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Film Reviews

Film Review: Non-Fiction (Doubles vies)

Livre la France!

by Andres Solar

This latest from French auteur Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper, 2016) sees him decreasing visual scope in favor of up-close characterizations. The result is unapologetically light fare in the manner of second-tier Woody Allen, including a middle-aged, neurotic, “floundering” author named Léonard who’s also fond of philandering.

Rather than thrusting a typical love triangle on viewers, Non-Fiction eases them into the corners of a love pentagon. Two smart men: the author and his longtime editor. Three smarter women: the author’s live-in girlfriend, the editor’s wife, and the editor’s lover. A good-looking bunch, they drink espressos and wine and hold forth about literature as art and commodity.

Assayas is among the most intriguing contemporary directors in the world, not so much for what he has done, but for what he hasn’t. He’s a disciplined filmmaker, almost to a fault. Aside from his clear concern with modernity, he reins in temptations to stylize, favoring formality.

His camera moves thoughtfully, à la latter-day Robert Altman in their inquisitive, strolling pans and medium-angle-to-close-up transitions within a single shot. An example of this would be an angle showing a man (from waist up in semi-profile) standing at the front desk of a hotel. He puts his wallet on the counter, and then the same camera dollies in on the wallet. (No cut.) In Non-Fiction, we also see the results of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013) Altman-like tendencies. He delicately pushes the camera in or dollies out to begin many sequences, which effectively guides the viewer towards (or away from) the character who is more (or less) significant or compelling at that time.

The characters here are fully formed and inspired, and the performances of the ensemble cast are the best thing about this movie. No actor in it is less than excellent. Guillaume Canet as editor Alain Danielson and Vincent Macaigne as Allen-esque author Léonard Spiegel hit all the right notes individually and all the correct, complex chords together. As Selena, wife to Alain and mother to their children, the ever-wonderful Juliette Binoche is wonderful yet again. Anyone else in that role would have diminished the film by a third. The great standout here, though, is Nora Hamzawi as Valérie. She sportingly inhabits her witty character—a sharp political operative and live-in girlfriend to Léonard—with charm, intuition, and strength.

So where does it go wrong? The screenplay includes way too many references—especially in extended segments of dialogue—to “the digital age,” the demise and/or resurgence of print publishing, e-books vs. print vs. audiobooks, and so on and so on. Valérie uses two smartphones and a tablet computer, so there are at least two scenes where she’s fumbling with cords or feels stressed out that a battery has gone dead, etc., etc. These are the low-hanging fruit Assayas would do best to avoid.

What he risks most in his last three films (including The Clouds of Sils Maria [2014] and Personal Shopper) is gaining a reputation for stories in which the conflicts reflect what some crudely call “White-people problems.” Of course, not only would he have plenty of company in that pigeonhole, but the argument would be mostly unfounded. At a deeper level, most moviegoers will find much to relate to in his oeuvre.

Returning to the picture’s concern with the silliness of the information age, it’s a well-worn topic in 2019, and presented here plainly, as purely self-evident, it fails to strike any real comedic notes. The oft-repeated attempts almost frame the characters as irrevocably petty. It feels at times that the whole movie will stall out in a whirlwind of aimless philosophizing. Fortunately, much of this is mitigated in the second act. From that point on, the comedy comes with much less effort, and the movie in general find its footing.

A nominee for best-feature gold in competition at Venice and Miami, Non-Fiction leaves you feeling you’ve enjoyed a good film, but not a great one. It’s a crisp twist on the Assayas aesthetic and an intelligent dramedy that leans towards wry humor. The writer-director’s works, Non-Fiction included, gently transport while superficially sizzling with vitality. They possess the treasured quality that Ingmar Bergman liked to call “alive.” But as to the circle that will contain the year’s best, expect this one to sit at the periphery.

The Film Critique Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Godard Mon Amour (Le Redoubtable)

BY ANDRES SOLAR

Celebrated contemporary French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius (Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist [2011]) has delivered his “valentine” to the godfather of the French New Wave in Godard Mon Amour. While it might have come genuinely from the heart, as a work of cinema, its pulse is weak.

A film always says something about its creator, and one gets the sense that Hazanavicius’ story is also being told. Like Jean-Luc Godard, he lives the life of a French filmmaker and he’s married to a younger, beautiful actress (Bérénice Bejo, who starred in The Artist and appears here in a supporting role). The fragility of the artist (no pun intended) works as the film’s main theme.

I can see where making Godard Mon Amour could serve as a form of therapy for Hazanavicius, perhaps exorcising any of the demons that his titular director calls cliché: jealousy; the balance of individualism and attachment in relationships; the fear of becoming irrelevant, etc.

But the screenwriter/director assigned himself too many tasks to attend to. There are the biographical, historical, and political angles. There are the drama of Godard’s self-doubt and the comedy of his fumbling rebellion. The complex relationship with his wife. Every one of these aspects spread too thin.

Godard was prone to homages early in his career, so it make sense that Hazanavicius would want to pay homage to Godard but, especially in the third act, they are simply too many. Perhaps he felt it a playful approach, but I think “toying” is a better word for it. For a moderately accomplished—and certainly talented—director, getting to the low point of simply toying with his own film is unbecoming and feels almost banal.

Here again the multiple layers of irony in this film reveal themselves. Has Hazanavicius made a film of the sort Godard despises? In a slyly comic, real-life twist, Godard himself, hearing of the project in development, said that this was a “stupid, stupid idea.” Hazanavicius and the U.S. distributor sportingly made a poster with Godard’s proclamation in giant red letters.

However, the mere possibility that the elder might be right must have weighed on the younger director. Bravo to him, though, for daring to open the can of worms he must have known the telling of this story (based on an autobiography by Godard’s late former wife Anne Wiazemsky) would be. And, again, perhaps he felt he must do it for his own well-being.

One also gets the feeling much of Hazanavicius’ clever language gets lost in translation. Even with my limited, beginner’s, high school French, I could tell the translator took liberties every so often, summarizing a dialogue rather than trying to match any poetry in the original verbiage. At one point, the Godard homage involves the characters speaking to each other as subtitles of what each person is actually thinking flash where standard subtitles do. Well, the U.S. release being in French with English subtitles results in this particular scene having two sets of subtitles running at the same time. A bit of a mess.

At its funniest, Godard Mon Amour plays a lot like a good Woody Allen movie. One where Woody Allen plays himself, basically: the bespectacled, clumsy, neurotic filmmaker and his star-crossed love affair. Allen’s Bananas (1971) comes to mind, with its satire of Marxist politics and the clownish, clueless outsider who so dearly wants to be part of the revolution.

At its best, we glimpse Wiazemsky’s heartbreak as she realizes her husband is becoming another person at the expense of their marriage. Their quarrels ring true, especially due to Stacy Martin’s intelligent, subtly intense portrayal of Godard’s young wife. Louis Garrel, as Godard, also succeeds in his comedic turns, while perhaps a little less so in the serious sequences. He must contend with a script that repeats itself regarding the beloved filmmaker’s frustrations with, well, just about everything.

The film also repeats itself in depicting Godard’s boorish behavior. Here’s where Garrel’s Godard becomes tiresome not just for Anne, but for the viewer. Most disappointing is seeing Hazanavicius repeating his own, previously successful shots. In The Artist’s climactic, thrilling moment Peppy (Bejo) and George (Jean Dujardin) complete a ravishing dance number, both look directly in to the camera, and *spoiler alert* you can hear the actors breathing for the first time. It’s sheer brilliance, and the director makes it feel easy. On the contrary, as he struggles through Godard Mon Amour, he takes several actors’ asides to no avail, comedic or otherwise.

Michel Hazanavicius set a high bar for himself when he (along with Bejo and Dujardin) charmed our socks off with his ode to Hollywood and silent film. For his efforts, he went home with an Oscar (and Bérénice) one night in 2012. The talent is most certainly still there. He needs only to find the right story and to rediscover the free spirit that informed his masterpiece, and he’ll be ready to charm all over again.

3 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: The Workshop (L’atelier)

BY ANDRES SOLAR

In The Workshop, lauded French filmmaker Laurent Cantet (2008’s Palme d’Or winner The Class) delivers a remarkable artwork that delicately explores the developing mind of a high school boy and the machinations of teenagedom that hammer daily at his soul. From his writing workshop teacher, his family, and especially from his peers and the internet, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) receives metaphorical blows of varying power, intent on sculpting him into something of their liking.

From the outset, it’s clear that the workshop of Miss Olivia Dejazet (played beautifully by Marina Foïs) presents a microcosm of French society in the 21st Century. The more traditionally European characters Antoine, Benjamin (Florian Beaujean), and Dejazet herself act as the primary instigators. Whether consciously or not, they quickly take the reins, leaving the others in often defensive postures. The two Muslim children, a boy and a girl, along with a French boy of African origin, find themselves increasingly fending off Antoine, the most aggressive of the bunch. Though not a complete zealot—indeed Cantet seems to argue that a person in their teens can hardly be a complete anything—Antoine does stumble into provocative racial affronts.

But The Workshop doesn’t so much “tackle” complex issues (We love our war and football terminology in the United States, don’t we?) as much as it simply sets them out for the viewer’s perusal. The movie is set in summer, and Cantet’s languid pace serves the setting while also giving the moviegoer time to really think about the proceedings, the characters, and most especially the characters’ motivations. The euphemistic “national identity problem,” for instance, forces itself on children and adults alike, and each must find a satisfactory position, even if only to get through the day without a fistfight.

Thoroughly multi-layered, the Antoine character fascinates, and the young actor Lucci’s insightful performance deserves all the praise it has received and more. The middle-aged novelist and workshop teacher Dejazet exudes a subdued neurosis that her students nevertheless pick up on. In an after-class scene where the kids walk together to the bus stop, they express contempt of their instructor which ranks no less than vicious. And yet, at workshop the next day, most are respectful, even admiring of their guide. Here, the power of peer dynamics plays out.

Again, Antoine is the exception. In and out of class, he enjoys verbally tangling with his ostensibly sensible teacher. The teen, who works out and talks about joining the army, is nearly always a personification of tension. The friction between Miss Dejazet and her student is ever present. Their tussling also attains a measure of sexual chemistry, though it’s not clear whether the instructor is complicit or simply trying to steer the troubled boy in the right direction, as she professes.

As symbols for the general mindset of older teens, Cantet subtly, effectively uses swimming and cliff diving—Antoine’s preferred recreations. The deep blue waters of La Ciotat in southern France represent all of life itself, which a young person sees stretched out before them. The diving is relief from the yearning to be through with schooling and to, at long last, dive into living as an adult.

Cinematographer Pierre Milon’s (Foxfire [2012]) camera is mostly handheld and loose, and if it looks a beat behind the action at times, well, so too are we adults when trying to keep up with our children. Like the students in the writing workshop, Cantet and Milon consider past and present in their storytelling, and the handheld camera emphasizes immediacy and the present tense. The film’s freshness and even its timeliness are bolstered by Milon’s casual yet savvy style.

All these layers, masterfully assembled by the writer-director, produce a portrait of a teenage boy struggling against myriad forces tearing at him. In any case, he feels pushed and pulled, and he repeatedly voices his disdain for it. “I don’t need any help,” he insists. Here, in a French film of all places, is the detailed and sensitive look we so dearly need in the United States in order to understand the phenomenon of the masculinity-threatened, boy mass murderer. The “school shooters.” (We became comfortable long ago with the euphemism for them.)

The ultra-violent, “first-person shooter” video games. The loudmouth extremist on YouTube aiming his bullhorn at children vulnerable if for no other reason than the jarring effects of raging hormones. The absent parents. The teasing peers. The guns. The caring teacher. This is a day in the life of Antoine, and we would do well to look and listen closely to him. He could be the Parkland, Florida killer. He could grow up to be the Las Vegas mass murderer.

It’s a credit to Cantet’s narrative integrity that this thrilling, pressure cooker of a film doesn’t need much bombast to make its points. In carefully constructing this story and thoughtfully placing boundaries, he shares a fuller, richer examination of the personal issues behind the explosive headlines of our day. In so doing, Laurent Cantet shoots for the moon in his own measured way.

4 of 5 stars

In French with English subtitles.

An Official Selection of  Festival de Cannes 2017’s Un Certain Regard, The Workshop opens in Miami exclusively at the Tower Theater on Friday, April 6th, 2018. For more information, visit: https://towertheatermiami.com/coming-soon/the-workshop-latelier