Tag Archives: 19th century

Balzac: A Life of Passion (1999)

 

“Spare me your base reflections.”

The French made-for-television film Balzac: A Life of Passion chooses to concentrate on the two great passions in Balzac’s troubled life: writing and women. This is not a wonderful film, but if you are a Balzac fan (me), a fan of French costume dramas, or a fan of Depardieu and Fanny Ardant (me again), then you’ll want to catch this 180-minute drama.

balzac2Framing the film is a scene in which the young Balzac rushes to his sour, cold and disapproving mother, Charlotte-Laure (Jeanne Moreau) and she rejects his attempts for affection. Apparently Balzac is near the bottom of his class–hence no affection and certainly no parental approval. And this scene sets the tone for the rest of the film’s theme: Balzac’s lifelong quest for love, affection and approval.

The film explores the significant relationships with the women in Balzac’s life: his unpleasant mother, of course, as well as the much older, tragic Madame de Berny (Virna Lisi), the capricious Laure d’ Abrantes (Katja Riemann), and the final great love of his life Eva Hanska (played by the spectacular Fanny Ardant). Over all of his love affairs, Balzac’s mother reigns with her sour disapproval and her conviction that she’s destined for hell thanks to her son’s blasphemous books.

Balzac’s supreme masterpieces take a back seat to the love affairs in this tale. There are, however, some great moments, for example when Balzac explains to Laure d’Abrantes that he fears thousands of “blank pages.” Moments such as these reveal a glimpse at a man haunted by the fear he would die before finishing La Comedie Humaine. And Balzac was a workaholic–a man chasing his own demons while trying to avoid debts and debtors’ prison. To Balzac : “The Imagination is an impatient mistress,” and the film tries to examine Balzac’s conflict between love and art, but largely fails and instead the idea seems to be that Balzac wore himself out chasing women while juggling his writing career.

In spite of its stellar cast, the film, from director Josee Dayan fails largely thanks to the portrayal of Balzac. He just isn’t a very interesting character here. Apart from a few scenes that reveal a thinking, brilliant mind, for the most part Balzac comes off at times as eccentric and brutish, at others as a bit of a nutter. Take the scene for example when he hunts for the Countess Hanska at the masked ball. He careens through the ballroom like a buffoon dressed up in someone’s old curtains. Ardant is, frankly, the best thing in the film: luminous and complex, she steals the film even as she spins circles around the seemingly slow-witted Balzac.

There are a few references to Balzac’s novels: The Chouans, Modest Mignon, Cousin Bette, Colonel Chabert, but overall if you want to discover the genius behind La Comedie Humaine, well you won’t find that genius here. Coincidentally, the film adaptation of Colonel Chabert also stars Depardieu but that film makes my top ten list of all time. That said, Balzac’s death scene is painfully accurate. I was disappointed in the film, but still glad I saw it, and now I’m going over to my bookshelf to pick out a Balzac novel to reread.

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Mansfield Park (1999)

Ordinarily, I’m a bit of a Jane Austen snob….

In Mansfield Park–a film adaptation of the Jane Austen novel–young, poor Fanny Price is sent from her overcrowded and squalid Portsmouth home to live with her widowed Aunt Norris. The invitation from Aunt Norris was based on a fleeting, charitable whim, but the whim is already gone when Fanny arrives. Fanny is quickly passed to her wealthy relatives, Lord and Lady Bertram, who live at Mansfield Park with their 4 children–Tom, Edmund, Maria & Julia. Fanny’s loneliness is compounded by Aunt Norris who is determined that Fanny should never forget her humble place in the Bertram household.

Fanny grows up at Mansfield Park and remains in touch with her impoverished family in Portsmouth. Dreadful Aunt Norris more or less rules Mansfield Park by default–this is partly due to Lord Bertram’s interests in the West Indies and partly due to Lady Bertram’s inertia and inebriation. Maria is engaged to the doltish Mr Rushworth, and while Maria acknowledges that her future husband is a fool, she is willing to overlook this fault as it is ameliorated by a large fortune. Fanny’s sole friend is Edmund–the younger son, and he is slated to become a clergyman. But then an attractive and worldly brother and sister–Henry and Mary Crawford join local society, and their presence sparks everyone’s dormant passions.

I was prepared to dislike this production from director Patricia Rozema–Jane Austen is close to my heart, so I intend to be a bit picky when it comes to screen adaptations of Austen’s novels. I did not, for example, like Emma (the Gwyneth Paltrow version), and I couldn’t abide Sense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson). I do like the BBC adaptations of Austen’s novels, however. I must admit that I almost didn’t even bother watching Mansfield Park as I dreaded yet another disappointment. However, encouraged by another Janeite I decided to give this DVD a go.

The strength of this production is in its acting and in its humour. All of the actors and actresses are top notch, and the script flowed forth with a light, ironic touch. Henry and Mary Crawford were simply perfect. Unfortunately, the script writer did seem to mingle Jane Austen (the real person) with Fanny Price when creating the Fanny Price for this film. This gave Fanny Price pertness and wit that was largely absent from the novel. Also, many excellent parts from the novel were cut, and the PC additions to the script were–quite frankly–out of place and slightly ludicrous. However, overall, I enjoyed this film version of the book–it’s not perfect, but for perfection, I can always go and read Mansfield Park yet again.

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Daniel Deronda (2002)

 “I shall be better for having known you.”

derondaThe marvelous BBC mini-series Daniel Deronda is based on the George Eliot novel. Daniel Deronda is a weighty, problematic novel, and it is not considered to be Eliot’s best. The BBC adaptation is excellent, well-paced, and truly elegant. The Victorian, multi-plot novel is far better suited to the series format–there’s just too much plot to expect the story to squeeze into a standard 90-120 minute film. If someone tried to squash the novel Daniel Deronda into a film, it simply wouldn’t work as effectively.

The major theme of Daniel Deronda is the pursuit of the spiritual versus the pursuit of worldly gain, and this theme is worked through the characters, Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda. Gwendolen Harleth is the eldest daughter of a impoverished widow, and so the hopes of Gwendolen’s mother rest upon the chance–slim, though it is, that penniless Gwendolen will make a good marriage and provide for her younger sisters. Gwendolen’s mother and uncle promote Gwendolen in society with the idea that she will make a good match, and in fact they consider her a sort of investment. Gwendolen’s horse-riding, for example, is encouraged even though the family cannot afford it, but she is indulged as an ultimate pay-off is expected. As a result, Gwendolen becomes an accomplished horsewoman, excelling at many sports, and outshining all the other girls (including the rich ones). But as the product of indulgence, Gwendolen’s sense of self worth is grandiose, and her character suffers as a result–she isn’t a particularly good friend, and she isn’t a particularly nice person.

All of the hopes for an improvement in the Harleth family fortunes seem to bear fruit when Gwendolen catches the eye of the wealthy and arrogant Henleigh Grandcourt. It is with a sort of perverse intensity that Grandcourt drops his interest in a local heiress–Gwendolen is better looking and more accomplished than the heiress–and yet there is something not quite right in Grandcourt’s interest. Grandcourt seems to be on his best behaviour when first courting Gwendolen, but it is clear that he is a rather unpleasant fellow. No one likes or respects Grandcourt, but he does have money, prospects and position at his command. There is something quite dark about Grandcourt, and this sense of the unpleasant is not alleviated by the fact that he is always accompanied by his obsequious and equally unpleasant henchman, Lush. Grandcourt desires Gwendolen, but he does not love her. Gwendolen is attracted, at first, to the very unpleasantness of Grandcourt’s odd nature, and she prefers him to her other suitors because he isn’t as easy to manipulate. She sees him as a challenge and imagines that she will rein him in just as she has controlled other suitors.

Daniel Deronda–the main male character–is the very earnest and serious young man who is rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Lord Mallinger. Daniel is the antithesis of Grandcourt, and some rivalry exists between Grandcourt and Deronda as Grandcourt is Mallinger’s heir. Daniel meets Gwendolen when she still has the choice of pursuing material gain above all else. Gwendolen recognizes that Daniel is an unusually good and superior man, but at the time, she lacks a true appreciation of his character. Daniel rescues a young Jewish girl, Mirah Lapidoth, and it is through Daniel’s acquaintance with Mirah that the truth of Daniel’s past is revealed. Mirah is the antithesis of Gwendolen, for Mirah has experienced and endured terrible hardships. Whereas Gwendolen’s nature and character accept luxury at any price, Mirah refuses to sell herself for material gain. Mirah’s steadfast character and serious nature are in complete contrast to Gwendolen, and so the two main female characters serve as perfect foils for one another. There are several plot twists and turns–this is, after all, based on a Victorian novel, and as such, one must expect co-incidences and parallel storylines.

The BBC series is broken up into three sections, but the film flows very smoothly. The acting is all quite superb–although Barbara Hershey is a bit out-of-place in her role of Contessa Maria Alcharisi. The development of the characters is the very best part of both the book and the BBC series. Gwendolen Harleth isn’t exactly a shallow person, but due to the nature of her social position and the emphasis placed on the desirability of wealth above all else, she fails to gain any moral perspective about herself, her behaviour, or the choices she eventually makes. Adversity is the making of Gwendolen, and through suffering, she becomes a decent human being. If you enjoy BBC costume dramas, or if you are a fan of Victorian literature or George Eliot (one of my very favourite writers), no doubt you will enjoy this excellent adaptation. From director Tom Hooper and a screenplay from Andrew Davies.

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The Fable of the Beautiful Pigeon Fancier (1988)

“Your iciness flames my desire.”

In the late 1800s in Brazil, Don Orestes is the middle-aged heir with “a flawless lineage” from a wealthy rum producing family. He’s a dandy, and lives with his domineering mother in a vast mansion. Don Orestes is a creature of habit, and the inhabitants of the town can guess the day of the week according to his set routines. Don Orestes thinks rather highly of himself, but in reality the peasants and shopkeepers despise him. One day, Don Orestes spies a beautiful young girl, Fulvia, walking alone on a deserted beach. While he can’t get the girl out of his thoughts, his mother’s predictions don’t help, and Don Orestes soon becomes determined to have the girl–no matter the cost.

The title of this film, The Fable of the Beautiful Pigeon Fancier (Fabula de la Bella Palomera) gives the viewer a clue that the film in essence tells a story–a fable. The fable aspects of the film are accentuated by the notion of fate and the unexplainable power of dreams. The film is a beautiful creation with spectacular beach scenes, magnificent storm sequences and a heavy emphasis on blues. The beauty of the wild natural world seems in complete contrast to the stilted organization of the Orestes household where the vanity of Don Orestes is fed by subservient underlings and his fawning mother. Fulvia appears to be a rather wild creature–perhaps that’s why Orestes wants to possess her, for she seems to be part of the natural world while Orestes appears to be a foppish concoction of hairnets and hair oil.

Directed by Ruy Guerra (Erendira), The Fable of the Beautiful Pigeon Fancier is one of six films based on short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Each one is complete, so it is not necessary to watch them in any particular sequence. This is a beautiful film, and like all fables it has a moral at its conclusion. Fans of the writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and fans of foreign cinema should enjoy the film. The film is in Portuguese with English subtitles.

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Monsieur N (2003)

“Some orders should be disobeyed.”

Monsieur N is the story of the final years of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life during his imprisonment on the bleak island of St. Helena. Napoleon (Philippe Torreton) lives with a small entourage of followers in Longworth House. In spite of the fact he’s a prisoner, Napoleon still has an extraordinary amount of privilege within his household. When the new ambitious commander, Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant), takes charge, he finds the privileges of rank extended to Napoleon absurd.

Monsieur N is told through the eyes of a young, idealistic aide de camp, Lieutenant Heathcote (Jay Rodan). Heathcote secretly admires Bonaparte, and so the story places Heathcote in a position of some dilemma. It’s his job to ensure Bonaparte stays put, but his superiors–Hudson Lowe, in particular–chafe at the privilege Bonaparte enjoys at incredible expense to the British government.

Monsieur N succeeds in many areas. As a depiction of the times, the film cannot be faulted. Director Antoine de Caunes re-creates the early nineteenth century adeptly as the film jumps back and forth in time and divides scenes on St. Helena with scenes in Paris after Bonaparte’s body is returned for a state funeral in 1840. Philippe Torreton’s complex portrayal of Napoleon is perfect. In one scene, Napoleon is the laconic, mordant observer, and in the next scene, he’s peevish and petty. He is surrounded by squabbling favourites who jealously guard his attention and any future inheritance. The power of Napoleon’s personality is seen at its strongest in the scenes when Napoleon faces Lowe. Napoleon, the prisoner–is commanding–dominating all the interaction as he thoroughly emasculates the venomous Lowe. The potency of Torreton and Grant’s performances establish Napoleon’s ability to inspire, incite and destroy men. In one scene, Lowe stresses how many men died the last time Bonaparte escaped. This simple statement underscores the danger Bonaparte–a caged tiger–represents. He has the power to create and destroy armies, and that power is chained and subdued–but for how long?

Monsieur N is less-than-successful when the film nosedives into an absurd, speculative mystery–with Lt. Heathcote (now Colonel Heathcote) shaking down various Parisians in an attempt to solve the mystery of Napoleon’s death. The intense mystery–which appears out of nowhere–dominants the final half an hour of the film. Thankfully, the ending redeems the film from absurdity, when Colonel Heathcote acknowledges that his desire for an answer to the mystery lies in his hero worship of Napoleon. And this ending allows us to contemplate that some larger-than-life figures are projected into our culture’s mythology for generations. Monsieur N is in English and French (with English subtitles), and the DVD includes a few extras including some information regarding the controversy surrounding Napoleon’s body. After watching the film, fans of this historical period will find themselves diving for the nearest Napoleon biography to slake their desire to know more.

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Passion in the Desert (1997)

 “Let the Jinn destroy him.”

In 1798, Napoleonic officer, Augustin Robert (Ben Daniels) heads a convey assigned to accompany an artist through the desert in Egypt. The artist, Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis (Michel Piccoli) is commissioned by Napoleon to sketch various historical ruins. Augustin and his men are attacked by Bedouins, and during a sandstorm, the artist and Augustin are separated from what’s left of the convey, and the pair wander lost in the desert sands.

Augustin eventually is forced to take refuge in some spectacular ruins. Here he stumbles into the lair of a beautiful female leopard. Over time, Augustin and the leopard engage in a bizarre relationship.

Passion in the Desert is not an art film version of Born Free–rather it’s an imaginative exercise in a surreal relationship. There are elements of love, jealousy, and passion between Augustin and the leopard, and the film is essentially an erotic fantasy. The film is based on a short story by Balzac, and the director, Lavinia Currier does a remarkable job of translating an impossible scenario to film. Balzac was a tremendous student of human nature, but he was also fascinated with the supernatural. Many of Balzac’s lesser-known works are bizarre–The Unknown Masterpiece, The Magic Skin and The Elixir of Life, for example. Passion in the Desert definitely falls into Balzac’s bizarre category. The film is not heavy on dialogue, and the strong reliance on visualization works due to the director’s skill. The lack of dialogue and the tiny cast serve to emphasize Augustin’s isolation, and the result is a bizarre yet strangely hypnotic film. From director Lavinia Currier.

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Vidocq (2001)

 “You’ll have to go to hell and back.”

vidocqIf you’re expecting a film based on the life of the fascinating Vidocq, then you may be disappointed. But if you’re ready for a thrilling historical detective story laced with fantasy & the supernatural, then Vidocq (Dark Portals: the Chronicles of Vidocq) is an obscure feast. Vidocq’s life would make a great subject for a film–he was a criminal and a master of disguise, and during his long checkered career and multiple arrests, he became an informer, was recruited as a police spy, and eventually ran a plainclothes police unit. Later in life, he resigned from the police and ran a small printing company and formed the world’s first detective agency.

Set in the 1830s, the film begins with a fantastic duel between Vidocq and a cloaked figure who wears a golden glass mask. In spite of Vidocq’s bulk and cunning, he is no match for the superhuman qualities of the masked man, and Vidocq is killed. A young journalist, Etienne Boisset (Guillaume Canet) who was writing Vidocq’s biography begins to backtrack through Vidocq’s last investigation. Etienne digs through Vidocq’s notes and uncovers clues about the detective’s final case.

Just prior to his death, Vidocq (Gerard Depardieu) was approached by government official, Lautrennes (Andre Dussolier) to solve the deaths of two men–arms dealer Belmont and chemist Veraldi. While their deaths appear to be due to natural causes (both men were simultaneously struck by lightening and burst into flames), Lautrennes suspects they were murdered for political reasons and employs Vidocq to investigate. Vidocq was on the trail of a vicious killer when he was killed, so Etienne decides to continue the case…

Director Pitof (a pseudonym for Jean-Christophe Comar) created the visual effects for The City of Lost Children, so if you’ve seen that film, you have an idea of the sort of visual effects that await you in Vidocq. The seamy side of Paris is the perfect laboratory for Pitof’s talent–stormy skies, and lightening storms above the filthy gutters of the slums, opium dens and brothels of the notoriously evil Temple District. Set against the political unrest of the 1830s, Pitof captures the mood of the times, and yet makes it uniquely his own. While the story here is pure fiction, the film also captures the essence of Vidocq–one of the strangest characters in the history of humankind–and a great deal of the film is spent in flashbacks which explore Vidocq’s fascination with the sordid side of life. Vidocq’s love of the science behind detective technique, however, is not neglected in this incredible tale. In French with English subtitles. For those interested in the life of Vidocq, I recommend The Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime.

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