Category Archives: France

Someone I Loved (Je L’Aimais) 2009

“Dealing with a Frenchman in love is too dangerous.”

Someone I loved (Je L’Aimais) is based on the best-selling novel by Anna Gavalda. It’s the story of Pierre (Daniel Auteuil), who takes his daughter-in-law, Chloe (Florence Loiret Caille) and two small granddaughters to the family chalet to stay following a family crisis. Pierre’s son, Adrian, has abruptly dumped his wife and children, and Chloe who “never saw it coming” is so emotionally devastated, Pierre thinks it’s wise to take her away somewhere quiet for a few days until she stabilises.

When the film begins, we see a tear-stained Chloe as she and the children are hustled away by car to the remote chalet. She’s angry, she’s hurt and she’s confused. Once there, her children are glued to cartons while she tries to make sense of what happened. Pierre tries to engage her in several ways–at one point telling the story of his brother who went to Indochina after a broken love affair and then who later died of TB.  Then one night, Pierre is driven to tell the story of an affair he had years earlier….

Flashbacks via Pierre’s interrupted story-telling reveal just how 46-year-old Pierre, an affluent Paris businessmen, and director of his own company, met and fell in love with interpreter Mathilde (Marie-Josée Croze). Pierre admits that he was ambushed by his passion: “I didn’t know I was programmed to love like that,” he confides to Chloe.

Over the course of the affair, Pierre has to juggle family and career demands with the desire to be with Mathilde. Theirs is a long-term, passionate affair–potentially the most damaging variety. Scenes with Mathilde are juxtaposed with scenes of Pierre’s unhappy, argumentative family life. According to his status-conscious wife, Suzanne (Christiane Millet), Pierre is never “there” for the family. Interactions between Pierre and his  two teenage children rapidly devolve into shouting matches, while he’s nagged non-stop by his wife when he does put in an appearance. All the phases of the affair unfold: the ecstatic beginnings, the ‘what-about-us’ phase, and the final stage as the affair disintegrates. The film does a marvellous job of showing the heady sensation of the affair. Pierre’s time with Mathilde is an equivalent of being on holiday from his job and his responsibilities.

We know that Pierre didn’t leave his wife–that is evident in the film’s very first scene. But we don’t know the reasons behind his decision. While Pierre’s story of the affair consumes most of the film, there’s also Chloe’s reaction. As a woman on the losing end of an affair, will she have sympathy for Pierre? How will she feel about Pierre’s decision to remain with his family? As the wounded party in her marriage, she makes a unique audience for Pierre, and his story gives her incredible insight into the other half of adultery.

In some ways, Someone I Loved may sound like rather rote fare, but it isn’t. Like any marvellous French film, the sum total is greater than its parts. As Pierre tells his stories and reveals his regrets, he must confront some unpleasant truths about his character. At one point, he admits, painfully, that his choice was “atrocious,” yet at the same time, it’s fairly easy to draw the conclusion that there was no easy solution. Now in his 60s, would he have regretted making the ‘other’ choice?  Is his regret for staying with his wife simply because the unchosen path (“The Road Not Taken“) seems infinitely more desirable?

From director Zabou Breitman

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Filed under Daniel Auteuil, France

The Sea Wall (2008)

A few years ago, the French film The Lover, based on the book by Marguarite Duras, made the cinema circuit. I loathed the film for its excessive romanticism. Yes I know millions loved it, but I didn’t.

So when I saw that another novel by Duras had been made into a film, I initially decided to avoid it. But then when I read that Isabelle Huppert had a leading role, I knew I would have to watch The Sea Wall (Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique). The film, set in 1931 Cambodia, is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.

So here’s the set-up: A middle-aged widow (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her two children, 20-year-old Joseph (Gaspard Ulliel) and 16-year-old Suzanne (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).  The children have never been to France and yet they seem to lead lives of shipwrecked French set adrift in Cambodia. They speak French, and obviously the mother has tried to maintain some French cultural standards, but in many ways they’ve run wild. Joseph, whose teeth are rotting in his head, is a smuggler and spends nights hunting out in the jungle with a Cambodian he calls The Corporal (Vanthon Duong).

The first few scenes establish the family dynamic. They live in an impressively large but primitive hut and are waited on, colonial style, by servants. The mother is the driving force of the family unit, and Joseph is his mother’s favourite to be indulged as much as can be allowed when you’re dirt poor. He’s not at all an appealing character, and an early scene involving a horse highlights the sort of brutal pragmatism he’s inherited from his mother.

And what of the mother? We know that she’s lived in Cambodia for at least 20 years. Her husband was a minor bureaucrat of the French Empire. After scraping together every last penny she possessed, the mother, with relentless drive, bought a plot of 12 acres next to the sea, but now she fights to keep the family afloat. Each year the land is flooded by the sea and the rice crop destroyed. This is a marvellous role for Huppert as she plays a diminutive woman whose frail shell houses a formidable, relentless will. Yet in spite of this unbending, tireless and at times vicious determination, she visibly fades as her illness gains ground.

Although the land would appear to be less than desirable, clearly many people want to get their hands on it. Take away the flooding problem and the soil is rich. The mother is plagued by petty French bureaucrats who try to seize her land under any legal pretext they can dream up, and then there’s her fragile health. Her most formidable and seemingly unconquerable adversary, however, is nature. Huppert plays a single-minded intense character who refuses to bow to the law or to nature; eventually she conceives of a plan to build a sea wall to protect the crops.

The drama ramps up a few notches when Suzanne comes to the attention of Monsieur Jo (Randal Douc), the son of a millionaire. While Joseph is initially disgusted and humiliated by his mother’s matchmaking plans, he too gets the idea that Suzanne’s virginity is for sale. Suzanne, intoxicated with her new sexual power, alternately flirts and teases Monsieur Jo, driving him wild in the process.

The story is set against the backdrop of a bloody phase of Cambodia’s history. Natives are rounded up and used for free labour, and French bureaucrats grab the land from the natives and evict them from their huts.  The mother, bitter from her experience with French rule, incites the local farmers to fight back. I’ve read several negative reviews of the film including the comment that this is yet another anti-colonialism film (and do we really need another?)  I’d argue that since colonialism still exists today in a mutated form, politically the film is still relevant. To categorise the film as anti-colonial, however,  is far too simplistic. We see that there’s a hierarchy within colonialism and it’s not simply the natives vs. French. After all, the mother, who has arguably benefitted from colonialism has paid a terrible price for her displacement and she and her children are now stuck in Cambodia one step from homelessness and poverty. How would this family adjust if they returned to France?

The film ends with hints of the social disaster to come. If Joseph & Suzanne remained in Cambodia until their 60s, they would see the bloody rise of Pol Pot.

On another level the film is about the bonds and the distances between parent and child. The mother is aging and in ill-health, but she refuses to give up her dream of economic independence for her children. Her decision to invest in this Cambodian plantation has in effect dictated the lives that her children will lead. While she has relentlessly sacrificed to pursue her goal, both Joseph and Suzanne cannot wait to escape. Joseph has options (hunting, smuggling) and is free to leave more or less at will, but Suzanne’s escape is limited to her sexual function.

My DVD includes an interview with Cambodian director Rithy Panh, and Panh decsribes the Duras novel as “anticolonialist.” He also notes that the rich, fertile fields once owned by the Duras family are under cultivation today and are known as the Rice Fields of the White Woman.

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Filed under Cambodia, France, Isabelle Huppert, Political/social films

A Girl Cut in Two (2007)

“Depraved to the bone.”

Shortly after beginning Claude Chabrol’s film A Girl Cut in Two (La Fille Coupee de Deux), I realised that this had to be a re-working of the love-triangle between eminent, middle-aged, married architect Stanford White, Gibson girl Evelyn Nesbit and deranged millionaire Harry K Thaw. There’s a tasty version of their story, set in the Gilded Age of a colourful New York. It’s a film called The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing reviewed here. If you watch the film, you’ll understand the title, and the film stars the gorgeous Joan Collins, young enough to carry off the innocence required in the role of the ingenue who’s seduced by a worldly rake.

Back to Claude Chabrol:

In A Girl Cut in Two, the three main characters are Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), the young effervescent weather girl on the local television station, seasoned (and kinky as it turns out) middle-aged married author Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Bereand) and the unbalanced heir to a pharmaceutical company, Paul Gaudens (Benoit Magimel). The film begins with Charles Saint-Denis and his wife, Dona (Valeria Cavalli) at their country home in Lyon when his literary agent Capucine (Mathilda May) arrives to help Charles promote his new book.

One look at the literary agent, and we know something is not quite right. This is an attractive older woman who dresses to publicise her rampant sexuality rather than her professionalism. In one scene, Capucine sunbathes in a swimsuit that barely captures her breasts, and she does this right next to Charles’s bikini-clad wife. As the plot spins out, however, it becomes clear that Charles is a bit of a swinger, and what’s more the missus knows and doesn’t care.

Poor little Gabrielle is woefully ill-prepared when she steps into Charles’s open marriage.  They talk one day at a book signing held in her mother’s (Maire Bunel) bookshop. Charles has previously spotted and noted Gabrielle, but it’s at the bookshop that he approaches this young girl. Also at the bookshop is Paul Gaudens, and he too makes a beeline for Gabrielle.

Gabrielle begins an affair with Charles, and soon she’s accompanying him on expeditions to collect rare and valuable erotica at auctions, and being “instructed” in the art of various kink. I should add that most of this is kept off-screen, and the fact that this is largely left to the imagination makes the tale darker.

Charles really is a revolting character. While Gabrielle imagines that she’s in an affair with an unhappily married man, in reality, she’s little more than a passing fad. While we don’t know exactly what Charles tells Gabrielle about his marriage and his wife, the actions he takes to extricate himself from the affair make it clear that he is deceiving her. He might waffle on about choice and liberation, but he’s extremely manipulative. Gabrielle suffers a breakdown of sorts, and then there’s good old Paul Gaudens waiting to pick up the pieces….

A Girl Cut In Two manages to exude a macabre flavour and this is achieved by not revealing everything that takes place and instead dropping veiled hints about some of the conduct that takes place behind closed doors. What, for example, is really going on when Gaudens is hustled out from the restaurant by his bodyguard? His mother instructs the bodyguard to take Gaudens to the car for cigars. Does the bodyguard shoot Gaudens up with a tranquilizer, or is Gaudens just locked in the car for punishment? These are the sorts of intriguing hints that Chabrol drops throughout the film.

In spite of the subject matter, no one gets very passionate here. It’s all conducted with a certain amount of restraint, and is consequently delivered as a morality tale as the film follows the Stanford White-Thaw-Nesbit triangle. The confrontations at the restaurant, the insane jealousy, the domineering mother, it’s all there. Gabrielle and Saint-Denis are updated 21st century versions of Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbit, of course, but the loony spoilt millionaire with the equally loony mother cannot be disguised or even transcribed into another “type.”

For Chabrol fans, the film should not be missed, but the story can be faulted for the fashion in which it sails on the surface of its characters’ emotions. Gabrielle, for example, has choices that were unavailable to Evelyn Nesbit at the turn of the 20th century. But the film never explores Gabrielle’s decisions and instead avoids mining the psychology of its characters.

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Filed under Claude Chabrol, France

The Singer (2006)

I just finished watching a rather spotty comedy Tais-Toi! (Shut up!) starring Gerard Depardieu and Jean Reno. I’m adding that film to my stack of forgettable Depardieu films, but then since he is such a prolific actor in French cinema, it’s only natural that he’s going to make an occasional stinker.

Deciding I wanted to see Depardieu in something good, I pulled The Singer off my shelf. Gerard Depardieu as a washed-up lounge singer? This had to be good….

And it is.

The Singer (Quand J’Etais Chanteur) from writer/director Xavier Giannoli stars Depardieu as middle-aged lounge singer Alain Moreau. Alain sings his carefully selected romantic ballads with his own back-up band, and his career is managed by mother-hen ex-wife Michele (Christine Citti)–a woman who used to sing along with him. Apart from worrying about Alain and his career, Michele also runs a bar called the Aquarius. According to Michele’s boyfriend, Daniel (Patrick Pineau), Michele is putting on weight and worries too much about Alain.

Based in the town of Clermont-Ferrand, Alain enjoys celebrity status, but it’s something he doesn’t take for granted, and he steadily and patiently works at maintaining his fan base. He’s gracious to autograph seekers, and during his performances at small clubs and weddings, Alain always gives his older audiences his whole attention while he creates or recreates romance for those paying to hear him sing.

One night at a gig, Alain meets and is very attracted to the much younger blonde estate agent, Marion (Cecile de France) and he’s introduced to her by a mutual acquaintance, Marion’s boss, Bruno (Mathieu Amalric). It’s not so much that Alain sweeps Marion off her feet as much as he takes her off guard. She’s vulnerable due to a recent break-up, and then there’s always the regret and embarrassment of the morning after….

Given The Singer‘s premise, this could be the sort of plot that’s rife with clichés and/or sentimentality, and there are a couple of scenes which seemed about to lead to some old familiar paths. Instead the film firmly veers away from all of that nonsense and offers a well-rounded, highly believable, compassionate portrait of a man who knows his weaknesses and his limitations–even if those who surround him don’t.

The seasoned actor Depardieu plays this difficult role with gentleness, grace and dignity, and the result is a surprisingly touching film. One of my favourite moments: when Alain admits he puts blonde highlights in his hair to maintain the sort of look his fans expect. And for Depardieu fans, it’s a great deal of fun to see him singing and using that famous screen prescence for a slightly different purpose.

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Filed under France, Gerard Depardieu

Au Bonheur des Dames (1930)

“You seem to use women too easily, my dear man. People get hurt in that game. Beware, one day one of them may avenge the others.”

I’ve been reading quite a few Zola novels lately, and since I have a fascination with the book/film connection, it was only a matter of time before I started watching film versions of Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart series. Some months back, I watched Gervaise (1956) which is based on the 7th novel L’Assommoir, and then recently I found a copy of Au Bonheur des Dames (Ladies Paradise), a silent 1930 version of the 11th novel in the Zola series. This film is from director Julien Duvivier. He also made Pot-Bouille based on another novel in the series, but I haven’t found a copy of that with English subtitles yet.

While the novel is set in the hustle and bustle of France’s Third Empire, the film is set in the 1920s, and the film immediately captures the atmosphere of a world in flux–a world of horses, carriages and small businesses about to be replaced by cars and huge department stores.

The film begins, appropriately at a train station with the arrival in Paris of young Denise Baudu (Dita Parlo), an orphan from the country who’s arrived to join her uncle at his small shop. As she steps off the train and makes her way through the bustling streets of Paris, a plane flies overhead showering leaflets advertising the huge department store, Au Bonheur des Dames. Everywhere Denise turns there’s mention of this phenomenon and when Denise first sets eyes on the glittering lights and the gorgeous window displays, she’s mesmerised.

Unfortunately Denise’s uncle invited his niece in better times. The mammoth store Bonheur de Dames, which is directly across from her uncle’s business, has effectively ruined him.  His grimy, dingy little shop simply cannot compare to the glittering competition. He’s no longer in a position to employ anyone, and so Denise drifts across the street to the beckoning lights of the Bonheur des Dames and there she’s employed first as a floor model. 

Soon she attracts the attention of several men: a homely young clerk, the lascivious manager and the owner, Octave Mouret (Pierre de Guingand)….

The film lacks the complexities of the book. Background information on Octave Mouret is absent, and unfortunately the film simplifies the intensity of Octave Mouret’s business acuity. In the novel, he’s a brilliant businessman, and this is detailed in several instances. In the film, however, this is distilled down to the essentials and the physical evidence of the Bonheur des Dames. For example, in the book, Octave sets in motion a fierce sense of competition between the shop clerks by giving commissions. In the film however, employee interactions are mostly limited to a brawl in the cafeteria, and a bitchiness between the floor models. Neither does the film address the dilemma of Denise’s divided loyalties, and only hints at the book’s depiction of Denise as a woman with an intuitive business sense that matches Octave’s ambition.

Although the film simplifies the book, it is not a disappointment.  The film’s strength lies in its depiction of the huge department store. Interior scenes depict a lavish, garish Tower of Babel with distant aerial shots of the customers resembling ants on a giant anthill as they ascend and descend the enormous, central sweeping staircase. Close-in shots concentrate on the madness and mayhem of the shoppers in riot-like scenes.

As Mouret plans the expansion of the Bonheur des Dames, neighbourhood shops fall victim to the insatiable appetite of progress, and phantasmagorical scenes depicting the destruction of the old shops are juxtaposed with the expansion of Mouret’s   “Temple of Temptation” to consumerism. Another scene depicts Octave’s love interest, madame Desforges (Germaine Rouer) sitting in an alcove against the backdrop of a gorgeous art deco mural. Beautiful shots of reflections in mirrors and in glass windows are scattered thoroughout the film.  Visually this is a gorgeous film and Dita Parlo’s wonderfully expressive face is complemented with plenty of close-ups.

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Filed under France, Silent

Intimate Enemies (2007)

“I hear you’ve been having qualms.”

intimate enemiesThe gritty, intense French film, Intimate Enemies (L’Ennemi Intime) from director Florent Emilio Siri examines the French-Algerian war through a single platoon. It’s 1959, and the FLN (National Liberation Front) is committed to a free Algeria without the French, and the French are committed to keeping Algeria as part of France. During the French-Algerian war, France conscripted 500,000 men to fight, and approximately 27,000 never came home (according to the film). On the Algerian side, figures range from 350,000 to 1.5 million.

The film begins when a cock-up involving friendly fire wipes out the platoon’s lieutenant, and then a replacement in the form of blonde, blue-eyed Lieutenant Terrien (Benoit Magimel) arrives. Terrien is married with a six-year-old son and in his civilian life he is an industrial designer. The film wisely doesn’t allow Terrien to be a complete idealist, but his lack of savagery still puts him at odds with both his men and his superiors.

Terrien’s right hand man is the seasoned battle veteran Sgt. Dougnac (Albert Dupontel)–a man who’s fought in Indochine, but some of the other officers are also WWII veterans, or resistance fighters, so they bring their own history of various conflicts to the sparse, harsh Algerian territory.

There are no major battles fought, just mission after mission into the “forbidden zone” to capture the elusive Slimane in this tense, action-packed film. The film doesn’t get preachy (and it really could given the material), instead the plot focuses on the sheer and utter mess of the French-Algerian war. For example, the platoon has its own Algerian fighters and its own scouts. Some of the Algerians who fight with the French have seen their entire families slaughtered by the FNL fellagha (outlaws), while another fought with the French in Italy during WWII. The film doesn’t show the FLN hardliners–instead we see the terrified villagers stuck in the middle of the ‘battlefield’ and who have to pay ‘revolutionary tax’ to the fellagha or risk violent death.  There are several scenes with Algerians on both sides of the political divide facing each other and debating their choices, and for most of them, it seems to be a matter of chance which side they work for.

Several scenes cover the various arguments of those concerned in this convoluted mess, and since this is a colonial war, the arguments cover such issues as France granting independence to Morroco and Tunisia but not to Algeria. In another scene, one character compares the French occupation of Algeria with the German occupation of France. This has a particularly ironic twist as one character fought the Gestapo as a resistance fighter, and now he’s here in a foreign country supressing the locals. As the film continues the behaviour of the French devolves with foray after fruitless foray into the forbidden zone. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Vietnam and Afghanistan. Perhaps it’s the terrain or the napalm. But then again perhaps it’s the slaughter of villagers caught in the middle or even the torture conducted by both sides to wring information from prisoners. Watching Intimate Enemies shows again how situations such as My Lai can occur.

Lt. Terrain has some harsh lessons to learn on his path to brutality, but learn them he does, and along the way he crosses the ‘immoral order’ divide. Deliberately hung out to learn about the brutality of the enemy, Terrain descends to a level of “barbarism” he could not have imagined. After all, “at 100 volts, the truth always comes out.”

The only thing we all have to cling to is our belief system–whatever that may be, but whatever morality Terrain tries to hang on to is ripped away or eroded in the impossible moral quagmire he faces. Terrain is confused by conflicting moral choices. What is his first priority? What is his mission? And does he have to abandon morality in order to fight the FLN? The film’s final message is that the entire war was a horrible mistake with thousands of wasted lives on both sides.

The film is based on the non-fiction book by Patrick Rotman.

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Filed under (Anti) War, France

Water Lilies (2007)

water liliesWater Lilies (Naissance des Pieuvres) is a French coming-of-age film that dabbles in the dark waters of budding female sexuality. The film takes a long time to warm up but the wait is well worth it. Plus there’s always the film’s gorgeous cinematography.

Set in the suburbs of Paris during long hot summer days, the film begins with various teams of girls preparing and then participating in synchronized swimming in a large public pool. Marie (Pauline Acquart) is there to watch her best friend Anne (Louise Blanchere) perform, but in reality, Marie moves her seat to get a better look at the striking Floriane (Adele Haenel).

Marie, who’s shrimp of a girl, idolizes Floriane, and it’s easy to see why. In the water, Floriane performs with grace and dexterity–out of the water, she’s not so pleasant. Blonde, tall and shapely, Floriane is loathed by her team members and has the reputation of being the team “slut.” Wherever she goes, males vie for Floriane’s attention, and most of her focus is on Francois (Warren Jacquin), a good-looking popular male swimmer. 

Marie begins to neglect her friendship with plump, unpopular Anne, and she tries to join a swimming team. But does she really want to swim or does she need an excuse to hang around Floriane? While Marie is discontent with her body, and even tries on a swimming suit on top of her clothing, Floriane is a study in self-confidence. Marie’s discontent about her body seems to translate to a desire to be like Floriane, and yet there are also strong strains of sexual feelings mingled in with the hero worship. Floriane’s character appears as clearly defined and developed as her body, and Marie’s less defined character appears to waver and then become absorbed in Floriane’s shadow.

Although Floriane rejects Marie’s tentative worship at first, gradually she begins to allow Marie into her life, and Marie, assuming the subordinate position in the relationship, seems content to do favours and provide alibis for Floriane. While Floriane initially seems the stuck-up type: popular, attractive, and confident, her cruel streak appears to be put aside for her friendship with Marie, and yet an edge of cruelty remains. Which is the real Floriane?

Meanwhile, Anne, left to her own devices, begins to have romantic feelings for Francois and makes bold overtures towards him in front of his team mates.  Marie’s close friendship with Anne seems ruined, and at the same time, Marie’s new friendship with Floriane doesn’t bode well. Adults stay largely in the film’s background, and the parents are noticeably absent while the teens are left to their own devices.  

In some ways, Water Lilies tackles the familiar issues that often crop up in films that focus on teens: sexual inexperience, sexual confusion, conformity, etc. But Water Lilies is a beautiful film that handles these issues with great subtlety and it’s impossible to guess where the film is taking the viewer until the final credits roll.

To say more about the plot would ruin the viewing experience for those out there who haven’t watched the film yet. If you are a fan of French film, and enjoy slow-moving, thoughtful and provocative drama, then chances are that you will enjoy Water Lilies from first time director Celine Sciamma.

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Nuit Noire, 17 Octobre 1961(2005)

nuit noireNuit Noire, 17 Octobre 1961, a French made-for-television film is a long-overdue look at the horrendous events that took place in Paris on that fateful night. In the summer of 1961, Algerian nationalist forces and De Gaulle’s French government were locked in negotiations for Algerian independence. Meanwhile racial tensions in Paris were at boiling point. The FLN (National Liberation Front) began to carry out ‘retaliations’ against French police and led a bold attack at a police station that left policemen dead. Following the assassination of another policeman, Police Chief Maurice Papon (Thierry Fortineau) declared “for each blow we receive, we will deliver ten.” On Oct 5, the curfew from 8:30 pm-5:30 am was declared on all French muslims from Algeria, and the demonstration on October 17 was organised by the FLN in response. The night ended in horrific bloodshed with an undetermined number of protestors beaten to death. Some were beaten and thrown in the Seine and others were beaten to death by police in a walled courtyard at police headquarters. Estimates of the number of dead range from 50-300. There was no official enquiry at the time and it was only in 1998 that the French government finally acknowledge the shameful events that took place that night. No one was ever prosecuted.

Since this is a re-enactment of events that took place, the film is not character-centered. Instead the story is a detailed reenactment that answers the question: how could this have happened? Watching the lead-up to October 17 becomes a tense, almost painful experience, and there’s the definite feeling (even if we didn’t know what happened that night) that everything will end badly. The film follows several characters and their roles in the events of that night: Sabine (Clotilde Courau) a young female reporter who doesn’t approve of the FLN, Abde, a young Algerian who’s taking classes to improve his French, his sympathetic, naive young teacher, a young French radical woman whose sympathies lie squarely with the Algerians, and a young policeman, Martin who’s about to resign due to fear for his life.

The film begins with details of the weeks before the demonstration, and these scenes set the stage for what lies ahead as the film’s characters are gradually trapped in a maze of violence: Algerians are stopped and harassed by police for entertainment, and police officers, many of whom have served in Algeria, feel as though they have ‘carte blanche’ in this perceived period of open season towards any Algerians who may fall into their hands. Algerian workers, living in slums or shantytowns, are beaten and harassed by police, and then when the police are done with them, the same Algerians are beaten and threatened by the hardcore FLN members. Amidst rumours of bodies of Algerians found hanging in the forest, bands of rogue cops go hunting for stray Algerians at night. And of course, in the process, Italians, Spanish–anyone slightly dark skinned fall foul of the police.

In one scene, Abde reluctantly goes to police headquarters accompanied by his teacher to ask about his missing uncle. The treatment the teacher receives at the hands the officers leaves her in shock and tears–as a French citizen, she’s always had assurances of certain behaviour from the police, but now, in the company of an Algerian, she gets a taste of how the immigrants are treated every day. At first, she protests with the typical threat of a complaint and then it dawns on her, just who is she going to complain to?

This very intelligent film shows the political machinations from both sides during this period, and of course, the often unacknowledged political tactics has a trickle down effect to the ground level. Clearly the FLN organisers of the demonstration expected violence, and scenes depict shantytown dwellers being forced to participate. While there are definite innocents in the film, the plot also reveals those who waver before choosing sides. The policemen, Martin, for example, isn’t portrayed as a bad character, and police violence and harassment of Algerians seems to make him queasy, but he’s also weak and tends to turn away rather than utterly reject their behaviour. After the assassination of a fellow policeman, Martin finds himself participating in violence towards Algerians. On the other hand, another police sergeant utterly rejects the events of 17 October (also known as The Paris Massacre) and finds himself ostracized and threatened.

Police Chief Papon was, of course, a major player in events. Not only did he serve as a French Prefect in France’s Dirty War with Algeria overseeing repression and torture, he was also interestingly enough, finally convicted in 1998 for deporting over 1600 Jews from Bordeaux to concentration camps. Strange, isn’t it, the way these old fascists just pick up and move on from one government gig to another.

Police records show, and the film illustrates, that Papon encouraged police to be  “subversive” and he even promised to protect them from prosecution. This of course, opens up many other questions. For example: while the French government denied that the police murdered demonstrators, how did they explain the bodies fished out of the Seine or beaten to a pulp at police headquarters? These bodies must have been buried somewhere, and of course, this can only lead to the idea that many levels of the French government contributed into a media clamp down of the incident.  Indeed the film shows media censorship and biased reporting.

Nuit Noire, 17 Octobre 1961 is an extremely powerful film.  Even though we know how the film will end, nothing can prepare the viewer for one scene of unspeakable violence in the walled courtyard at police headquarters.

From director Alain Tasma

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A Song of Innocence (2005)

“One day, they’ll be no more masters and servants.”

Set in nineteenth century France, A Song of Innocence (La Ravisseuse) begins with the arrival of a wet nurse to a large country mansion. The wet nurse, a young girl named Angele-Marie (Isild Le Besco) has left her baby boy behind in order to take the job as a wet nurse for the baby of a wealthy young couple, Charlotte (Emilie Dequenne) and her austere architect husband, Julien (Gregoire Colin). Angele-Marie has been selected from dozens of similarly lactating women, and she’s been chosen by Julien.

song of innocenceAngele-Marie is a good wet nurse, and she gets right to the task considered too “lowly” for her young mistress. While Angele-Marie nurses the baby and takes care of her morning, noon and night, Julien hopes that this will free up his wife for the bedroom once again. But with Julien distracted by work and refurbishing a new, splendid apartment in Paris, Charlotte forms a tentative relationship with Angele-Marie. At first the relationship forms as a sort of  “sisterhood.” The convent-raised Charlotte is shocked to discover that her wet nurse has a baby of her own who’s been farmed out somewhere else in the country while her mother earns a living by selling her breast milk. A less sexually naive woman wouldn’t need to have all this spelled out for her, but Charlotte is so innocent, she doesn’t seem to grasp that breast milk means that there was a baby somewhere….

The two young women do have a great deal in common, but while Angele-Marie considers her relationship with Charlotte to be friendship, Charlotte treats Angele-Marie like a pet, and dressing her up as a nursemaid, she becomes a sort of fashion accessory. Angele-Marie  loves to make up stories and she and Charlotte even engage in the occasional daydream, but Angele-Marie, as a peasant, can’t afford imagination.

Meanwhile Angele-Marie and Charlotte find some pleasure in each other’s company, but everyone else in the household is either threatened or annoyed about it. Leonce (Anemone), the housekeeper is jealous of the wet nurse’s relationship with the young mistress. After all, by becoming Charlotte’s pet, Angele-Marie is elevated over the other servants. Julien, sexually unsatisfied by his wife, begins sneaking around the house for glimpses of Angele-Marie’s breasts, but like a typically-repressed person, he begins to loathe the object of his lust. Even Julien and Charlotte’s bourgeois relatives are appalled by the wet nurse’s elevated position.

Flashbacks reveal exactly how Julien and the family doctor selected Angele-Marie for the wet nurse job. One scene depicts women baring their breasts to their potential employer and both the sexual aspects and the objectification of women is clear as the would-be wet nurses ply their wares like women on display in a brothel.

Set in 1877, A Song of Innocence contains shades of class discontent, mainly voiced by the servants who after all must still remember the debacle of the 1871 Paris Commune. During the late 18th century in France, it was the ‘done’ thing for a bourgeois family to employ a wet nurse for the exclusive use of their baby while the wet nurse’s baby was fostered out to face certain death in the country. Peasant wet nurses were known to nurse up to five babies at a time for a pittance, and the morality rate was not good. Scenes with Julien and the doctor acknowledge the attitude that it’s a very reasonable thing for them to ‘rent’ Angele-Marie while condemning her baby to certain death. Of course, this attitude simply reinforces the societal hierarchy of one bourgeois baby being equal to an infinite number of peasant babies.

Angele-Marie and Charlotte’s friendship at first seems to be based in sisterhood and the commonalities they share as women viewed by society as the chattels of men, but any notion of sisterhood is eventually overridden by the powerful pull of class loyalties. The film includes some clever camera shots that emphasize Julien’s growing sexual obsession with Angele-Marie, and an aura of mystery and impending dread runs through the film. From director Antoine Santana.

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Les Sanguinaires (1999)

“We’ll either die of cold or boredom.”

In the French film Les Sanguinaires, as the millennium approaches, Francois (Frederic Pierrot) the Paris-based owner of the Jetlag Travel agency plans a special ‘getaway,’ and he invites a group of friends to join him in what he promises to be a unique experience. While Paris is clogged with those who seek to celebrate the millennium,  Francois, his wife Catherine (Catherine Bauque) and their friends travel to one of the Sanguinaire islands located near Corsica. The plan is to sit-out the millennium and basically avoid it.

sanguinairesThings begin to go wrong almost immediately. Stephane (Jalil Lespert), the young man who runs the island’s lighthouse is supposed to be there to meet them and take them to their rented house. Although he does show up hours later, a grim mood begins to descend on the holiday makers as they realize that the island is so isolated, they are basically stranded. But it gets worse…when Stephane does show up with the food, everyone realizes that the lodgings are primitive and without heat. Although some of the adults and the small children try to put a happy spin onto the adventure, the teenagers, who already resent being ripped away from Paris, are appalled.

As the days wear on–without television, telephones or radio, the determination to have a good time stretches very thin. Tension mounts when Stephane begins to be very popular with the children and inadvertently the leadership role shifts from Francois to Stephane. Francois resents Stephane’s popularity, and as some of the adults begin to plan a New Year’s Eve party, Francois becomes increasingly more taciturn and depressed.

Les Sanguinaires is not Cantent’s strongest film. It’s a strange tale that begins as one man’s avoidance of the crass, commercialism of the millennium, and it’s entirely conceivable that a travel agent, who has spent the last few months planning other people’s holiday destinations for the millennium,  would cringe at the flamboyant celebrations and massive numbers of tourists who will descend on Paris for the event. So it makes sense that Francois would invent an alternate way to celebrate,  and that those plans would involve a quiet escape far from the crowds. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the island getaway isn’t so much an alternative as much as it’s Francois’ attempt to deny that the millennium is taking place.

After reading short descriptions of Les Sanguinaires, my impression was that it was some sort of feel good film about a bunch of aging yuppies who got together for chats and intimate exchanges as they wax on about the future of the planet, the wankerism of politics and embarrassing confessionals about their relationships. Les Sanguinaires is not a feel-good film; it’s a vaguely disturbing and unsettling tale. While the group struggle to put a brave face on the choice of destination, it becomes increasingly apparent that avoiding the millennium means a great deal more to Francois than anyone can possibly understand.

The film raises questions which are never addressed by the plot, and this contributes to the film’s overall disturbing mood. There’s an underlying menace throughout the film which is emphasized by the bleak island; will Francois go postal or will Stephane abandon this lot of spoiled Parisians who sometimes don’t treat him particularly well? Although Francois gathers a fair number of friends for this little get-together, most of the other characters seem to be there for decoration. There’s little time spent exploring the thoughts or reactions of the friends as the situation becomes increasingly more uncomfortable.  Since Francois is a travel agent, and cooking up bang-up holidays is his business, it seems plausible that his friends would have expected something a bit more exotic than this bleak, subsistence-level destination, but apart from a few significant looks, the friends remain mute on the subject–a little disgruntled bitching would not have been out of place.  Les Sanguinaires could have been a much better film, but that said, it’s not bad. The film’s underlying air of mystery and unresolved questions linger long after the credits roll.

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