Tag Archives: Paris

Vénus Noire (2010)

Some stories need to be told, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that those stories–transcribed to film–result in an enjoyable or entertaining experience. This of course brings up the whole question of just what we expect when we place a DVD in the player. I know that I want to be entertained. If I’m educated in the process, then that’s great, but while Vénus Noire (Black Venus)  tells an incredible story, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. Am I glad I watched it? Yes.

Vénus Noire begins in France with a scene of eager young doctors at the Royal Academy of Medicine. It’s 1815 and this is a lecture hall filled with young men studying medicine. The lecturer proceeds to hand around a jar containing the unusual genitals of a “Hottentot” woman, and he also has a life size cast of the woman’s body. The upshot of the lecture is that the Hottentot woman resembles the baboon–rather than the human. That sort of gives you an indication of what you are in for with this story.

Vénus Noire is Saartjie Baartmann (Yahima Torres), a former servant from the Cape who in 1808 travelled with her entrepreneur employer, Hendrick Cezar (Andre Jacobs) to London. Lured by the promise of riches and the possibility of owning her own farm in the Cape, Saartjie becomes a highly successful draw and a big moneymaker. Hundreds squeeze into the shabby little theatre and watch the so-called Hottentot Venus who is dressed in a sheer costume, paraded around in chains like a wild animal, and managed with a whip. Off the stage, Saartjie smokes cigars, knocks back booze and even shops followed by two black attendants, but Saartjie and Cezar’s performance outrages certain members of the African Association (Britain saw the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807) who see Saartjie as horribly exploited. Saartjie and Cezar end up in court with both of them arguing that she performs of  her own free will. She’s not a slave, and yet due to racial inequalities, it’s easy to argue that the act which is in extremely bad taste, also exploits Saartjie–after all what other choices does she have?

When Saartjie is more or less forced to leave England due to the messy trial, things go downhill. They hook up with animal trainer Réaux (Olivier Gourmet) and Jeanne (Elina Lowensohn) and become the entertainment for various Paris salons, kink shows, and brothels. If Saartjie was exploited before, it’s nothing to what awaits her in Paris….

At 159 mins. Vénus Noire is a long film, and throughout the course of the tale, Saartjie’s act doesn’t basically change–although it is modified to include even more degrading exhibitions. During the performances, Saartjie objects occasionally, and most of the objections occur when she’s fondled by the audience or required to exhibit her genitals–either at kinky parties or for French doctors. Films which require the audience to accompany the protagonist on a journey of degradation can be extraordinarily painful and even an exercise in masochism. As the endless scenes from Saartjie’s act continue, I’ll admit that I had a difficult time watching performance after performance of this poor woman who is trotted out for ‘entertainment’ repeatedly.

Vénus Noire is most interesting for its blurred boundaries. Is Saartjie, for example, performing of her own ‘free will’? Well, if ‘free will’ means that she agrees to walk on stage, then, yes, she’s there of her own free will. But if ‘free will’ means that Saartjie wants to perform for a leering, groping crowd, then the answer is ‘no,’ Saartjie is not acting through free will. There are several other instances of the blurring of boundaries in the film–Saartjie is forced to exhibit her genitals for the pervs of Paris and for the doctors of the Royal Academy. Is there a difference? Both lots pay for the pleasure, and one lot may be drooling, but for Saartjie, who’s on the receiving end of the voyeurism, there’s little difference.

And of course, finally, the Royal Academy, measuring every angle of Saartjie’s body (reminds me of the Nazis)  make note of her genitals and extraordinary buttocks, yet panning the audience of Saartjie’s shows, we see only crowds of freaks–the ugly, the deformed, the pock-marked–a race of imperfects who squintingly point a finger when noticing the differences of others.

From director Adellatif Kechiche (Secret of the Grain)

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Les Invités de Mon Père (2010)

Some militant acts are easier on the eye than others.”

I’m a die-hard fan of Fabrice Luchini, and I’ll watch any film in which he features. For that reason, I bought Les Invités de Mon Père, a 2010 film from director Anne Le Ny on a whim.

Can anyone beat French film when it comes to portraying the subtleties of family relationships? To me, that’s a rhetorical question. Les Invités de Mon Père depicts a three-generational family with a number of problems that are more or less swept under the rug under a crisis precipitates some ugly and honest confrontations. This really is a superb film, and for co-writers Anne Le Ny and Luc Béraud, the drama depicted here is so real to life, it rather uncannily mirrors a real-life situation I recently watched devolve. 

Les Invités de Mon Père is labelled as a comedy, and some of the comedy arises over the hypocrisy of attitudes towards immigration. While a light comic tone is maintained throughout, this is also very serious drama which examines the events that lead to a seismic shift in the moral decisions of some of its main characters. 

Lucien Paumelle (Michel Aumont) is an 80-year-old activist–a retired doctor who lives alone in his rent-controlled Paris apartment. He has two middle-aged children: Business lawyer Arnaud (Fabrice Luchini) and a daughter Dr. Babette Paumelle (Karin Viard). Arnaud, affluent and status-conscious, is married with children, and his relationship with his father is a little strained. Babette, on the other hand, has always been very close to her father, and in fact she followed her father into a medical career. She lives with her lump of a boyfriend, Rémy (Olivier Rabourdin) and is overworked treating poor disenfranchised patients.

Lucien announces to his family that he’s going commit a “militant act” by allowing some illegal immigrants to move into his apartment. Both of Lucien’s children are concerned about this decision–after all Lucien is an elderly man and this could potentially violate his apartment lease. Arnaud’s wife is also worried and in a moment of concern, she visits the immigration centre where Lucien volunteers and suggests that the immigrants who move into her father-in-law’s apartment should meet a certain criteria of suitability. 

A dinner party is arranged with Arnaud, his wife Karine (Valérie Benguigui) their children, and Babette and Rémy in attendance. They’ve dutifully gathered together a few bags of old discarded clothing to donate to the immigrant family they’re about to meet. To their shock and horror, Lucien’s houseguests are a svelte blonde Amazon from Moldovan named Tatiana (Veronica Novak) and her daughter, Sorina (Emma Siniavksi). Any idea that Lucien’s “militant” act  is motivated by charity is squashed permanently when he blithely lets slip that he married Tatiana a few days earlier.

At this point, the film follows Arnaud and Babette as they are faced with the dilemma of whether or not they should step in and interfere with their father’s relationship with Tatiana. Both Arnaud and Babette undergo personal crises as they question their moral obligations and their lives subsequently fall apart. Arnaud shifts from a sliver of glee that his dad has the hots for this peroxided blonde to confronting the truth about his poor relationship with his father. Babette, on the other hand, feels cheated as she sees her father’s apartment taken over & trashed, her mother’s possessions hidden away, and a small inheritance disappear. 

The question becomes at what point should steps be taken to intervene. Should Arnaud and Babette ignore their father’s behaviour? Have they the right to interfere? As the film plays out, just what is acceptable and what is unacceptable becomes a matter for moral debate. The film does an excellent job of showing how we may think that we act according to a certain moral code, but that circumstances can arise to test those beliefs. Both Arnaud and Babette find themselves horribly torn by conflicting moral beliefs while Arnaud’s wife, whose decisions are black and white and not coloured by familial relationships, has a much easier time deciding which moral path to take.

While all the actors deliver marvellous performances, both Fabrice Luchini as the materialistic Arnaud and Karin Viard as his sister Babette are spectacular. Arnaud goes through a range of emotions while he observes his father’s behaviour, and these emotions range from sly glee to cold, unemotional acceptance of his father’s decisions. Poor Arnaud is also under siege from his children who both approve of Lucien’s behaviour for different reasons. While Lucien digs in deeper with Tatiana, Babette, feeling rejected by her father undergoes a horrible identity crisis with life-changing, hilarious results.

For French film fans, Les Invités de Mon Père is a must-see, and it’s certainly a film that engages the viewer into one of those “what-would-I-do-under-the-same-circumstances” scenarios.

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Full Moon in Paris (1984)

 

 “A myriad possibilities were out there waiting.”

 

Full Moon in Paris (Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune) is the fourth film in director Eric Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs series, and this film is inspired by the proverb: ‘A man who has two women, loses his soul. A man who has two houses loses his mind.’ As with many Rohmer films, Full Moon in Paris explores the mysteries of human relationships.

full-moonInterior designer trainee, Louise (Pascale Ogier), works in Paris, but lives in the suburbs with boyfriend, Remi (Tcheky Karyo). The very traditional Remi, who works for the town’s planning department, wants to get married, but Louise drags her heels, and says she needs ‘space.’ She decides to renovate her apartment in Paris and rather than rent it out, she keeps it with the idea that she will use it once a week. Remi objects, but Louise is adamant that she needs time to herself. She claims: “the experience I’ve missed is loneliness.” Louise wants to stay in Paris on Friday nights and attend parties–without Remi, and this becomes a point of contention between them. Remi accepts it, but he doesn’t like it. It’s clear to the viewer that the last thing Louise wants on a Friday night in Paris is to be alone.

While Louise ploughs her time, energy and attention into her Parisian pied-a-terre, her home with Remi remains bare and has that barely unpacked look. The two homes are in stark contrast to one another. Louise’s Parisian apartment is tiny, cozy and stamped with her personality. On the other hand her home in the suburbs is impersonal and untidy.

On Friday nights, Louise begins to attend parties either alone or with a male friend, Octave, in attendance. Octave (Fabrice Luchini) is a writer, and although he’s married and has a child, he admits that he loves seducing women. He’d like to seduce Louise, but she argues that she really isn’t into the physical side of a relationship, so their relationship boils down to discussions that consist of Louise’s largely untested and self-focused opinions about relationships, and Octave trying to argue Louise into having sex. Octave is a little bit of a voyeur, and there’s the sense that he also enjoys observing Louise for material for his next novel. Some of the best scenes occur between Louise and Octave–two egoists who imagine that everyone else exists for their benefit.

Pascale Ogier plays the character of Louise well. Her hair annoyed me beyond reason, but her acting was excellent. Lacking any true introspection, Louise is slightly prim and proper, shallow, selfish and not particularly intelligent. Unwilling to commit, she analyzes her life with herself as the center of her universe while objectifying Remi. In the beginning of the film, Remi goes halfway to meet Louise’s insistence that she remain in Paris and party on Friday nights. Remi attends a party, and I can’t really say that he’s ‘with’ Louise as she is obviously flummoxed when Remi arrives. For the brief time he’s there, Louise ignores her fiancé, and dances with a musician. But then when Remi leaves, understandably annoyed and uncomfortable at being ignored at a party full of Louise’s friends, she pouts and turns on the tears. Just like the saying, Louise “wants to have her cake and eat it too.” And that translates, in this case, to Louise wants to have a steady relationship with Remi, but she wants to be single once a week with Remi alone at home wondering what she is up to.

There are so many great scenes in this film, but one of my favourites takes place at Remi and Louise’s home in the suburbs. Louise has returned home and as usual she begins playing her little emotional games with Remi, and this time, Remi, who’s a fairly stoic character, shows his impatience.

Fabrice Luchini, one of my favorite French actors is wonderful as always in this film. All too often, he is relegated to the supporting male role. Luchini as Octave follows Louise around looking desperately for a crumb of hope that she’ll eventually wear down and have sex with him, but in spite of Octave’s designs on Louise’s body, their relationship remains interestingly cerebral. Luchini’s facial expressions are wonderful; he has a sort of fanatical joy at times, and in this film, his eyes gleam when he discusses future plots and possible trysts with Louise. Octave and Louise seem an unlikely couple–although this doesn’t deter Octave in the slightest. The fact that Louise lacks intelligence and introspection does not cool Octave’s ardor. And even Louise’s little cat-and-mouse game serves to fuel his lust rather than deter him from his goal. His eyes swell with anticipation as his glance sweeps Louise’s body, and really these two—Louise and Octave deserve each other.

Full Moon in Paris is one of the very best Rohmer films. It is full of delectable revealing conversations between the characters, but perhaps the most revealing conversation of the film is the conversation between Louise and an unidentified artist (Laszlo Szabo). It’s the artist, who’s just listened to a litany of Louise’s self-inflicted woes, who points out that the men in Louise’s life have some say in what happens. And it’s this idea that never occurred to the self-focused Louise. If you’ve watched and enjoyed other Rohmer films, you will enjoy this film and its examination of the often unspoken struggle for power within relationships. Most people either love or hate Rohmer films–there seems little middle ground here. And as for me, Rohmer is one of my very favourite directors.

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Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)

 “I’m waiting for a special occasion.”

French director, Claude Chabrol is often compared to Alfred Hitchcock–and that comparison seems justified in the 1960, early Chabrol film, Les Bonnes Femmes. This is the story of four Parisian shop girls who spend their days avoiding their grabby boss, staring at the clock, and dreaming of love and romance.

bonnes femmesJane is the boldest of the four girls. She tends to lead the vulnerable, gentle, and more docile Jacqueline. Rita is the envy of the other girls as she is engaged to the stuffy, pretentious Henri. Ginette is secretive about how she spends her evenings. During the day, the girls loll over the counters at the shop, harass any salesmen who come in, and bother the cashier, Madame Louise, with questions about the fetish object she hordes in her handbag.

At night, the girls roam the streets looking for love. The streets of Paris are the happy hunting ground for aggressive and predatory males. Jane’s boldness leads Jacqueline to spend the evening with two men who are clearly up to no good. Throughout the film, a mysterious motorcyclist follows Jacqueline, and she assumes he is a protector.

Many of the scenes portray social occasions with hideous undercurrents just below the surface. I thought the use of masks in the nightclub was quite brilliant, and the scene in the swimming baths chilling. Chabrol’s message is quite clear–women who search for love and companionship may find a little more than they bargain for. The film’s tense atmosphere and sense of impending doom deepen as the story develops. Les Bonnes Femmes is an extremely dark and deeply disturbing film–Chabrol at his best.

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Monsieur Ibrahim (2003)

 “They spin around their hearts.”

A young, motherless Jewish boy, Moses “Momo” Schmitt lives with his dour, unpleasant father in a Parisian slum. Moses is left to his own devices for most of the time and as an ex-facto housekeeper, he’s expected to clean the apartment, buy all the food and cook and serve the meals. Evenings begin with Mr. Schmitt arriving home, and turning off whatever music Moses is listening to. After Mr. Schmitt tersely diminishes Moses by some comment, the rest of the time is spent in silence.

monsieur ibrahimMoses shops at the local corner shop owned by, Ibrahim Deneji (Omar Sharif). There’s an air of negative mystique to Ibrahim. Mr. Schmitt refers to him as “the Arab”, and that’s how Moses sees him too until Ibrahim one day makes a startling comment. Moses and Ibrahim form a bond, and Ibrahim assumes the male role model that Moses never had.

If this film sounds corny, it isn’t. Somehow it manages to avoid all the old tired cliches, and the film’s message is fresh and sincere. Many films would stress the Jewish/Arab friendship, and while that element exists, the story transcends to a much higher level. Ibrahim and Moses are two humans cast out into loneliness who find each other and connect. Formal religion is largely overlooked–although Moses is attracted to the Koran as Ibrahim states that the reason he is so content with life is thanks to the Koran. Ibrahim explains his beliefs, but he’s not pushy about it. Ibrahim is Muslim, and he’s also a Sufi. He’s managed to reach the rare state of contentment, and Moses is attracted to Ibrahim’s spirituality as much as anything else.

Monsieur Ibrahim (AKA Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran) from director Francois Dupeyron is Omar Sharif’s film. He delivers an extraordinary performance as the aging shopkeeper. He possesses depths of character which are explored as the film progresses, and Sharif plays with role with exquisite grace and containment. The film begins as a fairly standard coming-of-age story replete with Moses ogling Parisian streetwalkers. But once the film shifts into the relationship between Moses and Ibrahim, the story is at once solid and meaningful. I don’t think you have to be a foreign film fan to find this film’s appeal.

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Un Coeur en Hiver (1992)

 “I don’t usually throw myself at people.”

coeur en hiverIn Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter) Maxim (Andre Dussollier) and Stephan (Daniel Auteuil) work together in Paris. Maxim (Andre Dussollier) owns and runs a business that specializes in violins. Maxim’s clients come from all over the world to buy, sell, or repair their instruments. Stephan (Daniel Fauteuil) is an employee, and it’s his job to repair and also build violins. Stephan obviously loves his work, and he does his job with precision and excellence. Maxim is charismatic and has the social skills Stephan lacks. Maxim is the person who meets the clients and flies all over the world to bring back the violins Stephan salvages. Stephan is quiet, self-contained and far more complex than Maxim. The two men have an interesting relationship. On the surface, it would appear that they are equals whose different talents create a great working partnership, but the story, which is at first narrated by Stephan, reveals an inequity in the relationship. One day, Maxim confesses that he’s in a relationship with a violinist, Camille Kessler (Emmanuelle Beart). He introduces Camille to Stephan, and trouble begins.

Camille Kessler is used to people taking care of her. There’s her long-time, slightly jealous agent/manager, Regina who is also ready to act as a protective duenna. And then there’s Maxim. He’s so grateful that Camille looks at him, that he’s ready to take her on any terms–even though he knows her music comes first. Stephan appears to be incapable of emotion, yet many questions remain as to his motivations. Does he play mind games with both Camille and Maxim or he is genuinely stirred by a tweak of passion? The acting is phenomenal. Emmanuelle Beart as Camille is subdued and self-contained, and her passion appears to be only for music–until the right buttons are pushed. Auteuil–as always–masters his role of Stephan–a complicated man who doesn’t appear to need anything. It would be a tremendous understatement to label this film ‘a love triangle’ as the film is far more complex than that. The plot remains (after watching the film at least a dozen times) open to several interpretations. This marvelous French film (with English subtitles) and directed by Claude Sautet, will have a special appeal to classical music lovers. The soundtrack is stupendous. For those interested–to understand Stephan’s character, read Lermontov’s novel A Hero of Our Time. (The novel is even mentioned in the film.) Stephan is a modern-day version of Pechorin.

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Since Otar Left (2003)

“You’ll do anything to please your mum.”

The French film Since Otar Left is set in post Soviet-rule Georgia and concerns a household of three women–the Grandmother Eka (Esther Gorintin), daughter Marina (Nino Khomassouridze), and granddaughter Ada (Dinara Droukarova). The three women live in a small flat in Tbilisi, Georgia. Ada, a student, is a quiet studious girl who applies herself with dedication to school–in spite of the fact that she has no prospects whatsoever. Her mother Marina is a widow whose husband was a conscript in the Russian army killed in Afghanistan. Marina ekes out a living by scrounging up items to sell in a local marketplace, and has a relationship with a vendor there. The Grandmother rules with the roost with her indomitable personality. She’s a stubborn old Stalinist, and she still refers to Stalin’s rule as the old glory days when everything ran efficiently. The Grandmother has memories of better days, and she hordes a treasure trove of French books her father managed to hide from the Bolsheviks.

These three women are relics of Russian policy. They’ve survived–barely–but the only man in their lives, Eka’s beloved son Otar, is now living in Paris. Otar, a doctor in Georgia, left to help the family fortunes by working as an undocumented worker in Paris. The three women–particularly the Grandmother wait for letters from Otar or the occasional phone call.

When Otar is killed in Paris, Marina and Ada slide into deception when they decide to hide Otar’s death from Eka. But they fail to take Eka’s determination and willpower into account when they make their decision ….

Although the plot may sound similar to another excellent foreign film Good Bye Lenin, Since Otar Left is entirely different. Goodbye Lenin is, largely, a very optimistic film. Since Otar Left captures the hopelessness of life in Georgia. One scene depicts medical treatment at a local hospital that seems to be without electricity. It’s a cash-up-front business with the lackadaisical, disinterested, card-playing doctors handed a bag of money for payment (I expected a chicken and a few turnips to be offered). Suddenly, it’s very clear why Otar left, and also very clear why the situation will never change for Ada.

The film is exceptionally well acted, and director Anne Bertuccelli focuses on small details that make the lives of these three women very real. The film is in French, Russian and Georgian with English subtitles.

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