly from making the mistake of underestimating the First Lady. But this is Catherine Deneuve's picture and one can only hope that Madame Chirac (who turned 90 in May) approves of her portrayal. Her mid-term makeover lacks a `wow' factor, as Deneuve looks chic in vintage Lagerfeld. But the wry twinkle that appears following Bernadette's transformation from Eva into Evita subtly underlines the satirical intent of Domenach and Clémence Dargent's screenplay.


Directing for the first time since the 2011 documentary, Jean-Marc Borello: Ni Dieu, Ni Maître, Ni Actionnaire, Domenach wisely opts for restraint in poking the chauvinist bear (although the display of ursine obeisance in the Elysée garden is perhaps a bit on the nose). Her use of the chorus to comment on the passing scene is well-judged, although she not only lets the Chiracs off the hook, but she also fails to exculpate the French people for their role in letting the elite exploit the system for their own ends.


THE GOLDFINGER.


In 2002, co-directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak paired Andy Lau and Tony Leung in Infernal Affairs, a twisting thriller about a Hong Kong police officer infiltrating a Triad. Martin Scorsese remade the film as The Departed (2006), which won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in the leads. DiCaprio and Scorsese went on to make The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and its influence is readily evident on The Goldfinger, which reunites Lau and Cheung for the first time in two decades under the directorship of Felix Chong, who had co-written the Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002-03) with Mak.


Arriving in Hong Kong on a cargo ship in the late 1970s, penniless Chinese businessman Ching Yat-yin (Tony Leung) stumbles into the real estate business when he poses as a white-suited high-roller in order to help developer Tsang Kim-kiu (Simon Yam) swing a deal with an unconvinced investor named Wu (Tai Bo). At the same time, Lau Kai-yuen (Andy Lau), an agent with the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) faces down the Hong Kong cops enraged by the prospect of having their dealings investigated.


Ten years later, Ching finds himself under Lau's scrutiny when his Carmen Century company collapses. As he is taken from his luxurious office in Golden Hill House to an ICAC cell, Ching sees those lined up ready to testify against him and faints. Waking in hospital two days later, he listens as Lau recaps his inglorious career and the role played in it by Carmen Cheung (Charlene Choi), who had started out as his secretary and quickly became his lover. She helps him head-hunt Wu's ace stockbroker, Chung (Michael Ning), so that they can start manipulating the markets to make a killing.


Although Lau suspects Ching of gaming the system, he can't work out how he did it. Wu, Chung, and Carmen tell him stories about using a travel agency and the KGB to amass and launder cash. But it takes some ICAC pen-pushers to crack Ching's dealing code for him to start applying pressure on his quarry. Even so, he continues questioning his associates and learns how Tsang introduced Ching to Robert (Carlos Chan), the scion of a wealthy family who is seduced into coming aboard by some dancing girls in the glass cases of what is about to become Ching's personal museum.


Feted by the brokers who crowd-surf him across the stock exchange floor, Ching buys a yacht and starts hosting lavish parties. He boasts about using stock as money and celebrates landing a $168 million loan from a major bank with dancing girls on the boardroom table. While Ching remains supremely confident in his methods, Robert begins to worry they are taking reckless risks and fears that the deal involving Golden Hill House is fraudulent. Carmen is also concerned about the levels of debt the company is amassing. But Chung assures her that everything is under control and is more bothered by the fact that she might be in love with Ching when he's married to another woman named Carmen.


In 1982, however, talk of Anglo-Chinese negotiations about the future of Hong Kong provoke a financial crisis and Tsang panics. Ching arranges for him to take a parachute payment from a South-East Asian backer, but he disappears soon afterwards. No sooner does Lau start to investigate this mystery man than his family car is rammed in an underground car park following a night out. He is convinced Ching is behind it and Mrs Lau slaps his face when he shows up at the hospital. Ching's lawyer (Alex Fong) demands that she is arrested for assault, but none of the cops present is willing to testify against her.


Just as Lau thinks he's got Ching on the ropes, his witnesses are bumped off, with Carmen and Chung being blown up on a cargo boat while trying to flee Hong Kong. Ching warns Lau that he is just a frontman for some serious players and they will do whatever it takes to protect their anonymity and liberty. But, while Ching is able to post bail, he is tried for the fraudulent sale of Golden Hill House. However, the British judge is a pal and he is acquitted with no prospect of the charges being brought again.


Lau flies to Britain to meet Hafa, the mysterious front man, who has been caught and jailed. He refuses to return to Hong Kong, as he knows Ching will have him killed, just as the tame judge was bumped off in a car crash in Cyprus. Consequently, five years pass before Lau uncovers another way of confronting Ching, when FBI files reveal a series of bribes involving Carmen Century. Once more, however, the judge intervenes to declare a mistrial and Ching walks free.


Eight more years elapse and Lau manages to secure Hafa's extradition. He breaks the news to Ching in his high-rise apartment and is asked why he has spent so much taxpayers' money and invested so much of his own time in pursuing him, when he was helping Hong Kong's economy. Lau simply states that he was doing his duty and he leaves court vindicated after Ching pleads guilty to bribery and serves three years in prison, during which time his assets were frozen and eventually redistributed to injured parties - although small stockholders received nothing.


Despite this closing caption seeking to make the little people the victims of casino capitalism, this is far from a work of social realism. Instead, it follows the old Cecil B. DeMille tactic of luxuriating in the wages of sin before exacting a price. With a record $45 million budget at his disposal, Chong can give production designer Che Klu Lam carte blanche when it comes to opulent interiors strewn with priceless trinkets, while editors William Chang and Curran Pang are invited to indulge in stylised montages gaudily glorying in decadence and excess. All of which is driven along by a pounding Day Tai score that conveys the brashness of the 80s mindset and Ching's unshakeable self-belief. Yet, one jazzy showstopping number apart, the debauchery feels rather tame. There's a hint of sex, but the drink and drugs are in short supply and, consequently, the focus falls on white collar wheeler-dealering, which only gets close to exciting when red-waistcoated brokers furiously scribble numerals on whiteboards during breathless trading sessions.


Coasting on his charisma, Tony Leung revels in a showy role that doesn't require him to dig too deeply into the cigar-chomping Ching's motives and emotions, while Andy Lau similarly gives little away to explain Lau's dogged determination. But Chong seems content to keep things superficial so that he can flit between timeframes and set-pieces without making too many demands on the audience. Their job is to follow as best they can a twisting tale whose transactions are deliberately obfuscatory in order to put a bit of distance between the scenario and the dealings of George Tan, the British-educated engineer who worked in Malaysia and Singapore before taking over the Carrian Group in Hong Kong in 1979. As he is still alive, it seems prudent to associate Ching more with Scorsese's depiction of Jordan Belfort. But the distanciation further depletes the interiority of the character and saps the suspense of his dealings with Charlene Choi's Carmen, Michael Ning's Chung, and Simon Yam's Tsang. Moreover, Chong wastes the chance for some intrigue by detailing how Ching forges his connection with the shadowy Hafa and his super-rich cabal.


Lau and Leung make the most of their limited shared time. However, their encounters in this slick, but shallow saga fall short of those between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Michael Mann's Heat (1995). Let's hope we don't have to wait another 20 years for their next screen showdown.


SWEET SUE.


In a rather cruel review of a 2007 Beryl Cook exhibition at the Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art in Gateshead, Guardian critic Adrian Searle claimed, `Her work is more like Mike Leigh without humour, tears, wit, embarrassment or pain.' Unfortunately, the same phrase could be used to describe Sweet Sue, the debut feature of Leo Leigh, the son of the director and his onetime muse, Alison Steadman, who once voiced Cook's characters alongside Dawn French and Timothy Spall in the regrettably forgotten BBC animation, Bosom Pals (2004).


The Steadman connection is reinforced by the fact that Gavin & Stacey (2007-19) inherited the mantle of Leigh's brand of wry social realism, along with the Stefan Golaszewski duo of Him & Her (2010-13) and Mum (2016-19), the latter of which starred another Leigh alumna, Lesley Manville. Indeed, she featured in his last excursion to Leighland, Another Year (2010), since when he has focussed on period pieces like Mr Turner (2014) and Peterloo (2018). But Leigh Jr. has opted to stay in the present and rely on an actress his father has somehow overlooked in order to hold together his first feature.


Fiftysomething Sue (Maggie O'Neill) runs a party shop in the East End of London. She's not particularly cheery towards the giggly young women who come browsing or the anxious mother whose child's birthday bash she decorate. But Sue's default is currently set at dour after having been dumped by a beau who couldn't be bothered to keep a dinner date. Moreover, mother Ethel (Anna Calder-Marshall) would rather get a nursing home visit from her son, Pete (Paul Hilton), who can do no wrong in her eyes. Unfortunately, he's on his deathbed and Sue receives a frosty welcome from his wife, Cathy (Hannah Walters), when she pays him a call.


At Paul's funeral, the red wine-swilling Sue catches sight of Ron (Tony Pitts), one of the bikers who have come to give their mate a decent send off. Unable to bear Ethel and Cathy's simmering resentment any longer, Sue sidles over to the bar to chat Ron up. Much to Cathy's frustration, Sue accepts an invitation to go for a ride and sinks into Ron's comforting arms when she starts sobbing after they stop near some woodland.


A bouncer with an interest in history and beachcombing along the banks of the Thames, Ron doesn't have much to say for himself. But Sue settles into an undemanding relationship, even though her new lover is having bedroom issues. She accompanies him on a weekend trip to Hastings to see his pal, Gordon (Nick Holder). During a night of weed vaping, he shows them the canine quartet he has stolen and is hiding in a bedroom until he can find buyers. However, Ron is forced to make an early exit on Sunday morning, leaving Sue to listen to Gordon ranting on about the estate agent who had disrespected his late mother by rubbishing the little nest and keepsakes that he considers epitomise everything that was once great about Britain.


Ron has been called away by ex-wife, Sally (Anna Francolini), who is furious with him for making her late for a date with the girls by forgetting he had agreed to take care of their son, Anthony (Harry Trevaldwyn). He's old enough to look after himself, however, as he is stringing along Terry (Jeff Rawle), a sugar daddy who buys him £800 trainers and some expensive botox treatment. He also helps Anthony film his vlog, as he fancies himself as an influencer when he is not dancing with this troupe, Electric Destiny.


Ron is clearly uneasy with his son being so unabashedly camp and makes no mention of him to Sue. However, Anthony picks up one of her calls and they chatter happily about star signs over dinner. They bond further during a clothes shopping expedition that leaves Ron cringing with embarrassment. Anthony informs his online followers that he has a new stepmother and couldn't be more excited because she gets him. However, his hopes of finally being part of a family are shattered when Sue bursts out laughing when he rehearses a new dance routine.


Sue hopes the incident blows over and joins Anthony in teasing Ron when they go tenpin bowling. But she finds a vlog post in which he calls her poisonous and manipulative. She shows willing by attending an Electric Destiny performance and even tolerates a backstage tongue-lashing from Sally. But she vents forth when Anthony tries to act cool in front of the four teenage girls in his ensemble and leaves him in no doubt about what she thinks of his talent and personality.


Convinced she's burnt her boats, Sue meets up with a man she's found on a dating app. Across town, Terry and Anthony have a row, while Ron lashes out at a punter who gives him lip at the club where he works. In despair, he calls Sue. She finds him wearing his crash helmet indoors and feeling sorry for himself. Anthony is also in need of some reassurance and Sue offers a kind word before leaving them to it.


In truth, we barely know more about Sue as she walks away than we did on first acquaintance. Evidently, Leigh and his cast felt no need to offer much by way of backstory and, thus, we are left to surmise the reasons for Ron and Sally's break up, how Anthony and Terry became an item, and what Sue had done to become so estranged from a family that simply disappears from the action following the funeral. As Sue and Anthony are inconsequentially loquacious, they reveal as little about themselves as the taciturn Ron, who has next to nothing in common with either. Yet their interactions prove endlessly engaging in an episodic drama that is more interested in human nature than it is with the state of the nation.


Indeed, besides Gordon's Little England tirade, incisive political comment feels as rare as tact, as Sue blunders through interactions without benefit of a filter. She's made entirely relatable by Maggie O'Neill, who keeps us onside in spite of the spiky Sue's bluntness and insensitivity. Harry Trevaldwyn similarly succeeds in making the pampered Anthony's vanity and overweening sense of entitlement endearing and he gets the biggest laugh when he looks baffled by O'Neill's assertion that he resembles Barry Manilow.


Despite a reluctance to delve into Ron's demons, Leigh seems more concerned with improvisation than imagery. Nevertheless, Simona Susnea's photography is crisp and Lucie Red's interiors are more finely judged than the disjointed storytelling and schematic characterisation. Covid delayed Leigh père's latest picture, which remains under wraps despite shooting seemingly having started last summer. In the meantime, Leigh fils has taken up the family business after having impressed with the documentary, Fact or Fiction: The Life and Times of a Ping Pong Hustler (2014), and the short, Mother (2016). The leaf clearly hasn't fallen far from the tree. But, while it has its bleak moments, this meld of high hopes, naked truths, and secrets and lies is more happy-go-lucky than all or nothing in demonstrating that life is sweet. Consequently, it can best be considered Leigh lite.


THE INSEPARABLES.


We're well into pantomime season and those who can't afford a trip to the theatre with assorted little ones could do a lot worse than seek out one of the cinemas still showing Jérémie Degruson's The Inseparables, as it has all the attributes of an old-fashioned family panto. Much has been made of the fact that Joel Cohen was one of the writers of John Lassetter's Toy Story (1995), especially as this CGI offering from the Belgian nWave studio is also about finding a new purpose after being discarded. Granted, this may fall short of its Pixar predecessor and gets off to an unfortunate start with a caption that misattributes a Yoko Ono quote - `A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.' - to John Lennon. But this quixotic odyssey is nowhere near as tiresome as some of the smarmier reviews have suggested.


Following the demise of the old man who had built the puppet theatre in New York's Central Park, the company had decided to continue performing under the guidance of Sunny (Tripp Karrh), a yellow wooden sun who dangles on a string above the stage. Often playing to houses full of excited children, the marionettes staged tales of brave adventure. But Don (Dakota West) is fed up with playing the buffoon who winds up with a cream pie in his face and dreams of taking over from Alfonso (Donte Paris) as the hero who nightly rescues Dee (Monica Young) from distress.


She's also tired of having to be the helpless damsel, but Alfonso points out that changing things would be unlucky, as they are doing so well. The same can't be said, however, for DJ Doggy Dog (Jordan Baird), a mechanical plush toy sporting shades and bling who raps when a button is pressed in his paw. He has been left at the theatre by his young owner and starts scouring the park for somewhere to belong. Attempts to joins a family of raccoons and a mother and her ducklings result in DJ being chased away amidst warnings about talking to strangers.


Inspired by Don Quixote, Don decides to quit the theatre and prove himself a hero by venturing to the Castle in the Clouds. In his mind, he imagines perilous scenarios (which are rendered in graphic rather than digitised animation) that turn lapdogs into ferocious beasts that need taming. DJ is intrigued by this eccentric character and they agree to explore the park together, at one point getting mixed up in a chess game as Don mistakes a knight for a steed. He tries to rebrand DJ as Sancho Panza, but he insists he's happy being himself.


The next day, after Don rescues a duckling from a crazy golf windmill (that he insists is the towering lair of a fire-breathing dragon), he and DJ get caught in a downpour. Such is the deluge that the three raccoon babies get swept into the storm drain (which Don sees as a whale's maw). But the water damages DJ's electrical system and he accuses Don of being delusional, as he sets off to find a new home by himself.


Having been taken up by the grateful raccoons, DJ realises that Don was right to encourage him to create his own rhymes rather than rely on his catchphrases and he wishes they hadn't argued. But Don has more on his mind, as he finds a castle in the children's playground and realises that he's been on a fool's errand. He returns to the theatre, however, to discover that Dee and the others have been stolen by scamps Petra (Laila Berzins) and Preston (Patrick Hambrick), who plan to sell the marionettes on Ebay.


As Alfonso had failed to protect them, Don realises that he can still play the hero. He joins forces with a carriage horse to race across town to their hideaway. Landing in a cardboard box alongside the seven puppets shrouded in protective wrapping, Don spins a yarn about confounding giants that prompts Dee to remind him that this isn't the time for jawing. Summoning all his strength and agility, Don leads his friends to freedom, where they are whisked back to Central Park by the horse and the pigeons who had followed them across the city.


They have to shrug off Petra and Preston following behind on a motorised push scooter, but return to the theatre as the cops close in. DJ is invited to join the troupe and Don persuades Alfonso to switch parts now and again so that everyone gets their moment in the spotlight.


Closing on a flashy hip-hop number that sees Alfonso get a pie in the mush, this may not always be particularly original. But it makes thoughtful use of its borrowings in reworking Cervantes for tots. The inclusion of a rapping pup and some cute baby animals does no harm, either, especially as the balding moustachio'd Don isn't exactly Disney prince material, in spite of his barber basin helmet and the way he shakes off a broken leg.


Despite Petra being the brains of the dastardly duo, the action is undeniably guy-centric, which is all the more disappointing given Dee's determination to be more than a damsel in distress. But she does get to wing a kung-fu kick into Preston's chops during the chase through a nocturnal New York, while Mother Duck dispenses plenty of sound advice for younger viewers to heed. The macho Alfonso also gets taken down a peg or two, while DJ provides a little cultural diversity to reinforce the positive message about living together in harmony.


The time zone may be a bit vague (is that the World Trade Center on the Manhattan skyline?), but the score by the Belgian band Puggy (which includes a cover of the Pixies hit, `Where Is My Mind') has a contemporary vibe. Admittedly, the dialogue by Cohen and co-writers Bob Barlen and Cal Brunker might have been sharper, while some of the voiceovers lack personality. But the shifts between graphic and CGI imagery to contrast the real world and Don's dreamscape are neatly done.




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