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Dad in Training

In this French film, we meet Antoine, the Dad in Training, who’s a mess as an adult. He’s a music producer and has little regular work. In the opening scene he’s begging for funding for the latest singer he’s found. It doesn’t look like that recording will get off the ground. At home, he contributes little financially and nil as far as child care of his two delightful daughters.

His wife Alice reaches a breaking point. The couple separate legally and Alice sends the two girls to Antoine for him to take care of for two weeks. She goes incommunicado so Antoine must manage juggling both his music career and figuring out how to be a father, how to get a 6 year old to take her medicine, how to console a nine year old daughter, who thinks she’s responsible for her parent’s separation and how to feed two kids when money’s tight. His sister often helps out and offers a realistic, sometimes critical but always true view of Antoine’s life.

As the story progresses, after various gaffes hooking up and with online dating, and Antoine does grow up as a father. Alice is impressed, but will they get back together?

All the performances rang true. I liked Antoine’s sister’s role as she offered real advice without pulling any punches. The ending was real and certainly not what a Hollywood film would have done. A definite thumbs up.

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Marguerite

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Touching and true, Marguerite (2015) is set in France of the 1920s. The central character Marguerite loves music and supports her local music club lavishing funds on them with the one stipulation that she’s allowed to sing at various concerts. The film opens with such a concert that she hosts at her mansion. The musicians and young singer who opens the performance are top notch, but when Marguerite takes the stage glass cracks and you want to cover your ears. She has no idea what pitch is. Two cads from Paris who crash the event are delighted. Their twisted sensibilities find her the perfect means of satirizing the current art scene.

Yet no one — not her unfaithful husband, her duplicitous servant, the voice coach who’s desperate for money or her friends at the music club — will tell her the truth. Encouraged by the cads, Marguerite decides to sing publicly and while many know they should tell Marguerite that she can’t sing, no one can burst her bubble.

Listening to Marguerite’s screeching and seeing her tricked all the way to the rather sad ending isn’t easy but it is enjoyable enough. It was good for a long flight and the lead actress Catherine Frot made me sympathize with and like a character who would be easy to look down on.

The Pearls of the Crown

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Sacha Guitry as a writer tracking down rare pearls

Sacha Guitry created another light-hearted film with The Pearls of the Crown. In this movie, which Guitry wrote, directed and stars in, a French writer, a man works for the Pope and an English royal assistant, search for three, rare, matching pearls that have gone missing since the 16th century. As the three men hunt down these pearls, they discover the truth in the lives of historical figures like King Henry VIII. Throughout the film, the audience is treated to wry humour. Here Guitry, who’s something of a French Noel Coward, plays for roles: two kings, a writer and one more character.

The film is charming and you’ll even learn a bit about history. Good when you’re looking for light entertainment and don’t mind subtitles.

Zazie dans le Metro

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Directed by Louis Malle, Zazie dans le Metro (1960) is an exuberant, colorful film that sends up all the devices and techniques of film based on a masterful comic novel by . The story is simple and doesn’t capture the quality or

Zazie is a lively, 10 year old girl, who visits her uncle in Paris while her mother has a rendezvous with a lover. Her one hope is to ride the metro, but there’s a strike so that seems unlikely. A flamboyant man with an odd set of friends, Zazie’s uncle lives an unconventional life since he’s an exotic dancer and has a wide assortment of eccentric friends.

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Zazie explores the city and outsmarts most of the adults around her. She’s a worldly girl who speaks honestly at all times, but swears a lot. Since my French isn’t street French, I doubt I understood the full force of her swearing.

The film’s comedy is fresh and the pace fast with several of the best chase scenes I’ve ever seen. The film is exuberant and one I keep thinking of and smiling each time I do. The actress who played Zazie, Catherine Demongeot, gives a realistic, captivating performance. It’s a film I whole-heartedly recommend and know I’ll watch again and again.

Related

Good essay on Criterion Collection “Girl Trouble.”

The Jewish Cardinal

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What an absorbing — and true story!

I happened upon The Jewish Cardinal (a.k.a. Le métis de Dieu) at my library and am so glad I did. It’s the story of Jean-Marie Aaron Lustiger, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants who converted to Catholicism as a boy during WWII. His mother was killed at Auschwitz and though his father isn’t religious, he’s hurt by his son’s conversion and later decision to become a priest.

As the movie starts, Pope John Paul II soon makes Lustiger a bishop and soon a cardinal. Lustiger is real, someone whom people can relate to. He shakes things up and causes turbulence but eventually people see he’s right. For example, early on he sees that the church needs to reach people via mass communication and he starts an archdiocese radio station which he himself broadcasts from.

He also doesn’t like when his Jewish origins are written about as a gimmick or when he’s asked by a high ranking rabbi to deny his Jewish identity.

He often meets with John Paul II in the ’80s when the pope is fairly new. They understand each other and he earns the pope’s respect.

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When it’s learned that Carmelite nuns have made a convent in Auschwitz, Lustiger becomes something of a mediator and possible pawn in a conflict that’s both political and religious. He’s savvy enough to broker a fair resolution, but gets betrayed.

The acting is stellar with Lustiger (played by Laurent Lucas) and the actother cast members turning in bold, believable performances. The actor who played JPII carried off the role with great credibility. (He’s not perfect.) The film’s never hokey or preachy, just real and compelling. I’m so glad the intriguing name called to me.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi

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Directed by Jacques Becker, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi! (Hands Off the Loot!) is an unusual gangster film. Released in 1954, the film chronicles a genteel, older gangster, Max, who’d like to cash in his gold bars and retire. Max is very debonair and respected in his circle. We never see how he got 50,000,000 Francs in gold, which is usually what the main focus of a gangster film would be.

The first hour of the movie we see his life, his friendship with Riton, who’s a sidekick, rather than an equal, his girlfriends, his evenings at a little restaurant and night clubs. He’s involved with a platinum blonde showgirl, while Riton’s showgirl Josy is brunette — and is getting some action on the side with another younger, gangster. Max stumbles on Josy and her other lover, which leads to a good scene when Max takes his friend home, presents him with the facts about Josy and shows us how good friends should care for each other in troubled times.

The movie’s pace picks up in the last thirty minutes. Angelo, Josy’s real love interest, abducts Riton using him as leverage to get Max’s gold. Loyalty forces Max to get Riton back and in doing so there’s the sort of a pursuits and shoot outs you’d expect in a gangster movie.

I thought the acting was good, but the first hour of the movie should have more plotting, just a little more. Show us Max getting the gold. I can be patient with a film that wants to go off the beaten path, but I almost gave up on this one. Finally, the very end of the film is abrupt and left important points about Max’s future up in the air so I can’t give this a thumbs up, unless someone knows more about Jacques Becker or French noir films.

The Two of Us

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C’est magnifique film!

Claude Berri’s autobiographical, The Two of Us is a gem set during WWI in France. It opens with Claude, a mischievous boy, stealing a toy tank from a toy store getting chased all around. Claude finds trouble at every turn driving his father to distraction. Because since they’re Jewish, the safest path for the family is to lay low, but Claude constantly calls attention to himself with his troublemaking. A family friend arranges for Claude to go live with her Catholic parents.

The problem is that “Grampa” is quite a bigot and spouts all sorts of anti-Semitic slurs. Claude’s parents coach him to hide is religion so he’ll be safe in the countryside, but there are some close calls, which give the story suspense. Nonetheless, he’s mercilessly bullied for being the new kid from Paris. You just can’t win.

Based on the director’s own childhood experience, there’s a sophisticated treatment of a close relationship that grows in spite of prejudice. Played masterfully by Michel Simon, Grampa loves this boy and takes him under his wing, dealing with his troublemaking with patience Claude’s father couldn’t muster. Berri chose Cohen to play Claude while visiting a Jewish school and seeing him getting into trouble in class and later hiding from the principal behind some curtains. His shoes poking out from under the curtains gave him away. A natural actor, Cohen brings a realism to his understated performance.

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The Two of Us, as Truffaut commented, shows how most French people lived during the war, those who weren’t in the Resistance or collaborating with the Germans. People just going about their business; people who could be both kind, loving, and yet be hindered by ugly beliefs. It’s a deft film that can portray bigotry without supporting it, all the while showing the goodness mixed in with the prejudice. The film masterfully captures the truth of this experience.

The Criterion Collection’s DVD, as usual, includes insightful short interviews that deepen one’s understanding of the film.

If you liked Claude Berry’s later films, Jean de Floret or Manon of the Spring, you’ll love The Two of Us.

The Story of a Cheat

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The Story of a Cheat (1936) is a delightful comedy by Sacha Guitry, whom I’d never have discovered if it weren’t for my New Year’s resolution to watch old movies. In T he Story of a Cheat, Guitry plays a suave man who falls into one incident after another where he winds up stealing or conning someone. As a boy, he stole some money from his father’s shop. He got caught and was forbidden to eat the mushrooms served for dinner. As all his relations get poisoned, he lucked out and thus the confusion over whether honesty is the best policy ensues. No matter how bad things get, there’s always some silver lining and this hero winds up doing alright – as long as he’s dishonest. Whenever he’s honest, he gets in trouble.

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It’s a fun, entertaining French film told almost entirely through flashback and voice over. Big no-no’s for movies, but this does work. The Criterion Collection provides a nice essay on Guitry’s career.

Désiré

Released in 1937 starring Sacha Guitry, Désiré is a comedy about a French woman and her household staff. Odette is a former actress who’s beau is a government Minister. Her staff includes a cook, a maid, a chauffeur we never see, but lacks a valet. The night before Odette, played by Guitry’s wife at the time, and her beau are to leave for the countryside, a chatty, meticulous valet comes to interview for the job. His references are impeccable and he’s hired. God forbid the couple goes to the country without a valet.

In the kitchen Désiré gets to know the maid and the cook. He’s very professional about his job and the hardest worker of the group, but also shares lots of observations about employers e.g. in a couple days a servant knows his employer well. In a year the servant can predict the employer’s every move and thought, yet after employing a servant for 5 years the employer probably doesn’t even know the servant’s last name. Touché.

Désiré’s previous employer intimates that while he was impeccable at his job, he made sexual overtures and therefore was let go. Odette is ready to send him packing but he persuades her to trust that it’ll never happen again.

All goes well until madam starts having dreams of Désiré making overtures. Her beau hears her calling out his name. Meanwhile Désiré also has dreams and the maid hears him calling out. Both don’t know what to do and try to hide the problem as best they can.

Désiré is a farce done with wit and intelligence. It makes some good points and is something of a counterpoint to Downton Abbey. Here the characters smoke and joke and toy with each other.  Guitry is a fine comic actor who held my interest from start to finish.

You Will Be My Son/Tu Seras Mon Fils

I watched this on my flight home. You Will Be My Son (Tu seras mon fils) is a drama about an obnoxious, overbearing father, who owns a successful winery. He sees no value in his son, who can’t do anything right in his father’s eyes. When the wine estate manager is too sick to oversee the harvest, rather than have his son take on responsibility, the father turns to the manager’s son, who’s done well in the American wine world. This young man is a natural and has a far more engaging, strong personality, but it’s painful to watch the real son get insulted and slighted time and again.

The winery owner/father just gushes over the estate manager’s son, showering him with expensive gifts and taking him to Paris when he’s to receive an award.

I did learn a lot about modern wine making from this intense family drama. The ending was quite a surprise. Because the father was so offensive and clueless regarding his son, whose weaknesses must have been partly due to having a father so biased against him, I wouldn’t go out of my way to see You Will Be My Son. It’s a fine movie, but nothing great.

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